Tashkent Through Gold-Tinted Lenses
by Simon Jones
Finally the gold dust is settling after the EBRD general meeting in Tashkent May 4-5. The EBRD is a 'reconstruction and development' bank for the post-Soviet-collapse ex-socialist dictatorships eager to become shiny new capitalist democracies. The bank descends on one of these basket cases biannually as an act of grace ('better watch out, better not torture'), which provides a golden (sorry) opportunity for the local dictator of the moment to provide Potemkin hotel fronts and newly paved cortege routes, not to mention swarms of hungry, bored cops fiercely glaring at babushkas and other hapless bystanders.
Uzbekistan managed this to a T this year, all for a mere 40m or so greenbacks (Uz prefers green to euro blue despite this being a EUROPEAN bank). It was a close call, as Human Rights Watch and Amnety International were urging 'the Bank' to cancel the meeting because of Uzbekistan's appalling human rights record, and EBRD itself feared terrorist attacks. As the delegates arrived, the Uzbek government's collective sigh of relief was palpable.
I could write up something surreal about it, but hey, it's already surreal! The whole point of these Board (read bored) meetings is to put pressure on said dictators to clean up their appalling human rights records and encourage foreign investors to move in and play their money-making games. As to the former, the human rights situation DID change sharply before and during the meeting, but I'll leave it to the read to decide just how. As to the latter, well, better left unsaid the sorry state of what lies behind the Potemkin hotel fronts here.
The only independent 'Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan,' whose member are constantly arrested, harassed and detained, mustered from 1 to 20 brave souls to demonstrate, but only DURING the EBRD meeting, when the police were clearly instructed to intimidate (detain, threaten, follow) but not touch demonstrators. As a result, for the first and last time here, there were tiny demos at the General Procurator's Office, the Supreme Court and the main conference venue itself, the shiny Intercontinental Hotel and Business Center.
Before and since, such demos were/ are verboten, any misguided protestors spirited away, often to psychiatric wards, within minutes of raising a banner. Of course, not a word of these demos was breathed in the local media.
On May 4, Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch's executive director, spoke on a panel at the EBRD meeting. He strongly criticized Uzbekistan's poor human rights record and the Bank's failure to use maximum leverage to push for reform in advance of the meeting.
Yet the Uzbek Radio Youth Channel in Tashkent had the chutzpah to quote Roth as saying that "the EBRD annual meeting shows that international financial institutions highly rate the economic reforms in Uzbekistan," and that "the forum will be another opportunity to draw the attention of other international institutions and donor countries to that country."
"He said nothing of the sort," fumed Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division. "Predictably, the media have been used as a propaganda tool to make it look as though the international community approves of the repressive policies of this government."
As for ordinary citizens' rights, take the example of a young student friend of mine: the day delegates began to arrive he was KIDNAPPED by cops from the police division responsible for the main gay hang-out in Tashkent – the lovely Blue Cupola boulevard in the center of the city and held 10 DAYS - which just happened to be the length of time delegates would be here.
This particular police division is notorious for such behavior at best of times, as cops are paid little, being gay is illegal (I always marvel at laws declaring one's existence illegal), and it's so easy to rob mere suspects, given the total disregard for the law. My friend was beaten continuously, accused of being gay, forced to sign a false confession and then blackmailed on the basis of the 'confession'. Straight out of a page in Stalin's NKVD manual. Bravo Beria!
There you have some compelling examples of human rights 'improvements' as a result of EBRD pressure. Pretty funny, eh?!
But the juiciest gossip of the day concerned poor Akhmatjon Ibragimov, head of Uzbek TV, whose head rolled after UzTV inadvertently showed Uzbek delegates at the opening conference blissfully asleep during President Karimov's welcoming speech, and worse yet, Karimov himself cowering as he was being dressed down by British delegate Clare Short for his human rights record - all on prime time national TV. Andy Warhol's 10 minutes took only 3 seconds for poor Akhmatjon.
And EBRD President Lemierre's reflections on the meeting? He thanked President Karimov for "the warm welcome of the people ... and for your active personal involvement in the entire process leading to and during this remarkable event." Nary a with of criticism.
Oh yes. One particularly surreal tidbit: a friend's listing at a British online gay site was deluged by horny gay EBRD economists planning to come to remote Tashkent (for the first and no doubt last time), looking for a hot time, asking where the gay discos and bars were, how to get laid, whether my acquaintance wanted to party...
Salvador Dali, anyone? I can't help but think how much good would have been done if the $40m wasted on this empty show had been spent on planting desert
shrub on the dried Aral Sea bed, from which thousands of tons of poison dust waft into the atmosphere every year, spreading death and disease across the
Simon Jones is a Canadian freelance journalist living in Uzbekistan. He writes for Peace Magazine (Toronto) and has published pieces in Counterpunch and YellowTimes.org. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org