The harvest for Uzbekistan’s perhaps most famous export, silkworm cocoons, has begun in earnest and with the usual concern for rights violations that the ancient industry brings with it.
Silkworm breeders gather vast amounts of cocoons every year — as much 26,000 tons in 2015, according to official figures. That puts Uzbekistan in third place in global silkworm cocoon production, behind China and India.
Some aspects of the harvest season are reported upon in earnest by state media. UzA news agency carried a report from one of the main sources of the commodity, in the Bukhara region.
“Silkworm breeders in the Jondor district of Bukhara region plan to harvest 419 tons of this valuable material,” UzA reported on May 24.
The main official in charge of a raw silk gathering facility, Naim Sodikov, said supply agreements have been signed with 290 farming enterprises.
But as the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights revealed in a recent report on the silk industry in Uzbekistan, the business relies on forced labor that often deprives farmers of deserved levels of income.
“The central government establishes cocoon production policy, prices, and annual silk production targets, and requires regional- and district-level officials to ensure targets are met. Local officials use coercion, including threatening farmers that they will lose their land, to force farmers and public-sector institutions to fulfill annual silk quotas,” the report stated. “Farmers, in turn, oblige family members, including children, or pay local laborers to assist in the cultivation of silkworm cocoons to meet required production quotas and avoid penalties.”
College students in some of Uzbekistan’s largest cities will start their holidays early this year.
Staff at colleges in Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand and Urgench were told this week that summer holidays will start from June 9 to make way for preparations ahead of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization heads of state summit scheduled for June 23-24. Semesters normally finish on June 30.
In order to make up for the lost time, courses will be accelerated and graduate theses have to be handed in early. Exams are also being brought forward, which means there will be a lot of cramming to do.
“Students that have not already finished their thesis will have to be helped by the lecturers. By June 10, students from the regions will be required to vacate their institutes. This means we will have to work through the weekends,” a lecturer at a pedagogical institute in Tashkent told EurasiaNet.org.
Students appear to be taking the news in their stride and some are even happy since this means they will get to go home earlier. Discount tariffs on train and plane tickets are being provided for students having to return home.
This situation will affect most of the country’s 74 institutes of higher learning — 34 of which are in Tashkent.
The government is working flat out to prepare for the SCO summit.
An employee with a bank in Tashkent told EurasiaNet.org that since Uzbekistan is experiencing a period of liquid shortages, the bulk available ready cash has been going toward completion of roads and other infrastructure in preparation of the summit. Tashkent has been seized by a flurry of reparation works and tree- and flower-planting to prepare for the event.
Uzbekistan has for the first time in its history opened a college devoted exclusively to the study of Uzbek language and literature.
The Alisher Navoi University, which was created at the behest of President Islam Karimov, will be constituted of three faculties teaching Uzbek philolology, Uzbek literature and language, and Uzbek and English translation.
The UzA state news agency reported that the university would help to improve the quality of Uzbek language instruction and teaching materials.
Such efforts should be understood as a slowly evolving undertaking to inculcate a distinct national identity that has been evolving since Soviet times.
Uzbekistan adopted a law elevating Uzbek to the official state language back in 1989, when it was still constituent republic of the Soviet Union.
Independence only intensified the adoption of the Uzbek, a process that was accompanied by the gradual displacement of not just Russian but also the Cyrillic alphabet. In September 1993, a law was passed to formalize an Uzbek alphabet, which was based closely on the Latin script. That alphabet was fine-tuned in 1996 and remains in use to this day.
That was only the latest of many chapters in the convoluted history of the written language in Central Asia, however — one that has had the unfortunate of repeatedly rendering large sections of the population functionally illiterate. The written word in the region, before the Soviets codified what came to be identified as the Uzbek language, was transcribed in Arabic script. The Latin alphabet was brought in by the mid-1920s only to give way, under Russian influence, to Cyrillic in 1940.
The value of Uzbekistan’s national currency spiked sharply over the weekend in a development that some have linked to the unfolding corruption scandal involving GM Uzbekistan.
Traders on the black market in the capital, Tashkent, were buying dollars for around 5,500 sum on May 15, up from around 6,400 sum in the days before. They were selling dollars for around 6,000 sum. Rates in the capital typically set the pattern for the rest of the country.
The sudden change in fortunes of the sum has come as something of a shock to small and medium-scale businesses.
Umid, a market trader who rents a small stall from which he sells ice-cream, drinks and fast food snacks, said that he pays $400 in rent every month.
“For me it’s good when the exchange rate is low, since I have to spend much less on buying dollars. The question I have is: How long is this going to last?” Umid told EurasiaNet.org.
Firuze sells clothes imported from Turkey at her stall at the Ippodrom wares market. With the dollar rate dropping, Firuze said she had decided to close up shop for a while.
“The drop in the exchange rate is profitable to those that earn their money in sum, but those who make their money in dollars don’t see any benefit,” she said.
The speculation in Tashkent markets is that the sudden change in the fortunes of the national currency is somehow related to an ongoing corruption scandal involving senior management at carmaker GM Uzbekistan — a joint venture between Uzbekistan’s UzAvtosanoat (75 percent) and US giant General Motors (25 percent).
Prior to the scandal, GM sold some of its cars in dollars, which drove up local demand for the US currency. Now, however, payment is made in sum, which has led naturally to a fall in the desirability of the dollar.
In an attempt to lure local Internet users away from out-of-bounds social media websites, Uzbekistan has launched its own equivalent of Facebook. Another one.
Davra.uz was launched last week at the annual USENET-2016 digital marketing conference in Tashkent, technology website ICTNews reported.
The website’s creators claim Davra.uz will marry the latest communication technology with local traditions.
“But the creation of this new social network caused quite some controversy among the audience [at USENET-2016],” ICTNews commented. “There is an emerging view that social networks have lately given considerable way to messaging software in terms of popularity, so why create another social media platform when they could create a new messenger?”
Indeed, if anything, Uzbekistan has something of a surfeit of social media websites.
According to the government’s IT development center, UZINFOCOM, there are 38 domestic social media platforms registered in Uzbekistan, although only eight are actually active.
The local market leader is Muloqot.uz, which has around 172,000 users, following by Myjob.uz, a local variant of LinkedIn with 60,000 members. In third place there is an educational portal, Ziyonet.uz, with 57,000 subscribers.
In fact though, most people in Uzbekistan continue to use foreign websites like Facebook and an analogous Russian website, Odnoklassniki. The Uzbek user base for Odnoklassniki is the largest in Central Asia.
By some estimates, up to 2 million people in Uzbekistan access Odnoklassniki on a daily basis. There are around 7.5 million registered users in the country.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbekistan service has reported that a doctor found guilty of accidentally infecting more than 140 children with the HIV virus has been given her old job after serving a five-year jail term.
According to the Ozodlik report on April 30, Oliya Shodiyeva was jailed in 2008 for the mass infection, which occurred while she was acting as deputy to the head doctor in a hospital in the Ferghana Valley town of Namangan.
Ozodlik based its report on information provided by an unnamed doctor in Namangan.
“At the end of last year, she returned to work and within a short period of time and with the help of her acquaintances, she was reinstated to her old job,” the source told Ozodlik.
The broadcaster said at least 15 newborns out of the 147 infected children died after contracting the virus.
Prosecutors found at the time that doctors had failed to sterilize catheters, had reused disposable syringes and needles for taking blood samples, and also had falsified sterilization records and later destroyed evidence.
Twelve hospital workers were sentenced to prison for 5-8 years. Nine other medical employees from district hospitals in Namagan region were investigated. In 2010, another group of doctors in the nearby city of Andijan were also charged with infecting patients with HIV.
“Among those jailed for the mass infection [in Namangan] was our head doctor and his deputy, Shodiyeva, who got five years. At that time they also fired the head of health service for Namangan. Many of the doctors are still doing time,” Ozodlik’s source said. “It is unclear how [Shodiyeva] could have been reinstated after so many children were infected with HIV.”
The shortage of cash and salary delays in Uzbekistan have now started reaching the capital, Tashkent.
With April over, many working for state companies in the city are complaining they have yet to see payments for even February and March.
A teacher at a Russian school in Tashkent, Alina, told EurasiaNet.org that she last received a wage packet at the end of February.
“We complained to the headmaster, but he just said that there was no money in the bank, so we just have to wait. We don’t earn that much money — around 700,000-900,000 sum ($120-150) — and still they have the gall to delay payment,” said Alina, whose surname has been withheld. “A lecturer at the teacher training college said that they started getting their pay on their bank cards in January, but that they have seen nothing for two months. Earlier, this only used to happen out in the provinces.”
An employee with InfinBank in Tashkent told EurasiaNet.org that all available ready cash is going toward completion of roads and other infrastructure in preparation of a major summit expected later this year.
The hard cash problem is nothing new for Uzbekistan. The scale of the problem became apparent when a leaked letter written last April by the deputy head of the Central Bank and addressed to Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev revealed there were insufficient funds to cover state salaries, pensions and benefit payments.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed this week during a visit from Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov to Moscow, Russia has lost its top trading partner status with the Central Asian nation for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Unsurprisingly, it was China that took that title in 2015 after it did $3 billion worth of trade with Uzbekistan. And that was even lower than in 2014, when the figure stood at $4.7 billion.
As Putin noted ruefully, the fall was down to the currency devaluation brought on by the slump in global prices for oil.
“Russia occupies the second place among external trade partners for Uzbekistan. Our share in Uzbekistan’s external trade is 17 percent,” Putin said on April 26, according to a Kremlin transcript.
It’s not all bad news for Moscow though. The volume of bilateral goods trade has actually increased in the first quarter of this year, by 7.9 percent.
According to Russia’s Federal Customs Service, Russia’s trade with Uzbekistan in 2015 hit $2.8 billion. Uzbekistan has a substantial trade deficit with Russia, importing $2.2 billion worth of goods, while exporting $602 million in 2015.
Uzbek political analyst Kamoliddin Rabimov said that although the nominal drop in trade was indeed down to the collapse of the ruble, the overall trend was unmistakeable.
“The scale of the trade turnover between China and Uzbekistan has become so big that we will see it, mostly likely, only continue to increase. Russia is gradually losing its economic presence in Central Asia to Russia, and that is notwithstanding the fact that countries in Central Asia have not entirely opened their doors to China,” Rabimov said.
The shift inevitably bears geopolitical significance as well.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. (photo: Kremlin)
The presidents of Russia and Uzbekistan met in Moscow with security high on the agenda. And while the two agreed on the need to cooperate to deal with the deteriorating situation Afghanistan, they publicly disagreed on how to do it.
President Islam Karimov's visit to Moscow was closely watched, given that he rarelyleaves the country and that his increasingly isolationist foreign policy has long been a thorn in Russia's side.
But in Karimov's meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, both sides agreed that they needed to work together in Afghanistan. "In our discussion we were primarily concerned about priority aspects of our bilateral relations, and first of all the situation taking shape in Central Asia," Karimov said in a joint appearance after the meeting. "Above all, this concerns, of course, the situation in neighbouring Afghanistan, [which] could create a serious threat of the instability spilling over to neighbouring countries and regions."
And Karimov argued that Russia needed to be part of the solution in Afghanistan. "Everyone knows geography, and knows that Central Asia’s ties with Russia go back centuries, if not millennia. We clearly feel Russia’s interest in Central Asia, and we agree with this," he said.
But the two differed on strategy. In particular, while Putin praised the importance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (and has repeatedly called for it to play a bigger role in Afghanistan), Karimov, speaking after him, pointedly argued that the SCO should not be involved in Afghanistan:
Russia’s soft power influence over Uzbekistan has increased in recent years with the soaring number of students looking to enter Russian universities.
Looking to capitalize on that, a group of universities have been holding educational fairs in three cities of Uzbekistan — Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara — over the past week. The final two-day fair will conclude in Bukhara on April 27.
Russia’s ambassador to Uzbekistan, Vladimir Tyurdenev, said that more than 4,000 Uzbek students had entered institutes of higher education in Russia in the 2016 academic year, according to a report by Sputnik on April 22.
Opening the Tashkent fair, Viktor Shulika, the head of the local branch of Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian state agency ostensibly intended as an analogue of USAID, said that interest among Uzbek youths wanting to study in Russia has been increasing fast.
There are currently 21,642 Uzbeks studying in Russian colleges. In 2015 alone, 24 colleges in Russia admitted 10,572 pupils from Uzbekistan. Almost 2,000 have received Russian state scholarships.
Russian colleges do admittance tests directly in Uzbekistan and the competition is intense.
Vladimir Vasilyev, rector of the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics, told EurasiaNet.org that fees at his college cost 50,000 rubles ($700) per year, or 65,000 rubles for those doing their studies long-distance. But strong performers in admittance tests can qualify for financial support.
“Those that get scholarships can get stipends worth around 15-16,000 rubles per month,” said Roman Savchenko, a representative for the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics.