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Qishloq Ovozi

There are not too many people using Tashkent's airport these days as goring restrictions have prevented many people from traveling abroad. (file photo)

Some professions practically guarantee a comfortable life.

If someone tells you "that person is a doctor, or a banker, or a TV reporter or a state official," most people hearing this information picture a nice house, a fancy car, and holidays in exotic locations.

The latter perk certainly is not true in Uzbekistan. In fact, such professionals are prohibited from leaving the country at all without special, and very hard to obtain, permission.

Uzbekistan of course was never billed as a workers' paradise. Just ask the 10 to 20 percent of the population who work abroad for at least part of the year, or anyone who was ever forced by state officials to pick cotton, and that's practically everyone.

Still one would imagine a prestigious job in the field of medicine, finance, media, or top administrative posts would present one with certain privileges that most in Uzbekistan would envy. And they do, but there is a string attached and it's anchored to Uzbekistan.

That is because Uzbekistan's government has a long list of topics it considers "secret" or "sensitive" information and a growing list of those with the potential to disseminate this information. For workers in the affected professions, that means no international conferences, meetings, symposia, or even vacations unless they can get official permission.

RFE/RL's Uzbek service, Ozodlik, has been keeping track of Uzbekistan's grounded professionals. Below are some of examples my Uzbek friends recounted to me.

Medical personnel were among the first affected by this obsession with preventing any negative information about Uzbekistan from reaching the world outside. It started with a requirement in late March 2010 that all medical personnel who traveled abroad must submit a report on their activities outside the country within 72 hours of their arrival back in Uzbekistan. Soon that would change to the requirement of receiving prior permission before leaving the country. That would have included doctors with private practices, but they were banned in May 2010.

The tightening restrictions on medicos going abroad coincided roughly with news leaking out that some women in Uzbekistan had been forcibly sterilized and there was also the tragic tale of some 150 children infected with HIV/AIDS from tainted blood transfusions at an Uzbek hospital.

While it remains theoretically possible for medical personnel to obtain permission to leave the country the process involves a chain of officials, none of whom wish to take responsibility for approving a travel request for someone who might inadvertently of intentionally divulge "state secrets."

Doctors and other workers in the medical field were among the first but they certainly have company now.

Internet Restrictions

Last December, employees of the National Teleradio Company were barred from leaving the country. A source in the government told Ozodlik the ban was implemented to prevent the spread of state secrets. More recently, as Qishloq Ovozi has noted, broadcasters can have their domestic transmissions instantly cut off by explosives.

Next up to stay at home: government officials -- and no one in the government but the president escaped. Among those who now need the president's permission to leave Uzbekistan are the prime minister and his deputies, speakers of both houses of parliament, the parliament's ombudsman, the chairman of the Central Bank and his deputies, the prosecutor-general, provincial governors, the mayor of Tashkent, and others.

That restriction came in March just after Jamshid Khudoyorv, the head of the Bukhara regional directorate of the State Committee for Communications, Information and Telecommunication Technologies, told state news agency UzA that staff of state agencies were prohibited from using foreign email providers in the work place.

Khudoyorov's explanation was completely in line with state policy. "Specifically, in order to ensure information security, that is to prevent leakage of information that is of particular importance to our national interests, the exchange of official information through foreign emails and social networking websites, as well as the use of the Internet for personal purposes are prohibited in the workplace," he said.

Khudoyorov noted national email and social networking services had been introduced to replace foreign equivalents. And, he said, ominously, special computer programs are being used to monitor Internet surfing by workers of state agencies.

I could have guessed that last part and I bet most workers in Uzbekistan's state agencies already suspected that was true also. Nature of the beast, and all that.

Rounding out this list of the domestically confined are bankers. Their opportunity to go across the border was removed shortly after government officials learned they were on a short rope in terms of movement. That could be due to information Ozodlik has been receiving lately about the failure to pay wages to employees in the energy sector -- at two of the country's largest fertilizer plants and other state factories and plants. Bankers would of course notice the drastic drop in deposits.

As easy as it would be to ascribe all these travel bans to excessive paranoia, there is also the possibility that the situation inside Uzbekistan is actually very bad, in terms of healthcare, finances, or as regards support for the government.

-- Bruce Pannier with contributions from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

Islam Karimov (left) with Nursultan Nazarbaev at an official welcome ceremony in Astana in September, 2012.

The leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both marked a milestone this week -- 25 years as head of their, now, countries. They are the last of the Soviet-era leaders still in power.

On June 22, 1989, Nursultan Nazarbaev became the first secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan and the next day Islam Karimov took the same position in neighboring Uzbekistan.

They started out in 1989 with a relatively common past and, seemingly, destiny but 25 years later they and their countries are very different.

They came from humble backgrounds. Nazarbaev was from a village near Almaty (Chemolgan) and his first jobs were in steel plants. Karimov was born in Samarkand but his early days remain murky. It would be fair to say Karimov was from a broken home and appears to have spent much of his adolescence as a ward of the state. He later had training in aviation engineering and mechanics and also economics. His first job was at an airplane assembly plant.

Nazarbaev and Karimov joined the Communist Party in their respective republics during the early years of leaders (Kazakhstan’s Dinmukhamed Kunaev and Uzbekistan’s Sharof Rashidov) who would stay in their positions for more than 20 years.

From the first days of independence these two leaders fell into a competition for regional dominance. Kazakhstan had the largest territory and Uzbekistan the largest population.

At the time the Soviet Union collapsed Uzbekistan was in a much better position economically than Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan had benefitted more than the other Central Asian states from the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan. Moscow poured money into upgrading Uzbekistan’s infrastructure, since it was the gateway for Soviet troops and equipment going to and coming from Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan was also nearly self-sufficient in terms of agriculture, energy supplies, and other basics, a fact that continues to allow Karimov to act more independently in his foreign policy. The countries that border Uzbekistan are weaker militarily and less populated.

Kazakhstan is agriculturally limited and for most of its years of independence was still reliant on Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to supply natural gas to areas along Kazakhstan’s borders with those countries. And Kazakhstan has lengthy borders with Russia and China.

So, dealt those cards, what did they accomplish once they were running their countries?

'An Enlightened Dictatorship'

That is how Nazarbaev termed his rule in 1995 shortly after parliament was dissolved. Asked if Kazakhstan was turning into a dictatorship, Nazarbaev replied, “a dictatorship, perhaps, but an enlightened dictatorship.”

In the months after that comment Kazakhstan held a referendum that extended Nazarbaev’s term in office, another referendum that changed the constitution altering the balance of powers in the government structure in favor of the executive branch, and conducted parliamentary elections that saw a majority of pro-Nazarbaev deputies win seats.

His problems were far from over. Kazakhstan remained a poor country during the first 10 years of independence. Wages and pensions went unpaid, workers held strikes, and heating and electricity were scarce in winter months. In June 1999, the Almaty mayor launched the “Deposit Gold to the Golden Fund” campaign, asking citizens to donate their golden objects and jewelry to the government to help save the economy.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Nazarbaev also faced serious challenges from opposition figures, some of them former government officials.

Nazarbaev and his government were banking on Kazakhstan’s oil to eventually turn the situation around and until that happened Nazarbaev became more proficient at neutralizing political opponents.

Kazakhstan is a much wealthier country now. Reports earlier this week said the country sold some $55 billion worth of oil last year. Kazakhstan also made billions of dollars exporting gas, uranium, and even grain. Kazakhstan has very good relations with Russia and China and there is currently no opposition figure, party, or group in Kazakhstan that could challenge him.

'Such people must be shot in the head. If necessary, I'll shoot them myself'

That's easily my favorite Karimov quote, especially since he said it during an address to parliament in May 1998.

The “people” Karimov referred to were “Wahhabis,” although in the years since then Uzbek officials have learned to call them the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb-ut Tahrir, Akromiya, and more than a dozen other banned Islamic groups.

Karimov’s first months as president of independent Uzbekistan were turbulent. He faced challenges from opposition groups, political and Islamic, and even the parliament he inherited from the Soviet Union was ready to remove him. His education as head of state was necessarily fast and so clumsy.

But as mentioned above, he also inherited a country that was generally self-sustaining and even better, three of the neighboring states were dependent on Uzbekistan’s gas supplies.

Having worked feverishly in his first six months to stamp out opposition in his country and to a large degree having succeeded, Karimov turned to molding Uzbekistan into his image as Central Asia’s regional power. His mantra in the early years of independence was “first economic reform, then political reform” but at the same time he built up the country’s security force and military.

By the time Karimov made his remarks about shooting Wahhabis he was also able to boast that his country was the most stable in Central Asia. And it was prior to 1999.

Bombings in Tashkent in February 1999 demonstrated the lengths Karimov would go to in order to suppress any threat. The bombings were blamed on an unlikely alliance of Islamic extremists and secular opposition figures and during the crackdown that followed thousands of people were arrested and jailed.

It is a scenario that has been repeated several times since then.

Karimov has not been a reliable ally to any country. He clearly fears Russian presence in Central Asia though circumstances have forced him to warm ties with Moscow from time to time.

He has courted good relations with Western countries, particularly the United States, but he rejects any criticism from these countries and that has led him into conflict with those governments.

His regional politics have been a disaster. He is suspected of helping an assassination plot against the Turkmen president, of supporting an attempted coup in northern Tajikistan, and he has used Uzbekistan’s gas exports to neighbors as a foreign-policy weapon.

Despite his policy of economic reforms first, Uzbekistan is not more prosperous today than it was 20 years ago (we won’t even get into the lack of political reforms). Millions of Uzbekistan’s citizens are migrant laborers, most working in Russia or Kazakhstan. Karimov calls them “lazy” and a “disgrace” even though they sent back some $6.3 billion from Russia alone last year.

And Karimov more than any other Central Asian leader fears the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and what that could mean for his country because he cannot count on support from his neighbors or Russia.

The Twilight Years

Nazarbaev and Karimov still do have some things in common. Now in their 70s, neither is in good health and both have strained relations within their immediate families. Neither has groomed a successor but nearly all the major opposition leaders from their countries are either outside the country or dead. And still, the regimes they have established are unlikely to endure after they are no longer the leaders of their countries.

-- Bruce Pannier. Yerzhan Karabek of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.



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