How uncontrolled urban development in Uzbekistan could lead to mass unrest
State-led property development projects are running at full steam in Uzbekistan. But is the pace too fast for residents?
This summer in Uzbekistan has been a hot one – and not only because of the weather. Pressure has also been building in society: in July alone, two incidents demonstrated that people are fed up with the campaign of mass housing demolitions and evictions. First, there was an attempt to set a deputy mayor alight in Uzbekistan’s southeastern Kashkadarya region. Then, residents in the city of Urgench came out onto the streets demanding justice. Now it feels as if public dissatisfaction, growing in certain parts of Uzbekistan, only needs a spark for it to spread.
Housing demolition and evictions are nothing new – far from everyone is satisfied with the redevelopments that states carry out in the hope of making cities better. Yet different states tackle these projects differently, with compensation, negotiation, persuasion and compromise. But not in Uzbekistan.
The issue of housing demolitions and evictions - which has been ongoing for the past three years - is reaching a critical point, and, it seems, it’s time for the Uzbek state to solve it.
The first signs of distress
Back in 2017, Shavkat Mirziyoyev took up the post of president and began trying to set up a dialogue with Uzbek society. Yet it was at this same time that work began on Tashkent’s largest ever property development, Tashkent City. The first casualty to the demolitions was the city’s historic House of Cinema. No one could have imagined then that this building would only be the first to go.
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After the House of Cinema, it was Samarkand’s turn. And it was here, it seems, that Uzbek society began to understand that mass construction and eviction was no longer an exception, but a situation that could affect anyone.
But Samarkand didn’t turn out to be a good example. One of the city mayors was convicted on bribery charges, construction was stopped, but the problem didn’t end there.
Over the next two years, the state’s chaotic programme of demolitions affected every corner of Uzbekistan – court cases in Tashkent, reconstructions in Termez, demolition of property with residents living in it until the last moment in Fergana. The situation got more tense, construction continued, and people’s patience evaporated.
You could make a map of the demolitions and evictions across the country – in Tashkent alone, there are more than a dozen instances. And each big city has several examples of how, on the pretext of building yet another property development, local authorities deprived people of their homes, promised them compensation, and left them without a roof over their heads.
It was natural, then, that sooner or later the unresolved issue of a person’s basic needs would turn out to be a problem.
From self-immolation to revolt
Earlier this year, in February, a man in the city of Termez approached the building of the district administration. Bakhtiyar Eltonov doused himself in petrol and set himself alight, receiving second degree burns. Local prosecutors started an investigation in response.
Fighting against the demolition of his cafe, the businessman chose the only form of protest possible for him. While representatives of the local authorities called his action “blackmail”, Uzbekistan’s official media either covered this event without connecting it to the demolition campaign, or didn’t report it at all.
But it didn’t start with Bakhtiyar Eltonov. In September 2017, Akhmad Niezimbetov, a village schoolteacher in Karakalpakstan, attempted to set himself on fire due to local authority plans to demolish his house. Like the case of Eltonov, the authorities cited their decision to demolish Niezimbetov’s house on the basis that it had been “constructed illegally” - e.g. without official permission. Despite the fact that both Eltonov and Niezimbetov claim that they possessed all the documents confirming that their homes were built legally, neither situation received much attention, and their problems remained unsolved.
On 20 July this year, in Yakkabog, Kashkadarya, a shop belonging to a local businessman was designated for demolition as part of an official neighbourhood modernisation programme. As a result, the shop owner set deputy mayor Mansur Tuimayev on fire, and is now facing criminal charges.
The problem of demolitions is becoming increasingly tense, and the public’s reaction more unpredictable
This incident went viral on social media. It was covered by the press, and the opinions of people commenting online were mixed – some condemned the attacker, others sympathised with him. Yet nearly everyone agreed that the attempt in Yakkabog to set the deputy mayor alight in protest against a demolition order was a bad sign. Sooner or later, they said, the situation could get out of control.
In May and June this year, residents of Urgench faced eviction from their homes en masse. The reason? Local authorities had approved the construction of a new “technopark” on the same land where residents of the Ashkhabad district lived. In May, the local authorities promised to compensate residents and began demolition work. But instead of the promised 50% compensation (of a property’s value according to a valuation by the governor’s office), residents received eight percent, lost their homes and were forced to relocate to a tent city.
Living through a 45 degree summer in a tent did not foster a compromise between residents and the authorities, and on 26 July, 200 residents came out to protest, blocking a local road. That night, the regional governor Farhod Ermanov visited the tent city to calm the mood, and promised to pay compensation before 10 August. After this, residents unblocked the road.
It seems that protest moods calmed with the announcement of compensation, and we no longer have to worry about mass unrest. But is this the case?
A neighbour’s lesson
In 2006, the village of Shanyrak outside Almaty, Kazakhstan, experienced mass demolition of “illegal homes”. Overnight on 14 July, 1,500 police officers arrived in the village. According to the local authorities, many houses in Shanyrak were built without permits, and therefore were due to be demolished. The question of what would happen next to Shanyrak residents remained open.
Prior to Shanyrak, the authorities in Almaty had already cleared out “illegal buildings”. In April 2006, select houses in the city were demolished, and residents, much like in Uzbekistan, tried to solve their problems by setting themselves alight. By 7 July, the authorities managed to suppress problems in another Almaty suburb, Bakay. Residents of Shanyrak knew what to expect from the local authorities and were prepared for an encounter with the police.
Having gathered in the street, Shanyrak residents resisted the police with barricades, molotov cocktails, sticks and rocks. The police began storming the village at five o’clock in the morning: the Almaty authorities knew that Shanyrak residents weren’t going to give up easily, and the police came armed.
As a result of the police’s first attempt at storming the village, residents took a police officer hostage to guarantee that the raids would stop. Lengthy negotiations followed, with the authorities promising not to attempt further raids, and the police officer was released. But the authorities did not keep their side of the bargain, and, at nine o’clock in the morning the next day, the police resumed their raid. This time, they were better prepared, deploying water cannons and flashbang grenades. But this raid was also unsuccessful: many residents and police officers were injured, several fire engines were set alight, and police vehicles were damaged.
The first death came by 11 o’clock. A young police officer, Aset Beisenov, came into conflict with local residents, after which he was doused with petrol and set on fire. Aside from Beisenov, several other police officers wound up hostage. By seven in the evening, the city authorities decided to return to the negotiating table and lifted their siege of the settlement. After the tragedy, 25 people were tried, four of whom received prison sentences of more than 10 years. In total, more than 5,000 people were involved in the “Shanyrak uprising”.
As a result of negotiations, Almaty authorities moved Shanyrak residents to a new district, Sayaly, but not all residents received compensation and housing. The residents of many outlying neighbourhoods of the city believe that the Almaty authorities were responsible for setting alight homes in order to make them unsafe – and therefore evict people more quickly.
Despite the fact that residents of Urgench managed to get promises of compensation (to be confirmed on 10 August), the question of public trust in the state and how to solve problems with property development remains open. Uzbekistan is an enormous country, with more than 33 million people according to recent statistics . Every family in this country has a home that is under constant threat of demolition. No one has guarantees that their home will not be bulldozed to make way for another “City” development, industrial park or “investment project”.
The lack of official city-wide urban plans in Uzbekistan’s big cities only makes things worse – residents can’t predict what will happen in the future. In comparison with 2015, the cost of an existing apartment has fallen by approximately 40% today. Four years ago, you could sell a three-room apartment in the centre of Tashkent for $90,000, whereas today this figure varies between $45,000-$50,000.
New property developments (“Elite housing at affordable prices”) spring up in Tashkent every month. When people from other cities and countries buy these apartments, they automatically receive a residence registration, but Uzbekistan’s State Committee of Statistics does not publish figures on the extent of the demand for these properties.
The problem of demolitions is becoming increasingly tense, and the public’s reaction more unpredictable. And it seems that it’s time to stop, look at the circumstances, evaluate the risks and permit construction only after a city’s urban plan is confirmed and local residents are consulted. This is yet to happen, and society is worried that the current situation could lead to a re-run of the events in Andjian in 2005, when hundreds were killed.
The mayor and chief prosecutor of Yakkabog district in Kashkadarya have been fired; the mayor and prosecutor of Urgench have been reprimanded. But the problem of demolitions remains a problem. Uzbekistan is a powder keg. It only needs a match, it seems, to set it alight.
This article was originally published in Hook. We translate and publish it with their permission here.
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