A movie hitting the big screens in Uzbekistan this week is a fresh attempt at driving home the risks of terrorism and religious extremism.
Speaking at a preview of his movie, “Dadam Betob" (“Dad is Sick”) director and screenwriter Zulfikar Musakov told reporters he had presented the idea to state-run film company Uzbekfilm five years ago.
“My script only got the green light last year. This is my personal statement on the theme of religious extremism. I wanted to make a movie about the people that I love and that I don’t love,” he was cited as saying by news website Podrobno.uz.
At the center of the movie is Aziza, a mother to several children who decides that to raise funds to pay off the medical bills of her ill husband she must go work as a cab driver for a day. Her final customer of the day turns out to be Pokiza, who the film shows as having embraced religious extremism. Needless to say, it all ends in tears, kidnappings, gas pipelines being blown up and declarations of jihad.
The trailer for the movie — set most oddly to the music of Tanita Tikaram’s 1988 hit Twist in My Sobriety — indicates filmgoers are in for a deeply melodramatic affair.
Film critic Aziz Matyabulov told EurasiaNet.org that Uzbek cinema rarely touches on the issue of religious extremism, so this should be considered something of a rare event.
“Movies like these have a good budget from the state and are filmed with professional actors, unlike [privately funded] movies,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
Then again, while films about religious extremism might be rare, “Dadam Betob" is the second on the theme made in 2016 alone.
Mir-i Arab Madrasah in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Photo: Asian Development Bank via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/eLwt7i
Uzbekistan has performed a shock about-face on its tourist visa policy by cancelling plans to allow citizens of 27 countries to travel to the country visa-free as of April.
A document posted on the government legislation portal Lex.uz on January 9 stated that the visa-free regime will only come into force in 2021. Nations eligible for visa-free travel under the now-cancelled initiative had included the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Canada. Citizens of 12 countries, which included the United States, were also to be granted visa-free travel provided they were 55 years and over.
It is not wholly clear what has motivated this sudden change of heart on a policy, unveiled in early December, that appeared to indicate Uzbekistan was bracing to pursue a line of greater openness to the outside world. The decree making the announcement claimed it was motivated by a desire to pursue a "sustainable and balanced development of tourist activity” and create conditions to “ensure the safety of life and health of foreign tourists.”
The zig-zagging in decision-making suggests, however, that even with the increasing consolidation of freshly elected President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, tensions within the ruling elite remain in place.
News of this reversal will be greeted with dismay by the country’s tourist operators, who were heartened by Mirziyoyev’s stated intent to overhaul the leisure sector.
As part of an agenda of economic liberalization, Mirziyoyev’s government is looking to diversify the economy, attract greater foreign investment and, perhaps most importantly, transform Uzbekistan’s image as an isolated and inward-looking hermit nation.
Young man shown in YouTube video in which he is attacked by mob of young men in the city of Andijan, Uzbekistan.
Social media in Uzbekistan was set abuzz this week after a video appeared online showing a young man in make-up and a wedding dress being jeered and assaulted as he walked through the Ferghana Valley city of Andijan.
The incident has sparked lively debates online about homosexuality and tolerance and given vent to much dismay at the actions of the mob shown in the clip. It has not been ascertained, however, that anybody shown in the video is, in fact, gay, despite widespread assumptions to that effect.
As far as can be divined from the footage, the victim of the attack is dressed as the Russian snow maiden fairy tale character Snegurochka and is accompanying another individual in a Father Frost (Ded Moroz) costume in what appears at first glance to be a poorly thought-out festive season stunt.
As the mob crowds around the target of their attacks, some people are heard demanding to know why the man is wearing the dress and wig. In reply, the young man replies that he was attending a New Year’s party.
Undeterred, one man rips the wig off the man and another strikes him in the face. One person shouts for him to go back to his hometown, nearby Asaka, while another suggests he should leave for Namangan, a nearby Ferghana Valley city popularly believed in Uzbekistan’s homophobic street lore to be a hotbed of homosexual activity. Later on, the young man is again kicked repeatedly, at least once in the face.
Within a few days of appearing online, the video has been viewed ten of thousands of times, on YouTube and on Facebook. Social media users deluged comments boards with their thoughts.
One circulating theory was that this may have been a stunt for money. Many, however, expressed their disgust at the abuse on show.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev delivering New Year address on December 31, 2016.
In the run-up to the New Year, many in Uzbekistan were wondering whether their new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, would appear on television to deliver seasonal greetings.
Over the 25 years of independence for which he was in charge, the late Islam Karimov eschewed the custom, adopted by most leaders of post-Soviet states. Instead, Uzbek television viewers received their official declarations of seasonal cheer from newsreaders. Indeed, it has been customary for many to turn instead for words ushering in the New Year from Russian television and President Vladimir Putin.
Defying the predictions of naysayers, Mirziyoyev duly appeared on television at 23:45 on New Year’s Eve against a backdrop showing the Uzbek Senate building. First he spoke in Russian and then in Uzbek to congratulate his countrymen on the arrival of 2017.
In his brief speech, Mirziyoyev recalled what he described as a time of hardship — a reference to Karimov’s death — and called on Uzbeks to pool their efforts in future in the interests of achieving prosperity.
“We have declared 2017 the year of dialog with the people and people’s interests. Upon this we are basing a hugely important principle: The interests of the people prevail over everything else. I am sure that all of us, our leadership first and foremost, will unite our efforts and pool our potential to carry out the tasks lying before us in the coming year,” he said.
Judging by the reaction online, the address seems to have gone down well.
“This address is a show of respect to the people. It was unexpected and pleasant,” well-known TV journalist Elmira Tukhvatullina wrote on her Facebook account.
A number of websites long blocked in Uzbekistan have been made available for internet users in the past few days, just the latest development in an apparent wave of liberalization sweeping the country.
Among the outlets whose websites can now be viewed without use of proxy servers are the BBC, RFE/RL’s Uzbek service (Ozodlik), Moscow-based Ferghana.ru and EurasiaNet.org. Perhaps even more strikingly, blocks on the websites of organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan opposition group have also been lifted.
Quite what prompted the authorities to adopt this measure is not yet known. And the permissiveness has not been universal.
The editor of opposition news website eltuz.com, Germany-based Umida Niyazova, said most of the formerly banned sites became available for viewing on December 29.
“But our site is still blocked. It will take a week or so before we can draw any conclusions [about what is happening],” Niyazova told EurasiaNet.org.
eltuz.com is a particularly popular resource for its regular output of topical and controversial news stories, much of which focus on the everyday problems of people in Uzbekistan. The website is also well-known for its coruscating caricatures of political figures.
Uzbek political analyst Rafael Sattarov was doubtful that the websites of independent media or opposition movement would remain unblocked for long in Uzbekistan.
“The websites for Ozodlik or the BBC have not always been blocked in Uzbekistan, and as far as the international organizations are concerned, what is most likely is that the special services have simply changed the jamming system,” Sattarov said.
The yawning, decades-long divide between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will get that little bit narrower next week when a senior Uzbek delegation travels to Dushanbe for talks on trade and economic cooperation.
The delegation will travel to Tajikistan on December 26 and be led by Uzbek deputy prime minister Rustam Azimov, whose recent removal as finance minister appears for now to signal his transition to a role as the lead on development of Uzbekistan’s external economic ties.
Talks will focus on reopening railway and road links that have now been closed for several years. At the heart of the historic disaccord is Tajikistan’s plan to build a giant hydropower dam that Uzbekistan could threaten its access to vital irrigation water. Tashkent has tried by multiple means — mainly by imposing a de facto transit embargo — to hinder progress on that dam and force Dushanbe to back down.
Dushanbe-based news website Asia Plus reported that the Uzbek-Tajik intergovernmental commission convening in Dushanbe will agree on the reopening of specific railway and road links, suggesting the talks may go beyond an rhetoric exchange of goodwill messages. The website cited unnamed Tajik government sources as saying the two sides will agree on the opening on new border crossings.
This comes on the heels of an announcement in November that flights are set to resume between the two countries in January for the first time in 24 years.
With every minor hint of a concession on human rights, the government in Uzbekistan looks determined to stumble with a worrying violation.
This week, for example, saw the unusual spectacle of a tiny protest picket outside a court building in Tashkent reaching its conclusion without police unceremoniously bundling away participants.
The two-hour vigil was organized by Elena Urlaeva, the indefatigable leader of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, on the morning of December 15 in protest at what she described as an unjustly imprisoned man. While police arrived at the scene during the event, they looked on impassively without taking action.
This is the second picket in Tashkent that has taken place in the past two weeks without being broken up. The first, also organized by Urlaeva and a small number of other activists, was held on December 5 outside the presidential administration.
According to the head of the Uzbek–German Forum for Human Rights, Umida Niyazova, this toleration of minuscule pickets signals only a shift in tactics. Breaking up small and largely inconspicuous rallies typically creates more noise than allowing them proceed unhindered.
But Niyazova warned against allowing such anomalous events to distract from the persistence of systematic rights abuses and lack of access to justice. She mentioned, particular, the plight of Muhammad Bekzhanov, the editor of an opposition newspaper who was jailed in 1999.
Amnesty International issued a statement on December 16 expressing concern that Bekzhanov, who is due for release next month, has been placed in a punishment cell and that this could signal a prelude to his sentence being extended.
A man one time considered a possible successor to Uzbekistan’s late president Islam Karimov has been squeezed out of his job as finance minister, signaling his waning influence under the new regime.
Rustam Azimov will retain his other title as deputy prime minister, but he is being replaced at the Finance Ministry by another veteran apparatchik, Batir Hodzhaev.
According to government sources, the presidential decree ordering the reshuffle was signed on December 15.
Hodzhaev previously served as deputy economy minister and chairman of privately run lender Ipoteka Bank. According to information available from online biographies, from 2000 to 2006, Hodzhaev was held of the state tax service and then served as economy minister from 2006 to 2009.
From 2009 to 2011, he was deputy prime minister with a portfolio for transportation, construction and municipal services. For the last five years he has been deputy economy minister in charge macro-economic projections, monetary policy and state investment programs.
Azimov has been at his job in the Finance Ministry since February 2005. He will still retain his post as deputy prime minister in charge of macro-economic development, structural reform, management of foreign investment, education and science.
When news of Karimov’s death began circulating in late August — before it was officially confirmed — Uzbekistan-watchers feverishly speculated about who was to succeed the long-time leader. Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who was officially inaugurated as president on December 14, a long-serving prime minister proved to have the edge over Azimov.
Uzbekistan’s upper house of parliament, the Senate, on December 13 adopted the 2017 budget with a deficit equivalent to 1 percent of gross domestic product — a rare if marginal acknowledgement of the country’s economic struggles.
That deficit amounts to 2.4 trillion sum, or around $750 million.
The budget was initially presented to lower house of parliament by deputy prime minister Rustam Azimov, who also fulfils the position of finance minister.
Last year’s budget was also adopted with 1 percent to GDP deficit, then around $650 million.
The scale of the reported deficit is eminently manageable by the standards of Western economies, but it is the gesture of transparency that it noteworthy in this instance. The government tentative efforts at privatisation programs and drumming up foreign investment are sorely constrained by common perceptions that Uzbekistan’s is mired in corruption and hampered by opaque bureaucratic practices.
It is likely that authorities understand that it is misguided to continue talking up claims of unalloyed success when everything around screams economic malaise.
Azimov provided no details about how the deficit is to be covered.
Uzbek economist Yuliy Yusupov sugested it would be done through a combination of loans and cash emissions.
“Considering that in Uzbekistan the real rate of inflation is far higher than what is officially declared, we run a significant deficit that we cover by printing money. What the real situation is, it is impossible to say, since all the relevant information about the budget and cash emissions is kept secret,” Yusupov told EurasiaNet.org.
According to official figures from 2015, Uzbekistan’s debt-to-GDP is 18.5 percent, which is extremely low by Western standards.
The political council of Uzbekistan’s ruling party has nominated a former deputy prime minister implicated in a telecommunications corruption scandal in 2012 to become the new prime minister.
With that show of support from the Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party, or UzLiDeP, Abdulla Aripov’s remarkable return from the wilderness is all but guaranteed.
UzLiDeP said in a statement that the council considered Aripov a patriot able to “fully take on the responsibility of successfully implementing reforms.”
The party’s political council gathered to consider the nomination on December 12. Under Uzbek law, the largest party in parliament, UzLiDeP, is authorized to put forward its proposal for the prime minister. All parties in the legislature are unambiguously pro-government, so the appointment should pass without trouble.
Aripov was returned to the fold following the announcement of the death in September of President Islam Karimov, who was quickly replaced by Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Returning to his old position as deputy prime minister, Aripov was charged with a portfolio including youth, culture, information technologies and telecommunications.
Aripov had served as deputy prime minister for more than 10 years, from May 2002 to August 2012. His main responsibility lay in the running of the telecommunications sector. From 2005 to 2009 he also ran the Uzbek communications agency.
He was fired by Karimov in 2012. In September that same year, the General Prosecutor’s Office filed criminal charges against Aripov on suspicion that he illegally issued permits to Russian mobile telephone company MTS to install hundreds of extra relay stations.