Uzbek authorities are making life difficult for humanitarian aid workers. A variety of Westerners report being subjected to intensive scrutiny from Uzbek security forces and tax officials. The persecution is fostering feelings of resentment and resignation among those who arrived in Uzbekistan with charitable intentions.
One woman, who has taught English in the country since the mid 1990s, expressed shock over the heavy-handed harassment of foreigners. "There is no concept of a volunteer here -- just a deep distrust of the motives of anyone who would want to leave the wealth and security of Europe to live here for any length of time," she said.
Confiscatory taxation policies appear driven by the misconception that Western humanitarian workers are wealthy, the teacher added. "Nothing would convince them that we had not been sent by our government on massive salaries, and did not have palaces and Mercedes waiting as our reward once our stint was over," said the teacher, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity.
Other teachers report being told by their heads of department to send them the money that they would have spent on public transport, or donate computers, photocopiers, video players and televisions instead of returning to teach. Class spies regularly inform on the activities of newcomers, and there are indications that foreigners' telephones are extensively monitored.
One foreigner said that upon lifting his receiver to place a call, he heard his last conversation played back to him. Listening devices are regularly placed in accommodation and offices. For example, one soap manufacturer reported the discovery of 26 bugs when they underwent a second phase of repairs to their building.
One ploy employed by local officials is to provide a foreign aid organization with a decrepit building. After the building undergoes extensive renovations, officials have sometimes found a pretext to reacquire the newly refurbished facility, leaving the aid organization searching for new offices. For example, volunteers who had opened a computer center in one southern city reported that their facility was appropriated by local officials, who claimed the building was needed as a Presidential guest house and entertainment venue.
A deep suspicion pervades all dealings with humanitarian or business personnel from the West. Last year, a top Uzbek finance official summoned foreign business directors and complained about predatory foreign business practices. "You are all exploiters," the official said. "You want to bleed us dry!"
Soviet-era school textbooks, containing many passages denouncing the evils of capitalism, have helped inculcate the population with feelings of apprehension. Coupled with this, Uzbekistan's economic difficulties have fostered an
Jennifer Balfour is a freelance writer, based in Central Asia.