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Uzbekistan's Grounded Officials

There are not too many people using Tashkent's airport these days as goring restrictions have prevented many people from traveling abroad. (file photo)
There are not too many people using Tashkent's airport these days as goring restrictions have prevented many people from traveling abroad. (file photo)

Some professions practically guarantee a comfortable life.

If someone tells you "that person is a doctor, or a banker, or a TV reporter or a state official," most people hearing this information picture a nice house, a fancy car, and holidays in exotic locations.

The latter perk certainly is not true in Uzbekistan. In fact, such professionals are prohibited from leaving the country at all without special, and very hard to obtain, permission.

Uzbekistan of course was never billed as a workers' paradise. Just ask the 10 to 20 percent of the population who work abroad for at least part of the year, or anyone who was ever forced by state officials to pick cotton, and that's practically everyone.

Still one would imagine a prestigious job in the field of medicine, finance, media, or top administrative posts would present one with certain privileges that most in Uzbekistan would envy. And they do, but there is a string attached and it's anchored to Uzbekistan.

That is because Uzbekistan's government has a long list of topics it considers "secret" or "sensitive" information and a growing list of those with the potential to disseminate this information. For workers in the affected professions, that means no international conferences, meetings, symposia, or even vacations unless they can get official permission.

RFE/RL's Uzbek service, Ozodlik, has been keeping track of Uzbekistan's grounded professionals. Below are some of examples my Uzbek friends recounted to me.

Medical personnel were among the first affected by this obsession with preventing any negative information about Uzbekistan from reaching the world outside. It started with a requirement in late March 2010 that all medical personnel who traveled abroad must submit a report on their activities outside the country within 72 hours of their arrival back in Uzbekistan. Soon that would change to the requirement of receiving prior permission before leaving the country. That would have included doctors with private practices, but they were banned in May 2010.

The tightening restrictions on medicos going abroad coincided roughly with news leaking out that some women in Uzbekistan had been forcibly sterilized and there was also the tragic tale of some 150 children infected with HIV/AIDS from tainted blood transfusions at an Uzbek hospital.

While it remains theoretically possible for medical personnel to obtain permission to leave the country the process involves a chain of officials, none of whom wish to take responsibility for approving a travel request for someone who might inadvertently of intentionally divulge "state secrets."

Doctors and other workers in the medical field were among the first but they certainly have company now.

Internet Restrictions

Last December, employees of the National Teleradio Company were barred from leaving the country. A source in the government told Ozodlik the ban was implemented to prevent the spread of state secrets. More recently, as Qishloq Ovozi has noted, broadcasters can have their domestic transmissions instantly cut off by explosives.

Next up to stay at home: government officials -- and no one in the government but the president escaped. Among those who now need the president's permission to leave Uzbekistan are the prime minister and his deputies, speakers of both houses of parliament, the parliament's ombudsman, the chairman of the Central Bank and his deputies, the prosecutor-general, provincial governors, the mayor of Tashkent, and others.

That restriction came in March just after Jamshid Khudoyorv, the head of the Bukhara regional directorate of the State Committee for Communications, Information and Telecommunication Technologies, told state news agency UzA that staff of state agencies were prohibited from using foreign email providers in the work place.

Khudoyorov's explanation was completely in line with state policy. "Specifically, in order to ensure information security, that is to prevent leakage of information that is of particular importance to our national interests, the exchange of official information through foreign emails and social networking websites, as well as the use of the Internet for personal purposes are prohibited in the workplace," he said.

Khudoyorov noted national email and social networking services had been introduced to replace foreign equivalents. And, he said, ominously, special computer programs are being used to monitor Internet surfing by workers of state agencies.

I could have guessed that last part and I bet most workers in Uzbekistan's state agencies already suspected that was true also. Nature of the beast, and all that.

Rounding out this list of the domestically confined are bankers. Their opportunity to go across the border was removed shortly after government officials learned they were on a short rope in terms of movement. That could be due to information Ozodlik has been receiving lately about the failure to pay wages to employees in the energy sector -- at two of the country's largest fertilizer plants and other state factories and plants. Bankers would of course notice the drastic drop in deposits.

As easy as it would be to ascribe all these travel bans to excessive paranoia, there is also the possibility that the situation inside Uzbekistan is actually very bad, in terms of healthcare, finances, or as regards support for the government.

-- Bruce Pannier with contributions from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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