ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Before getting down to business at a government meeting earlier this week, Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyoev had an urgent item to address.
His message -- delivered two days after dozens of Uzbeks were detained for joining a pro-Palestine demonstration in Tashkent -- was twofold.
Uzbekistan expressed “strong solidarity” with the Palestinian people and their right to independence, Mirziyoev told the October 31 government meeting, noting “numerous casualties among the peaceful, innocent population” since the war broke out between Israel and the Palestinian extremist group Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and EU.
To this end, his government had allocated $1.5 million in aid to the United Nations humanitarian mission in the area, Mirziyoev said.
At the same time, Uzbeks should not “respond to provocations” such as calls on Telegram that had drawn citizens to the abortive protest in Tashkent on October 29, he warned.
Mirziyoev and other Central Asian leaders may well have been rattled by a far more menacing mobilization from last week.
On the night of October 29, scenes of crowds breaking into an airport in Makhachkala in Russia’s Daghestan to hunt down arrivals from Israel raised the specter of passions related to the conflict boiling over and threatening stability elsewhere.
Like the North Caucasian republics, the populations of the five former Soviet Central Asian countries are predominantly Muslim.
Israel’s massive military bombardment of Gaza in response to a shock Hamas incursion into its territory on October 7 has, meanwhile, seen the conflict comfortably displace Russia’s war in Ukraine as the geopolitical talking point of choice in the region.
“This conflict is trending all over the world, and so governments are having to respond to very polemical discussions of this topic in society,” said Ilkham Umarakhunov, an expert on Islam and civil society in the region.
“At the same time, they are trying to ensure that maybe radical groups or some political opponents don’t take advantage of this opportunity to mobilize people,” he said.
Diplomacy With The Public In Mind?
Central Asia, of course, is not monolithic.
Officially neutral Turkmenistan is the only country in the region that has made no statement on the conflict.
RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known as Azatlyk in Turkmen, attempted to verify a foreign media report that a Palestine solidarity demonstration in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, had been suppressed by authorities.
But Azatlyk journalists found no evidence that any attempt had been made to protest in the park that was mentioned in the report.
Turkmenistan’s information space is one of the most tightly controlled in the world, with authorities regularly cracking down on satellite dishes and most recently blocking the last unblocked instant-messaging app, IMO.
In the four other Central Asian countries, the buzz of social noise surrounding a conflict that has already cost thousands of lives in less than a month shows no sign of dying down, however.
In Uzbekistan, monitoring carried out by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service found that local Telegram channels are teeming with instructions for boycotts of Israeli products, with veteran pop diva Yulduz Usmanova leading a similar charge on Instagram.
Caught in the cross fire was the washing powder Ariel -- produced by the U.S. multinational Proctor & Gamble -- apparently due to a false rumor that it was named for late Israeli leader Ariel Sharon.
One event that sparked a surge of social media activity in the region -- as well as outside it -- was the poorly understood blast on the territory of the Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City on October 17, which was feared to have left hundreds of people dead, according to Palestinian sources.
Statements issued in response by three of the region's foreign ministries were strongly condemnatory without mentioning Israel by name for an incident it has insisted it bore no responsibility for.
But Tajikistan’s statement referred to an aerial “bombing,” while Uzbekistan criticized a “sinister act of violence.”
That left little room for the interpretation of a “misfired” rocket launched by Islamic groups inside Gaza, a conclusion that has been stated by both Israel and the United States, among others.
Only the Kazakh Foreign Ministry did not mention the hospital specifically in its October 17 statement but called on Israel to "refrain from a disproportionate use of force leading to numerous victims among the civilian population of the Gaza Strip."
Similarly, only Kazakhstan has so far condemned what President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev called “the attacks by Hamas against civilians in Israel and the capture of hostages, including foreigners,” on October 7, with Toqaev likening the incursion to an act of terror.
Kazakhstan has the region’s strongest trade relationship with Israel, with more clandestine elements of that business apparently including purchases of the Pegasus spyware developed by the Israeli cyberarms company NSO Group.
Astana has so far ignored a call from Iran for Muslim countries to cease exports of oil to Israel.
But it has warned Israel against targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure and joined Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in supporting a resolution in favor of a humanitarian truce in fighting between Israel and Hamas that passed 120-14 at the United Nations on October 27. (Turkmenistan did not vote.)
And while hosting a meeting of the Organization of Turkic States on November 3, Toqaev pledged that his country would give $1 million in aid to Palestine.
“We urge that all conflicts should be resolved only through peaceful negotiations and a diplomatic dialogue. The territorial integrity of all states and noninterference in their internal affairs remain our key priorities," Toqaev said at the meeting.
'Closest Partners' Russia And Turkey 'Legitimized Hamas'
Mirziyoev’s emboldened stance on the conflict has not gone unnoticed by pro-Israel groups.
Joseph Epstein, a spokesman for the Endowment for Middle East Truth, said in an interview with RFE/RL that there were both “domestic and international reasons” for Mirziyoev’s “failure to condemn Hamas.”
Epstein said Uzbekistan’s “closest allies” Turkey and Russia had “not only failed to condemn the group but have actually legitimized them.”
At the same time, Mirziyoev is worried about being “unpopular with his own population” when taking stances on the issue.
“Uzbekistan, like Daghestan, has a massive problem with dormant extremism,” Epstein contended.
Israel’s embassy in Tashkent did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While many of the protesters that were detained in Tashkent on October 29 were released with fines, at least three were reportedly sentenced to short stays in administrative detention.
In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, there is a longer history of activism and protests of all kinds.
And while the heavy-handed government of President Sadyr Japarov has imposed a de facto ban on rallies in most parts of the capital, Bishkek, authorities nevertheless allowed a hundred-strong Palestinian solidarity rally to take place in the city on October 28.
One of the speakers at the rally, two-time fringe presidential candidate Tursunbai Bakir-uulu, had earlier in the month given a controversial interview to a popular Bishkek podcast.
During the hour-long interview, Bakir-uulu claimed that he was personally acquainted with the Hamas leadership, quoted conspiracy theories about wealthy Jewish individuals and, at one point, appeared to break down crying.
What Japarov’s rule has shown to date is that it will not allow more powerful and critical politicians to seize control of issues that might potentially threaten his rule.
In the days after the Al-Ahli hospital incident, lawmakers in the strongly pro-government parliament agreed to provide financial assistance to the Palestinian territories and give up a day of their parliamentary salaries in the days after the tragic incident.
On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan’s powerful national security committee (UKMK) issued a stern warning on November 3 of criminal responsibility for anyone attempting to join the war in the Middle East.
Past days had seen “provocative posts, publications, and comments from individual social media users about the need to commit jihad in Palestine,” the UKMK stated.