Uzbekistan: renaissance of street crime in previously safe Tashkent
Only a few years ago, Tashkent was seen as quite a safe and happy city: you could go for an evening stroll in most neighbourhoods. Sometimes the number of policemen on the street was annoying, but it is with good reason that Tashkent’s residents could proudly say that theirs was a safe city. It can be said that a silent social agreement was made between the authorities and the residents. In return for little involvement in public life, no public protests and no displays of dissatisfaction, city residents were given safety. The people of Tashkent were happy with this trade off, since memories of the city being a hive of criminals were not far off.
Until recently, city residents were in a privileged position compared to their regional town counterparts. They had better municipal facilities, better education and infrastructure, and were free from the involuntary battle for the cotton harvest. However, it seems that due to mass migration from the regions into the city, these benefits are easing off. Gas and power cuts have become the norm in the capital, and the regional towns, and they are spreading.
The people in charge of the city, who come from the regional provinces, are changing Tashkent’s architecture and infrastructure, rebuilding the city according to their vision and habits. Tasteless buildings, garish little neighbourhood shops selling out of date stock, destroyed summer cafes in the centre of Tashkent and along the main city roads make the city more reminiscent of “renewed” towns in Uzbekistan’s regions, than of a capital.
Creating more comfortable conditions for the capital’s residents is in theory good for both the authorities and the residents. The capital is the government’s shop window, housing embassies and foreign companies. Any disturbances and displays of public anger will result in much more destructive consequences, and even if the authorities shot at the demonstrators, this would be dangerous to the authorities themselves. This is how, by providing relatively palatable living conditions to the residents of Tashkent, the authorities are ensuring their own security. However, recently, it seems that the authorities decided that they have turned city dwellers into a flock of obedient servants.
Tashkent has a rich criminal history. The onslaught of crime started in the sixties, after the 1966 earthquake, when the town became brimming with builders, along with whom the real criminal class got into the city. In the seventies, so called “tsekhoviki” began to arrive – they organised outlawed private production (any private production was outside the law in Soviet times). In turn, the tsekhoviki attracted the attention of criminal groups, for whom they were a source of income. For obvious reasons, they could not contact the police and preferred to pay the criminals off.
By the time the Soviet Union fell apart, and by the beginning of the wild nineties, Tashkent was already home to some rather ambitious and authoritative organised crime groups. Against the background of the mass impoverishment of the population just after the fall of the Soviet Union, street crime shot up in the city, and many vehicles were stolen. The organised car stealing business eventually evolved into common extortion, with groups of car thieves offering the owners to buy back their stolen cars.
Street theft, extortion and armed raids were very commonplace in those days, but this type of crime was so mainstream, that organised forces were not seen to be part of it.
Criminal groups organised among Armenian and Korean ethnic lines flourished in the eighties and nineties. The murder and subsequent lavish funeral of an Armenian criminal boss living in the centre of town was an unprecedented and important event. The luxuriant funeral of a crime lord, which closed off the capital’s streets, warned of the coming power of the crime gangs and challenged the authorities in “Soviet” Tashkent.
The criminal world became a serious threat to the authorities of independent Uzbekistan, so they took an unusual decision. They offered some “street structures” the right to operate legal business. The remaining criminal groups were mercilessly destroyed, including the car thieves. Security staff managed to provoke a large showdown between criminal groups near Tashkent. The special forces arrived and finished the dispute off, having destroyed a part of the armed bandit group.
The regime of “siloviki” has been established since then in Tashkent and the rest of Uzbekistan. Security and police agencies are now the bodies to turn to for “business protection” and solving disputes. On the one hand, this situation has lead to the snowballing group of corruption and despotism. On the other hand, crime almost left the streets and the majority of people, who have nothing to do with corruption, sighed from relief. Cars were no longer stolen, because the sentence became up to 15 years and street crime fell. The remaining street crime, like pick pocketing or drug dealing, was localised and taken under control. Without getting into the precise details of the criminal history of Tashkent, one can say that the authorities managed to make the streets of Tashkent peaceful.
The “Exchanging freedom for security” social contract meant that the city’s residents had a rest from crime for 15 years.
The current renaissance of street crime has been going on for three to four years and has adopted an almost mainstream character. Today’s flimsy and puny youth is not remotely reminiscent of the huge boxers and fighters of the nineties, but they still have the strength to rob children, women, the elderly and their equally puny peers.
The robberies and scams now have a more and more organised and dangerous character, with groups looking for men carrying bags, because they know that these usually contain laptops and money. The small and weak thieves do not have the strength to take on a middle aged man, who was brought up on cream and meat during Soviet times, so they deliver a blow to the head from the back, steal the bag and run.
A group of young men, probably from Tashkent region, use fixed route taxi stands as their base. The victim waiting for the taxi is suggested to group together and take a normal taxi. On the way, or when leaving the car, they deliver a blow to the head and steal the bag.
There is another group, which probably works under police protection, near the stop by the old vegetable market. They pretend to be money changers and offer to buy dollars at a black market rate, then hand over a “dummy” (a tied up pile of papers, which can be taken to be a pile of money). The expectation is that buying currency at the black market rate is illegal, so few will risk reporting them. However, the police are often around and are more likely to be protecting the criminals from their victims, rather than the other way around.
The city’s parks are also an operating ground for groups of young men. It is often obvious that many of them know the park security staff, since they often don’t react to these “tricks” and it is obvious that the police are also in on it.
Police protection of street criminals is becoming a general trend. Victims rarely report it and the stream of money from their pockets supplies not only the criminals, but also their protectors.
Robberies and attacks in taxis can be attributed to the dynamic development of the new, or rather re-born, criminal business. As a rule, these attacks are carried out by people who have rented a car and drivers do not always stop at robbery. Violent crimes have increased as the criminals have come to feel invincible, with several raped murder victims found thrown out of cars over the past two years.
Many believe that the police have stopped fulfilling their role as protectors of public order. While many tolerated having to bribe the police previously, at least they got peace on the streets in return, but they don’t even have that anymore. Robberies and attacks have also started to happen during the day and the number of those robbed, beaten or murdered grows day by day at an alarming rate.
Crime always has its social base in unemployed youth. The education reforms are partly to blame, since older years were made to leave school in the ninth grade and go to colleges, many of which are poor quality establishments with little discipline. For example, students do not bother going to some of the regional college; the textbooks are expensive and parents have to give their child money for food, so it is cheaper to pay a bribe every six months and pretend that the student is taking exams.
In recent years, Uzbek authorities have made a bet on the destruction of business. The centre of Tashkent was cleared out and there are no more summer cafes. International businesses are also destroyed. Each destroyed company or unit, could have given a job or contributed to the budget. Regional hokkims (heads of local Uzbek administrations) prefer their regional idea of life – they do not like an abundance of summer cafes or shops, so the cafes close. If the hokkims do not like a business, it gets shut down and vice versa.
It seems that the “Freedom for Safety” contract is now expired – the authorities do not want to fulfil their side of the bargain. The new contract is aimed at oppressing the people of Tashkent and turning them into an obedient and silent mass. The residents have not signed up to this – but nobody asked them anyway.
Fergana international information agency. Translated by Sophia Matveeva