About 1,000 members of Uzbekistan’s business community assembled late last week at a Tashkent conference hall to parley with the Interior Ministry, tax officials and the General Prosecutor’s Office about how to protect themselves from the threat of corruption.
News of the event, which took place on October 27, was broadcast on the state evening news and several internet sites and newspapers.
The spur for dialogue came in the form of a decree signed by acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev earlier in the month intended to ensure “the rapid development of business, protection of private property and the qualitative improvement of the business climate.” Improving life for private enterprise appears to be one of the many promises of reset being dangled before Uzbeks since the death of the late President Islam Karimov.
While television and state newspaper reports about the conference were skimpy on the details, online outlets delved a little further. For example, Gazeta.uz cited the chairman of the State Tax Committee, Botir Parpiyev, as admitting to the proliferation of unauthorized inspections on companies and that these were harming the prospects of business development in the country. A starling admission by anybody’s standards.
“According to [State Tax Committee] data, an average of about 4,000 unscheduled inspections were carried out in Uzbekistan [NB: no timeframe provided],” Gazeta.uz reported, citing Parpiyev. “More than 1,500 case files were sent for investigation.”
Parpiyev carried on to say that 200 companies are closing yearly as a result of these unannounced inspections, causing damages worth several million dollars in total.
“This has created major inconveniences and halted the operations of companies and the delay of salary payment to employees,” Parpiyev said.
The head of the tax committee said unscheduled inspections would cease as of next year in favor of more rigorous routine checks.
As if to demonstrate that the battle against delinquent bribe-taking tax inspectors is already underway, Parpiyev told his audience that 127 tax inspectorate workers have been fired so far this year, another 972 subjected to some form of disciplinary action and that another 32 faced criminal charges.
General Prosecutor Ikhtiyor Abdullayev urged all business owners to cooperate fully in suspected cases of extortion and bribery by officials with regulatory authorities.
“Solving the issue of corruption is possibly only when everybody acts, even over the smallest thing,” Abdullayev was quoted as saying.
These officials’ remarks drew a lively reaction on social media.
“First let them reduce the tax burden on business to 99.7 percent. Then let businesses access their own money in the bank whenever they need it. Then we can think about whether to believe them or not,” said on Facebook commenter writing under the handle “Captain Obvious.”
Murad Abidov was a little less cynical, but argued that the problems were of a far larger scale than being suggested.
“The main causes of corruption are systemic — it is necessary to devise clear rules for everybody and instruments to ensure transparency. One-off solutions to everyday problems will not provide the required results,” Abidov wrote on Facebook.
The wariness is understandable and it is to be seen if what seems on superficial scrutiny to be a wind of change gusting through Uzbekistan of late survives far beyond Mirziyoyev’s consolidation of power.
That officials are being a little more candid about the issue is a slight promise in itself. Uzbekistan has traded to date in intense self-delusion.
At the start of the year, a puppet polling group called Izhtimoy Fikr (Public Opinion) declared that 74.5 percent of respondents in a survey stated they believed the fight against corruption in Uzbekistan was being waged effectively. Even the country’s most senior officials are now admitting that is patent nonsense.
Not for nothing did Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 show Uzbekistan ranked in 153rd place out of 165 countries listed, coming in just behind Zimbabwe.