Monday, November 17, 2014

Twenty Three Years as a Ruler -- Long Enough?

"Land of cotton", "Home of silk", "Nation of Silk Road history" -- these nicknames make Uzbekistan stand out from its neighbors (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) in Central Asian region. Given the population size of 31 million, the newly independent (from the USSR) country represents one of the most authoritarian nations across the world with its 76-year old president, Mr. Islam Karimov, staying continuously 'reelected' since 1991. 

According to the official data, GDP per capita in Uzbekistan is the 3rd highest (after Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) in the region and amounts 4,060USD. However, critics state that if the country's economy was allowed to operate within free market rules, every Uzbek would have access to over 20,000USD per annum. Corruption and political elite controlled circulation of goods and services prevent Uzbek economy from development, even if the annual growth remains being among the highest (c.a. 6.5 per cent) in the developing world. Thus, minimum salaries today (including in capital city, Tashkent) hardly bypass 90USD/month amount. President Karimov does not see the problem as a matter of survival for the population, but rather opposes growing external (labor) migration (in order to increase their standards of living, tripling their monthly wages at least) of Uzbeks (especially, young men and women) to Kazakhstan and Russia.

Uzbekistan is the world's 5th leading nation in production of cotton: 3.4 million tons of the "white gold" were harvested in 2014. Only the political elite and, primarily, the ruling family members, do not accept the fact of annual injuries and fatalities during poorly equipped process of picking cotton. Vast majority of workers and students of government institutions (i.e., schools and universities) are continuously forced to join the field work and demanded to meet minimum quotas, such as collecting 133 pounds (a season) if you are a student and 177 pounds - if you are a teacher. In response to the growing number of deaths in cotton fields (smoke inhalation, tragic incidents due to lack of equipment security inspection), President Karimov "congratulated" Uzbeks, calling them "my dears", for common accomplishments and asked to "be patient" in seeing future prosperity of the country.

In fact, local people are known to be the most resilient in the region: letting their government exercise the limitless authoritarian power and enrich the ruling clans. Some consider that notion as being an outcome of the massive shooting and killing of hundreds of civilians with President Karimov's command during street protests in Andijan (in 2005). All that people were demanding back then was economic reforms and protection of human rights. Today, after series of sanctions and embargo imposed on Uzbekistan from limited list of international partners (i.e., the EU) and provision of technical support (from Human Rights Watch and International Labor Organization) to the Government in order to monitor human rights violations, foreign analysts observe somewhat improvement in the conditions that Uzbeks live. Inspired by the international support, sometimes youth organize peaceful protests in public (where unrestricted) places around Tashkent to express their views on presence of state-sponsored labor exploitation in cotton fields and cases of torturing human rights activists reporting to foreign media outlets on violations in Uzbekistan.
Tentative progress in protection of labor rights noted by ILO in 2014 could be considered as an achievement of the effectively working government of Uzbekistan. If only..if only the out-flowing information was reliable, as the media outlets, as well as Uzbek personnel working for international organizations and even embassies, are absolutely censored and closely monitored by the "secret" agencies appointed by Karimov's growing clan. The world has already witnessed the split occurring within the ruling family (unusual for society with strong family ties): Islam Karimov's famous daughters -- a diplomat, pop star, model, and businesswoman Gulnara (currently under house arrest for bribing Telecommunication and Trade companies that brought billions in damage to the Uzbek government) and an Ambassador to UNESCO (Geneva) Lola (who tries to distance herself from the ongoing clashes within Karimov's family) -- seem to oppose their aging father's regime and, most recently, the "opposition" expanded, as President's grandson joined the 'club of warriors', asking Islam Karimov for political reforms. One can only hope that the younger generation of Karimov's clan are not seeking to replace their (family) leader by themselves, as the next presidential election is upcoming in March 2015.

Although in its 23-year independent history Uzbekistan has not experienced free and fair elections yet, Islam Karimov is getting obviously old and, therefore, less attentive when it comes to even existing diplomatic relations with other states. Uzbeks who are currently working outside of their home country want to return to the fertile land [and rich for natural resources (including oil and gas)] of their parents and grandparents, raise their children themselves and not having to earn living for their families on a distance, and fully exercise their rights for freedom of expression and assembly. Whether the situation in Uzbekistan will change for better soon or not remains to be hard to envisage now. However, given the dissolution occurring within the heart of the problem -- powerful Karimov's clan, -- Uzbeks might prefer continuous (but soon-ending) patience over possible massive killing of protesters who after all will not be able to introduce the long-awaited change into the land of "while gold".

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