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

Banned Uzbek Demo Sign of Mounting Tensions

Unprecedented attempt by a small businessman to organise anti-Karimov protest reflects widespread discontent in Uzbekistan.
By IWPR staff

Protest organiser Bahodir Choriev driven away by a bus.
Female protester tries to evade police.
Interior ministry official Oleg Bichenov tries to dissuade demonstrators.

An attempt by a small businessman to organise a protest calling for the resignation of President Islam Karimov suggests rising public discontent, analysts say.

The protest, which was set to take place on June 1 outside the state television centre, would have been the first ever rally by ordinary Uzbeks against the policies of the president. Previous protests have almost always been staged by human rights activists and opposition politicians.

While the demo was to involve the latter groups, its main organiser was 36-year-old Bahodir Choriev, a small businessman from the southern region of Kashkadarya.

In the event, the authorities intervened to prevent the rally from taking place. But analysts say the fact that someone like Choriev should be involved in organising such a protest reflects increasingly widespread discontent amongst the Uzbek public.

Choriev began planning the event earlier in the year, submitting a letter to the city administration of Tashkent on April 25 asking for permission to hold a meeting for up to 200 people to call for Karimov’s resignation.

On May 21 he received what appears to have been his first response from the authorities. Choriev was behind the wheel of his car when a taxi cut across him. Getting out of the vehicle, he was attacked and severely beaten by several people who then tied his hands and feet, put a plastic bag over his head and threw him on the roadside. His car was found the next day – it was a burnt out wreck.

Choriev pressed ahead with his plans nonetheless.

But on the morning the meeting was set to take place, Uzbek special operations forces, police, rescue service workers and ambulance doctors blockaded the home in the suburbs of Tashkent where he was staying, preventing him and around twenty of his relatives who had travelled to the city to participate in the meeting, from leaving.

In an apparent effort to get Choriev out of the apartment and surrender to the authorities, police officers took his 9-year-old son Davron hostage. Choriev later told IWPR that officers had shouted from below the apartment block that his son was in their hands so he had better not resist.

At first, Choriev and his family ignored the threats and remained in the apartment.

But police officers then began evacuating all other residents from the building, announcing that a bomb had been found inside. Next, an explosion was set off.

“I didn’t know whether to believe them or not, but I couldn’t put my relatives at risk. We had old men, children, pregnant women – so we went out,” Choriev told IWPR.

The moment they got out of the apartment, the family were seized and loaded onto a bus. Many were beaten, including Choriev’s pregnant sister, who was kicked in the stomach.

The bus left Choriev and his two daughters at a police checkpoint in Syrdarya, 75 kilometres from Tashkent, from where they were allowed to return to the capital. The remaining 18 family members were taken back to Kashkadarya, 450 km away.

Meanwhile, several dozen activists, opposition figures and members of the public had gathered outside the state television building, ready to unfold placards calling for the president’s resignation.

But Oleg Bichenov, a representative of the Tashkent municipality’s department of internal affairs, GUVD, arrived to read out an official statement by the city administration banning the meeting. He said a copy had already been posted to Choriev.

The letter, dated May 25, said the meeting would not be allowed to go ahead for security reasons, since the area surrounding the state television building is of strategic importance.

After Choriev’s failed meeting, six rights activists, accompanied by Tashkent police representative Oleg Bichenov, were granted a meeting with the city’s deputy mayor Anvar Ahmedov.

Choriev later told IWPR about his reasons for organising the meeting, explaining that he blames the president for the collapse of Uzbekistan.

Choriev himself has suffered personally at the hands of the regime.

In 1999 his family bought shares in a joint-stock Kashkadarya company called Kesh, which owned 1,200 hectares of land, 4,000 head of cattle and 13,000 pigs. But the local administration later confiscated the company after convicting Choriev of mismanagement of funds and subsequently jailing him. He claims the authorities fabricated the charges to get hold of his company.

Following his release, Choriev hired lawyers and struggled for four years to win back Kesh through the courts. He eventually won, but the Kashkadarya authorities simply refused to comply with the court ruling.

Choriev subsequently changed tactics, going on hunger strikes, achieving little and damaging his health in the process.

“I arrived at the belief that the blame lies with the president. He ruined the country and created such a system where laws don’t function, where a common person has no place where he can find truth without money,” he told IWPR.

While Choriev himself might have very specific reasons for resenting Karimov’s regime, analysts say the protest he planned for June 1 is a sign of wider discontent.

“In the last 12 years, there were no meetings in Uzbekistan – [this] is the first case when people wanted to gather and express their opposition to government policies,” said Tolib Yakubov, secretary-general of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan. “Unfortunately, this meeting didn’t take place. The government demonstrated once again its unwillingness to do anything for democracy and human rights.”

Yakubov says the transformation of successful businessman Choriev into a political activist demanding the president’s resignation is a direct consequence of the policies of Karimov and his government, in whose minds the rights of Uzbek citizens come last.

He told IWPR that these policies are the root cause of radicalisation in Uzbekistan and predicted that the country will see increasing protests, and that the phase where people passively listened to the president’s speeches has passed.

“It can’t be tolerated anymore, people already have no strength left to stand this,” he said.

Sociologist Bahodyr Musaev told IWPR that people are increasingly losing their fear of the authorities because their situation can’t get much worse than it already is, “People are not afraid, it is the authorities who are afraid of mass manifestations of popular discontent.”

He also said that, simmering dissatisfaction amongst the emerging class of entrepreneurs is going to be the next source of opposition, “Future opposition groups will emerge from among the [small and medium] business circles.”

Musaev added that influential clan-based groups in power consider the new entrepreneurs competitors and a threat to their interests.