Why Uzbeks were surprisingly critical of snow

Screen grab from video of the first snow in Tashkent in late October Image copyright other
Image caption The snow - seen here in Tashkent - set off an avalanche of complaints

Many residents of Uzbekistan were surprised when it snowed in late October - snow is rare in this Central Asian country known for its heat, especially so early in the year.

Blurred photographs of cars thinly blanketed in snow and happy faces flooded social media. Yet soon the joy turned to anger on social media.

"Every day we have electricity cut for a couple of hours," complained Alisher on Facebook. "We haven't seen gas [for days]. And why is the central heating not on yet in our apartment block?"

Svetlana asked: "How can we keep the flat warm without electricity and central heating?"

One Facebook post criticising the city municipalities for failing to provide heating gathered more than 700 likes and about 250 comments.

What is remarkable about these posts is not the fact that Uzbekistan's infrastructure struggled to cope with the cold weather.

It is the unbelievably open discussion that makes you gasp.

Uzbekistan is a country where freedom of expression is severely limited. Freedom House consistently rates the state as one of the worst of the worst. Any dissent is suppressed. Public gatherings to protest against poor heating may land you in a prison.

This is why it is fascinating to watch social media users discussing match-fixing in football, complaining about constant electricity cuts and posting pictures of huge queues for petrol. And inevitably the government gets blamed for these daily problems.

No other public space in Uzbekistan would tolerate even a hint of such criticism.

"Just a year or two ago voices in social media were not so open and critical," said Nargiza (not her real name), a young Uzbek blogger. "Government offices do not respond to people's problems, that is why they are turning to social media."

And the number of social media users is rising rapidly. The most popular one - Russian social networking site - has about 1.1. million daily users.

The spread of smartphones has made the internet even more accessible. Today more than nine million people - a third of Uzbekistan's population - use the internet, and a majority of users access it via mobile phones.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Gulnara Karimova's tweets show a different side to Uzbekistan

And these users may get information that state media would never touch. Thus, the prolific tweeting of Gulnara Karimova, who fell out with her father, President Islam Karimov, gave a glimpse of the repressive regime from the inside.

Some Facebook groups like "Qorqmaymiz" - "We are not afraid" - openly challenge the government. Its members are mostly people who live abroad, but citizens inside the country also get exposed to their messages.

However, it is these discussions of daily problems that undermine the government's legitimacy most.

"What if a single voice turns into the noise of the crowd of freezing people?" asked Sokhiba, commenting about the problems with utilities.

"It's getting only worse. We have no progress. The whole system is based on threats," Farkhod added.

The government of Uzbekistan has been trying to discredit social networking sites. And the campaign seems to have intensified ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for this December and March 2015 respectively.

In October, one of the state TV channels ran a show called "The 'spiders' that made webs in the internet." It depicted social media as a threat to traditional values of Uzbek society and a tool to hire terrorists or traffic people.

The same messages are spread through films and public gatherings.

As an alternative, Uzbekistan promotes local networking sites. Some of them looked strikingly similar to Facebook and Twitter but got quickly abandoned.

It is certainly useful to develop local technologies but cloning foreign social media may have another benefit, says Adil Nurmakov, new media expert from Kazakhstan. "If the website is local then the government can get all data about the users' activities and shut it down if necessary," he explained.

For most people in Uzbekistan, social media is a tool to meet new people or share some music. They do not engage in open political debates. However, even those who comment about their mundane problems are still concerned about safety.

"There is a sense of fear," said Nargiza. "Many are worried that their posts are being monitored. We get messages sometimes saying that a group needs to be closed temporarily for safety reasons."

Many still remember the case of a popular forum Arbuz several years ago, when some of its users were accused of posting extremist messages and detained by security services.

Recently adopted amendments to the law regulating bloggers' activities only add to the anxiety. The new legislation provides a very vague definition of a blogger, which could be an owner of a site or a page posting some information of socio-political and economic nature with a purpose to discuss it. Social media users may also fall under this category.

The law makes it clear that "bloggers" will be responsible for their activity on the internet, though it does not specify the punishment.

All names of social media users are quoted in this article have been changed.

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