Uzbeks breathe a sigh of relief as new leader brings reforms

UZB250219MB003Tashkent, Uzbekistan –Two and a half years after the death of Islam Karimov, the ruthless dictator who ruled Uzbekistan for over a quarter of a century, most people in this former Soviet state have stopped worrying about an unannounced visit by the secret police.

“There is no fear anymore that the state security service could come and just grab you,” said Andrei Kudryashov, a photographer in Tashkent, the sprawling Uzbek capital.

Mr. Karimov, who died of a stroke in 2016, stamped down mercilessly on his enemies, real or imagined. Under his rule, the Uzbek security forces shot dead hundreds of protesters, and his critics were imprisoned in the country’s brutal penitentiary system, where some were allegedly boiled alive.

A member of the Communist Party during the Soviet era, Mr. Karimov also oversaw a crackdown on religious freedoms in this Muslim majority state, including barring the call to prayer from mosques. Hundreds of thousands of children were coerced into working on cotton plantations. Mr. Karimov also ordered his own oldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, a glamorous socialite and pop singer, to be imprisoned in 2015 on corruption charges amid a bitter family dispute. Her fate remains unclear.

Since Mr. Karimov’s death, his successor, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, 61, has launched much-vaunted reforms that have included the freeing of around 30 high-profile political prisoners, moves to reduce the powers of the much-feared state security service, as well as a government campaign to eradicate forced labor. The measures came as a surprise to many observers because Mr. Mirziyoyev was prime minister under Mr. Karimov for more than a decade and was widely seen as his right-hand man.

The sweeping reforms have brought Uzbekistan, an impoverished country of 33 million people which neighbors Afghanistan, out of the cold after years of international isolation. In May, Mr. Mirziyoyev held talks with President Donald Trump at the White House just as Uzbekistan signed business deals with American companies worth $4.8 billion. Last month, Mr. Mirziyoyev also met Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, in Berlin. Uzbekistan desperately needs foreign investment: average monthly salaries are just under $200, while teachers, doctors and other professionals are forced to moonlight as taxi drivers to make ends meet.

“It’s clear that Mirziyoyev needs to change Uzbekistan’s international image. He realizes that Uzbekistan is in a state of total economic decay, and these economic problems are impossible to solve without investment and tourism. He needs to be accepted in Europe and the United States,” said Daniil Kislov, the editor of the Fergana.ru news website, which was barred under Mr. Karimov.

However, Mr. Mirziyoyev has not publically criticised Mr. Karimov, whose former residence in Tashkent has been transformed into an exhibition hall devoted to the late dictator’s “love for the Uzbek people.” Outside the building stands a bronze statue of Mr. Karimov, one of three to go up in Uzbekistan since his death. Mr. Mirziyoyev also recently paid his respects at Mr. Karimov’s ornate tomb in Samarkand, the ancient Silk Road city. “There will be no investigation into Karimov’s crimes because Mirziyoyev served as prime minister under him and he is afraid to do this,” said Mr. Kislov.

Some critics say that while they welcome Mr. Mirziyoyev’s reforms, there is no prospect of free elections, an end to media censorship in the near future, or an independent judiciary to protect private property rights.

A controversial urban reconstruction project has seen tens of thousands of people forced from their homes across the country, often with little or no warning. In some cases, demolition crews have started tearing down houses with people still inside them. An estimated 50,000 families have so far lost their homes in Tashkent alone. The authorities frequently offer miserly compensation or poor-quality replacement housing. Anger over the project, which is mired in allegations of massive high-level corruption, has triggered a burgeoning political grassroots movement unlike anything Uzbekistan has ever witnessed.

“These demolitions have wiped out the benefits of any reforms that have taken place,” said Farida Charif, a Tashkent resident who is coordinating online opposition to the reconstruction project. “I’m afraid to go anywhere. I always think ‘what if they knock my house down when I’m away?’”

“There was repression in the past, but it was very specific – they would seize Muslims, or Baptists, for example. People knew ‘if I don’t get involved in that, then no one will touch me.’ Now, anyone can be sitting at home, and they can come and start tearing your roof off.”

Ms. Charif's comments are no exaggeration. There have so far been two documented cases of demolition crews removing roofs from residential buildings with people still inside them. In another case, workers “urgently” destroyed dozens of houses ahead of Mr. Mirziyoyev’s state visit to India in October, reportedly because he had promised New Delhi a new, larger embassy in Tashkent. Four months on, there is no sign of any construction work at the site, which is still full of the debris of demolished homes, while the families who once lived in the buildings have been scattered across the city.

On a recent afternoon in Tashkent, the Washington Times witnessed scores of angry locals march to a district administration building to demand answers from officials over reports that their homes are next in line to be torn down. “This is a disgrace – they are treating us worse than animals,” said Vladimir, an elderly man, as police looked on.

“Unfortunately, Mirziyoyev’s reforms have only affected those spheres that Western society paid attention to,” said Shukhrat Ganiev, an Uzbek human rights campaigner. “That is, forced labour, torture, and human rights issues. But problems such as the demolition of homes have grown and are uniting people. The situation reminds me of steam building up in the neck of a closed bottle.”

Photo: February 21, 2019 - Tashkent, Uzbekistan - A cleaner washes the area around a bronze statue of Islam Karimov, the late dictator of Uzbekistan.
Credit: Marc Bennetts/ARA Network Inc.

Story/photo publish date: 03/04/2019

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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