Coming out of 2015, Uzbekistan’s authorities were able to ignore signs of an economic decline by citing their own figures, which in some cases were supported by international financial organizations. But these tales of success could scarcely veil the reality on the ground, at least to those who were watching closely.
For the government, economic concerns were a secondary priority as authorities continued to warn of the threat of extremism and take action to root out any signs of it on Uzbekistan’s territory. Security has always been the priority for President Islam Karimov, and during 2015 his government was contending with the returning migrant laborers, some of whom were allegedly radicalized while working in Russia; and across the southern border in Afghanistan the Taliban was making advances in areas adjacent to Central Asia, and some of the Taliban’s allies were fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
In his New Year’s address to the nation, President Islam Karimov predicted Uzbekistan would see 7.8 percent GDP growth in 2016. The state’s puppet polling agency Izhtimoi Fikr (Public Opinion) had just published results of a survey showing 90.8 percent of respondents said there had been an improvement in living conditions and they were optimistic about the future. There was no mention of how people participated in the poll.
On the first day of the new year, the exchange rate was 2,809.98 soms to the U.S. dollar. On January 1, 2015, the exchange rate was 2,422.40 soms to the dollar. In Uzbekistan’s case it important to record the black-market rate, which on January 1 was about 6,200 soms to the dollar, while exactly one year earlier it was about 3,700 to the dollar.
Many people in Uzbekistan once again greeted the first day of the new year confronted with power rationing. But it appears patience is wearing thin in some places.
In December, a group of residents in Uzbekistan’s eastern city of Ferghana had blocked a main road to protest being cut off from gas supplies. On January 5, residents of Gazalkent, some 70 kilometers from Tashkent, were finally receiving gas for their homes after some 100 residents, over the course of a week in late December, went to the city administration and local utility company to protest. Some threw stones at the administration building.
There were reports throughout 2015 of employees in various sectors, including state agencies, not being paid wages on time and of large arrears building up. A January 15 report referred to police in the city of Ferghana not being paid on time. In early February it was the employees of the state energy company Uzbekenergo who complained about not being paid since August 2015.
And Uzbekistan faces the return of some migrant laborers working in Russia. Russia’s Federal Migration Service reported on January 12 that the number of Uzbek workers in Russia had dropped by 4.1 percent (some 80,000 or more people). On February 4, Azerbaijan’s Trend.az website cited Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Labor and Social Care as saying some 990,000 new jobs were created in Uzbekistan in 2015. However, over the last decade Uzbek authorities have claimed to have created about 1 million jobs a year, but testimony from inside the country casts serious doubt on such an assertion.
The Uzbek som continued to lose value, both officially and on the black market. The black-market rate for one U.S. dollar was already twice the official rate by the end of 2015. On January 13, Ozodlik reported in some places in Uzbekistan the black market rate was 6,300 soms to the U.S. dollar. The official rate was 2,821.43.
On February 6, Kahramon Aripov, the head of Uzbekistan’s Asaka Bank, one of the country's largest banks, was fired for alleged currency manipulation and placed under arrest.
As mentioned above, security is President Karimov’s obsession. There are several hundred citizens of Uzbekistan, at least, now in the ranks of militant groups in Syria and Iraq. There are probably as many in militant groups in Afghanistan.
On January 26, Uzbek Television First Channel aired a program called Qiyomatga Qolgan Qarz (Debt Left For Judgment Day) that showed parents being publicly rebuked for not preventing their children from becoming religious extremists and joining militant groups in the Middle East. The program said, “Unfortunately, some people who have forgotten their parental obligations and are bringing up their children as traitors do not seem to realize it.”
One mother in the southern Kashkadarya Province had already hanged herself after her son was accused of being an extremist. After the broadcast there were reports of families being forced from their homes in several places around Uzbekistan because one of their relatives had gone to join the militant group Islamic State or some other extremist organization. Most of Uzbekistan’s citizens fighting in Syria or Iraq were recruited while they working as migrant laborers in Russia or Turkey, far away from Uzbekistan and their families.
Heightened concern about militancy seems to have translated into increased brutality on the part of law enforcement.
The body of 34-year-old Sharof Nasibov, who sold car parts in Bukhara, was delivered to his family in January. Nasibov and his brother were detained in December 2015 for tax evasion, a charge the Nasibov brothers denied. Relatives said Sharof Nasibov’s body showed signs of torture, including having had his fingernails torn out.
In February there were reports that the body of 42-year-old Mahmudjon Hasanov was delivered to his relatives in Andijon Province. A hastily arranged funeral was held under the watchful eye of security agents. No cause of death was given. Hasanov was serving a nine-year term in the notorious Navoi prison for being a member of the banned group Hezb ut-Tahrir.
The “great distraction” was President Karimov, who decided, some would say hypocritically, to publicly portray himself as a man of the people.
Karimov dismissed Tashkent Province Governor Ahmad Usmonov in February 4 at a meeting of the provincial council. Usmonov earned the nickname “Hitler” during his long tenure as head of the Andijon Province. Karimov told him, “You should know that once you lose people's trust, it will stay in their hearts..." Karimov told the council, “A single person can create so many problems that thousands of people cannot fix.”
Later (after February 9), Karimov was shown on TV chairing a government where he berated officials for blocking the Internet, calling such attempts stupid, as if the president was just finding out about this years-long practice.
The official exchange rate as of February 1 was 2,836.87 soms to the U.S. dollar. On February 9, the official rate was 2,836.87 to the dollar. At the start of January the World Bank forecast that Uzbekistan would see 7.5 percent GDP growth in 2016.
Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.