Uzbekistan: Under Sheen of Normalcy, Paranoia Reigns
Editor’s Note: EurasiaNet.org received this colorful and revealing account from a traveler who wishes to remain anonymous to have the chance to visit Uzbekistan again.
The Washington Post recently described Uzbekistan as the North Korea you’ve never heard of, conjuring images of a country sealed off from the rest of the world. Is that really what it’s like? For many journalists and others it’s difficult to visit. I recently had the chance, on a business trip for a few days. Here are a few fleeting impressions. (The Washington Post was talking about politics – I’ll stick to a traveller’s experiences.)
I’ve never been to Pyongyang or North Korea, but Tashkent is certainly an impressively big, bustling city (biggest in Central Asia, population 2.2 million) with many of the modern trappings of Western urban life: six-lane highways crisscrossing the central district and a (wonderfully old-fashioned) subway system; American-style malls for the general public and upscale fashion boutiques for the rich; and electronic advertising displays at road junctions promoting luxury watch and jewelry brands.
The city’s café and restaurant scene comes across as cosmopolitan: I sipped cappuccino in a coffee shop that could have been in New York given the number of iPhones and laptops (although it was odd that all the Western newspapers on offer were several years old) and I drank in a ‘European’ beer hall, tapping my feet to a cheesy rock band playing Pink Floyd covers, that, at a push, could have been in Prague.
In a twist on modernity, the city center is also full of shiny white marble palaces – government and parliamentary buildings, cultural centers and embassies of other Central Asian countries – that come across as grandiose but redundant status symbols, empty and locked to discourage prying visitors.
Yet Tashkent is also striking for the sense of isolation and paranoia a visitor quickly picks up. Uzbekistan feels like a place where many of the effects of globalization (for example more international travel opportunities for locals, and penetration of Western media and culture) are being held at bay or only selectively let in. I can imagine North Korea feels like this.
Nation-building efforts and the cult of personality around Islam Karimov are all around: All the museums I visited had what amounted to shrines to the president—his books, his vision, pictures of him in action. And the Karimov quotes engraved on walls of public buildings highlight why Uzbekistan is simply the best country in the world. Its “unique” and “wonderful” characteristics “provide the reason for our lives,” reads one.
Awkward juxtapositions highlight the isolation. There appears to be no free local media, many international websites are censored and I couldn’t find a current international newspaper anywhere—although visitors can enjoy BBC and CNN in their hotel rooms. I, like many visitors, took the comfortable high-speed train to beautiful Samarkand, but was entertained on the journey with an endless loop of tacky Uzbek music videos (which Uzbek travellers also tried to ignore). Does no one at Uzbek Railways know that such journeys can be more enjoyable?
Local currency, and arrangements for buying it, often reveal how closely a country feels bound to others. The som is worthless outside Uzbekistan and almost worthless inside it; the country’s highest denomination banknote, the 1000 som, is worth only 40 U.S. cents. (My oddest som experience: paying my modest hotel bill with a shopping bag full of 1000 som notes). In a throwback to the Soviet era, black market money changers are the usual providers of visitors’ cash; even in one of Tashkent’s fancier hotels, within minutes of entering a porter had whispered an offering of “a better exchange rate” than that available at the front desk.
Despite the ubiquitously positive images of Karimov, paranoia about crossing him and his government appears widespread. In meetings I attended with locals and foreigners, the rule I quickly picked up was to never speak his name; ‘numero uno’ was the shorthand for referring to him.
This was probably because surveillance, in offices and on the street, appears to be everywhere. No one wanted to spark the eavesdroppers’ interest by dropping ‘Karimov’ into the conversation. Police officers are a familiar sight, on highways, street corners, and market squares, even on the train to Samarkand (provided “for your comfort,” an announcer explained). In meetings, locals would lift their eyes to the ceiling, or silently point upwards, as if towards hidden microphones, as a way of indicating to me to change the subject to less sensitive matters.
Chance exchanges with locals, always friendly and welcoming, were also tinged with paranoia. One example: A local student gave me an impromptu walking tour of central Tashkent to practice his language skills. All went well until we reached Amir Timur Maydoni, a square where the authorities had a few years earlier chopped down some old trees, and which, I had read, had been beautiful and had offered shade to chess players who gathered there. He agreed, wistfully, that the trees had been lovely.
“Wasn’t it a bad idea to chop them down?” I asked.
At this point his face froze in a sort of panic. “No, no, of course not,” he said, fumbling for a reason. “Now we have a clearer view across the square,” he said rather unconvincingly, and quickly changed the subject.
Only one local offered to talk “openly,” as he put it. At his home, in a low voice, he told me “things are stable here, but what does that mean? It’s stability at a very low level.” Corruption, and no chance to shape his, or his country’s future, were his complaints. “Things couldn’t get much worse.” He hoped to flee the country, he said.
I guess that sort of conversation could in fact happen in North Korea.