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

Uzbekistan: Furious Traders Riot

Thousands of people in the Fergana valley take to the streets, some attacking the police sent to disperse them.
By Matlyuba Azamatova

The Uzbek authorities’ attempts to enforce controversial new trade restrictions have resulted in mass disturbances in the Fergana valley, the country’s most densely populated region.


Around 6,000 furious market workers took to the streets in the city of Kokand on November 1, followed by several smaller disturbances in Fergana city and nearby Margilan.


Such a mass outpouring of discontent is highly unusual in Uzbekistan, where the population is tightly controlled by Soviet-style security forces. The last significant industrial unrest was also in the city of Fergana, when petrochemical workers at two plants staged a strike over unpaid wages in August 2003.


The violence in Kokand broke out after tax inspection officers in charge of implementing a new regulation - requiring every small trader to have a license and sell their goods themselves, not via an intermediary – carried out raids at the wholesale Yangi Bazaar and confiscated goods belonging to those traders who could not prove that they complying with the decree.


Elsewhere in the region, markets were closed down to prevent unlicensed traders from conducting their business.


The riot started when a group of 300 Kokand traders demanded the return of goods confiscated by tax inspectors. After a heated exchange, three tax officers and a policeman were set upon and badly beaten up. All four were hospitalised with various injuries.


Protestors broke down the doors of the building where the goods were being kept. When another police unit arrived to tackle the crowd, people promptly began pelting them with stones.


Before long, one street had been blocked and two cars set on fire. The situation only calmed down after Kokand city mayor Maruf Usmonov addressed the crowd and promised them that the markets would reopen.


He told protestors that while he had no power to suspend the decree, he would put it on hold for a short period to allow traders to become familiar with it and organise the necessary paperwork.


Analysts warn that there is little hope of the decree being rescinded. Regional officials hold little sway in the capital Tashkent, which will expect all of its laws to be followed to the letter.


Kokand deputy mayor Israil Mamajanov told IWPR that the decree, which was issued in August and is only now being implemented, forms part of a government policy designed both to stem an uncontrolled influx of low-quality goods and to increase tax collection by preventing traders from selling their goods through third parties.


The head of the local tax inspection office, Muhiddin Turdikulov, said, “More than 1,200 businessmen working in Kokand are not registered.”


Government regulations mean that for every step of their business, traders have to provide special documents such as licenses to import and trade, a tax declaration for imported goods, and a bank account.


Tashkent has already imposed high import duties, which was a blow to small traders and forced many out of business.


Odina Kakharova, an entrepreneur from Kokand, told IWPR that the government should have taken a good look at the country’s economic problems before introducing the new regulation.


“I encounter a lot of difficulties when I go to Turkey or China to purchase goods. Taking them through [Uzbek] customs costs more than I paid for them.


“Now I find out that under the new law, I have to sell them myself. That’s more than I can take, as it means that neither my husband nor my children will be able to help me to sell them.”


Her colleague Bahodyr said, “If Kokand’s factories and plants were working, I would not have gone into this tortuous business to feed my family. We can barely manage to make ends meet. With the new law we will be left without a penny.”


Fergana human rights activist Rafikjon Ganiev said that the main reason people are unhappy is the lack of jobs and the resulting poverty. “There are more than 60,000 unemployed in Kokand, and government decrees do not take this situation into account. Bazaars are one of the few places where people can find a job.”


In Soviet times, 70 per cent of Kokand’s population was employed in the many state industrial enterprises which dominated the city. But when Uzbekistan became independent in 1991, the fledgling republic was unable to sustain this level of production, and most factories closed.


Some people left the country in search of work, while others became “shuttle traders”, bringing in consignments of goods and selling them on.


One 50-year-old trader in Kokand, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “Why are the people at the top not listening to the difficulties of ordinary people? Our children are hungry. The factories and plants aren’t working. The market is the only place where we can earn some money to buy bread.”


Another female trader, who did not want to give her name, told IWPR that she had been doing this work since she lost her job as an engineer in 1995, and continues to ply the route to buy goods in the Karasu market in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan to pay back debts she occurred when two 3,000 dollar shipments were confiscated by the authorities.


The disturbances in Kokand were followed by protests in the city of Fergana, some 100 kilometres to the east, after the authorities closed down the Juidam market.


Around a hundred women blocked a road near the market, with two dousing themselves in petrol and threatening to set themselves on fire if it was not reopened. Others attacked plain-clothes security men who were openly filming the protests.


One protestor, a 28-year-old single mother called Rahila who supports her mother and five-year-old child with the money she makes at Juidam, told IWPR that as she makes less than 100 dollars a month, she simply cannot afford to buy a 68 dollar license.


“People are suffering, just barely surviving,” she said sadly. “Instead of helping, the government is coming up with new decrees which only have one purpose – to take our last pennies from us.”


Matlyuba Azamatova is an IWPR correspondent in Fergana. Hamdam Sulaimonov is an independent journalist in Kokand.