October 2010: My short trip into Uzbekistan is a study in contrasts between older traditions and modern lifestyles, and a modern economic sector laboring to emerge from the distortions of a heavy handed state. Uzbekistan is a small to medium sized landlocked and dry country in Central Asia.
After the September 11 attacks in America, the democracy and human rights promoting administration of George Bush set up a regional air base in the country to support war operations in Afghanistan. In doing so, it conveniently overlooked the gross human rights violations of the tightly controlled authoritarian government of Ismail Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and whose government has earned a slot in Freedom House's Worst of the Worst: The World's Most Repressive Societies.
Uzbekistan proved to be a fickle lover though. After a massacre of hundreds of its citizens by government forces in town of Andijan in its volatile Fergana Valley in 2005, and in reaction to the heavy international criticism of this gross human rights violation that ensued, the government decided that Russia was actually its true reliable friend and kicked US forces out of the country. However, a make-up in the relationship has since occurred with US forces again operating out of Uzbekistan and Russia relations downgraded.
Stagnation characterizes the Uzbek economy since independence from the Soviet Empire 20 years ago. The country should be rich as it is blessed with abundant oil and gas reserves, is the world's second largest exporter of cotton and seventh largest producer of gold. Indeed, parts of the economy have shown some life and rapid growth in the past half-decade, and a modern rising affluent sector is now plainly visible in its capital of Tashkent. However, through a mixture of heavy handed state intervention in the economy, mismanagement on a macro scale, including very restrictive currency controls, and a large dose of corruption, Uzbekistan has managed to still have an estimated whopping 45% of its population living on $1.25 a day or less.
All of this aside, I personally encountered a warmth and hospitality, and a willingness to help me as a visitor to their country, from almost everyone I met in my short journey in Uzbekistan. This stands out as the salient experience I had in in this complex country.
I came into the country via the capital of Tashkent, and then did a short trip to the Fergana Valley in Eastern Uzbekistan. This area known for anti-government unrest that led to violence in Andijan in 2005, and ethnic tensions which flared up again on the Kirgiz side of the valley's border this past June, creating a major humanitarian crisis. I then went to the famous city of Samarkand to see the amazing sights of the old capital of the great historic conqueror and national hero, Tamerlane, or Timor the Great, who created a vast empire in Central Asia during the middle ages. With more time, I'd like to have visited the Aral Sea area, one of the world's saddest environmental tragedies as large sections of this great inland sea dry up and disappear.
I stayed my first few days in Tashkent with an extremely warm and hospitable Muslim couple, Farhod and his wife of two years, Shaknoza. Farhod (for privacy reasons, I am not using real names), is an entrepreneur who is running a small and successful and growing business in an education related field. Shaknoza is a full time housewife. Farhod's younger brother Anvar lives with them. It was a great learning experience staying with Farhod and his wife. Through them I got a glimpse into the more traditional Uzbeki culture of the countryside.
Farhod is a young man in his early 30s, university educated who has lived in the USA for a short period of time bit. He exhibits a keen sense of good modern business practice and management style and uses of the latest technologies in his educational related business. A devout Muslim, Farhod is very much in touch with his traditional roots. The way he met his wife illustrates the contrast between his life of modernity in Tashkent versus that of the traditional values of his countryside upbringing.
Farhod and his wife are both from the fertile Fergana valley in eastern Uzbekistan. In contrast to Tashkent, with its reasonably modern veneers, some grand boulevards, and a number of triumphal monuments and statues, Fergana is an agricultural region of more traditional Uzbek Muslim culture with some Russian influence thrown in.
After living for a short period of time in the USA, Farhod was ready to get married and start a family. In the way of the countryside, he was introduced to his wife through his mother's efforts. Farhod's mother put the word out that her son was interested in finding a wife and starting a family. This brought in a stream of leads for potential mates from families in the region with eligible daughters.
As Farhod tells the story, he was introduced to perhaps 16 to 20 potential female mates. Farhod would be brought by his mother to a prospective young lady's home and introduced. He and his potential mate would then have a bit of time in semi privacy, usually still in the young lady's home, in the living or family room perhaps. The two would then sort of "interview" of each other to ascertain what each of them was seeking in a prospective mate. After a brief meeting, which could last anywhere from a half hour to an hour or so, Farhod would leave with his mother. If there was an interest in his end to pursue the prospective bride any further, he would indicate such to his mother who would then communicate this to the prospective bride's parents. Otherwise, that would be the end of the matter for that prospective bride. Of course, the young lady also had a say in the matter and could indicate that she was not interested in the male suitor.
As Farhod tells it further, when he met Shaknoza, they both knew almost immediately that they were for each other. Farhod says that he spent maybe an hour with Shaknoza the first time they met and then did a follow up meeting that lasted perhaps 2 hours. During this second meeting they agreed to become engaged and get married. They are now on the way to starting their own family and seem quite happy with each other.
Tashkent for me had a kind of subdued atmosphere. Like other parts of the ex-Soviet Union, there are elements of the grand and monumental architecture in the central city, with some wide boulevards, triumphal statues and squares. Parts of the central city are very chic and modern and a rising middle affluent class is evident. But a number of things that I saw while in the country pointed to a general incompetence in economic management and a lack of confidence in the people regarding the future of the country's prospects.
One thing very visible was the difficulty of dealing in cash. In an effort to control cash movements and ensure better tax collection (and perhaps to limit purchases of foreign goods and block capital flight from the country), cash transactions are heavily regulated. If a business takes in cash receipts as a normal part of their operating procedure, they must immediately deposit the cash into the bank on a daily basis. Once deposited into the bank though, it is very difficult to withdraw substantial amounts of cash. Justifications must be given for any amount of cash withdrawn, excepting for the most trivial amounts. So, business men, from what I was told have to resort to subterfuge and deception to make sure that they have the necessary cash on hand to pay for the normal operating expenses of their business, or just to have money for their personal use and enjoyment.
Another unusual practice is seen in the major national industry of cotton. Uzbekistan is blessed with excellent cotton growing conditions and is one of the world's largest producers of high quality cotton. This, along with oil, is one of the country's principal hard currency earning exports. It is also one of the sources of a continuing large scale human rights abuse. Although the government denies it, the country over the years has resorted to enforced labor, including child labor, to pick the cotton at harvest times. In the countryside's cotton growing regions, many school children and apparently many adults, even those in highly skilled and critical positions must go to the fields and pick cotton.