Central Asian countries have attempted to build their nation branding strategies through redesigning their capital cities. The process can be widely observed in former Soviet republics with Kazakhstan that built Astana (now Nur-Sultan), a capital of modernity and progress anchoring the legacy of the first president’s name Nursultan Nazarbayev; Turkmenistan re-modelling Turkmenbashi’s white marble-clad Ashgabat with the aim to eternalise the name and figure of ‘the Great Head of the Turkmen’, the first president Saparmurat Niyazov. Post-Soviet Uzbekistan is not left outside the trend. Although the previous leader was less concerned with the creation of a cult of personality in material spaces, rather leaving a legacy of an impregnable leader that led to the formation of such places of recollection.
The new government under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is committed to demonstrating its progress through significant urban regeneration projects that are aiming to transform the capital into a modern business pivot. In 2017, the Cabinet of Ministers issued a Decree ‘On measures to improve the architectural appearance and improvement of the central part of Tashkent, as well as creation of favourable conditions for the population and visitors to the capital.’ This led to initiation of a US$1.3 billion urban project called ‘Tashkent City’, which occupies the central part of town, covering 80 hectares (3.1 square miles).
Mirziyoyev ‘views the role of the city as a tool to promote a new brand image for the country that is ‘modern’ and open to foreign business and investment’. He seeks opportunities to bring more and more foreign businesses and investment, thus creating favourable conditions for them in the capital. The remodelling of the city is one of these policy measures. It aims to rebuild the country a distance away from the previous authoritarian regime that had investment constraints and lacked transparency in governance. The government’s approach to planning, whilst designed to attract and appease global investment and more tourists, however, lacks empathy and understanding of social relevance of these projects for the local city dwellers. While it is sensible for the new government to seek a distinct image that repositions the country’s place in the world through investment oriented projects, its policy has created major social and increasingly political problems that are now a major cause for public discontent. Demolitions and mass evictions have been the major topic for debate in the media in Uzbekistan since late 2017 starting with the removal of the Soviet-era Cinema House. The public believes that many of the new projects are built as facades of progress to accommodate certain ‘important’ events rather than meeting the needs of the inhabitants.
The project ‘Tashkent City’ aimed to build an international business centre with an industrial park, shopping malls, Congress Centre, high-rise hotels, restaurants and residential apartments. With all these major developments, like a ‘city in the city’, the capital is becoming a façade of a progressive country. The projects like ‘Tashkent City’, whilst promoting modernism and progress masks the reality of the social and economic predicaments and can hardly contribute to enhancement of economic or social wellbeing of the vulnerable population, particularly those affected by ongoing mass demolitions.
From Mahalla to Skyscraper
The redevelopment of the area for ‘Tashkent City’ began with the rapid demolition of houses and homes in the historical mahallas (traditional neighbourhood) of O’qchi (Fletcher) and Olmazor (Apple Orchard) of the old town, leaving the residents no choice but to hastily find new homes. The Mahalla is a local institution of self-governance and it plays an important socio-economic role in society in Uzbekistan. ‘It serves a cultural function: is a place for social interactions between communities’, tied to the space and the sense of community is solid in the mahallas. When people were forced to leave their mahallas, they did not only lose their homes, they lost their livelihoods, their communities, social networks, and their memories tied to the space. Forced eviction without consultation, adequate compensation or resettlement is widespread in Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan. Tashkent City did not merely clear the space for a modern city; it eradicated an epoch from the history of a traditional life in Uzbek mahallas that carried a long history dating back to 14th century. The state owns the land and the right to use it for so-called ‘state and public needs’ but does it have a right to eradicate the history and sweep away the public memory? For the government however, it did not matter whether the people agreed to eviction or felt emotional attachment to the space. As it was a top-down decision, it did not involve any public engagement or discussion of any form.
Olmazor mahalla. Photo: Umida Akhmedova
By closing the doors to its past and remodelling the capital, new Tashkenters, rising from commercial structures to be part of the government elite, are attempting to build an image for themselves by borrowing iconic names such as Cambridge Residence, Gardens Residence, Boulevard, etc. These are mere imitations of locations that have a strong, historic legacies and stories attributed to their names whereas the Boulevard in ‘Tashkent City’ represents a recent and painful narrative for its residents.
An investor who is building a lot in Tashkent City area is a local packing company ‘Universal Packing Masters’ under ‘Murad Buildings’ plans a 266, five meter skyscraper called ‘Nest One’ in the area, with luxury apartments, restaurants, offices, etc. The company has a motto, ‘Murad Buildings Builds Happiness!’. The owner advertises his lofty project that is building so-called ‘smart houses.’ These houses are being built in the very ground from where previously, people had been strong-armed out their homes. For many though it is building rather a turmoil, far from happiness.
The situation of Davron Halikov, a former resident of Olmazor mahalla illustrates the social problems of vulnerable population affected by the clamour. Found sitting on a bench in the middle of the city, Davron is quietly thinking about how to cover his next rent payment. His current earnings at a car dealership are not enough to make ends meet. He is renting an apartment with his wife and four children as he lost his home during the mass demolition of his mahalla in the old town. Davron is far from the ability to rent or buy a place in the Boulevard of ‘Tashkent City’, which would cost him $100,000 for a one bedroom, 64-m² (square meter) unfurnished apartment. He was refused a replacement dwelling on a simple technicality; he was not living in the house the moment of demolition together with the rest of the larger family. Due to the great size of the family in one house, he had opted to rent another place in the city. He filed a case at the city court, but has since dropped it as he does not believe either the government or the judicial system has anything to offer him:
‘This country does not exist for me as homeland anymore. It is just a place for living for the moment until I find a place somewhere abroad. The only thing I am worried about now is my apartment rent payment, which is due on Monday. I am worried about my children’s fate. I want to help them to stand on their feet… I am waiting for magic to happen. I know that I cannot expect anything from the government.’
Davron tried to approach local government for help with his case, but he did not receive any. He is not the only person who remains homeless due to the demolitions. During the swift preparation of the territory for ‘Tashkent City’, in neighbouring mahalla O’qchi 521 houses owned by 2165 families were demolished. According to a legal expert at the directorate of ‘Tashkent City’, out of 2165, only 1138 families lived in the area before demolition started. This means that the other 1027 families have not received compensation in any form for not residing in the de facto area. Meaning there are people like Davron who remain without a home. The expert also claimed that the residents of the mahalla expressed a desire to move to multi-storey apartments instead of receiving land plots in a similar size. The interviews in the past however, evidenced the opposite; many asked for a house to accommodate the whole family, in the same or nearby territory, they were unhappy with replacements offered. The state failed to understand the difference in lifestyles and cultures between those living in traditional settlements and those in multi-story contemporary apartments. In traditional settlements, families are large and extended family often sharing the same dwelling. They were offered smaller distributed residences based on the legal owner. Those who were sharing had rights, which were ignored, and they ended up homeless, stressed and distressed.
The unfinished part of the Boulevard. Photo: by author
There is a clear violation of the legislation in this regard, as according to the regulations ‘on the Procedure for Compensation of Damages to Citizens and Legal Entities due to Seizure of Land for State or Public Needs’, all residents who are registered in the properties are guaranteed to receive a compensation. In addition to this, the forced eviction occurred as most families were forced to leave the area rapidly as the demolition started before the resettlement of all the residents. This happened through extortion in the form of creating an untenable environments for the residents; they were cut off from utilities such as electricity and gas, which is an obvious sign of forced eviction according to international law.
The new Decree of Cabinet of Ministers, ‘on the on the procedure for compensation of losses to citizens and legal entities in connection with the seizure of land for state and public needs’, known by local people as ‘Fascistic PKM 911’, has been an exploitable tool for developers to pursue their profitmaking activities as building business centres, real estate, amusement parks, etc. This decree, unlike the previous one, has amended the deadlines for notification and demolition giving more licence to the investors and construction companies to carry out their actions. It states notice periods of three to five days or simply ‘as necessary’. This means that these deadlines are very flexible to the extent that investors can use them in their favour. It allows the decision on demolition of a housing block if 75 per cent of the residents have given their consent. The investor can gain the rest through court as laid out in the legislation. In principle, an investor or contractor must go through a set of legal steps that includes a number of procedures to gain permission for action. However, in practice, only the final phase of the application is applied (gaining consent of the 75 per cent of the residents) resulting in a higher number of permissions for demolitions.
Besides, the decree uses the phrase ‘compulsory purchase’ of a property in cases when the residents disagree, which grants the state and developers even more authority. Judicial tools are important in local enforcement of the regulations and obligations stated in the right to adequate housing (United Nations Habitat) or by direct reference to International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Thus, the legislation should include an aspect on forced evictions, aligning it with international norms and agreements to ensure the right of an individual to security and the right to protection from forced evictions. The new decree does not meet international norms, as it does not incorporate the fundamental rights and protection against forced evictions enshrined in international law on socio-economic and cultural rights. Nonetheless, Uzbekistan signed those agreements, thus it carries obligations to comply with norms specified as ensuring protection from unlawful and forced evictions and safeguarding adequate housing.  It seems like the government of Uzbekistan has no intention to comply with those agreements it signed thus failing to fulfil its obligations as a member state.
The new Tashkenters attempt to ‘sell’ the city as something it is not by creating facsimiles of world icons and popular metropolises, yielding gruesome results. The irony is that whilst the population of the demolished mahallas remain homeless, the real estate agency ‘Dream City Development’ who is responsible for selling the new properties is constantly advertising sales of new apartments. The real-estate agency is devoting a large resource pool towards selling apartments and commercial buildings in ‘iconic’ locations such as Boulevard and Gardens Residence in the territory of ‘Tashkent City’, now called Dream City. Dream City is being developed in eight lots; each lot has its own investors who have opaque roots but who seem to be connected to newly appeared bureaucrats in government. The original sources for investment for the lots are unknown and unavailable in the public domain. There is strong evidence however, which suggests these investors are using offshore entities and surrogate shareholders to conceal their engagements in these lots. The investigations by the Open Democracy society identified foreign investors who may be acting as covers for local businesspersons. The chains of companies that are in the frontline of the project closely linked to Jaxongir Artikxodjaev, the mayor of Tashkent were exposed. About the ambiguity of the true beneficiaries of the lots in the Tashkent City, anti-corruption campaigner, Thomas Mayne, reports that:
‘This shows how easily it is to obscure the true owners of a project – the beneficial owners – using companies registered abroad. The project certainly raises many red flags: the source of the funds is unclear, and a 19-year-old is unlikely to be the true beneficial owner of the company responsible for the Tashkent City shopping centre project.
Gardens Residence apartments. Photo: by author
Whilst the residential buildings remain empty in the Boulevard section of Dream City, the real estate agency Dream City Development claims that 80 per cent of the apartments in the Boulevard section have been sold. According to the agency, 70 per cent percent of the buyers are Tashkenters and 10 per cent of them are foreign acquisitions. The other 20 per cent is available for purchase. Although there is a lack of social infrastructure in the new project, this does not seem to deter prospective buyers. It appears that the nouveau riche in ‘Tashkent City’ will not feel the need for schools or medical centres in the immediate vicinity. The abundance of shopping avenues, offices and hotels will be sufficient. It is anticipated that the apartments are purchased as investments and those who acquire them have no plans to live in the area.
Alexey Ulko, a writer on Arts and Culture uses the term ‘new bureaucracies’ for people who have appeared in the government and government-affiliated commercial structures. In his opinion, these urban projects are not designed to address public needs rather focused towards meeting the needs of these new elite who aim to climb the social ladder:
‘Old bureaucracies lived in impregnable castles, stagnant and stiff, surrounded by old loyal servants and faded portraits of glorious ancestors. New bureaucracies are more like financial pyramids sucking in more and more new people. You cannot run such an enterprise in a bleak Soviet-built barrack isolated from the rest of the world by an ugly concrete wall. What you need is an urban area with tall, shiny, expensive-looking and spacious offices for thousands of people to work in and many more thousands craving to: glitzy temples of conspicuous consumption.’
The current government is employing a strategy of ‘Destroy and Build’, a quick fix to realise their current plan of buying off land, destroying old areas and building new in the city. The outfall from the demolition is not only one of practical complications but of psychological distress and resistance.
Towering Rage of Demolition
The degree of devastation is so strong that this has led to citizens attempting suicide by setting themselves alight in protest to demolitions or attacking public officials. On December 14th 2018, Nozima Ergasheva in Kibray District publicly set herself on fire during a reception of citizens in the district administration to illustrate her protest of the decision on demolition of her house. As a result, she received injuries to 68 per cent of her body.
Cases of suicide attempts have been common among the people whose homes are threatened to be taken away due to the reason that they are deemed to be built illegally on agricultural land. During 2018-2019, ‘23,000 cases of unlawful appropriation of land were recoded’ in the country. This means that 23,000 families would lose their homes because the state found them illegal and decided to take the land for so-called ‘state needs.’ Shaken by the news, people committed desperate actions. In February 2020, Mukaddas Mustafaeva in Karshi set herself alight in protest at the demolition of her house and her father suffered severe burns in an attempt to stop the fire.
The mass demolitions, on the other hand, sparked civic activism; citizens adopted a different role, people have become more and more alert and posting, sharing the cases they witness. They have become agents of potential political change. Although the situation with freedom of expression and freedom of assembly has not improved in post-Karimov Uzbekistan and there have been direct threats to the lives of journalists and bloggers who have openly discussed the hottest issues in the country, issues like eviction and mass demolition. The case of Amir Sharifullin, a blogger at Tashkent – DEMOLITION (Ташкент – СНОС) Facebook group has been a litmus test for intolerance of the government towards public criticism. Amir was kidnapped and beaten by two men causing him serious bodily injury. Later one of these men was held administratively liable as opposed to criminal charges, while the other one went free. The media believes that there is an evident link between the perpetrators and the state security structures.
The group is owned and administered by Farida Charif (Sharifullina) who is the mother of Amir and housing rights activist who is outspoken about issues on demolition and evictions. The group that united more than 20,000 people is a platform where members post, share, discuss demolition and eviction related issues. As Amir believes, the kidnapping was a way of threatening and putting pressure on his mother. Naming the case of violent kidnapping as ‘administrative liability’ and letting perpetrators go free evidently shows that this was most likely the act of the authorities who have conflicts of interest in the matters discussed in the group. Apparently, those who did not find any criminal aspect in the case were unhappy about public criticism of the unlawful demolitions and wanted to quash the protests.
From World Heritage to World Disney
The urban transformation processes stretch far beyond merely redeveloping the capital. There are also growing efforts to develop the tourism industry across the country with regional cities being remodelled to make them more attractive for tourists. In the minds of the government officials, being ‘attractive’ is about building shiny, high-rise hotels and business centres, or Disney-like amusement parks, often changing the environment surrounding historically important sites. High-rise buildings are appearing in Samarkand’s heritage zone where buildings of more than two-storeys are prohibited by law suggesting, corruption across the process of beautification and modernisation for the sake of tourism. This is evidenced through the former khokim (mayor) of Samarkand, Turobjon Juraev, being sentenced to 13 years in prison for taking a bribe of $2,000,000 for permitting the construction of high-rise buildings in the city’s heritage zone and another four officials in the same office were punished for the same crime. This is what happens when you just move the chairs around. Juraev was sharply criticized by previous president Karimov and sacked in 2013; he was accused of corruption. In 2017 however, he was appointed as khokim of Bekabad District of the Tashkent region and in the same year then became head of Samarkand. This is a perfect example of the power loop and nepotism among corrupt officials in government where the same faces come back to new chairs and commit the same crimes.
Samarkand. Photo: M & G Therin-Weise (UNESCO)
Carrying out this beautification process for the sake of tourism in this manner is resulting in mass destruction and irreparable changes. The beautification process that is assumed will charm the appetites of tourists is nothing more than a mere tourist kitsch. It is a process of mass destruction and Disneyfication of historic monuments, such as attempting to turn Shakhrisabz into a World Disney Park as opposed to a World Heritage site.
In 2016, the World Heritage Committee considered the historic centre of the city of Shakhrisabz in southern Uzbekistan to be added to the List of World Heritage in Danger of over-development and irreversible alterations. The Committee then asked the UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre and the International Council on Monuments and Sites to evaluate the damage and advise restorative measures.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The government has to acknowledge that a lack of a well-thought out plan caused the perils of its rebranding policy to seize people’s homes, their communities and their welfare. To ensure the wellbeing of society and to ensure that the population benefits from planning efforts, the government should have a dialogue with the people to explore what they wish for their own wellbeing, as the state’s perception of wellbeing does not seem to coincide with the nation’s understanding of wellbeing. The leadership appears to be trying to build a nation brand, seeking to whitewash its reputation and promote tourism and investment in the country. The process of nation branding is rather a complex development as it is far from merely public relations and marketing a country to a target audience. Nor is it merely building favourable conditions to please guests; it is a systematic and continuous commitment to improvement. Countries are judged based on their governance, policies, their novel ideas, symbolic actions and their contribution to global development. Before investing in promoting itself, its tourism or newly branded cities, a double landlocked country such as Uzbekistan with a murky reputation needs to work towards improving its character through thoughtful reforms in the aim to gain genuine respect on the world stage. Enhancing and ensuring human rights protection, judiciary independence, accountability, transparency in governance and open dialogue with people will enable it to succeed in building a nation brand. These efforts would then guarantee an enhanced reputation for the nation rather than a glittering, soaring, pretentious capital. Further recommendations are that:
- Government ought to revise the current decree on compensation of losses to citizens and the seizure of land to include an important aspect on forced evictions, aligning the legislation with international norms and agreements that ensure the right of an individual to security and the right to protection against forced evictions;
- Government should ensure that residents are given fair and adequate compensation and replacement in accordance with principles on adequate housing rights prior to resettlement and are protected from extortion and intimidation; and
- To ensure unanimity in decision-making and that legislations do not contradict one another, there needs to be an independent committee for reviewing the decrees and amendments accepted. The committee would ensure that the domestic laws seriously affecting citizens’ rights and liberties are to be closely aligned with international human rights laws.
 Dilmira Matyakubova, Who Is “Tashkent City” For? Nation-Branding and Public Dialogue in Uzbekistan, Voices on Central Asia, June 2018, https://voicesoncentralasia.org/who-is-tashkent-city-for-nation-branding-and-public-dialogue-in-uzbekistan/
 Dilmira Matyakubova, Nation Branding, Social Classes and Cultural Heritage in Uzbekistan, Cabar.asia, April 2019, https://cabar.asia/en/nation-branding-social-classes-and-cultural-heritage-in-uzbekistan/
 Про Nest One – About Nest One, https://nestuzbekistan.uz/ru/kurumsal; Murad Buildings and Ozguven announced the first skyscraper’s name in Uzbekistan, UzA, August 2019, http://uza.uz/en/society/murad-buildings-and-zg-ven-announced-the-first-skyscraper-s–29-08-2019
 Interview with Davron Halikov, former resident of Olmazor mahalla. March 2020.
 «Было много сомнений, но мы сделали это…» – интервью с представителем Дирекции Tashkent City (‘There were many doubts but we did it’…interview with a representative of Tashkent City Directorate), Podrobno.uz, December 2019, https://podrobno.uz/cat/obchestvo/-bylo-mnogo-somneniy-no-my-sdelali-eto-intervyu-s-predstavitelem-direktsii-tashkent-city/
 Matyakubova. Who is Tashkent City For? Nation branding and Public Dialogue in Uzbekistan
 Положение о порядке возмещения убытков гражданам и юридическим лицам в связи с изъятием земельных участков для государственных и общественных нужд – Regulation on the procedure for compensation of losses to citizens and legal entities in connection with the seizure land for state and public needs, May 2006, https://nrm.uz/contentf?doc=105171_polojenie_o_poryadke_vozmeshcheniya_ubytkov_grajdanam_i_yuridicheskim_licam_v_svyazi_s_izyatiem_zemelnyh_uchastkov_dlya_gosudarstvennyh_i_obshchestvennyh_nujd_(prilojenie_k_postanovleniyu_km_ruz_ot_29_05_2006_g_n_97)&produ
 Matyakubova. Who is Tashkent City For? Nation branding and Public Dialogue in Uzbekistan; The Right to Adequate Housing, UN Habitat, Fact Sheet No. 21/Rev.1, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FS21_rev_1_Housing_ru.pdf
 Ўзбекистон республикаси вазирлар маҳкамасининг қарори, жисмоний ва юридик шахсларнинг мулк ҳуқуқлари кафолатларини таъминлаш ҳамда ер участкаларини олиб қўйиш ва компенсация бериш тартибини такомиллаштиришга доир қўшимча чора-тадбирлар тўғрисида – Regulation on the procedure for compensation of losses to citizens and legal entities in connection with the seizure land for state and public needs, November 2019, https://lex.uz/ru/docs/4597630
 The Right to Adequate Housing, UN Habitat. Fact Sheet No. 21/Rev.1.
 Kristian Lasslett, Uzbekistan Ltd: private-public interests clash in flagship project, openDemocracy, January 2019, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/uzbekistan-ltd/
 OpenDemocracy Investigations, Phantom foreign investors for an open new Uzbekistan, openDemocracy, December 2018, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/tashkent-city-project-uzbekistan-phantom-foreign-investors/
Dream City, A conversation with an agent of ‘Dream City Development’, February 2020.
 Interview with Aleksey Ulko, writer on Arts and Culture, February 2020.
 Vladimir Rozanskij, Another woman sets herself on fire to save her home, AsiaNews, February 2020, http://asianews.it/news-en/Another-woman-sets-herself-on-fire-to-save-her-home-49359.html
 AsiaTerra, Why police did not detect corpus delicti in the actions of two recidivists who attacked Amir Sharifullin?, March 2020, http://www.asiaterra.info/news/pochemu-militsiya-ne-obnaruzhila-sostava-prestupleniya-v-dejstviyakh-dvukh-retsidivistov-napavshikh-na-amira-sharifullina
 Sputnik News, Ex-khokim of Samarkand region received 13 years in prison for bribes, August 2019, https://uz.sputniknews.ru/society/20190802/12158730/Eks-khokim-Samarkandskoy-oblasti-poluchil-13-let-tyurmy-za-vzyatki.html