August 10, 2016
- Bruce Pannier
Street sweepers in the Uzbek city of Samarkand say they had not been paid for the past three months. (file photo)
Armed with only the tools of their trade, a group of more than 50 street sweepers fended off police in the Uzbek city of Samarkand. Not so long ago it would have been easy to describe the events of the morning of August 6 in the ancient Silk Road city as a “rare” protest in Uzbekistan, but that is no longer the case and the street sweepers’ protest might only be the tip of the iceberg.
The reason for the protest was unpaid wages, according to witnesses to the event who contacted RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik.
Carrying brooms, dustpans, and gardening tools, this group of municipal employees, mostly women, gathered at the provincial administration building and demanded to see the governor. Some 20 policemen quickly arrived at the scene — only to be met by a picket line of brooms.
The group said they had not been paid wages for May, June, and July, they wanted their money, and they wanted the officials responsible for paying them to be held accountable.
The police called in the head of the Samarkand social welfare department, the local representative of Uzbekistan’s central bank, and the director of the provincial finance office.
‘No Money In The Budget’
Given Uzbekistan’s record for dealing with protests, it was surprising the police did not arrest the group, but then the police and members of Uzbekistan’s security agencies have been among those who have not been paid on time during the last couple of years.
Samarkand social welfare department head Mamurjon Muhsinov arrived. He told the group, “What can we do, there is no money in the budget, money isn’t coming [from the central government].”
One of the women protesting answered, “You and your officials have spent all our money.”
The street sweepers dispersed after officials promised to pay them their overdue salaries, and Ozodlik learned that on August 8 the workers were paid their wages for May and June. An official at the social welfare department in Samarkand told Ozodlik the July wages would be paid by August 12.
This official also said Muhsinov had been fired on the day of the protest.
Ozodlik also found out that the accountant for the Samarkand social welfare department had been questioned by the prosecutor’s office.
Wage arrears have become a significant problem in Uzbekistan. Besides the Samarkand street sweepers, workers in the energy industry and the banking sector, state officials, security forces, and police have been among the victims of delayed paychecks.
Few have resorted to going on strike or protesting over wage arrears, but there are indications the population’s patience is wearing thin.
At the end of December 2015, residents in the town of Gazalkent, some 70 kilometers northeast of Tashkent, protested for a week outside the city administration building and the local utility company after their household gas supplies were halted. By the end of that protest some people were throwing stones at the administration building. Just a couple of weeks earlier, residents the city of Ferghana blocked the main road to protest suspension of gas supplies.
The Samarkand streets sweepers’ protest probably will not be reported by media in Uzbekistan. Uzbek authorities don’t want people to believe they can get something through protesting.
But word spreads even without the media and the root causes of the protest in Samarkand are part of everyday life for many in Uzbekistan.
People have described the Uzbek government and President Islam Karimov as ruling with an iron fist, but there are limits to what an iron fist can do.
It is possible to repress people and deny them basic rights they never really enjoyed under the Soviet Union or prior to that under the khans and emirs of the region.
But demanding that people with barely enough to live on accept less is more difficult. Hunger and hopelessness are stronger than fear, as a group of ladies wielding brooms in Samarkand just demonstrated.
Sirojiddin Tolibov from RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service contributed to this report