Here comes an army vehicle with a huge loud speaker, looking like a Soviet relic, blasting out well-known lockdown instructions such as ‘Stay at home. Go out only if there is an essential need. Stay safe,’ for the community to comply and obey. The vehicle has a soldier on top who seems to be pretending to protect the speaker with his gun as it squawks out a cacophony of announcements and patriotic music from hell while you hold your ears so not to be deafened by its dreadful sound.
In Uzbekistan, where ‘Peaceful Sky’ is almost a holy phrase often used by Karimov to justify the tranquillity and stability of his regime, people are told to keep peaceful and not to disrupt stability. This urge for peacefulness and compliance deepened during the lockdown. The Uzbek army has nothing to do other than traveling across the city making these ridiculous announcements. The lyrics of the song that follows the announcement goes: ‘we shall be devoted (or self-sacrificing) to you, Uzbekistan, we shall not give you to anyone, Uzbekistan…’ (as if there was a danger of defeat) by a popular singer of Karimov times, Yulduz Usmanova. In this vein, the armed soldiers of the National Guard stand with heavy guns on the blocked side of the roads. The silliness and absurdity of the situation is reminiscent of Monty Python’s Flying Circus but as Uzbekistan is known as a pseudo police state, this is not a Monty Python episode.
Moments of crisis are perhaps the best opportunities to test the efficiency of governments. It is also a litmus test on a state’s political position, whether it deals with the crisis in a democratic way, with empathy and respect to its people or it pushes the authoritarian tactics by imposing restrictions based on imaginary regulations. The government of Uzbekistan appeared to be dealing well with the pandemic in the beginning. It is almost five months since the government imposed the ‘self-isolation’ that enacted staying at home, strictly prohibiting people over 65 from going out and only allowing other people to leave their homes for nearby pharmacies or shops. The country’s health system failed to accommodate the mounting number of infected in the hospitals or provide tests for COVID-19, but the state is attempting to conceal its failure of tackling the crisis through distorted statistics and underreporting. Both logic and maths fail to validate reality when the number of cases is 33,323, and the number of deaths is only 216. This fantasy is reinforced by national TV channels, who keep focusing their reports on the number of recovered patients.
The Uzbek government claimed that it had the emotional maturity to accept independent criticism and that it was ready for a frank dialogue with its people, then it continued harassing bloggers who expressed an independent opinion on pressing issues. The true colours of the new rule, however, began to show not so long after it announced the year 2017 to be a ‘year of a dialogue with people.’ Through this it started loosening the tongue of the media, whose mouths were long muzzled, opening up the doors to neighbouring countries and to the world and freeing some political prisoners. However, it became evident, that idea of a government willing to change was merely a part of a façade of constructing an inauthentic image of a progressive country. The promised ‘dialogue with people’ failed. The press freedom is still quivering and intimidated. The masks of the ‘reformists’ of the so-called ‘New Uzbekistan’ have already fallen off and the true face of the rule unveiled its entire monstrosity.
The term ‘forced’ accompanies many phrases in Uzbekistan. Forced labour, forced-‘voluntary’ hashar (community work), forced eviction (which is not recognised as an issue in the legislation), and forced ‘self-isolation.’ This solely indicates to the coercive nature of the authoritarian state, whose main raison d’etre is to maintain the regime stability by using force, not to protect the welfare and freedoms of citizens. The government since April has imposed the rules on ‘self-isolation.’ It avoided the ‘state of emergency,’ which would have employed certain responsibilities as ensuring basic socio-economic needs of the population forcibly sent to self-isolation.
As in a normal police state, the power of the military is demonstrated through exercising its force during a crisis like this one, sowing fear among those in whom the rage is growing. The state is showing off its military power by driving through the cities while annoyed people who are in a coerced lockdown look on. The police patrols and units of the National Guard took to the streets of the cities and began detaining citizens and collecting fines from them for violations of imaginary quarantine rules. The term ‘self-isolation’, which is identical to ‘quarantine’, does not exist in the national legislation but has been used as a basis for restrictions. The notion of quarantine, however, exists in the decree by the president on measures to ease the effects of the pandemic on the economic sector. Tired of boredom, the police finally got some tasks by punishing at least one ‘disobedient’ driver a day and imposing fines so that they get more promotion points. The paradox is that they are told that this helps increase revenues to the state budget.
The perils of loose tongues
While Uzbekistan has never been a champion of free expression or independent opinion, the intimidation of journalists and bloggers that critically discuss the pandemic related issues has intensified. Imposing strict regulations on wearing a mask is not only about the pandemic. In metaphorical terms, it is muzzling of the mouths, silencing the truth, quashing potential resistance. Those who speak out to chant for justice are perceived as a threat to the cherished stability under the ‘Peaceful Sky’. An independent journalist Bobomurod Abdullaev was detained on August 9th in Bishkek as per the request of the Uzbek government. Abdullaev has written for Fergana News Agency and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in the past under the pseudonym Usmon Haqnazar. In September 2017, he was detained in with allegations of writing articles that aimed at overthrowing the constitutional order in the country. Abdullaev faced torture while in detention and was released in May 2018. Abdullaev is suspected to have written critical articles under a pen name Qora Mergan (Black Sniper). As Human Right Watch believes, the torture is inevitable for the journalist if he is extradited back to Uzbekistan by Kyrgyz authorities.
A local blogger Miraziz Bazarov was called to visit the State Security Service office after writing an open letter addressed to the IMF and ADB with a request to stop granting loans to Uzbekistan on tackling the pandemic as these funds are likely spent on purposes other than those intended. Uzbekistan received and continues to receive aid from these organisations for the fight against the pandemic. Given the endemic corruption among the government officials, however, some of the aid is being skimmed off rather than being used to support the population or build capacity. Several regions have reported that officials of the Agency for Sanitary and Epidemiological Wellbeing are swindling the funds allocated for the fight against coronavirus. The Ministry of Finance promised to publish reports on expenditures of the loans when requesting them. Their website, however, lacks any information related to loans or their use.
The government’s attempts at controlling thoughts and sanitising opinions through blocking, filtering and restricting social media platforms is costing the nation $1,559,500 USD a day, and $2,339,250 USD for throttling Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, meanwhile the country is struggling to tackle the pandemic. Restricting the freedom of expression and freedom of media goes beyond blocking the internet. Journalists are interrogated for reporting on pandemic related issues. Late evening on July 25th in Nukus, a journalist Lolagul Kalykhanova was taken to the prosecutor’s office by the security services. Kalykhanova’s phone and laptop were confiscated and she was asked to give them access to her laptop. The journalist was accused of posting false information on the alleged death of Musa Yerniyazov, Chairman of the Jokargi Council of the Republic of Karakalpakstan, from coronavirus disease. Yerniyazov died of COVID-related illness a few days after Kalykhanova’s arrest. At least six journalists have been interrogated since then. False reporting is unlawful, but apparently Kalykhanova was not aware that the information was incorrect and she did not post it intentionally or knowingly. Nonetheless, this does not give authority to the prosecutor’s office to confiscate personal equipment of a citizen and access it. The privacy and security of the reporter was compromised.
The world is dealing with the same old Uzbekistan. The difference is that there are friendlier faces and smiles displaying a desire for change. In contrast to the approach under the previous dictator Karimov, the current regime has taken the path of covering populist tactics under a friendlier face. Through well organised PR and paying for lobbyists abroad, the tyrants like Azerbaijan’s Aliyev and Kazakhstan’s narcissist first president Nazarbayev have managed their dark reputation. Uzbekistan’s reformist president is not an exception in laundering his reputation. In fact, he is using a big pool of resources to hire lobbyist and PR agents to whitewash the country’s stains on poor human rights and freedom control.
The populist tactics also include orchestrating ‘free and fair’ elections, the president cursing or reprimanding his corrupt, inefficient, and sycophant officials in public then later moving them to different positions without public announcements (or keeping them in their post despite incompetence just like in the cases of the mayors of Tashkent and Fergana). An example is the acting mayor of Samarkand; Talant Esirgapov was accused of forgery in June 2019 in a corruption case related to urban planning but there was never a trial on his account. Currently he works at the agency on Development of Small Business and Entrepreneurship in the Ministry of Economy.
On the surface, there is the ‘new,’ reforming Uzbekistan. Then there is the Uzbekistan behind the glass and glitter. Judging from behind the glitter, it is apparent that this ‘reformist’ government failed to deliver on the loud promises it made at the beginning of the journey. It has become clear to many that this is not the leader they ‘voted for’, or wish to keep onwards. Even the most sentimental chest beating patriots are cursing the system realising this is an utter betrayal, that the rule they so trusted and rooted for is depressingly similar to the old repressive one. A rule that does not appear to give a damn about them or their wellbeing. Caring about ordinary people has never been in the agenda of autocrats anyway.
Meanwhile, Mirziyoyev congratulates the dictator Lukashenko on his ‘triumph’ in the rigged elections that have been followed by massive protests where thousands were detained and two have been killed so far. It is unlikely that large-scale protests like those in post-Soviet Belarus would occur in Uzbekistan in the near future after the bloodshed of the infamous 2005 Andijan unrest, which Lukashenko warned his people that they should remember. If it did, however, it is to be expected that the Uzbek government would respond the same violent way as the Belarussian dictator as the regime’s stability is the essential aim of these types of autocratic rulers, not the freedoms or welfare of the nation.
Ukraine and Belarus might have become closer to a change, which Uzbekistan is distant from as it continues to eliminate the potential for opposition or political pluralism. If the organisations like the IMF, ADB and World Bank continue to provide aid to the country to sustain their crooked regime rather than urging the establishment of transparency and the rule of law, it is unlikely that the people in this country will see a light of freedom and fairness anytime soon.
Photo: by author
 Islam Karimov, the first president of Uzbekistan (1991-2016)
 Citizens over 65 years of age strictly forbidden to leave their homes during quarantine, Kun.uz, April 2020, https://kun.uz/en/news/2020/04/01/citizens-over-65-years-of-age-strictly-forbidden-to-leave-their-homes-during-quarantine
 The State Security Service was interested in the blogger who called the ADB to stop giving uncontrolled loans to the government of Uzbekistan, Asia Terra, July 2020, http://www.asiaterra.info/news/sgb-zainteresovalos-blogerom-prizvavshim-abr-prekratit-beskontrolnuyu-vydachu-kreditov-vlastyam-uzbekistana
 Dilmira Matyakubova, The perils of rebuilding Uzbekistan: The rise of glass and glitter, The Foreign Policy Centre, July 2020, https://fpc.org.uk/the-perils-of-rebuilding-uzbekistan-the-rise-of-glass-and-glitter/
 Editorial, How Uzbekistan deals with the pandemic challenges: lessons for the future, CABAR, July 2020, https://cabar.asia/en/how-uzbekistan-deals-with-the-pandemic-challenges-lessons-for-the-future/
 Khurmat Babadjanov and Ozodlik, In Tashkent, traffic police inspectors ordered to detain at least one driver every day for “disobeying” the police, Rus Ozodlik, April 2020, https://rus.ozodlik.org/a/30570967.html?fbclid=IwAR3Y-nDJXgrwtzulGwDFcvNQl8YmKfB7ws04yvghVBprS9sg0zwrvPTVcXQQ
 Kyrgyzstan: Don’t Return Asylum Seeker to Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch, August 12 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/08/12/kyrgyzstan-dont-return-asylum-seeker-uzbekistan
 Uzbekistan’s attempt to arrest journalist elicits concern, Eurasianet, August 2020, https://eurasianet.org/uzbekistans-attempt-to-arrest-journalist-elicits-concern
 Miraziz Bazarov: Open letter to IMF and ADB, July 2020, http://www.asiaterra.info/mneniya/miraziz-bazarov-otkrytoe-pismo-mvf-i-abr. See also: https://www.facebook.com/mbazarov/posts/3147666611956322
 ADB provides $500 million loan to mitigate health and economic impacts of COVID-19 in Uzbekistan, Tashkent Times, June 2020, https://tashkenttimes.uz/finances/5443-adb-to-provide-us-500-mln-to-uzbekistan-to-mitigate-coronavirus-impact, See also: https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2020/05/18/pr20220-uzbekistan-imf-executive-board-approves-us-375m-disbursement-address-impact-covid19
 Mahalla officials in Shakhrikhan misappropriated 82 million soums allocated to low-income families, Kun.uz, July 2020, https://kun.uz/en/news/2020/07/23/mahalla-officials-in-shakhrikhan-misappropriated-82-million-soums-allocated-to-low-income-families
 Tanzila Narbayeva: Funds allocated for the fight against coronavirus are being misappropriated, Kun.uz, August 2020, https://kun.uz/en/news/2020/08/07/tanzila-narbayeva-funds-allocated-for-the-fight-against-coronavirus-are-being-misappropriated
 Uzbekistan: Journalists detained for sharing link to news article, Eurasianet, July 2020, https://eurasianet.org/uzbekistan-journalists-detained-for-sharing-link-to-news-article
 Uzbek authorities interrogate journalists, confiscate equipment over retracted COVID-19 report, Committee to Protect Journalists, July 2020, https://cpj.org/2020/07/uzbek-authorities-interrogate-journalists-confiscate-equipment-over-retracted-covid-19-report/
 Mark Swenet, ‘Reputation laundering’ is lucrative business for London PR firms, The Guardian, September 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/sep/05/reputation-laundering-is-lucrative-business-for-london-pr-firms
 Shavkat Mirziyoyev reprimands Alisher Shadmanov and Jakhongir Artikhodjayev, Kun.uz, July 2020, https://kun.uz/en/news/2020/07/15/shavkat-mirziyoyev-reprimands-alisher-shadmanov-and-jakhongir-artikhodjayev
 Against the former acting mayor of Samarkand the criminal case is initiated, Uz.sputninews.ru, June 2019, https://sptnkne.ws/pK4a; A phone conversation with the staff of the agency for Development of Small Business and Entrepreneurship, Ministry of Economy, Tashkent, June 2020.
 Press-service of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Twitter, August 2020, https://twitter.com/president_uz/status/1292855341600964608; Belarus election: Second Belarus protester dies as UN sounds alarm, BBC News, August 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-53760453
 For Belarus Leader, a Fading Aura of Invincibility, The New York Times, August 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/12/world/europe/belarus-Aleksandr-Lukashenko-election.html?searchResultPosition=2