If I asked many of you to point Uzbekistan out on a map, you’d probably ask me “Where?” before having to search for it in an atlas. It doesn’t get many columns written about it in the Western press, especially when we’re so caught up in stories about hostages in Algeria and cheating cyclists who lied for a decade about their doping regimen.
But Uzbekistan is home to one of the last bastions of dictatorship kleptocracies in the world, an ex-Soviet republic whose dictator and his family hold key government positions, earning millions on the backs of their citizens whom they treat as nothing more than slaves whose sole purpose in life is to enrich the kleptomaniacal “first family” and keep them in a style of living they’ve grown accustomed to.
Islam Karimov, is the incumbent President of Uzbekistan, a position he has maintained since the fall of the Soviet empire through the usual methodology of regular human rights violations, election rigging and blocking of opposition parties (tactics practiced across the ex-Soviet states such as Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Ukraine) along with some other choice methods such as the regular detention (without trial), torture and disappearance of ordinary Uzbeks, who often vanish into thin air, never to be heard of again. His favoured method of dispatching dissidents is to have them boiled alive. And his security police have shot dead hundreds of unarmed protesters in 2005. The lucky ones may return, their mutilated bodies are sometimes recovered when the secret police have no more use of them and the lucky families can find closure and bury their long missing loved ones.
But we here in the West also play a part in the continuance of this brutal regime. It might never cross your mind, but the next time you find yourself pushing a young mother out of the way so you can get a deal on the last cotton skirt on sale in H&M, think twice about where it’s come from! Because the Uzbek regimes largest source of wealth comes from what the Russians once called “White Gold”.
“White Gold”, coined by the Soviets, Cotton is Uzbekistan’s largest source of foreign currency, and Uzbekistan is one of the largest exporters of cotton worldwide. The cotton farms, cotton exporters and cotton harvesters are ALL state-owned. Which means 99% of the cash goes straight into the back pockets and Swiss bank accounts of the Karimov family, with the remaining 1% shared between the farms and the Uzbek people toiling in the fields picking the cotton.
And the people picking the cotton are ordinary folk, ranging from 7 and 8 year old children, all the way to well trained doctors, nurses, teachers and engineers. The crop is so huge that they force Uzbeks to pick the cotton giving strict daily quota’s, all so that the Karimov family can maximise the amount of cash they’ll get when they export it, just so Karimov’s wife or his camera shy daughter (NOT!), Gulnara Karimova, can splash out on a new villa in the Mediterranean coast, or attend Fashion Week in New York, or whatever else the well-heeled Oligarchy get up to these days with their stolen riches.
The next time you’re out shopping, look at the label or search online and find out WHERE your cotton came from. Do not simply shop with an absent mind. You, as a single individual CAN have an impact on geopolitical affairs and can help stamp out human rights violations, even thought you’re a world away! Don’t be a sheep and follow the herd, think for yourself and shop conscientiously and politically…..because your fellow human beings are depending on you!