Uzbek President rants at local authorities about illegal house demolitions

Victoria Panfilova, columnist of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, specially for Vestnik Kavkaza
Uzbek President rants at local authorities about illegal house demolitions

"They made Uzbekistan’s policies a disgrace in the eyes of the international community," President Shavkat Mirziyoyev reacted to the mass house demolition scandal. He criticized the actions of the heads of the three regions of the country and dismissed them. A year ago, a housing boom took hold in Uzbekistan. As part of the home renovation program and the 'Obod Mahalla' (Comfortable Mahalla) and 'Obod Kishlok' (Comfortable Kishlok) programs, authorities demolish residential and private buildings throughout Uzbekistan. Instead, they were supposed to compensate or provide equivalent housing. However, often, owners of demolished houses end up in the streets without compensation.

The demolition of real estate has become one of the most discussed topics in Uzbekistan over the past year. The authorities hastily - and often improperly, without proper notice or adequate compensation - demolish houses in almost all regions of the country. This often triggers a stand-off between owners and officials. According to Mayor of Tashkent Jahongir Artykhodjaev, citizens are dissatisfied with low compensation received for demolished houses. He said that they are troublemakers, who want to get more money for their housing than it costs.

The residents claim that they are "thrown out" of their houses, often they have no opportunity to pack up their belongings. Often compensation is not even an issue. This is a tragedy of thousands of families who lost their homes overnight. For exampl, residents of the Khorezm region blocked the Urgench-Khazarasp highway at the end of July. There, residents of 400 houses were relocated to tents, which were installed in a field along the highway. People were not paid compensation, while prices for construction material have gone up. Prime minister of Uzbekistan Abdulla Aripov who came to the spot, promised to deal with the situation and pay the money until morning.

Officials often do not want to get into people's issues. An egregious incident occurred in the Yakkabag district of Kashkadarya region when a businessman protesting against the demolition of his store doused a deputy hokim (mayor), who had sat behind a wheel of the bulldozer, with gasoline and set him on fire. Later it became known that the official was fired for abuse of authority. Criminal proceedings have been instituted against both parties to the conflict. And there are thousands of similar stories.

The authorities acknowledged the problem. The Ministry of Justice recently reported that the debts of state agencies for already demolished real estate amounted to almost 300 billion soʻm (more than $35 million). The Ministry of Justice called on the administrations and the ministries not to violate the rights and legitimate interests of citizens and to comply with legal requirements when withdrawing land for state and public needs.  

The situation with scandals became known to the president. During a conference call on August 2, Shavkat Mirziyoyev ranted at the local authorities. The head of state pointed to the situation in the Rishtan region of the Ferghana region. There, local authorities launched construction work, accompanied by housebreaking and tree cutting, in addition, thousands of people were forcibly involved in urban improvement work. President Mirziyoyev advised to governor of the Ferghana region Shukhrat Ganiev: "Before demolishing the building, demolish your head! You made Uzbekistan a disgrace in the eyes of the international community," Mirziyoyev concluded.

The head of state also mentioned the situation in Kashkadarya region: "An unashamed official Ruziev works in Kashkadarya [the region is led by Zafar Ruziev - Vestnik Kavkaza]. One of your subordinates quarreled with one of the local residents and made me a disgrace in the eyes of the international community. If your brain doesn’t work, why are you demolishing a normal building? If your house is demolished, what will you do? You have no shame, when did I instruct you to demolish the buildings? I told you to get permission from the residents and pay all the compensation."

The president told hokim of the Khorezm region Farhod Ermanov: "If you don’t know how to demolish buildings, why are you doing this? Look at the comments. There is a photograph of the prime minister, but everyone curses the president. This is a feud that you and your people are inciting against me. Why didn't you use your head before demolishing buildings? Is there any benefit from demolition or not?"

The president also called into question the general competence of these officials and called them traitors. He ordered these officials to give an address to the people on the Internet.

Yesterday, Shukhrat Ganiev apologized to the people of the Rishtan region. He acknowledged the actions of the local authorities as a mistake, saying that the guilty persons - a total of 14 people - have already been dismissed. Head of the Kashkadarya region Zafar Ruziev, in turn, admitted that the regional authorities share responsibility for what happened in the Yakkabag region, where the buildings of some entrepreneurs were dismantled. He apologized to the locals, businessmen whose buildings were demolished, the government and journalists. "From now on, we will completely abandon such a demolition policy. We will listen to each entrepreneur, each family individually," the official promised. He has already recognized himself and his colleagues as "haughty and arrogant." No apologies have yet been received from the head of the Khorezm region.

Shavkat Mirziyoyev ordered that the final decision on the seizure of land plots of entrepreneurs, on the demolition of houses will be made personally by Prime Minister Abudlla Aripov.

Director of the Center for Research Initiatives 'Ma'no' Bakhtiyor Ergashev noted several aspects of the problem. "Only ignorant people can believe in stereotypes about multi-patient Uzbeks who can endure any mockery. Some person who has not been in Uzbekistan for the past 30 years can be forgiven for believing it. But not the Uzbek officials. They either don’t know or have forgotten the faces and emotions of dozens of thousands of people who walked along the Andijan-Osh highway in June 1990 to avenge the Uzgen massacre and who was hardly stopped by Islam Abduganievich Karimov. Or the May 2005 Andijan unrest. So it's dangerous to put the Uzbeks on edge. But officials are beginning to forget about it. That's why people started to set them on fire," Ergashev told Vestnik Kavkaza.

According to him, there is a second conclusion from these excesses, which is much more important: "In recent years, there has been talk of reforming the local government system. It is proposed to introduce an electorate system for hokims of districts and regions - this is so democratic and is in the line of liberalization. And when you see what the hokims are doing, the question immediately arises: how much the level of lawlessness will be raised by the elected local hokims, who will be granted indulgence to form their specific khanates in their areas?

This item was included in Shavkat Mirziyoyev's election program and in the Five priority areas of Uzbekistan's Development strategy for 2017-2021, which represents the country's development program for the next 'five-year period'. Its content allows us to understand where Uzbekistan will move and what steps can be expected from its new leadership. It turns out to be running ahead with completely ill-conceived results. Maybe at first one should ensure the separation of hokim's functions, who now serves as the head of the executive and representative authorities, and only after it introduce the hokim elections? Provide some counterbalance to it, albeit initially formal, in the face of the head of the regional and district Kengash [Council - VK] of people's deputies. Then, engage in serious real efforts to form and protect local media, local business communities. And only then, having created at least some local system of checks and balances, move on to the next stage - the election of hokims. Because control from Tashkent is not enough. Local hokims exceed their rights. Therefore, now we shouldn't set up a howl about these excesses. But to draw conclusions to determine the normal formats, stages and dynamics of political reforms, based on real conditions."