TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — Two and a half years after the death of Islam Karimov, the ruthless dictator who ruled Uzbekistan for over a quarter century, most people in this former Soviet state in Central Asia have stopped worrying about an unannounced visit by the secret police in the night.
“There is no fear anymore that the state security service could come and just grab you,” said Andrei Kudryashov, a photographer in Tashkent, the sprawling Uzbek capital.
Just the absence of fear is a massive change for this landlocked but strategically located country, the largest of four Central Asian states once ruled by Moscow, and one that shares a border with Afghanistan. A recent visit underscored the major changes underway as Uzbeks struggle to move beyond the Karimov-era legacy.
Karimov, who died of a stroke in 2016, cracked down mercilessly on his enemies, real or imagined. Under his rule, the Uzbek security forces shot dead hundreds of protesters, and his critics were imprisoned in the country’s brutal penitentiary system. Some were allegedly boiled alive.
A member of the Communist Party during the Cold War era, the dictator survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and oversaw a crackdown on religious freedoms in this Muslim majority state, including barring the call to prayer from mosques. Hundreds of thousands of children were coerced into working on cotton plantations. Karimov also ordered his own eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, a glamorous socialite and pop singer, imprisoned in 2015 on corruption charges amid a bitter family dispute. Her fate remains unclear.
Since Karimov’s death, his successor, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, 61, has launched a much-vaunted string of reforms that have included the freeing of about 30 high-profile political prisoners, reducing the powers of the much-feared state security service and launching a government campaign to eradicate forced labor. The measures came as a surprise to many observers because Mr. Mirziyoyev was Karimov’s prime minister for more than a decade and was widely seen as his right-hand man.
Rights groups see a clear improvement in Tashkent since Karimov’s death, although they say there is a long way to go.
Mr. Mirziyoyev’s reforms, “coupled with Tashkent’s efforts to improve ties with its Central Asian neighbors, have contributed to a sense of hope in Uzbekistan about the possibility for change not witnessed in many years,” analysts at Human Rights Watch wrote in their 2018 World Report.
At the same time, “it is far from clear if Uzbekistan’s still-authoritarian government will follow up the modest steps it has taken thus far with institutional change and sustainable human rights improvements.”
Still, the reforms adopted to date have brought Uzbekistan, an impoverished country of 33 million people, out of the cold after years of international isolation. In May, Mr. Mirziyoyev held talks with President Trump at the White House just as Uzbekistan signed business deals with American companies worth $4.8 billion. Last month, Mr. Mirziyoyev met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.
Uzbekistan desperately needs foreign investment. Average monthly salaries are less than $200, and teachers, doctors and other professionals have to moonlight as taxi drivers to make ends meet.
The new openness has caught the eye of the Pentagon and some U.S. strategists, particularly as military officials consider President Trump’s desire to draw down U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan and Russia steps up its diplomacy to woo Central Asian states.
Mr. Mirziyoyev has been cool to recent overtures from Moscow while stepping his country’s defense ties with Washington. In January, Uzbek Defense Minister Abdusalom Azizov visited U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, to observe Uzbek troops taking part in the Southern Strike 2019 military exercises and to discuss increased bilateral cooperation.
Work in progress
Opening to the world is critical to the success of the president’s reforms, analysts say.
“It’s clear that Mirziyoyev needs to change Uzbekistan’s international image,” said Daniil Kislov, editor of the Fergana.ru, a news website that was barred under the previous regime.
“He realizes that Uzbekistan is in a state of total economic decay, and these economic problems are impossible to solve without investment and tourism. He needs to be accepted in Europe and the United States,” Mr. Kislov said.
Still, the political pivot remains a work in progress.
Mr. Mirziyoyev has not publicly criticized Karimov, whose former residence in Tashkent has been transformed into an exhibition hall devoted to the late dictator’s “love for the Uzbek people.” Outside the building stands a bronze statue of the former president, one of three to go up in Uzbekistan since his death. Mr. Mirziyoyev also recently paid his respects at Karimov’s ornate tomb in Samarkand, the ancient Silk Road city.
“There will be no investigation into Karimov’s crimes because Mirziyoyev served as prime minister under him and he is afraid to do this,” Mr. Kislov said.
Some critics say that while they welcome Mr. Mirziyoyev’s reforms, there is no prospect of free elections, no quick end to media censorship, and no sign of legal reforms to protect the independence of the judiciary and private property rights.
An urban reconstruction project has forced tens of thousands of people from their homes across the country, often with little or no warning. In some cases, demolition crews have started tearing down houses with people still inside them. An estimated 50,000 families have lost their homes in Tashkent alone. The authorities frequently offer meager compensation or poor-quality replacement housing.
Anger over the project, which is mired in allegations of massive high-level corruption, is palpable, but it is also being met by an opposition that would have been unthinkable just three years ago, triggering a burgeoning political grassroots movement unlike anything Uzbekistan has ever witnessed.
“These demolitions have wiped out the benefits of any reforms that have taken place,” said Farida Charif, a Tashkent resident who is coordinating online opposition to the reconstruction project. “I’m afraid to go anywhere. I always think, ‘What if they knock my house down when I’m away?’
“There was repression in the past, but it was very specific — they would seize Muslims or Baptists, for example. People knew, ‘If I don’t get involved in that, then no one will touch me.’ Now, anyone can be sitting at home, and they can come and start tearing your roof off.”
There have been two documented cases so far of demolition crews removing roofs from buildings with residents still inside them. In another case, workers “urgently” destroyed dozens of houses ahead of Mr. Mirziyoyev’s state visit to India in October, reportedly because he had promised New Delhi a larger embassy in Tashkent. Four months on, there is no sign of construction work at the site, which is still full of the debris of demolished homes. The families who once lived in the buildings have been scattered across the city.
On a recent afternoon in Tashkent, scores of angry locals were marching to a district administration building to demand answers from officials over reports that their homes are next in line to be torn down. “This is a disgrace. They are treating us worse than animals,” said Vladimir, an elderly man, as police looked on.
Some Uzbekis say the new government’s reforms are a start but much work needs to be done, especially with the nuts-and-bolts policies that have real impacts on day-to-day life.
“Unfortunately, Mirziyoyev’s reforms have only affected those spheres that Western society paid attention to,” said Shukhrat Ganiev, an Uzbek human rights campaigner. “That is, forced labor, torture and human rights issues. But problems such as the demolition of homes have grown and are uniting people. The situation reminds me of steam building up in the neck of a closed bottle.