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Civil Servants or Henchmen?

by: Dr. Scott Levi

Of all the aspects of life that I had to adjust to while
spending a year in Tashkent during 1996-97, I found interacting with
the police, known as the "Militsiia," to be one of the most difficult.
This was no doubt exacerbated for me as, prior to my time in
Uzbekistan, I had grown accustomed to living in Madison, Wisconsin,
where the police really do endeavor to be "civil servants" more than
the state's henchmen. Perhaps if I had come from a city where the
police aren't so, well, "nice," then I might not have been so struck by
Uzbekistan's Militsiia.


The cities of Uzbekistan are overflowing with these uniformed young
men. One might run into them anywhere-in bazaars, businesses and
shops, or even walking down secluded neighborhood streets-but they are
most readily apparent at traffic intersections. There they stand,
perched like vultures, directing traffic and randomly ordering drivers
to pull their vehicles to the side of the road. Such indiscriminate
"document inspections" are a regular inconvenience that can usually be
alleviated by a small bribe. In all fairness, the fear instilled in
motorists by the over-eager Militsiia's desire to break the monotony of
their job and supplement their meager income by extracting "fines" from
their victims has made travel in Uzbekistan relatively safe. However,
I was equally impressed by Tashkent motorists' total disregard for
speed limits and other traffic laws after 11:00 PM, when it was
generally known that the Militsiia had gone home and the roads were
unpatrolled.


The Militsiia do not limit their harassments to individuals in
automobiles. On one occasion I was descended upon by four members of
the Militsiia while leisurely walking through a bazaar on a slow, snowy
winter day. They requested that I produce my passport and official
papers, which I did. They recognized that my papers were in order but
demanded that I still pay them a fine equivalent to ten dollars. They
refused to explain the nature of the infraction I had supposedly
committed, and instead asked me if I was carrying a gun or a knife.
Despite my denial, one of them searched my pockets and briefcase until
he became bored. Frustrated at my refusal to pay any bogus "fine" and
apparently unable to invent any other infractions, one of them meekly
asked if I would just give them some money anyway.


I was especially pleased at my ability to elude these Militsiia
officers' efforts to extract money from me on that day as I had not
always been so fortunate. Several months earlier, shortly after I
arrived in Tashkent, I was stopped by two members of the Militsiia who
also demanded to see my papers. After scrutinizing them for a few
moments, one of the officers informed me that I had committed some
(imaginary) infraction and that he would have to search my pockets. He
found my wallet and, as he rifled through it, his partner distracted me
by asking me a number of absurd questions about my papers. The
interrogation abruptly concluded, they returned my wallet to me, and
warned me to be careful in Uzbekistan. A while later I realized that
they had liberated about twenty dollars worth of local currency from my
wallet. Some of my Uzbek friends reported that the Militsiias' abuse
of their position is nothing new. They joke that at least they know
who the thieves are-they're the ones wearing uniforms!


But the Militsiia do not act as renegades. Their behavior is not only
tolerated, but apparently authorized by their superiors. The
ubiquitous nature of the Militsiia illustrates the central authority of
the state, and the Militsiia's repression of the population effectively
ensures its obedience. After having stopped me for no reason other
than to interrogate me about my purpose in life and try to extract a
bribe from me, one Militsiia officer asked me if I like Uzbekistan. I
answered that of course I do, but that in the U.S. it is considered bad
if the police randomly stop people who do not appear to be doing
anything wrong and even worse if the police take money from them.
Shocked at this information, he asked me how the police do their jobs
in the West.