Governments around the world are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with the best intentions, deploying and mobilizing their resources as effectively as they can. To date, there are 390 confirmed cases and two deaths in Uzbekistan, which is a relatively low number for a country of 32 million. To halt the escalation of the situation, the government chose a heavy-handed approach with the help of the very same law enforcement bodies heavily disfavored by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev when he rose to power in 2016.
When Mirziyoyev became president, the country embarked on a process of dismantling its “police state” image. In the past several weeks, however, the country’s law enforcement bodies and armed forces have been imbued with renewed powers. They’re patrolling the streets of Uzbekistan and punishing curfew and quarantine evaders. The people of Uzbekistan, for the most part, have received these changes with calm.
Uzbekistan is among a number of countries to adopt early strict measures to prevent the sharp spread of the virus. Mirziyoyev, in his latest public address on April 3 said, “If we are not heavy-handed, the situation will worsen… Japan prevented the rapid spread of the virus. Why? Because of strict orders and discipline.”
Once the country announced a lockdown, strong enforcement followed. At the forefront of enforcement are Ministry of Interior police officers, assisted by National Guard forces. They are busy ensuring that individuals leave their houses only for allowed activities and that personal vehicles possess permission certificates to conduct allowed activities. In addition, they guard quarantined people being kept at their households, whose numbers reached 100,000 on April 3. The government also deployed the armed forces, along with military vehicles, to ensure full compliance with quarantine. The armed forces are also involved in guarding quarantined medical facilities.
Enforcement began with the reinstatement of interregional police posts on March 23 to restrict the movement of cars. The posts had been been closed following Mirziyoyev’s heavy criticism of them as place of petty corruption in 2017. On March 25, Uzbekistan made mandatory the wearing of face masks in public. On March 27, the movement of people and personal vehicles was restricted to grocery shopping and pharmacy visits. In the first nine days since the rules were introduced, as of April 3, about 2,200 violations of the rules were registered, mostly individuals being outside without face masks.
Raids to catch drivers without permission certificates have become a daily occurrence. The drivers are punished with fines and confiscation of their vehicles for the duration of the quarantine. The spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior warned that the government’s options haven’t been exhausted and full restriction of movement could be introduced if the population continues to ignore the rules. A lack of obedience is the reason the government is forced to continue tightening regulations, the ministry has argued.
To respond to social media criticisms, which is relatively weak so far, and to those who do not welcome the increased police measures, the Ministry of Interior said that patrolling officers have the right to ask the purpose of one’s being in the streets. Instead of “looking for flaws with police,” the Ministry, in an attempt to humanize its forces, spoke about the 12-hour shifts police offers are working and that some officers only get to see their families once every three days.
Pre-Mirziyoyev Uzbekistan was known the world over for its heavy-handed law enforcement, and it is important to ensure that the country will not roll back to where it was at the beginning of the reforms. The significance of the police in the eyes of the current administration has been growing and once the number of COVID-19 cases starts receding, they will be celebrated as heroes for maintaining order. Giving up power is not easy and the law enforcement bodies in Uzbekistan will likely advocate to maintain the powers they have reacquired. It is important to fight against the pandemic now, but it will be equally important to restrain the involvement of law enforcement bodies in the lives of people once the crisis passes.