«The demolition issue is the main challenge at the moment, thus it requires an immediate solution. The political elite must mobilize all resources to reduce the social tension level in order to prevent an escalation that will negatively affect the entire reform agenda,» said Yuri Sarukhanyan, a specialist in international relations, a member of the CABAR.asia School of Analytics from Tashkent.
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Brief overview of the article:
- In the race of providing reports to superiors, officials act quite chaotically, refusing to subordinate their actions, if not to the letter of law, then at least to pure logic;
- The growth of social tension demonstrated the complete incapacity of regional, city and district administrations (hokimiyats);
- If earlier we talked about the existence of a communication gap between the political elite and society, now it seems that the time has come to talk about the gap between the different levels of the political elite;
- The growing mistrust of people in the authorities makes them believe that the most effective means of combating arbitrariness are not formal procedures defined by law, but actions that will entail social and media resonance.
- The political elite tried to intervene quickly into the situation. Unprecedented large-scale criticism fell on hokims of all levels;
- The ongoing demolition events could again distort the country’s image, by replacing the cotton theme with a building one.
The word “demolition” confidently established itself in modern Uzbek reality, having overshadowed the “development strategy”, “liberalization”, and “reforms”, terms that were typical for the recent years. Arriving news from the construction process of residential complexes, business centers, technology parks, etc. increasingly cause alarm and perplexity. Driven by the desire to quickly complete government orders, in disregard for the legally prescribed procedure, officials were faced with fierce resistance from the population. Last week was marked by cases resonant for the local news background. In one of the districts of the Kashkadarya region, an entrepreneur, while defending his store, set deputy hokim on fire, who for some reason decided to demolish the building personally. A few days later, it flashed in Urgench as well. On Friday night, social networks reported unrest in the city, where residents of one of the demolished mahallas who were evicted to a tent city (more like a refugee camp), without receiving the promised compensation, went to a protest rally.
Demolitions appeared on the agenda, no matter how strange it may sound, due to the implementation of the ambitious state programs «Obod Mahalla» (Prosperous Mahalla) and «Obod Kishlok» (Prosperous Village), the government’s plans to attract foreign investors through the construction of business centers, technology parks, industrial zones, etc., as well as decisions to replace flimsy dwellings with more modern housing. However, as it often happens, good intentions paved the road to hell for the population. Let us not waste time on a detailed description of what is happening. Let us give readers the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the most odious cases that have become the headlines of the news feed for the last year (Hydrolysis town in Ferghana, house number 45 in Tashkent, demolitions in Yangiyul, ruins of Rishtan, burning castle in the Kashkadarya region, unrest in Urgench).
If the reader is acquainted with all the stories, he/she will notice that they have common features, which are the reasons for the growth of protest moods. Employees of regional or district administrations come to people with a demand to leave apartments, houses or vacate office premises (if it is about entrepreneurs), because the building should be demolished due to the implementation of any investment project or “seized for state needs”. At the same time, local authorities sometimes forget to send a notice of demolition in advance, as it is required by law, and the payment of compensation, for some reason, is considered not the highest priority topic. In the race of providing reports to the top, officials act quite chaotically, refusing to subordinate their actions, if not to the letter of law, then at least to pure logic.
Pause for thought
The growth of social tension demonstrated the complete incapacity of regional, city and district administrations (khokimiyats). Khokims still work according to the old canons, which involved ensuring accountability, not legitimacy. Without wasting time on a serious and detailed study of the plan for the implementation of decisions or simply not being able to do so, they prefer to argue their actions categorically: “Verbal order from above”, “It is necessary to ensure the fulfillment of the task”, “Are you against the president’s policy?”. This style of work, by default, does not imply compliance with any laws, because the latter are replaced by the identity of the hokim.
The saddest thing is that the local authorities have not been able to adapt to modern realities, in which all their actions and words are easily recorded on various gadgets and are made public. If earlier we talked about the existence of a communication gap between the political elite and society, now it seems that the time has come to talk about the gap between the different levels of the political elite. Despite constantly declaring statements from above on the inadmissibility of law violation during the construction process, the mandatory coordination of all decisions with the population and the need to pay compensation, hokims continue arbitrariness on the ground. And no matter how this paradox is explained: whether there is a lack of real commitment on the part of the country’s leadership to ensure legitimacy or an inability to reach the consciousness of its subordinates in the field, both options seriously damage the image of the political elite.
It is not difficult to guess that people thrown out into the street in the midst of the heat or left without a business, under which a loan was taken (by the way, as part of the state program to support entrepreneurial activity), entrepreneurs have nothing to lose. The burning deputy khokim showed that social tension is reaching a new level, because the lack of a quick solution to an issue provokes the radicalization of public sentiment. Moreover, most of the responsibility for this radicalization is borne by officials who are unable to ensure the legitimacy of their actions. The most significant thing in this story is that the entrepreneur’s act (which is no less illegal than the actions of the official) found widespread support. This clearly demonstrates the attitude of the population towards local officials.
The growing mistrust of people in the authorities makes them believe that the most effective means of combating arbitrariness are not formal procedures defined by law, but actions that will entail social and media resonance. The existence of a country on such a powder keg will continue to irritate both the population and the political elite. In the absence of a solution to an issue, no one is immune from the fact that the next spark will not provoke a real explosion. In addition, the political elite may be tempted to take tougher measures, paying off the rudiments of freedom of speech and returning everything to the roots from which we have so stubbornly tried to move away from September 2016.
Finally, the “Demolition” column has an extremely negative effect on the country’s international image. Do not forget that the political elite has made great efforts to improve the image, spoiled by many years of cotton slavery, prisons filled with political detainees and restricted activities of the media. For the very fact of launching reforms, the international community has given Uzbekistan a huge credit of trust. The events related to demolitions can again distort the image of the country, replacing the cotton theme with the construction one. Such degradation will have a negative impact on interaction with foreign investors and international donors, who, faced with the image-risk problem, can, at best, limit their activity and, at worst, present Uzbekistan with an analogue of the cotton boycott.
Effective crisis management is just not enough…
However, even in such a seemingly unfettered gloom, there is a place for cautious optimism. This is due to reaction of the political elite to the events of the past week. On one hand, it shows that the introduction of new generation of officials into power is gradually starting to change its approach to building communications with society. On the other hand, it allows us to hope that at the top they are well aware of the seriousness of the status quo, the justice of popular discontent and the risks arising from all this.
The main result of the week was that the political elite did not sink to the bottom, trying to simply ignore the events, but it tried to quickly intervene into the situation. Unprecedented large-scale criticism fell on khokims of all levels: from the president who was already habitually making serious reprimands and from the deputies who were silent earlier. The Prime Minister personally travelled to talk with the protesters in Urgench, and, according to unofficial information, the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs ordered not to use force against the population. In addition, some particularly “distinguished” officials in the Kashkadarya region, where the head of the State Security Service went, lost their posts. It is worth recognizing that this time the country’s leadership was able to effectively localize and extinguish the hot spots. However, the government should focus on remedying the situation and preventing such incidents, as crisis management may not always be as effective as it was last week.
…time to take actions
Bearing in mind how the motivated political elite significantly improved the situation on the cotton fields in the shortest possible time and taking into account the peculiarities of the Uzbek political system, we understand that solving the issue of illegal demolitions should not be difficult for them. In this case, special attention should be paid to the following aspects.
The first one. It is time to take tougher measures against the arbitrariness of local authorities. Hokims should stop thinking that the regions, cities and districts entrusted to them are peculiar feudal inheritance in which they can establish their own rules and violate the constitutional rights of the citizens. Strict reprimands have exhausted themselves, as this class of officials is accustomed to living in a regime of constant strict reprimand and has long adapted to it. Moreover, almost every visit of Mirziyoyev to the regions ends with the dismissal of someone from the structure of hokimiyats, but this does not bring any result. In terms of the unpopularity degree, only the long-suffering national football team can compete with hokims. Therefore, Uzbekistan needs a radical revision of the training system for local government employees, right up to inviting foreign managers to leadership positions in the regions.
The second one. Obviously, the speed that construction work in the country gained has not made it possible to ensure the legitimacy of the actions taken. The government should not be afraid to admit that there is a deadlock in the implementation of a number of state programs. On the contrary, concern should be the continuation of their implementation in the form that we are seeing today. In case if permanent violations of property rights and infringement of the population will not stop, the situation may get out of control. Therefore, the most rational solution at the moment would be to suspend demolitions and conduct a legal check on building permits issued to investors by local authorities. The resumption of any work should begin only after ensuring one hundred percent prepayment of compensation to the population.
The third. In no case, the dialogue with the society that has been turning into normal practice in recent years should not be shut. This should happen both on a daily basis and in the event of any unrest. Moreover, the political elite should show maximum endurance in the event of any source of unrest. The use of force can provoke irreversible consequences. Talking with the people who, despite not having the highest living standard, is also oppressed by officials, is not a demonstration of the weakness of the political elite. The people of Uzbekistan, by their nature, cannot be attributed to those who, with or without reason, come out for demonstrations or organize strikes. The radicalization of the people’s behavior is possible only when they are brought to the limit and do not feel that their problems are being solved. Constant communication with society will allow to keep the situation under control and to resolve the problems as painlessly as possible.
It is now exactly the middle of Mirziyoyev’s first term. If the beginning was characterized by unprecedented enthusiasm for Uzbekistan, recently the mood of the population has been significantly spoiled, and the level of trust is rapidly falling. It is worth noting that any transitional period of development of the state is faced with challenges due to growing social tension. In the realities of Uzbekistan, such tension is inevitable, because even the most progressive and well-implemented reforms will not have a positive effect in the short term. The demolition issue is the main challenge at the moment, thus it requires an immediate solution. The political elite must mobilize all resources to reduce the level of social tension in order to prevent an escalation that will negatively affect the entire reform agenda.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.