Uzbekistan Weekly Roundup
The aftermath of the fall of Zeromax, once Uzbekistan's most powerful conglomerate, continues apace. Now the once-successful soccer club Bundyodkor in Tashkent, widely believed to have been controlled by both Miradil Djalalov, former chief executive of Zeromax, and Gulnara Karimova, President Islam Karimov's daughter, appears to be in trouble. At one time Bunyodkor's owners had visions of turning the club into a regional powerhouse, and brought in a high-profile coach and signed some aging stars in an attempt to gain fame, EurasiaNet reported. Construction began on a new 35,000-seat stadium that was supposed to showcase the team and burnish Uzbekistan's reputation as a world player.
Today, the construction site is overgrown with weeds, and the famous Brazilian coach, Luiz Filipe Scolari, is gone, along with the Brazilian star player Rivaldo and some other foreign players. Rivaldo was signed in 2008 with a 6-million euro contract, but now he is complaining about unpaid wages and consulting fees, and seeking 16 million euros from the team. He says Zeromax, citing cash-flow problems, stopped paying salaries in mid-2009, and that he himself paid Brazilian players out of his own pocket.
Another pompous state project, “BankLand,” is also being terminated now, and its building, one of the most ridiculed in Tashkent, is being demolished. The edifice has stood empty since 2005, when foreign investment was scared off after the Andijan massacre. Journalists have been unable to find out who owned the building, or how much it cost, but with its marble façade and gold columns, it likely made a dent in the treasury, Inside the Cocoon noted.
President Karimov's family is back in the spotlight, as his other daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva announced she has filed a lawsuit against the independent French website Rue89.com over an article that characterized her father as a "dictator" and claimed her charity work in France was "an attempt to whitewash" the reputation of Uzbekistan's regime. Her lawyers are seeking $48,000 in damages. The French reporter, August Scalbert, is planning on using the truth defense, and finds it interesting that a French court may actually get to parse what would justify calling Karimov "a dictator." His piece, published in May 2010 describes a charity event co-chaired by Lola's sister, Gulnara Karimova, which was an occasion when activists urged Karimova to raise the case of jailed HIV/AIDS campaigner Maxim Popov. As French law requires that a suit be filed within three months of a publication, it is not clear if the suit is valid, but under French procedure, a libel case goes straight to a judge to review its merits, and a hearing could be held.
The Uzbek government appears to be going through cultural and religious convulsions lately, launching a raid on a Baptist community and seizing printing presses and literature, searching Muslim book-sellers, censoring rap musicians, and placing pressure on the Nukus Museum of Soviet-era avant-garde art in Karakalpakstan, taking away one of its buildings To be sure, the authorities have always maintained strict surveillance and control over any sort of popular culture and beliefs, even of the mildest form, claiming they are justified in such oppressiveness by the danger of terrorism. But lately, the crackdowns appear to be worse, and seem to single out Turkish businesses in particular, in the claim that they serve as a cover for banned religious activity and other criminal acts.
Last month, Uzbek State TV's First Channel aired a lurid expose of a busy truck stop owned by Turkish businessmen and frequented by Turkish truck drivers. The show featured scenes of a woman climbing out of a truck, then prayer rugs, tables of foreign currency -- and a naked couple. The narrator asks indignantly, "Is it a parking lot or a prayer house or a brothel?" Police swooped down on the establishment in March, claiming the company was involved in black-market deals and tax-evasion, and seized a total of cash valued at about $70,000. The TV show then showed a parade of officials complaining about violations of the health code, illegal gas and electricity tapping, and bootleg license plates, and claiming that the truck stop had sold banned religious DVDs and books and maintained "illegal prayer rooms” -- along with the purported brothel.
Earlier this month, Uzbek security services closed down book stalls at Tashkent’s World of Books claiming they sold illegal extremist literature, Radio Ozodlik reported. Merchants said agents tried to plant on them banned CDs of unrecognized preachers; these included teachers from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and also CDs of the popular radio show host Hayrulla Hamidov, sentenced last April to six years of prison for alleged extremist activity. Uzbek authorities also raided this month an officially-registered Baptist church in Tashkent and seized over 50,000 Christian books as well as printing and office equipment and the personal cash of one church member, Forum 18 News Service reported
In February, State TV had denounced rock and rap music as "satanic," but now the government seems to have concluded that it can't stop the popular genres, but has to figure out how to control them. The state has now set up a Council for Performers of Rap Music and placed on it well-known rap singers and other prominent artists and officials to sit in judgment on rap lyrics. Uzbeknavo, the state-controlled performing arts agency, has gone along with the new measure, which will involve regular round-tables to "coordinate" the work of rappers and maintenance of a database of singers and songs. One such meeting has already taken place, and officials were on hand to affirm that rap, while recognized as a style, had to "correspond to the interests of society" and "take account of the Uzbek mentality" -- and drop the slang and vulgarity typical of the "gangsta" style. An example of an unacceptable work is a song by Akrom, which features a typical scene of a young man in a car racing away from police and taunting them and giving them the finger. A rapper who requested anonymity said officials are vetting all lyrics now and Uzbeknavo is telling performers to remove anything offensive from their repertoires. Uzbekistan plans to sponsor a hip-hop festival this year.
The Minsk subway bombing in which 12 people were killed and hundreds injured has prompted Uzbekistan to tighten up security in the Tashkent metro, adding bomb-sniffing dogs and metal detectors, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported. Uzbekistan has experienced several bombings from 1999-2004, and then again in 2009, mainly targeting police stations and in one case, the US and Israeli embassies, although little is known about the alleged perpetrators.
The latest string of crackdowns seem to be largely a response to the revolutions in the Middle East, and possible fears that the example could be copied of long-oppressed peoples rising up against corrupt dictators who have spent decades in power. Even so, the Karimov regime has always found its own reasons to suppress any form of dissent, and its unfortunate success in this regard, particularly since the 2005 Andijan massacre, may mean that many would-be revolutionaries are already in jail or forced into exile.
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