September 18, 2017 / 4:25 PM / a month ago

Interview: Uzbek writer plans cautious return from exile

ALMATY (Reuters) - When Uzbek writer Nurulloh Muhammad Raufkhon’s new book came out last year, security forces raided his home and put the author - who was in Turkey at the time - on their blacklist, effectively forcing him to stay there in exile.

Now, after being removed from the list by the new government, the 62-year-old Raufkhon plans to return to his Central Asian homeland - despite harbouring some misgivings.

A safe return of prominent dissidents such as Raufkhon might herald a genuine thaw in Uzbekistan and mark a significant step towards restoring ties with the West and attracting foreign investment after decades of political and economic near-isolation under the late President Islam Karimov.

No prominent dissidents have returned home yet though since Karimov died a year ago and Raufkhon said some of his fellow emigres were still unconvinced it was safe to do so.

Raufkhon’s book, entitled Bu Kunlar (These Days), was a critique of Uzbekistan’s development since it became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991.

By publishing it, he went against a well-established taboo on criticising Karimov, who ran the nation of 32 million with an iron fist from 1989, first as a Communist apparatchik and then as an elected leader.

He died in September last year from a stroke aged 78.

“They all but made me an ‘enemy of the people’, ‘traitor of the motherland’,” Raufkhon, who lives in Istanbul, said in an interview with Reuters conducted by email and telephone.

Last month, the government of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, a former prime minister who has succeeded Karimov, removed some 16,000 people, including Raufkhon, from its security blacklist.

That prompted him to start thinking about a return home.

SETBACKS FEARED

But he had second thoughts very soon - and he is still slightly apprehensive of possible action by a Karimov ‘old guard’.

“After they removed me from the blacklist, somebody decided to put up a list of wanted criminals with photos in the district where I am registered,” he said. “My name was among them.”

Local officials quickly corrected the mistake and covered up his photo, he said, but the incident all the same made him uneasy.

“I didn’t understand this. Do we have a parallel state?” he said. “(But) in the end, I dismissed this as a mistake and decided to return. To address mistakes like that you need to be back home.”

Raufkhon said there could be more setbacks.

“Of course, it is impossible to swiftly change a regime based on violence,” he said, adding that a “Karimov-era elite” was strongly resisting reforms.

One of the new government’s moves that has raised eyevbrows was the sacking last month of Khurshid Mirzohidov, a reformist chief executive of state television company MTRK.

Mirzohidov, previously minister for information technology development, was appointed to MTRK in February as part of a broad reshuffle which followed Mirziyoyev’s election last December.

A major change brought on by Mirzohidov was a series of Q&A sessions broadcast live on national television in which senior officials had to answer tough questions - such as those about the use of forced labour in cotton harvesting.

After Mirzohidov was sacked, Alisher Khajayev, who had run state television under Karimov, took back the top job.

Though live broadcasts have continued after the reshuffle, Khajayev has yet to show he will maintain the same probing TV programmes as Mirzohidov.

Speaking of fellow emigres, Raufkhon said: “They would have come back in an instant, but what stands in their way is uncertainty about what is going to happen to them upon return.”

He urged the government to amnesty all opposition activists and guarantee their safety upon return.

Raufkhon said he would announce the date of his own return this week.

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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