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Qishloq Ovozi

Outstanding in his field? Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev is seeking reelection on October 24.

There were a lot high expectations when Shavkat Mirziyoev became the president of Uzbekistan in 2016, replacing the autocratic Islam Karimov.

Mirziyoev made a lot of promises, while also pledging serious reforms and a fight against corruption. And while he has delivered on some of those promises, most of them have gone unfulfilled during his term in office.

Despite his lackluster record, Mirziyoev is seen as the overwhelming favorite in the October 24 managed election in which true opposition candidates were either not registered or pressured not to run.

New Face, Same Old Electoral Process

Karimov ruled Central Asia's most-populous country for a quarter of a century -- being reelected four times in elections found wholly undemocratic by international election monitors.

And despite hope that the election process might be more democratic under Mirziyoev, observers can't help noticing that this election looks a lot like the ones under Karimov.

To begin with, the campaign for the upcoming election has been largely absent from local media coverage.

And the five parties fielding candidates in this election are the exact same state-approved parties that have been involved in Uzbekistan's elections since 2009.

Despite Mirziyoev saying several times that he had no objections to the creation of opposition parties and their participation in elections, none of the three parties that were interested in having candidates in the presidential election was allowed to register.

In fact, all three opposition parties -- the Erk Democratic Party, Truth and Development (Haqiqat va Taraqqiyot), and the People’s Interest (Halq Manfaatlari) -- were pressured into halting their activities before official campaigning even started.

So Uzbekistan’s voters will only be able to cast their ballots for Bahrom Abduhalimov of the Adolat (Justice) party; Maksuda Borisova of the People’s Democratic Party; Nazrullo Oblomuradov of the Ecological Party; Alisher Qodirov of the National Revival Party; or Mirziyoev from the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (LDPU).

The LDPU was founded in November 2003 and since then has not only won the most seats in every parliamentary election but has also nominated the winning candidate for every presidential election.

Only recently was there even a spark of interest in the election campaign.

Alisher Qodirov
Alisher Qodirov

That came on October 14 when Qodirov -- who in June called for expelling all gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people from the country -- said he viewed remittances sent from abroad to be income and would tax them.

It was a shocking proposal. Millions of Uzbek citizens have gone abroad over the years as migrant laborers to find work since unemployment is so high in Uzbekistan. Millions of their family members back home could not have made ends meet without the money sent to them.

Qodirov’s statement was the equivalent of taking a dive in a boxing match as it would turn off most voters. Mirziyoev was quick to pounce on the opportunity, saying the next day that “one should never view helping a family as profitable and impose taxes.”

Though that was probably the most riveting moment in an otherwise barely noticeable campaign, some wonder whether it was staged specifically to generate a buzz among the electorate and boost Mirziyoev’s vote tally on election day.

Mirziyoev does seem to be genuinely popular with the majority of Uzbeks and would likely win an election even if opposition parties were allowed to compete -- especially considering the state's firm control of the media in Uzbekistan.

A memorial to former Uzbek President Islam Karimov
A memorial to former Uzbek President Islam Karimov

Mirziyoev is, surprisingly, different from Karimov -- Uzbekistan’s first and only president -- despite serving as his prime minister from 2003 to 2016 and fully enabling his predecessor's hard-line policies and intolerance of any opposition.

Those policies earned Karimov a reputation as a chronic rights abuser and enemy of the free press.

At no time during his 13 years as prime minister was there any hint that Mirziyoev was a reformer at heart who was just following orders.

But he did make some shrewd moves early on in his term that attracted the attention of Uzbeks and the international community.

Positive Moves

Among them was the freeing of several dozen political prisoners, some of whom had languished in Uzbek prisons for two decades.

Mirziyoev also made improving ties with Uzbekistan’s neighbors a priority, much to the relief of those countries, all of which had endured periods of testy relations with Karimov’s government.

Mirziyoev said Uzbekistan, long isolated under Karimov, was open for business again and sent officials to countries in Europe, Asia, North America, and the Middle East to attract investors.

Western countries, in particular, were encouraged by Mirziyoev’s rhetoric of a kinder, gentler Uzbekistan and showed renewed interest in it as an important Central Asian country and hub for trade due to its central location in the region.

Mirziyoev has also enjoyed some domestic successes as well.

He spoke out against the use of forced labor in cotton fields and, while that has not been totally eradicated, the number of people ordered to work as volunteers has dropped significantly while wages have increased for those who pick Uzbekistan’s “white gold.”

Mirziyoev has also given support to the country's migrant laborers -- once criticized by Karimov as “lazy beggars” -- while lamenting that they could not find gainful employment in Uzbekistan, using this reality to vaguely chastise officials for not providing enough jobs.

Unkept Promises

But much of what Mirziyoev said he would do remains unfinished or has never been started.

His campaign for reelection is an example. When he was campaigning in Samarkand in late September, he promised free meals for schoolchildren.

While in Tashkent on October 19, Mirziyoev promised every "mahalla" (neighborhood) would receive huge sums of money for development.

Everywhere Mirziyoev goes he promises money, an end to the abusive practices of local officials, improvements in living conditions, and other benefits.

Yet these things have been slow to materialize and many in Uzbekistan are still waiting to see the changes Mirziyoev has promised.

In his first years as president, Mirziyoev went to neighboring states and made grandiose promises, like investing in Kyrgyzstan's and Tajikistan’s hydropower sectors or in Turkmenistan’s offshore oil and gas fields, all despite the fact Uzbekistan has little experience with such projects and little money to invest in foreign ventures.

So far, none of those things has happened.

Uzbekistan’s foreign debt was negligible when Mirziyoev became leader, but it has now ballooned to some $36 billion.

Mirziyoev during a visit to the Bozatau district of Karakalpakstan in September.
Mirziyoev during a visit to the Bozatau district of Karakalpakstan in September.

Much of that money has gone toward construction projects, but there are suspicions a large share of that has really gone into the hands of officials appointed by Mirziyoev. There are also questions about the many people who have been moved out of areas of new construction and not received adequate -- or in some cases any -- compensation for their demolished homes.

It seems apparent that not enough of that money went to repairing Uzbekistan’s aging infrastructure, as power outages were frequent last winter and it looks like that will be the case again this year.

Heard That Before

Much of Mirziyoev’s popularity among Uzbeks seems to be based on his promises for a better life in the future.

Such promises are reminiscent of other Central Asian leaders who sought greater public support by describing a better tomorrow for everyone.

Once the oil money started pouring in after the early years of economic stagnation following independence in 1991, Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, often foretold of his country becoming one of the most industrial and prosperous nations in the world.

Programs in the late 1990s looked to 2020 and 2030 as the dates for these promised achievements, yet as of 2021, while conditions have noticeably improved for many in Kazakhstan, most of the goals set by Nazarbaev more than 20 years ago are still unrealized.

His family and friends, however, are listed as being among the richest people in the world.

Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, similarly promised to turn his country into a second Kuwait, and when Niyazov died and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov became president, he, too, pledged to turn Turkmenistan into a wealthy nation.

But Turkmenistan’s economic situation is currently worse than it has ever been, while Berdymukhammedov’s relatives are also rumored to be fabulously wealthy.

Central Asian precedent tends to show that once leaders are firmly entrenched in power, their promises of reforms and attention to improving conditions for citizens wanes as their (and their inner circle’s) appetites for enrichment grow.

Should Mirziyoev win the October 24 presidential election, as seems quite likely, he would start his second and constitutionally final term in office.

Having portrayed himself as a reformer, if Mirziyoev goes the route of other Central Asian leaders and decides to ignore a two-term limit, it would be impossible for him to claim such a title.

But more importantly, it would signify he has cemented his rule and, at that point, the need for reforms would probably be subordinate to thoughts of regime preservation while those close to him focus on gaining wealth.

Turkmen activist Dursoltan Taganova

Turkmenistan is home to one of the most repressive governments in the world.

Anti-government sentiment inside the country is not tolerated and those whose comments are perceived as being even slightly critical of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's regime are quickly silenced.

Some are never heard from again.

In recent years, however, Turkmen living outside Turkmenistan have been increasingly vocal, with some demonstrating publicly against Berdymukhammedov's government in the United States, several European countries, Russia, Turkey, and in Northern Cyprus.

But according to some of those activists in Turkey, the Turkmen government is now trying to silence them.

Turkmen protest against the Turkmen government outside the consulate in Istanbul on May 15, 2020.
Turkmen protest against the Turkmen government outside the consulate in Istanbul on May 15, 2020.

Dursoltan Taganova, 30, who is originally from Turkmenistan's western Lebap Province, has emerged as one of the most recognizable of the Turkmen anti-government activists in Turkey, and that fame has come at a price.

On September 26, "[the Turkish police] came to my flat at [5:15 a.m.] and asked where I was. On that day I was not at home," Taganova told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk. "Then they summoned me to the police station...and I realized something was wrong."

When she arrived, Taganova was informed she was on a list of people who were to be detained and sent to a deportation holding center.

It was not the first time that had happened to Taganova, and once again she had to worry that she might be sent back to Turkmenistan. Fortunately for her, she was released on September 29.

Taganova belongs to the Democratic Choice of Turkmenistan (TDS), an opposition group formed in the summer of 2020 by Turkmen businessman Murad Kurbanov, who now resides in France. The TDS is composed of Turkmen living abroad, mainly migrant laborers.

Taganova told Azatlyk she was one of 25 people who were on a list of people who were to be taken into custody by police and sent to the deportation center. "All of [the Turkmen] activists, the most active of them, who often speak out, [were detained]," she said.

Taganova told Azatlyk she and other dissidents had organized a daily online meeting on social networks to discuss the situation in Turkmenistan. "We express our opinion about what changes are needed, talk about persecution, lawlessness, and corruption in Turkmenistan," she said.

Taganova said she had 20,000-25,000 subscribers to her program and that every day some 6,000 to 7,000 watch and listen to what she and other Turkmen activists have to say about their home country.

It is the sort of public commentary that Turkmen officials detest.

The Turkmen government carefully controls information inside the country, telling its citizens about what it deems the wonderful achievements under Berdymukhammedov's wise leadership and how the world envies the Central Asian country.

Such flattering portrayals rarely reflect the reality in Turkmenistan, where people stand in long lines outside stores for bread, cooking oil, and for cash outside ATMs.

All in a country where unemployment is estimated to be around 60 percent and Berdymukhammedov's family is alleged to be stealing billions of dollars while some people in Turkmenistan are forced to forage in garbage dumpsters to find something to sell or eat.

It is the lack of meaningful employment that has led hundreds of thousands of Turkmenistan's citizens to leave for other countries as migrant laborers. And while Turkmen authorities can keep a lid on the opposition inside the country, dissension among migrant laborers has been growing as conditions in Turkmenistan have sharply deteriorated in recent years.

Taganova's vocal opposition to the Turkmen government started shortly after the global spread of the coronavirus and was sparked by the authorities' bizarre insistence that the country did not have any COVID-19 cases.

She was detained outside the Turkmen Consulate in Istanbul along with 80 other activists for violating coronavirus quarantine rules on July 19, 2020, as the group protested the Turkmen government's claim about the coronavirus not being in Turkmenistan.

All those detained were released later the same day except Taganova, whose passport had expired.

She spent nearly three months in a deportation center, and ironically may have only been saved from being sent to Turkmenistan because the government had suspended all flights to or from the country because of the pandemic.

Human rights organizations learned of Taganova's predicament and on October 12, 2020, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement from 11 rights groups calling on Turkish authorities not to extradite Taganova to Turkmenistan.

The HRW's Hugh Williamson said in the statement that "Turkmenistan is known to severely harass and punish peaceful critics of the government. To return Dursoltan Taganova to Turkmenistan would place her at grave risk of persecution and torture."

Taganova was freed that same day and was able to apply for asylum in Turkey while at the deportation center.

She is now living legally in Turkey, but since her detainment in 2020 there have been many changes in her life.

Taganova has been vilified by Turkmen authorities in her native Lebap Province. Local representatives of social organizations, women's councils, the National Security Ministry, the Interior Ministry, and the prosecutor's office have held public meetings in Lebap's capital, Turkmenabat, and other towns to denounce Taganova after she was released from detention in Turkey.

In her recent interview with Azatlyk she said: "Several months ago they called me to the [Turkish] migration service and warned me that 'relations between Turkey and Turkmenistan are somewhat complicated, so stop the protests and meetings.'"

Taganova explained at the migration service that she had not been organizing any protests but did go on social media with others to discuss politics in Turkmenistan.

"They forbid me to speak out online," she said, but adding that she continued to speak on social networks about injustice and corruption in Turkmenistan and that when she was detained in September, "there were no such warnings [from Turkish officials about online discussions]."

Taganova is not the only Turkmen opposition activist facing problems in Turkey. On October 11, three Turkmen activists were assaulted in Istanbul. Aziz Mamedov, Nurmukhammed Annaev, and a third person named only as Bakhtiyar were followed and then surrounded by five men who attacked and beat them.

The three are sure the Turkmen Security Ministry is behind the incident. Annaev told Azatlyk, "One of the attackers cursed at me in a Lebap accent."

Mamedov suffered cuts and bruises to his face as well as a broken nose. Annaev had injuries to his left arm and Bakhtiyar to his head after being hit with an object and kicked after falling to the ground.

Annaev said the three had met with journalists from a Western publication earlier in the day to talk about their work and had done a live program on the Internet. Annaev was also scheduled to go to Warsaw for the OSCE's annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, where he planned to criticize the Turkmen government.

In another incident, a small group of activists protesting outside the Turkmen Consulate on August 1 were suddenly attacked by unknown men who the activists claim were hired by consulate officials.

One activist suffered stab wounds to the arm and stomach while another had injuries to his ribs. Ten of the activists were taken to Istanbul's deportation center and later released.

Turkmen activist Farhad Durdyyev was on his way to the protest on August 1, but he was intercepted by two Turkmen men about 400 meters from the consulate and put into a car "with license plates [including] LB," as used in Lebap, and driven onto the consulate grounds. Durdyyev told Azatlyk he was beaten and threatened inside the consulate.

Farhad Durdyyev in Istanbul on August 5.
Farhad Durdyyev in Istanbul on August 5.

Meanwhile, bloggers in Turkmenistan who appear to be supported by the state have posted interviews with the family members of opposition activists living abroad. In Durdyyev's case, one of these so-called bloggers interviewed his mother, who lamented the "errant course" her son had taken in being a dissident.

The reasons for this sudden attention being paid to Turkmen activists in Turkey are not difficult to guess. Turkmenistan is in a state of serious decay due to the avarice and mismanagement of a select few close to Berdymukhammedov. It is a situation that activists outside Turkmenistan -- including those in Turkey -- are accurately describing to the outside world.

Radio Azatlyk 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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

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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