Uzbekistan’s state-run Channel One aired a sensational segment during a show called Business Club on November 5 that featured the frustrated observations of an indignant entrepreneur.
In a unusual televised outburst, Olim Sulaimanov explained how employees with a branch of the anti-finance crime department of the Prosecutor General’s Office in Tashkent had tried to extort money from him. Sulaimanov named names and figures in his description of how tax officials have been targeting his company.
“An employee with the department, Dilshod Hazratkulov, intimidates businessmen with money on their [bank] account and extorts money from them,” Sulaimanov said.
In Sulaimanov’s telling, Hazratkulov dropped in on his office in April and demanded that he transfer 48 million sum (around $7,500 at the current black market rate) onto the account of some other unknown company. The businessman said that when he refused, he had his assets frozen. Sulaimanov said that as a result he lost a $1 million contract to deliver fruit and vegetables to Russia.
The appearance on Business Club came about after Sulaimanov posted a video on YouTube directly appealing to acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev for assistance. In the video, Sulaimanov asks that he be allowed to make his case during a television broadcast.
Sulaimanov, 61, founded and runs a company called Atlant Business Optima, which has been in operation since 2011 and deals primarily in exporting fruit and vegetables.
Now, whether this sequence of events is for real or otherwise is up for debate -- it is always possible it was a bit of theater for the viewers -- but what is clear is that Mirziyoyev is endeavoring to demonstrate that the rules of the game have changed for Uzbekistan’s long-suffering business community.
Mirziyoyev signed a decree last month pledging to ensure “the rapid development of business, protection of private property and the qualitative improvement of the business climate.” On the back of that, senior law enforcement officials last week met with hundreds of members of business leaders on October 27 to solicit their views on how to combat corruption.
The most commonly recurring complaint concerns the problem of unannounced inspections, which typically end up with the business owner having to part with cash in the form of a bribe or face indefinite closure of their enterprise.
According to official figures, the 210,000 or so small and medium-sized businesses in Uzbekistan account for 56.5 percent of the country’s economy and employ around 78 percent of the working population, so the need to make them operate more profitably should be self-evident.
As with all other areas in which the new Mirziyoyev-led regime is evincing shoots of transformation, however, wary skepticism should probably remain the default setting until the dust settles. Although it is obvious that Mirziyoyev will win the December 4 election with ease, it is also the case that he must generate genuine goodwill among a population that barely knows him.