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Hotline To Uzbek Leader: Panacea For The People Or Campaign Ploy?

Acting Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev (file photo)
Acting Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev (file photo)

Ahead of an election expected to cement his power, Uzbekistan's acting president has given the people a way to seek his help in solving their problems: a toll-free number.

The free phone line, and an online complaint box also established after autocratic longtime President Islam Karimov's death was announced in early September, have been flooded with pleas from ordinary Uzbeks eager to cut through bureaucracy and steer clear of corrupt officials as they look for solutions to troubles big and small -- from broken cell phones to gas shortages.

The hotlines are part of a campaign to give citizens what are being portrayed as direct channels of communication with Shavkat Mirziyaev, who has been prime minister since 2003 and is expected to easily win a five-year presidential term in the tightly controlled Central Asian nation in the December 4 vote.

"Do you have unsolved problems, petitions, complaints, or suggestions? Send them to the Prime Minister of the Republic of Uzbekistan," says the webpage, which is available in Uzbek and Russian and features a photograph of Mirziyaev. Citizens can also call the toll-free number 1000 or 0-800-210-00-00.

Blowing Off Steam

The online box had received more than 70,000 messages by October 22, according to official data, and tens of thousands more since then. The initiative has opened a safety valve, letting some steam escape from a population hit hard by years of economic hardship under an authoritarian government and an extensive bureaucracy.

But critics say it it's a populist move to bolster Mirziyaev ahead of the election, falling far short of real reforms that that could improve people's lives and provide them with basic human rights.

"It's a fool's errand for the prime minister to be occupied solving every little miscellaneous problem. You have to work on the system," Tashkent-based analyst Almardon Annaev told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

The death of Karimov, who had ruled with an iron hand since before Uzbekistan gained independence in the 1991 Soviet collapse, has raised hopes for such reform despite Mirziyaev's record as a loyal lieutenant to Karimov and his reputation, from stints at being a regional governor, as a tough boss with a violent streak.

But the image of Mirziyaev as strict leader plays into the apparent appeal of the hotline, with its implication that the prime minister will remove obstacles by putting pressure on local bureaucrats. The move echoes Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual Direct Line call-in show, in which Russians nationwide air their grievances to the longtime leader in a televised broadcast.

In Uzbekistan, many messages contain complaints about specific problems such as the lack of cash in banks, shortages of clean drinking water, electricity, and gas in rural areas, and long waiting lists to buy new vehicles, a government official involved in handling the site told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

Widespread Discontent

Mirziyaev's Facebook page, meanwhile, is brimming with alleged accounts from satisfied users of the hotline.

In one such case, a man complained that he had bought a broken cell phone from a private shop, and that the seller refused to give his money back.

"All my demands have been satisfied," said a letter that was ostensibly written by the complainant, and was dated October 28. It said he had been able to return the phone to the shop.

Mirziyaev's Facebook page also publicizes measures that it says are being taken against officials accused of shortcomings.

In Tashkent, the capital, it said the head of the heating company Toshissiqlikquvvati's branch in the Mirabad district was dismissed for not properly considering appeals by a local resident about problems in heating supply.

In another effort to ease widespread public discontent toward government bodies that many Uzbeks believe are rife with corruption and cronyism, Mirziyaev ordered the heads of state agencies in an October 27 decree to allocate three hours a day to receive citizens, including business owners, to discuss "matters of mutual interest."

The measures have prompted some people to speak out about their grievances, such as at an October 28 event in which some 5,000 businesspeople and entrepreneurs reportedly packed Tashkent's Istiqlol theater. Participants were offered the opportunity to submit written questions to government agencies, but the crowd instead demanded microphones.

To the surprise of many, the request was granted and dozens of people lined up to air their complaints about bureaucracy, tax policy, and other issues.

Other citizens have turned to YouTube to address messages directly to Mirziyaev.

In a video posted on October 10 that attracted some 500,000 combined viewers, Tashkent entrepreneur Olim Sulaymonov denounced what he described as unlawful actions by officials at the Yunusobod branch of the Prosecutor-General Office's financial crimes department.

Sulaimonov told RFE/RL he was later invited to participate in a program on national television and a court overturned a previous decision ordering him to pay a fine.

"Mirziyaev helped not only me but all of Uzbekistan's entrepreneurs," Sulaimonov said. "Prior to that, we could not work at all."

But while some Uzbeks are happy they have had problems fixed, others say that the doors of state institutions have remained closed to them despite the prime minister's decree.

Critics of the straight-to-the-people initiatives say that Uzbekistan needs major reforms aimed at improving public administration, and that solving problems on an individual basis in a country of some 30 million people is a tremendously inefficient way to use top-level government resources.

"Solving thousands of problems 'by hand' requires thousands of hands. It's not possible in real life," said Annaev, the analyst. "The system has to work."

And activists say that while people may be able to get their heat turned on or their elevator fixed, complaints related to civil liberties are often ignored.

Shukhrat Rustamov of the Human Rights Defenders Alliance of Uzbekistan in Tashkent, described the initiatives as "window dressing," saying authorities need to address the "very big problems related to human rights and democratic reforms."

"We have several times addressed the matter to the [online complaint box] but never received a response," Rustamov said.

Karimov tolerated no opposition over a quarter-century in power, using security forces to keep a firm lid on dissent and eliminating critical media. He prolonged his power through elections denounced in the West as undemocratic.

Mirziyaev has moved to consolidate his power since Karimov's death, installing allies in key government agencies and bureaucracies, and there have been few signs of significant changes in the country's restrictive political environment.

Written by Antoine Blua based on reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service
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