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In Rare Public Protest, Uzbek Pensioners Demand Cash, Not Plastic

The rare antigovernment protest was captured in an undated, minute-long video posted on Facebook on January 18.
The rare antigovernment protest was captured in an undated, minute-long video posted on Facebook on January 18.

In a rare public protest in Uzbekistan, a group of retirees recently took to the streets to demand that their local government drop its newfangled debit-card system and pay their pensions in cash.

The protest was captured in an undated, minute-long video posted on Facebook on January 18. It shows a crowd of mostly elderly men and women assembled outside the government building in Denov, the capital of the southern Surkhondaryo Province, to air a number of grievances.

High on the list is that the debit-card system used by the government to pay pensions is not working.

"We are not getting our money that was paid by plastic," says Namozbobo Boymurotov, an octogenarian clad in a traditional black coat and hat. "Everyone here has come with the same demand."

Under the system first introduced in 2004, the state started to transfer benefits and salaries to banks, from which recipients could access their cash only by using debit cards. Uzbeks have long complained that cardholders pay high fees for card transactions.

"They should pay our money. Until when are you deceiving us?" one unidentified protester shouts in the video (below), posted to the page of a 8,000-strong public group called the Team Of President Mirziyaev's Supporters.

"They are telling us: 'Please go home, we'll pay.' But they are not paying our pensions," another unidentified protester complains, referring to local government authorities.

When contacted by telephone, Denov Deputy Governor Dilmurod Allaberdiev told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that he was unaware of the video and the protest itself.

"We are paying pensions on time," Allaberdiev said. "No one has protested here."

Since the system was introduced, the state has made it compulsory for retailers, including private merchants in bazaars, to install card-payment devices.

Uzbekistan's Central Bank has touted the success of the system, saying more than 17 million cards were in circulation in 2016 -- covering nearly half of the country's 32 million inhabitants.

The protesters in Denov beg to differ, saying that banks take between 22 and 27 percent in commission when customers withdraw their money in cash. Others complain that many private vendors in bazaars and on the streets, especially in rural areas, refuse to accept the cards -- even if they have payment terminals.

Antigovernment protests are rare in Uzbekistan, where the government of former President Islam Karimov suppressed all forms of dissent until his death in September 2016. His successor, Shavkat Mirziyaev, has vowed to largely continue Karimov's domestic and international policies.

The new video, however, comes just weeks after Mirziyaev issued a decree titled On Additional Measures For Further Improvement Of State Support System For The Elderly And Disabled.

The document instructs local governments to provide social and financial support for the elderly. One measure includes setting up special leisure and health centers where the elderly can gather to mingle with each other, read books, play chess, and even get free meals.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Servicems
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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.

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    RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

    RFE/RL's Uzbek Service relies on innovation and a wide network of local sources and platforms to uncover news and engage with audiences in one of the world’s most restrictive societies.

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

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