the Disillusioned kid: Good News in Uzbekistan?
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Monday, December 06, 2004

Good News in Uzbekistan?

I have written about Uzbekistan on various occasions over the last few months. I have focused on that country in particular because it is the only Central Asian Republic with any real links with the west, yet it vies with neighbouring Turkmenistan to be the region's leading abuser of human rights. Given the severity of the situation, most of what I write about the country leans towards the negative, focusing on the torture of dissidents, the rigging of elections, the crackdown on religious freedom and the dismissal of Britain's ambassador to the country after he made the mistake of criticising the regime's actions. Given all of this it is easy to become disillusioned and cynical, but there are occasional glimmers of hope, outbreaks of apparently spontaneous resistance and signs that Karimov's position may not be a strong as it appears.

One of these found its way into my inbox this week via a report for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting by Timur Salimov (a pseudonym adopted because of repression against independent journalists). This revealed that riots beginning in the city of Kokand which had occured on November 1 and noted that analysts believed that this was "a sign that many Uzbeks are no longer prepared to put up with government restrictions on business." More generally they, at least in my opinion, constitute the first signs of resistance to the Karimov regime which could potentially translate into political action and perhaps even social change.

Kokand is historically the "capital city" of the Fergana Valley "a densely populated and periodically restive region." It has a long history of resistance to outside interference, as Salimov notes:
One of the Russian Empire's first actions when it expanded into Central Asia was to destroy the Kokand Khanate, the statelet that controlled the Fergana valley and beyond. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Kokand was the seat of a brief-lived government which held out against Bolshevik expansion into Central Asia.
While quiet during the Soviet years, presumably on account of the supression of the Kokand government, ethnic violence between Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks exiled to the city by Stalin stimulated opposition to Soviet rule and the emergence of the Birlik movement calling for Uzbekistan's independence.

The recent violence was triggered when police and tax inspectors were sent to impose new regulations at the city's main market. Among these regulations was a rule requiring anyone selling imported goods to have imported them themselves. Thousands of people at the market, however, sell foreign manufactured goods, often originating in China. This being the case efforts by officials to ensure compliance with the rules did not go down well and between 5,000 and 10,000 traders and sympathisers took to the streets. Police and tax inspectors were beaten and two police cars were set alight. Very quickly these protests were replicated in other Fergana Valley cities and in more distant parts of Uzbekistan including Karshi, Bukhara and Khorezm.

Salimov comments:
The scale of the unrest, the rapidity with which it spread, and the fact that participants were prepared to take on the security forces using violence if need be, are all new to this tightly-controlled society and must be worrying the authorities.

“The recent beatings of tax inspectors and police were an entirely new phenomenon as a manifestation of protest," said a political scientist from the Institute for Strategic Research and Regional Security, who wished to remain anonymous. "The Uzbek authorities were scared by this, and temporarily delayed implementing the order.”

That creates a stand-off which Jahongir Shosalimov, an economist and a member of the opposition party Erk, characterises as "revolutionary".

"Those at the top are incapacitated, while those at the bottom won't stand for any more," he said.

With relations between rulers and subjects at an impasse, the government has held off on doing anything more to impose its trade regulations.
This "revolutionary" potential is precisely why I think the incident is so important.

For the timebeing tax officials and police are keeping a low profile, presumably for fear of exacerbating the situation. Shosamilov comments, “Police at the Chorsu market in [the capital] Tashkent have started wearing civilian clothes because they’re scared to turn up there in uniform – can that be normal?”

The imposition of trade restrictions may not seem the most important issue in a country where, according to the UN Special Rapporteur in 2002, torture is "systemic", however Salimov notes,
Political and economic analysts interviewed by IWPR suggested that the restrictions look like the latest move in a campaign to squeeze traders out of business, which goes to the very heart of the way Uzbekistan is governed.

As well as a monopoly over political life – meaning that all forms of opposition are throttled nearly out of existence – the administration of President Islam Karimov has maintained rigid controls over an economic system that retains many features of its Soviet past.

Large businesses are in the hands of the same elite that rules the country, managed by officials whose knowledge of market economics is limited to the Soviet system and who are driven by a desire to maximise income from the companies they won in the privatisation of the early nineties.

“The current situation with the Uzbek economy is similar to the Sukarno era in Indonesia in the sixties, when the generals held power in one hand and business in the other,” said Uzbek historian Sodik Abdullaev, who now lectures at a university in Paris.

Despite the power exerted by big business groups with government links, small-scale entrepreneurs such as market traders were nevertheless able to find a niche on the margins of the economy through the nineties.

But even that space may now be closing. A series of regulations and government decrees issued over the last two years, ranging from tougher border controls and swingeing import duties to the requirement that every market stall operates a cash register and files its accounts with a state-run bank, have made the lives of traders and small shopkeepers a misery.

Some analysts to whom IWPR spoke suspect that as well as retaining a very Soviet aversion to the free market, senior officials want to corner the import business for themselves and are crowding out the competition. Sugar and vegetable oil imports have long been a monopoly, for example.
The report also suggests "an alternative explanation offered by a western diplomat, who asked not to be named." This suggests
that the government is in fact trying to pursue the economic reforms required by lenders such as the International Monetary Fund, IMF. As a precondition to a resumption in lending, the IMF has insisted that the Uzbek currency be made fully convertible – and the goal of financial stability could explain why the authorities are trying to clamp down on unrestricted flows of goods and cash.
While Salimov reports that "most of the analysts interviewed disagreed with this view that the government is fumbling its way towards the free market", the idea is not implausible. Governments across the world have wrought devastation on a massive scale against their own people at the behest of the IMF (consider, for instance, Argentina). Even if true, this hardly alters the responsibility of the Karimov regime for the consequences of their actions.

Observant readers may have noticed that these incidents took place at the start of November, now over a month ago. Like me you may wonder what has happened in the interval. Most likely things have largely returned to normal. This reassertion of normality should not be overstated, however. The Karimov regime and those who carry out its policies will not quickly forget the spontaneous resistance they faced and will not rush to act the same way again. Similarly, those involved will not soon forget their first taste of political power and may thirst for more. It is to be hoped that this is the case and that they won't have to thirst for much longer. Those of us in the West must do what we can to ensure that their hopes of freedom are realised, turning most immediately to our own governments' support for the Karimov regime.

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