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Qishloq Ovozi

Street sweepers in the Uzbek city of Samarkand say they had not been paid for the past three months. (file photo)

Armed with only the tools of their trade, a group of more than 50 street sweepers fended off police in the Uzbek city of Samarkand. Not so long ago it would have been easy to describe the events of the morning of August 6 in the ancient Silk Road city as a "rare" protest in Uzbekistan, but that is no longer the case and the street sweepers' protest might only be the tip of the iceberg.

The reason for the protest was unpaid wages, according to witnesses to the event who contacted RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik.

Carrying brooms, dustpans, and gardening tools, this group of municipal employees, mostly women, gathered at the provincial administration building and demanded to see the governor. Some 20 policemen quickly arrived at the scene -- only to be met by a picket line of brooms.

The group said they had not been paid wages for May, June, and July, they wanted their money, and they wanted the officials responsible for paying them to be held accountable.

The police called in the head of the Samarkand social welfare department, the local representative of Uzbekistan's central bank, and the director of the provincial finance office.

'No Money In The Budget'

Given Uzbekistan's record for dealing with protests, it was surprising the police did not arrest the group, but then the police and members of Uzbekistan's security agencies have been among those who have not been paid on time during the last couple of years.

Samarkand social welfare department head Mamurjon Muhsinov arrived. He told the group, "What can we do, there is no money in the budget, money isn't coming [from the central government]."

One of the women protesting answered, "You and your officials have spent all our money."

The street sweepers dispersed after officials promised to pay them their overdue salaries, and Ozodlik learned that on August 8 the workers were paid their wages for May and June. An official at the social welfare department in Samarkand told Ozodlik the July wages would be paid by August 12.

This official also said Muhsinov had been fired on the day of the protest.

Ozodlik also found out that the accountant for the Samarkand social welfare department had been questioned by the prosecutor's office.

Delayed Paychecks

Wage arrears have become a significant problem in Uzbekistan. Besides the Samarkand street sweepers, workers in the energy industry and the banking sector, state officials, security forces, and police have been among the victims of delayed paychecks.

Few have resorted to going on strike or protesting over wage arrears, but there are indications the population's patience is wearing thin.

At the end of December 2015, residents in the town of Gazalkent, some 70 kilometers northeast of Tashkent, protested for a week outside the city administration building and the local utility company after their household gas supplies were halted. By the end of that protest some people were throwing stones at the administration building. Just a couple of weeks earlier, residents the city of Ferghana blocked the main road to protest suspension of gas supplies.

The Samarkand streets sweepers' protest probably will not be reported by media in Uzbekistan. Uzbek authorities don't want people to believe they can get something through protesting.

But word spreads even without the media and the root causes of the protest in Samarkand are part of everyday life for many in Uzbekistan.

People have described the Uzbek government and President Islam Karimov as ruling with an iron fist, but there are limits to what an iron fist can do.

It is possible to repress people and deny them basic rights they never really enjoyed under the Soviet Union or prior to that under the khans and emirs of the region.

But demanding that people with barely enough to live on accept less is more difficult. Hunger and hopelessness are stronger than fear, as a group of ladies wielding brooms in Samarkand just demonstrated.

Sirojiddin Tolibov from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report
A spokesman for Faryab Governor Said Anwar Sadat (above) says around 6,000 armed militants are present in Faryab. “More than half of them are helping Afghan security forces [against the Taliban]," he says, "but the other half of them are those who prey on ordinary people.”

Qishloq Ovozi has paid a good deal of attention to what is happening south of Central Asia, in Afghanistan. But most of these reports deal with unrest in the border area and the security problems militants in northern Afghanistan could pose to Central Asian countries.

Mustafa Sarwar, a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan, known locally as Azadi, came to me with a story about life and problems in Faryab, one of the Afghan provinces bordering Turkmenistan. RFE/RL’s Gandhara website visited this topic a couple of years back. What the Gandhara report described is still true but the scope is larger.

And remember, Central Asia is a big loser if the situation in northern Afghanistan falls into chaos, and this story of Faryab is likely similar to stories in most of the eight Afghan provinces bordering Central Asia.

"Around 6,000 armed militants are present in Faryab,” said Mohamad Jawid Bidar, a spokesman for Said Anwar Sadat, the Faryab governor. “More than half of them are helping Afghan security forces during operations [against the Taliban], but the other half of them are those who prey on ordinary people.”

These are Arbaky forces and Popular Uprising Forces or Kheizish-e Mardomi (as they are termed by the Interior Ministry) -- paramilitary groups that have some support from individuals in the Afghan government.

As Bidar noted, “In a province that has more than 1,300 villages with some 8,000 members of the security forces, it's very hard to establish posts in every village.” Which is why authorities have allowed these paramilitary forces to operate. Though Bidar admitted, “We do not have enough control on these [armed gangs].”

Mohammad Reza Rezayee, the head of public relations for 209 Shaheen Corps in Faryab, echoed Bidar’s comments, saying, “Some of them have played a positive role…but a number of them have caused concern for the locals, as well as for Afghan [government] forces.”

Rezayee claimed that “the provincial police command center provides them with ammunition to fight against the Taliban…but they sell some of the ammunition to the Taliban, which then is used against themselves and Afghan forces in the province.”

“Sometimes," he added, "they use the weapons against each other.”

Clearly, it is a confusing and terrifying situation for villagers, who have no way of knowing who these armed groups are -- pro-government paramilitaries or bandits connected to the government through vague promises.

Ahmad Jawid Kaiwan is the head of the Faryab Civil Society Network. He told Azadi, “Nowadays, people are more concerned about the popular uprising forces (the paramilitaries) than the Taliban because some of these [paramilitary] forces have ignited factional and ethnic fighting.”

Human Rights Watch recently released a report about abuses committed by some of these paramilitary groups, saying at one point that the use of these groups “has undermined security in northern Afghanistan.”

Kaiwan also conceded some of these paramilitary groups have “proven effective, but [they have] also created problems in many instances.”

Extortion is the biggest problem -- a fact mentioned by Bidar, Rezayee, and Kaiwan.

Said Hafizullah Fitrat is the head of the Faryab Human Rights Commission. He explained some of these Arbaky groups “are engaged in stealing. Sometime they commit sexual violence on people’s families. They want every household to pay them from 1,000 to 3,000 afghanis ($15 to $45) each month. They want people to give them food,” Fitrat said. “They even forcibly take people to their posts for hard work, such as bringing water from wells or digging…”

Some of these groups are protected by local law-enforcement officials; other groups have grown so strong that police are afraid and unable to act against them.

Abdul Karim is a villager in the Pashtun Kot district. He said the government should move against these groups.

“They are strongmen and they kill and extort people,” Karim said, “From our family, they have killed four of my brothers and I was shot.”

These paramilitary groups are a propaganda bonanza for the Taliban or other groups such as the so-called Islamic State militant group that are trying to get their own footholds in Afghanistan.

Rezayee of the 209 Shaheen Corps said the some of the groups “have created distance between the people and the government.”

We’ve heard during the Majlis podcast from analysts in Afghanistan who say that some Arbaky groups are so lawless that they are pushing villagers into the arms of the Taliban, who generally treat the population better than the paramilitaries do.

But with fighting now going on across northern Afghanistan, and government forces there stretched thin, these paramilitary groups are necessary to counter the growing number of Taliban fighters and foreign militants in the region.

In between these groups, as they have been for decades, are the villagers, who must endure the arrival of one armed group after another and wait and hope that one day, one of these groups might come to help them rather than steal from and abuse them.

Based on reporting by Mustafa Sarwar of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan

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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 some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

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

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