Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to score any major diplomatic victories at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Tajikistan on September 12. The Kremlin appears eager to boost the six-state security bloc as its confrontation with the West over Ukraine drags on.
Putin used the Dushanbe summit – also attended by China’s Xi Jinping and the presidents of the four Central Asian members (Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kyrgyzstan’s Almazbek Atambayev, Tajikistan’s Emomali Rakhmon, and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov) – to court international support for his policies in Ukraine.
Speaking after the summit, Putin said that the approaches of the SCO members on Ukraine were “identical and close.”
That looked like wishful thinking, however, given the evident concerns of his Chinese and Central Asian partners over Russia’s apparent military interventions and support for separatism in Ukraine.
Contending with separatist movements at home in Tibet and Xinjiang, China has always opposed what it terms “splittism,” while the Central Asian states – which, like Ukraine, have ethnic Russian minorities – are nervous of Russia’s regional saber-rattling.
The summit ended with the signing of a joint declaration containing a pro-forma call for “restoration of peace in Ukraine” (and a declaration of opposition to “unilateral and unrestricted” deployment of anti-missile systems, in a side swipe at the United States).
Uzbekistan has introduced new no-go areas for bloggers, tightening up a media environment that is already among the most repressive in the world.
Bloggers are now banned from using online platforms for a long list of activities, the Anhor website reported: from calling for the forcible overthrow of the constitutional order to questioning Uzbekistan’s territorial integrity; and from promoting pornography and narcotics to disseminating information inciting ethnic or religious enmity.
Promoting war, violence, terrorism, extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism is also a no-no, under amendments to the law governing IT affairs which came into force on September 5. So is divulging state secrets, and publishing information that may harm someone’s reputation and violate their right to privacy (a provision likely to act as a deterrent to whistleblowers).
The ban on calling for the overthrow of the state and questioning territorial integrity come as Uzbekistan, like other states in the region, appears rattled by the conflict in Ukraine and by Russia’s aggressive expansionist rhetoric. This year has witnessed a spate of online calls for independence for Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan region, and – while the credibility and motives of those posting them under pseudonyms is in question – the material has no doubt raised eyebrows in Tashkent.
The legislation introduces a broad legal concept of a blogger, as an individual posting “generally accessible information of a public-political, socioeconomic, and other nature, including for discussion by users.”
There is no mention of criminal sanctions for those deemed in violation of the law, but the sites they use can be blocked.
Turkmenistan may have become a byword for slow-moving regional rail projects, but a long-planned link connecting the country and neighboring Uzbekistan to the Persian Gulf via Iran appears to have found momentum again.
At a “high level meeting” in Ashgabat on September 3, delegates from the three countries plus Oman and Qatar began ironing out details of a plan first agreed in April 2011, Trend.az reported. That meeting came just under a month after the Turkmen and Uzbek foreign ministers held talks on the project with their counterparts in Oman.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov first proposed the railroad in 2010. For his double-landlocked country, the project assumes a special significance. Some have noted that it could ease exports of Tashkent’s key cotton crop toward markets in the Middle East and beyond. Tashkent is particularly keen to facilitate trade ties with manufacturers indifferent to widespread evidence it uses forced labor to harvest its lucrative cash crop. Last year according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Uzbekistan produced 904,000 metric tons of cotton. Turkmenistan, which produced 327,000 metric tons over the same period, could also benefit from the line.
Gas-guzzling Kazakhstan – where the jeep has long since overtaken the horse as the favored means of transport – has been urged to save fuel, as a months-long gasoline shortage continues to distress drivers across Central Asia.
On September 2 Energy Minister Vladimir Shkolnik urged the people of his oil-rich country to cut back on consumption, suggesting carpooling and downsizing to small cars from the road-hogging jeeps his compatriots favor.
Kazakhstan is entering its third month of gasoline shortages, with long queues forming in many cities at filling stations, some of which have unilaterally imposed rationing.
The minister’s remarks caused a storm of protest on social media, as Radio Azattyq reported, prompting users to question if Shkolnik would be driving his neighbors to work and wonder where all the oil their country pumps is going, if not into their tanks.
As with so many of Kazakhstan’s economic woes these days, the answers to Kazakhstan’s fuel conundrum lies over the border in Russia, where rising prices mean Kazakhstani importers can no longer afford to buy fuel to sell at home.
This is due to the devaluation of the tenge in February, which has priced importers out of the Russian wholesale market, Aset Magauov, head of the Kazenergy industry association told Bnews on August 29. With prices at the pump controlled by the state in Kazakhstan, retail prices fell lower than wholesale prices in Russia, making imports uncompetitive.
Uzbekistan is asking Germany for an increase in rent paid for the use of the air base at Termez, on the Afghanistan border, which the Germans have operated since 2002, according to local media reports. Reports also suggest that Germany is considering helping Uzbekistan expand the airport at Termez.
"Since November of last year there have been negotiations between Tashkent and Berlin on reexamining the status of the agreement on Germany's use of the transit hub at the Termez airport," according to a piece on CentrAsia.ru, widely republished in the Uzbekistani media. "In particular, according to informed experts, the Uzbek side, with the aim of maintaining the infrastructure of this important military-strategic object in good condition, proposes increasing the rent paid for Germany's use of the Termez airport."
The piece concludes: "Continuing to prolong the resolution of the 'Termez question,' Germany risks not only being left with nothing, but also ruining its relations with Uzbekistan, the key government of Central Asia playing an important role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. It seems the Germans don't realize that the money they are trying to save on the rent paid for the use of the Termez airport is not worth the strategic importance that this object has for Germany."
Uzbekistan has taken the rare step of commenting publicly to deny reports that it plans to allow the United States to set up a military base in the country.
The rumors arose after the recent visit to Uzbekistan by the head of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, and the report on a website with good sources in Uzbekistan's government saying that the Austin was discussing setting up a base in Termez, on the Afghanistan border.
The report was implausible in many ways -- it said the U.S. was going to pay $1 billion a year in rent -- but Uzbekistan's government nevertheless saw fit to deny it. "Uzbekistan's laws do not allow to host any foreign military bases on its territory," Adilbek Kaipbergenov, spokesman for Uzbekistan's foreign ministry, told AFP.
The U.S. also denied it: “Gen. Austin has no knowledge of any plans for a possible U.S. base in Uzbekistan,” a CENTCOM spokesman told the Army Times. “He did not discuss any such options with the Uzbeks during his trip.”
The Uzbekistan opposition website uznews suggests that it was Russia's negative reaction to the rumors that may have spooked Tashkent.
Speaking on Russian radio station Govorit Moskva, Ilya Drozdov, a member of the Russian parliament and a CIS and Eurasian integration committee member, stated that if Uzbekistan really did allow the U.S. to re-open a military base, then Russia should throw out all Uzbek migrant workers from Russia. “I think then we need to take strong action at the highest level of government.” says Drozdov,
The head of United States Central Command has visited Uzbekistan as the U.S. works to "rebalance" its policies toward Central Asia, a policy which officials increasingly admit has been excessively focused on security.
General Lloyd Austin, head of CENTCOM, visited Uzbekistan and met with President Islam Karimov among other officials. There was no official word on what the visit was about. Voice of America Uzbek service's Navbahor Imamova, who has good sources on these issues, says that her sources say the visit was "purely maintenance" and included "no basing talk."
That didn't convince everyone, and the Uzbekistan news website uzmetronom reported that Austin was in Uzbekistan to negotiate a new U.S. military base there, and that the U.S. was offering Tashkent a billion dollars a year for the privilege, and that Germany was opposing it behind the scenes. That's all pretty unlikely, but it's interesting coming from uzmetronom; the site is well connected to the country's security services and in Uzbekistan there are obviously strict limits on what can be published. Whatever the reason, the report was of course eagerly picked up by the Russian media.
In March, Austin testified to Congress about the U.S. military's posture in the CENTCOM area, and said this about Uzbekistan:
A cement company owned by Russian oligarch Filaret Galchev appears to have become the latest target of an assets grab by Uzbekistan’s government, sparking speculation that this is part of a re-division of economic spoils following the fall from grace of Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of President Islam Karimov.
A Tashkent court has ruled that the post-Soviet privatization of the Akhangarantsement company – owned by Galchev’s Russia-based Eurocement – way back in 1994 was illegal, and froze assets worth 414 billion sums (nearly $180 million), the company said in a July 29 statement.
The claims of illegal privatization “are of an unfounded and illegal nature, as was convincingly demonstrated in the court hearing,” it quoted Mikhail Skorokhod, Eurocement’s president, as saying.
The assault on the firm was quite sudden, he said: The company found out about the lawsuit brought by the government’s antimonopoly committee on July 16. Hearings started two days later, and on July 21 the court deemed the privatization illegal.
The ruling effectively places the firm – Uzbekistan’s second largest cement producer – back in the hands of the state, a full two decades after it was put into private hands in the post-Soviet privatization rush.
Eurocement – whose owner, Galchev, is Russia’s 24th richest man with a fortune of $6.1 billion, according to Forbes – acquired a 75-percent stake in Akhangarantsement in 2006 and now owns an 84-percent share, with the rest in the hands of minority shareholders.
Islamic militancy is high on the agenda in Central Asia. This week, authorities have handed lengthy prison terms at two unrelated trials in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Six people were jailed for between nine and 15 years on terrorism charges at a mass trial involving 66 suspects in southwestern Uzbekistan. A court in central Kazakhstan jailed four citizens for between six and 12 years for recruiting militants to wage holy war in Syria.
At the mass trial in the city of Qashqadaryo in Uzbekistan, three men and three women were jailed on July 22 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government of the strongman president, Islam Karimov, and propagating terrorism, RFE/RL reported, citing the Tashkent-based Ezgulik (Compassion) human rights center.
In Kazakhstan, the conviction of the four over the Syria recruitment campaign in and around the city of Zhezkazgan, reported by Tengri News on July 22, came as media reports emerged of a new propaganda video showing 16 people believed to be from Kazakhstan (since some are speaking Kazakh) who have headed off to fight in the Middle East.
Authorities in Central Asia have frequently cited Syria-linked threats this year amid a growing number of reports that militants from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are waging holy war in Syria.
A German CH-53 helicopter flies between Termez, Uzbekistan, and Kunduz, Afghanistan. (photo: Ministry of Defense, Germany)
A helicopter from the German airbase in southern Uzbekistan had to make an emergency landing, accidentally setting a wheat field on fire, the German embassy in Tashkent told The Bug Pit.
The episode was first reported by Uzbek media on June 16. The website Union of Independent Journalists of Central Asia said that "a German military helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing after it began to smoke, and a spark from the engine started a field on fire. This caused a negative reaction in the local population."
In a statement to The Bug Pit, a representative of the German embassy in Tashkent confirmed that "a German helicopter experienced engine problems and had to perform an emergency landing. As the helicopter lost some hot parts of its engine, a nearby field of wheat caught fire. Competent authorities are investigating the causes of the accident. Germany is going to compensate the owners of the field." No one was injured, the embassy added.
Reporting on the German base in Termez has been very scant, but it was established in 2002 (shortly after the U.S.'s own base, a little north in Karshi-Khanabad) to support Germany's contributions to the war in Afghanistan, just across the river from Termez. Germany has been paying between 10 and 15 million Euros per year in rent to the Uzbekistan government for the use of the base. In 2006, Der Spiegel reported: