|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
5 - 11 July 2001
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Facing up to the futureTashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara -- the city names are evocative of a fabulous civilisation; they hold pride of place in Islamic history. Yet what of their present? On the eve of the 10th anniversary of Uzbekistan's independence, Fatemah Farag tags along for a meeting of the Egyptian-Uzbek Cooperation Committee
A walk through Tashkent: wide and gracious tree-lined boulevards, fruit trees laden with bright orange apricots, green pears and red berries, public parks graced with elaborate water fountains -- the quiet of dusk disturbed only by the rumbling of an antiquated trolley-bus and the acceleration of a passing Volga. Bordering the sidewalks, Soviet-style public housing, ultra-modern glass office- buildings and quaint one-story houses compete to define the image of a city searching for post-independence identity.
As one takes in the city one cannot help but notice that something is afoot. Walls are getting a fresh coat of paint and a race is on to complete construction projects. These manifestations of intense activity are part and parcel of preparing for this year's 10th anniversary of independence on 1 September. This year's anniversary is extra special: it will signify the passing of 10 years since the Uzbek people ended nearly 140 years of Russian domination, some 70 years of which under the Soviet system.
But how much has changed? The concert hall has been converted into the Stock Exchange, the building that used to house the meetings of senior members of the Communist Party is currently and, perhaps ironically, the Faculty of Modern Economics; many government leaders are former Soviet and/or Communist Party officials.
And yes, the recently opened Tashkent Plaza houses the labels of Calvin Klein and Burberry and the Tashkent Golf Course is as luxurious as such symbols of bourgeois recreation can be. Here, however, as in other so-called transition economies, these new amenities are well beyond the incomes of the average citizen, while at the same time the previously highly subsidised social services such as education and health are in conspicuous decline.
The pride of the city remains the Naboiev Theatre, a grand old structure, the walls of which are elaborately engraved with traditional Uzbek designs. People will tell you it was built during the World War II, "testimony to a time when the arts were given high priority."
"We are in a period of transition," said Tuhtamurod Toshev, editor-in-chief of Adolat, mouthpiece of the political party Adolat (Uzbek for justice), which was established in 1995 and is one of the four largest parties in Uzbekistan. "It is true that there are difficulties such as unemployment and some material problems, but the people of Uzbekistan understand that this is the price we must pay towards a better future. We are lucky to have a president with a vision; for economic growth and incorporation into the world system are considered an Uzbek model for development, supported by everyone."
Uzbek President Islam Karimov, a former first secretary of the Communist Party, was elected to his position in December 1991. In 1995 a referendum extended his presidency to 2000, and since then he has been elected for a further five-year term. While presidential and other elections in Uzbekistan have been marred by accusations of electoral malpractice, there is no doubting the president's popularity. A common sentiment on the street is that the government is in control, which people here seem to feel is a major asset in view of the civil strife in Tajikistan and other neighbouring states, where security is lacking and governance said to be whimsical at best.
Above all, however, one is struck by the strong sense of national pride. In the words of my interpreter Abdel-Hay, "In the days of the Soviets I used to have to translate from one foreign language [Arabic] into another foreign language [Russian]. Today, it gives me great satisfaction finally to be translating into my own language." Even more poignant is the fact that for a population which is 88 per cent Sunni Muslim, religion is no longer taboo. As one old timer, who preferred to remain anonymous, told me: "I remember in the army they would serve pork, and for weeks on end I could eat nothing but water and bread. It was terrible, but there was nothing I could say. Religion was too political."
The Naboi Theatre in Tashkent
Not that religion is not problematic these days. The loudest voice of dissent against the current government is the Islamist movement, namely Hizb El-Tahrir (considered the largest Islamist group); the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU); and the Wahabis. In the name of stability the clamp-down on Uzbekistan's Islamists has been harsh, particularly following the exploding of five terrorist bombs in the capital city in December 1999. According to the Moscow-based human rights group, Memorial, estimates of the number of Islamists arrested between January 1999 and April 2000 range between 4,000 and 5,000, while a senior United States diplomatic source in Tashkent told Al-Ahram Weekly that on average some 100 people are arbitrarily incarcerated each month .
It is not just the numbers that are problematic. In December of last year, Human Rights Watch released an in-depth report on torture in Uzbekistan which claimed that the number of allegations of torture was on the rise, and so was the degree of brutality employed. Recently, however, the government has allowed the International Red Cross to inspect prisons and monitor the situation, a move seen by analysts as a step towards improving the country's human rights record.
In the meantime, an imposing building to house the 250-seat parliament, the Oliy Majlis, was built, while a new constitution provides for a separation of powers, freedom of speech and an end to censorship. The former communist party is today the People's Democratic Party, the acronym for which is NDP. Other major political parties include Adolat (Uzbekistan's Social Democratic Party) and Fidokorlar, the Self Sacrificers' Party. To the outsider the young multi-party system might seem cosmetic, with all political parties supporting the president, while critical public debate is conspicuously tame. However, according to Adolat's Toshev: "This is a very superficial view. It is true that all the parties are unified under the government banner of development, but we all have separate programmes. Ours is social justice and democracy while Fidokorlar's, for example, is the promotion of economic development and private enterprise."
The extent of democratisation remains something of a sensitive issue. However, Toshev suggests that one might understand the political dynamics of the system by looking behind the scenes. "During parliamentary sessions, there is not much debate. But that is because all the lobbying has happened in advance. Months in advance of every session, the government announces the laws which will be up for discussion, and we begin debate. By the time sessions begin we have already designed the law and are ready to pass it. For example, the new education law and the law to combat tuberculosis -- these are laws we were active in formulating."
A small dark room littered with paper and stashed away at the back of a hairdresser's salon is home to Tadbirkor Ayol, the Businesswomen's Association of Uzbekistan. According to the association's chairwoman, Dildar Alimbekova, "Tadbirkor Ayol promotes a very specific model of growth for the non-governmental community." She explains, "Many of the NGOs we have today were established upon the initiative of the president. We were one of the very few which came to being upon our own initiative. But when I was chosen to become a member of a governmental committee discussing structural adjustment we became more influential. It was an opportunity for us to have direct meetings with government officials at the highest level, and it became more possible for us to play a mediartory role between the people and the government."
Independence, accompanied by transition towards a market economy, has been as disorienting in Uzbekistan as elsewhere. This seems to be exmplified by the story of the Businesswomen's Association. "All of a sudden, women who taught Communism or planned-development were without jobs and lacked the skills to help them find jobs in a post-Soviet economy. We helped such women set up small businesses. Also, we found that an informal trade in luxury commodity goods began to flourish and, as usual, women were the ones carrying the bags on aeroplanes while men waited outside customs where it is safe to see whether or not they would get through. It is a new world for women, with new difficulties," says Alimbekova, adding that perhaps the greatest challenge for both men and women was the need to change the way they thought. "You can have democracy and freedom when the way people think changes. Today, it is difficult to have a totally independent NGO community. The role of the state to support and nurture such a community is still required. It is possible, however, for such a beginning to eventually lead to a much more advanced and independent NGO community."
Uzbekistan is one of Central Asia's most highly populated countries, with a population topping 24 million. It would be landlocked were it not for the Aral Sea, victim to one of the world's biggest environmental disasters -- it has shrunk to half its size as a result of growing concentrations of chemical pesticides and natural salts. Uzbekistan is the fourth largest producer of cotton in the world ($2.9 billion annually), and the fourth largest producer of gold. The stakes are high and the potentials staggering.
At the outset of economic restructuring, the Uzbek economy benefited from its labour-intensive agriculture- and mineral-based economy as well as rapid growth in oil and gas production, all of which helped defer the painful effects of austerity measures. In July 1994, the soum, Uzbek's national currency, was introduced and the government began to undertake economic reforms supported by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In 1996, however, the government implemented currency convertibility restrictions, to which the IMF responded by suspending its standby facility. Today, currency convertibility remains a basic impediment against free trade (see related article), and according to the senior US diplomatic source, "A lot of the change is on the level of official rhetoric; the mentality, however, has not really changed much. And with regard to economic reform, there is a thick layer of bureaucracy resistant to change."
True as that may be, it is not all. Alimbekova (who set up her first business with a loan from the Communist Party) believes that "those who see the government as not committed to economic reform are mistaken. It is true that there was a better investment and business environment between 1995 to 1998, but what happened was that a class of businessmen emerged who were very corrupt. This corruption even made its way into the ranks of government, and hence action had to be taken. What some people take for procrastination by the government is, in fact, the measures taken to crack down on such corruption."
The US diplomatic source did acknowledge a new attitude towards corruption, and cited the example of a major campaign against tax officials who extorted bribes from businessmen. "One hundred and fifty inspectors were sent to prison. People refused to succumb and the judiciary took action. That is very encouraging," the source conceded. He went on to argue, however, that because of the delay in the completion of "reform" Uzbekistan was suffering all the "pain of transition without getting anywhere."
But is "economic reform" the magic wand that will hurl Uzbekistan towards a more prosperous future? Here, as in most developing countries, the question remains controversial with conflicting interests playing no small part in the to-and-fro movement along the path of economic liberalisation. In a taxi cab, the driver told me: "At least in the days of the Soviets I did not have to worry about a roof over my head or education for my children. Everything was planned. Today, I do not know how to make enough money to ensure these basic things. I worry for the future of my children." While a somewhat cynical bread vendor at the local market gave me a dull stare from under heavy eyelids and muttered: "It is all the same. There are those who live a good life and the likes of us who get the hardship."
Others are hopeful. "Change is coming," said Zamir, head of the Regional Centre for Banking, "We are learning new languages and breaking out towards the world." Zamir cannot speak English and as he speaks he fumbles earnestly with the note pad in his lap. Next to him his son Serdar, a student of international economics, sits back, languidly comfortable, translating for his father into perfect English. A very nice name, Serdar. What does it mean? "It is Persian. And it means leader," he tells me very pointedly. Well, the future is still to be written.
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