In recent weeks Uzbek authorities have implemented seemingly bizarre new traffic rules in the capital Tashkent, including a ban on the riding of motorcycles in the city center. The rules are a reflection of President Islam Karimov's growing preoccupation with security, some local observers say. Such concern on Karimov's part is being fueled by the March revolution in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, and it is doubtless being exacerbated by the recent violence in Uzbekistan's portion of the Ferghana Valley.
In March, police officers started stopping motorcyclists in Tashkent, informing them about the citywide ban. Law-enforcement authorities placed special stamps in the motorcycles' technical certificates, telling owners that if they were ever caught riding their vehicle again in the city, it would be summarily seized. Some owners were also told that if they wanted to continue motorcycling, they were free to ride beyond the Tashkent Ring Road as much as they wished.
In imposing the ban, police officers do not cite any governmental or legislative resolution or law. Instead, the ban is apparently being implemented upon the oral order of someone high up in the Uzbek political hierarchy. Lacking any documentary basis for their action, police officers have reportedly offered explanations that the ban is designed to improve traffic safety because, in the words of one police officer, "according to statistics, motorcyclists often cause road accidents."
The real reason, however, is very different. In an interview with EurasiaNet, a high-ranking Interior Ministry officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained that officials are concerned that high-performance motorcycles could be used in a potential assassination attempt against top officials, including President Islam Karimov, or be used in some other sort of anti-government action.
"Motorcycles are much more appropriate for an assassination than cars," said the police colonel. "They are more maneuverable, capable of jumping over barriers, and easier to hide. They are good to attack and then escape riding along the labyrinth of narrow streets and paths among residential buildings. Police officers with their [Daewoo] Nexia cars would have no chance of catching attackers."
Officials are reportedly considering expanding the motorcycle ban to other large Uzbek cities. As it already stands, motorcycle riders outside of Tashkent are subjected to police scrutiny. Authorities have utilized state-controlled media outlets to reinforce the ban, with motorcyclists now frequently depicted as flagrant violators of traffic rules.
"This [ban] was obviously inspired by the SNB (National Security Service)," the EurasiaNet source said. "In the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs), even senior officers never saw the copy of the ruling; they are just instructed orally and told that the ruling came
Esmer Islamov is a pseudonym for a regional journalist.