So much to say!
Well, although my dear little country is making international headlines, I have even bigger news. Yes, folks, last night for dinner I had fish. You heard right, fish. In this doubly landlocked country I had resigned myself to a fishless existence for the next two years. And, up until last night, that had been the case. But, when my host father mentioned “ballikxona” (fish room,) I knew my luck had changed. And indeed it was a delicious, if subdued meal.
With that I might as well talk about the recent goings on here in Uzbekistan. But before I jump to the here and now, as 24 hour cable news networks are famous for doing, I’d like to give a little background to the situation. Up until 1991, Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union. Although I can’t imagine many fans of this blog are ready wave the old hammer and sickle, the Soviet impact on this country was not entirely bad. The good was that people had jobs, food and money. That is, teachers got paid, students had textbooks, and the schools had heat in the winter. Additionally, medical care, though probably not by any means at Western standards, was free. The biggest plus, though, was that people were occupied with jobs. Maybe they were dumb jobs, but they kept people busy, gave them pride in the fact that they were contributing to society, and secured the familial structure.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan became independent. However, unlike many independence movements, this one wasn’t fought for, it just happened. Basically, the country was left with all the workings of the old soviet system. This meant many different things. First of all, all the old faces from the Communist role were still in office. And we’re not just talking about the president here, but the whole cupboard… So although a “new” country was born, ideologically, nothing had changed. The old Communist party was renamed with the words Liberal and Democratic sprinkled into the title. So while nothing changed in the governing structure, there was a whole country to be taken care of.
This presented many problems. The first, and perhaps most important, was the challenge of retaining control among the various factions that make up the population here. It was Stalin, I believe, who was responsible for dividing up Central Asia into different countries. As such, the countries here were apportioned so that no one ethnic majority could lay claim to one territorial area. So as a result, you have Uzbekistan, a strange looking country compromising of: Uzbeks, Tajiks, Afghans, Kazaks, etc. etc. You name it. So the new (old) government decided that the first and most pressing task for the new nation was to instill a sense of nationalistic pride and identity in its people. Therefore, to this day, you will see giant billboards with the Uzbek flag, inspiring words about greatness, and other such propaganda. Additionally, to remind the people lest they forget who was in charge, the president had his portrait plastered everywhere. And I’m not kidding, it is everywhere.
Part of this nationalistic re-awakening included a rejection of the Russians and the values that had so brutally imposed during Soviet rule. So Uzbeks were asked to look into their past, their distant past, to find a new model for their future. As such, famous personages, including Tamerlane (Amir Timur,) Miro Ulugbek, and other such 15th century heroes were vaunted as the ideal Uzbek. Schools and streets were re-named, documentaries about these people were aired constantly on the state owned media. Children were named Timur and Ulugbek. (As a gag, when I’m around a group of boys, I say, “who’s Timur?” and there’s usually at least one or two hands raised.) The great irony of this is that these famous people never thought of themselves as Uzbek, they just happened to live around the area. So, in a way, Uzbekistan claimed a regional heritage as its own.
This return to the past, though, meant a re-connection with the deeply rooted Islamic values of the region. Although public religious display was repressed by the Soviets, most people in Uzbekistan continued to self identify as Muslim, even if they did take to the bottle themselves. So although Soviet rule did dampen the religious component of life here, it did not extinguish it. Thus upon independence, many Uzbeks hoped that their nationalistic revival would include a re-connection with their faith. However, this was not to be the case. Perhaps understandably, the government feared that a religious revival would be the precursor to its downfall. After all, the more radical Islamic elements of society certainly had no good will to the individuals who had silenced their way of life for so long. As such, although Uzbeks were asked to reject the Russian influence and re-connect with their cultural roots, they were told, in no uncertain terms, not to start going to mosques. Indeed to this day, being an active participant in organized religious services is just an invitation to increased government surveillance and hassle.
The second major problem facing the new nation had to do with the economy. As has been the case in most of the former Soviet Republics, the challenge of transitioning from a socialist to a free market economy has been a highly daunting task. In Uzbekistan, the failure to do so has been monumental and has had disastrous effects. What’s happened is that the individuals who were in power before independence have retained their power. Thus the few successful private companies that do operate here are headed by these former, and often current governmental officials. As one in power would be a fool to work against his own interests, fair regulations for new business initiatives and foreign investment are nonexistent. Thus the macro picture is bleak; the country is run by mafia business cartels who pursue profit at any cost.
This has meant that universal services, formerly provided by the state to all citizens, have deteriorated to the point of near collapse. These include: water, gas and electricity distribution, road maintenance, telephone systems, health care, and of course, education. Most schools in Uzbekistan are appallingly ancient, lack resources, and are often without heat in the winter. Things slough on, but pragmatically, the quality of life here has been on an downward trajectory since independence.
So Uzbekistan is a crumbling place unable to meet the demands of its populations. The government allows its citizens no viable alternatives (think of how much faith based groups do to empower citizens and fix broken communities,) and most people are terrified to step out of line, lest they be taken away to places where they will be mercilessly abused. But over the past few years, people have been saying “enough,” louder and more publicly. This most recent incident is not the first of its kind, but is emblematic of this situation here. The men thrown in jail were sentenced with practicing religious extremism to the threat of the state (read government.) Now I’ll be the first to say I have no idea if this is true, but the general consensus is that these charges were used as a cover for other activities, including business development, that the government perceived as a threat.
So people gathered, stormed the jail, freed the men, and then moved on to the major’s office. As the crowd grew, the military was called in and many people were killed. Now I don’t think that a mass revolution is going to happen today or tomorrow for that matter. This incident, though perhaps the biggest and most publicized yet, is not unique. Over the past few years, protests have happened in different parts of the country, though mainly in the Ferghana region and in the capital, Tashkent. As you may imagine, these protests receive no coverage in the local media; all news travels by taxi and word of mouth.
As I see it, this is the latest in a series of sparks. And as I mentioned earlier, the infrastructure here, including the gas distribution pipes, is falling apart. It won’t be long till one of these sparks happens near a badly leaking pipe and a massive explosion results. Where that will be, or when, is not for me to say. But I am fairly sure that it will happen. What frightens me is the fact that although most people here have a great distaste for their government, it is predominantly the more radical Islamic elements which have been speaking out most vocally. Make no mistake, everybody here is suffering. But being on the inside, I can attest to the great fear of stepping out of line. The policemen in their green uniforms and orange batons are everywhere, and they don’t need any reason to stop you. So although the Uzbeks certainly do deserve a better deal, there is a real possibility that the new regime will be just as repressive, though perhaps driven by a different agenda.
This is all fascinating to me. I do want to assure you that I am safe. Peace Corps keep us up to date on things, and I am able to watch CNN and BBC World regularly. I’ve got loads to say about day to day life here – which is what the majority of people, including me, have been going about for the past few months, I’ll save that for next week.
For more information (all sites censored in UZ) :
Muslim Uzbekistan – I’d be interested in a review of this one… are they nutty?
And for a funny look at Uzbek daily life, as a primer for next week’s entry, check out: