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Some Uzbeks are speaking out about Russia's war in Ukraine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Vladimir Putin's war on Ukraine could hardly matter more to the nations of Central Asia. Like Ukraine, they're also former Soviet republics and they, too, are in what Russia regards as its sphere of influence. So you might think the conflict was something everyone there would want to talk about, but it's a little more complicated than that, as NPR's Philip Reeves discovered during a visit to the capital of Uzbekistan.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Traders in this huge market in Tashkent chat happily about the spices, fruit and slabs of mutton piled high before them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: These are legs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: They eagerly offer advice on where to eat plov, a national favorite made with rice and meat. Yet if you mention the war...

FATKHULLA RAHMATULLAYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "I don't discuss politics," says Fatkhulla Rahmatullayev from behind a stall laden with sausages. "We have specialists who deal with that." Uzbekistan's history of Soviet rule and then, after independence, dictatorship has left people here fearful of airing their views in public, yet some Uzbeks are speaking out, and their country is listening.

NIKITA MAKARENKO: I have the most popular blog in Russian language in Uzbekistan. It is a Telegram channel.

REEVES: Nikita Makarenko is a journalist, playwright, moviemaker and civil society campaigner. He's 34. His family was originally from Ukraine but has been in Uzbekistan for two generations.

MAKARENKO: I love my motherland. I love Uzbekistan, and I consider it my home. If I see something is going wrong, something should be fixed, I do it.

REEVES: When Russia invaded Ukraine on February the 24, Makarenko realized something had gone very wrong.

MAKARENKO: Everybody was totally shocked. We just couldn't believe it happened. I couldn't believe it's real. Then I carefully started to say what I think about the situation.

REEVES: Saying what you think isn't easy in Uzbekistan. The country of some 35 million is divided between those who support Russia and those who don't. Political and economic ties with Moscow run deep. Uzbekistan's government says it's neutral, although it hasn't endorsed the invasion or Russia's claims to parts of eastern Ukraine. Official comment is kept to a minimum. State-run media is censored.

ASADULLA KHAMIDULLAKHONOV: It's very hard to know the truth.

REEVES: Do you want to know more, if you could?

KHAMIDULLAKHONOV: Of course. Why not?

REEVES: Asadulla Khamidullakhonov is a business management graduate, age 23. He's drinking tea in a Tashkent cafe. He says he doesn't trust the TV news, including the English-language channels he's seen.

KHAMIDULLAKHONOV: All of them are biased, I think. They don't want provide enough information to our nation.

REEVES: Yet commentators like Makarenko are being allowed to operate freely. Some even directly challenge the government's position on the war.

ABDULLA ABDUKADIROV: We said, we are neutral. What does that mean? What does it mean?

REEVES: That's Abdulla Abdukadirov, an economist and former government official who also has a Telegram channel.

ABDUKADIROV: How can be neutral to the killing of people, innocent people, the killing of kids, invasion of the territories by the other country? I cannot be neutral.

REEVES: A few years ago, that would have been dangerous talk. Uzbekistan was a full-on dictatorship run by a former Soviet-era Communist Party chief, President Islam Karimov. Opponents of the regime faced assassination or jail. When Karimov died in 2016, his prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, took over and cautiously began to relax the rules.

DILFUZA KUROLOVA: I'm freely speaking about human rights - of course, maybe not too much.

REEVES: Dilfuza Kurolova is a human rights lawyer, age 32.

KUROLOVA: But anyway, speaking any kind of critique to the government, to the system, or raising some issues on human rights - I think this is a big step forward.

REEVES: Kurolova says there are commentators who are paid to lobby or to spread misinformation.

KUROLOVA: But I think in majority of cases, we have very strong community of bloggers who actually telling what is happening and giving different alternatives.

REEVES: She thinks Uzbekistan's government allows such people to operate because it finds them useful.

KUROLOVA: The government is, like, looking to bloggers as the bridge between people and the government.

REEVES: The relationship between the government and bloggers is fragile. Nikita Makarenko says he isn't feeling any government pressure for now.

MAKARENKO: But let's be fair, 100%. As any professional journalist, I know where is the red line. If I cross the red line, maybe I will feel this pressure.

REEVES: Makarenko says he is under pressure but from another source - from Russia. And this is orchestrated, he says, by Russia's security services.

MAKARENKO: They send me constant threats like, we will kill you. We will stab you. Absolutely crazy threats.

REEVES: This won't stop Makarenko speaking out. He believes he has no choice.

MAKARENKO: If you keep your mouth shut about the war, someone from abroad fill the vacuum, and you don't control your informational field any more. So you just lose the battle.

REEVES: His battle, he says, is to convey one message above all.

MAKARENKO: I always write in my blogs that Ukrainia (ph) also fights for us. If Ukrainia lose the war, we are the next.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Tashkent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.