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Uzbek Authorities Mount Witchhunt After Unrest

Fear grips Kokand market traders as they await retribution for protest against the authorities.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Market traders in Kokand.
Stall at the Yangi Bazaar.

After recovering from the shock of last week’s outburst of unrest in the Fergana valley, the Uzbek authorities have begun the hunt for the ringleaders of the thousands-strong protest by market traders.

The November 1 rioting in the town of Kokand, sparked by an attempt by tax police to impose new restrictions at the town’s main market, was the largest and most violent mass protest against the Uzbek government seen in more than a decade.

Worryingly for the authorities, it was followed by disturbances involving market traders in two other Fergana Valley towns, Fergana itself and Margilan, as well far away in other parts of the country: Karshi in the south-west, Bukhara in the west, and Khorezm in the north.

Armed attacks in the capital Tashkent in late March and early April, and three suicide bombings in July, have been blamed on Islamic radicals. More general displays of civil disobedience over social and economic concerns remain extremely rare – and unheard-of on the scale seen last week.

The authorities were clearly taken aback by the scale of the unrest in Kokand, where an angry crowd of between 5,000 and 10,000 people took to the streets after tax officers started confiscating goods from traders at the Yangi Bazaar market. Rioters threw stones at police reinforcements sent to disperse them, and set fire to two police cars.

The initial response from officials appeared conciliatory, as Kokand mayor Maruf Usmonov addressed the crowd and promised to suspend implementation of the unpopular trading regulations.

But in the days that followed, there were indications that the concession was a temporary move to buy the authorities more time to take resolute action to prevent any repeat of the disturbances.

Traders say the authorities’ tactic is to target the individuals they identify as culprits, rather than arresting large numbers of people and potentially causing another confrontation.

The Kokand market is abuzz with rumours of arrests and intimidation by police. “I’ve heard that 10 to 20 people have already been arrested,” said a young man selling jackets.

Rafikjon Ganiev, a human rights activist in the town, said he had heard talk of 30 arrests, but had been unable to get confirmation either from police or from anyone who personally knew people who had been detained.

“Perhaps these rumours are being spread deliberately, to intimidate people and stop them wanting to protest again,” he concluded.

Ganiev said the traders were now living in fear of retribution from Uzbekistan’s powerful security forces after their outburst of anger.

IWPR asked the police in Kokand whether the stories were true, and an officer from the criminal investigation department said not a single person had been arrested.

Deputy mayor Salomat Abdullaeva added that law-enforcement agencies had no plans to arrest any of the traders, and there was no criminal investigation into the disturbances.

Traders told IWPR that police have been going round the homes of anyone who took a prominent role during the protest, or who talked to journalists afterwards.

One elderly woman who had talked to IWPR said she subsequently received a visit from two men, who asked her who she had talked to and what about. As a result, like many others this woman is now reluctant to give interviews.

She is certain the police will hunt down those identified as the protest organisers, and that the new trading regulations will be re-imposed, “They have to find and punish the instigators, so that incidents like this never happen again. I’ve heard that once they have arrested the most active [participants], they will demand that the regulation is followed.”

At the market, only one young man was prepared to admit to IWPR that he took part in the protest. All the others said they had been out of town that day, or had other reasons not to be at work. Their reticence may have been connected with the large numbers of plain-clothes police walking round the market.

Elsewhere in Uzbekistan, police repeatedly questioned an independent journalist in Karshi because he was present at a demonstration outside the local government offices in this south-western city on November 2.

“I was at the protest as a journalist, and did an interview. And now they suspect that I was a leader of the protests,” said reporter Tulkin Karaev.

Karaev told IWPR that he was detained three times on November 5 and 6, and now feels he cannot leave his home as there are policemen on watch outside.

Traders say their lives will be made impossible by the new government regulation, requiring them to obtain a license to import and sell goods. One of the stipulations – that a private importer cannot pass their goods on to a retail trader, even a close relative – will completely disrupt the way markets operate in Kokand and other towns, with a small number of people travelling back and forth, often to Kyrgyzstan, and selling the items they import to the thousands of stall-holders.

Regulation No. 387 also places numerous bureaucratic obstacles in the way of a market trader. Anyone who imports goods must register them with the foreign economic relations agency, the customs service, the mayor’s office, and the taxation authorities. Traders have to have an account with a commercial bank, conduct all transactions only through a cash register, and bank all their earnings.

On top of that, an earlier decree introduced two years ago imposes hefty customs duties of 70 per cent on goods.

The authorities argue that these measures are needed to boost tax collection and regulate the quality of imports.

But the reality is that most of the stall-holders live hand to mouth, and are only working in the market because there are no other jobs. In Kokand, all the big factories have closed, and even the director of an engineering plant which used to produce for the Soviet military is now working on a market stall.

Traders at Yangi Bazaar pointed out what they said were the “medieval” conditions provided for them at the state-owned market and asked how they could possibly meet the demands of a complex set of regulations.

“There’s a very serious problem with electricity and gas in Kokand. At the moment, the electricity is again not working at the market, so how can a cash register work?” said a man selling hats.

The story IWPR was told again and again was that existence was already so precarious that imposing the stiff regulations was bound to produce desperate reactions. For the moment the local authorities have postponed any further attempt to impose the law, but few doubt that it will come.

A 45-year-old man, who used to be an engineer but is now also in the hat business, asked, “How can you resign yourself to the fact that your children will die from hunger? Of course we have to defend ourselves if the government does not want to talk to us in a civilised manner, and make decisions that are based on the real situation at the market and on what we’re capable of doing.”

Even deputy mayor Abdullaeva predicted that the protests could start up again the moment tax officials re-appear at the market to impose the regulations.

Political analysts say public discontent with government policies and the general economic situation in Uzbekistan is close to boiling point, creating potential for protest actions on a wider scale, and further violence.

They warn that protests could mushroom as market traders, with their specific concerns, are joined by other dissatisfied social groups. There is some evidence for this: as well as demands to end the government restrictions on traders, protesters in Kokand also called on officials to rein in the police, often criticised for excessively repressive behaviour, and to “free Muslims from jail” – a reference to the thousands of people held in prison on various charges relating to alleged Islamic militancy.

The 20-year-old who was the only person to admit taking part in the protest warned, “For the moment people are intimidated, but fear falls away at critical moments, so it’s pointless arresting anyone. The same thing will happen tomorrow, and there will be others to do it [protest], because the government wants to squeeze blood from a stone.”

Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR’s project director in Uzbekistan.

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