CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: Few dare to dream of change in Tashkent

CENTRAL ASIA BLOG: Few dare to dream of change in Tashkent
The independence day party has been spoilt by Karimov’s apparent brain haemorrhage.
By Olim Abdullayev in Tashkent September 1, 2016

Uzbekistan geared up to celebrate its 25th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union, marked on September 1, by reeling off its seemingly great achievements: the economy is booming at least on paper; the shiny capital, which received a facelift ahead of a China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in late June, boasts well-maintained infrastructure; and Uzbek athletes achieved a dazzling performance at the Rio Olympics, to name just a few.

However, the party has been spoilt by Karimov’s sudden illness or even death after suffering an apparent brain haemorrhage at a ceremony toasting the Uzbek Olympians.

Whether Karimov is dead or not, ordinary Uzbeks remain largely unmoved because they believe hardly anything will change in the immediate aftermath of a transition of power. Regime propaganda has also made them fearful of any instability and grateful for the visible signs of economic development in the country.

According to the official statistics, distrusted by analysts, the Uzbek economy grew by 7.8% y/y in the first half of 2016, with a “low inflation rate” of 2.5% in late July. It claimed the growth had been driven by growth in investment by about 12%, and 17.4% growth in the construction sector.

“There have been a lot of changes in the country in the past 25 years. New roads and many buildings have been built,” Mokhira, an accountant in Tashkent, tells bne IntelliNews. “Lots of sport facilities have been built.”

Heavy government investment in sport and sport infrastructure in Tashkent and around resulted in the largest gold medal haul Uzbekistan managed in any Olympics: they won four gold medals, including three in boxing, with Uzbekistan ending up dubbed “UzBOXistan”.

Karimov has increased the minimum wage, pensions and social benefits by 15% from October 1, indirectly pointing to double-digit inflation. “We have got used to wage increases. This is not something new for us. We are aware that if there are wage increases then prices will increase too,” Mokhira complains to bne IntelliNews. “Because of the increasing black market exchange rate, prices are increasing and we cannot buy as many things as before when the dollar rate was lower,” she explains.

For other people bne IntelliNews talked to in Tashkent, prices and living standards are more important than politics because “it doesn’t and won’t change”. “I think prices in Uzbekistan, except for those of vegetables and fruit, must be the highest among other Central Asian countries. In Kazakhstan, many products, for example, soap, detergents, processed food and even meat, cost much cheaper than in Uzbekistan,” a shuttle trader who gave his name as Rustam explains. Uzbekistan imposes high import duties on foreign products in a bid to make locally-produced goods competitive but with little success.

Rampant corruption

Many ordinary Uzbeks believe the economic situation will improve at some point. “I expect the economy will eventually be liberalised in Uzbekistan a couple of years after the current president, and house prices will grow,” Rustam said before the news of Karimov’s illness broke. “The country’s economy will develop at a faster pace.”

Already under Karimov’s rule the country had started slowly liberalising the agricultural sector by moving away from the monoculture of cotton – a relatively lucrative but thirsty crop for arid Central Asia. Tashkent maintains state monopoly on sales and exports of cotton and, observers believe, in order to maximise profits, it mobilises public-sector workers and students, often underage, to pick it in the autumn.

“I think the economy will liberalise and there will be created even more favourable economic conditions. There will be further attempts to cut cotton growing in favour of fruit and vegetables,” a Tashkent-based analyst tells bne IntelliNews on condition of anonymity. Tashkent plans to cut raw cotton output to 3mn tonnes by 2020 from 3.5mn tonnes in 2015, freeing up 175,000 hectares of farmland for growing fruit and vegetables.

However, because of rampant corruption, vested interests will try to hinder this process, the analyst believes. “It will be slow and may take 10 to 15 years before we start seeing those changes because of the high level of corruption which is something rooted deep in society.”

While the economic situation may offer some hope for improvement, Karimov and his successors will continue to maintain a tight grip on political life in the country, suppressing freedoms and abusing human rights for the sake of “peace”, interviewees told bne IntelliNews before Karimov fell ill. “The country will continue its current domestic and foreign policy and efforts to retain peace in the country in the future,” the analyst suggested.

The state propaganda in Uzbekistan, like in other authoritarian countries in the region such as Kazakhstan and Russia, paints “colour” revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan or attempts to overthrow government in Syria as a source of instability and heavily promotes the idea that attempts to demand democracy encouraged by “external forces” lead to wars and conflicts like in Syria or Ukraine. In a congratulatory address attributed to Karimov, the president called for a duty to “ensure security”, “prevent any trouble and adversity from nearing our threshold” and “to promote the slogan ‘our people need peace’.”

Karimov’s regime has long been using real and imaginary threats of “terrorism” and “extremism” to supress freedom of religion, destroy free press and abuse human rights, especially after the Andijan events in 2005 when government troops massacred hundreds of people waiting on the main square for the president. Human rights organisations estimate that authorities have locked up thousands of people for just practising their religion.

“I think Uzbekistan will continue the same policy just like Turkmenistan and there will be no freedom of speech. Attitude towards religious freedoms will remain the same and we will still have human rights issues,” the analyst predicts. “Turkmenistan is a perfect example of how things may develop in Uzbekistan after a change of leader.”

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who replaced Saparmurat Niyazov, better known as Turkmenbashi (“Head of All Turkmens”), after his demise in 2006, continued his predecessor’s repressive policies, replacing Niyazov’s cult of personality with his own.

Locals echo the analyst’s prediction, reflecting the fear of instability that the Karimov regime has instilled.

“I hope the country will develop positively [when Karimov departs] and no external forces will manage to rock the situation as in Georgia, Ukraine or Kyrgyzstan,” says an IT engineer.

“The country will retain the incumbent president’s policy aimed at keeping peace in the country,” the shuttle trader says.