Vienna, November 23 – Tashkent’s decision to remove monuments glorifying Soviet military achievements and to tear down a Russian Orthodox church there dating from 1898 in the first instance reflects the Uzbek government’s desire to take greater control over its own national destiny.
But the combination of these actions – one Moscow newspaper suggested today that they were “removing the traces of the USSR and of Orthodoxy” from that Central Asian republic – create more than usual problems for Russia because it raises questions about the relationship of the Soviet and Russian past in the future.
And that relationship is increasingly sensitive not only in the ethnically charged atmosphere in the Russian population but also as President Dmitry Medvedev seeks to maintain the former Soviet space as a Russian sphere of influence even while pursuing closer relations with the Western powers.
Over the weekend, “Komsomolskaya Pravda” reported today, the Uzbek authorities demolished or moved away monuments that formed part of the Park of Military Glory that the Soviet authorities had set up in 1973 and tore down an Orthodox church as part of a plan to build a new government administration building (kp.ru/daily/24398/575153/).
Apparently, the paper’s Nikita Krasnikov said, “someone decided that there was no reason for contemporary Uzbeks to remember that their motherland was once part of a great country, the USSR, which decided the fate of half of the world” and that “there was no need to preserve churches build at the time of the Russian empire.”
Instead, he wrote, the powers that be in Uzbekistan apparently feel that it is perfectly all right “to spit on the opinion of the Orthodox in Russia” and better to show “respect to NATO whose soldiers today are heroically protecting the world and the harvest of opium poppies in neighboring Afghanistan…”
There is no chance that Krasnikov’s article points to the kind of protests that Moscow promoted when the Estonian authorities decided to shift the Bronze Soldier war memorial away from the center of Tallinn. Not only is the Russian community in Uzbekistan less active, but the Russian government likely cannot afford to alienate President Islam Karimov.
But what the Uzbeks have done is in many ways more of a challenge because it raises the question of how Moscow should promote its influence in the region – as a continuation of the USSR, as many in the Moscow political elite and population at large might like, or as a protector of an older Russian tradition including Orthodoxy, as many in the Patriarchate would prefer.
In the past, Russian officials have seldom been forced to make a choice -- Governments in the post-Soviet space have gone after either the Soviet elements or the Russian ones – and thus Moscow could present itself sometimes as the defender of the one, thus pleasing one audience, or the protector of the other, thus pleasing another.
In this case, however, Moscow is put in the position where almost anything it says or does will have implications not only for its relations with Tashkent, relations that are currently not all that warm, but also for its domestic political scene and for its ability to promote its vision of Eurasia with Western powers.
The domestic trade off is the less difficult of the two: Moscow has various channels it can use to present its case on this and other matters, and consequently, the coming days are likely to see some of these channels focusing on Soviet patriotic themes and others highlighting Russia’s concerns about the Orthodox Church.
(The latter may be especially significant in the immediate future, not only because of the murder of Father Sysoyev, a leading Russian Orthodox missionary to Muslims, but also because Moscow’s efforts to reach out to Russian “compatriots abroad” typically focus more on Russian historical themes than on Soviet ones (www.kurier.lt/?r=11&a=3631).)
At the same time, it is clear that President Dmitry Medvedev certainly would have been happier if the Uzbeks had not taken these steps together just now. As Moscow commentator Vladimir Bukarsky noted today, Medvedev seeks “pragmatic cooperation with the West while preserving the strategic positions of Russia in the post-Soviet space.”
By forcing him to stress one or another imperial theme, Tashkent’s moves put Medvedev in a difficult position: If he tilts too far in one direction, he could lose the sympathy of the compatriots but if he tilts too far in the other, he could raise in the eyes of some in the West the spectre of an older Russian imperialism (www.russ.ru/pole/Rossiya-sosredotachivaetsya).