I can’t pretend that I knew a lot about Uzbekistan before I visited. That was part of the allure of the place I suppose; the fact that it was a complete mystery. When a friend and I announced we were going, the first response was either one of two questions: either; “why?”, or “where is that?” But for me that is part of the joy of travel. Anyone can visit Uzbekistan, but hardly anyone chooses to; that’s what makes it so exciting. We were entering the unknown.
Perhaps more than any other region in the world, to Westerners Central Asia is a total mystery, known only for its isolation from the West during the era of the Soviet Union, and for Borat. The USSR era was when the impression of Central Asia as being a land of weirdness and mystery developed, and Borat did much to impart stereotypes that were almost the exact opposite of what we found in the region. Borat was (allegedly) Kazakh, but was referenced repeatedly by people I discussed my trip with. For many, this ridiculous fictional character was the only point of reference, despite being from a totally different country. The purpose of this blog post is to attempt to change these perceptions, and highlight the impact of authoritarianism and corruption on the people of Uzbekistan.
Guidebooks had warned us that we would be repeatedly shaken down for bribes by the overzealous and underpaid military. Our car would be repeatedly pulled over and ‘fined’. We had been told to avoid going on the Tashkent metro altogether. As tourists we represented money, and a nervousness not to break the rules in a foreign land, and were easy targets.
This assessment turned out to be totally false. Our taxis were stopped at military checkpoints, for sure, but after a quick passport check they would be sent on their way. The police on the Metro didn’t just avoid asking for bribes, they were actively friendly, helpful, humorous even. We wondered if perhaps there had been a crackdown on police corruption, but actually the lack of corruption we experienced was indicative of a deeper corruption; an attempt to shield tourists from the truth about Uzbek society. Unfortunately however, it only took talking to a few locals for this wafer-thin ruse to fall apart.
Uzbekistan is ruled over by the aging Islam Karimov, a dictator who recently clung to the power he has held since Uzbekistan’s independence from the Soviet Union in a sham election. He will be entering into a fourth term, despite the constitution stipulating a two-term maximum for heads of state. Torture is systematic in the criminal justice system, in a state where millions are forced to harvest cotton in dire conditions and thousands remain imprisoned on charges that are politically motivated. In one particularly vile incident, a prisoner was allegedly boiled alive. Freedom House gives Uzbekistan a score of 7, the worst possible rating.
Transparency International ranks Uzbekistan as 169th out of 174 countries for corruption, one of the worst in the world. According to a leaked diplomatic cable, “tenders and government positions can be fairly easily secured by paying the right amount of money to the appropriate individual, leading to a situation in which unqualified individuals have every incentive to engage in further corrupt activity to pay off the large debts they usually incur making down payments on the jobs.” An OECD report notes that the criminalisation of corruption in the legal system is weak, and efforts to enforce anti-corruption laws are almost non-existent. But if Uzbekistan was indeed this corrupt, then why were we not experiencing it, as we had been warned we would be?
The answer soon became apparent. According to one of our drivers, he was delighted to have tourists in the car. A few years back, tourists would have been a prime target for demands for bribes, but Uzbekistan has got itself such a bad name in the traveller community that the situation was damaging the tourist industry. This was an understatement; our Lonely Planet went on at length about the constant annoyance and financial drain of Uzbek militsiya corruption. This corruption had been so damaging that there had been a Presidential order; tourists were off limits to police corruption. Anyone caught demanding bribes from tourists would be severely punished. We witnessed this in action ourselves: cars being pulled over ahead of us were repeatedly targeted for bribes and money changed hands, while a cry of “turisty” from our driver would allow our car to sail through unscathed.
On returning from Uzbekistan I wanted to unshroud the country from the cloak of obscurity. It’s been two years since I visited, but this blog post I hope will continue imparting the knowledge of what I discovered there. Corruption in Uzbekistan continues with impunity because Uzbekistan’s obscurity allows it to be shielded from international eyes. We must change this.