In advance of the May 9 holidays to mark victory in World War II, the Russian Embassy in Uzbekistan is getting busy distributing St. George remembrance ribbons to the public.
In the first few days of May, anybody wishing to do so can drop in on the mission in Tashkent can pick up their distinctively orange-and-black striped ribbons free of charge.
The ribbons have become a frequent sight of late; either pinned to people’s clothes or tied onto car fixtures.
But not all Uzbeks support the initiative.
Last year, for instance, Uzbek journalist and founder of a literary online portal Davronbek Tozhialiyev and political commentator Anvar Nazirov were outspoken in their opposition on social media.
“The St. George’s ribbon is a symbol of colonialism. This order was bestowed on Russian soldiers and officers for their victory over Muslim Turks in the 18th century. In the 19th century, the award was given to those who conquered Central Asia,” Nazirov told EurasiaNet.org.
Tozhialiyev and Nazirov last year applied to the Interior Ministry and the Tashkent city administration to ask for a ban on wearing the ribbon and associated public events, but to no avail.
But on May 9, even though Tashkent authorities had given the event no formal approval, a local chapter of the Immortal Regiment, which brings together people all over the world wishing to mark the Soviet victory over the Nazis in the war, marched through the city. Around 200 people took part in the event.
The Immortal Regiment movement was created in 2012 in the Russian city of Tomsk and has organized May 9 marches in 15 countries since that time.
Security services in Uzbekistan have for the last few days been ordering the closure of internet and computer gaming cafes across the country in what appears to be an attempt to clamp down on suspected extremist religious activity.
One such internet cafe visited by EurasiaNet.org on Navoi street, a main thoroughfare in the capital, Tashkent, was found under lock and key. An employee at the establishment said that officers with the National Security Service, or SNB, arrived on April 19, disconnected the internet connection and ordered immediate closure of the building.
The same scene has been playing out across Tashkent and beyond.
The manager of one internet cafe, Rasul, said that SNB officers at his place spent a long time inspecting his servers and printers.
“My colleagues have said that in some internet points there were some people printing out leaflets belonging to the the banned religious group [Hizb ut-Tahrir] and that this was happening after the terrorist attack in Sweden, which was done by a citizen of Uzbekistan,” said Rasul, who declined to give his surname.
The deadly truck attack in Sweden earlier this month that left four people dead has refreshed concerns about Uzbekistan’s perceieved susceptibility to radical Islamist-inspired violence. Uzbekistan has claimed it passed on information about the man accused the attack to Western security agencies in 2014 and is seemingly intent on being seen to take active measures to further stamp out any manifestations of radical Islamic beliefs.
Most internet cafe workers questioned by journalists in Tashkent have declined to offer any details about their situation out of concern for the safety.
Internet cafes have been in the crosshairs before.
Uzbekistan has said that it is considering restoring journalistic accreditation for the BBC, signaling a possible opening to greater international exposure.
Almost all international media were drummed out of the country following the bloodshed that ensued after the crushing of the Andijan uprising in 2005.
Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov said on April 14 that an application from the British broadcaster has been received and that work on accreditation is ongoing. It has not been confirmed if the accreditation request has been granted.
Kamilov said at a press conference that Uzbekistan is interested in seeing a greater number of leading media outlets represented in the country. He did not specify, however, to which outlets he was referring.
The possibility of the BBC resuming its Uzbekistan operations is particularly surprising in view of a recent incident in involving the head of the British broadcaster’s Central Asia service, Hamid Ismailov.
Ismailov flew into Tashkent on March 1 but was detained and ordered out of the country on the same day.
Opposition-leaning news website eltuz.com had reported that the Foreign Ministry was sent a list in early February containing the names of people set to visit with a BBC delegation. Ismailov was reportedly on that list.
Along with other broadcasters, like RFE/RL and Voice of America, the BBC had an office in Tashkent until May 2005, when the Andijan events occurred. Uzbek authorities argued at the time that international media had inaccurately covered the events in Andijan.
The prohibition remains strictly enforced, as the US State Department noted in its recent country human rights report.
The police force in Uzbekistan is set for a reorganization that looks in part designed to balance power away from the security services. Authorities claim the reform will enhance rights protections, but activists are skeptical.
On April 10, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed off on a decree that officials say will represent the largest shake-up of the police in the nation’s history.
The reform is intended on paper to tackle a dense web of problems including the burdensome and inefficient structure of the Interior Ministry, the lack of channels for communication with the public and the non-existence of a complaints mechanism.
Several departments are to be created or revamped; one will be tasked with liaising with the underage children and youths, another will be a dedicated criminal investigations department. And then there is a plan to create a department for the protection of human rights.
Maybe the most politically curious aspect of the reform will see the police increase its involvement in anti-terrorism activities. That domain is traditionally the preserve of the National Security Service, or SNB in its Russian initials, the successor agency to the KGB and the seat of much, if not most, of the country’s power.
Mirziyoyev is ostensibly drawing on public support for his shake-up of the Interior Ministry. Ever since a virtual comments and complaints box was set up on the presidential website, a deluge of people have been in touch — many of them to grumble bitterly about the excesses of the police. From September to December alone, around 218,000 messages were lodged with the website.
Russia’s energy behemoth Gazprom has revealed the amount it is paying in a mid-term deal for the delivery of natural gas from Uzbekistan, and it is not very much.
RIA-Novosti reported on April 12 that Gazprom Export, an affiliate of the Moscow-based company, said its five-year contract to supply 4 billion cubic meters of gas annually from 2018 is worth a total of $2.5 billion. That translates into $125 per 1,000 cubic meters delivered.
The deal struck at the start of April has been cast as historic for how long it runs before expiring — long enough to ensure some certainty of cash transfers in economically uncertain times, but not so long as to make the hedge feel semi-permanent. Gazprom has historically favored calculating gas supply agreements in Central Asia in decades rather than single years.
Despite that spin, the deal evidently signals a noteworthy withdrawal by Russia from the Central Asian market. Gazprom bought 6.2 billion cubic meters of gas from Uzbekistan in 2016 and is buying only 5 billion cubic meters this year, so the five-year deal represents another drop.
And Gazprom has recently reiterated that it has no intention of resuming gas supplies from Turkmenistan.
As to the question of why Gazprom is buying the gas when it has more than enough of its own, the explanation is offered succinctly by Mikhail Krutikhin, an analyst with RusEnergy, writing in Russian weekly magazine New Times.
Uzbekistan’s president came away with some eye-catching investment deals with Russia from his state visit to Moscow this week, but the less flashy talks on labor migration may have represented the most important achievement of all.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s visit to Russia on April 4-5 marked his third trip overseas after Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan — a sequence that is telling about the new leader’s foreign policy priorities.
One of the first documents to emerge from the government-to-government meetings involved an agreement to create a clearer and more formal process for Uzbeks to resettle in Russia for short-term work contracts. Representatives offices will be established in one another’s countries to assist Uzbek migrants.
While this seems like a largely arcane bureaucratic fix, it actually represents a historic step for Uzbekistan, which has, perversely, never since gaining independence actually formally recognized the existence of labor migration.
This is not to say that Uzbek officials are not aware of the fact that their fellow citizens go abroad to work. On the contrary, in 2013, the late President Islam Karimov alluded at length to such people, only to refer to them as “lazy people” who “disgrace all of us.”
Even the concept of unemployment is barely acknowledged in Tashkent. The official unemployment rate is around 5 percent, which is a figure that bears no proper scrutiny.
Karimov’s remarks were particularly offensive in view of the vast amounts of money Uzbeks in Russia inject back into their home nation’s economy.
Indeed, Russia’s Central Bank noted last month that money transfers by individuals in Russia to Uzbekistan had hit $2.74 billion in 2016.
In a potentially seismic break from custom, state television in Uzbekistan has begun broadcasting news bulletins live to air instead of pre-recording the programs.
Dia.uz News website reported that the first such bulletin to be aired in this way was the Ahborot (“News”) program shown on Channel 1 on April 4 at 2 p.m.
This sudden change of policy comes on the heels of criticism about the standard of news programing from President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The president said at a government meeting on March 30 that state television and radio stations needed overhauling — he singled out Uzbekistan and Yoshlar TV stations and the Ahborot bulletin for particular condemnation.
“The time for cheerleading is over. What we need on television are critical and analytical materials. People should be waiting for these programs with a sense of anticipation,” he said.
It was Mirziyoyev that specifically suggested the news should go out live.
Naturally, the remarks themselves were extensively reported on state television and then in other media.
Ahborot broadcasts every day in a 20-minute slot. On Sunday, a wider-ranging, hour-long analytical version of the program is aired.
The presumed purpose of allowing news programs to air live is that it will limit the scope for censorship and grant reporters greater freedom to run potentially problematic reporting. How it will actually play out, however, is another matter, since broadcasters are liable to simply censor themselves in the process of production instead of the edit.
But it is evident that Mirziyoyev is eager to circumvent certain branches of his own government — the security services first and foremost — and engage more directly with the general public.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev meets with Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana on March 23. (Photo by Kazakhstani Presidential Press Services)
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has hailed what he described as the fall of barriers dividing his nation and Uzbekistan since the ascent to power of Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
The two met for high-spirited talks in Astana on March 23 that focused as much as anything on mutual admiration.
“Only in the last five months, or the fourth quarter of last year, trade turnover between our nations increased by 30 percent on both sides, and that includes new goods. Four trading houses have opened, there is 30 percent more grain, and Uzbek fruit and vegetables deliveries have increased by 25 percent,” Nazarbayev was cited as saying by Tengri News. “This is thanks to how the new leadership in Uzbekistan has opened all opportunities to trade and lifted barriers.”
Nazarbayev could barely contain his ebullience.
“There are no unresolved issues between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan — not territorial, not with the borders, not with politics or the economy. We are free, like a blank page that is to be filled with good deeds that will benefit our nations,” he said.
It is worth recalling that Nazarbayev was an early champion of regional integration in Central Asia — an instinct sniffily mistrusted by Mirziyoyev’s late predecessor, Islam Karimov. Historians of the region may remember that in the wake of the Soviet disintegration, in 1994, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan formed the Central Asian Union, which later became the Central Asian Economic Union (1998) and then the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (2001). In no form did the grouping ever become anything more than a talking shop, as Annette Bohr explained in a May 2004 paper.
An earlier version of this story offered a regrettably inaccurate snapshot of the state of remittances paid by migrant laborers from Russia to Central Asia in 2016.
Contrary to what was asserted in that report, remittances have not been rising but mostly falling.
As stated before, the Russian Central Bank did note this week that money transfers by individuals to Uzbekistan had hit $2.74 billion in 2016, but this actually represented a drop not a rise, since the figure for 2015 was $3 billion.
Second place among cash transfers made from Russia to former Soviet states is taken by Tajikistan. The figure for remittances in 2016 was $1.9 billion — a global figure smaller than Uzbekistan, but one that accounts for a far greater proportion of the nation’s economy as a whole. This is a fall from the previous year, when it was $2.2 billion.
In third place in Kyrgyzstan, with $1.7 billion. Now, this is an improvement, from the $1.5 billion recorded in 2015
This picture affects the prior evaluation of the figures somewhat, and indeed in a way that makes more sense.
One obvious takeaway is that Kyrgyzstan’s decision to join the European Economic Union may indeed be starting to bear some scanty fruit, since the uptick in the inflow of remittances is likely connected to the greater ease with which Kyrgyz workers can now settle in Russia for employment.
Child labor in Uzbekistan usually brings cotton fields to mind, but the reality is that work in the countryside accounts for a small part of the problem.
Recent efforts by law enforcement starkly illustrate the issue.
Police in the capital of Uzbekistan have said this week that in the first two months of 2017 they took 1,400 children who moved from the regions to find work in the city off the streets.
The bulk of those children were reportedly engaged in such menial labor as tugging carts at markets or working in carwashes. Officials cited by RFE/RL’s Uzbek service say the children detained in these sweeps have been sent to centers for the support of underage children.
Poverty and unemployment in rural areas forces many families to resort to sending school-age children to look for some form of income in urban areas, where work is more readily available. The perceived advantage of having people so young undertake the task is that they are less susceptible to harassment from the police and usually are not forced to pay bribes. And since many of them do not even have internal passports, even basic document checks are often impossible. In families where the father is living abroad, a child is often the only person in household able to generate any kind of income. Employers are also more likely to take on workers who will agree to the lowest salaries possible.
According to former policeman Aibek Muminov, children often prove highly adaptable and move from one city to another with ease.