The Art of Propaganda
by EurasiaNet 7 October 2009
As it struggles to keep a lid on political dissent while trying to keep the wheels from coming off the economy, the government of Uzbekistan is co-opting the country's entertainment industry. Local show-biz personalities are being forced to conform to the state's wishes, and those who don't get with the program are having the plugs pulled on their careers.
The experience of Yulduz Usmanova, dubbed Uzbekistan's Madonna, highlights the extent of Uzbek government meddling in show business. Usmanova became a household name across Central Asia by producing more than a dozen albums and selling close to 5 million copies by 2008. But early that year she went into exile in Turkey, complaining of political persecution.
"I am an artist, and art needs freedom. What bothers me is this: why do politicians keep interfering in art? I can't comprehend this," Usmanova, a former member of parliament, told Voice of America's Uzbek Service last year. "As an artist, I need to perform. I left the country because [politicians] did not understand this."
Her problems with Uzbek authorities began in late 2006, she said, after she toured Turkmenistan without obtaining official authorization.
Usmanova's rise to fame coincided with the dramatic expansion of Uzbekistan's entertainment industry during the 2000s. A wide array of performers - ranging from singers of traditional Uzbek folk songs to rappers emulating American stars like Eminem - began gobbling up airtime on Uzbek TV and radio channels.
The country's film industry began flourishing as well. According to 2008 statistics released by UzbekKino (Uzbek Film), the national agency overseeing the Uzbek film industry, there are close to 50 private film studios in the country. In 2008 they produced 48 films, compared with 30 in 2006, 20 in 2005, and a mere dozen between 1991 and 2000.
The rise of Uzbekistan's entertainment industry did not go unnoticed by President Islam Karimov's administration. In recent years, the government has drafted actors, pop singers, poets, and even comedians into state service, forcing them to perform in agit-prop campaigns to promote Uzbek state ideology.
There are two state agencies - the National Coordination Committee on Music, established in 2001, and UzbekNavo, an agency formed in 2004 that has the authority to license or ban artists - that Karimov's administration relies on to act as enforcers. According to several Uzbek journalists who spoke to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity, UzbekNavo and UzbekKino effectively serve as censors, ensuring that Uzbek performers toe the state line. Additionally, the entities oblige performers to participate in state-sponsored rallies and campaigns designed to promote patriotism.
"There is an unwritten law here that is rigorously enforced. ... At least 30 percent of the repertoire must be patriotic," a Tashkent-based singer told the Ferghana.ru news agency on condition of anonymity in a September 2007 interview.
According to one Tashkent-based journalist, artists who are willing to cooperate with the administration can enjoy free airtime on state-controlled television and radio stations, free use of concert venues, government-funded tours abroad, access to cheap property in posh neighborhoods, and other privileges.
On the other hand, the government has applied bureaucratic force to punish less cooperative artists. In addition to Usmanova's high-profile ban,Sherali Juraev , a prominent performer of traditional Uzbek folk songs, was barred from appearing on Uzbek television and radio stations because of his alleged political unreliability. Other performers have been harassed, physically assaulted, and even jailed. For example, Dadahon Hasanov, a celebrated Uzbek lyricist, has languished in prison since 2006 after releasing songs that criticized the government's handling of the May 2005 Andijan massacre
In some cases, authorities have punished performers for having personal connections to government critics. In 2002, for instance, another popular female singer who goes by the nameShaxzoda was banned from Uzbek television. Though officials declined to provide a reason, according to unofficial reports, Shaxzoda's father, Bahodir Musayev, was an independent political analyst critical of the Uzbek government. Shaxzoda made a comeback in 2003 after she reportedly renounced all links with her father.
Uzbek fans suggest that since the chief qualification for mainstream success in the Uzbek entertainment industry these days is patronage, not talent, dilettantes are proliferating. One Tashkent observer described it this way to EurasiaNet: Uzbek singers "are like mushrooms that pop up after a rain. Some of them are talented, but a lot of them are on TV because of their connections and money. If you have a lot of money, you can also become famous now."
The government's meddling in the entertainment industry is annoying ordinary fans. "Singers like Yulduz [Usmanova] and Sherali [Juraev] are different from the singers on TV these days. They have genuine popularity because their songs appeal to the hearts of ordinary people," one Usmanova fan told EurasiaNet. "It's sad that Yulduz is gone."