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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

From Sovietism to dictatorship: important events in the political, social and economic regression

Laurent Bazin, Bernard Hours et Monique Selim

Texte intégral

1July 2005

2At the beginning of the 1990s when Uzbekistan became an independent state on the ruins of the USSR, all conditions of viability of a national democratic state were not met, bringing the Secretary-General of the Communist party, Islam Karimov, to power as a result of his euphoric nationalist project, which fed on the expectations of a society made vulnerable by the influence of the Perestroika and the progressive decline of the Soviet welfare state. With a multi-ethnic population and border disputes, the remains of the USSR are politically troubling, and constructing a national identity is thus a necessity, even if it means rewriting history. Islam Karimov eagerly embraced this task, which later turned him into an autistic nationalist dictator.

3Rhetoric of nationalist power, dignity and cultural values were addressed, while the capitalist economy and “reforms” of the multilateral authorities and society kept others waiting. Nationalism works like a smokescreen that is spread out over a stretch of 15 years, with society becoming impoverished, industries closing, businesses being monopolised by power; education, social welfare and health systems deteriorating and giving in to state mafias founded on unbridled corruption. This is the way in which the country slowly became a family business, rejected by the people and manipulator of an electoral pseudo-pluralism, in which even OSCE observers did not believe. The people, however, did not have any other choice, as the regime banned all views from the civil society, all real opposition parties, all freedom of the press and victimised NGOs promoting democratic development. Whilst this was happening, prisons were being filled with Islamic suspects, who were tortured.

4The very hypothetical and de facto Islamic danger, confined in this widespread repression, was a pretext to abolish all forms of expression, except the voice of state power. Skilfully playing up to the idea of rapprochement between Moscow and Washington, as they did in the days of the Cold War, the regime was nevertheless confronted with growing disapproval in the West. As the American military base was being used by Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, the United States was embarrassed by its undemocratic ally, choosing to remain temporarily in a wait-and-see position.

5There were three areas of symptomatic crisis of the state of the society and the state itself.

6Firstly, there was a sharp decline in the areas of work and production and the social players were strongly aware of it, contrary to an official rhetoric based on an unabashed denial of there ever being any problems. The economic, agriculture and industry structure – dating back to the Soviet period – was dismantled and partially destroyed by the economic depression that preceded the collapse of the USSR and was strengthened over the years, unlike the situation in certain neighbouring countries. Although safeguarded from privatisation for a short time, industrial parks had partly fallen out of use, while another part was gradually given up to foreign capital, the investments of which were weak or even non-existent. Businesses, even private ones, were subjected to meticulous political and administrative control. They also faced considerable difficulties in securing liquid assets, which were being retained in banks due to a restriction policy on money supply. Today there is a high rate of unemployment and due to this policy of tightening liquid assets, salaries are frequently paid late and have even plummeted so low that the job itself is unprofitable and cannot be the sole source of income for a family or individual. At the same time, former social security systems have disappeared while the access to housing, health care or education is today proving to be costly and problematic.

7In this context of continuing economic shortages, women and women’s work have become major social issues, in terms of their economic, political, and symbolic aspects. Even though the USSR had attempted to make women’s work more accessible, the opposite seemed to occur under the effect of a “re-traditionalisation” process, although women at work became a condition for survival. For example, a female economic initiative is rare, especially in business; privatisation and the setting-up of new companies with foreign capital simultaneously brought about a “proletarianisation” of young women from many urban villages. This was deemed to be harder work than that of their urban counterparts. In addition, the poverty-stricken rural areas, highlighted by the recent dismantling of the Kolkhozes – lands are being monopolised by a small minority of so-called “important” people – forcing many people to migrate towards the cities in an attempt to find a source of income. The markets, sometimes by the roadside, have become places where these people try to sell their labour. These “market jobs” in the most concrete sense, were taken up by an increasing number of women in the last five years. They depend, as is the case in China, on a much smaller scale, on a “floating population” that is maintained with greater economic precariousness, given the fact that it is administratively illegal to obtain a working visa outside the home province.

8The second area to be discussed is that of scientific research, which in typical USSR-style, is given a supposedly major, but to a large extent, fictitious role. The setting-up of a contract system for disciplinary and thematic state tenders as a result of many redundancies, shapes a specific landscape: the extreme economic insecurity, which is the fate of researchers and intellectuals, only strengthens their ideological mission. Far from being abandoned, the concept of ideology is being given a new outlook. In his numerous works subjected to compulsory examination at all levels of education, Islam Karimov actually pointed out the risks that could result in “an ideological vacuum” and has set about constructing “ideological immunity” as he calls it. Thus the social science and humanities have a duty of laying the historical, archaeological, cultural, philosophical and ethnic foundation to legitimise an “independent state” and counter the “ideological attacks” led by the internet and identified as a “weapon of mass destruction” that should be controlled. In the past as in the present, researchers were small workers of ideology, who today, find themselves submerged in poor social and economic conditions against which they fight to survive, working seriously and rigorously, but not without fearing of being punished at any time.

9The collapse of economic structures, the desperation to earn a livelihood, brutal unemployment rates, and migration have led to noticeable changes in family relations on all levels of society, from rural communities and workers to intellectuals and social fringes. Under the aegis of the state, the current re-traditionalisation is somewhat contradictory, particularly regarding the status of women. On one hand they are thrown into an extremely fragile embryonic job market, and on the other hand they are subjected to old traditional values, fought against by the Soviet State, in the name of modernisation and expelling “traditional” societies. In any case, they feel like victims of a new legitimised form of coercion, sacred of the o’zbekchilik (Uzbek traditions), transcending the social classes and their past and present differences. New means of unification were thus created to outline the rules of marriage, which were perceived to be indefinite and never changing. As a consequence, marriage is now the object of essential social, economic and symbolic investment illustrative of power and wealth, rising costs of ceremonies, dowries, prenuptial agreements, scarcity of marriages between spouses of different “nationalities” (in the Soviet case, it always appears on the passport) and the increase of arranged and negotiated marriages between families.

10These changes under the economic strain and the continued rise of political oppression denote a general, but steep return to the family circle as a refuge from the threat of the state’s brutality on one hand and economic uncertainty on the other hand. At the same time, the state underlines the importance of marriage and family and also tries to discourage divorce. Understandably enough, the state believed that by placing emphasis on Uzbek family unity, the concept of authority would be understood and could be applied in other contexts, for example, the strengthening of dependent economic and political relationships. Consequently, the desire to emigrate – to Kazakhstan, Russia or Western countries – is very common in all the social categories, as emigration appears to be the only way out. “Uzbekistan is damned” is an expression endlessly repeated, as a reversed echo of the presidential slogans promising a “great state like the future of Uzbekistan”.

11NGOs are also experiencing a crisis after being relatively successful in their work since independence. Until 1995, in the euphoria of the independence, hundreds of NGOs were created more or less conforming to this notion. All that was non-governmental was declared NGOs, including political parties. International sponsors have restored some order in this mess of parties calling themselves NGOs, which involved many women and several leaders trained under the Soviet structures; a trend towards domestic “in-house NGOs”. During this period, after the victory of the West, much hope was placed in the West and everything seemed possible, including the birth of a civil society that would be able to voice itself and ecological miracles that could fill up the Aral Sea. Despite the funds received from abroad, with up to 80% coming from the United States, there were very few civil societies in 1995 and even less in 2005 because the government’s nationalist rhetoric slowly silenced opinions in the name of “Uzbek specificity”. This trick worked well and even the intellectuals fell for it, and are now discovering that there is a political field monopolised by state power. Even at this level no opinions can be expressed except that of the President’s, who has thus managed to represent society by putting it in a state of “cerebral death”. Angered by the slow development of the civil society, which was (wrongly) put down to the society than the State, sponsors (mainly USAID, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the PNUD) gradually granted NGOs a more focused and modest target on socio-economic or humanitarian projects of little importance, multiplied without capitalisation or real strategy, without mentioning the state’s multiple attempts to harness a part of these resources through the “Gongos” (governmental NGOs) with which institutional sponsors were as much lenient as they were with the system.

12The sudden closure of the Soros Foundation in 2004 that had specialised in developing the civil society, and which had facilitated uncalming the calm “revolutions” in Georgia and then in Ukraine, had substantially reduced the funds that were intended for this forbidden civil society. The sponsors became silent and pretended not to have seen anything as far as Andijon perhaps. The full extent of this event was strong in the West, but was almost stifled in a country that had discovered the “World Cup”. In 2005, the government clearly voiced its vision of the NGOs. Through a national association of NGOs, its aim was to take explicit control of all NGOs (whose numbers had reduced by two-thirds since 2004) and to manage their objectives and programmes. This “nationalisation” of NGOs was probably the first of its kind in the world and was said to have been implemented using foreign funds (which were quite problematic) and the state’s resources.

13For the time being, funds received from abroad are frozen in the state’s bank, which monopolises them. Almost a third of them are being sent to the addresses and the rest is returned to the senders with the words: “this project is not one of the government’s priorities”. Alarmed by the role played by NGOs and civil society in political developments in neighbouring countries, the Uzbek government in 2004 decided to brutally overpower them. Fear led to threat, which stimulated fear. We can therefore ask ourselves whether the seeds sown can grow at the foot of machine guns, without the intervention of strong international pressure capable of cornering the regime, but to what extent?

14Today’s nostalgia of the USSR is shared by a large part of the society, as it has neither a market economy nor democracy. It is poorer with less freedom than in 1990 and is undergoing the glum experience of a so-called “transition” in the form of regression; a descent into hell. Where will it stop?

15In these circumstances, major sociological and anthropological questions are being raised regarding its domination, reproduction and especially its means of incorporation. The negative portrayal that actors have of themselves – by identifying themselves with the supposed words of former Russia, using animals to symbolise submission and passivity (sheep) or those who are denied the right to voice themselves (fish) – refers to the effectiveness of a conscious and unconscious power over a long period of time. According to a well-established system in all Muslim countries and beyond, the “struggle against Islamic terrorism”, enables all germs of political opposition to be disinfected, thus contributing to this collective submissiveness.


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