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Uzbekistan: Samarkand Hit By Country's First Post-Andijon Protests

Uzbek security forces in Andijon in May Two public protests broke out this weekend in the Uzbek city of Samarkand. On 20 August, demonstrators from the city outskirts blocked roads to protest the scheduled destruction of their houses. And yesterday, hundreds of merchants angrily protested a sudden decision to relocate the city's main market. As RFE/RL reports, the Samarkand protests are the first in Uzbekistan since those that ended in a violent government crackdown in Andijon in May.

Prague, 22 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The owners of some 100 homes from the village of Bogimaydon, on the outskirts of Samarkand, said authorities gave them only a week's notice to leave their homes before they were destroyed in order to make room for a highway-extension project. They said the compensation they had been offered was far less than the market value of their homes.

In response, the residents blocked the village's main road for several hours on 20 August, holding placards reading: "Don't demolish an old house before building a new one." It is a phrase familiar to the country's authoritarian leader, Islam Karimov. He uses the expression often during speeches, and has also used it as the title of one of his numerous books.

In a voice mail message left with RFE/RL's Tashkent bureau, a protester described the scene: "Several people who suffered a lot and were fed up took to the streets to say their houses were to be demolished. We blocked the road and were holding placards."

Local human rights activists like Jamol Mirsaidov were said to be among the protesters. Protesters claimed Mirsaidov and other demonstrators were hurt when police used force to disperse the crowd. Uzbek officials have not commented on the protest.

Historic Village

Experts say the issue is about more than Bogimaydon's residents. They argue the village itself is a historical and architectural treasure that should not be destroyed.

Bogimaydon is believed to have been founded as a magnificent garden. Uzbek architects say it was constructed in the 14th century at the behest of Amir Timur -- also known as Tamerlane, the medieval conqueror and founder of an empire that extended from India to the Mediterranean Sea, with Samarkand as its capital.

Toshpulat Rakhmatullaev is an independent journalist and historian who lives in Bogimaydon. He says although the highway extension will not affect the historic part of the village, the road work is an intrusion that never should be so close to a place with such deep historical value.

"Amir Timur had, according to some sources, 14 gardens. Two of them were Bogimaydon and Bogibaland. The new highway is to go in between Bogimaydon and Bogibaland. The houses [set for destruction] themselves were constructed not more than 50 years ago. There are no historical monuments [among the buildings to be demolished]. But the garden area itself has significant historical value. And another issue is also important here. Those who are being forced to vacate their homes are saying, 'Why didn't you notify us a year or six months ago? We would have found new houses, got ready by now,'" Rakhmatullaev said.

The protest in Bogimaydon was followed by another demonstration. Merchants -- mainly women -- from Samarkand's biggest clothing market, Chuqurbozor, gathered yesterday to protest a decision by authorities to close the bazaar.

Demonstrators said the closure was announced yesterday -- just a day before it was due to close.

Local police forces quickly blocked the area of the market where the protests took place. A BBC correspondent who was trying to get to the site was detained and held by police for several hours.

Eyewitnesses told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service the number of protesters may have risen as high as several hundred people.

The two protests are the first in Uzbekistan since the violent crackdown against peaceful demonstrations in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon last May. That violence reportedly led to the deaths of hundreds of unarmed protesters, including many women and children.

The demolition of houses has been a sensitive issue in Uzbekistan for the past several years. Earlier this year, an elderly woman from the capital Tashkent set herself on fire after authorities demanded she vacate her house.

Restrictions on trade regulations markets have also led to many past demonstrations around the country.

The largest protest against trade restrictions took place in the eastern city of Quqon (Kokand) in the Ferghana Valley in November 2004. Several thousand people took part in street protests that involved attacks on police and other officials.

Kamron Aliev, a Tashkent-based independent political analyst, tells RFE/RL it is disappointing to see that the Uzbek authorities have not seen a "wake-up call" in the Andijon violence, which drew international condemnation. He says he had hoped that Andijon would change the way officials dealt with citizens' rights.

In the case of Samarkand, he says, the authorities should have known to give reasonable deadlines for vacating their homes or alerting them to the closure of the market.

"Of course, if they would have done that, people's discontent would not be as high as it is now. But during the last 10-15 years, authorities and bureaucrats have ignored the people's needs; they have harassed and tortured people. On the other hand, the major weakness of autocratic regimes is that only one person tries to control everything. But usually one person is not able to do it. So, those around him do what they want," Aliev said.

Aliev says the recent decisions in Samarkand might be the deliberate actions of government officials looking to gain power by damaging Karimov, a native of Samarkand, and deepening public dissatisfaction with him.

The situation in Samarkand and Bogimaydon was quiet today, although road construction in Bogimaydon continues.

Security measures have reportedly been strengthened and police are keeping close watch over the public, particularly at bazaars. Bogimaydon resident Toshpulat Rakhmatullaev says local officials have been attempting to calm public unrest.

He also says the authorities are unlikely to reverse their decisions on the highway construction and bazaar relocation. But they may, at least, postpone the changes until after 1 September, the country's Independence Day, when large public celebrations are expected.

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