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Latest update : 2016-12-02

Uzbekistan reinforces its tight grip on election and country

© FRANCE 24 | Forced labour in the cotton fields. Villagers have to pick at least 70 kilograms of cotton per day.

Uzbekistan is holding a presidential election on Sunday that is going largely unnoticed abroad. The successor to the late president, Islam Karimov, who held power for more than a quarter century, has already been chosen, and the authorities refuse to grant visas to foreign journalists. Our reporter Elena Volochine went to this central Asian country to film a report on one of the most isolated nations in the world.

It has been 25 years since Uzbekistan held a presidential election without Karimov. Known as the "father of the nation", he had ruled the country with an iron fist since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. He died at the end of August at the age of 78, but his passing was not officially announced until September 2, to give time to plan his succession.

Uzbekistan, despite its impressive economic growth and strong tourist potential, remains one of the most isolated regimes on the planet. Along with North Korea, this Central Asian republic is the only country in the world to issue an exit visa for its citizens who travel abroad. And foreign journalists are not welcome. The authorities rarely issue press visas, even during an election period. And if reporters do manage to obtain accreditation, they are systematically monitored.

On the other hand, it’s easy for tourists to visit the country. Every year, two million of them come to admire the stunning cities of Tashkent, Bukhara or Samarqand, on the famous Silk Road. And the government is doing all it can to increase these numbers. During his lifetime, Karimov did everything he could to give the country an attractive image.

Uzbekistan is a key exporter of gold, uranium and cotton, known as “white gold” in the country. Uzbekistan continues to develop economically, while benefiting from funds from the World Bank. The bank has just tripled its aid to the country to $3 billion dollars for the period of 2016 to 2020.

To maintain this slick image in the eyes of the international community, the regime exercises almost total control over the press and civil society. In a land of censorship and a cult of personality, dissenting voices are not tolerated. Political opponents and human rights defenders are sent to prison or forced into exile. Denunciation is encouraged by state propaganda and the population is scared into informing on those who risk falling out of favour with the authorities, including journalists. The Uzbek security services, on which Karimov relied during his four terms in power, have a reputation for widespread torture.

Our reporter entered Uzbekistan on a tourist visa and managed to discreetly film this report. She brings us a rare and powerful documentary. For security reasons, most of the faces have been blurred.

By Elena VOLOCHINE

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