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Uzbek Officials Scramble To Spruce Up Neighborhoods, Fearing A Surprise Presidential Visit

Regional officials have been scrambling to spruce up neighborhoods after Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev made several unannounced trips to residential neighborhoods in recent weeks.
Regional officials have been scrambling to spruce up neighborhoods after Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev made several unannounced trips to residential neighborhoods in recent weeks.

Preparations are in full swing for a presidential visit in the Uzbek city of Jizzakh and its suburbs, where roads are being repaired and walls are being repainted.

The Jizzakh provincial government has ordered all neighborhood committees to prepare for a "possible" visit by President Shavkat Mirziyoev. "The governor's office said, 'The president can arrive at any moment, so be ready,'" one neighborhood committee member told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on condition of anonymity.

Similar preparations for presidential visits have been under way since late March in several other provinces, with the authorities paying particular attention to renovation work in less prosperous residential neighborhoods.

The work is going on even though there have not been any imminent visits announced by Mirziyoev to Jizzakh or other regions in the days ahead.

Regional officials have been scrambling to spruce up neighborhoods after Mirziyoev made several unannounced trips to residential neighborhoods -- known as "mahallas" -- in recent weeks. Some trips resulted in local officials being fired over problems the president reportedly discovered during his visits.

Mirziyoev has absolute and unchecked power in Uzbekistan, controlling all spheres from politics to business. He can fire local officials or appoint new ones as he pleases.

During an unannounced visit to a working-class neighborhood in the town of Chirchiq on March 18, video posted online by the president's office showed Mirziyoev speaking to several residents who were surprised to see him walking through the area.

Some complained about problems they have in their daily lives such as an aging central heating system, inadequate public transport, and problems with the resident-registration office.

During an official visit to Ferghana in February, Mirziyoev randomly turned his entourage to the Shodiyona mahalla in a less affluent part of the city, disappointing local officials who had elaborately prepared another area for the president to see.

His surprise visit to Shodiyona included meetings with residents there and a firsthand inspection of the area's shoddy infrastructure and dilapidated roads. What Mirziyoev learned from that visit reportedly contributed to his decision to fire the local governor, the chief of police, and the head of the tax office.

Mirziyoev has said he wants to break from the notorious tradition of excessive preparations ahead of his official visits to regions, where host governors create a facade of prosperity to hide the reality of ordinary residents' lives.

Extensive preparations often include refurbishing buildings where the president is scheduled to hold meetings. Trees and flowers are often planted along sidewalks, even during the middle of the winter. Local authorities also mobilize teachers, students, and others to sweep the roads where the president's motorcade is expected to pass.

Officials fear being fired by the president if he sees the real state of affairs.
Officials fear being fired by the president if he sees the real state of affairs.

Residents of neighborhoods where a presidential visit has been announced are also told to dress appropriately and say all the right words to flatter the guest. Criticism is out of the question.

Instead of trying to tackle problems and address people's grievances, local authorities often choose the easier option of simply hiding problems.

'I Feel Guilty'

Mirziyoev first criticized such elaborate preparations in 2018 after a 23-year-old teacher in Samarkand Province was struck and killed by a truck while cleaning a road ahead of a presidential visit.

The teacher, Diana Yenikeeva, and her colleagues had been ordered by the local government to clear rubbish alongside the highway in Samarkand's Kattaqurghon district, where Mirziyoev's motorcade was expected to pass.

Mirziyoev said he "felt guilty" for the death of the young teacher, who left behind a 2-year-old child. He demanded that local officials put an end to the practice of using public-sector employees as a free labor force.

Mirziyoev has also warned regional governments against trying to impress him with a Potemkin village, saying he does his homework before each trip. "I come fully informed about the situation on the ground," Mirziyoev said during a visit to Syrdaryo Province. "But in many places, they create a false show. It makes me sick and very uncomfortable."

Central Asian Norm

In fact, it's a common practice across Central Asia for local authorities to try to impress a visiting president by concealing the true state of affairs.

In Tajikistan, ahead of President Emomali Rahmon's trip to the southern city of Bokhar in March, trees alongside the roads were wrapped with locally produced silk and cotton fabrics at a cost of $4.40 a meter. The average salary of a teacher in Tajikistan is about $100 a month.

Two men known for criticizing local authorities in the town of Kulob say police keep them locked away whenever Rahmon visits to prevent them from speaking out.

A Tajik neighborhood gets the presidential pretreatment.
A Tajik neighborhood gets the presidential pretreatment.

The practice was seen in Turkmenistan when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov officially opened a newly constructed village called Berkarar Zaman.

State TV showed hundreds of people, including many children, claiming they were happy residents of the village and greeting the president with a red carpet ceremony, a concert, and a displays of freshly harvested fruits and vegetables.

But that turned out to be a fake show with participants bused in from other regions.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported that as soon as Berdymukhammedov left the village, participants in the charade were sent away along with the carpets, the fruit and vegetables, and even a sign containing the name of the village.

A Potemkin Village For The Turkmen President
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Across Central Asia, similar performances are even put on when relatives of the president visit. In January, journalists in Uzbekistan's southern city of Qarshi criticized what they described as a week of preparation for a one-day visit by Mirziyoev's eldest daughter, Saida Mirziyoeva.

Words Vs Reality

Since coming to power in 2016, Mirziyoev has been credited with bringing some positive changes to an authoritarian country that had been strictly ruled for 27 years by his predecessor, Islam Karimov.

Mirziyoev freed hundreds of people who'd been jailed by Karimov's regime on trumped-up charges of religious extremism. He also removed thousands of people from a Karimov-era blacklist of potential extremists -- including journalists, opposition figures, and government critics.

However, Uzbekistan still doesn't allow genuine political opposition and the press remains severely restricted.

On March 31, the newly established Truth And Development opposition party said its activists were attacked by unidentified people as they tried to gather signatures required for the party's official registration by the Justice Ministry.

On March 27, Uzbek singer-turned-politician Jahongir Otajonov said he was threatened with bodily harm by three unidentified men after announcing plans to run for president in the October election.

The Justice Ministry also recently made it a crime to "insult and slander" the president in digital form or online, saying offenders could face up to five years in prison.

So although the Uzbek president has said he is "tired" of false flattery, Mirziyoev has yet to tolerate genuine criticism of his administration or real political competition.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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