It's the middle of summer and bulldozers are flattening two dozen private dachas in the picturesque district of Bustonliq, in northeastern Uzbekistan, to make way for a state project to turn the area into a tourist hub.
“We got a phone call from our neighbor who told us our dacha in [the village of] Khumson was being knocked down. We rushed to the village and saw that the walls of the house were already demolished,” a homeowner told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service on August 4.
"There were two vehicles, an excavator, and a team of about 10 workers at the scene," he said. "Some 40 percent of the dacha had already been destroyed." The man spoke on condition of anonymity fearing retaliation by authorities.
Dacha owners in the Khumson and Khujakent villages claim officials haven’t given them any notice about the demolitions. Private summer homes are being razed when the owners are away, residents claim.
Several other dacha owners in Bustonliq gave a similar account. Officials, however, insist they are not breaking any laws.
Local authorities say they have a court order to demolish the summer houses that were built without planning permission.
According to authorities, some of the houses built without authorization are located dangerously close to high-voltage electric transmission towers and a wind turbine.
“All these holiday homes have been constructed illegally and are subject to demolition. By law, in such cases the owners don’t get any compensation,” said an official at the Bustonliq district government.
The official spoke to RFE/RL anonymously as they weren’t authorized to speak to the media.
Local outlets reported that out of the 24 dachas on the demolition list, only two were deemed eligible for compensation to be paid to the owners.
Some homeowners and journalists have questioned the impartiality of the judges who recently ruled in favor of the demolition. But nothing is stopping the government from going ahead with its plan.
“Two years ago, the Prime Minister’s Office ordered the demolition of the premises that were built illegally. Also, the president had issued a decree,” the official added.
The official was referring to a 2017 document signed by President Shavkat Mirzioyev about creating a so-called free tourism zone in Bustonliq. The zone will be named Chorvoq.
In 2018, the government announced plans to build modern hotel complexes, restaurants, and other infrastructure while expanding the roads in the rural area as part of the multimillion-dollar Chorvoq project.
Locals Pay The Price
Bustonliq is known for its scenic hilltops, mountainous rivers, and lush green landscapes.
Located some 120 kilometers northeast of the capital, Tashkent, it has long been a popular holiday destination for city dwellers escaping the summer heat. There are already many hotels and a reservoir that attract mainly Uzbeks for vacations.
The government in the Central Asian nation of some 30 million people now wants to develop the area into a potentially money-making tourism hub for international visitors.
Many local residents believe they are paying the price for Tashkent’s ambitious projects.
Dozens of homes were abruptly torn down in 2018 outside of the capital as authorities widened a road that became part of the so-called presidential highway frequently used by Mirziyoev’s entourage.
Authorities at the time said financial compensation and new homes were being given to the owners.
Some complained they weren’t even given time to remove their furniture -- while others said the compensation didn’t cover the cost of their homes and property that were seized from them.
Supreme Court’s Role Questioned
Last month, the authorities organized a “press tour” for local journalists to the site of the “illegally built” dachas in Bustonliq to promote the government’s side of the story.
Among officials who took part in the tour was Supreme Court Deputy Chairman Kholmumin Yodgorov.
He sought to convince reporters that leveling the dachas in Bustonliq was an entirely lawful act.
His comments prompted a backlash from lawmaker Rasul Kusherbaev, who cast doubt on the Supreme Court’s neutrality.
Kusherbaev said it was “strange” that the deputy head of the country's high court, a supposedly independent body, was trying to justify the government’s controversial action.
The lawmaker was quoted by local media as saying: “Doesn't that sound like the judiciary is acting as an advocate for the executive branch and unconditionally fulfilling its instructions?”
In Khumson, meanwhile, many dacha owners are not ready to give up on their properties.
“My mother stood in front of the excavator to stop the workers,” one homeowner said. “The workers quietly left. They haven’t yet come back.”
But it remains unclear if the homeowners are going to appeal the court ruling that approved the demolitions, paving the authorities’ way to raze the remaining dachas to the ground.