Who Punk’d Whom? Uzbek Women Evicted Back Into Hardship After Presidential ‘Giveaway’

When Uzbek officials told eight women in Andijon that they and their families would receive newly constructed townhouses to mark a visit by President Shavkat Mirziyoev, the news seemed too good to be true.

In their long-sequestered, post-Soviet autocracy of tightly controlled media and around 32 million people, that has a way of happening.

"On the day of the president's arrival, members of Andijon's Women's Affairs Committee came to me and told me to move into a new home," said 35-year-old Xurshida Tillaeva, an unmarried mother of two.

"In my interview [later that day with Uzbekistan 24 TV], I said with tears in my eyes that my father had [recently] died and the president, with fatherly care, had given me a place to live."

She told the TV reporter: "I feel so happy. I feel I have a homeland now. Thousands of thousands of thanks to our president. Since my father died I needed someone who could stand for our rights. It turns out I have a father [now]."

But one day after that trumpeted presidential tour of their southeastern city in mid-May, which had included a meeting with the grateful and overjoyed women, Andijoni officials told them to pack up and leave.

Tillaeva was more than shocked.

All her friends had congratulated her, she said, after seeing the news.

"But as soon as the president left Andijon, I was told that the house already has an owner and that I would get housing some other time," she added. "Then I realized I was the victim of a phony show [held by local officials for the president]."

Tillaeva's family wasn't alone.

'Dolls To Deceive'

She said that of seven other local women and their families given new townhouses in the neighborhood, at least six were evicted after the president left.

"Having learned that I was given a new apartment, I began to cry and to pray for the president," one of those women, 30-year-old Muyassar Rakhimova, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. "Additionally, for the arrival of the president I was asked to make a new dress...at my own expense. I had to pay 300,000 soms (about $35) for that dress. Our [city] officials also asked me to dress my children decently."

Officials, she said, told her the family should look "like a happy family who got an apartment."

"But after [the president left], they pushed me out of that apartment," she said. "It turned out it was just a game for one hour. They used us as dolls to deceive the president."

Commodity-rich Uzbekistan's gross domestic product per capita was well below Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan at around $1,500 in 2017 but slightly above their other two post-Soviet neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, according to the latest publicly available World Bank data.

A steep devaluation in 2017 has been followed by efforts to attract international lending and investment to help steer its command-style economy in the right direction, but Uzbeks are still largely beholden to subsidies and strict official controls on prices and production.

A journalist who covered the president's Andijon visit told RFE/RL that local officials had chosen 10 new houses for Mirziyoev to visit.

"They also selected several women with whom the president could meet and, based on a designer's recommendations, they were dressed in [traditional] national clothes," said the journalist. "When it became known that he would visit the home of [a particular woman], officials quickly filled it with all the necessary furnishings. They brought in expensive chairs from someplace."

Rakhimova said officials told the women not to ask Mirziyoev any questions but simply thank him and pray for him.

An official in Andijon's city administration told RFE/RL that one of the women still lives in one of the new houses and that the housing needs of the other women would be solved "in the near future."

Then on May 30, with questions and accusations swirling over the local officials' actions, Andijon Governor Shukhrat Abdurahmonov met with the women and pledged that all of them would receive their promised "townhouses." He blamed the affair on a misguided deputy governor.

During his visit, Mirziyoev also toured Andijon's Mustakillik neighborhood and met with people living in old, barrack-style housing.

"It's not easy to live in such difficult conditions. It's especially impossible to accept the fact that children live here," said the president. "I came here to familiarize myself with people's living conditions, [and to work] to create decent conditions for all families."

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.