"At least they’re our bastards."
TASHKENT – Welcome to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a quiet city of 2 ½ million, ‘the heart of Central Asia’. Lewis Carroll’s Alice could not have dreamed up a more bizarre backwater, one that was thrust into the world’s attention with the US invasion of Afghanistan, and which is, as a result, the latest ‘friend’ of Bush et al in their march to victory over terrorism. This new friendship has breathed life into a ruthless and oppressive regime, which is eargerly borrowing all the worst aspects of western consumerism, carefully adapted to the needs of the country, a pokey mix of harsh tradition and soft Soviet welfare state, using the president’s wise 5-step program.
For instance, you wake up at 5:30 am after a sultry night and peer out bleary-eyed at the dawn queue at the bank below, where a dozen people are camped out, a linesman taking down names in military fashion. Ah, you think, that means that the IMF-inspired attempts at conversion are still in place, contrary to the word from the grapevine, the only source of local news. Those nearest the front may just be lucky enough to officially exchange their one million one hundred thousand in the local currency,sums for a precious thousand greenbacks. They can then hurry to the black market and change them back into sums, making a cool 20% profit. In Soviet days, such people were reviled as speculators and put in jail. Now they are wannabe ‘New Uzbeks’, eager to cash in on the good life.
Or perhaps they are changing them for their mafia boss, whose billions of sums ‘earned’ in shady middle market deals or drug running must be laundered. The unanticipated recent change in exchange policy now ‘democratically’ allows the common man to purchase $1500 US four times a year, though, true enough, he must submit to being registered officially with the government each time. So extended families and friends now must be called upon to launder suspicious mountains of sums hoarded at home. (Almost no one uses banks to deposit money, even after ten years of ‘reforms’, as arbitrary changes in policy can render your money worthless or inaccessible.)
The IMF mission here recently gave President Islam Karimov a C- (a big improvement, coindentally since 9-11) for his off-and-on enthusiasm for their reform proposals, which put currency conversion at the top, in tandem with privatization. It pompously promised to come again in a few months to see how well this halting conversion is taking before agreeing to pump dollars into the system to better ‘integrate it into the world market.’ Somehow, it thinks that a flexible exchange rate and blanket conversion will magically solve the all-too-obvious economic woes of the country, and that you should do away with speculators by praising and welcoming them as the unwitting reflexes of the mysterious Invisible Hand. Or that you should privatize the health system, transport, energy, etc. After all, look at how well Argentina is thriving with IMF help.
Perhaps you live farther from the bank, like I do, in a quiet, sleepy block of flats, protected somewhat from the oppressive summer saraton, and you sleep on till the rude shriek of the first of the dozen or so milk ladies (and gents) worms its way into your brain at 6:00 am. These destitute villagers leave home at 5:00 am and cart a good 30 kilos of bottles of dubious-looking milk products all day until they collapse in exhaustion on the subway by mid-afternoon, having grated on your nerves all day, and filling the subway with their massive bags of empty bottles and plastic flasks. Some like to howl to announce their wares, others sing out in off-key plaints, still others shout in anguish. Even earplugs cannot provide sufficient relief to get back to sleep or to work uninterrupted at home.
You drag yourself from bed and remember that you must fill the tub with water by 7:00 A.M, when it is cut off. A pipe broke 6 weeks ago and still is in a state of repairs.
Later, you go down to the food store, which is clearly prospering in the new economic environment – workers are busy installing new high-security windows and a new roof. Again, such flaunting of wealth in Soviet times would have indicated something suspicious (the dreaded word speculator would have been on the tip of locals’ tongues). Now, whatever machinations that allow middlemen to prosper out of all proportion to their role in society raises not an eyebrow. Soviet products, though primitive, promised a basic, generally unharmful quality at a rock-bottom price. No plastic packaging, b.y.o. containers, buy in bulk and distribute to friends, etc. Now the same or far worse products can cost whatever the market will bear, but they do have plastic wrappers, which litter the city, and they will sit in the store long after their ‘due date’, since people are generally destitute and can afford few extras.
Many food products (not to mention clothing, electronics, etc) are falsifications, carefully copied in Chinese sweatshops, complete with Gucci or Levi labels, or they are downright harmful. You buy a strangely-coloured slab of meat and put it on the stove to boil. If you’re lucky it will be edible; if not, your apartment will be suffused with a revolting barnyard odour. The old Soviet sanitary inspection system has virtually ceased to function, as all inspectors are propositioned with bribes and/or threatened to prevent any interference with the march of the profit motive.
You need medicine for your ulcer, brought on by the suspicious quality of much of what you inflict on your stomach. There’s certainly no lack of drug stores now – seven have sprouted up in my immediate area in the past six months. However, it’s not just Adam Smith’s butcher and baker who are eager to pull a fast one on unwitting consumers. Many of the drugs, like the food which gives rise to the need for them, are fake. The antibiotic you first bought last time (no prescriptions necessary for even the most powerful antibiotics) had no taste whatsoever. (You’ve long ago learned to taste even the most bitter capsules to make sure at least its taste corresponds to what your doctor or neighbour says a nonfake version should.) You risk disturbing your ulcer further by returning the antibiotic in protest. As you begin to explain to the ‘pharmacist’, he quickly takes it back, pays you and tries to shoo you from the store, as other customers listen with interest.
Perhaps you are one of the privileged few with a computer and Internet access. But then the telephone often goes dead. In fact, it does this with every rainstorm, because substandard cable was used when the line was laid (as part of a German-Uzbek joint venture). Fortunately, you’ve made friends with the repairman, a shy young Russian engineer who is always ready to zip by on his scooter and help, as you always slip him 500 sums ($0.50) and give him a glass of fruit juice to celebrate the latest miracle of communications technology.
If your telephone is actually working, there is still the problem of electricity, which can cease at any moment, not to mention the provider. Mine stopped responding to all calls and then was abruptly terminated after a week of ‘inspection’ by the government. Woe to any mail that was caught in the ether. True, there were rumours from my friend there that the boss had pilfered tens of thousands of dollars. But that’s hardly the fault of users. Even with my new provider, many sites are blocked by the government provider, Uzpak, which vets all ‘independent’ providers and refuses to renew licenses on a whim (they must be renewed each year).
In a word, you must fight back on your own here, often fruitlessly, as the media is only in the service of the government. Journalists who dare to criticize are censored, fired, beaten up or worse. Such criticism as you read here is allowed only by word-of-mouth, or abroad. Meanwhile, thousands of devout Muslims languish in jail out of fears that the soulless regime could be faced with a vengeful religious revolution.
Does anyone actually believe that the brave new world the IMF, Bush and their erstwhile ‘communist’ ‘friends’ in power here are creating will someday magically rescue poor naive Alice et al from her surreal purgatory? I truly would like to believe that the scraggly place holders at the bank at 5:30 A.M. are honest small businessmen, eager to exchange their life savings in hopes of importing advanced western technology, in order to provide jobs to poor Uzbeks, to bring in even more precious hard currency, as Uzbekistan marches towards a gloriously, prosperous future, etc. My experience suggests that there is nothing more bizarre than that Quixotic belief.
September 17, 2002 1482 w.