A white sedan pulls up at a busy intersection in downtown Tashkent. The driver lowers the window, a man loitering nearby approaches, the driver hands over a fistful of $100 bills, the man hands over a black plastic bag and the car pulls away.
The use of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest is becoming rarer, but there were indications that adults are being press-ganged into service this year, the World Bank has said in a report.
While offering hope of improvement, the report published on November 20 evinced disquiet about the harassment of independent harvest monitors — a sure indication authorities remain nervous about damage incurred to the country’s cotton public image in recent years.
The findings were based on observations by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which was this year asked to broaden its remit by checking for signs of forced labor.
Claims that child labor is on the wane echoes conclusions from independent campaigners since 2012, when the government banned the practice following a punishing cotton boycott by leading western brands.
“Authorities have taken a range of measures to reduce the incidence of child labor and make it socially unacceptable,” the World Bank said.
The assessment is broadly shared.
Apparent efforts by Uzbekistan to reduce reliance on underage workers prompted the U.S. State Department to promote Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to Tier 2 on its watch list in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report.
The burden of meeting harvest quotas has instead shifted to adults, who are often recruited against their will.
“Large numbers of citizens seem to be willing recruits and see the harvest as an opportunity. But organized recruitment of large numbers of people in such a short period of time carries certain risks linked to workers’ rights, which need further work, and certain indicators of forced labor have been observed,” the World Bank said.
As the economy sputters in Kazakhstan, the government has been forced into a review of the ambitious and costly infrastructure projects it had hoped would prove a tonic for growth.
Providing a fresh and sobering update, economy minister Yerbolat Dosayev told a meeting of the Cabinet on November 18 that it is now expected the economy will grow by 1.3 percent in 2015, down from the earlier forecast of 1.5 percent.
A spike in inflation is also expected as a result of the plunging value of the national currency, the tenge, Dosayev said in remarks quoted by Tengri News. The tenge has fallen by nearly 40 percent against the dollar since the move to a free float in August.
The inflation forecast has been increased to 8-10 percent from the previous expectation of 6-8 percent, Dosayev said.
Kazakhstan’s exports fell by 42 percent in the first nine months of this year, Total.kz quoted Dosayev as saying.
With President Nursultan Nazarbayev ordering belt-tightening to combat the revenue squeeze, Prime Minister Karim Masimov has ordered a review of the vast Nurly Zhol stimulus program, which was approved last year.
All regional governors are to review projects planned under the Nurly Zhol (Bright Path) strategy, Kazinform reported on November 23. Aset Isekeshev, the minister for industry and development, is to report back to the Cabinet with revised plans by March 1.
Security services in Kazakhstan’s capital recently foiled a major terrorist conspiracy, city mayor Adilbek Dzhaksybekov has claimed.
He gave no details of the alleged terrorist plot beyond that it was thwarted four months ago, or in the summer.
“Anti-terror questions are now coming to the fore,” Dzhaksybekov told a law-enforcement meeting in Astana. “The National Security Committee uncovered, literally four months ago, a major clandestine and well-equipped group which was planning terrorist acts in Astana.”
In recent months city residents have reported no evidence of heightened security in Astana, where security is not particularly tight and residents can stroll freely quite close to government buildings on the Left Bank.
Dzhaksybekov spoke of the need to be vigilant in preventing acts of terrorism following this month’s attacks in Paris.
Kazakhstan has not witnessed any major terrorist attacks. It experienced its first suicide bombing in 2011, and that year and the next year the country saw a series of low-level, mainly botched explosions and attacks on law-enforcement officers in which scores – mostly alleged extremists and members of the security forces - died.
In the most serious incident, seven people were killed when a gunman went on a rampage in the southern city of Taraz in 2011.
A man has been jailed on charges of promoting separatism in Kazakhstan — the first time someone has been thrown behind bars for a crime introduced last year, while separatist conflict raged in Ukraine.
The resident of the northern town of Ridder, a stone’s throw from Kazakhstan’s long border with Russia, received a five-year prison sentence for his activities on a social networking website, the Total.kz reports.
Igor Sychev, 26, was found guilty of propagating separatism over an online poll he published in spring quizzing the residents of Ridder on their views of whether their province, East Kazakhstan Region, should secede and join Russia.
The poll was published on the Heard in Ridder forum on Russian social networking site VKontakte, of which Sychev was administrator.
“I did not create the poll, and after there was a complaint the poll was removed,” Total.kz quoted Sychev as saying after the verdict was delivered on November 18.
“I have never engaged nor do I engage in any separatist activity,” added Sychev, who said his “illegal” trial had been conducted “for show.”
Sychev was convicted under a clause criminalizing calls for separatism that was hurriedly inserted into a new version of the criminal code passed last year. The crime carries a maximum 10-year jail term.
As many commentators pointed out at the time, pro-Russian activists fomenting violence in eastern Ukrainian cities like Donetsk and Luhansk could not fail to arouse consternation in Kazakhstan.
Members of the public in Kazakhstan have taken to stripping off and hitting the streets for bets and laughs — and to take showers.
The craze was sparked by a man who walked naked through the city of Oskemen in north-eastern Kazakhstan earlier this month for a bet.
The unidentified young man won the bet with a casual stroll down a main street in the city on November 11 — but ended up in jail for his pains, all for a pair of boots.
“My boots were torn, and I needed some new ones,” he explained to the YK-local news website on November 13, speaking under the pseudonym Adil.
“I was chatting to some friends, and we were talking about shoes. And we had a bet. The conditions were that if I walked naked through the street, they would buy me some boots. If I chickened out, I would have to do something worse.”
He refused to elaborate on what that was, as it was “a secret.”
Adil won a pair of $60 boots from the bet, but the police were not amused.
He was arrested and jailed for 15 days on hooliganism charges on November 17.
Kazakhstan’s septuagenarian leader Nursultan Nazarbayev has issued a heartfelt call for public servants to step aside after 25 years in the job and make way for fresh blood.
The long-serving president did not immediately announce any plans to step down from his own post, which he has held for a quarter of a century.
“It is necessary to establish a clear position on public servants retiring when they reach the legal retirement age,” Nazarbayev — who, at 75, is 12 years past the usual retirement age for men of 63 — told a Cabinet meeting in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
“That’s enough. For 25 years [some public servants] have been holding on … It’s time to go,” he said, without evident signs of irony.
Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989, first as its communist leader under the Soviet Union and then as president of an independent state since 1991.
Under legislation passed in 2010 granting him the title of Leader of the Nation, he is exempt from the usual two constitutional presidential term limits and can stand for re-election for the rest of his life. He was last re-elected in April with 98 percent of the vote.
At the Cabinet meeting, Nazarbayev warned that there was no place for life-long appointees in his country. Senior public servants should not think themselves irreplaceable and stop telling him “stick with me — the next person will be even worse,” Nazarbayev said, in remarks that are assumed not to have been a reference to himself.
For more than two decades, Murod Juraev languished behind bars in Uzbekistan and was subjected to torture and ill-treatment so bad that all his teeth fell out.
All kinds of pretexts were cooked up to extend the political activist’s jail term, including, on one occasion, a charge that he peeled carrots incorrectly.
Now, after 21 years in detention — a timespan that has made him “one of the world’s longest imprisoned peaceful political activists” — Juraev has been released, nine human rights groups said in a joint statement on November 12.
Juraev was a member of the Erk opposition party and a former local mayor in southern Uzbekistan when he was jailed, in 1994.
“The last 21 years have been a living hell that Murod Juraev and his family should never have had to experience,” Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch, said in the joint statement. “The Uzbek authorities should see to it that those who are alleged to have tortured Juraev and arbitrarily extended his prison sentence are promptly investigated and brought to justice.”
Swerdlow was referring to abuse to which Juraev, now 63 years old, was allegedly subjected in jail and to apparently groundless extensions to the original nine-year prison sentence.
Juraev had his jail term extended four times to keep him in jail — in 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2012 — after authorities found he had broken prison rules, including “peeling carrots incorrectly.”
In a signal not all is well, Uzbekistan has posted a slightly below-average economic growth forecast for 2016.
And on the black market — typically a more reliable barometer of economic well-being than the generously massaged government statistics — the national currency, the sum, sank to new lows of 6,000 against the dollar on November 12.
Government figures on predicted gross domestic product (GDP) growth for next year, as reported by the UzA state news agency, suggest the authorities are gradually acknowledging Uzbekistan is not immune from the economic shocks roiling Central Asia.
According to a national budget for 2016 passed by Uzbekistan’s parliament on November 11, GDP will grow by 7.8 percent.
The number ostensibly looks healthy for a region suffering the consequences of low commodity prices and from the repercussions of slowdowns in Russia and China, both major trading partners and investors. To make matters worse, remittances from migrant laborers abroad have been falling steadily, by 14 percent in 2014 and 45 percent in the first quarter of 2015, compared to the same period the previous years, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
But Tashkent has for years stubbornly predicted 8 percent growth and then proceeded to meet its targets precisely. Admission of anything even a whisker below is striking and shows the government is facing up to some of the economic challenges that will translate into slower growth.
Uzbekistan is also forecasting a budget deficit — of 1 percent — for the first time in years. It generally posts a surplus.
The government is sticking to its guns for this year at least and has reported 8 percent growth in the economy over the first three quarters.