A look at Uzbekistan today

Last December, in a ballot described as ‘a sham’ by international observers, the country elected Mirziyoyev as successor of its first post-independence president and long-time dictator Karimov. But things might not get that much better, writes Tina Burrett

Two women sheltering from the heat. Uzbekistan today
Two women sheltering from the heat. Photo: Christopher Simons

‘Give an Uzbek a desert and he’ll make it a garden,’ quotes historian Akmal, gesturing to the seams of lush green vegetation that weave through the dusty landscape as we drive to the ancient city of Bukhara. But to inhabitants of Moynak, a town formerly on the shores of the Aral Sea, this old Uzbek proverb rings hollow. Mismanagement of agricultural and irrigation projects during Soviet times shrank the Aral Sea to less than half its former size, leaving ships stranded and local fishing communities high and dry. The faded statues of muscular female farmers, carrying armfuls of wheat and fish, are the only signs of the town’s former fertility.

A look at Uzbekistan today: the ship graveyard on the former shore of the Aral Sea in Moynak
The ship graveyard on the former shore of the Aral Sea in Moynak. Photo: Christopher Simons

The Soviet Union’s intensive production of cotton caused Moynak’s desertification. Known locally as ‘white gold’, cotton has remained a key export since Uzbekistan’s independence from the USSR in 1991. Drawing international condemnation for its use of forced and child labour, the cotton sector generates more than $1 billion in annual revenue. Most of this money is pocketed by government officials and their corrupt cronies in the capital, Tashkent. The yearly cotton harvest that forces students, teachers and other public workers into the fields was previously overseen by Uzbekistan’s new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who served as prime minister from 2003.

Tajik bakers selling bread at Siab Bazaar – the main market in Samarkand. Uzbekistan today
Tajik bakers selling bread at Siab Bazaar – the main market in Samarkand.
Photo: Christopher Simons

Elected last December in a ballot described as ‘a sham’ by international observers, Mirziyoyev replaced Uzbekistan’s first post-independence president and long-time dictator, Islam Karimov. Even by Central Asian standards, Karimov’s 27-year-rule was brutal. Coming to power first under the Soviets in 1989, he reinvented himself as an Uzbek nationalist in the twilight years of Communism. Karimov claimed the exclusive right to define the new Uzbek state and nation, including a strictly state-controlled version of Islam. Dissenters were jailed, exiled or killed, often on the pretext of fighting Islamic extremism. Although most Uzbekistanis are secular-minded and practise a flexible brand of Islam, extremism is intensifying, thanks to government repression of any form of religious opposition.

Friendly smiles from children. Uzbekistan today
Friendly smiles from children. Photo: Christopher Simons

From 2002, the US-led ‘War on Terror’ provided Karimov with ammunition to intensify his own war on religious and political freedom. In May 2005, in the eastern city of Andijan, hundreds of protesters were gunned down in what the government termed an anti-terror operation. In 2014, Karimov even arrested his own daughter, Gulnara Karimova, whom he had been grooming to inherit his crown. The once-powerful politician and entrepreneur apparently remains under house arrest; her fate is unknown.

Despite his multiple human rights abuses, Western governments mostly overlooked the excesses of Karimov’s regime. His rocky relationship with Russia made Karimov a useful buttress against Moscow’s influence in the region. For the US, Karimov provided a critical supply route for operations in Afghanistan.

Some say that President Mirziyoyev is much like his predecessor. Since taking power, he has done little to alter the political and economic system built by Karimov. Although Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia, with extensive mineral wealth, its economy is a basket case. Corruption and the black market flourish. A history of government asset grabs deters foreign investors. Vested interests in Tashkent amass cash from exporting gas, gold and cotton, while ordinary citizens struggle to survive. Uzbekistanis traditionally headed to Russia to find work, but the recession there, caused by Western sanctions and a fall in commodity prices, has made this a less viable option.

A typical neighbourhood corner shop in Uzbekistan
A typical neighbourhood corner shop in Uzbekistan. Photo: Christopher Simons

Shortages of gas, electricity and jobs are feeding disaffection, especially among the under-30s, who make up over half the country’s population. If the new president doesn’t change the rules of the game soon, Uzbekistanis may decide it’s time to upset the pieces on the board and make some new rules.