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.
Top representatives of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development traveled to Uzbekistan on March 15 for a visit that could have major repercussions for ongoing intra-elite struggles.
According to official statements, EBRD President Suma Chakrabarti and his team will hold multiple high-level meetings with Uzbek officials over their three-day stay.
The dry language of the press releases disguise the political implications.
“We already see several areas of interest, such as regional connectivity and integration, advisory services and finance for [small and medium enterprises], and the financing of green energy and energy efficiency projects,” Chakrabarti said in a statement.
The EBRD has also said it wants to help in addressing the potentially disastrous remnants of the Soviet-era uranium mining and processing industry.
This trip has been in the woodwork for a few months.
As preparation for the visit, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov on February 6 met with Natalia Khanjenkova, the EBRD’s managing director Central Asia and Russia. Khanjenkova said at the time that the EBRD hoped for long-term cooperation with Uzbekistan.
The EBRD’s representative office in Tashkent was opened in 1993. According to gazeta.ru, the bank carried out 55 projects in its time in Uzbekistan, investing almost 900 million euros ($950 million) into the local economy.
Yelena Urlaeva, an activist being held in a psychiatric institution, speaking in a video appeal posted on March 2, 2017. (Photo: YouTube screengrab)
For almost two weeks, one of Uzbekistan’s best-known human rights activists has been forcibly confined to a psychiatric institution in Tashkent, prompting deepening alarm among her supporters.
Yelena Urlaeva, who has fearlessly documented cases of rights abuses in Uzbekistan for decades, was detained by police on March 1 and checked into a hospital against her will, according to her own video testimony. fergana.ru, which has published a petition on its website calling for Urlaeva’s release, reported earlier in the week that the activist has been visited in hospital by representatives from the US Embassy, among others.
Photographer Timur Karpov managed to take a photograph of Urlaeva, which was posted on fergana.ru on March 9, but he was not admitted to see her.
“He was not allowed to see the patient with the excuse that the only days on which visits are permitted are Wednesday and Saturday,” a doctor was quoted as saying by the website.
The renewed harassment against Urlaeva comes as the authorities elsewhere display signs of wishing to soften their ruthless authoritarian rule.
The US Embassy had registered its satisfaction with the recent release from jail of Muhammad Bekjanov, a journalist who served 18 years in jail on likely trumped up charges, and Jamshid Karimov, a journalist, relative of the late president and government critic who had been held in a psychiatric clinic for more than a decade. But that progress has been compromised by Urlaeva’s plight and that of Azam Farmonov, another activist languishing in jail, the embassy noted.
Uzbek Poet Jamol Kamolov, who wrote an appeal to the president criticising the burgeoning personality cult devoted to the late leader Islam Karimov. (Photo: Facebook account, Otamurod Rahmon)
One of Uzbekistan’s best-known poets has made a bold statement criticizing what he sees as the creeping post-mortem cult of personality devoted to the late leader, Islam Karimov.
In a Facebook appeal addressed to the new president, Jamol Kamolov dwelled on the recent adoption of an official resolution recognizing Karimov as the founder of the nation who “liberated the motherland from totalitarianism.”
“For a person who ruled the country for just 25 years and, as you called him, was ‘the builder of the democratic foundations of the state,’ it seems rather excessive to be naming museums, parks, colleges and streets after him, and to be putting up monuments in his honor,” Kamolov wrote.
Kamolov was particularly concerned by proposals to name the airport after Karimov.
“Our state has a millennium of history behind it. On this land we have had many states and rulers. We had the great Amir Timur (Tamerlane). So it is by rights his name that should given to the international airport,” he wrote.
Kamolov, 79, holds the honorific title of People’s Poet of Uzbekistan, which lends his words a certain implied authority, although they clearly go against the official line. His best known works are collected in the the anthologies “Poems” (1982) and “World of Hope” (1988). In addition to writing poetry, Kamolov has also translated numerous foreign classic works of literature, including some by William Shakespeare and Bertolt Brecht, into Uzbek. In 2014, he rendered the Koran into a poeticized Uzbek translation, but that work was not published over objections of the state religious committee.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov posing for a photograph at a horse-breeding center outside Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat. (Photo: Turkmenistan government website)
The president of Uzbekistan’s maiden foreign trip, to Turkmenistan, may prove a valuable exercise in building bridges — well, inaugurating them at least.
For his first visit since becoming leader of his country, Shavkat Mirziyoyev decided on March 6 to pay a visit on his neighbors to the south — a fresh indication that Uzbekistan may seek to revive its often shaky regional relationships at the expense of broader geopolitical alliances.
In line with custom, the trip was marked by a flurry of document-signing.
Mirziyoyev and his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, inked an agreement on economic cooperation in 2018-2020 and a memorandum of understanding on the need to develop railway infrastructure, among other documents.
Turning from word to deed, the two leaders traveled to the northeastern Lebap province on March 7 to attend the ceremonial inauguration of the 1.75 kilometer Turkmenabat-Farap railway and road bridge, which straddles the Amu-Dary River and could conceivably enable greater cross-border traffic. Until now, trains crossing the river coursing along Turkmenistan’s side of the border did so using a bridge built in 1901.
According to a Turkmen state media account, the leaders stood at the banks of the river and watched as traffic traversed the newly opened bridges — trains arrived from Uzbekistan, and in the other direction, trucks carried textiles, fertilizers and other goods.
Ambitious visions on transportation appear to have dominated the visit.
A political journalist in Uzbekistan who has languished behind bars for 18 years has been released in a development that has elicited elated responses from rights activists.
Muhammad Bekjanov, the 63-year old brother of prominent exiled opposition leader Muhammad Solih, was abducted from his home in Ukraine in 1999 and jailed for 15 years on what his supporters say were trumped-up charges of threatening the constitutional order. His sentence was extended by five years in 2012 on the grounds that he had violated unspecified prison rules.
News of Bekjanov’s release was broken by his relatives and Umida Niyazova, head of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
“I am sure that this decision was made at the very top of the Uzbek leadership, and it was the right one,” Niyazova wrote on her Facebook account.
New York-based Human Rights Watch researcher Steve Swerdlow welcomed Bekjanov’s release, while noting that much more remained to be done by Uzbek authorities to address the country’s blemished rights record.
“This is a husband and a father who was literally ripped out of the arms of his family, kidnapped from another country, tortured in the most horrific ways, including psychological, and kept locked away for 18 years simply for doing his job as a journalist,” Swerdlow said in a statement.
Bekjanov was not released by virtue of any reprieve but rather because he had served his original sentence in full, and then some.
“We welcome his release, although it is important to note that he was only released following the arbitrary extension of his prison term in 2012 on wholly absurd grounds and fully served out his extended term. In this case Bekjanov left prison at the end of his term,” Swerdlow said.
When Uzbekistan suddenly decided this week to deny permission for an airline from Tajikistan to land in its capital, it might have been safe to expect an outcry.
Privately owned Somoni Air was due to carry a couple dozen paying passengers for the February 20 flight to Tashkent — the first along this route in 25 years — when it learned permission had been revoked.
Tajikstan’s Asia-Plus reported on January 21 that Uzbek authorities fired off an incensed letter laying all the blame at the feet of the Tajiks.
The letter argued that Somoni Air had filed a request to effect charter flights and not regular scheduled flights. It also claimed it only received the official paperwork authorizing the route on February 19, one day before the flight. That gave the insufficient time to adopt a decision, as the matter had to be considered by security services and air defense officials, the Uzbek letter stated.
And finally, the Uzbek authorities said Somoni Air still had no branch office in Tashkent and that the sale of tickets was accordingly not possible.
This is high bunkum even by the normally lofty standards of Central Asian officialdom.
A date for the Somoni Air maiden flight had been set weeks ago and widely advertised by media in both countries, which makes nonsense of the implication that Uzbek oversight bodies were somehow caught by surprise. As to the sale of tickets, Somoni Air has a website through which that can be done, so even this is unconvincing grounds for rescinding permission to operate. In any event, it is unclear how Somoni Air’s commercial strategy is supposed to be of any interest to Uzbek authorities.
The first regular scheduled flight between Uzbekistan and Dushanbe in 25 years was unexpectedly nixed on February 20 in an embarrassing anticlimax after weeks of anticipation.
Privately owned Tajik carrier Somoni Air said in a statement of apology to its customers that the flight was cancelled on the instructions of the airport in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.
It is not clear what lies behind the cancellation of the flight and this threatens to descend into an all-too familiar round of mutual accusations.
State-run carrier Uzbekistan Airlines has blamed Somoni Air for the impasse.
“Somoni Air did not submit form “R,” which lists all the requisite conditions for completing an international flight. That is the main reason for this flight being cancelled,” a spokesperson for the airline told EurasiaNet.org.
The company promised a full explanation would be posted on its website by the end of the day, but that statement failed to materialize by the promised time.
An estimated 26 passengers had been due to travel on the flight.
Tajik news website Asia-Plus reported that disappointed customers were reimbursed or given tickets for the flight from the Tajikistan capital, Dushanbe, to Khujand. In the absence of a direct link to Tashkent, many people in Tajikistan traveling to Uzbekistan typically make their way to the northern city of Khujand and then cross the border overland.
It had all started so promisingly.
A trial flight between Dushanbe, and Tashkent was carried out on January 10. A total of 56 people, including Somoni Air representatives, journalists and regular passengers, flew on that occasion. The travelers were met with a great fanfare at Tashkent airport.