Perhaps this was an exercise in surrealist performance art. From RFE/RL, Sept. 13:
International rights organizations are criticizing UNESCO’s decision to award Uzbek President Islam Karimov the Borobudur gold medal for “strengthening friendship and cooperation between the nations, development of cultural and religious dialogue, and supporting cultural diversity.”
UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura personally gave Karimov the award in Tashkent on September 8.
Freedom House and Human Rights Watch are leading the campaign against the UNESCO decision.
Veronika Szente-Goldston, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, expressed her organization’s shock at news of the award in comments to RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service.
“We think that this is absolutely scandalous,” she said. “When we first saw the announcement we thought that it must be a bad joke.”
Freedom House joined Human Rights Watch in criticizing UNESCO and the UN agency’s awarding of Karimov.
Alexander Gupman, the senior program manager at Freedom House, said his group was similarly amazed at the UNESCO decision.
“Freedom House strongly condemns this decision to reward the dictator Karimov in Uzbekistan who has been part of a massacre of civilians; his regime has been accused of torture as well as other human rights abuses,” he said.
Since its independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has spent a great deal of attention to restoring cultural sites in the country that were neglected during the time Uzbekistan was a Soviet republic. Most noticeable is the Gur-i-Amir site in Samarkand, the grave of Tamerlane the conqueror. Once hidden behind Soviet-built apartments, it is now at the start of an open-air museum walk that takes one to the Registan — the complex of madrasahs — also restored since independence.
UNESCO media relations representative and regional representative Vladimir Sergeev noted this when announcing that Karimov would receive the award.
“It needs to be said that at the conclusion of his visit to Uzbekistan, UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura awarded the president of the country the Borobudur gold medal,” he said. “This gesture testifies to UNESCO’s recognition of the large contribution of Uzbekistan for the preservation of the cultural monuments on the territory of the country.”
Though the Samarkand and other ancient monuments in Uzbekistan have indeed been beautifully restored, some argue that it often required relocating thousands of people to other often worse housing. Others point out that the restorations came less from a desire to revive the region’s past glory than as part of a nationalist campaign. Some scholars claim that Tamerlane — now propagandized as the father of the Uzbek nation — was not even an ethnic Uzbek (though he was born in Shahrisabz, currently part of Uzbekistan).
See also our last post on Uzbekistan and the politics of Central Asia.