Karimov’s bitter harvest
It was almost as if nothing had changed. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Uzbeks – teachers and doctors, students and factory workers – boarded buses which would transport them to the countryside, where they would spend several weeks picking cotton for the state. But this year something was different. The man who glared down at the enforced agricultural workers from propaganda posters at the sides of the roads was no longer alive.
Days before the start of Uzbekistan’s annual cotton harvest, Islam Karimov, the first and only leader of this central Asian country of 30 million people, had taken his final breath.
Karimov died as he lived, mired in secrecy and paranoia. The Uzbek authorities confirmed the 78-year-old’s death on 2nd September, four days after news portal Ferghana broke the story. “Due to our contacts on the ground we knew about his death one hour after it happened,” says Ferghana editor-in-chief Daniil Kislov, an Uzbek who runs the agency from Moscow.
While rumours of Karimov’s demise swirled around on the internet, Uzbek state media – virtually the only permitted source of news in the country – acted as if nothing had happened, even though the president’s youngest daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, had posted on Instagram that her father was unwell in hospital. The funeral followed soon after the official announcement. Thousands of Uzbeks lined the streets of Karimov’s hometown of Samarkand, sobbing, throwing roses onto the road and filming the passing cortege on their smartphones. “It was a semi-organised event but it’s true that Karimov was very popular,” says Kislov. “The Uzbek people are like children who are naïve and who close their eyes to problems,” he continues. “Their father dies and they cry because they don’t know who will give them answers any more.”
Inside the country an official three-day mourning period was observed. Outside Uzbekistan, opponents and critics of a man who personified one of the world’s most repressive regimes were unlikely to have shed many tears. Human Rights Watch describe the country’s rights record as “atrocious”, Amnesty International say that torture is rife in Uzbek prisons and Reporters Without Borders say Uzbekistan has some of the most rigidly controlled media in the world. It has been alleged that Karimov had his opponents boiled alive. His regime’s human rights nadir was a massacre in 2005, in which more than 1,000 demonstrators in the city of Andijan were indiscriminately shot dead by security forces.
Karimov had been in the right place at the right time when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. As general secretary of the Communist Party in Uzbekistan he was in prime position to become the leader of the newly independent country. Kislov remembers the early years of Karimov’s rule, when he began exiling and arresting his opponents. In 1992 he banned two major opposition parties amid mass arrests for alleged anti-government activities. “With the help of the secret service Karimov built a more oppressive system than that of the Soviet Union,” says Kislov, whose news agency was tolerated until the Andijan massacre.
The response to Andijan saw Karimov’s paranoia and vengefulness go into overdrive, and he cracked down hard on anybody who questioned the government’s official narrative, that only 187 people had been killed, all of whom were Islamist terrorists plotting to overthrow the government. Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, rejects this official version of events. The mass shootings followed a trial in which 23 Andijan businessmen, who had been charged with being members of a terrorist group, were freed from prison by armed protesters. “The businessmen were taken to the city square and thousands of people, overwhelmingly peacefully, came out to see what was going on,” says Swerdlow. “You had maybe 10,000 people in the square talking about socio-economic woes, corruption and religious persecution, and rumours began to spread that Karimov was on his way to address them. But instead Karimov ordered his elite forces to shoot into the crowd without any warning.”
“I’ve interviewed some of Karimov’s family members,” continues Swerdlow, “and they say that Karimov personally gave the order for his troops to shoot and kill the protesters. The Andijan massacre defines his character in many ways.”
Almost all foreign journalists and human rights campaigners were expelled from the country after the massacre, and the government ruled out an independent inquiry. “It’s been a different picture since Andijan,” says Kislov. “We’ve had to work in Uzbekistan illegally since then and I am banned from the country. More than ten of our reporters, who have to work anonymously, have been forced to seek asylum due to [regime] repression.”
“With the help of the secret service, Karimov built a more oppressive system than that of the Soviet Union”
American researcher and journalist Sarah Kendzior wrote an essay in 2006 entitled Inventing Akromiya, about the supposed dissident faction that Karimov blamed for triggering the Andijan killings. “The government created a terrorist group to blame the massacre on and this group didn’t exist,” she says. The international community didn’t buy Karimov’s story. The US, which regarded Uzbekistan as a key strategic partner in its war on terror (the regime reportedly earned $15 million for allowing the US to operate an air base inside Uzbekistan) condemned the massacre and the European Union imposed an arms embargo.
The condemnation made little difference. “I don’t know how much power anybody could have had over Karimov,” says Kendzior. “Right after Andijan he published a book entitled The Uzbek People Will Never Depend on Anyone. This in-your-face approach was attractive to a lot of the population. And it was true: Karimov genuinely did not let anybody push him around. He truly did not care about international approval. He did whatever he wanted.”
Karimov’s stubbornness paid off because he knew the West needed his cooperation. In 2009 the European Union dropped its arms embargo, largely because Germany had a military base in southern Uzbekistan (Germany closed the base in 2015). Relations between Tashkent and the White House initially soured after Andijan – military aid was banned and a US diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks in 2010 stated that Karimov “flew into a rage” after hearing that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a Women of Courage award to Uzbek human rights campaigner Mutabar Tadjibaeva. But they appeared to improve when Karimov threatened to disrupt the Uzbek section of the Northern Distribution Network, a critical passage used for transporting supplies and equipment to US forces in Afghanistan. In 2012, the US lifted its ban on military aid, and in 2015 the State Department donated more than 300 armoured vehicles, each worth over $1 million, to the regime in Tashkent.
“Within five years of the Andijan massacre, the relationships between Karimov and the West were beautiful again,” says Kislov, wryly. “Maybe Western governments were afraid that if something changed in Uzbekistan we’d see a government with the green flag of Islam.” This was a constant refrain of the regime – that without Karimov the country would be overrun by religious extremists. It’s an argument that has been used to justify the imprisonment of an estimated 7,000 alleged Uzbek Muslim dissidents.
“They are imprisoned on vague and broad charges of religious extremism,” says Swerdlow. “There’s an endless list of suspicious acts that can land people in jail. Even people who aren’t religious get accused of extremism. The political prisoner population of Uzbekistan is larger than that of all the other former Soviet states combined – and torture is widespread.”
There is, however, one area in which Karimov did respond to pressure. The hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks who boarded buses to pick cotton in September 2016 are unlikely to have included children. Until 2012, Uzbekistan routinely used forced child labour in its cotton fields, but since then it has responded to intense international criticism and in 2015 the International Labour Organisation reported that “use of children in the cotton harvest has become rare and sporadic”.
“There’s no longer the systemic use of children in the cotton harvest,” says Klara Skrivankova of Anti-Slavery International, which is part of the Cotton Campaign, a global coalition of organisations trying to end forced labour in Uzbekistan. “[Our campaign] was a success, but forced mobilisation still happens on a large scale. Apart from replacing children with adults the system hasn’t changed at all.”
This mass mobilisation of forced labour – Swerdlow calls it “a modern form of slavery” – has taken place every year since Soviet times. Kislov remembers being forced to pick cotton as a child in the 1970s. “I was in school, maybe still primary school, and we had to pick 25 kilogrammes of cotton per day,” he recalls. “I remember everyone was so ill. People got tuberculosis.” He was later expelled from university for refusing to work in the fields.
The system of enforced labour didn’t merely survive the transition from the Soviet Union to independent Uzbekistan. The regime transformed it into a well-oiled machine which generates billions of dollars of revenue for the government. But will the cotton harvest – and the other oppressive apparatuses of Uzbek executive power – outlive the person who used them so ruthlessly?
Kislov is scornful of those who hope Karimov’s death will lead to reforms. “The people who celebrated, the emigrants and the exiles and the human rights campaigners, they are so naïve,” he says with a sigh. “They hope that something will change but this is absurd because the political system Karimov built is still alive. It’s been two months since his death and now they’re waking up to the fact that Shavkat Mirziyoyev is Karimov 2.0.”
Such was the personification of government in Karimov that little is known about other Uzbek politicians. We do know that Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the prime minister who was named acting president by parliament on 8th September, is responsible for overseeing the cotton harvest.
US human rights group Freedom House has said that in 2000, Mirziyoyev allegedly beat up a maths teacher whose students were picking cotton too slowly, and that last year local officials in the Ferghana region ordered 500 workers to frantically glue cotton balls back onto plants that had already been picked because Mirziyoyev was visiting and he’d be furious if the fields didn’t look bountiful. Mirziyoyev changed his route at the last minute and didn’t visit the area.
Mirziyoyev will compete in elections in December, and although there have been some promising signs – the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has been invited to observe the polls – it seems unlikely that he will face any genuine opposition. Kislov thinks Mirziyoyev may turn out to be even tougher than Karimov. And even if the new leader is reform-minded, it’s not certain that the Uzbek people are craving greater openness.
“I was in school, maybe still primary school, and we had to pick 25 kilogrammes of cotton per day. I remember everyone was so ill. People got tuberculosis”
“Uzbek people are slaves,” says Kislov. “They’ve been slaves since the 15th century. They were slaves in the Soviet era. They were slaves under Karimov. I think I was the only person in my university who refused to pick cotton. For over 20 years there has been no opposition and no political culture. The biggest problem today is the low quality of education. I’ve met young Uzbeks who don’t know that the earth goes round the sun.”
Kendzior isn’t much more optimistic. “There’s constant low-level suffering in Uzbekistan today,” she says. “People are struggling to get resources, infant mortality is on the rise, adults are forced into labour and people can’t speak their mind. This is daily life. There’s a lot of potential if young people were given opportunities through reforms but they’ve been blocked out of the political process. I hope there’s a softening in the years to come. But I can’t see that happening.”
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.