Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Angry Uzbek Farmers Force Official Climbdown

Assault on human rights activist sparks protests by villagers already driven to desperation by government’s agricultural policies.
By Yevgeny Zavyalov

When hundreds of protesting Uzbek farmers attacked and smashed up a police station last week, the authorities decided to respond with conciliatory measures instead of brute force.


The disturbances - unusual in a country where the security forces maintain a strong presence and little public protest is permitted - were sparked by an attack on an activist who had been publicising the farmers’ cause. The protesters believed the authorities had ordered the attack on Egamnazar Shoimanov in retaliation.


Shoimanov, a member of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, had spent the last two months opposing moves by the local authorities to confiscate land from farmers. He helped them organise a series of protests both in their own region and in the capital Tashkent


Several hundred farms have been confiscated from leaseholders in the centrally-located region of Jizzakh since November last year.


The authorities here say the farm businesses had to be liquidated because they were deeply in debt and were unable to fulfil mandatory quotas of cotton and wheat to be supplied to the state. Farmers themselves say they are hostage to an unfair Soviet-style system where the government tells them what to grow and then pays artificially low prices, driving their businesses into the ground.


Shoimanov was attacked and brutally beaten on March 29, suffering a broken jaw and ribs and numerous cuts which required stitching. He managed to get away from his assailants, and friends took him to Tashkent for medical treatment.


In an interview with IWPR, Shoimanov said he was in no doubt that the attack on him was ordered by local government officials.


Local farmers in the Dustlik district of Jizzakh initially had no idea what had happened to Shoimanov and feared the worst - that he had been “disappeared” and murdered by the authorities.


Uzbekistan’s human rights record comes in for regular criticism by local and international watchdogs, and the security forces enjoy little public confidence.


Late on March 30, several dozen people gathered in the village of Bunyodkor and set off towards the local police station. The officers there ran away when they saw the approaching farmers.


The crowd, which swelled to more than 500, hurled stones at the station, damaging it badly. Shouts of “Bring back Shoimanov!” and “What did you do with him, you murderers?” were heard.


Young people in the crowd set two police cars on fire and smashed up a third.


After midnight, when things had calmed down and people were dispersing, police and local government officials including Jizzakh governor Ubaidulla Yamankulov arrived in the village.


The next morning the damage was tidied up, and Yamonkulov took charge – clearly having decided to defuse the situation rather than crack down on the protesters.


He summoned the entire population of the rebellious village to a “khudoi” – a traditional Uzbek reconciliation. No expense was spared for the meal laid on for them, and some 200 kilogrammes of rice went to make plates piled high with “plov” – a meat pilau.


During the meal, the villagers - who by now had been told that Shoimanov had been assaulted but was alive - urged the authorities to punish those responsible.


Yamonkulov promised to do so, even though eyewitnesses to the attack on Shoimanov said three of his assailants were actually present at the reconciliation meal.


“We will do everything to make sure that Shoimanov and his family live well in the future and do not think badly of us,” said Yamonkulov.


“We won’t just help Shoimanov, we’ll help you too: you will have land and money.”


Yamankulov blamed what he said was his “inexperienced” subordinate, Dustlik local government chief Mahmud Kholbutaev for problems experienced by the villagers, and promised to keep a close eye on him in future.


Kholbutaev then had to get up and make a speech of repentance, asking the farmers to forgive him and pledging to fix all their problems.


Many villagers said afterwards that they remained unimpressed. But that very afternoon, Yamonkulov’s promise of money began coming true: farmers began receiving payments for crops they had supplied to the state – in many cases this money was years rather than weeks or months late.


While the Jizzakh authorities chose to handle this outburst of protest in a remarkably conciliatory way, they have also taken steps to head off any more trouble. On March 31, the day of the reconciliation feast, independent journalist Ulugbek Haidarov noted water cannons and police buses and cars being deployed in the village.


Taxis going to the village get stopped and checked by police.


As this report was published, an uneasy calm reigned in the village, with neither side really trusting the others.


The Uzbek authorities are concerned at what they see is a nascent Islamic opposition and have detained and jailed thousands of people in recent years on suspicion they had links to religious radicals. But they have rarely had to deal with more general forms of public protest, in part because secular opposition parties were driven underground more than a decade ago.


In one recent case, the authorities appeared taken aback when angry market traders rioted in the Fergana valley last November, and refrained from trying to arrest all the participants in a mass sweep.


Agriculture experts say the strength of feeling displayed by the Dustlik farmers reflects growing anger at the way they are treated by the state. The government sets quotas for their crops and offers them miserly purchase prices, often failing to pay even this money out at all, and then charges them market rates for services such as fuel and fertilisers. For many, punishing them by seizing their farms was the last straw.


“The smallholders are forced to plant crops and then to hand over everything to the state. People wait to be paid, and get their money in one or two years when it is worthless [because of inflation],” said Kalamdar Matchanov, a Soviet-era agriculture official.


Yevgeny Zavyalov is the pseudonym of an IWPR correspondent in Tashkent. Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR’s programme director in Uzbekistan.