Aleksei Garshin, a 50-year-old activist based in Tashkent, says it was late 2018 when his fellow hunting enthusiasts told him about a secretive resort allegedly built for Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev in a forested highland.
He says he had heard that because of the resort — which locals refer to as the Uzbek president’s “dacha,” though its scale and cost far exceed that of a simple country home — authorities had sealed off the area where the compound was built, known as Shovvozsoy.
“I went to Shovvozsoy in December 2019 to see if this was true,” Garshin, who regularly posts YouTube videos fiercely critical of Mirziyoev, told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service.
Tashkent-based activist Aleksei Garshin in the highlands of Uzbekistan
He and a fellow hunter hopped in a car and took off toward the president’s alleged mountain hideaway, about 100 kilometers away by car, filming their road trip for posterity.
After setting off from the small town of Krasnogorsk, they ran into the first indication that at least one of the rumors was true: a roadblock manned by security personnel who pointed to a “no entry” sign and told them to turn back.
Garshin and his friend proceeded to grill the two guards about why they couldn’t drive on. At one point, a guard tells the other in Uzbek: “How would we know how far he goes if we let him through the roadblock? Tell him that our father’s dacha is over there.”
Many Uzbeks refer to the president as “father.”
The other guard tells Garshin and his friend: “Guys, please leave. This area…. I’ll tell you. This area is protected. Why? Because over there, in the hills, there’s a dacha.”
Garshin responds by saying: “We heard. Our respected president’s dacha.”
“Yes, yes,” the guard responds.
In a new investigation by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, multiple sources with direct knowledge of the Shovvozsoy resort said it was built for Mirziyoev’s use for a likely price tag that three of these sources estimated at several hundred million dollars.
Plans for the project were already under way as early as February 2017, two months after Mirziyoev assumed the Uzbek presidency promising greater transparency and human rights protections following the death of his autocratic predecessor, Islam Karimov.
Construction of the compound, including an adjacent reservoir about which there is virtually no public information, also came at a time when Mirziyoev was directing officials to tighten their belts and use taxpayer money prudently.
Garshin’s efforts to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the Shovvozsoy resort were the focus of two videos on his YouTube channel: one showing his road trip that ended at the roadblock in December 2019, and another in November 2020 in which he rang up several companies involved in the construction of the compound.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service only discovered Garshin’s two videos after having discussed the secretive resort with numerous sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fears of retribution from employers or authorities.
The results of his digging corroborate details about the Shovvozsoy compound that sources independently told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service.
The “no entry” sign that Aleksei Garshin encountered features the logo of Uzbekistan Railways.
Garshin, who has said publicly that he received a threatening WhatsApp message due to his criticism of authorities, says he became determined to figure out exactly how much public money was spent on the Shovvozsoy resort — and whether its construction violated any laws.
He says he had heard from a source that the dam next to the compound had leaked sometime in 2019, the year before the Sardoba Dam in Uzbekistan’s eastern Sirdaryo region burst, leaving six dead and displacing tens of thousands.
“After hearing from an eyewitness that a special reservoir had been built for the presidential dacha and that the dam had a leak even before the Sardoba collapse, I started calling construction companies to get information about the reservoir and the dacha as a citizen of Uzbekistan,” he said.
Garshin made repeated calls to state-owned companies Uzbekistan Railways, which controls the territory on which the resort is located, as well as UzbekHydroEnergo, whose head, Abdugani Sanginov, was involved in the construction of the Sardoba Dam.
Both Sanginov and former Uzbekistan Railways Chairman Achilboy Ramatov, now a first deputy prime minister, are loyal allies of Mirziyoev. Sources told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that both were involved in plans for the Shovvozsoy resort, as were their companies.
Garshin provided reporters with the audio recordings of his calls to these companies, excerpts of which were included in his YouTube video.
His repeated calls to UzbekHydroEnergo in search of answers about who built the Shovvozsoy reservoir led him to Topalang Water Construction, a private company owned by Sanginov’s son that was also involved in construction of the Sardoba Dam, which burst in May 2020.
In the recording, a man who identifies himself as the company’s chief accountant tells Garshin that Topalang Water Construction indeed built the Shovvozsoy reservoir. But he declined to disclose the cost of the project.
UzbekHydroEnergo’s 2018 annual report lists several contracts with Topalang Water Construction’s parent company around the time of the reservoir’s construction, though the nature of the contract is not stated, according to an investigation by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service.
In a statement to RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, UzbekHydroEnergo said it was not involved in the construction, control, or operation of the Shovvozsoy reservoir. A financial record found by reporters shows that an UzbekHydroEnergo subsidiary conducted slope-stability calculation at the Shovvoszoy site.
In a November 3, 2020, call to Uzbekistan Railways, Garshin spoke to a man who identified himself by the last name Tulyaganxodjaev and gave his position as chief specialist of the company’s capital construction directorate.
Asked by Garshin who commissioned the mountain resort, the man responded that the directorate he leads was in charge of building a recreation area in the Shovvozsoy forestland — and that construction was carried out based on a decree by the “cabinet of ministers.”
He claimed that no one is using the facility and that “documents are being prepared for this purpose.”
Garshin then tells the company official: “It is no secret that this facility was built for Mr. Mirziyoev’s personal needs.”
The man on the other line responds: “Yes, apparently you know it. Our people are very good people. They know a lot about things that are secret.”
Asked by Garshin how much it cost to build the resort, the Uzbekistan Railways manager said this figure could not be disclosed.
“The property was built in line with a document that is classified as secret,” he told Garshin.
The roadblock that Aleksei Garshin encountered on his way to the secretive compound known as “Mirziyoev’s dacha.”
Attempts to reach Tulyaganxodjaev at Uzbekistan Railways were unsuccessful. One woman who answered the phone there said he had not worked at the company since the end of 2020 but declined to say why, referring the matter to human resources.
Another person reached by telephone at Uzbekistan Railways said Tulyaganxodjaev had retired but declined to give his age. Calls to the company’s human resources department went unanswered.
Garshin says he believes sealing off large swaths of territory from the general public in order to build a resort for Mirziyoev and his close associates is unconstitutional.
“The taxpayers who paid for these buildings were deprived of the opportunity to go and relax with their families on tens of thousands of hectares of forest,” he told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service.
He cited Article 55 of the Uzbek Constitution, which states that “the land, its minerals, fauna and flora, as well as other natural resources shall constitute the national wealth and shall be rationally used and protected by the state.”
Requests for comment sent to Mirziyoev’s office, Uzbekistan Railways, UzbekHydroEnergo, and Topalang Water Construction went unanswered.