Uzbekistan: Tashkent Clears Out The Little People Ahead Of Independence Day
For Saidulla, a shop owner at Tashkent's Farkhad Bazaar, Independence Day ceremonies in years past have produced trifling hassles, including heightened police security, cordoned-off streets and a slowdown in customer traffic. This year, however, as authorities plan to celebrate Uzbekistan's 20th anniversary of independence, many Tashkent residents are paying a much higher price. With the entire Farkhad Bazaar demolished this April in the name of modernization, Saidulla is now out of work and facing an uncertain future.
Authorities usually mark Independence Day on September 1 with pomp and pageantry. Given the government's desire to showcase Uzbekistan’s achievements over the last two decades, this year's celebration looks set to be especially grand. On April 6, President Islam Karimov issued a decree providing for a series of events such as a musical festival with international headliners, athletic competitions and artistic contests under the slogan; “You are great and sacred, independent Motherland!” The decree also instructed Tashkent’s municipal authorities to "adopt measures to ensure the timely commissioning of industrial, social and cultural objects."
Tashkent, home to roughly 2.5 million people, is no stranger to massive urban renewal projects, even at the expense of ordinary peoples’ homes and businesses. But locals say the scale of this year’s undertakings is unprecedented. After Karimov signed the decree, authorities flattened central neighborhoods such as Almazar, Tezikovka, and Ukcha, which housed several thousand residents, reportedly to build a new financial center. Next came the demolition of several large markets such as Farkhad, Navoi, Parkent, Alay and several smaller shopping centers, which employed over 10,000 people.
State-controlled media outlets have dutifully extolled the virtues of the reconstruction efforts.
"The architectural outlook of the capital ahead of the 20th anniversary of Uzbekistan has not only preserved its historical attractiveness, but it is acquiring new humanistic and aesthetic content," said a statement distributed on April 28 by the state news agency, UzA.
Government newspapers also lauded an early March decree by Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev that obliged municipal authorities to issue compensation to owners of seized and demolished properties.
But ask vendors and residents in Tashkent about the looming changes, and their reaction is bleak. "I don't understand why they have done this. I am now jobless, sitting at home and hoping that I will be able to find something else to do," Saidulla, who refused to give his last name fearing retribution, told EurasiaNet.org. Many who worked in the Farkhad Bazaar are livid because they have not received any of the promised government compensation, he added.
Anger is particularly pointed over the inability of city residents to seek redress for their grievances through official channels, including the judicial system. “The lawlessness connected with the destruction of residential areas is not bothering law enforcement agencies, especially the prosecutor’s office which is tasked with defending laws,” complained Vladimir Khusainov, a Tashkent-based human rights activist, in comments published by the opposition Birdamlik movement in March. “What can ordinary people do in this environment?”
Though authorities seem to be ignoring the popular mood, independent media outlets banned in Uzbekistan have attempted to shed light on the issue. An April 18 commentary on the independent website Ferghana.ru claimed that although the urban renewal has destroyed more than a thousand businesses in Tashkent, “there is no talk of compensation.” Uznews.net, another critical website, said on April 21 that “the majority of Tashkent residents are appalled by the unprecedented lawlessness” of the construction. According to another Uznews.net report, some residents of Almazar and other demolished districts were not even given notice to vacate their properties, which it claims averaged $50,000 in value.
Many residents who lost their homes are now reportedly staying with their relatives or living in rented apartments because municipal authorities whose budgets are strained by the massive construction projects do not have the means to provide new housing, despite promises.
In the absence of credible official explanations about the schemes, various conspiracy theories are flourishing. Most say powerful individuals such as Mirziyoyev or Karimov’s children are benefiting financially from the construction projects.
“This is clearly a property dispute involving some high-ranking government officials and wealthy people. They have long struggled for control of the bazaars,” said Nurbek, a truck driver who transported Chinese-made goods to the Farkhad Bazaar until it closed.
It is not only those affected by urban renewal who are livid. A lack of transparency in the awarding of government contracts is stoking discontent among entrepreneurs as well. Given that the Uzbek Cabinet of Ministers designated 2011 as the "Year of Small Business and Entrepreneurship,” many entrepreneurs find it galling that the government has not disclosed the amount allotted for reconstruction projects, and has not publicized the mechanism for bidding on contracts. The opacity of the process is deepening suspicions that public works contracts are awarded mainly to firms with close ties with government officials.
The discontent is not limited to Tashkent. According to a June 9 Uznews.net report, authorities in the provincial centers of Andijan, Samarkand and Bukhara are forcing local entrepreneurs to “cough up” money -- up to 3 million sums, or $1,750 at the official exchange rate -- for local construction projects and events associated with the independence celebration. Officials are also reportedly forcing public-sector workers and school children to take part in long rehearsals for the festivities.
Despite their growing dissatisfaction with the government’s efforts, few residents are willing to protest, fearing government retribution, Saidulla said. Heightened security ahead of the festivities is also likely to deter disgruntled citizens from airing their grievances.