My final blog post on Uzbekistan is the hardest to write. On the one hand, Uzbekistan is undeniably one of the most repressive countries in the world, ranking 4th last on the Democracy Index. On the other hand, we’ve had no problems with anything except a certain degree of bureaucracy. For countries like Uzbekistan, there is always the traveller’s dilemma: to what extent might your visit benefit the regime vs the benefit there would be to you and the people you meet. I’ve posted on this before.
One of the major differences is of course between a visitor (especially a tourist) and a local. It’s true that rumours were that occasionally police would shake down tourists in Tashkent, especially at the metro. However, apparently Karimov put a damper on that. Which makes sense — the tourists don’t have to come so even a very repressive regime would not consider it in their interests to target tourists (especially if tourism makes up a good fraction of their earnings). Plus tourists have pesky things like home countries, embassies and (uncontrolled) media in their home country to appeal to. For the locals, none of these things are true. They can’t help but be there. If they are targeted, nothing much changes. They don’t have many places to appeal to. These incentives explain why dictatorships can be so safe and easy for foreign tourists (except those that target tourists for kidnappings and the like).
Police are an integral part of life in Uzbekistan. At first, I was very wary of them in their green uniforms in Tashkent, especially after reading about some of their exploits. They are stationed at every major intersection, at every entrance to the metro as well as the entrance to every underground crossing. Inspecting bags for signs of terrorism apparently. And patrolling the streets. Eventually I got used to them, and there are certainly far fewer in places like Samarkand and Bukhara.
If anything, they were more of an annoyance to tourists than anything. In Samarkand they make some cash on the side by letting tourists illegally climb the minarets (especially at the Registon). They have trouble taking no for an answer and keep hounding people — and let me tell you it is awkward to keep saying no to a policeman in uniform in a police state.
A glimpse of the khan’s old prison in Khiva
Of course a lot of people inside the country don’t see it that way. When I asked one person about what attitude tourists should take to police, he said that if anything the police tend to fear the tourists because they are likely to get into more trouble in the end. He also said he has no problems because he knows his rights. Once, when he saw a policeman stop a car (or something similar) illegally, he went up to him and started shouting that he should let the man go, that “this is Uzbekistan” (ie. appealing to the policeman’s national pride in belonging to a country of laws). This apparently worked.
Of course the brutality of what goes on is undeniable, and the number of people who go missing and are tortured is probably in the high hundreds or low thousands every year. However, this reminded me of the complexity. Each policeman (especially in a country full of them) is somebody’s son, somebody’s first-cousin’s friend and so on. And it’s not surprising that you can appeal to people’s higher nature even in a system like Uzbekistan’s. Perhaps that makes it worse — the humanity of the police and their entanglement with the wider community make the worst of their actions even more horrifying.