Notes from the Field: Uzbekistan (Part 1 of 3)

12.22.2005

Driving around Tashkent, it is remarkable how slowly business has been developing. I arrived on the Constitution Day holiday, yet the commercial district was virtually deserted, unlike the main boulevards on holidays in Baku, Tbilisi, Chisinau, or Almaty. The bazaar was the exception, where people crowd in to buy cheap goods and produce from vendors in a largely gray economy. On the main avenues of Tashkent, I saw little or no sign of cafes or restaurants that cater to the taste of westerners or wealthy business people. I understand that in the past such places did spring up in Tashkent, but they were quickly closed by city officials for reasons unexplained. Some say this is part of a deliberate effort to squeeze out competition against businesses owned by government officials.

In Bukhara’s old city one quickly notices private hotels under construction all over the old city. However, the largest and most conspicuous project is a large medieval madrassa-styled building with trademark perestroika era yellow tinted windows adorning its façade. According to locals, President Karimov’s sister is the owner of this prime piece of real estate, a fact that highlights the nepotism, cronyism, and corruption apparent in every corner of Uzbek commercial life.

A taxi driver assured me that Uzbeks are hard working people, but that no matter how hard they try, they are not likely to get anywhere since they are not given an opportunity to realize their potential. There are places even in the capital, only a few kilometers away from the commercial center, where people suffer dire poverty, living in squalid conditions without clean water for days. Malnutrition, drugs and street crime are rampant problems there. When I asked if it would be okay to take photographs in this area I was advised not to because more than likely a plain clothes agent of the security services would see me and have my camera confiscated.