- - Wednesday, September 21, 2011

TASHKENT, UzbekistanUzbekistan celebrated the 20th anniversary of its independence earlier this month, but many say there is little to celebrate.

“There is the same leader, the same oppressive system, the same kind of corruption, the same massive human rights abuses,” said Andrew Stroehlein, communications director for the International Crisis Group in Brussels. “There is no political engagement, no political discussion — I don’t know what to celebrate.”

During the celebrations, which began Sept. 1, the capital of Tashkent was full of posters, and colorful flowers were planted along the streets, a gift from 73-year-old President Islam Karimov to his people.

On state TV, he gave several speeches on the great achievements of the largest Central Asian country. Uzbekistan has a population of 28 million people.

But many Uzbeks don’t share their leader’s enthusiasm about the last 20 years. “It was better in Soviet times” is an often-heard remark on the streets of the Tashkent.

Uzbeks remember the long list of successful industries, such as the Chkalov aviation company and the Selmash factory for cotton-picking machines, that existed under Soviet domination and have been closed down since independence.

Today, the official figure on unemployment is low. But the fact that between 3 million to 5 million Uzbeks have left the country to work abroad tells another story.

“There are no jobs here,” said a young taxi driver in the city of Samarkand, who has been working on constructions sites in Russia for four years but returned due to health problems. “I’m driving my father’s car to earn some money as a taxi driver. But I make only about [$6.50 to $10] a day. It is hardly enough for a family to survive.”

Uzbeks interviewed for this report asked not to be identified out of fear for their safety.

Uzbeks complain about their hardship in everyday life but are afraid to talk politics.

Mr. Karimov rules the country with an iron fist and is one of the most autocratic leaders in the region, analysts say. Since the massacre of Andijan in May 2005, there has been no real opposition and no independent media left inside the country.

“The civil society is dead,” said an Uzbek journalist living in exile in Berlin and working for the online news magazine Uznews.net, which can be read by Uzbeks only via proxy servers.

The Karimov regime blocks independent media via Internet controls and only allows Uzbek state TV, widely considered a propaganda arm of the regime. “We are all watching Russian TV via satellite to get some information,” said the journalist.

Analysts say that it would be unrealistic to expect a development like the Arab revolutions to occur in Uzbekistan.

“It’s wishful thinking, and it would be nice to see,” said Mr. Stroehlein of the International Crisis Group.

During Uzbekistan’s 2005 uprising in Andijan, numerous protesters were killed, jailed or were forced to leave the country.

“The country lost a lot of talented and well-educated people over the years,” Mr. Stroehlein said. “It’s really [jumping] from one state of misery to a worse state of misery with a couple of massacres in between. It’s really depressing.”

He added that Uzbekistan does not attract a lot of international attention because nothing new is happening there. “It gets some attention because of neighboring Afghanistan,” he said.

Uzbekistan has cooperated with U.S. military operations by providing a safe transit route for American troops and supplies into Afghanistan, crucial to the U.S.’ northern distribution network.

Although Washington gives no direct aid to the government of Uzbekistan, it pays the country for using its supply routes and has contracts with several local companies, which are said to be linked with the family of Mr. Karimov.

Uzbekistan could play an even more important role for the U.S. in coming years because of its military pullout from Afghanistan.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Obama administration wants Congress to allow the State Department to end sanctions on aid to Uzbekistan. This would help the U.S. strengthen its military presence in Uzbekistan and support its forces in Afghanistan.

“The restrictions should be lifted only when the Uzbek government significantly improves its practices,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “For the U.S. to lift its restrictions now would be an enormous gift to one of the most repressive governments in Central Asia.”