TASHKENT, Uzbekistan—When Tashpulat Yuldashev, a former top official in the Uzbekistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs who is now a dissident political analyst, invites me to his home in the mountains, I expect a pleasant villa among the vacation homes of Tashkent’s elite. It’s late July, and most people in Tashkent who can afford it are in the mountains, where the air is cooler.
But Tavaksay turns out to be a simple farming community next to a crumbling sanatorium. He greets me and Marina Kozlova, my translator who is also an independent journalist, outside his shabby house and shows us the patch of tomatoes, potatoes, and melons that provide his sustenance. “I’m in the middle class, and you see how I live,” he says.
Unlike in many countries, where being a democratic activist ensures a reasonably lucrative life of grants from Western NGOs and travel to international conferences, the ones I meet in Uzbekistan live hand-to-mouth. Most don’t speak English, and they have mouths full of gold teeth, a fashion of simple village people rather than cosmopolitan elites.
That there are democratic activists in Uzbekistan at all is remarkable. The country is a regular on Freedom House’s “Worst of the Worst” list of human rights violators. It has banned any serious opposition political parties, kicked out most Western nonprofits, and has one of the worst torture records on the planet. When protests erupted in the city of Andijan in 2005, government troops opened fire, killing hundreds.
Uzbekistan’s government has plenty of critics based outside the country. But I’m surprised to find that there is a handful of human rights activists, independent journalists, and opposition politicians living and operating openly here. While they are the angriest and most critical of all the people I speak to during my time in Uzbekistan, they are also the only ones who will allow their names to be published.
In addition to being brave, the activists are paranoid, weak, and divided. Several believe they are being poisoned by the government. Many of the dissidents I meet accuse the other dissidents of being government agents. One complains that the Western organization that used to employ him did not pay for his mysterious illness to be treated in Europe, and therefore, he concluded, it must have been infiltrated by Uzbekistan’s National Security Service.
Of course, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Along with the many implausible stories are well-documented patterns of police surveillance and harassment. And all the dissidents live under threat of even worse: The government has infamously boiled suspected dissidents to death.
Inside his house, Yuldashev offers us Nescafé in small bowls—the Uzbek style—and fresh melon. He lives alone—his wife, he says, was spying on him. He’s lived here since 1995, when he fell out of favor with President Islam Karimov for advocating democratic reforms. But his time away from the capital has not diminished his belief in the influence he can wield. He drops hints that he is willing to take part in whatever government forms when Karimov eventually falls and suggests deputy prime minister as an appropriate post.
Yuldashev says he has been keeping a diary that details government abuses. He says it contains a record of how much he thinks the government is spending to spy on him. “Maybe it’s 1 billion sum [close to $1 million].”
The diary, he says, is just one part of a blackmail strategy—it is already online and will be made public if he is detained. “I know that I can be arrested and tortured. But I have four nuclear bombs strapped to me, and one of them is the diary. Compared with what I have in this diary, Andijan is child’s play.” He won’t give any hints as to what the other three “bombs” are.
If the information he has is so powerful, why doesn’t he just go abroad and publish it? “I want to be a hero. If I am touched, I’ll be famous all over the world. I’ll be the only person able to beat Karimov. I’m not going to declare war on them; they will have to declare it on me, and then I’ll beat them.”
While Yuldashev, the intellectual, lives in self-imposed internal exile and writes analytical articles for Web sites that are blocked inside Uzbekistan, his allies at the Alliance of Human Rights Defenders (known as UzHRD) in Tashkent take a more in-the-trenches approach to their work.
Elena Urlaeva, who deals with police abuse for the UzHRD, says she often starts her day by filing formal complaints to the government ombudsman, state prosecutors, and members of parliament. “I really like writing complaints,” she says. She gets calls and office visits from people who have been mistreated by the police, and she writes between five and 15 petitions a day.
It seems like quixotic work, but she says she occasionally gets results. During my visit, she wins a small victory—she receives a letter from the Uzbekistan parliament saying that a complaint she had issued was valid, the police involved in the complaint had broken the law, and the case was being referred to the Tashkent city prosecutor.
It seems ironic that, given the government’s reputation for acting outside the law, the activists’ main weapon is the law. “The Uzbekistan constitution is perfect—but the police don’t obey it,” says Jahongir Shosalimov, another of the alliance’s activists.
The activists, however, obey the law—as much as they can. For example, when they protest, they have what in Russian is called a piket rather than a miting—the former is legal as long as there are no speakers; the latter is illegal.
Still, the activists regularly suffer police harassment. Plainclothes agents of the National Security Service are permanently parked outside the office, photographing everyone who visits. Urlaeva was fired from her job as a technician at the state TV company; she now cleans apartments for a living. She has been declared mentally unfit and has twice been placed in psychiatric hospitals and given psychotropic drugs against her will.
When the law doesn’t protect them, the activists say, Western embassies do. Urlaeva has many stories of police blocking the door of her apartment building on days when there is a piket. When that happens, she calls the U.S. Embassy for help. On one such occasion she was trapped in her apartment for hours, but she called, “and as soon as the car from the U.S. Embassy pulled up, all of the agents ran away,” she says.
Most of the activists express an absolute faith in the West’s—and especially the United States’—willingness to fight for human rights. The irony is that Uzbekistan is often used as an example of U.S. hypocrisy on human rights: Washington made Uzbekistan a strategic partner in the “war on terror” and rented the Karshi-Khanabad air base while stomaching—at least until Andijan—its terrible human rights record.
“Thanks to the U.S. air base, the Uzbekistan government suffered our criticisms and had to close its mouth. And then when it left, the authorities called us American spies,” says the UzHRD’s Ahtam Shaymardan.
Adds Urlaeva: “We always say that our only defense is the U.S. Embassy, and our hopes are connected with the United States. We consider the United States to be the model of observing the law. We have more contacts with the U.S. Embassy than with any other embassy, and the Americans pay more attention to human rights defenders.”
Opponents of democratization in the post-Soviet world often accuse human rights and pro-democracy groups of being a stalking horse for an American agenda, but reliance on American support is not something Uzbekistan’s dissidents worry about. “It’s impossible to have more problems than we have now,” says Yuldashev.
After our interview, Yuldashev walks me and Marina back to the main highway, where we catch a bus back to Tashkent. On the way back, Marina tells me that in addition to being a journalist, she also dabbles in fiction.
“I’ve started writing stories in the magic-realist style. I think Uzbekistan is very similar to Latin America,” she says.
“How?” I ask.
“A government like a dictatorship. A huge gap between the rich and poor. Torture,” she says. It’s hard to argue.
She says she has read Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana recently. She quotes one line that she liked: ” ‘There are two classes of people in Cuba—those who can be tortured and those who can’t.’ I hope I’m the second group. But you know, he also said whoever can’t be tortured is just killed,” she says and laughs.