Kyrgyzstan’s problems probably featured pretty low on Vladimir Putin’s to-do list when he traveled to Tashkent this week.
Some in Kyrgyzstan believe the Russian president, and only he, can end their country’s intractable disputes with its neighbor. There was hope, for example, that Putin could get Karimov to resume gas supplies to southern Kyrgyzstan.
Though Putin had a nice package of goodies for his Uzbek counterpart on December 10 – he wrote off most of Tashkent’s debt and showed support only a few months before Karimov is expected to stand for reelection – it is unclear what he got for Russia.
Per usual, Karimov ducked a press conference. And he did not publically opine on the elephant in the room: Tashkent’s future role, if any, in relation to Putin's Eurasian Economic Union.
One of the items supposedly on the agenda, however, was gas.
The standoff in the Fergana Valley directly involves Russia. Russia’s Gazprom had just taken control of Kyrgyzgaz in April when UzTransGaz said it had no obligation to supply Gazprom. Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city has been without gas ever since.
The meeting failed to produce a breakthrough, Kyrgyz media reported.
Many analysts assume Uzbekistan is using gas to gain leverage over its poverty-stricken upstream neighbor as well as that neighbor's benefactor—Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin discusses weapons sales with his Uzbekistan counterpart Islam Karimov. (photo: Kremlin)
Uzbekistan appears to be increasingly relying on Russia for military equipment as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan without -- as Tashkent had hoped -- handing over some of its secondhand gear.
During Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Tashkent this week, the big news was that Russia would forgive almost $1 billion of Uzbekistan's debt in order to free up new credits for Uzbekistan to buy Russian military equipment.
What equipment might be under consideration isn't yet known, but Interfax suggested that "because of the existing security threats in Uzbekistan, the country may be interested in purchasing helicopters, armoured vehicles, air-defence weapons and small arms made in Russia." Information about arms purchases by Uzbekistan are very hard to come by; the think tank SIPRI, the most authoritative source on arms sales around the world, doesn't list Uzbekistan as having bought anything in the last 12 years.
An anonymous source "close to the Russian delegation" told Deutsche Welle's Russian service that "during the negotiations in Tashkent the expansion of military-technical cooperation was discussed by the delegations in detail." And part of the reason, the source said, is that Uzbekistan isn't getting what it hoped for from the U.S.:
Russia's ruble became worth less than a Kyrgyz som for the first time on December 12. (xe.com)
The Russian ruble crossed a psychological barrier in Kyrgyzstan on December 12, becoming worth less than the som for the first time. Across Central Asia, the ruble’s slide is pushing local currencies to new lows. But they can’t seem to fall fast enough to keep a competitive advantage.
Central Asian economies are deeply dependent on Russia as an export market. When the ruble is weak, Central Asia’s exports are relatively expensive for Russian consumers. So, weaker local currencies benefit the region’s producers. Of course falling currencies also mean inflation, as the price of imported goods from outside the region shoots up—as does the cost of servicing foreign debt. The World Bank projects inflation in Kyrgyzstan this year to top 10 percent. In Tajikistan, food prices rose 10.5 percent in November alone, according to a Deutsche Welle report.
Regional security and domestic politics featured high on the agenda as Russian President Vladimir Putin jetted into Tashkent on December 10 for a meeting with Uzbekistan’s strongman leader, Islam Karimov.
Putin appeared both to be wooing Karimov for backing in his confrontation with Ukraine, and offering a show of support for the incumbent ahead of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Uzbekistan.
It “goes without saying” that Tashkent is “one of [Russia’s] priority partners in the region,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript. That he bypassed other Central Asian allies like Kazakhstan to pay a visit to Uzbekistan lent weight to his remarks.
Karimov responded with boilerplate compliments about how Moscow has “always been present in Central Asia, and that position has always been a stabilizing factor.” Notwithstanding isolationist Tashkent’s habit of holding Moscow at arm’s length, he added that “Uzbekistan has always been open to Russia and is open today.”
Karimov repeated his oft-voiced concerns about regional security threats emanating from Afghanistan following the drawdown of NATO troops this year, but the Ukraine conflict was the elephant in the room. In the Kremlin transcript, neither side mentioned it by name, but Karimov referred obliquely to the need to respond to “challenges” in the face of a “known confrontation,” while Putin noted laconically that neither Russia nor Uzbekistan was “indifferent to how the situation in the region as a whole develops.”
Putin took more interest in upcoming elections in Uzbekistan—the vote to the rubberstamp parliament on December 21, and the far more significant presidential election due in spring (in which Karimov has not stated if he intends to stand).
If Central Asia’s two poorest countries ever get around to building their massive but long-delayed hydropower dams, the facilities may be useful for a few decades. After that, they’ll be rendered obsolete by a fast-warming climate that is melting the region’s once-abundant glaciers and threatens to reduce precipitation sharply.
So suggests an alarming new World Bank report on the effects of climate change around the developing world.
“Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal,” released in late November, offers just about everyone in Central Asia some bad news, especially the region’s megalomaniacal dam builders. In landlocked Eurasia, the temperatures are expected to rise “above the global mean land warming,” bringing a slew of unpleasant consequences, from decreased crop yields to contentious water shortages.
Effects like these are difficult to assess and prepare for even in places with relatively responsible and capable governments. How will they be dealt with by dysfunctional, near-sighted and volatile governments in impoverished, corrupt countries like Central Asia’s?
The 275-page report starts with the informed assumption that an increase in global average temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius by mid-century is unavoidable. It also looks at two more frightening, but plausible, scenarios: an increase of 2 degrees and 4 degrees. (Temperatures have already warmed by 0.8 degrees above pre-industrial levels.)
No matter which model they apply, forecasters predict a dramatic reduction in the size of Central Asia’s glaciers and amount of precipitation. That translates into a sharp decrease in the water flows the largely arid region can expect for hydropower and agriculture.
Senior United States diplomats have visited Tashkent for their regular consultations with the government of Uzbekistan, and in spite of continuing tension over Afghanistan and human rights, the Americans were unusually positive in their assessment of ties with Uzbekistan.
"Had a very productive meeting with President Karimov on the growing bilateral relationship and cooperation on regional and global challenges," tweeted Nisha Biswal, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. "Very impressed by the candid conversations with govt of Uzbekistan and civil society on subject of prison management and prison conditions," she added later. The delegation included 22 American officials from seven different government agencies.
Interestingly, in her public remarks Biswal appeared to have not uttered the words "human rights." The U.S. government has come under frequent criticism from human rights groups for overlooking the country's appalling record on human rights for the sake of strategic considerations. But U.S. officials nearly always meet with human rights activists when they visit the country, and at least mention the issue of human rights in their public statements. (Also unusually, while Biswal held a press conference in Tashkent the transcript wasn't released. The State Department didn't respond to a request for comment.)
The notion that authoritarian governments and their enablers abroad cynically exaggerate the threat of radical Islamism in Central Asia has become widely accepted. But even well-meaning analysts of Central Asia tend to perpetuate similar myths about politics and Islam, two scholars argue in a new report.
The report, The Myth of Post-Soviet Muslim Radicalization in the Central Asian Republics, was published by British think tank Chatham House and written by John Heathershaw and David Montgomery. As it notes, rhetoric of Islamic radicalism is not just words, but "may provide the basis for common threat perceptions, collaboration in counter-radicalization initiatives and international security assistance in the region."
What distinguishes this report from the many other treatments of this issue (on this blog, for example) is that it addresses not just the clearly self-serving exaggerated threats of regional governments, but also more respectable discourse on Central Asian Islam. It takes as its exemplary single case study the reports of the International Crisis Group. "ICG, as a well-resourced, long-standing and respected organization is far less likely to offer misrepresentative analysis than a weaker and less recognized institution. If the myth is found in ICG writing, it follows that it is even more likely to be found elsewhere," the authors write.
International tension over water in Central Asia is growing, but the United States can offer only modest help in preventing conflict, a panel of experts has told a Congressional committee.
The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing November 18, "Water Sharing Conflicts and the Threat to International Peace."
Water conflict in Central Asia takes different forms, from the international (as seen in the dispute between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over the latter's proposed Rogun Dam project) to the local (as seen in recurring border skirmishes between residents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in the Ferghana Valley).
Fresh allegations have emerged of bribery in Uzbekistan’s telecoms market involving another Nordic company and Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of President Islam Karimov.
A cellphone company partly owned by Norway’s Telenor is alleged to have paid some $25 million in kickbacks to acquire telecoms licenses in Uzbekistan, AFP reports, citing the Klassekampen daily.
The funds were reportedly transferred from Amsterdam-headquartered Vimpelcom, the operator of the Beeline brand in Uzbekistan, to the infamous Takilant Limited company, which is at the heart of two separate graft probes in Europe. Takilant is involved in a money-laundering probe in Switzerland (in which Karimova is a suspect), and also a bribery probe in Sweden involving another Nordic telecoms giant, TeliaSonera.
“Bank statements document how the money was transferred from a previously unknown company in the British Virgin Islands as Vimpelcom purchased licenses to the mobile market in the former Soviet state,” AFP quoted Klassekampen as saying.
Telenor responded that it has “zero tolerance for corruption, both when it comes to our own operations and also to the companies that we are part owners in.”
“We are a minority shareholder in Vimpelcom, so it’s up to Vimpelcom to take responsibility for answering any questions that relate to their operations,” Telenor communications head Glenn Mandelid told AFP.
Vimpelcom, which is 33 percent owned by Telenor, told EurasiaNet.org by email that there is nothing new in the information that has emerged.
Uzbekistan’s practice of sending forced laborers to pick the cotton harvest causes a furor abroad every year. But now there are rumblings of discontent from within the country.
National University students have taken the unusual step of publicly complaining about being forced to help with the harvest, publishing an open letter to the prime minister and law-enforcement agencies on the Dunyo Uzbeklari (World of Uzbeks) opposition website.
Third-year male journalism students were ordered to the cotton fields by the rector and faculty deacon, says the letter. It is addressed to Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev; the prosecutor’s office; the National Security Service (SNB); the Higher Education Ministry; and the university rector, Mirzo Mukhamedov.
“Surely the legislation of Uzbekistan does not mention the responsibility of students for taking part in the cotton harvest?” the outraged students (who remained anonymous, no doubt fearing repercussions) ask. “Of course not!”
Students who do not wish to pick cotton could cough up 300,000 sums to buy themselves out, the letter said. That is equivalent to around $125 at the official exchange rate, or two months’ worth of a student’s living grant.
Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest relies on forced labor to help farmers meet government-set quotas.
In 2012, Tashkent – facing widespread international pressure over its widely documented use of child labor to harvest its main cash crop – moved to take younger children out of the cotton fields. However, human rights groups have reported that this merely shifted the burden of forced labor onto older children (including students) and adults. Tashkent denies using forced labor at all.