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Uzbek Independence Blues

Hard up Uzbeks have mixed feelings about their government's grandiose Independence Day celebrations.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Uzbekistan celebrated ten years of independence from the Soviet Union on September 1 with a fanfare.


But the event was overshadowed by public concerns over plunging living standards, with many believing the event was more a political show than a popular festival.


Preparations for the anniversary, which President Islam Karimov described as "the greatest and most precious of all holidays" started last January - a clear sign that the government intended to stage a grandiose event.


The government delivered most of the plans it promised. The main cities, especially the capital, Tashkent, were decked with beautiful streamers, flags and lights. Streets were cleaned, many new buildings were constructed or renovated and flowerbeds and parks were planted.


The highpoint of the festivities, on August 31, was a two-hour concert in Tashkent - attended by government officials and the president. Some 2,500 artists from all over the country took part in the event.


Thousands of schoolgirls and students were recruited to perform set-piece dramas, illustrating Uzbekistan's history with a combination of pictures and words. The dramas were followed by folk bands that showcased the cultural character of each of the country's regions. Finally, pop stars went on stage.


Most of the artists, including the children's choirs, sang patriotic songs, declaring their love for Uzbekistan and its president. One group of young vocalists, typically, sang a refrain which ran, "We are ready to sacrifice our lives for Uzbekistan; we are ready to sacrifice our lives for the Yurtboshi (head of state)."


Security surrounding the event was intense. The police were placed on alert for the entire duration of the festivities, working round the clock to deter possible attacks by Islamic militants opposed to the republic's secular regime.


Traffic police beefed up controls on roads leading to Tashkent. All vehicles entering and exiting the city were carefully searched for weapons, explosives, or drugs. Drivers' and passengers' IDs were checked.


On the anniversary, the main streets in the centre of Tashkent were blocked off. During the concert, lorries were parked in a circle around Independence Square, some in front of residential buildings, virtually trapping the residents in their homes while the concert was in progress.


Most Uzbek people have warmed to the Independence Day festivities over the past decade, and it has become an event to look forward to. This time, however, many gained the impression that the event was staged principally for government officials and VIP guests, and that it was a more of a political show than a popular festival.


Some complained that the enhanced security presence had made it very inconvenient for those who wanted to celebrate outdoors. "We were all excited about Independence Day, but when it came, it was impossible to celebrate," said Elena Elbrusova from Tashkent. "All the roads were closed. All the discos shut at midnight. It looked like our every move was being controlled."


The authorities cut off the electricity at 9pm on Sailgokh, the most popular street in the capital - which the locals call Tashkent Broadway - to make the crowds of young people go home.


Rustam Akhmedov, a Tashkent student, was dispirited. "Security is important but it shouldn't be so depressingly obvious," he said. "It shouldn't get in the way, unless they are trying to tell us that Independence Day is for government officials only."


The authorities used the occasion to laud their own achievements, at a time when ordinary Uzbeks face a life of growing adversity. According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, around a third of the 25 million population lives below poverty line.


Pensioner Salima Karshibaeva voiced the mixed feelings of many people: admiration for the country's strong government, mingled with fear about the spiralling cost of living.


She was delighted to see the festive decorations, and the new roads, bridges and houses. "President Karimov treats us well, and the city looks better and better every year," she said. "But we want lower prices, so we can afford food for our kids. Everything was so cheap in Soviet times. You could actually live on your pension."


Tamara Sviridenko, visiting Tashkent from the Russia, said Uzbek poverty was palpable. "People look poorly dressed these days, especially youngsters," she said. "This is a sad holiday."


Faizullo Iskhakov, professor of political studies, believes the Independence Day festival has evolved into choreographed event, which diverts people from the harsh reality of their lives. "The Uzbek state is strong and affluent, but the people are weak and poor," he said. "The government has spent billions on this show, but ordinary Uzbeks aren't any better off for it. They have more mundane matters to attend to, such as how to make some money and buy some food for their children."


The professor says the anniversary will never be a truly popular holiday while most people are so badly off. "It takes more than ideological brainwashing to make the people proud of their independence," he said.


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR regional director in Uzbeksitan.


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