“If they give me a proper place somewhere nearby, I will move. Otherwise, I will not go anywhere!”
– Muhabbat Umarova, a woman in her 70s who is a resident of an old neighborhood under demolition in Tashkent
In the post-Soviet space, the nation-branding process began shortly after independence in the early 1990s. The process has been particularly notable in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, each of which has its own strategies for promoting its “national brand.” These include transforming their capital cities into contemporary business capitals and pressing state-run agencies, corporate groups, and embassies to embrace the new urban spaces. Ashgabat was transformed into a material symbol of the personality cult of Turkmenbashi (the first president of independent Turkmenistan), while Astana, “City of the Future,” is promoted as an emblem of the young Kazakh state’s progress, modernity, and burgeoning entrepreneurial identity.
Promoting “national brand” is transforming capital cities into contemporary business capitals and pressing state-run agencies, corporate groups, and embassies to embrace the new urban spaces
Like Ashgabat, Baku, Astana, and Dushanbe before it, Tashkent looks set to face deep urban transformations. President Mirziyoyev’s new “Tashkent City” project aims to redesign the capital and thus rebrand Uzbekistan as a country interested in political reform, economic investment, and friendly relations with the rest of the world. A “new” Tashkent would be a concrete symbol of the current administration’s openness to the international community.
However, projects designed to present a country’s new image to foreign audiences rarely take into consideration local citizens’ interests and concerns, sparking criticism at home.
Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, experienced significant transformations both during and after the Soviet period. According to Paul Stronski, the author of a book on early Tashkent, the city had to become a contemporary capital of the “liberated” Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) and the political and symbolic center of a Socialist East. Tashkent, in a sense, had to grow into a “shining star” of Moscow in the East; “Soviet Tashkent” became a model of socialism.
After independence, there was an effort to rewrite the story of Tashkent, essentially erasing the Soviet past. Emblematic of this reimagining of national identity, a monument to Amir Timur, the Turkic conqueror, came to replace the bust of Karl Marx, while the city’s streets were renamed in honor of pre-Communist figures. The Soviet cityscape likewise changed: as part of a government effort to “modernize” the city, buildings were hidden beneath shiny glass facades and Soviet-era apartment blocks were interspersed with skyscrapers. In another nod to Uzbekistan’s pre-Soviet history, some of these modern constructions feature architectural elements that hark back to the Timurid Empire.[i]
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who took office in late 2016 after the death of authoritarian leader Islam Karimov, is determined to spearhead reforms in various areas.
Dilmira Matyakubova is a young professional specializing in Higher Education, Public Policy, and Political Economy. Dilmira is an Associate Lecturer at Westminster International University in Tashkent (WIUT). She worked as a Senior Academic Policy Officer at WIUT from 2015 to 2017, providing expertise in the area of developing academic policies and regulations in higher education. Dilmira is a graduate of OSCE Academy’s Politics and Security (Central Asia) program (2013-2014). She also graduated from a Postgraduate Course on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education at WIUT (2016). Dilmira’s research interests include political economy, nation-building and national identity, ethnic relations/state policies on ethnic minorities, and transnational education.
Officially committed to listening to people’s concerns, he pronounced 2017 the “Year of Dialogue with People and Human Interests.” As part of this initiative, he established a Complaints Portal for public appeals to the president’s administration and ministries, which has allowed citizens to approach government bodies directly.
A “new” Tashkent would be a concrete symbol of the current administration’s openness to the international community
Mirziyoyev also intends to attract more foreign investment to the country by undertaking economic and political reforms. Part of creating a favorable business climate, he felt, was to redesign the center of Tashkent (see Figure 1). His predecessor’s government had damaged Uzbekistan’s international reputation by demonstrating a lack of willingness to cooperate with other countries or international organizations, as well as compiling a poor record on human rights. A “new” Tashkent would be a concrete symbol of the current administration’s openness to the international community. According to Mirziyoyev, “through the Tashkent City project, we should make a statement about ourselves.” Abdujabbor Abduvakhitov, a senior official involved in the project, stresses that the international community has long held a negative view of the business climate in Uzbekistan, and the government hopes that the project will improve the national image.
Figure 1. Model of Tashkent City
The Decree on the “Tashkent City” project sets out the timeframe for construction: four phases over a ten-year period.[ii] The first phase began in late 2017 and is currently being carried out. Although the project was initially scheduled to take ten years, the government’s goal is to complete it in four years to demonstrate the efficacy of the current administration and its commitment to progress in advance of the next presidential elections.[iii] Ultimately, Tashkent City will occupy 80 hectares (3.1 square miles) along Navoi and Islam Karimov Avenues (former Uzbekistanskaya), which link Olmazor and Furkat Streets (see Figure 2). The area is in the center of the city and surrounded by metro lines.
Figure 2. Map of “Tashkent City” and context zones
The project relies on foreign investment, grants, technical assistance, donations, loans, and other sources of funding. It involves the construction of an industrial park, eight business centers, a shopping mall, a congress hall, hotels, restaurants, and a cultural center, as well as high-rise residential apartments.[iv] Many of the new structures in Tashkent are merely monumental and event-led constructions with limited functionality. The snow-white marble design of those buildings is neither attractive to tourists nor meaningful for the local population.
Three case studies illustrate the challenges of public dialogue in various contexts affected by the government’s urban transformation projects. The first is that of traditional mahallas as a cultural-historical site, which illuminates the emotional and practical problems faced by residents. The second, the “modern mahalla,” demonstrates the success of public dialogue due to citizens’ active engagement. The third, about Dom Kino, explains the failure of public dialogue in the case of a cultural center.
The Mahalla Debate
One of the debates prompted by the Tashkent City project is the demolition of traditional mahallas in the Olmazor (Apple Orchard) and O’qchi (Fletcher) neighborhoods. The area has been a target for redevelopment since the earthquake in 1966, when some mahallas were ruined.[v]
Abdujabbor Abduvakhitov, a government official, notes that the relocation of mahallas has always been a very sensitive issue that creates emotional distress as well as practical problems. According to him, since redevelopment and demolition have long been planned, residents have limited rights to their dwellings. As a result, there has been no investment in mahalla infrastructure and conditions are poor. He contends that the Tashkent City project will benefit everyone in the long run, describing the removal of mahallas as a short-term issue.[vi]
Saida, a daughter of the Tojiboev family in Olmazor mahalla, would also like to see the city develop, but is skeptical that the current plan will really make things better for her community:
If the city flourishes, it is better for us, but only if they provide us with decent houses as soon as possible. So far, what they offer as a replacement does not meet our needs. The conditions are no better.
She supports development and projects like Tashkent City, but she claims that families have been offered insufficient compensation for their properties. The law on property requires equal replacement of a residential property—that is, giving a family that has had to move a new home of the same size and value.
Figure 3. Traditional mahalla in Tashkent
In addition, timely notice of demolition is enshrined in Article 4 of “Regulations on the Procedure for Compensation of Damages to Citizens and Legal Entities due to Seizure of Land for State or Public Needs” (2006), which states that the khokimiyat (city administration) must notify property owners in writing no less than six months before demolition begins.[vii] In fact, the process of demolition and relocation of residents began earlier, as the Decree on Tashkent City (2017) required that residential and non-residential buildings be acquired within a month.[viii] The district administration visited the mahallas and informed residents that they had 10 days to vacate their homes.
The residents were offered replacements from the secondary housing market, as the promised relocation area is under construction. Some people appealed to the district khokimiyat, but they have not received a response.
The government seeks to create national wellbeing by reimagining the capital city as a financial center to draw more investment and business. However, the residents of traditional mahallas have a different view of wellbeing. Many wish to preserve the lifestyles they had in old traditional neighborhoods, as this extract from The Guardian’s coverage of the Tashkent City project shows:
“I don’t want to live in a box,” says an indignant Nilufar Aripova, who was sweeping the street outside her house, dusty after Uzbekistan’s long hot summer. “I’ve lived in Olmazor all my life, for 52 years. I was born a few streets away and moved here to my husband’s house as a kelinka [a young bride].”
“I don’t want to leave this mahalla, but if I have to I want to be given another house big enough to keep us all together,” adds Aripova, who lives with her husband, three children and several grandchildren.”[ix]
Like Aripova’s, families in traditional settlements are larger than those in apartments. Extended families—parents, children, and later daughters-in-law and grandchildren—live together in a traditional house with a backyard.
Figure 4. A private house
As the stories of residents who remain at the demolition site show, relocation is complicated. Some residents have appealed to the khokimiyat, requesting that the process of providing appropriate alternative housing be accelerated,[x] but they complain that the authorities have not addressed their concerns, even as conditions at the demolition site have worsened.
Residents’ stories reveal different levels of resistance and social engagement. From Evgenii Gorbunov’s perspective, residents have little agency. [xi] The deprivation in which they are currently living will force them to agree to move to houses worth less than their current homes if they are not offered better options soon. Some residents, however, continue to oppose moving to another area. Muhabbat Umarova, an elderly woman, asserted:
This is my home. My son died here. I live alone, on my own. I have been living here since I was born…I have not been informed about anything! Nobody gave me any kind of notice about moving. Now they ask me to move out. If they give me a proper place somewhere nearby (Qoratosh street), I will move. Otherwise, I will not go anywhere!
Figure 5. Muhabbat Umarova, a resident
The “Modern Mahalla” Debate
In March 2017, the Tashkent municipality approved a new project, “Modern Mahalla,” which aims to redesign 505 neighborhoods in the city.[xii] The local authorities are implementing the project without public engagement, despite the fact that Article 10 of the City Planning Code gives citizens, self-governing bodies, and public associations the right to receive reliable, timely information on the status of residential environment, proposed changes, general plans for settlements, and reconstruction of civil objects.
“Modern Mahalla” aims to redesign 505 neighborhoods in the city
GazetaUz reported on the discontent among residents in Oqibat mahalla. The dwellers disputed the relevance of new construction that required the demolition of a playground and park, as well as the chopping-down of trees. They protested the process, resisting the delivery of construction equipment to the area. They then went to the mahalla committee, but did not receive a response. They even approached the president’s administration, receiving a response from the district khokimiyat, which claimed that the mahalla contained “unlawful” structures built by residents themselves and therefore did not meet sanitary norms. This was, however, merely an excuse for the khokimiyat’s decision to allocate the territory to a private construction company without securing the agreement of residents.
Figure 6. Residents of Oqibat mahalla
The media later reported that the municipality had asked that the process be temporarily halted in order to examine its compliance with the Planning Code and Decree on “Modern Mahalla.”[xiii] After a few months of investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office, it was determined that the construction work had not followed due process, as local residents had not been notified. The district khokimiyat and the chair of the mahalla committee had permitted the construction without discussing it with residents and gaining popular support. Following the investigation by the district court, the project was terminated, and the mahalla dwellers celebrated their success.[xiv]
The Dom Kino Debate
The case of Dom Kino illustrates the reaction of Tashkent’s creative community to the planned demolition of a building of cultural significance. This is different from the mahalla case, as it involves the removal of a non-residential building, a decision that upset certain groups and communities. However, it is similar in that a public building was condemned to demolition without public discussion.
Figure 7. Dom Kino
Dom Kino was built in the early 1980s. It hosted the Tashkent International Film Festival, which screened films from an array of Asian, African, and Latin American countries. The building, which stands out on the Tashkent landscape, is an iconic example of ‘80s modernism. Modernists constructed buildings from concrete with a minimum of decoration, considering that the concrete had an aesthetic of its own. The term béton brut, French for “raw concrete,” was coined by Le Corbusier, the world famous architect and urban planner. The cinema was built using the resources of Soviet cinematographers under the aegis of Sharaf Rashidov, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Uzbek SSR.[xv] In contemporary Uzbekistan, where many other Soviet buildings have been redesigned or replaced, Dom Kino, an example of socialist realism, seemed to be out of step with the government’s vision of a “post-modern” Tashkent. Accordingly, the decision was taken that it should be demolished.
The decision to demolish Dom Kino also seems to have called the future of the arts in Uzbekistan into question. The cinema served as a distinct venue for the creation of films, providing facilities needed by the creative community. In deciding to get rid of it, the government may have suggested that it does not value the arts as part of Uzbekistan’s national image.
Filmmaker and screenwriter Giyas Shermuhamedov is attempting to negotiate a replacement for Dom Kino. He supports the redevelopment of Tashkent, claiming that the creative community was so inspired by the decree on the Tashkent City project that it began to produce films expressly to increase Uzbek cinema’s global importance. To support these efforts, he would like to see the construction of a Palace of Cinema as part of the Tashkent City project.[xvi]
The community has made a formal attempt to prevent the demolition of Dom Kino. Firuza Hayrutdinova, the widow of the building’s architect, Rafael Hayrutdinov, wrote a letter to the president’s complaint portal that was signed by the architects’, cinematographers’, and artists’ union (see Appendix 1). An extract from the letter reads:
The Union of Architects, Cinematographers, and Artists would like to take an active role in the review of the final concept of “Tashkent City” and requests to organize an open discussion of the proposed options, with the aim of possibly preserving individual objects in the territory.[xvii]
However, the request remains unaddressed; there has been no response in any form.[xviii] By ignoring this citizens’ appeal, the government has shown that it is not willing to discuss the Tashkent City project with the population. It is not going to give people a chance to comment on the project, nor is it going to address the issues raised. The government may be trying to be open and accountable by implementing such measures as a public appeals system, but it is evidently not ready for a real dialogue with the people.
As the above cases illustrate, the government’s approach to nation-branding, which is being carried out through the Tashkent City project, has its shortcomings. The government is prioritizing the swift transformation of the urban space over the needs of locals. Despite President Mirziyoyev’s emphasis on the role of people and the presence of a complaints system, citizens’ concerns about the Tashkent City project remain unaddressed. The government’s focus—creating a business-friendly climate—may be central to constructing a positive international image of the country, but any nation-branding effort should first ensure the wellbeing of the local population by addressing their needs and concerns.
[i] Elena Paskaleva, “Ideology in Brick and Tile: Timurid Architecture of the 21st Century,” Central Asian Survey 34, no. 4 (2015): 418-439, 419.
[ii] Abdujabbor Abduvakhitov, Deputy Foreign Minister, personal interview with the author, Tashkent, March 2018.
[iv] “Project ‘Tashkent City’ International Business Center to be Improved,” UzDaily, December 23, 2017, https://www.uzdaily.com/articles-id-42105.htm.
[v] Abdujabbor Abduvakhitov, Deputy Foreign Minister, personal interview with the author, Tashkent, March 2018.
[vi] Abdujabbor Abduvakhitov, Deputy Foreign Minister, personal interview with the author, Tashkent, March 2018.
[vii] “Polozhenie o poriadke vozmezheniia ubitkov grazhdanam i iuridicheskim litsam v sviazi s iziatiem zemel’nikh uchastkov dlia gosudarstvennykh i obchshestvennykh nuzhd,” NormaUz, May 29, 2006, https://nrm.uz/contentf?doc=105171_polojenie_o_poryadke_vozmeshcheniya_ubytkov_grajdanam_i_yuridicheskim_licam_v_svyazi_s_izyatiem_zemelnyh_uchastkov_dlya_gosudarstvennyh_i_obshchestvennyh_nujd_(prilojenie_k_postanovleniyu_km_ruz_ot_29_05_2006_g_n_97)&produ.
[viii] “Postanovlenie Kabineta Ministrov Uzbekistana o merakh po uluchsheniiu arkhitekturnogo oblika i blagoustroistva tsentral’noi chasti goroda Tashkenta, a takzhe sozdaniiu nadlezhashikh uslovyi dlia naseleniia i gostei stolitsi,” Lex.uz, July 28, 2017, http://lex.uz/pages/getpage.aspx?lact_id=3295075#3295185.
[ix] Joanna Lillis, “Tashkent City: Is ‘Progress’ Worth the Price Being Paid in Uzbekistan?” The Guardian, October 18, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/oct/18/people-paying-tashkent-gentrification-mahallas.
[x] Tojiboev family, personal interview with the author, Tashkent, April 2018.
[xi] Evgeniy Gorbunov, personal interview with the author, Tashkent, April 2018.
[xii] “Sovremennoi mahalle radi ne vse: zhiteli Belarik vystupaiut protiv stroitel’stva sovremennoi mahalli,” GazetaUz, 2017 https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2017/08/20/mahalla/
[xiv] “Prokuroskaia proverka, Oqibat mahalla,” GazetaUz, April 16, 2018, https://nuz.uz/svobodnoe-mnenie/32045-prokurorskaya-proverka-chem-zakonchilas-istoriya-o-stroitelstve-sekretnogo-obekta-na-c-1.html.
[xv] Jasur Ishakov, “Dom kino: Proshchal’naia istoriia,” MyTashkent.uz, November 10, 2017, https://mytashkent.uz/2017/11/10/dom-kino-proshhalnaya-istoriya/.
[xvi] Jasur Ishakov, “Dom kino.”
[xvii] Letter to the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Mr. Sh.M. Mirziyoyev, from F.F. Havrutdinova, signed by the Architects’ Union, November 2017. See Appendix 1 for a reproduction of the letter.
[xviii] Rushena Seminogova, a granddaughter of Hayrutdinov, personal interview with the author, Tashkent, March 2018.