Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

This article is a preview from the Winter 2019 edition of New Humanist

It’s a snowy day in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, and half a dozen cleaners are washing away the slush from around a bronze statue of Islam Karimov, the ruthless dictator who ruled this former Soviet state in Central Asia for over a quarter of a century.

The 11-metre-tall statue, unveiled in 2017 on the first anniversary of Karimov’s death, stands in front of his former presidential palace, a palatial white-brick building which is now home to a permanent exhibition of art dedicated to the late Uzbek leader. The exhibition, entitled “The Heart That Embraced the Universe”, features a series of portraits of Karimov that range from the merely fawning to the downright bizarre. One gigantic canvas depicts Karimov and a group of tigers – “his spirit animal” – preparing to fight a horde of vultures that apparently represents the multitude of challenges facing Uzbekistan, a nation of 32 million inhabitants that borders Afghanistan. A casual visitor to this unashamedly hagiographic exhibition would never guess that Uzbekistan under Karimov was widely considered one of the world’s most repressive societies, with human rights groups routinely mentioning the country in the same breath as North Korea and Eritrea.

A former Communist Party official, Karimov came to power in 1989, as the Soviet system began to crumble, and systematically crushed all opposition to his rule. His critics were tortured, sometimes to death, in Uzbekistan’s brutal prisons. In 2005, when protesters massed in Andijan, a city in eastern Uzbekistan, Karimov ordered troops to open fire. No one knows for sure how many people were killed that day: the government says 187, but others estimate that several hundred protesters may have died.

Although around 80 per cent of Uzbekistan’s population identify as Muslim, Karimov also cracked down on believers who practised Islam outside strict state controls. Thousands of Muslims were locked up, with at least one member of a moderate Islamist group boiled alive in prison. Karimov also barred the call to prayer from mosques, as well as the observance of Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. The clampdown was justified by Uzbek officials as a necessary measure in the fight against Islamic extremism. Critics allege its true aim was to eradicate any faith-based challenge to Karimov’s rule.

Children also suffered under Karimov. Hundreds of thousands of them were taken out of school every year to pick cotton by hand on the country’s sprawling plantations, receiving no pay for their back-breaking work. The practice led to a boycott of Uzbek cotton by European and North American companies. Yet despite Karimov’s appalling record on forced child labour, another painting at the exhibition depicts children jumping for joy in front of the late Uzbek leader. With sinister echoes of Soviet-era propaganda in praise of Joseph Stalin, it is entitled “the Guarantor of Our Happy Childhood”. An accompanying note reads: “Everyone knows what attention [Karimov] paid to the spiritual and physical health of the younger generation – the future of the nation.”

I am the only visitor to the exhibition, and so I enquire if it is always quite so empty. The middle-aged female guide shakes her head vigorously, and assures me that “thousands” of people visit every week. She presses colourful books about Karimov into my hands and urges me to visit again soon. Outside, the slush has been washed away from Karimov’s statue, and the Uzbek tyrant’s bronze likeness basks in Tashkent’s early morning sun.

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When Karimov died in 2016 of a brain haemorrhage, it was days before authorities informed the public of his death. “Doctors were too terrified to tell Karimov he was dead,” ran the joke. In reality, Uzbek officials were working frantically behind the scenes to ensure a smooth handover of power, eventually naming Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Karimov’s long-serving prime minister, as the country’s acting president. Mirziyoyev cemented his rule later that year, taking 89 per cent of the vote in presidential elections that were widely criticised as undemocratic.

Few believed that Uzbekistan’s authoritarian policies would change under Mirziyoyev, who was widely seen as Karimov’s right-hand man. But, defying expectations, Mirziyoyev has gradually introduced a series of tentative reforms that have included moves to reduce the powers of the much-feared state security service, release scores of high-profile political prisoners and eradicate forced labour. He has also lifted a much-mocked Karimov-era ban on the teaching of political science at Uzbek universities, and the call to prayer can once more be heard at Uzbekistan’s mosques. Although abuse within the country’s brutal prisons has not been eliminated, some Karimov-era officials have been charged with torture. “There is no fear any more that the security services could just come and grab you off the streets,” says Andrei Kudryashov, a photographer in Tashkent.

Mirziyoyev is also seeking to improve Uzbekistan’s relations with western countries, which were frayed under Karimov. In May 2018, Mirziyoyev held what the White House called “historic” talks with US President Donald Trump, in a meeting that came as Uzbekistan signed business deals with American companies worth £3.6 billion. In January, Mirziyoyev was in Berlin, for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. His programme of reforms, dubbed the “Uzbek spring”, led to him being called “the leader of perestroika in Central Asia” by Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. Other signs that Uzbekistan is opening up include the scrapping of visa requirements for citizens of most European countries, as well as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. (Americans are still required to apply for visas, however.) Tashkent has also invested heavily in pitch-side advertising at English Premier League games that urges fans to “Visit Uzbekistan”.

Yet while Uzbekistan is slowly moving out of Karimov’s grim shadow, critics say that there is little prospect of free elections, a genuinely free press or an independent judiciary in the near future. Although a number of critical websites have recently been unblocked by the authorities, independent journalists still face harassment. “Positive changes in Uzbekistan are from a very low base,” noted Hugh Williamson, the Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a recent commentary.

“Compared to Karimov, of course, Mirziyoyev is a reformer,” Daniil Kislov, the editor of the news website, whose journalists faced violence and censorship under Karimov, tells me. “But this isn’t perestroika – perestroika began in the Soviet Union with political reforms. Mirziyoyev hasn’t carried out anything even close to this.”

Mirziyoyev’s cautious reforms, Kislov and other critics say, are not rooted in a genuine concern for human rights or democratic principles, but rather an understanding that the Uzbek economy is on the verge of collapse and that only foreign investment and a massive influx of tourists to the country’s ancient Silk Road cities can save it.

Average monthly salaries in Uzbekistan are less than £150, and it is common for teachers, doctors and other professionals to moonlight as taxi drivers to make ends meet. Millions of the country’s best and brightest have fled abroad in a brain drain that briefly subsided after Karimov’s death, but is now picking up again. Uzbeks joke: “First the golden minds left (the intellectuals), then the golden hands left (skilled workers), and now only the golden teeth are left” (a reference to the gold-capped teeth favoured by members of Uzbek criminal gangs).

“It’s clear that Mirziyoyev needs to change Uzbekistan’s international image,” says Kislov. “He realises 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.”

Tellingly, Mirziyoyev has not publicly criticised either Karimov or his human rights abuses. On the contrary, he has praised him as an “outstanding” statesman, and has also issued orders for a swathe of streets, squares and factories, as well as Tashkent’s international airport, to be renamed in Karimov’s honour. Mirziyoyev also recently paid his respects at Karimov’s ornate tomb in Samarkand. “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 Kislov. “He and other high-placed officials know they were compliant in these crimes.”

Concerns that economic crimes allegedly committed in the Karimov era could come back to haunt top officials are also thought to be behind a move to imprison the dictator’s eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, in March. Karimova, a one-time glamorous Uzbek diplomat, socialite and pop singer, was arrested on corruption charges in 2014 on her father’s orders amid a bitter family dispute that saw her accuse her mother and sister of using black magic against her. Little was known of her fate until 2017, when Uzbek authorities said she had been sentenced to five years under house arrest. In March, police seized Karimova from her apartment in Tashkent, and drove her to prison. Prosecutors said she had repeatedly violated the terms of her house arrest by leaving the building and using the internet. Karimova’s imprisonment came shortly after the US Department of Justice indicted her on charges of receiving bribes worth £661m from international telecoms companies to help them get licenses to work in Uzbekistan.

“Judging by everything, it seems Gulnara [Karimova] was hidden away to stop American investigators questioning her about who helped her pull off various shady deals,” says Alexei Volosevich, an independent investigative journalist in Tashkent.

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Mirziyoyev’s reforms may be earning him plaudits in the West, but critics say the government still has little respect for the rights of ordinary Uzbeks. Proof of this, they say, is the ongoing demolition of residential buildings as part of a controversial urban renovation project. Thousands of homes – no one knows exactly how many – have been bulldozed across Uzbekistan, with residents often given little or no warning before the demolition crews begin work. The land is then sold off to construction companies, leading to allegations that the urban renovation project is simply a front for massive corruption involving government officials. “There is no respect for private property rights whatsoever. The authorities can throw anyone out of their home at any time,” says Volosevich, who has reported extensively on the demolitions. Officials often explain the evictions by saying the properties are needed for “government needs” – a catch-all justification.

The epicentre of the demolitions is a vast construction site in the centre of the Uzbek capital for a £996-million business centre called Tashkent City. Hundreds of homes in the city’s historic neighbourhood have already been torn down, as well as a number of architecturally significant buildings, to make way for its construction. In January, after an investigation by the independent media platform OpenDemocracy, Tashkent’s mayor, Jaxongir Artikxodjaev, admitted that he has business stakes in one of the companies involved in the project. OpenDemocracy also said there was evidence to link him to other companies with construction, commercial and investment interests in Tashkent City.

“The authorities are not at all interested in any ‘urban renovation.’ They just want to seize expensive land in the centre of the city. They aren’t talking about building new schools or hospitals. Just residential properties or business and shopping centres,” says Farida Charif, a translator who set up a popular Facebook group page to coordinate legal advice for people affected by the demolitions.

Charif was just one of scores of angry Tashkent residents who crowded into a district administration office in February over concerns that their homes were next for the wrecking ball as part of a property development project. Artikxodjaev told the residents that their homes would not be destroyed without their permission, but few of those present believed his assurances. “He’s lying, like always,” Yelena, a middle-aged woman, told me. “They want to throw us out on the streets.”

In Andijan, one resident told me how he and hundreds of other people had been forced to leave their homes in the centre of the city and move to poorly constructed homes near the barren steppe. “The cottages, if you can call them that, are located next to oil pumps in an area without any infrastructure whatsoever,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisals.

Demolitions and heavy-handed urban renovation projects are also threatening historical neighbourhoods in Bukhara and Samarkand, ancient Silk Road cities that are a major part of Uzbekistan’s drive to attract more tourists. UNESCO is currently considering the removal of Shahrisabz, in southern Uzbekistan, from its list of World Heritage sites because of the bulldozing of the city’s mediaeval residential quarters. “Key architectural monuments have been seriously damaged and barbarously ‘reconstructed’ to resemble cheap decorations in a C-grade Hollywood films about Ali-Baba,” says Alexey Ulko, a cultural heritage monitor.

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Despite the ongoing evictions, Shukhrat Ganiev, a long-time human rights worker in Bukhara, tells me that he believes Mirziyoyev is sincere about wanting to implement genuine change in Uzbekistan. “In comparison with what we went through under Karimov, Mirziyoyev’s reforms are a breakthrough,” he says during an interview in his home, near Bukhara’s 5th-century fortress. “We’ve been through too much not to appreciate what we have right now. I remember when from day to day my wife prepared me a bag every evening because we weren’t sure if I would be taken away to prison the next day. The fact that I can meet freely with you today is an important indication of change.”

Yet Ganiev is clear-eyed about the motivations for change, the limits of the reforms, and the possible dangers facing Uzbekistan. “Unfortunately, the reforms have only affected those spheres that western society paid attention to,” he says. “That is, forced labour, torture and other human rights issues.”

He says that other social problems – corruption, poverty and the nationwide demolitions – are stirring social tensions. “But there are no independent democratic opposition parties that people can appeal to.”

Instead, Ganiev warns, many disgruntled young Uzbeks are becoming attracted to radical Islam. Although Karimov’s crackdown on religion means that there are currently no well-known Islamic figures in Uzbekistan who could mount a serious challenge to the secular authorities, some 1,000 Uzbeks fought for Isis in Syria and Iraq, and Uzbek nationals have carried out terror attacks in recent years in Russia, Sweden, Turkey and the United States. “Sharia law says to right injustice, punish the corrupt and help the poor. This is very simple and clear for people,” Ganiev says. “This is also very dangerous. I have no desire to see my country become a new Iran.”