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Cracks in Uzbek stability widen as traders protest

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    Cracks in Uzbek stability widen as traders protest By Shamil Baigin Reuters 04 Nov 2004 http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L03637118.htm KOKAND,
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 5, 2004
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      Cracks in Uzbek stability widen as traders protest
      By Shamil Baigin
      Reuters
      04 Nov 2004
      http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L03637118.htm

      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
      politicians say.

      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
      standards.

      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
      years.

      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
      investment.

      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
      said.

      "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
      them."

      REVOLT

      The new laws oblige traders of foreign goods to obtain
      government permits, cash registers and bank accounts
      -- effectively outlawing small traders at Uzbekistan's
      many markets.

      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
      their livelihoods.

      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'
      problems.

      "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."

      http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L03637118.htm

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