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Qishloq Ovozi

Kazakh police detain anti-government protesters in Almaty in October.

It has not even been one year since Nursultan Nazarbaev resigned as Kazakhstan’s authoritarian president after ruling ruthlessly for nearly three decades.

Nazarbaev quit as president on March 19, 2019, and it was clear from the first moments his pen hit the resignation letter that there was a plan for everything that would follow.

One key aspect of this plan was the glorification of Nazarbaev’s legacy.

'Elbasy'

More than two decades into a despotic, nondemocratic tenure as ruler that began as Kazakhstan’s top Soviet official in 1989, parliament bestowed the honorary title “Elbasy,” or Leader of the Nation, on Nazarbaev in May 2010.

One member of parliament justified the title saying, “Nursultan Nazarbaev ranks with such great personalities as [first U.S. President] George Washington, [Turkey’s founder] Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and [Indian independence leader] Mahatma Gandhi.

On March 23, 2019, four days after his resignation, Nazarbaev’s handpicked successor, Kasym Zhomart Toqaev, announced that the capital, Astana, would be renamed Nur-Sultan in honor of the country’s first president.

A statement released by the Kazakh Embassy in Vienna shortly after said, “Renaming Astana in honor of the First President Nursultan Nazarbayev has its patterns and historical sequence” and referred to “July 1790, [when] the U.S. Congress passed the Residence Act, which approved the creation of the nation's capital on the Potomac River. In September 1791, commissioners overseeing the new capital's construction named the city in honor of the first President of the United States, George Washington.”

The airport in Nur-Sultan is Nazarbaev Airport, there is a Nazarbaev University, and there are numerous streets, places, and other objects named after him.

The image Nazarbaev and state officials crafted of Elbasy was of a benign leader who had overseen the blossoming of Kazakhstan as a state, the enrichment of the country and its people, and who had risen to a prestigious place in the eyes of the international community.

To some extent, all of that is true, but perhaps not to the extent Nazarbaev or others might believe.

Old Bottle, Old Wine

Protests began for a variety of reasons immediately after Nazarbaev resigned. Among them were demands for greater social benefits for low-income families; concerns about growing Chinese influence in Kazakhstan and the plight of Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, particularly ethnic Kazakhs; and the refrain for genuine change in the way the country was being ruled.

Nazarbaev had resigned as president but retained almost all of the same powers in his new role as secretary of Kazakhstan’s Security Council.

Nursultan Nazarbaev, Kazakhstan’s first president, seemed ready to bask in the glory of three decades of work when he left office last year. Instead, some Kazakhs are throwing mud at him.
Nursultan Nazarbaev, Kazakhstan’s first president, seemed ready to bask in the glory of three decades of work when he left office last year. Instead, some Kazakhs are throwing mud at him.

And the same people occupy all of the top positions in the Kazakh government and the country’s business world.

The people had no say in the renaming of the capital, the appointment of Toqaev as acting president, or the selection of Nazarbaev’s eldest daughter, Darigha, to become chairwoman of the Senate. Constitutionally, Darigha would take over as president if Toqaev would, for some reason, be unable to perform the duties of the office.

Go Away Old Man

Those authoritarian actions orchestrated by Nazarbaev are the roots of recent social discontent and have led to people at the constantly occurring unsanctioned rallies around the country to shout “Shal Ket!” (Go away old man!).

It is quite clear to everyone who the “old man” is.

These unsanctioned demonstrations have never drawn more than hundreds of people, but they are frequent and seem to regularly involve many of Kazakhstan’s largest cities -- not only Almaty and Nur-Sultan in the east, but Shymkent in the south and Aktobe and Atyrau in the western part of the country. The cry of "Shal Ket!" is heard at all of them.

There is likely no danger the government will be ousted due to these rallies, but the legacy that Nazarbaev has crafted over the years is under serious attack.

Recent reports of Nazarbaev’s middle daughter Dinara buying a castle in Switzerland or Nazarbaev’s brother spending large amounts of money on lavish festivities remind the Kazakhs how much money has been diverted from the energy-rich state to the ruling family.

The death of opposition activist Dulat Aghadil in police custody in late February reminded Kazakhs about the systemic injustice in society that took root when Nazarbaev was president.

It has been evident since the early years of Kazakhstan’s independence that Nazarbaev was grooming his own image: the President Nazarbaev who would live on in history books. He gladly listened as officials called him “father of the nation,” a great leader, a wise man, a caring president, and applauded wildly for him when he gave speeches.

It is not known if Nazarbaev is aware of what one segment of the population is saying about him these days. His inner circle may be hiding the protesters’ chants from him. Such demonstrations are not reported by state media.

Several kilometers outside the windswept capital, a mausoleum is under construction. It is already the final resting place for those revered for their contributions to Kazakhstan.

Nazarbaev, who will turn 80 in July, has the final word on who qualifies for burial at the mausoleum, and it has been assumed that he, too, will be interred there after he dies as the beloved leader and father of modern Kazakhstan.

But Nazarbaev’s image has suffered considerably in recent years, as evidenced by the frequent protests.

Some, particularly among the younger generation, are demonstrating that they view Nazarbaev not as the founder of modern Kazakhstan but as an obstacle to a better Kazakhstan.

Millions of people from Central Asia live and work abroad, sending money back home.

Uzbek Prime Minister Abdullo Aripov has threatened to close down all the privately owned employment agencies in the country -- and for now that might be a good idea.

Shavkat Mirziyoev, the president of Uzbekistan since September 2016, has vowed to pull his country’s economy out of the stagnation it had fallen into under his predecessor, Islam Karimov, the country's first president who died in 2016.

And in Mirziyoev's efforts to kick-start the economy there were bound to be some rough patches.

The case of privately owned employment agencies helping people get jobs in Europe and East Asia is one example.

On February 19, Aripov met with clients of the private employment agency Human.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, has been reporting about swindling employment agencies for many months. Human happens to be the most notorious of them.

In late September 2019, charges of fraud were filed against the agency by 52 clients who between November 2018 and September 2019 had given money to Human to find them jobs in countries such as Germany, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Turkey, and Japan.

Each paid a fee between 18 million to 35 million Uzbek soms (some $1,800 to $3,700). The agency pocketed the money but not one of the clients received a job abroad.

There are officially some 2 million people from Uzbekistan working as migrant laborers abroad, most in Russia. Some believe the actual figure could be twice that number. It has been that way for more than a decade.

Harsh Conditions

Migrant laborers send several billion dollars in remittances to Uzbekistan every year, but the truth is that for many of these laborers the conditions are tough and wages are usually far from generous.

A chance to work in a country in Central Europe -- or in Japan or South Korea -- sounds like a better deal and worth paying agencies such as Human the equivalent of an average yearly salary as a finder’s fee.

Another private employment agency called World Work promised to send clients to work in Bulgaria where they would earn 800 euros (about $880) a month with free room and board. The agency did send some clients to Bulgaria, but there was no job or anything else waiting for them there.

In December 2018, Ozodlik spoke to Orif Rustamov, a 42-year-old resident of Uzbekistan’s southern Kashkadarya Province. He and some family members found a Tashkent-based agency called International Experience on the Internet and in April 2019 they went to Tashkent and signed a deal.

For $4,000 each, the agency pledged to find them employment in the Czech Republic within three months. After eight months had passed there was no word from the agency and no sign of their money.

In November, Ozodlik reported on a private employment agency in the city of Navoi that had cheated 211 clients out of more than $66,000 in total. Those clients were promised work in South Korea with monthly salaries of around $2,000.

The press service of the Employment and Labor Ministry released a warning to people on August 14 (it even included an exclamation point) about employment agencies that collected 100 percent of their service fees in advance and vowed to close down any such agencies. It also listed eight agencies that were having their licenses pulled.

The agency in Navoi and World Work were on the list; Human was not. The same list shows that seven of those agencies received their licenses between December 17, 2018, and April 12, 2019 (the issue date for the license of the eighth agency -- Unistaff xususiy bandlik agentligi -- was not given).

It is also worth noting that in November 2018, just before those licenses began being issued, the director, deputy director, and several other officials in the Employment and Labor Ministry's agency for foreign migrant laborers were detained and charged with a series of crimes, among them, taking bribes to send migrant workers to South Korea.

In late October 2019, the lower house of parliament said an investigation had determined that of 65 licenses given to private employment agencies promising jobs abroad, 30 had not sent even one client to work outside Uzbekistan.

That brings us back to Prime Minister Aripov meeting with the people who had been fleeced by Human. Aripov said a presidential order would provide some compensation to 1,086 people who lost money to unscrupulous private employment agencies.

It was unclear how many other victims other such agencies claimed.

Human's license was revoked in September 2019 and on January 27, 2020, a Tashkent court sentenced the agency’s director, Shohnur Fayzullaev, to 10 years in prison.

Mirziyoev has been promising big reforms -- including economic -- as he attempts to repair the damage Karimov did while serving as Uzbek president from the country's independence in 1991 until 2016.

Perhaps some of the greatest damage Karimov did in his later years in power was to increasingly isolate Uzbekistan and keep everything under state control.

Despite being independent for nearly 30 years, Uzbekistan finds itself facing problems it faced in the first few years after independence when the country experimented with privatization.

Other former Soviet republics have gone through the process of privatizing businesses and they, too, encountered difficulties that required new legislation and rules.

In every country there are dishonest people who are quick to see the possible personal gain of preying on their unwary countrymen when opportunities present themselves.

Allowing private employment companies to open was among the many moves Mirziyoev’s government has tried, but clearly more regulation is needed.

The law that allowed the creation of privately owned employment agencies came into effect on September 27, 2018, and in roughly one year licenses were issued to some 60 agencies, many of which focused solely on ripping off people.

Mirziyoev’s government can be credited with recognizing the problem, working to correct it, and even offering compensation to some of those who were tricked.

It is an important lesson and one that hopefully will be learned and taken into consideration as Uzbekistan moves ahead with reforms.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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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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