What does the demise of Uzbekistan’s only president signify for its economy, society – and enslaved workers?
It’s hard to gauge the psychological impact on a country’s people when its one and only president dies. That is what happened in Uzbekistan which recently buried 78-year-old dictator Islam Karimov – 44% of Uzbekistan’s population of 29.2m have never known any other president.
Covering 447,400km2 – roughly one and a half times the size of Italy – Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth biggest producer of cotton and has the world’s fourth largest reserves of gold. Its economic growth (around 8% a year for the past nine years) is driven by state investments in natural gas, gold and cotton. The old Soviet command and control model endures, though every so often – when the government woos foreign investors or realises that its appalling record on modern slavery is provoking unwelcome publicity – there is a hint of change.
The manner of Karimov’s passing – for days it was rumoured that his doctors were too scared to pronounce him dead – was, in the words of Gulshan Sachdeva, a professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, “a typical replay of the old known Soviet story”.
With such regimes, it is tempting to interpret any transition as a chance to break with the past. Yet the catastrophic example of Boris Yeltsin’s crash course in capitalist democracy in Russia has deterred many leaders of former Soviet republics from serious reform. As Sachdeva says: “If Turkmenistan’s political transition is any guide, where Saparmurat Niyazov was replaced by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamded without any change in the political system, Uzbekistan may continue Karimov’s legacy of a strong secular state and limited political and economic openings.”
Karimov’s successor is likely to be prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyevwho, who will run for – and is expected to win – the presidential election on 4 November. He has been strongly entrenched in the regime, so reform, if it is desired, may come at glacial speed. The media is state-controlled and, in a country where the average monthly wage is $200-$300, freeing it up would risk exposing the scale of the regime’s corruption – Karimov’s eldest daughter Gilan has, according to a Swiss business magazine, assets of at least $570m stored in Switzerland.
Globally, Uzbekistan is best known for three things: being rich in gas, brutally suppressing critics and using slaves to harvest its cotton.
The country connects China to LNG suppliers further west. All three lines of the Central Asia Pipeline run through Uzbeki territory – it supplies 55 billion cubic metres of natural gas a year to China. It also supplies its powerful neighbor with uranium and gold. Although Russia, China and India will all vie for influence post-Karimov, they will not wish to destabilise the largest ‘Stan’ for fear of disrupting the economy or encouraging Muslim rebels, who want to make the country a caliphate.
Under Karimov, the government shot hundreds of students peacefully protesting about price rises and had some prisoners boiled alive. It was just as single-minded in its use of forced labour. The Walk Free Foundation’s 2016 report identified Uzbekistan as the fifth worst offender in the world, with 1.24m – 3.97% of the population – living in conditions of modern slavery.
Andrew Forrest, the chairman and co-founder of Walk Free, says the Uzbekistan government has an official policy of using forced labour to harvest cotton. The government insists that its citizens volunteer out of civic responsibility to take part in a tradition known as “khashar”.
As Forrest notes, many workers are forced to leave their jobs every autumn to pick cotton for little or no money. If they don’t – or fail to pick their quota – they are detained, harassed or fired from their regular jobs. Workers assigned to remote farms live in unsanitary dormitories and are given little food and water. Farmers have no choice either: they are told what to grow by the government which buys the cotton from them at a fixed price.
Karimov’s government tried to improve matters a bit – banning anyone under 18 from taking part – but many local officials still made children work in the fields. More than 1m Uzbekis are commandeered for the harvest, which is why Walk Free says the country has the second highest percentage of its citizens working in slavery after North Korea.
If Mirziyoyev becomes Uzbekistan’s second president, will slavery top his agenda? Using forced, cheap labour has helped the cotton industry become an immensely profitable $1bn business. The resulting revenues, according to the US-based Cotton Campaign, are paid into the Selkozfond, a secret fund only senior officials can access.
Foreign buyers may initiate change. Gucci, H&M, Nike, Target, Tesco and Zara are among the hundreds of companies to ban Uzbeki cotton from their supply chains.
Sensitive to international criticism, Mirziyoyev announced in 2013, that 80% of the cotton harvest would be mechanized by 2015. Yet this autumn, more than 1m Uzbekis will be press-ganged into picking cotton by hand for 40 days. When one teacher, who had a weak heart and high blood pressure, suggested she was not well enough to go, her boss told her: “Either quit – or find somebody who can pick cotton in your place.”