Dear President Zeman:
It seems an age since you and the human-rights community were at loggerheads over your invitation to Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, to visit Prague. When that trip was canceled, you insisted that you still wanted to host the Central Asian despot sometime in the future. Perhaps that was simply a bit of face-saving, but you are a head of state, so let’s assume you mean what you say in public.
If you were not the president, I would regard your words with greater patience and even respect. I do not think that an ordinary Czech has, or should have, any concern for Islam Karimov and Uzbekistan – these are countries extremely far from each other geographically and historically.
But you are not an “ordinary” Czech. You are the leader of a European country that every former citizen of the Soviet Union associates with the Prague Spring of 1968, suppressed by Soviet tanks, and the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which became an example for peaceful transition from totalitarianism to democracy.
Therefore, you must have known something about your invited guest and why the human-rights community so opposed the visit. If you didn’t, I will tell you. Perhaps you will be surprised and perplexed, and perhaps you will be less eager to reschedule Karimov’s trip.
I was born in the Uzbek SSR in 1965, about the same time as Karimov became a member of the Communist Party. Modern Uzbekistan has the worst qualities of a communist system, and the climate of fear and suppression is worse now than it was during Soviet “stagnation.”
In school, I copied the works of Lenin and Brezhnev into a notebook. Today, schoolchildren and university students in Uzbekistan take tests on Karimov’s books. Karimov said, “Uzbekistan is a state with a great future.” And no present, I would add.
In 1979, when I was in seventh grade and Karimov was a Soviet official in the State Planning Committee, for one and a half months instead of going to school we gathered cotton in the collective farm fields to fulfill an unrealistic party and government plan. Today, children in rural areas pick cotton in the fall and weed in the spring, missing half of the school year for agricultural work, and the government pays them practically nothing.
In 1985 I refused to go pick cotton, for which I was expelled from the second year of study at the Pedagogical Institute. I never became a Russian teacher, but later I did enter journalism. For Karimov, barely anything has changed; back then he was the minister of finance of the Uzbek SSR, and today he still makes the country’s most important financial decisions, signing decrees and resolutions masterfully leading Uzbekistan’s economy into ruin.
In Soviet times Uzbekistanis loved to go to Moscow on vacation, lugging melons, which they used to haggle along the way for extra cash. Today every Russian city has a community of migrant workers from Uzbekistan and several million young people have gone abroad to earn money to feed their families. I live in Moscow and every day I talk to Uzbekistanis who have been driven from their homeland – which has now been under the control of your invited guest for almost a quarter century – by hunger.
Exactly 24 years ago, in March 1990, Karimov was elected president of his country. At that time, you had only just announced your intention to become a member of parliament and were 45 years old. Do you remember that time?
Of course, Karimov is no Mubarak or Gaddafi, but he is only three years shy of the longest-reigning dictator, Robert Mugabe. If the people of Egypt and Libya overthrew their longstanding leaders, the citizens of Uzbekistan don’t even hope for revolutionary change yet.
In Soviet times, deluded by the censors, we listened to what we called “radio voices” from the West, consumed real news, and read banned literature in samizdat. Today, there is not one independent newspaper in Uzbekistan, and the authorities block more than 200 foreign opposition and news websites, including that of my news agency, Fergana.Ru, since 2005. There is not one accredited representative of an international news agency left in Uzbekistan, and criminal charges have been brought against the few remaining independent journalists.
There are more political prisoners in Uzbekistan today than there were in the late Soviet period, preceding perestroika. There is not one registered opposition party; hundreds of politicians have been exiled from the country or are in prison, where their lengthy sentences are extended before they can be released.
All power belongs to bureaucrats and the police, who feed on business and violate the rights of everyone outside the system of power. Uzbekistan holds one of the last places on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, above only such countries as Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somalia.
Clear signs of corruption and impunity are endemic among members of the presidential family as well. Karimov’s elder daughter’s accounts are currently frozen in Switzerland, Sweden, France, and the UK. His younger daughter and her husband are the richest people in the country, and the president’s wife is the “gray cardinal,” controlling billions.
Karimov’s fifth or sixth term (everyone has lost count) is completely illegitimate. Each time he extended his tenure as head of state, he violated or changed the constitution, falsified elections, or scared voters with mythical enemies – the “terrorists” and “radical Muslims.”
I am glad that it doesn’t happen very often, but every time Karimov is received in Europe, those meetings strengthen his regime, indulge his ego, and strengthen his belief in his infallibility. If your country is still part of Europe and shares the common European values of conscience, truth, and democracy, you must not bring shame upon yourself through association with one of the worst dictators of modern times.
Daniil Kislov is editor in chief of the Fergana.Ru news agency in Moscow.