29 january 2020

Central Asia news

Opposition activist against his will. Businessman Bahodir Choriyev's story

21.10.2009 12:49 msk

Sanobar Shermatova

Politics Uzbekistan

Had the events taken a different turn somewhere along the line, this man would have been known to all of Uzbekistan these days as a self-made and successful farmer. As it happened, however, Bahodir Choriyev found himself far from home in the West, among the immigrants who had been enemies of the regime since the years of Gorbachev's perestroika. In company successful farmer Choriyev did not belong to.

Capable manager

Choriyev has never had anything against the powers-that-be before they themselves deigned to notice the businessman and decided to work him over. Everything was just fine at first. Ruins of the animal production unit named after Mikhail Kalinin were named joint stock company Kesh and put up for sale on the Tashkent stock exchange in 1999 and were bought. Choriyev's family raised money for more than 60% of the newly issued stock. Young Choriyev with his economic education was the natural choice for the CEO. Fodder was at high premium, cannibalized machinery was rusting under the open skies, and employees had not seen their pay in three years. It took Choriyev a single year to remedy the situation.

Accomplishments of shareholders (a.k.a. labor collective) are accounted for in countless complaints to courts. The cattle stock swelled from 968 to 1,076, pig stock from 8 to 110. State wheat production quota was met without borrowing money. Agricultural machinery was repaired and thus saved the farm a hefty sum that was no longer paid for leased machinery. Farmers hoped to keep working on the cattle stock and even buy some cows abroad (the ones yielding up to 50 liters per day i.e. twice as much as the local breed was good for).

That was when the successful farm started drawing envious looks, a situation not exactly restricted to Uzbekistan alone. The State Property Committee voided the auction where joint-stock company Kesh had gone under the hammer. It said that the cost of the lot had been misjudged.

That shareholders disagreed with it goes without saying. Lengthy court deliberations later, the chairman was charged with embezzlement and promptly sentenced to six years imprisonment. The arguments that no sane man would steal from himself after having poured considerable sums into the endeavor (about $30,000, quite impressive a sum by Uzbek standards) were dismissed.

What will a person do when he is convinced that he has been robbed of what was rightfully his? Right. He will try to recover it. This is what Choriyev set out to do when they finally let him out of jail (in the course of some amnesty or other).

Managed by strangers, the farm was beyond recognition. Independent financial inspectors uncovered a cash shortage ($52,000) developed courtesy of meddling functionaries of the local police, prosecutor's office, and administration.

Litigation was as endless as it was fruitless and Choriyev finally decided that enough was enough. He notified the Kashkadarja regional prosecutor's office that either his case was reconsidered inside of a week or he would resort to political methods of struggle for his rights. April 1, 2004 was given as the deadline. That was naive of him. Opposition activists are a considerably easier prey than law-abiding businessmen.

Going in for politics - for the time being

This was how Choriyev and his associates, all of them "greatly disturbed by lawlessness", decided to establish a movement. He would try explain afterwards that he had never wanted to be in a political party, that all he had ever wanted was "a provisional movement as a device to cope with a specific political crisis." Politics in the meantime always demanded dedication (once in, never out). March to the TV center in Tashkent Choriyev's family and his associates had organized was stopped cold before it really began. A rally in front of the US Embassy was dispersed. The hopes that the authorities lacked the stamina to send the police against women and children in front of the embassy of the world's leading democracy proved naive. Immigration remained Choriyev's only option.

Trucker a.k.a. opposition movement leader cannot help attracting attention. Driving his truck all over the United States, Choriyev used to speak to whoever would listen about Uzbekistan, a country few of the listeners had ever heard the name of. He even had posters, maps, flags, and books with him to illustrate. Choriyev met with young Uzbeks as well but discovered that most of them where only thinking about their studies or jobs and had no wish to join political parties.

The plan of non-violent reforms eventually took form. One: pray for resignation of the president and the government. Two: get accustomed to saying the word "resignation". The idea was for people to get used to saying it and start actually using the word in speech and thus proliferate the idea of resignation of the authorities. It took Choriyev's associates some time and effort to persuade him to abandon the first draft of the plan and chart another. Choriyev complied. What he suggested was simplicity in itself: the whole population (all 27 million plus!) should turn off their TV sets and radios whenever Karimov went on the air. Add here flat refusal to carry out resolutions of the Cabinet and pay taxes. And do not forget to turn off electricity on a given day of the week (10 minutes would suffice). Plus wear of white shirts and white caps. Choriyev attributed this latter to reasons of economy (white shirts are something everyone has unlike, say, orange outfits).

There was only one catch rendering the plan impossible. Lack of communications. How could these simple but great ideas be conveyed to fellow Uzbeks? Since not all of the latter were known to be Internet users, Radio Ozodlik (RL) was chosen as the conduit. As it turned out, however, Radio Ozodlik functionaries were not exactly enthusiastic over the suggestion to leave 10 minutes of air time per day for the Birdanlik (Unanimity) Movement leader. They had never exactly pledged to serve the Uzbek opposition. Choriyev, however, would not be dismissed that easily. He mailed a letter to US President George W. Bush (it was in 2008) and asked him to do something about Radio Ozodlik's broadcasting policy. When Bush failed up to live to the opposition activist's expectations, the latter called a hunger strike right in front of Radio Ozodlik office.

Choriyev went home on the eve of the parliamentary election scheduled for late December. Judging by reports that a heap of white T-shirts and caps were confiscated from one of the passengers, Choriyev meant business.

The circle closed. Choriyev is back in Uzbekistan in approximately the position he was before the immigration. If he really meant to carry out his quixotic designs (like wearing white uniforms or turning off lights), he would have been grossly disappointed. Politics is not for naifs, whoever energetic. Businessman and opposition activist are too different capacities to successfully mix.

Choriyev's story is illustrative. How come a capable manager and specialist is out of the ball game? Why would a country carrying out free market reforms refuse to accept one of its own, a competent farmer who has already proved his worth (and the ability to contribute to the state budget, for that matter)?

Sanobar Shermatova