By Rob Packer
Uzbekistan has a reputation for corruption and totalitarianism. I have deliberately not referred to these issues in my posts on my trip to Uzbekistan for a number of reasons. I don’t aim to have a political view in my travel blogs and I have a long-standing personal curiosity to visit the country. The Uzbeks who I met were some of the most engaging people and were strangely worldly for a country that is so closed, yet they live in an environment of outstanding cultural, religious and architectural achievements. At the same time, perceptions of the way that country is governed come from experiencing and talking to people over time, unless you have a major brush against the political system of a country. I consider myself lucky not to have had many serious dealings with the Uzbek authorities during my trip; as soon as I got back to Kyrgyzstan, I started being told stories of problems at the border, confiscated cameras and the like that fill guidebooks to Central Asia.
Uzbekistan is undoubtedly a country with extreme levels of corruption. It consistently comes at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index: for 2009, it sits at 174 out of 180 countries and only comes higher than countries like Chad, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Somalia. Whatever the criticisms of TI’s index and the difficulties of finding an absolute measure of corruption, the trend in the country is clear. Most people’s primary interaction with institutionalized corruption is with the police force. For all that people tell you about the police presence in Uzbekistan, nothing can prepare you for the sheer mass of police in the country: I’ve written before that I felt I saw around 200 policemen in a day in Tashkent, but the rest of the country is similar especially at all-too-common road blocks. The police also have keys to places, which is what happens at tourist sites where a guide might suggest going on the wall or climbing a minaret for an “extra fee”. It also means that a ‘friendly’ cop might try to offer to change money with you on the sly; this was a conversation I decided not to continue for long enough to find out whether this was a serious offer or entrapment. But for all their infamous reputation, the body language of the interaction between police and civilians didn’t seem to be a relationship of fear: people seemed to be engaged in friendly conversations or were having dinner together.
Uzbek police outside a mosque in Bukhara.
Neither is Uzbekistan known for its political freedoms, and is best known for the Andijon Incident of 2005 where between 200 and 1,500 civilians were shot in a square while protesting poor living conditions, in an incident with shades of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City or the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. The history of Andijon means that of the few tourists I met, most said that people in Uzbekistan were wary about political conversation. Some people I met seemed to open up to me after asking about Kyrgyz politics, which is probably due to my position as a partial insider and Kyrgyzstan’s reputation as the most politically liberal Central Asian republic. For all that I repeated a standard Bishkek expat view that things are not getting freer in Kyrgyzstan, the general reaction was that some kind of choice is better than none. And as this blog from NewEurasia.net shows, some in Uzbekistan seem indifferent to the elections taking place in the country on 27 December and don’t seem afraid to say it anonymously in public. Alongside the dejected pessimism that I saw on one side, I also heard optimism for the future and approval for Karimov’s, mainly economic, policies: some praised the fact that Uzbekistan is still a rich and more developed republic, while others thought that existing controls on credit had saved Uzbekistan from the credit crunch that they see happening in Kazakhstan.
Uzbekistan seems a temporal paradox: a dazzling ancient civilization and an incredible country to visit, but with modern difficulties that put it near the bottom of most league tables of freedom or corruption. In a week’s visit, I don’t pretend to understand the country or the issues that I briefly looked at in this post. Corruption is often said to be a hindrance to business, which is something I didn’t properly understand until I started to wonder about two new Uzbek friends are new businesses that they’re starting: how many backhanders will they have to pay? The lack of political freedom may have been temporarily resolved by a Beijing-style palm-greasing on a national scale, where the political class gives economic growth but withholds the freedom of choice, but it remains to be seen how that holds with Uzbekistan’s historic resistance to foreign investment.
Either way, Uzbekistan’s reputation in Kyrgyzstan seems to be at rock bottom: after I came back from Osh, I was talking to someone from Osh about the roads in the south and we started talking about Batken, the most remote of Kyrgyzstan’s provincial capitals, which lies 200km and 7 hours beyond Osh. The most direct road passes through two Uzbek and one Tajik enclaves although it’s possible to use bad roads and stay in Kyrgyzstan: the message was clear that this southerner would rather drive off-road than go “through their territory”.