It’s as if Robert Moses, the New York City powerbroker who over a five-decade span in the mid-20th century reshaped the US metropolis in his own image, has come back to life and has set his sights on Samarkand – Uzbekistan’s second city.
For visitors, Samarkand is an ancient city and a major tourist attraction. For the Uzbek government, it is a showcase of Uzbekistan’s achievements during independence. But for residents, it is turning into something in between: officials’ arbitrary efforts to give the city a modern look, many residents say, are destroying neighborhoods, causing needless economic dislocation and damaging the city’s ancient heritage.
The brewing controversy in Samarkand is reminiscent of those stirred up in New York by Moses, the city’s public works czar from the 1920s through 1960s who authorized the construction of highways and the building of public housing projects with little regard for how they would impact the existing social and economic infrastructure. Moses died in 1981.
Although Samarkand was founded 2,700-odd years ago, the city, which has a population of about 366,000, has been subjected to constant makeovers over the centuries. Given Samarkand’s cultural and political importance, since independence in 1991 Uzbek authorities have devoted extensive resources to polishing its appearance.
While earlier projects focused on renovating cultural sites, the latest reconstruction efforts are targeting residential areas. In October 2009, authorities launched a vast urban renewal initiative in the city center, the main aim of which was to create space for three major new avenues. This May, Tashkent officials instructed the municipality to clear space for another central avenue, a government reception hall and a large park in the city’s densely populated central section by 2011. Authorities have also begun renovating the outdated sewage and water supply systems and installing new lighting on city streets.
In Uzbekistan’s tightly controlled press, reconstruction efforts are cast as uniformly popular. “The scale of construction and reconstruction that engulfed Samarkand is impressive. The city residents are glad to see how ‘the Jewel of the East’ is preparing to shine in the presence of wide streets and beautiful modern buildings. The construction of new trading spots and service centers is providing additional amenities for residents of the city,” boasted a May commentary in Pravda Vostoka, a government-run weekly.
President Islam Karimov’s September 3 visit, ostensibly to inspect reconstruction progress, was also widely covered in the state-controlled press. “Our president’s personal attention to ancient Samarkand attests to the importance of this city’s progress to our country,” said a broadcast on state television.
“Samarkand is Karimov’s birthplace. And many officials know that he holds this city dear to his heart,” explained a local journalist, who spoke to EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity. Developing Samarkand also reflects Tashkent’s attempts to win the loyalty of Tajiks, an ethnic group that makes up the large part of the city’s population and that has long complained of discrimination, the journalist said.
Yet, if the central government had hoped to score points by refashioning the city, it was sorely mistaken, according to some residents and opposition news accounts. A May report distributed by Uznews.net, an opposition website blocked in the country, said that between October 2009 and May 2010, approximately 100 private residences and 30 businesses were demolished despite protests by their owners. Citing residents, the report claimed that officials gave residents only three days to vacate their properties. Many of those who lost homes are now reportedly staying with their relatives, or living in rental housing.
The lack of promised compensation is also fuelling discontent. In October 2009, officials announced that residents whose houses were demolished would receive up to 120 million Uzbek soms, or about $73,000, in compensation. In May, the central government decreed that four new large apartment complexes would be built to accommodate those who did not receive money. According to some residents, only a few well-connected households received compensation. Meanwhile, the work has started on only one apartment complex. Given that an average salary is less than $200 a month, according to local economists, not many can afford to move. A two-bedroom flat can cost up to $13,000 to buy in downtown Samarkand.
Residents from districts unaffected by the overhaul say that the reconstruction project has drained the city’s budget. The May decree said that the Ministry of Finance and several government-run banks would finance construction works. Yet, the decree also obliged the city municipality to provide funding for the demolition. “They continue building these expensive things, but pay no attention to other [important] issues. Problems with the supply of fuel, gas, heat and even food are not solved. It will be a tough winter,” one resident complained.
The reconstruction provides for lucrative opportunities, but the lack of transparency about contracts is stoking tension among local entrepreneurs. An August 20 report in Pravda Vostoka said that the authorities spent 221 billion soms on reconstruction works during the first half of 2010, a 30 percent increase over the previous year.
“You don’t know how much money is being spent from the central and local budget. You cannot see who will implement the projects, and you cannot question the authorities. That’s the nature of our country,” said a local businessman. He offered the widely held belief that companies linked to influential local and central officials usually are the recipients of lucrative contracts.
All this work has some experts concerned that historical sites could be damaged. As part of the reconstruction efforts, some Soviet-era buildings, museums and monuments, including the Memorial Complex of Ulugbek -- a medieval Central Asian ruler and astronomer -- and the Samarkand Museum of History, have been demolished and replaced. Authorities have also carried out extensive renovations and have painted the domes on several medieval mausoleums using modern, low-quality materials, conservationists complain.
Disgruntled with the government actions, some bold residents have dared to protest. According to the May Uznews.net report, residents filed approximately 21 lawsuits against the city, accusing authorities of unlawful confiscation of private property. But the city court ruled in favor of the city in nearly all of these cases. Fearing government retribution, many residents whose houses were demolished remain silent. The local journalist said that city officials often rely on intimidation and other forms of pressure -- such as withholding pensions -- to stop residents from lodging complaints.