Are decades of po­lit­i­cal re­pres­sion mak­ing way for an ‘Uzbek spring’?

The Guardian Weekly - - International news - Joanna Lil­lis

There is one word on ev­ery­one’s lips in Uzbek­istan th­ese days: change. “Things are chang­ing, life is get­ting bet­ter!” en­thused Akrom Ab­du­rahi­mov, a twen­tysome­thing res­i­dent of the cap­i­tal, Tashkent.

“Ev­ery day you wake up and some­thing is dif­fer­ent,” said Nodira Il­hamova, a young pro­fes­sional sip­ping tea on the ter­race of a trendy cafe in the au­tumn sun­shine.

“We’ve seen so many changes in the coun­try in the past year,” said Pu­lat Ibrahi­mov, a mid­dle-aged busi­ness­man lunch­ing in a res­tau­rant packed with of­fice work­ers.

There is also one name that keeps re­cur­ring: Shavkat Mirziy­oyev, the pres­i­dent of this cen­tral Asian state. Men­tion him and you’re as likely as not to get a big thumbs-up.

Since Mirziy­oyev came to power a year ago fol­low­ing the death of his Soviet-era pre­de­ces­sor Is­lam Karimov, one of the world’s harsh­est dic­ta­tor­ships has light­ened up – though not enough for true open­ness (in­ter­vie­wees’ names have still to be changed to pro­tect iden­ti­ties).

Mirziy­oyev, a grey­ing 60-year-old who was Karimov’s prime min­is­ter for 13 years, is an un­likely poster boy for dy­namic trans­for­ma­tion, but he has em­braced some eye-catch­ing re­forms. He has re­leased some po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, wel­comed in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights cam­paign­ers who were per­sona non grata for years, loos­ened the screws on the me­dia and re­called thou­sands of peo­ple forced to go and pick cot­ton in­stead of do­ing their reg­u­lar jobs. Most rad­i­cally, he has pledged to lis­ten to, and govern for, the peo­ple.

The change sweep­ing through this coun­try of 34 mil­lion peo­ple who lived un­der po­lit­i­cal re­pres­sion and eco­nomic stag­na­tion for 27 years of Karimov’s rule has sparked ex­cited chat­ter about a po­lit­i­cal thaw. Is there an “Uzbek spring” in the air? Is Mirziy­oyev re­ally bring­ing democ­racy to to­tal­i­tar­ian Uzbek­istan?

Mirziy­oyev says he is. He in­tends “to build a demo­cratic state and a just so­ci­ety”, he de­clared re­cently, mak­ing the case that he is trans­form­ing Uzbek­istan, a land of moun­tains, deserts and an­cient Silk Road cities into a democ­racy based on “peo­ple’s power”.

Star­tling words since, un­der Karimov, Uzbek­istan be­came a byword for despo­tism, tor­ture and worse. Any­one who protested risked the fate of demon­stra­tors in the city of Andi­jan, hun­dreds of whom were gunned down by se­cu­rity forces in 2005.

“This is a mo­ment of hope for Uzbek­istan’s peo­ple,” wrote Steve Sw­erd­low and Hugh Wil­liamson of Hu­man Rights Watch re­cently, but “it’s time to fol­low words with ac­tion”. They re­cently vis­ited Uzbek­istan, and the sight of Uzbek min­is­ters glad-hand­ing the rights cam­paign­ers they re­cently shunned was an as­ton­ish­ing sign of the chang­ing times.

On the streets of Tashkent there is a new spirit of op­ti­mism – and plenty of good­will to­wards Mirziy­oyev.

“He wants to show that with his ar­rival things are go­ing to be dif­fer­ent,” said Ibrahi­mov. “He’s chang­ing many things be­cause peo­ple need it. Busi­nesses need more free­dom, which will cre­ate more jobs.”

Tashkent was abuzz with talk of the black mar­ket – or rather its dis­ap­pear­ance. The dodgy deal­ers who used to hang around Tashkent’s bazaars swap­ping dol­lars for wads of Uzbek sum dis­ap­peared in early Septem­ber when Mirziy­oyev em­braced cur­rency re­forms.

This dy­namism is creat­ing a feel­good fac­tor, though it has yet to trans­late into jobs. And po­lit­i­cal change may take longer than eco­nomic lib­er­al­i­sa­tion. Mirziy­oyev was, af­ter all, a loyal foot sol­dier of Karimov’s re­pres­sive regime and came to power in a sham elec­tion in which he won 89% of the vote.

“Make no mis­take: Mirziy­oyev is no demo­crat. He’s an au­to­crat in ev­ery sense of the word,” Bakhtiyor Nis­hanov, an an­a­lyst from the Wash­ing­ton-based In­ter­na­tional Repub­li­can In­sti­tute, said. Mirziy­oyev’s pri­or­ity is eco­nomic growth, he said; as for democ­racy and hu­man rights, he will re­form the “bare min­i­mum” to sup­port his am­bi­tion of lift­ing Uzbek­istan out of the eco­nomic dol­drums.

Hence the head­line-grab­bing ini­tia­tive such as re­call­ing doc­tors, teach­ers and stu­dents from the cot­ton fields; al­low­ing the BBC to re­open its long-shut­tered Uzbek bu­reau, and free­ing a hand­ful of the thou­sands of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers.

But ob­servers fret that this is mere cos­metic tin­ker­ing – and the de­ten­tion last month of Uzbek writer Nu­rullo Ota­honov on his re­turn from Turk­ish ex­ile, sug­gests a well-placed con­cern. Ota­honov was re­leased af­ter four days.

For all the hype about Mirziy­oyev and his re­forms, some Uzbeks are frus­trated by the pace of change.

“Things are chang­ing at the top, but it will take a long time to flow down,” said Il­hamova. “It’s good that changes are tak­ing place, but let’s see in 10 years – then we can talk about it. Or maybe 50.”

Make no mis­take: Mirziy­oyev is no demo­crat. He’s an au­to­crat in ev­ery sense of the word

‘Life is get­ting bet­ter’ … in Tashkent, some res­i­dents de­tect change in the air Shamil Zhu­ma­tov/Reuters

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.