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.
A quick tip to anybody planning a bank heist in Uzbekistan — make sure your getaway can carry heavy loads.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service has reported on a robbery that took place at a Mikrokreditbank branch ub the western Khorezm region in early April that netted its organizers 16 million Uzbek sum. Though that sounds like a lot, it is a mere $2,560 at the black market rate.
The thieves got into the bank around midnight by disconnecting the alarm system and then cracked a safe containing 45 sacks of cash. Officials told RFE/RL that the robbers loaded the sacks onto a Damas minibus.
Two people have reportedly been arrested for the heist. One of those charged was none other than a local police officer.
“The head of the criminal gang used to guard this bank in his capacity as an officer with the patrol service. The policeman enlisted his unemployed 34-year old brother to take part in the robbery,” a law enforcement official told RFE/RL.
One businessman queried by RFE/RL expressed dismay at the small quantity of money that appeared to be in the bank, which he said confirmed the grave lack of liquidity gripping Uzbekistan. State workers regularly complain of not being able to receive their salaries because of the lack of hard cash in the banks. Others are unable to collect remittances sent from relatives abroad.
While the authorities are remaining mum about the events of the heist, one local journalist in the Khorezm region confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that he too had heard about the event.
He said that the thieves made away with 14 sacks of cash, however, and not 45, as claimed by RFE/RL.
In March, officials from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were at one another’s throats over a border dispute. But a month is a long time in frontier politics.
With moods now significantly calmed, representatives from both countries’ border services met on April 18 to discuss the recent discovery of an illegal cross-frontier smugglers’ tunnel.
Russian state-run news service Sputnik reported that the meeting took place at the “Uzbekistan” border crossing and organized at Tashkent’s instigation.
The underground passage discovered in March led from the village of Burbolik in Uzbekistan’s Altyaryk District to the village of Kyrgyz-Kyshtak in the Kadamzhai district in the Batken region. Sputnik cited Uzbek officials as saying they are still trying to establish who was running the smuggling operation.
Uzbek news website Podrobno.uz reported in March, that the 120-meter long tunnel was built six meters below ground and was around 70 centimeters wide and more than a meter high.
For all those relatively modest dimensions, Kyrgyz and Uzbek officials believe there is almost no limit to the evil that might have been coursing through the tunnel.
“Both sides are studying the possibility that this structure was being used to transport weapons, ammunition, explosives, unconstitutional literature, narcotics and militants,” Podrobno.uz reported.
The likelihood of “unconstitutional literature” — typically a codeword for religious pamphlets — is perhaps the most risible item on the list, since the Internet would be a far more secure way of conveying such material.
Uzbekistan is trying to give farmers a helping hand as the country seeks to lessen its dependence on cotton-growing and find much-needed sources of revenue.
Local media reported last week that as of July 1, companies and private entrepreneurs holding the proper permits could once again begin to export fruits and vegetables by road. The government in September slapped a ban on trucks taking produce out of the country, leaving all but a select few only the costly alternative of getting their wares out by air or railway freight.
Those measures were taken to avoid Uzbek wares being re-exported onward to lucrative markets like Russia by companies in Kazakhstan. In November 2014, deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov told a government meeting that the amount of Uzbek produce being exported to Russia had fallen by 10 percent because of unfavorable tariffs barriers created by the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
That state of affairs in turn led to the creation of various opaque and illegal schemes, Azimov said. Fruit and vegetables were first exported to Kazakhstan, where companies would label the goods as Kazakh and then sell them on to Russia and benefit from favorable tariffs for produce cultivated with the EEU, a bloc that Uzbekistan has resisted joining. That set Uzbekistan the challenge of trying to thwart middlemen in Kazakhstan and dealing directly with Russia.
A video uploaded to Internet showing a police officer in Uzbekistan stamping on a woman’s face has caused a ripple of indignation.
It is unclear who created or uploaded the footage, which has now been circulated more widely by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik.
What can be seen in the short video is a woman lying face up on the ground as she is aggressively addressed by a policeman standing next to her. At one stage the officer stamps on the woman’s face and then kicks her in the head.
Ozodlik reported that the incident took place on April 10 in the Uchtepa district in the capital, Tashkent. The radio station reported that the victim of the maltreatment was 55 years old and that the police officer was called Izzatulla Hashimov.
When Ozodlik contacted Hashimov for comment on the incident, he denied that it had even taken place.
“The police got a report that this woman was disrupting the public peace. She was shouting, running after small children and threw herself under a car. She then lay on the hood of a car. We called an ambulance and the doctors took her away. We later learned that she attacked the doctors as well,” Hashimov said, relating his version of events.
A local resident told Ozodlik that the woman in the incident was well presented and was indeed shouting in the street, apparently in the grip of psychotic fit. A group of people gathered around and tried to calm her down, but to no avail, which is when the police were called.
A citizen of Uzbekistan has been sentenced to 16 years in jail for spying for Tajikistan in fresh reminder of the unabated tensions between the two countries.
The way in which the news was revealed is also telling as each side seeks to sharpen its weapons in a long-standing information war.
On April 4, Uzbek state television aired a documentary titled “Traitor” (“Sotkin” in Uzbek) explaining how Sharifjon Asrorov purportedly collaborated with Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security to pass on classified information.
The information in question was related to the situation in prisons, refugees, and military bases and personnel in the Uzbek regions of Surkhandarya, Kashkadarya and Bukhara, the documentary explained.
The film stated that Asrorov, who it said is married to a woman from Tajikistan, confessed to spying.
Traitor was shown at 9 p.m. local time on the main state channel, although the station’s logo was not featured on the screen during the broadcast.
As a station employee explained, these type of programs are rarely advertised in advance, even to the channel’s management, and regularly bump scheduled shows off the running order at the last minute.
“The film was made by the television production unit of the National Security Service [SNB], which has lately taken to producing a lot of films and television programs about terrorism, drug-trafficking and espionage. In the jargon, this is what we call ‘unscheduled programing,’” the station worker told EurasiaNet.org.
As the television station employee said, editorial staff are never informed about the content of SNB films before they are aired. The feature on Asrorov will likely be repeated.
With nerves on the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border only now dissipating, authorities in Bishkek have embarked on the potentially foolhardy move of helping themselves to four Uzbek-owned resorts at a popular tourist destination.
Local media has been full of the news about embattled Prime Minister Temir Sariyev signing a government order to appropriate the resorts on Issyk-Kul lake on April 4.
The timing is awkward, although it could stand to help Sariyev out of a tight spot.
On March 26, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan pulled back troops from a disputed section of shared border, ending an uneasy week-long standoff sparked by the sudden deployment of Uzbek soldiers and military vehicles to the area.
On balance, it feels like Uzbekistan lost the battle of wits and nerves. It withdrew its forces first from the high-altitude territory without ever properly explaining what prompted it to mobilize its men in the first place.
Still, the episode did momentarily blow some wind into the beleaguered opposition’s sails, so Sariyev may be looking to shore up his position and exploit the patriotic card to forestall an expected vote of no-confidence in parliament.
By all appearances, this looks like an ill-conceived gambit. According to a report by Tazabek.kg, only one of the four resorts seems to be long-term leased to a commercial organization, while the other three were controlled by state-owned Uzbek entities.
The agreements underpinning the ownership of the resorts date back to the Soviet era, when power-brokers in Moscow decided to boost Issyk-Kul’s profile as a place of rest and therapeutic treatments.
Uzbekistan has made another advance in the country’s slow march toward a nominally stronger parliament with the creation of a body to monitor prosecutors.
The Senate, the upper house of parliament, voted during a two-day plenary session that wrapped up on April 1 to approve formation of an oversight commission comprising 15 senators drawn from all the regions.
The creation of the commission is in line with 2014 amendments to the constitution that ostensibly bolster the legislature’s status in its relations with the government and executive bodies.
Other than the General Prosecutor’s Office, other institutions that must now report before parliament include the the Prime Minister’s office, the central bank and the national auditing chamber.
President Islam Karimov spoke about the need for tightening prosecutorial oversight during a December 4 speech to mark to Constitution Day. On that occasion, Karimov also spoke about the need to adopt a law creating the framework for parliamentary inquiries. That legislation was accordingly adopted on March 31.
Explaining the urgency for the bill, Karimov cited the flood of complaints coming in from Uzbekistan’s population.
“Over nine months in 2015, 426 citizen complaints were made about employees in the General Prosecutor’s office. As a result of these complaints, 45 employees faced disciplinary measures, 22 were dismissed from their position, while 33 were dismissed from the prosecutor’s office altogether,” Karimov said.
Even though parliament may gain in stature on paper, the distinction remains a formality since the legislature’s democratic credentials are weak.