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

Uzbekistan: Karimov Recruits Informers

Uzbeks reap record rewards for informing on their neighbours.
By Eduard Poletaev

The plaza in front of the Amir Timur Park in the heart of Tashkent looks eerily deserted. Usually it is full of people offering inexpensive accommodation to tourists.

But Elena Alexandrovna is not renting rooms anymore. Her local policeman forbade her to, referring to "verbal orders" from his superiors to keep the city "clean" in the run-up to the tenth anniversary of Uzbekistan's independence.

Days before, however, he offered Elena Alexandrovna hefty 5,000 som a week if she agreed to report on her neighbours and tenants, alongside additional perks such as his personal assistance and cooperation whenever it was needed.

Elena Alexandrovn was asked to sniff out those in her apartment block who "feel negative about the government". When she refused she was deprived of her little earner and threatened with deportation to Russia.

Unlike Elena Alexandrovn, Nigora, a prostitute, has accepted the offer. She comes from the provinces. There is a lot more money to be made in Tashkent than her native town in the Samarkand region.

Not registered in the capital, she had to let a young man named Saidmurad handle her residency problems. Nigora is convinced he works for the National Security Service, NSS.

In exchange for Saidmurat's trouble-shooting services, he asks Nigora to copy her clients' passport information, find out where they work and assess the amount of hard cash they carry.

She now carries a recorder in her purse. "Whenever I serve a government official, Saidmurad stops by the next day to collect the information," she said.

Informing in Uzbekistan is a legacy of the Stalinist era. Today's bureaucrats and journalists act under much the same principle, eulogising the government and keeping all its errors and misdeeds tightly under wraps.

Bureaucrats report the information that is expected of them, not the hard facts. When Uzbekistan was the Soviet Union's major cotton producing republic, it routinely reported harvest figures way in excess of the target plan. In reality they fell far short of the target.

Fed on propaganda by its own officials, the government relies on secret informants to supply the hard information it needs to avert possible assassinations, coups and terrorist attacks.

This was stepped up after a series of bomb blasts, attributed to Islamic insurgents linked to the armed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, rocked Tashkent in 1999. In the ensuing crack-down, 1,570 alleged Islamic fundamentalists surrendered to the police and 10,700 suspected "sympathizers" acquired police records.

The new emphasis on informing was backed at the highest level. "It is important today to promote popular vigilance," President Islam Karimov declared. The media took up the challenge. "The president's directive must become part and parcel of our work," they said.

In the fight against Islamic fundamentalism, snitching reached an unprecedented scale. Edicts urged citizens to "rise against the enemies of the state to protect our youth".

Local bureaucrats went into action, recruiting enormous numbers of neighbourhood "activists", or snitches. Mayors, school heads, police chiefs, military units, and Islamic clergy received written and verbal encouragement to identify "unreliables".

This work is celebrated by government ideologues, such as Adyl Rakhmatov who in his booklet Vigilance is Our Sacred Duty declared war on "indifference".

As a result, most informants believe their work is highly patriotic. "Informants are proud of their secret power," said one political analyst who declined to be named. "Since most people are convinced that Islamic fundamentalism is evil, informants are only too eager to believe they are doing the right thing."

But psychologists worry about the damage that this suspicion and distrust inflicts on the community. They fear it has made people increasingly unwilling to discuss social or political matters openly.

A farmer selling sheep to a bearded stranger may fear he will be accused of facilitating terrorism. Village seniors are wary of wearing beards in case they come under fire for Islamic militancy. People have stopped having open conversations even with relatives.

For all the official encouragement they receive, informants are widely despised. "Karimov goes out of his way to nurture snitching because that's his idea of ruling the country effectively," one regional expert said.

Nigora is still on the streets, walking around Katortol, known as Love Street, in Chilanzar, Tashkent's largest district. The informing business in which she is a small cog demonstrates how powerless the government is to obtain feedback from citizens.

It highlights the government's unwillingness to reach out to the community through genuine democracy. But as President Islam Karimov once said, "The Uzbek people are not ready for democracy yet."

Eduard Poletaev is a journalist in Kazakstan