France’s Foreign Minister should have used a trip to Uzbekistan this weekend to demand an artist be allowed the right to travel abroad, an international group of artists urged last week.
In January, Vyacheslav Akhunov was barred from leaving Uzbekistan. He has been invited to perform at the prestigious Venice Biennale this June.
In an open letter last week to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who visited Uzbekistan on March 2 to talk trade and development with President Islam Karimov, artists from the United States, Russia and other countries called on France’s top diplomat to "urge the government of Uzbekistan to honor the rights and freedoms of artist Akhunov, who represents the modern independent art of Uzbekistan abroad."
There is no indication Fabius responded to the request or discussed Akhunov’s situation with Karimov during his visit.
Akhunov has taken part in approximately 200 international exhibitions. But in January "authorities banned him from going abroad, explaining that his creative tours are 'inadvisable.' This response points to a political motive in the decision," the artists said in their letter, which was posted on February 27.
Akhunov is well known for his provocative performances: In 2006, he dressed up as a "man-compass,” donning compasses on his arms and neck. To puzzled questions "Are you afraid of getting lost?" Akhunov answered: "I have simply gotten confused because our country’s president has repeatedly changed the course of the country's development. [...] I have decided to choose my own course."
It seems the artist has fallen victim to the notorious Soviet-style exit visa. Uzbekistan is the only former Soviet country that still requires its citizens to apply for exit visas to travel abroad (Turkmenistan abolished the practice in 2002, but sometimes blacklists residents to prevent them from leaving.) Sources in Uzbekistan say that Uzbeks can travel without permission only to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (for up to 60 days). There, border services are said to prevent Uzbeks without exit visas from traveling further.
Tashkent routinely denies exit visas to human rights activists, journalists and political opponents to prevent them from using international forums to highlight Uzbekistan’s poor records on human rights and freedom of speech.
There has been a rush of high-level visits from NATO countries to Tashkent in recent weeks, as coalition partners eye Uzbekistan as an exit route from Afghanistan. Until the withdrawal is completed, few expect Western officials to make concerted efforts to push Karimov on human rights.