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

Uzbekistan: Disorder in the Ranks

The president boasts that the army has been reformed, but in reality little has changed.
By Oleg Belov

Uzbek president Islam Karimov sings the praises of his newly-reformed army, but ministers in closed-door meetings and internal documents paint a picture of ill-disciplined, poorly trained troops who cannot even use their own weapons.

Army reforms are credited with having created a more powerful, mobile and better-equipped force. In late August, Karimov told parliament that "efficiency has increased and larger units have been replaced by platoons, groups and brigades capable of reacting to any complex situation". Uzbek soldiers and officers should be a source of national pride, he said.

But IWPR sources at a recent session of the National Security Council, whose proceedings are strictly confidential, said defence minister Kadyr Gulomov was highly critical of the armed forces. "Combat training does not meet basic standards, while military personnel are often unable to perform simple tasks," he said.

Military personnel are often unfamiliar with their equipment and are regularly maimed or killed. IWPR has learned that three conscripts died during training exercises in the Fergana region six weeks ago. They had apparently carried a metal tube off an artillery range without realising that it was a piece of live ammunition. The device later exploded when the soldiers used it as a lever while fixing a car.

IWPR has seen an internal document signed by the deputy minister of defence, Colonel Mannob Akhmedov, acknowledging a gap in basic training. "The army offers no safety lectures on the use of explosives and ammunition, so officers do not know how to deal with such ordnance," the document said.

It said that in January 2002 there was an explosion at Tashtsvetmet scrap metal plant, which was caused by one of the many shells that incompetent officers had regularly delivered to the yard over the last two years. The document adds that shepherds grazing their flocks in the steppes and villagers collecting scrap metal in the Bukhara, Surkhandarya and Fergana municipalities have been blown up on open, unmarked artillery ranges.

Gulomov has blamed lack of professionalism among officers for the incidents, whose rise corresponds with an increase in the number of criminal offences in the army over the last year. The IWPR source said military experts told an August session of the National Security Council that 30 offences - mostly theft and abuse of power - had been committed this year, compared with twelve in the previous twelve months.

Internal documents from the military prosecutor's office that IWPR has seen bear out the theft statistics. Military uniforms and equipment worth more than seven million Uzbek soms - around 7,000 US dollars - were reported stolen from one central district. And the government has also recovered over 23,000 dollars, which was embezzled by army personnel over the past 18 months.

The defence minister has issued a number of orders to tackle the lack of army professionalism, but serving personnel say that they will achieve little on their own. They say the military has been a law unto itself for so long that only determined action will be able to affect change.

Meanwhile, the Uzbek public remains unaware of the disorder in the ranks. As the internal documents describing inadequate training, crime and fatal accidents are now buried in the archives, they have no reason to doubt the government when it describes the army as "one of the best".

Oleg Belov is the pseudonym of an independent reporter in Tashkent.

More IWPR's Global Voices