Forgotten facts

Birthday wishes for the irreplaceable Uzbekistan leader

The president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, is one of the longest non-royal ruling leaders in the world and will celebrate his 75th anniversary on January 30th. His personality is so profoundly enshrined in Uzbekistan that no one questions the legitimacy of his 23 years rule. Presidential elections were held in 1991, 2000 and 2007 and, usually, maximum two seven year terms in office are not to be exceeded. His broadly-smiling portraits bid welcome and farewell at entrances of any public buildings, parks and even on the high streets. Karimov’s fearful opponents publicly vote for him in the presidential elections, considered by many to be rigged, in order retain their government jobs.

Totally controlled public and private media in Uzbekistan is brimming over with sycophantic contents in praise of this leader. Music, leisure and cheap TV-series are the other hot topics, while no room is given for discussing the political, economic or social problems. Any attempt to criticise the overall system is quashed by the dispersal, punishing, imprisoning, torturing or even executing of any dissidents.

The opposition movement members are in exile for more than 20 years and are more antagonist amongst themselves, rather than towards the Karimov regime, thanks to the infiltration efforts of the Uzbekistan secret services, according to unofficial rumours. The number of Uzbekistan political refugees worldwide reached hundreds of thousands during the past two decades. At least half of them are said to be repatriated due to socio-economic reasons, rather than for their political views.

Islam Karimov was twice a target of the global mainstream media. The first time was in 1999, for a made-up assassination attempt on him by the revenge-seeking supporters of theologian and Islamic religious leader, Abduvali Kori, who had mystically disappeared in Tashkent in 1996. The second time was in 2005, due to a disproportionate use of force against 50,000 protesters in the Eastern city of Andijan.

The US air force base in the Uzbek city of Khanabad was closed immediately after this event, forcing Karimov to succumb to the power of Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. Western powers unilaterally imposed against the Karimov regime, but those sanctions were later abolished. Consequently, there was no effect felt on the ground. On the contrary, the Uzbekistan Interior Minister of the time Zakirjan Almatov, being at the top of the banned persons list, received medical treatment in a German hospital, in spite of EU sanctions.

Worsening US-Pakistan relations fuelled the need for the extension of the Northern Distribution Network, where Uzbekistan is geographically a central player. Regrowth of ties with the West and also business disputes with the giant Russian investors in which the eldest presidential daughter, Gulnara Karimova – viewed by many as a robber baron – is seen as a key figure, have brought the Karimov-Putin relation to its lowest point since Putin assumed power in 2000. The Karimov mantra of “Multi-vector Uzbekistan foreign policy”, used by him to describe his foreign policy, should more precisely be defined as a “Chaotic Uzbekistan foreign policy”.

Economic failure
Devaluation, controlled exchanged rates and energy deficit

During one of Karimov’s initial addresses to the nation, he promised the people: “Give me three months and I will convert the country into a heaven for you”. Later he also promised that there would be no rich people in the country. And, months later, his government had to introduce coupon rationing, reminiscent of Europe during the second world war. The Karimov regime had redenominated the national currency twice, in 1993 and 1994, in a political step to avoid the state’s obligation of exchanging Russian rubles into a new national currency. Uzbekistan remains the only country in the post-soviet area to not pay back most of the pre-independence savings of its people, to its people.

Uzbekistan had a relative economic boost through energy production during the period 1994-98, gained through operating the existing production and mining capacity to the maximum. But, the government had to pay the price for this. The production lines were quickly outdated and some large mines were phased-out. Oil production also declined, by more than a factor of two within a decade. As a result, Uzbekistan is facing a huge oil and natural gas deficit in the domestic market. Over 80 percent of private cars were equipped with liquefied natural gas installations and still have to wait in long petrol station queues. LNG is sold at the globally highest price to car owners, but is still far cheaper and more easily accessed than either petrol or diesel ever can be.

The Uzbekistan economy remains highly dependent on the cotton monoculture, forced- and child-labour being systemic in the production process. The export of natural resources, particularly natural gas and gold, is through a small and exclusive enclave of people and is rumoured to be sold through shell companies belonging to Gulnara Karimova, the Robber Baron daughter of Karimov.

The Swiss-registered and privately-owned company, Zeromax Gmbh, operates in Uzbekistan and belongs to Gulnora Karimova, who built a “Palace of Forums” in Tashkent for USD 2.5 billion. It was rumoured that only 10% of the property funds were delivered for the constructions, the rest being laundered between all of the contractors, a typical Eastern-European scenario. In the same year Gulnara Karimova became one of the top-10 richest women in Switzerland. In comparison, “London Shard of Glass” – the tallest building in Europe was built for much less, at well under USD1 billion in 2008.

While the Karimov regime is busy with money laundering through realisation of fake recreation projects and the unpublished sale of national wealth, while the country’s unemployment has an exponential growth rate. Uzbekistan migrants in Russia account for five million people and Russian officials report up to USD10 billion remittances being sent home to Uzbekistan, annually. The state then spends much effort in acquiring the hard-earned savings of the migrant families by selling the output of the national automobile industry in US dollars, whilst and not allowing any foreign competitors into the domestic automobile market.

Attempts of the state to collect the hard currency of entrepreneurs brought the country to the lowest level of realistically being the most unfavourable business environment for any foreign investors.There is not one existing joint business venture that can avoid the vile practice of outright corruption within the country of Uzbekistan; it is endemic. As a result, direct foreign investments amounted to around USD10 billion, during the years of independence, and accounts for one tenth of the same indicator for neighbouring Kazakhstan. Large companies already belong to the “Royal Karimov family” and any successful medium businesses are either established by members of the ruling elite, or simply and swiftly taken-over by them.

Fact: Karimov kept his initial promises: he converted the country into a heaven for the ruling elite and guaranteed that no one, from the ordinary people, could ever become rich, in reality.

Home-made threats to security
Uzbekistan’s national fairy-tales

Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism have been the most delicate topics for the Karimov regime from the very outset. Islam received empathy in the late 1980s, after a 70 year ban on religion by the Soviets. Religious people are more concentrated in the densely populated Ferghana valley, where more than one third of the country’s population lives. Karimov was able to use the religious majority in the Ferghana valley in order to empower his position as president of Uzbekistan. He promised to declare an Islamic state after the 1991 election and requested the religious leaders to support him in obtaining a constitutional right of dissolution of the parliament, the then Supreme Soviet.

People with strong Islamic views were eliminated, imprisoned or exiled by the security services, as Karimov exercised his absolute power for the first time. Some of the religious leaders, together with their supporters, fled to Afghanistan and united under the flag of the “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan”.

Later, religious establishments which originated in the Uzbekistan either had roots in the security services or vice versa, religious establishments were firmly rooted within the security services, from the very initiation stage.

Final remarks
There is no opposition group with a pragmatic programme and objectives that can promise improvements to the systemic mess which the Karimov regime has created. That is the main reason which makes Karimov into the irreplaceable leader for 23 years, that he became. It is strongly believed that the next leader will be a person whom Karimov appoints as a successor. Recent deteriorating relations with Russia and Gulnora Karimova’s leadership appetite, despite her worsening public image, give an even greater puzzling picture of the future for Uzbekistan. Days under the next leader will be even more inconvenient, one might say – or, “in so thinking, so shall it be”, to ironically coin a Western ecclesiastical phrase that best fits Uzbekistan depressed political system and subjugated people.

Ilham Tashkentbayev,

opposition youth leader.