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Dispossession and urban development in the new Tashkent

A new $1.3 billion development in Uzbekistan’s capital is meant to rebrand this Central Asian state as open for business. But the costs of this project are turning out to be all too human. RU

Project design for Tashkent City. Source: Tashkent City. The massive Tashkent City business centre project is designed to transform the Uzbek capital’s city centre, enhancing the lives of its people and its visitors. At least, that’s what the project’s official website promises.

Tashkent City will occupy a central area of Uzbekistan’s capital bordered by Alisher Navoi, Almazar, Islam Karimov and Furkat Streets. There used to be a residential district (the Uchka and Almazar neighbourhoods, or mahallas) here, but now it has been demolished and its residents scattered around various outlying parts of the city.

Plans for a new grandiose project in the area have been planned since 2006, when the Tashkent city authorities and its ancient Shaikhantaur district decided to hand the land over to a joint Uzbek-Korean enterprise, Jisong Korea Industrial, for the construction of the “New City” project at a cost of $470 million. Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s first president, supported the initiative and approved it as part of the country’s trade relationship with South Korea.

The project was, however, put on hold, and it was only in November 2016 that Uzbekistan’s then acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced its renewal as a means of introducing himself on the world stage. The fact that the former director of the Tashkent City state enterprise, Jaxongir Artikxodjaev, became the khokim, or mayor, of Tashkent in May 2018 speaks to the importance of this project.

According to open sources, the Tashkent City project will cost $1.3 billion, and the project has acquired investors and a construction schedule. By 2021, the area will have business centres, hotels, shopping and leisure complexes, a congress hall and high-rise residential districts, as well as parks, pedestrian precincts and even an artificial lake.

However, in building this grandiose project, Uzbekistan’s leaders are breaking their own country's laws and infringing the rights of regular citizens.

Evicted from their own homes

In December 2017, construction works on the new project led to the mass eviction of residents of the Ukcha-Almazar mahalla of Tashkent, who were literally thrown out onto the street, having been promised new housing in the suburbs or the chance to buy existing housing stock elsewhere in the city.

Residents told the Gazeta.uz newspaper that local officials visited them more than once to inform them about the forthcoming demolition of their homes. In December 2017, the Fergana news agency reported that it had received complaints from the area’s residents, and the Shaikhantaur district administration, headed by local community leader Bakhodir Gaibnazarov, ordered the occupants of several housing blocks to leave their homes within ten days, before demolition started. When the dejected locals asked where they should move to, they were told: “Go wherever you like”. And if they didn’t move out in time, they were told they would be forcibly evicted by the police. Now the area of the two districts has been totally cleared, and building work on the new project has started.

Advert for Tashkent City. An ex-resident of the demolished mahalla offered to share his experience of these events on the basis of anonymity. For the last 15 years, “Nazim Sidorchuk”, 26, says, people from the council would warn him that “you’re due for demolition this year. We’ve got an investor for this site.” The locals were promised homes in new housing developments on nearby Navoi Street.

“We weren’t allowed to sell our homes, as our district was in the ‘red zone’ [buildings slated for demolition – author]. When I was born, my father got me and my mother officially registered in our house – with difficulty and the help of a bribe. That was 27 years ago,” he says.

According to Sidorchuk, in winter 2017, local officials informed residents that their neighbourhood would be the site of the new Tashkent City complex. Sidorchuk’s father refused to sign a document agreeing to the demolition of his house, but later his signature nevertheless appeared on the relevant document. Flats, replacing the old buildings, have now sprung up in new housing developments in Shumilovskiy township and near the UzBUM paper factory district, roughly seven or eight kilometres from the centre.

“I went to look at the new housing while it was going up,” says Nazim. “It was really slipshod work – I wasn’t convinced by it. It was all the usual brick-faced concrete shoeboxes. We were told that they would be renovated to European standards, with parquet flooring, fridges and ‘winter/summer’ air conditioning. And it wasn’t just us who were having the wool pulled over their eyes – it was everybody. But my dad and I refused to live there and asked for existing housing, preferably near the demolition zone, as that was the city centre and we didn’t particularly want to live further out. The officials were supposedly looking for something for us, but until the bulldozers moved in and began demolishing the houses, they didn’t move a muscle.”

Caught in limbo

As three members of the Sidorchuk family have died over the last five years, Nazim and his father are the only ones left, and all they were offered by the housing people was two one-room flats, one for each of them, as a replacement for 300 square metres of land and two houses.

“In terms of space we’ve really lost out,” he tells me. “The houses were slated for demolition, so we couldn’t sell them as bona fide housing with adjacent land. In March-April the valuation companies offered me 600 million som [$7,350]. For both houses. The law states that you can sell the right to a plot of land. According to the land registry, we have that right – the registry has it down as our property.”

Indeed, land can’t in fact be sold in Uzbekistan, but the right to it can. If a house is demolished, its owners should receive “the market value of the demolished house/flat and other buildings, structures and plants, as well as the full right to the plot” says Nazim – this is what he and his father are attempting to get hold of.

The Sidorchuk family looked into the value of the plot of land and the two houses. Estate agents put it at no less than $60,000. Once most of the houses in the area had been demolished, the family was offered a rented flat. According to Nazim, they were offered $150 per person per month while the house was being demolished, as well as a search for a suitable existing flat. But the authorities turned down the Sidorchuks’ conditions and started trying to force them out.

“We were even inundated with threats from the local authority, claiming that we ‘were hindering the development of the Tashkent City business centre’,” says Nazim.

“But we simply didn’t want to live in the new high rise flats we had refused at the start. Later, I was talking to old neighbours who had already moved out to the low rent buildings on the city outskirts. They were complaining that there hadn’t been any ‘European-style’ renovation. Just a bit of redecoration and electric kettles. It was the same for everybody: they all lost out — 374 families, more than 2,000 people.”

A matter of zeros

According to Nazim, in the middle of April 2018 the leader of the Shaikhantaur district told a residents’ meeting that he had no need of the houses – people could do what they liked and sell them however they could. In other words, the khokim refused, in defiance of Article 27 of Uzbekistan’s Residential Code, to repay the market value of the property to be demolished. But if a house was slated for demolition, no one would buy it. It was only worth the value of its bricks, a third or a quarter of its market value.

In the end, a committee of five people (a district judge, a municipal judge, a district head and two lawyers) was set up to examine the case. As soon as the Sidorchuks announced their desire to move into existing housing, flats suddenly appeared.

“The sum of money tacitly allocated by the state was no more than $20,000 – that’s what our estate agent whispered in our ear,” says Nazim. “But our plot of land is worth $60,000-80,000. They didn’t seem to want to take that into account. They just said, ‘there are just the two of you? You can choose any existing flats – just pick any and move in.’ They remained tactically silent on the issue of the actual budget allocated by the state. This creates certain doubts about the legality of their actions.”

What does $20,000 buy in Tashkent? It’s a one-room flat in a poor condition, or one in a reasonable condition but on the outskirts of the city (10-15 km from the centre) and with hardly any local infrastructure.

“On 24 May my father and I went to sign a document stating that we were moving out and that we would be provided with flats.

“On our way home, we discovered that the roof of our old house was already being dismantled. We were given 24 hours to leave, from the moment we signed the document. For the six months since December we couldn’t find any housing or suggest any possibilities... We had to fight for a day to at least move our stuff: we were being told that the bulldozers would be arriving that evening to demolish the house and we should have left by then.”

The destruction of the Sidorchuk's building. Source: Nazim Sidorchuk. Up to the very end, according to Sidorchuk, the authorities tried to avoid resolving the question of compensation for the house, claiming they didn’t have a budget for it.

Who is paying for the feast?

The site of the Tashkent City business centre is divided into eight sections or lots, each with its own completion deadlines, investors and construction companies. The concept of the project, developed by British Arup Group engineers and designers, was chosen by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev himself, and its investors include companies from Germany, South Korea and the UK, such as Hyper Partners GmbH, OOO Bomi Engineering & Construction and Corso Solutions LP, as well as such Uzbek companies as OOO Lotus Gaz Investment (with its Real House brand), OOO Universal Packing Masters (Murad Buildings), Akfa Dream World and others. A recent Open Democracy investigation has raised concerns about the transparency of investment in Lot 3, a shopping centre complete with two 30-storey buildings. 

According to open source data, the construction of a skyscraper in Lot 4 is valued at no less than $150m, and a high-tech building in Lot 6 has been initially evaluated at over $50m. No information has leaked out about investment in the remaining sections. Is this secrecy deliberate, or has Tashkent City’s management just not questioned its investors yet? 

Dr Alisher Ilkhamov, a research associate at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), has carried out his own research into Tashkent City’s construction and accused its official site with lack of transparency. Ilkhamov is also calling for the management of the business centre to reveal information about its principal contractors, as he suspects the likelihood of shady deals going on. And in this situation, silence is a sign of consent.

lead Clearing an apartment block to make way for Tashkent City. Source: author. Tashkent’s residents are divided on the project. Some say that Tashkent City is a normal and necessary part of Uzbekistan’s development that will help improve the city centre. It will increase the flow of tourists and should in the future attract more and more foreign investment.

“Projects like Tashkent City and the renewal of the town of Toytepa [a regional town 25-30 km from Tashkent; in August 2017 it was renamed Nurafshon] are needed to promote our country and create a new image for it that will increase its attraction in the future – which will in its turn lead to greater investment. A prime example of this process is Dubai. As soon as this mechanism powers up, you can be sure that the Tashkent region will lead the way in Uzbekistan’s development,” Tashkent resident Ravshan told Gazeta.uz.

Others, however, see the $1.3 billion project as a complete waste of investment, owing to the country’s lack of infrastructure – tourists and investors aren’t going to come just for the sake of fine offices and expensive restaurants.

“It’s stupid to spend $1.3 billion on building Tashkent City, when our infrastructure is in a terrible state,” a Tashkent resident tells me on condition of anonymity. “Nothing has changed here, despite a change of leadership – it’s still a Vanity Fair, unfortunately. Neither the government nor the public want change – which is why we end up with projects such as Tashkent City.”

An architect from Tashkent gives me his thoughts on the building of the new complex: “In architectural terms, Tashkent City perhaps represents the new face of the capital, with a new look and lifestyle. The project is designed mainly to demonstrate that Tashkent is developing, renewing itself, keeping up with technology on a level with first world countries and aiming to attract foreign investment. But if you have solid investment, you expect a solid return on it, and if you raise prices you won’t have a buyer. The average Uzbek earns a mere $150 a month: not many people will be able to buy an apartment in this district.”

Uzbekistan has a long history of tourism based on its ancient monuments, its natural beauty and its unique cuisine. But tourists often complain about problems they encounter here. A French visitor, for example, complained that on his last visit, he had difficulties finding a reasonably priced hotel in Tashkent. Another problem is the temporary registration regulation: registration (which involves a fee) is not necessary, but if you spend a month in Uzbekistan, with not more than three days in each town or city, and the average hotel stay costs $30 a day, it all adds up.

So is it necessary to concentrate Tashkent’s entire potential on one project, if the city’s infrastructure is already in trouble and there are practically no bio-toilets or ramps for wheelchair users. Or is Tashkent City intended as pure window-dressing for foreign investors?

Independent journalists who have tried to cover the issue of residents being resettled away from the area that will be Tashkent City have found themselves harassed by the law enforcement agencies. Nazim tells me that in early May, the perimeter of the construction area was ringed by police and every passerby was checked for ID and the contents of their bags. It turned out that this was in aid of catching a journalist who had found his way into the area of the two now demolished neighbourhoods, and the authorities didn’t want anyone to know about it.

The new Tashkent City project from above. Source: Tashkent City. At the end of December 2017, independent Uzbek journalist Sid Yanyshev was arrested by the police for “agitation among the public for unknown reasons”; in other words trying to talk to residents of the area and take photos of the demolition process. The journalist was in fact, he said, only doing his job, but his attempt to reveal what was happening turned into six hours in a police cell, and he was only released when he deleted his photos and his tape recordings of conversations. Yanyshev had, after all, “no right” to take photos and make recordings, and, according to the police, the concept “independent journalist” doesn’t exist in Uzbekistan.

Obstructing the work of independent journalists who have no need for advice from higher authorities about which events can be reported (and how to do so) is breaking the law. But unfortunately the two years that have passed since the death of Islam Karimov have not been enough to remove all traces of his regime.

 


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