Cracks in Uzbek stability widen as traders protest
By Shamil Baigin
04 Nov 2004
KOKAND, Uzbekistan, Nov 4 (Reuters) - Thousands of
angry Uzbek market traders shattered more than just
glass this week when they smashed their way into a
warehouse, set fire to police cars and marched on
their mayor's office.
The demonstration in the heavily policed country,
where protests are frowned on, widened cracks in
Uzbekistan's fragile social stability, opposition
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, President
Islam Karimov has justified autocratic governance in
the mostly Muslim Central Asian state by citing a
threat of Islamic militancy. Economic reform has also
taken a back seat for fear of a collapse in living
Violence and poverty were kept at bay for some years.
But this spring militants held street shoot-outs with
police and detonated suicide bombs. And on Monday, the
country saw its first mass demonstration in many
The unrest was prompted by poverty. Most Uzbeks live
on a dollar a day, while neighbours in Kazakhstan
enjoy an average wage of $220 a month, largely because
Kazakhstan's leader, another ex-Communist, has thrown
open the economy and attracted massive oil and gas
Monday's protest erupted in the bazaar at Kokand, 160
km (100 miles) east of the capital Tashkent, in the
fertile and densely populated Ferghana Valley.
A crowd of 2,000 later grew to around 10,000 outside
the mayor's office, protesting about new trading laws
and a lack of domestic gas for heating, witnesses
"People are unhappy," said Bakhtier, a 45-year-old who
sells Chinese-made carpets, a day after the protest.
The $2-3 he takes home per day are just enough to feed
his four children, he said.
"They want 70 percent customs duties. If you pay all
the taxes, the goods get expensive and no one will buy
The new laws oblige traders of foreign goods to obtain
government permits, cash registers and bank accounts
-- effectively outlawing small traders at Uzbekistan's
Although the government says its moves to get rid of
bazaars and encourage the growth of supermarkets are
part of an effort to cut the size of the black
economy, millions of Uzbeks rely on such trading for
A potentially explosive situation outside the mayor's,
or Hokim's, office on Monday was calmed when police
held back and he promised to try to solve the traders'
"The Hokim said we won't be touched until next
spring," said Bakhtier.
"The people revolted and they were right," said
61-year-old Iskander, a taxi driver. "The whole of
Kokand feeds itself thanks to the bazaar, there isn't
any other kind of work here."
Although Uzbekistan's tightly controlled state media
did not report the protest, echoing the cautious line
taken during the shoot-outs and suicide bombings that
killed more than 50 people this year, some fear it
could have a knock-on effect.
"People have reached the limit," said Atkham
Mukhitdinov, a local member of the secular Birlik
party, which like other opposition parties is banned
from running in Uzbek elections.
"They stood up for their rights. If they rise up again
it will be a bad example for other towns," he said.
According to Marat Zakhidov, chairman of the
opposition Party of Agrarians and Entrepreneurs,
similar but smaller protests broke out in the nearby
cities of Ferghana and Margilan on Tuesday.
One opposition Web site (www.erkinyurt.org) reported
that 100 women blocked a road in Ferghana and
threatened to set themselves on fire unless officials
re-opened a local market.
Neither report could be independently confirmed and
local police could not be reached for comment.
"It's no accident that this started in the Ferghana
Valley because that's where there is the toughest
economic situation," said Zakhidov. "The simple fact
is people cannot earn their crust there. They don't
sit in the bazaar because life is good."
Although calm returned to Kokand's bazaar after the
protest, two young men in black followed a Reuters
correspondent around and local officials said the
trading laws would be enforced.
"The Hokim cannot ignore the government's decision,"
said Salomat Abdullayeva, Kokand's deputy mayor. "The
traders have to acquire cash registers and pick up the
culture of trading."
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