Uzbekistan’s Aral Sea, in the autonomous Karakalpakstan region, exemplifies the struggle between the country’s past and present—a bleak reminder of callous authoritarian central planning and the limits of autocratic reforms. Once the world’s fourth-largest freshwater lake, the sea is now mostly an empty shrubland, covered in rolling dunes so fine that hikers practically wade through sand as they climb them. A memorial in Moynaq, a city that used to be on a peninsula reaching into the now-depleted lake, features maps of the receding shoreline. Since the mid-1970s, Moynaq’s population decline paralleled the lake’s transformation into a desert. At its height, the city was home to over 40,000 people, including some 10,000 fishermen, and canneries that annually processed up to 20 tons of fish.

Last September, Moynaq was the remote destination for an electronic music festival. The inaugural event, called Stihia—a Russian phrase meaning “inevitable force of nature”—took place on a dusty tract near the memorial. Despite the location, thousands arrived for the line-up of post-Soviet talent. According to Otabek Suleimanov, an attorney and part-time DJ who helped organize the festival, over 8,000 people attended. The crowd included multigenerational groups of townsfolk—members of the Karakalpak ethnic minority, who now comprise one of Uzbekistan’s poorest populations due to the Aral Sea’s demise. The remaining attendees included adventurous foreigners—ravers from Tajikistan, journalists based in Almaty and Berlin, and a young couple who drove to Uzbekistan from London in an old Land Cruiser, having heard about the festival during their travels.

As night set in, the surest defense against the lashing desert winds was the endless supply of warm Uzbek beer, carried by festival-goers in plastic two-liter bottles. No one was stingy with their booze, and for a few hours the festival was a wondrous vision of freedom and good cheer—this in a country recently considered one of the most oppressive on earth. Stihia would never have happened during the long reign of Islam Karimov, the long-ruling tyrant felled by a stroke in September 2016. “It was North Korea-light,” recalled Bakhti Nishanov, the regional deputy director for Eurasia at the International Republican Institute. Shortly before Karimov’s death, Uzbekistan made Freedom House’s “worst of the worst” list, joining Syria, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea.

The late Karimov accused rock musicians of being unpatriotic and likened their music to satanism. “Under Karimov, there was a deep suppression and oppression of independent thought and activity and entrepreneurship, and sort of a strong collectivism that many young people in particular find very stifling,” said Steve Swerdlow, an Uzbekistan expert at Human Rights Watch. “This festival is breaking through that a little.”

Karimov’s successor, the reform-minded technocrat Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has displayed a greater openness toward the outside world. Still, to mount the festival, Suleimanov required the endorsement of the Council of Ministers, along with the approval of the country’s figurehead prime minister, which he secured with the help of the young vice prime minister responsible for culture, sports, and science. Through Suleimanov’s bureaucratic navigation, Stihia morphed into a destination event, anchored by a rented half-million-dollar sound system trucked across the desert over the course of 30 nerve-racking hours.  

Stihia branded itself as a venue to raise awareness of the Aral Sea’s depletion and its consequences—the local office of the United Nations’ Development Agency helped organize and promote the event. But the limited freedom that made Stihia possible had more to do with developments in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital city, than with the ruination greeting music fans in Moynaq. “Even the existence of this sort of festival wouldn’t have been possible until a few years ago,” said Edward Lemon, a Central Asia scholar at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security. “The country is rapidly changing and it’s rapidly opening up.”

And yet the festival brought out the government’s engrained suspicion of its subjects. At around 1:30 AM, the beats ceased for reasons that nobody could adequately explain. Perhaps the police, clad in their blank dark-green uniforms, just wanted to go to bed. One organizer theorized that the crowd’s size worried the authorities: “Frankly speaking, they were afraid it could go completely out of control.” Stihia marked an unlikely test-case for just how far dictators can reshape their societies. 

Uzbekistan Aral Sea (Photo Courtesy of the Author)
Photos Courtesy of the Author (3)

After Karimov’s death, changes arrived swiftly to Uzbekistan. The government released the country’s longest-serving political prisoners and scrubbed a blacklist of 16,000 alleged subversives. News organizations began reporting on official corruption, and the national police’s conduct improved. The new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who previously served as prime minister, reined in the country’s all-powerful secret police, dismissing its widely feared security chief last year. “Mirziyoyev’s done a remarkable job of marginalizing the other power bases in the country, particularly the security services,” said Lemon.

Mirziyoyev’s success in consolidating power, with little discernible backlash or threats, indicated the regime elites’ support for reform. Many of the changes were basic. “Free currency exchange: this was one of the most ‘wow!’ things,” said Azamat Matkarimov, a Nukus-based businessman who also leads tourist expeditions into the Aral Sea basin a few hours north of town. Parts of Tashkent now offer free public Wi-Fi, and last summer, people were for the first time allowed to photograph the city’s ornate, Soviet-constructed metro system.

Uzbekistanis do not feel as harassed by their government as they once did—hope remains for an improved quality of life. But the dynamics that make life so grinding for most of the country’s citizens endure. “Corruption is still here. At all levels. It starts when you’re bribing nurses in the delivery room . . . you have to bribe your child into kindergarten,” said Matkarimov. We met in Nukus, about three hours south of Moynaq, in the café of the Savitsky Museum, a world-renowned collection of Russian avant-garde art that was spirited eastward during Stalin’s destructive rule. In 2003, after years of relative neglect, the Savitsy moved into a modern, multi-building complex that dominates Nukus’s central square, the flags of Uzbekistan and Karakalpakstan flying at equal level.

Nukus is an unremarkable grid of broad, well-kept avenues, built along a quarter-mile-wide irrigation canal diverted from the nearby Amu River, the primary freshwater source for much of Central Asia. The city suffers from its proximity to the Aral Sea crisis—Matkarimov showed me pictures on his phone showing one dust storm’s aftermath of salt-layered trees and windshields. Young natives have mostly left for Kazakhstan or larger cities in Uzbekistan’s east. During my visit, taxi drivers hanging around my hotel offered rides to Moynaq. “The crisis is there, but people have to understand that they can benefit from it,” one Tashkent-based economist told me.

Karakalpakstan’s decline, and the lack of any compelling strategy to alleviate it, stems from a collectivist system stuck in Soviet times, one that Mirziyoyev’s reforms have done little to change. The Aral Sea was a casualty of Communism, not climate change. But the lake’s vulnerability was evident even before the Soviet era—a visiting American diplomat observed the sea’s relative shallowness and dry surroundings as early as 1868. A century later, Soviet engineers decided that the sea’s evaporation was an acceptable consequence of large-scale cotton farming. According to Tom Bissell’s travelogue, Chasing the Sea, the country’s cotton harvest increased by about 70 percent between 1965 and 1982, a time when the Soviet Union was one of the world’s leading producers.

For decades, the Soviets favored Uzbekistan as a site of industrial-scale cotton cultivation, implementing a system in which farmers were effectively indentured to the government. Following the Soviet collapse, cotton declined as a share of Uzbek GDP, though it still accounts for 6.5 percent of the country’s exports. The cotton harvest had always been too labor-intensive for the agricultural sector to handle, a problem that the Soviets solved through a compulsory draft labor system—its abolition was a key reform of the Mirziyoyev era. The Soviets had oriented the entire region toward the cotton monoculture without any consideration of the human, economic, or ecological consequences. The end of the fishing economy, shrinking arable land, frequent sandstorms, and one of the world’s highest tuberculosis rates resulted in vast sections of Karakalpakstan taking on an eerily post-human appearance. And yet, there are still wide and full canals cutting through the empty plains and abandoned farmland, evidence of how the crisis has been irrevocably gouged into the land.

Uzbekistan Aral Sea (Photo Courtesy of the Author)

Commonsense means of mitigation are too difficult for even a reform-minded government to attempt. One of the leading civic figures in Nukus is Yusup Kamalov, a Moscow-educated engineer. Now in his early seventies, Kamalov was raised in the region, later becoming one of the leaders of a nascent green movement during the Soviet Union’s final decade. In his view, the crisis could be relieved if the government permitted farmers to sell their crops on the open market and charged for water usage. “We’re still in Soviet times in the economy of agriculture,” he explained. “Cotton, rice, and wheat are a government monopoly. That means money and capital are not working properly here in Uzbekistan.” The environment suffers as a result.

Many Uzbekistani farmers cannot choose what they can grow or where they can sell. Cotton growers, for instance, must sell their entire harvest to the regime, forgoing competitive prices for their goods and locking them into state-enforced poverty. Due to the semi-nationalized agricultural system, the government also charges little for water—certain water-intensive activities, including the flooding of fields, carry no cost to farmers. Waste is enormous. With no systemic incentives to conserve water, investments in technological improvements to the agricultural economy are scant. Sources in the country’s U.N. office fret that almost no drip irrigation exists in Uzbekistan. Unsurprisingly, many Uzbekistani farmers have decided to opt out of the collectivized economy, trying their luck elsewhere. As Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch explained, it is common for farmers to abandon their land and head to neighboring Kazakhstan for work.

Fixing this backward system, along with reversing some of the damage to western Uzbekistan’s ecology and social fabric, would take a degree of political vision that is now absent. In Kamalov’s view, something as basic as charging for water is “actually a political problem. The government recognizes that on paper, the farmers are free. But in reality, they’re slaves of the government . . . To give them freedom is an internal political issue.”

Despite these challenges, the post-Karimov reforms are real. The country possesses a freer and more hopeful mood, along with greater space for political and artistic expression. But one should not mistake Uzbekistan for anything other than a strict police state, even if one less onerous than in its recent past. “I don’t see the country democratizing in any meaningful way,” said Lemon. Last year, Swedlow noted that Uzbekistan still has more political prisoners than the other former Soviet states combined.

Uzbekistan follows a familiar story among liberalizing dictatorships. The ruling elites face a young, growing, multi-ethnic, and multi-linguistic population with few economic opportunities, and recognize the need to address the threat of discontent. “When Mirziyoyev came to power he saw a society that was deeply fatigued,” Swerdlow explained. Karimov’s death was a chance to relieve a little of the isolation, oppression, and economic precariousness that was demoralizing and unsettling the country.

Since then, Uzbekistan reveals the contradictions of reform projects intended to protect existing autocratic systems. Autocratic reformists wield liberalism as a means of protecting illiberalism; at the same time, breakneck reform and total inertia each carry a potential for chaos.  For Mrziyoyev, dismantling the Soviet-era agricultural economy, permitting anything resembling a multi-party system, or ending the state’s control of religious institutions carries an unknowable degree of risk. And other hard questions loom. By 2050, a landlocked country that shares a border with Afghanistan, and its sole major freshwater resource with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, is projected to have a population of nearly 40 million. The country will face the kind of challenges that even Mirziyoyev’s softer, but still Soviet-style autocracy, might prove poorly equipped to solve.

As in Mohamed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia, post-junta Myanmar, or Putin’s Russia, Uzbekistan’s reforms will come down to the autocrat’s intentions. Does Mirziyoyev want to shepherd Uzbekistan toward democracy, or buy the regime a few decades of stability? “A lot will depend on whether Mirziyoyev will be a leader of world historical importance or if he is more jockeying for influence and power among the more immediate neighborhood of Russia, China, Central Asia, and India,” Swerdlow said.

Uzbekistan Aral Sea (Photo Courtesy of the Author)

Otabek Suleimanov felt discouraged after the festival. “The idea was that the DJs would be playing the music and seeing the sunrise—like greeting the new day with the new type of music, greeting the new era in Uzbekistan with the new sound of Uzbekistan,” he explained. “That was a lyrical objective I wanted to attain, but it didn’t happen.”

Still, the next morning, Suleimanov began receiving positive feedback, giving him a glimmer of hope in one of the world’s most desolate places. Stihia demonstrated how art could thrive when freedom of expression was tested. The idea of Stihia, Suleimanov said, was to show “the present society and to the government that electronic music is a very powerful PR instrument now, and maybe it can become a powerful instrument in promoting Uzbekistan’s interests both outwards and inward.”

Suleimanov is unsure if Stihia would have happened had he known the difficulties of staging the festival. Planning became a second full-time job. “But we have a saying in Russian that if you do not know about the danger, you become a hero,” Suleimanov said. He clarified: “Unawareness of danger leads to heroism.”

Top Photo: HomoCosmicos/iStock


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