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Qishloq Ovozi

Roza Agaydarova was elected head of the Halq Birligi (People's Unity) independent trade union. 

What looked like a victory this month for Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, his government, and their reform pledges instead risks becoming just another example of empty promises in Central Asia's most populous country.

On March 19, around 280 workers from the Indorama Agro cotton farm gathered for the founding meeting of Uzbekistan’s first independent labor union, Halq Birligi (People's Unity).

The Berlin-based Uzbek Forum for Human Rights called it a "historic day," but the victory did not last long.

By March 24, Uzbek Forum was reporting that local officials were harassing members of the new union.

"Leaders of Xalq Birligi...reported receiving calls from officials at the local administration who did not identify themselves, warning them that their involvement in union activities would cause them problems," Uzbek Forum wrote.

The report said police were also phoning union activists “demanding that they stop their organizing activities and leave the union."

The new union aims to protect the rights of Indorama Agro's workers in Syrdarya Province.

Singapore-based Indorama Agro has been active in Uzbekistan since 2010, mainly in the cotton industry.

According to Uzbek Forum, the Uzbek government made some 40,000 hectares of irrigated land available to Indorama Agro in four districts -- the Kasbi and Nishan districts of Kashkadarya Province and the Akaltyn and Sardoba districts of Syrdarya Province -- in August 2018 to "organize modern cotton-textile production."

Indorama Agro established cluster farms, a controversial scheme that allows companies to invest money and reorganize land and local labor to boost efficiency in production.

Critics argue that this system has simply allowed the wealthy -- some with alleged connections to senior Uzbek officials -- to privatize agriculturally based businesses in the areas, depriving local farmers of their land and stripping local workers of many of their rights.

And some Uzbek farmers have alleged that they are being forced to work on cluster farms.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, reported in January that more than 100 textile workers from an Indorama Agro cluster farm in Kashkadarya Province’s Kasbi district demonstrated after they were laid off without being paid accrued wages.

One of the allegations was that Indorama Agro had dispensed with many full-time contract workers and switched to three-month contracts without sick pay, pensions, or compensation for overtime.

Some workers at Indorama Agro clusters complain of low wages, and Uzbek Forum quoted one farm worker as saying he had worked for two years without a vacation or holiday leave.

Halq Birligi is vowing to change that and otherwise work to rein in alleged abuses on cluster farms in Syrdarya Province, as well as to improve working conditions for agricultural laborers.

But the independent union appears to be running into some of the same obstacles that other local rights activists and opposition political parties have experienced.

Uzbek Forum reported that on March 19, when Halq Birligi unionists intended to hold their meeting, "workers had rented a meeting room to hold their election but when they arrived, the building administrator refused them entry, telling them the room was unavailable due to ‘urgent repairs.'"

Uzbek Forum said workers then moved to a nearly teahouse, "but the electricity was cut off soon after they began. They continued their meeting outside, with workers holding up their cell-phone flashlights to provide light."

Roza Agaydarova was elected head of the union.

According to Uzbek Forum, Agaydarova said on March 23 that "she received a call from a regional representative of the Federation of Labor Unions of Uzbekistan, the national union federation, which is not considered independent from the government, and was told that according to the laws of Uzbekistan, they had to join the federation, otherwise their union is invalid."

Uzbek Forum cited a guarantee in Uzbekistan's new law on labor unions ensuring workers the right to join the organization of their choice and the right to avoid being forced into joining an organization.

Ozodlik contacted the head of the Syrdarya provincial branch of the Federation of Labor Unions of Uzbekistan, Rustambek Tursunmuradov, who confirmed he had phoned Agaydarova and told her that forming an independent trade union was a bad idea.

Asked why his organization had not defended the rights of farmers working for Indorama Agro, Tursunmuradov said that when those individuals started working for Indorama Agro they lost their membership in the Federation of Labor Unions of Uzbekistan.

After the death of Uzbekistan's first president, Islam Karimov, in 2016, Mirziyoev came to power promising better working conditions, including the eradication of forced labor in the cotton fields.

Most observers agree that there has been significant progress toward ending forced labor in Uzbekistan. But the cluster-farm idea is not only unpopular; it could be counterproductive if the goal truly is to improve working conditions for agricultural workers.

The executive director of the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, Umida Niyazova, credited Mirziyoev's government for showing "the political will to combat forced labor and open its economy."

But, she added, "The way it treats the first independent trade union is a test of the seriousness of its reforms, and the world is watching."

A new opposition party had its meeting at a private home on March 12 disrupted by a crowd gathered outside asking questions.

There was a huge turnout on the outskirts of the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, on March 12 for a meeting of activists of the newly formed Truth and Progress Party. Unfortunately, many of those who came did not have good intentions.

Established just four days earlier, the opposition party members meeting in the Kibray district of Tashkent Province were also joined by a large crowd of outsiders who came to disrupt the event.

The Truth and Progress Party is the latest in a long line of opposition parties that simply wants to operate legally in Uzbekistan. Judging by the events of March 12, it seems doomed to the same fate as its predecessors in Central Asia's most populous country.

Truth and Progress Party spokesman Bahrom Goyib told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, that the event in Kibray was held to discuss collecting signatures for the party's petition to be officially registered by the Justice Ministry.

Breaking Up The Party

The meeting was to be held at a private home and the event was advertised on social media. Goyib told RFE/RL he arrived at the home ahead of schedule. "I looked and the courtyard was full of people," he said.

Goyib said a large group of women he had never seen before and some "bloggers," several of whom Goyib recognized. They were in the courtyard waiting for Truth and Progress Party leader Hidirnazar Allaqulov to arrive.

When Allaqulov showed up, the unexpected guests peppered him with questions and the party was unable to hold its meeting. Party members left and the women and bloggers departed soon after.

Truth and Progress Party leader Hidirnazar Allaqulov was peppered with questions by the crowd on March 12.
Truth and Progress Party leader Hidirnazar Allaqulov was peppered with questions by the crowd on March 12.

About two weeks earlier, on February 26, Truth and Progress officials had rented a banquet hall in Tashkent where the party planned to hold its founding congress. This event was also announced in advance on social media.

Just hours before the congress was due to start, Allaqulov was detained at his Tashkent home and taken to Uzbekistan's eastern Andijon Province for questioning. That delayed the holding of the congress until March 8, when Allaqulov was formally elected party leader.

Well-Acquainted

The Uzbek government and President Shavkat Mirziyoev have known about Allaqulov for many years.

A doctor of economics, Allaqulov was named rector of Termez State University in 2002. He recounted in a May 2018 interview how he quickly discovered huge corruption at the university, including students who never took exams but were given diplomas even with poor grades. "I found out there were 917 of these students. Some of them were the children or relatives of law enforcement personnel and state officials," he said.

Hidirnazar Allakulov
Hidirnazar Allakulov

Allaqulov claimed in the interview that he significantly raised the standards at the university as rector and managed to recover the equivalent of some $600,000 in funds that had been misappropriated from the university by companies and banks.

But Allaqulov's crusade to clean up Termez State inevitably earned him some enemies. The newspaper Uzbekiston Ovozi published two articles against him in which Allaqulov was called a "thief" and a "crook." Based on the articles, the prosecutor's office promptly began an investigation of Allaqulov.

He says he was forced to sign a letter of resignation and was fired on June 17, 2004. Allaqulov then faced charges that he had defrauded the university. "Starting with district courts in the Surhandarya, Kashkadarya, and Bukhara provinces, and ending with the Supreme Court, I stood trial before judges from 14 [different] courts in eight provinces over the course of three years," Allaqulov said.

Given Uzbekistan's poor reputation on the independence of the courts, it's amazing that Allaqulov was acquitted of all the charges at every trial and his final acquittal on July 7, 2007, "stated that my rights must be restored and damages compensated for, as is prescribed in articles 304-313 of the Criminal Procedure Code."

Allaqulov never received any compensation and was not allowed to return to his post as rector, which officials continue to maintain he left of his own free will. He remains unemployed.

In 2011, Allaqulov appealed to the UN Human Rights Committee, which ruled in 2017 that "the state party is under an obligation to provide...[Allaqulov] with an effective remedy," including "adequate compensation -- including for lost earnings and damage to his reputation [and] measures of satisfaction with a view to restoring his reputation, honor, dignity, and professional standing."

But that has also not happened, though Allaqulov says he has written letters to Mirziyoev and other Uzbek officials many times and posted messages about his case and the UN decision on the president's "virtual reception" website.

More recently, Allaqulov has hinted he is interested in running for president, but with the next presidential election scheduled for October, his Truth and Progress party has even less chance of being registered -- although it seems there was never a chance from the very start.

Previous Opposition Efforts Thwarted

It has been nearly impossible for any genuine opposition party to be registered in Uzbekistan since the country gained independence in late 1991.

The Erk (Freedom) Democratic Party was the first political party to be registered -- on September 3, 1991 -- two days after Uzbekistan declared independence. Erk leader Muhammad Solih ran against the Soviet leader in charge of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, in the December 1991 presidential election and, according to some accounts, won the election.

But amid widespread claims that the election was heavily rigged, the official final results showed Solih receiving only 12.7 percent of the vote. That still makes the 1991 election the closest presidential race in Uzbekistan to date and, for that reason, is probably why it was the only one to feature a genuine opposition candidate.

Muhammad Solih speaks to a meeting of Birlik supporters in Tashkent in early 1989.
Muhammad Solih speaks to a meeting of Birlik supporters in Tashkent in early 1989.

Businessman Sanjar Umarov, the leader of Sunshine Uzbekistan, started mentioning in early 2005 that he might run for president -- but by October of that year he was under arrest and charged with creating a criminal group, tax evasion, embezzlement, and other economic crimes.

He was convicted and sentenced in March 2006 to 14 years in prison as well as being fined $8.3 million and having all his assets seized. Another Sunshine Uzbekistan leader, Nodira Hidoyatova, was also convicted of tax evasion and money laundering and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Nodira Hidoyatova in 2005
Nodira Hidoyatova in 2005

Human Rights Watch called the charges against both Umarov and Hidoyatova politically motivated.

The election rules were amended after Umarov declared his candidacy for president so that only candidates forwarded by one of the registered political parties (currently there are five) -- all of which are pro-presidential -- could run in the election, which is why it is so important and so unlikely that Truth and Progress will be registered.

Since the 1991 presidential election, no parties except pro-government parties have been officially registered. Opposition groups such as Erk and the Birlik (Unity) movement, which was formed in 1989, continued to exist but their leaders were harassed, arrested, jailed, or forced into exile.

Attempted Assassinations, Jailings

Presidential candidate Solih fled the country and was bizarrely convicted in absentia of allegedly teaming up with two Islamic extremists to carry out terrorist attacks in Tashkent in February 1999.

Birlik conducted a poll of parliamentary deputies in September 1991 and announced that 100 of them wanted Karimov to resign, putting the movement on a collision course with the Uzbek leader.

Then the Justice Ministry refused to register the movement, the authorities denied Birlik's request to start its own newspaper, and the party said Uzbek authorities were behind an attempt to assassinate two of the movement's leaders in June 1992.

One of those leaders, Abdumannob Pulat, was abducted by Uzbek security forces in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where Pulat had traveled to address a human rights conference in December 1992.

Abdumannob Pulat
Abdumannob Pulat

He was brought back to Uzbekistan and immediately put on trial for "insulting the dignity of President Islam Karimov" and sentenced to three years in prison. He was freed under a presidential amnesty just a few weeks later, but the Supreme Court, acting on a complaint from the Justice Ministry, ordered a suspension of Birlik's activities.

Pulat was eventually forced to leave Uzbekistan and died in the United States in November 2010.

When the U.S.-led military operation that started in Afghanistan in late 2001 quickly succeeded in removing the Taliban and other militant groups from Central Asia's borders, Karimov eased restrictions on opposition groups.

By 2003, Erk and Birlik were allowed to meet openly and in December 2003 the opposition Free Peasants party held its founding congress.

But after the Uzbek government's bloody suppression of protests in the eastern city of Andijon in May 2005, the situation changed and opposition party members were again harassed, assaulted, arrested, and imprisoned.

State television aired programs that branded members of these opposition parties as "enemies of the people," a term that harkened back to the dark days of the Soviet Union.

New President, New Uzbekistan?

At the end of December 2019, President Mirziyoev said he was not against having opposition political groups in Uzbekistan. But he explained that these should not be groups with connections outside the country. "We need to create an environment so that [opposition groups] appear in our country and they are people who know the problems of citizens, have endured all these problems, who have drank the water and eaten the bread here," Mirziyoev said.

On January 10, 2020, members of Erk met with Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov, the first meeting of Erk representatives with an Uzbek justice minister since 1997.

Erk is most certainly a group that appeared in Uzbekistan and has been drinking the water and eating the bread there, but its leader, Solih, has lived outside the country for more than 25 years.

Agzam Turgunov was one of the Erk members who met with Davletov, but Turgunov said the justice minister told them, "This party is part of the past, forget about it."

Besides Truth and Progress, there is another group -- Halq Manfaatlar (Interests of the People) -- led by scientist and professor Mahmud Yuldashev, that is trying to register officially. Neither are likely to have a candidate appear on the ballot when the October presidential election is held, but judging by Mirziyoev's recent remarks, the problem might not be who to vote for, but rather who is voting.

On March 19, Mirziyoev spoke at a videoconference with provincial deputies and backtracked on pledges made after he became president to hold elections for municipal and provincial leaders (hokims), saying: "Are we ready to elect hokims now? We cannot even fairly elect the chairman of a mahalla (neighborhood)."

It seems the Truth and Progress Party is likely to face the same problems that opposition parties before it have had to deal with and, despite previous promises from Mirziyoev, the authorities are still not prepared to allow genuine opposition parties -- or even individual independent candidates -- to participate in elections.

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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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