As an air of economic despondency descends over Central Asia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have decided to eat their way out crisis.
A government meeting in Turkmenistan on August 28 examined areas in which the country might be able to pursue an import substitution policy, which would mean banning imported goods in favor of locally produced equivalents.
Deputy prime minister Palvan Taganov said the bulk of imported goods was accounted for by technical industrial goods, but the state news agency report on the Cabinet discussion gave no details about what those mostly comprise.
Instead, more talk was seemingly devoted to the purportedly more promising area of food imports.
Import substitution was initially touted as Turkmenistan’s ticket out of economic doldrums in a government meeting in April, when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov instructed officials to develop a program on the policy. He also used that meeting to complain of excess spending and the bloated state of the government.
But figures produced by Taganov indicate that if the import substitution agenda is to be applied mainly to food, its benefit will be virtually negligible, if not detrimental in the long term. The policy favors local producers in the immediate term, but typically ends up yielding poor returns to the consumer.
As Taganov explained in his presentation, food accounts for 6.1 percent of imports. The state news agency cited state on four goods and the proportion that the consumption of locally produced goods takes up in the domestic market: fruit juices - 96.9 percent; non-alcoholic drinks - 91.8 percent; tinned foods goods - 87.2 percent; and sausage goods - 61.8 percent.
Uzbekistan Airlines made itself the subject of some quirky international press coverage this week by announcing that it is to begin weighing passengers before flights.
Britain’s Daily Mail pounced on the news to gleefully (and inaccurately) inform readers that the airline would henceforth be banning overweight people from its planes. The newspaper also helpfully produced a photo of a fat airline passenger to illustrate the problem that Uzbekistan Airlines was purportedly seeking to prevent.
In a public relations damage-limitation exercise, Uzbekistan Airlines general director Valery Tyan on August 14 summoned another press conference to clarify his company’s weight policy, Gazeta.uz reported. His comments did have the flavor of somebody digging themselves deeper into a hole, however.
“We fly with you from point A to point B. So that the pilot can calculate speed on takeoff, he has to enter some basic data — how much does the plane weight with fuel, what commercial cargo there is,” he said. “We are just talking about safety and reliable use of the plane.”
The company is sticking to its guns on the weighing policy, but Tyan says it will be a blink-and-miss-it procedure.
“At registration, they will ask you to step onto a conveyor belt. It’s not even a weigh-in. You won’t even know you’re being weighed,” Tyan said, adding that no discomfort would be felt by the passengers.
Tyan was adamant that the procedure was not being put in place to impose extra charges.
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have in close succession come up with a new punishment for people suspected of involvement with terrorist organizations. If official accounts are anything to go by, however, the authoritarian governments are also trying their hand at less harsh measures to attack the intensely hyped specter of Islamic terror.
Uzbek news website Anons.uz has reported that President Islam Karimov on August 10 signed off on amendments to the law detailing when somebody can be stripped of their citizenship.
Under the revised law, the penalty will now apply if a given person “has caused substantial harm to the interests of society and the state by engaging in activities in the interests of a foreign state or by committing offenses against peace and security.” Crimes against peace and stability are interpreted in Uzbekistan as acts that include incitement to conflict and terrorism, or any other activity related to terrorism and mass murder.
The U.S. Department of Defense-funded regional military propaganda unit Central Asia Online, meanwhile, reports on the purported good cop part of Uzbekistan’s anti-terrorism campaign.
The National Security Council, a body affiliated to the presidential administration, is spearheading a program aimed at “debunking extremist ideology, supporting traditional Islam” and “promoting harmony among members of different faiths.”
That such a unabashedly approving report should appear in a service funded by the U.S. taxpayer is a stark illustration of the profoundly confused nature of Washington’s stance on Uzbekistan.
Fatalities have been reported following an accident at a concert in northwestern Uzbekistan over the weekend.
The accident occurred when the railing of a bridge collapsed at a concert in the city of Urgench on August 8, the government said in a statement issued the following day.
The accident was caused by the partial collapse of a railing on a bridge over a lake in the city’s main park, where a crowd had gathered to watch the concert, the Emergency Situations Ministry’s tersely worded statement said.
“As a result, spectators who were on the bridge fell into the lake. There are casualties,” the statement said.
The government statement did not specify the number of deaths or injuries.
An Emergency Situations Ministry official contacted by EurasiaNet.org by telephone on August 10 declined to clarify the number of casualties and said that the government would release further information on the ministry’s website as it became available. The official hung up when asked to identify herself.
An unnamed source in the Emergency Situations Ministry told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that at least 15 people had died and that 17 had been hospitalized following the accident, which occurred at the Youth Lake central park in Urgench, a city of 150,000 people and the provincial capital of the Khorezm province.
RFE/RL also cited an Urgench city hall official as saying that seven people, including five schoolchildren, had drowned in the lake when the bridge collapsed. EurasiaNet.org could not reach city hall for further comment.
When a senior Tajikistan government official declared in July that Uzbekistan had given up on objections to the Rogun hydropower project, it implausibly seemed like a monumental entente had been reached.
Those remarks, made by Tajik Energy and Water Resources Minister Usmonali Usmonzoda on July 27, have proven woefully misleading, however.
Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry on August 1 issued a statement reiterating its total opposition to the project. For clarity’s sake, it reproduced a speech by Deputy Prime Rustam Azimov from last year that concluded with this unambiguous sentence: “Uzbekistan will never and under no circumstances give its support to this project.”
This brewing standoff may come to a head sooner than expected if Tajikistan’s optimistic timetable comes to fruition.
In August, Usmonzoda said Tajikistan plans to commission the first two units of the Roghun plant in the next few years. Ozodagon news agency quoted Usmonzoda as putting that timeframe at three years.
The first units will have a combined generating capacity of 800 megawatts, enough to provide the entire country electricity around the clock, Usmonzoda said.
Tajikistan now has to cope with severe power shortages, particularly in the winter, when electricity is rationed to around 4-5 hours in the morning and the same amount in the evening.
Uzbekistan is taking increasingly drastic measures in the fight against college admission exam cheats by ordering cellphone companies to disable some of their services temporarily.
Local news website Gazeta.uz cited three major mobile providers — Beeline, Ucell and UMS — as saying that they temporarily suspended messaging services for five hours on August 1. The time coincided when school-leavers take their all-important tests that decide their long-term future.
The message-blocking practice is now carried out annually and is intended to thwart crafty students hoping to get assistance from accomplices outside the exam hall.
Rampant cheating has been a feature of exam-taking across the former Soviet Union for many decades. Educational authorities appear to be taking the matter more seriously, although some creative souls try to slip through.
Earlier this year, a student in Kazakhstan schemed to help his girlfriend ace her exams by dressing in her clothes and taking her place. The black wig, skirt, eye makeup and pink lipstick were not enough to fool the invigilators, however. Police were called in, leading to the young man facing charges of fraud.
Exam-takers in Uzbekistan are, like most places in the world, forbidden from bringing in their phone, but that has not deterred the ingenious in the past.
One website, Uz24, explains how some students have circumvented the ban by taking their mobile phones apart and distributing the components in various pockets for later assembly. Others simply hide their phones in toilets or tape them under conveniently located tables, if they know in advance where they are to be seated.
Uzbekistan is planning to introduce a new form of criminal penalty that appears tailor-made to wield against Gulnara Karimova, the disgraced daughter of strongman leader Islam Karimov, in due course.
Parliament is considering amendments to the criminal code that would allow the courts to sentence convicted offenders to house arrest instead of prison or other forms of punishment, MP Aliya Yunusova, told the legal news website Norma.uz on July 29.
House arrest is currently only applied as a form of pre-trial detention, but if the change is passed by Uzbekistan’s rubber stamp parliament — a foregone conclusion — it will be on the statute books as a penalty.
That could theoretically provide Karimov’s administration with a face-saving legal resolution to the saga of the disgraced Karimova, who has been held under house arrest since February 2014 but never charged with a crime (at least to public knowledge).
At first no explanation was given for her detention, but last September prosecutors said Karimova was under investigation on suspicion of involvement in organized crime and corruption.
Her associates Gayane Avakyan and Rustam Madumarov had been convicted in a related case, the prosecutors said. They are believed to be serving jail terms in Uzbekistan.
The two also feature in a Swiss money-laundering investigation in which Karimova is a suspect, which is linked to a Swedish probe into allegations of illicit payments in Uzbekistan’s telecoms sector.
The sudden move to introduce house arrest as a penalty may be a prelude to developments in Karimova’s case, such as filing formal charges against her with a view to bringing her to trial.
General Lloyd Austin and other U.S. officials in Tashkent for meetings with President Islam Karimov on military cooperation. (photo: president.uz)
A senior American military official has visited Uzbekistan to discuss unspecified military cooperation issues.
General Lloyd Austin, the commander of U.S. Central Command, visited Tashkent on July 27 and met with President Islam Karimov and other officials. Uzbekistan's press release on the event said that Afghanistan was the topic of conversation, among other issues of regional security. RIA Novosti, citing "a source close to the negotiations," said the talks focused on the delivery of over 300 armored vehicles that Washington has promised. CENTCOM does not appear to have commented on the visit at all.
All that is fairly routine, and the talks also likely dealt with the possibility of further U.S. military aid that officials in Washington have hinted at. Meanwhile, Russia also recently ratified a deal under which Moscow would write off $900 billion in Uzbekistan's debt in order to open up new lines of credit for military purchases.
When it comes to human rights and Uzbekistan, the news is usually bad.
The U.S. State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, published on July 27, does not buck that trend, but it is notable in recognizing what it says are efforts by Tashkent to reduce forced child labor.
That has prompted the American government to promote Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to Tier 2 on its watch list — a move that has stunned the Cotton Campaign advocacy group.
Cotton Campaign, which has as it aim the end of forced child and adult labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, says the upgrade lets Tashkent off the hook.
“The Uzbek government continues to operate one of the largest state-orchestrated systems of forced labor in the world,” the group said in a statement.
Nadejda Ataeva, president at the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, said in comments carried on the Cotton Campaign statement, that the United States “has effectively sent a message to Uzbek authorities that forced labor of millions of its citizens is cost-free.”
The U.S. State Department paints a grim picture, but offers some ostensibly consolatory remarks in passing:
“Government-compelled forced labor of adults remains endemic during the annual cotton harvest. In 2014, despite a central government-decree banning all participation of those under age 18 in the cotton harvest, local officials mobilized children in some districts. In addition, across much of the country, third-year college and lyceum students continued to be mobilized, an unknown number of whom were not yet 18 years old.”
A dispute among rival outlaw gold miners in Uzbekistan has ended with the death of around 25 people in a blast at an abandoned mine, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service reported on July 17.
Radio Ozodlik reports that the explosion occurred on July 13 at a mine near the village of Kochbulak, around 90 kilometers southeast of the capital, Tashkent.
There has been no official disclosure on the incident, as is typical in Uzbekistan, which has in the past sought to quash all information about major accidents. An Emergency Services Ministry spokesman contacted on July 17 said he was unable to provide any information.
Ozodlik’s unnamed source said villagers from Kochbulak regularly went down a nearby mine in search of gold.
“There was a quarrel between two groups. The losing side set fire to the supporting columns that held up the mine. The masonry fell on top of those that remained inside, some were poisoned by the toxic smoke,” the source told Ozodlik.
A local activist from Kochbulak cited by the broadcaster said rescue workers have recovered at least five bodies.
Illegal mining is commonplace across much of Central Asia _ the result of poor employment prospects and ample disused Soviet-era industrial mining facilities.
Uzbekistan is particularly rich in gold reserves, which are estimated to stand at around 5,300 metric tons, and was ranked the world’s seventh largest producer of the metal in 2014.
The industry remains severely underdeveloped, however, and is dominated by two state-controlled companies _ Navoi Mining and Metallurgy Combinat and Almalyk Mining-Metallurgical Complex.