Uzbekistan: Urban Renewal Comes at a Price

Town planners prepare to celebrate Karshi’s long history by reducing much of the city centre to rubble.

Uzbekistan: Urban Renewal Comes at a Price

Town planners prepare to celebrate Karshi’s long history by reducing much of the city centre to rubble.

The aftermath of the destruction of the medical screening centre.
The home of Karshi resident Iroda Jumaeva, which was put on the demolition list.

Karshi is usually a quiet sort of place, even though it’s the main city in the large Kashkadarya region of southwestern Uzbekistan. But residents have recently woken up to the sight of building after building in the city centre being smashed into rubble.

People who have lost home complain that they have not been offered compensation, let alone prior consultation.

The systematic demolition is all in the name of paying tribute to Karshi’s long history.

The Uzbek government has decided to hold celebrations this October to mark the city’s 2,700th anniversary, a somewhat arbitrary date.

Long though its history may be, the city’s vistas clearly don’t please the Uzbek authorities. After President Islam Karimov signed the order to mark the anniversary, urban planners set to work on a scheme to turn the city – whose mostly low-rise buildings are a blend of Imperial Russian, Soviet and traditional Central Asian architecture - into something grander.

Last week, senior planning officials convened a meeting in Karshi, attended by deputy prime minister Abdukakhar Tukhtaev, to discuss progress achieved to date. All the work has to be completed by August.

The rejuvenation work is seen as a coup by the city administration, which says the project is worth about 45 million US dollars – a huge sum for this relatively poor country.

“It’s a great stroke of luck for our residents,” said deputy mayor Normurad Hamzaev. “We expect that our city will become as well laid-out as other towns that have had jubilee celebrations.”

The money is intended to go towards big projects like an amphitheatre, an Olympic sports training centre, a 20,000-seat stadium, a makeover for the central Independence Square and road improvements.

Hamzaev promises that Karshi will end up in much better shape.

The problem for city residents is that a lot of old public buildings and homes are coming down to make space.

A number have already gone, including the medical screening centre for the whole of Kashkadarya region and the provincial statistics office. Next up is the local telecoms office, and the city library and writer’s union, whose staff have been evicted from their buildings ahead of demolition.

The houses that lined the central Uzbekistan Street are also to be torn down, and residents say they were ignored when they tried to oppose the move.

Iroda Jumaeva, who lived in one of the blocks, recalls how a group of people led by deputy mayor Hamzaev knocked at her door to inform her the house was going to be pulled down.

But she says the only document they could offer in evidence was a paper signed by Kashkadarya’s regional governor Nuriddin Zainiev which talked about reconstructing historic buildings and improving the town’s structure. “There wasn’t a single word about the destruction of homes,” she added.

Now Jumaeva says she is to be thrown out with no compensation, “The mayor’s office is treating us harshly, demanding that we vacate our homes but offering nothing in return.”

Imma Chubakova, 75, a Russian who has lived in Karshi for half a century, also faces eviction from her home after she received a similar visit from officials, again with no papers to substantiate their demand. “I’m an educated woman and I understand that there have to be corroborating documents, and that full compensation must be paid. And it certainly shouldn’t happen the way they are doing it,” she said.

Other people in Uzbekistan Street are now just waiting to receive a knock at the door.

“We’ve recently been afraid to leave our homes - not that staying home is completely safe,” said a former teacher who asked not to be named. “The town administration suddenly demands that we leave out homes, but offers nothing in return.

“I have lived in this house with my husband, brought up my children and now that I’m on my pension, I might find myself on the streets. Isn’t that terrifying?”

Zebo Jalilova, of Uzbekistan’s Urban Planning Research Institute, says residents have no right to be surprised as the demolition is part of a long-term plan, rather than a sudden move designed for the city anniversary.

“As far as I am aware, the destruction of a row of houses along the town’s main street was planned 20 years ago. There’s nothing to be surprised about,” she said.

Local residents countered that they had heard nothing about such a redevelopment plan before. They noted in particular that there had been nothing in the local press about the planned destruction of buildings.

Komila Karamova, editor in chief of the city newspaper Nasaf, said her paper will not be writing about the demolitions, only about the new building work.

Both she and officials at the mayor’s office insisted that every family forced to move by the reconstruction work would be offered their own apartment.

Residents brushed these claims aside, saying that in most cases people were not offered anything, and in the few cases where a home had been made available, it was often in too poor a state to be lived in.

Many people in Karshi, and not only those affected by the change, are aghast at so much money being diverted to the anniversary when basic services are falling apart.

“When people are starving, when there’s no gas or electricity, when schools are in a chronic state, I see no justification for celebrating the town’s anniversary,” said Ismail Rahmankulov, who is disabled. “It would be more sensible to spend the money on economic regeneration and on helping the poor, the sick and the invalids. And housing services need a complete overhaul.”

Karshi is only the latest Uzbek town to have some anniversary marked with lavish projects.

It is not even clear how the authorities decided that Karshi was established exactly 2,700 years ago. The consensus seems to be that Karshi emerged in the early Middle Ages as a trading centre on the Silk Road, on the caravan route between Bukhara Samarkand to the north and India to the south.

The authorities’ keenness on grand public celebrations is not shared by everyone, in a country where many struggle to make ends meet and public-sector wages are not paid for months at a time.

Nodir Ahadov, a civil rights activist in Kashkadarya, thinks the government wants to create a false impression that all is well, and that Uzbekistan’s people spend their time enjoying life, “So the government pacifies the people and shows that it is caring for them and that everything in the country is good.”

Tulkin Karaev is an IWPR contributor in Karshi.

Support our journalists