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…