A lot has been written about the now deceased Uzbek President Islam Karimov this past week and more will appear in the coming days.
Uzbek state media have played up what they have portrayed as Karimov’s achievements for years and those tales have only gotten taller in recent days. In Western accounts, a more common picture is of a cruel dictator who had prisoners boiled alive and ordered the massacre of civilians in Andijon in May 2005.
I’ve met some of the Central Asian leaders but never Karimov. I have been persona non grata in Uzbekistan for more than a decade and haven’t set foot there since the early days of this century.
But for more than 10 years, starting in 1990, I roamed all over the country. During the course of that decade I met with people everywhere and I remembered what they told me. I continued to travel around and watch as the country changed under Karimov’s rule.
As media and various worthy authorities and authors recall Karimov’s life, it seems a good time to remember his image, among the people of his country, in the first years of his leadership. It’s a story I saw with my own eyes.
In the summer of 1990, I was a student at Tashkent State University, studying the Uzbek language. I wasn’t the only American studying there that summer, but we were few. To the local students, we were exotic animals, so it was easy to meet people and make new friends.
I don’t remember Karimov’s name coming up even once in conversation, though by that time he had been president of the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan since March of that year -- and first secretary of the Communist Party there since June 1989. I knew who Kazakhstan’s leader was -- Nursultan Nazarbaev -- because I had seen him many times on Soviet television with Mikhail Gorbachev. But Karimov, no.
When I left Uzbekistan in August 1990, I still had no idea who was running the republic.
When I returned in the spring of 1992 and got to Tashkent, I got my first news about Islam Karimov. That was just a couple of months after the student riots in Tashkent. Officially, only a few people were killed when students in Tashkent protested on January 16-17 over the rise in prices for basic goods, but the people I met told me stories that indicated the number of dead was far higher -- “more than 100,” “more than 200.”
A lot of students at Tashkent State were being sent back to their homes in regions around Uzbekistan. People believed Karimov gave the order to crack down on the students, but they saw this as simply a typical Soviet reaction to unrest.
Strangely, when I passed through the Ferghana Valley, no one ever told me about Karimov’s humiliation in Namangan in December 1991, when Tohir Yuldash, later to be a leader of the infamous Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), had forced Karimov to sit and listen as Yuldash lectured him on proper governance. I found out about that much later -- in 1994 and 1995 -- from local rights activists.
The years 1992 and 1993 were a confusing time, not only in Uzbekistan but around Central Asia. No one knew how independence was supposed to work. There was an endless shuffle of local officials as one after another proved incapable or too greedy to be allowed to remain in their posts. I would meet the head of a village, but when I came back three or four months later it was almost always someone different. People in the villages were very unhappy, a bit scared, and already wondering if independence was a big mistake.
The first time I remember seeing Karimov was in the summer of 1992. I was with three Uzbek friends at one their flats and we were watching a session of parliament on state television. They were debating the important matter of whether deputies should stop addressing each other using the Russian word “tovarishch” -- comrade -- and switch to the Uzbek equivalent “yoldosh.” Karimov took the podium and started talking, and I was immediately confused.
“My Uzbek is worse than I thought,” I told my friends. “I can’t understand what he’s saying.”
They all started laughing.
“It’s not your Uzbek, it’s his. He can’t speak it,” they replied.
Uzbek media would later portray Karimov as having led Uzbekistan and its people out of the repressive Soviet Union. But the fact is he could only speak to his people in Russian at first. Karimov did learn Uzbek eventually, but he always seemed more comfortable speaking Russian.
During those times in 1992 and 1993 when I would be at a hotel in Tashkent or Samarkand, I noticed a growing emphasis on television programs about the military. Karimov had been the first in Central Asia to order Russian soldiers out of the country and call Uzbek soldiers in Soviet units in other former republics to come home. It seemed clear enough that Karimov wanted his country to be the military power in Central Asia. I think that was one of the reasons Karimov resented the presence of Russian troops or border guards in the neighboring Central Asian states: It prevented his country from being the dominant power in the region, as he envisioned.
I was surprised Karimov refused to allow refugees from the Tajik civil war into Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan was letting them in. I would even see them in the Almaty area and I encountered them in Turkmenistan, too, though I have no idea by which route they arrived there. But not in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek-Tajik border was the first closed border in Central Asia because that was what the Uzbek government wanted.
For most of 1992 there were no border posts on any of the other roads in Central Asia. I passed from one country into another without any sign that I had crossed. Uzbekistan was the first country to establish border posts along the roads; it started happening in autumn 1992, in the Ferghana Valley. By the time I left at the end of 1993, it was impossible to drive into Uzbekistan from any of the neighboring countries without being stopped and checked.
When I went back in 1995, people had mixed feelings about Karimov. Some had uncomplimentary names for him by then, but most felt that, despite a recent referendum extending his rule until 2000, he wouldn’t stay for many more years -- and there was some optimism that the next leader would get the country on a better, more prosperous path.
That was still the prevailing attitude when I went back in 1996.
My next trip was in 1998 and it coincided with the May 9 celebrations of the end of World War II. For the first time, I noticed the larger presence of police around Tashkent. Even in the countryside, there were more of them than was previously the case.
People talked about Karimov but they were much more cautious in their comments and they never said bad things about the president if other people were nearby.
As part of that trip, I went to meet with the grand mufti of Uzbekistan in Tashkent. I remember being led into his office and seeing a bookshelf with the Koran and a copy of one of Karimov’s books on it.
The next day I left the Hotel Uzbekistan and walked into one of the passages under the street. On both sides of the corridor people had stalls and were selling various items. I stopped at one selling books and looked at what they had. It was mostly books about how to use computers or learn English, but up in the corner of one shelf collecting dust was Karimov’s book Stability And Reform: Articles And Speeches. I told the woman working there that I would buy that and she gave me a puzzled look that said, “Why on Earth would you want that?”
I still have that book on my shelf, collecting dust just as it was when I found it. Never made it past Page 5.
I was in southern Kyrgyzstan in 1999 to cover the IMU incursion. I didn’t cross into Uzbekistan proper on that trip, though I did pass through the Soh exclave while traveling to and back from Batken, the closest town to the front line in Kyrgyzstan. I had passed through Soh a half dozen times at least before that, but on my way back in 1999 I was detained and questioned for a few hours. The Uzbek Army officials, and the man with the necktie who showed up, told me flat out that they had every right to hold me and that I had to tell them everything I knew about what was happening in Batken. They were polite enough, but they were absolutely firm about me staying until they were satisfied they had learned all they could from me.
I returned to Uzbekistan in 2000 for the same reason: an incursion by the IMU, this time into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
The game then was very different than it had been. I was clearly unwelcome. The only reason I reached the places I needed to go was because I knew my way around Uzbekistan so well by then. Every official I encountered had something to say to me, usually a warning. In Tashkent, I was able to buy a round-trip plane ticket to Termez but only after I endured a lecture in which they accused RFE/RL of “giving terrorists a microphone.” (We had interviewed an IMU spokesman.)
I made it to Sariosiya, the closest place I could get to the front lines. There was a camp for refugees who’d been brought from the mountains where the fighting was going on. There were a couple hundred of them sheltering at a children’s camp near Sariosiya. They were all ethnic Tajiks.
They told me they were given a few hours to collect the possessions of a lifetime. The military told them they would never return to their villages, that the area was being seeded with land mines and it would henceforth be too dangerous to live there.
There was not much to do at the camp. In the evening, they staged some wrestling matches, and most of the men and many of the women and children gathered around to watch. There was a great moment -- a badly needed moment -- when two elderly men, well into their 70s, went out and engaged in combat in the ring. We all smiled and laughed and after about 45 seconds some young men broke up the wrestling match and the two aksakals -- whitebeards -- exited the ring to receive handshakes and pats on the back from members of the audience.
I heard a few months later that the authorities had arrested and imprisoned all of the men between 18 and 45 who were there. When the armed militants had arrived in their villages, they heeded commands to hand over some food and provide shelter to the militants. The government considered those villagers to be collaborators.
I was followed most of the time I was there. When I arrived later at the family home of IMU leader Yuldash in Namangan to speak with his mother, two cars pulled in right behind mine and four men got out and stood behind me a few meters as I tried to speak with this elderly and clearly frightened woman.
On those occasions when I felt I was not being watched and could engage in more open conversation with people, it became apparent they were scared. There was a crackdown. Authorities were looking for potential IMU sympathizers. I spoke with one pious Muslim who told me he kept a crate of vodka just inside the entrance to his flat for all visitors to see. He had been questioned by the security service several times and had taken to offering a shot or two of vodka to security service agents when they showed up.
“They don’t think I’m an extremist when they see the vodka,” he told me.
It was quite a transformation in just some 10 years. I remember the fun I had there in the early 1990s and that everyone around me, even police and officials, shared in it, too. Life was uncertain, but we had good times when we could, which was often. By the end of the 1990s, life was very certain, but the good times were few and far between.