Tashkent, Uzbekistan – Located over 80 hectares (198 acres) of land in the centre of Uzbekistan’s capital, “Tashkent City”, a state-led flagship project, marks a new beginning in the country’s history.
It includes a sky-high, glass-clad Hilton hotel, manicured green lawns leading to an enormous fountain, and artificial trees shaped into a veritable menagerie of animals.
Ever-present speakers play Western pop music from the 1980s and 1990s while workers rush to meet the opening date – when the first phase of the project will be revealed.
It is a symbol of modernisation, Uzbekistan’s opening up to the world, foreign investment and forward thinking.
In a couple of years, the remaining space will welcome an industrial park, business centres, luxurious apartments and a large shopping mall.
Since coming to power in 2016, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has sought to break with the politics of his predecessor Islam Karimov, who ruled the country with a firm hand for 27 years.
The new president’s reforms have ended Uzbekistan’s years of international isolation, helped liberalise the economy and made the first attempt to democratise the highly authoritarian system.
With these significant changes under way, the next step is building a new country in the literal sense: Demolish what does not fit in the framework of modern Uzbekistan, and construct anew.
In recent years, Uzbekistan, home to 33 million people, has become a large experimental construction site.
Sitting in his office facing Tashkent City, Sobirjon Hakimov, vice director in the Tashkent municipal assets management centre, smiles when asked if Tashkent planners have been inspired by Dubai’s modern look.
“We’re trying to build a place where people have good life, can take a good rest; we’re building aquaparks, new roads in each area,” he tells Al Jazeera.
“For the past two to two-and-a-half years, Tashkent has been going through a significant development period, large construction projects are under way.
“Old buildings are being demolished and new ones are being constructed to rebuild our city, to make it more beautiful, to attract investors and visitors.”
Critics say the urge to remake the city comes at a cost. Following the government-sponsored demolition of an old “mahalla”, a traditional neighbourhood, to make space for Tashkent City, city hall started handing out permissions to private developers to demolish old living quarters and replace them with high-rise buildings.
Two-storey Soviet-era apartment blocks have fallen victim to the new wave of modernisation.
Over the past few months, Madina Kasanova and her neighbours from Tsilkovskovo Street have been battling a construction company seeking to demolish their house.
In late March, a man turned up unannounced and presented a demolition order, saying that their homes would be gone in one month.
“We did not know who he was. To whom the permission was given. Before going to the city hall for permission, he didn’t even talk to the residents and ask whether we want our houses demolished and what kind of compensation we would like to receive,” Kasanova said.
By law, a demolition order has to come six months in advance to give residents time to consider options – for example accepting a replacement apartment, receiving financial compensation, or secondary housing.
But Kasanova was denied these options.
After resettling people from two other buildings in the quarter, the company started construction next to Kasanova’s home, ignoring the critical residents’ objections.
They claimed that threats, verbal and even physical assaults on the part of the developer have become frequent.
Recently, the developer filed a legal case against some of the residents, asking the court for their eviction.
“He doesn’t have permission to build. He only has permission to talk to us. To discuss the price with us, to resettle everyone, and only then demolish the houses and build. Now without a permit, the construction continues,” Kasanova said.
Resistance grows online
Similar cases across Uzbekistan have given rise to activism.
But, with street protests in the country officially banned and no NGOs supporting property rights, the anti-demolition movement has been growing online.
Farida Charif runs one of several Facebook groups for affected people.
The aim is to approach the battle from a legal perspective.
Charif jokes that on her page, which boasts 20,000 members, everyone is a lawyer these days.
“What is happening now is that the city hall marks pieces of land on the map, they make sure it’s in the city centre, comfortable, and gives them away without any tenders to unknown companies,” Charif said. “According to our legislation, civil construction is not a licensed activity. Any person who has connections and money can open a company, get land and start building a nine-storey house and no one will say anything because he has the right to do so.”
The drive to modernise has at times taken tragic turns, especially in regions far away from the capital.
In July, a businessman in the town of Yakkabog attacked a district official by trying to set him alight in an attempt to prevent his shop premises being demolished. The business owner was arrested while the victim sustained injuries.
A few days later, more than 1,000 people from the Urgench district blocked a road, demanding compensation for their homes which had been demolished in June.
For his part, Hakimov said the Tashkent municipal assets management centre tries to help when there are disputes “as much as we can”.
He added that, while most people agree to demolitions, conflicts arise when residents try and negotiate larger alternative housing from developers.
In response to the events and in a bid to reduce social pressure, President Mirziyoyev signed a decree “to unconditionally guarantee the property rights of citizens and business entities”, to investigate the damage done to citizens during the seizures of land, ensure people receive compensation for lost property and create a roadmap for the future.
Activists say new demolitions have been put on hold, but uncertainty remains.
It is impossible to predict what Tashkent and other cities will look like in several years, but the speed of change raises fears that the country’s unique character could be lost.
Local communities, fear critics, are also at risk.
Traditional mahallas, where all the neighbours know each other and are strongly tied to their places, are being replaced by a new social scheme.
Sitting on a “tapchan”, a traditional Central Asian platform used as a bed, sofa or table, in front of her house, Kasanova wonders if her community will be able to survive the demolition wave.
“It is the East, and people are used to sitting on tapchans. I understand that this may not stay in the city centre, but some areas should remain untouched,” she said. “If I were an investor, I would probably invest in rebuilding traditional communities to retain our unique character.
“This is what is really interesting. As we come to Europe for your culture, so you can come here to explore ours.”