I recently travelled to the Uzbek capital Tashkent to research the local music scene, but instead found myself pre-occupied by the omnipresence of the country’s security forces, and the sense of a young country negotiating its identity nearly two decades after gaining independence.
Uzbekistan may have only been independent for 18 years, but they’re keen to show off the country’s accomplishments. When I arrived at the end of the August the country was celebrating 18 years of independence, and in the same week Tashkent had its 2,200 year anniversary. While the Uzbek government styles itself as a modern democracy, in practice it is complicated by Soviet legacies—such as entrenched bureaucratic corruption, nepotism, and personality cults. Iconography of Lenin is now substituted for statues of Amir Temur, otherwise know as Tamerlane the Great, the 14th century conqueror of much of western and central Asia, patron of the arts, and the character (or caricature?) at the heart of the new Uzbek leadership.
On my arrival in Tashkent, I commented to my taxi driver on the strikingly clean white roadside cement walls decorated with red imprinted flowers. He nodded. “It’s for the president.” Then he laughed and pointed out the police academy. “Do police in your country stop you and ask you for money?” No, I replied. “They do here!” he said. This was a rare occasion on my trip when, without being prompted, someone implied criticism of the government. We were driving down one of the protected presidential thoroughfares, all of which are closed when the leader drives through the city so that his preferred route remains unknown.
The official celebration of Uzbekistan independence took place on August 31st August in the 4,000 seat “Palace of People’s Friendship”. I was too late to arrange tickets, so could not get closer than 500 metres to the party, as all routes were cordoned off. Instead I stood with a small, motley crowd of casually dressed spectators and sparkly-gowned and suited people who were presumably on their way to the show. Between the colossal palace and us, were several police cars and ambulances, and perhaps 200 guards stationed along the wide tree-lined avenue.
I tried to take a photo from the sidewalk, but as I focused the lens, a plain-clothed guard angrily told me off. He shouted to a group of uniformed officers. When I showed him that I hadn’t actually taken a photo he resentfully allowed me to continue on my way. The police are omnipresent—every metro stop has several officers stationed on the platform. It seems as though every street in this clean, bright, and polished city is well stocked with officers. Rather than creating a sense of safety, however, they have the inverse effect of making one feel like something bad is about to happen.
Indeed security had grown tenser in the days leading up to the Independence Day celebration, one Uzbek interpreter told me. This is partly because every year on Independence Day (September 1st) prisoners who have been well-behaved are released from jail to celebrate the holiday with their families. But, the interpreter said, there are established crime networks entrenched due to the lack of employment and lack of international trade (there is a 100 per cent tax on all imported goods), and so released “light” criminals are often tempted back to them. Even for a day, I wondered?
The interpreter had interesting insights and hopes concerning the future of Uzbekistan, but as often seemed to be the case, little chance of being heard. He has a degree in economics, and yet is working as a glorified taxi driver for US security personnel. Another Uzbek friend of mine is a qualified forensic scientist, but left her job for a higher paid position as a hotel receptionist. Professionals are foregoing work in their trained occupations and working as taxi drivers and waiters—jobs that are more financially reliable and don’t involve corrupt business schemes.
These are hangovers from the Soviet era, according to the interpreter, who hoped that the new generation could continue to make gradual changes. The biggest problem, he lamented, was that the government was not willing to admit to its real problems or recognize their nature. For instance, the shootings in Tashkent’s old neighbourhood that took place before Independence Day were unmentioned in local press in order to keep up the image of a harmonious and advanced society—a silence which undermines such a society’s possibility. A veneer of perfection on an edifice of corruption seems preferred to exposing the truly half-built and half-broken 18 year-old country.