Wild-eyed religious extremists are the stock characters for most discussions of potential unrest in Uzbekistan. But while outbreaks of violence in 2004 have drawn media scrutiny, the daily cares of most people in Uzbekistan are far removed from the "Al-Qaeda links" and "terror plots" that mainstream media find so compelling. The following story, based primarily on reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, shows that more prosaic concerns are capable of bringing ordinary people out into the streets (this article originally published in "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 29 September 2004).
Andijon is home to approximately 300,000 people near the tip of Uzbekistan's densely populated Ferghana Valley region, which juts wedge-like into neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Times are hard. With work and money scarce, many people, especially women, have turned to selling goods at bazaars to make ends meet. But Uzbek officials have set out to eliminate the practice. An 11 March report by International Crisis Group (ICG) detailed the harsh measures the government has taken to crack down on this makeshift form of commerce since 2002, introducing tariffs, registration requirements, and other regulations to discourage individual sellers. Particularly onerous for individual traders are restrictions on imported goods, which are often their most saleable wares. Traders' desperate efforts to avoid border controls can prove lethal. According to the ICG, dozens of individual merchants drowned in a canal on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border in the summer of 2003 while attempting illegal crossings.
In early September, sellers who plied their wares at Andijon's Kholis market and in the vicinity of the city's Central Department Store were forced to stop because of new government resolutions requiring sellers of imported goods to undergo individual registration. On 7 September, a group of nearly 500 women halted traffic on Boburshoh Street in protest. The city administration and law-enforcement authorities reacted with restraint, entering into talks with the women.
The women argued that the new regulations would increase costs for them, forcing them to sell goods at a 50 percent markup instead of the 10 percent markup they had been charging. One of the women told an RFE/RL correspondent that individual trade was now a mainstay of the local economy since the closure of a factory that had employed 2,000-3,000 people. When the plant shut down, the Kholis market sprang up in its place.
The demonstrations continued on 10-11 September. This time, demonstrators said that the police used force against them and detained 11 people. Police also took a correspondent from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service into custody, but let him go after a crowd of over 100 gathered to demand his release.
On 12 September, the 700 sellers' booths near the Central Department Store were shut down once again. The next day, a group of 100 individual merchants expressed their dissatisfaction in a demonstration before the city's administrative offices. Demonstrators told an RFE/RL correspondent that city officials put forward their own version of events, claiming that the women were the wives of imprisoned religious extremists. Nevertheless, on 13 September the Andijon governor received a group of 50 demonstrators. But on 17 September, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported that Andijon's individual merchants had failed to achieve their aims, and that their weeklong show of dissatisfaction had left nearly 3,000 of them without any work at all.
'A Cry Of Despair'
Andijon was not the only place where government regulations evoked discontent. A cabinet resolution requiring sellers of imported goods to undergo individual registration was passed on 13 August; it went into effect on 1 September. An RFE/RL correspondent interviewed sellers at Tashkent's Chorsu market on 9 September. They told her: "A wife doesn't have permission to sell goods that her husband brings in. If both of them are involved in importing, the expenses double. As a result, the goods for sale are constantly getting more expensive and people's lives get harder. Some of them buy goods at Urikzor [Tashkent's wholesale market]. They are also supposed to get registered for buying imported goods." Overall, the correspondent described the sellers' reaction to the new regulations as "a cry of despair." When RFE/RL asked Uzbek officials for comment, a Tax Committee spokesperson said only that the rules are intended to bring order to financial transactions.
Meanwhile, old regulations continue to create problems for individual merchants. The opposition website erkinyurt.org detailed a demonstration that took place at the Chorsu market on the morning of 2 September. According to the website, nearly 1,000 women gathered on the square despite the objections of police and tax inspectors. Two weeks of construction and preparations for Independence Day festivities on 1 September had kept the women from the marketplace, but financial need drove them back. A delegation of 14 women succeeded in gaining an audience with local authorities. But the authorities waved them off, citing cabinet resolution 330, which took effect in October 2003. The resolution stipulates that retail trade in non-foodstuffs at food markets must take place in an enclosed space that uses a cash register, a condition most individual sellers cannot hope to meet.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, the women decided to collect signatures for a petition to Uzbek President Islam Karimov, the United Nations, and the international community. As quoted by erkinyurt.org, it read, in part: "We, the undersigned [individual] merchants, assert through this petition that we have reached a critical point in the struggle for existence. We believe that the reason we have come to this is a policy that for more than 10 years has ignored what we are to eat, what we are to drink, and how we are to earn an honest living. The insoluble problems we face have prompted us to undertake the present appeal.... We ask our esteemed president to repeal cabinet resolution 330 dated 28 July 2003 and to free our markets."
A grain of salt may be in order for the latter report, which originates on an opposition site that makes no bones about its dislike for the current Uzbek government. Even so, the overall picture implies several conclusions. First, individual retail trade remains an important part of the Uzbek economy at the local level, and participants are willing to go to some lengths to defend their perceived right to engage in this form of commerce. Second, government officials are amenable to a certain amount of dialogue, even if they are unwilling, or unable, to make any real concessions. Third, the Uzbek government faces a genuine quandary, for it must impose order on this chaotic sector of the economy to ensure reasonable taxation, but in doing so it risks inflicting economic hardship on the most vulnerable segment of the population, increasing social tension, and laying the groundwork for potential unrest.