Tashkent's government buildings are grandiose but redundant status symbols, empty and locked to discourage prying visitors. (EurasiaNet)
Editor’s Note: EurasiaNet.org received this colorful and revealing account from a traveler who wishes to remain anonymous to have the chance to visit Uzbekistan again.
The Washington Post recently described Uzbekistan as the North Korea you’ve never heard of, conjuring images of a country sealed off from the rest of the world. Is that really what it’s like? For many journalists and others it’s difficult to visit. I recently had the chance, on a business trip for a few days. Here are a few fleeting impressions. (The Washington Post was talking about politics – I’ll stick to a traveller’s experiences.)
I’ve never been to Pyongyang or North Korea, but Tashkent is certainly an impressively big, bustling city (biggest in Central Asia, population 2.2 million) with many of the modern trappings of Western urban life: six-lane highways crisscrossing the central district and a (wonderfully old-fashioned) subway system; American-style malls for the general public and upscale fashion boutiques for the rich; and electronic advertising displays at road junctions promoting luxury watch and jewelry brands.
The city’s café and restaurant scene comes across as cosmopolitan: I sipped cappuccino in a coffee shop that could have been in New York given the number of iPhones and laptops (although it was odd that all the Western newspapers on offer were several years old) and I drank in a ‘European’ beer hall, tapping my feet to a cheesy rock band playing Pink Floyd covers, that, at a push, could have been in Prague.
In a twist on modernity, the city center is also full of shiny white marble palaces – government and parliamentary buildings, cultural centers and embassies of other Central Asian countries – that come across as grandiose but redundant status symbols, empty and locked to discourage prying visitors.
The United States's donation of over 300 armored vehicles to Uzbekistan represents the triumph of realpolitik over the promotion of American values, Russian analysts argue.
Last week U.S. officials announced that they were donating over 300 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to Uzbekistan; it will be the biggest ever transfer of American military equipment to a Central Asian country. It was surprising in many ways: American military interest in Central Asia had appeared to be on the wane, and U.S. military aid to Uzbekistan -- one of the worst human rights violators on the planet -- was at a largely token level, with little apparent justification for Washington to change that.
In days since the deal was announced, the response from the region has been muted. No officials from Russia or Central Asia -- including Uzbekistan -- have commented on the deal. But among Russia's Central Asian analyst community, of course, the announcement was big news. Most saw it in terms of the U.S.'s desire to improve ties with Uzbekistan, turning the latter into an American foothold in the region.
Just because Russian officials haven't said anything publicly doesn't mean that they are indifferent, said Daniil Kislov, the Moscow-based editor of the Central Asia news website Fergana News. "The transfer of American equipment to Uzbekistan raised concern among officials in Moscow," he said in an interview with Svobodnaya Pressa; the headline of the piece was "The U.S. Will Encroach On Russia From the South."
An MRAP vehicle, of the type the U.S. is donating to Uzbekistan, undergoes testing. (photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
The United States is donating over 300 armored vehicles to Uzbekistan's military, American officials have announced. The deal, the largest ever transfer of military hardware from the U.S. to an ex-Soviet Central Asian states, comes just three years after Washington lifted a ban on weapons exports to Uzbekistan because of the country's poor record on human rights.
In an interview with the Voice of America's Uzbek service, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Central Asia Daniel Rosenblum said that the U.S. is giving Uzbekistan 308 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, along with an additional 20 support vehicles.
The possibility of the U.S. donating MRAPs has been discussed for some time now, but it's usually been framed in terms of getting equipment the U.S. discards as it pulls out from Afghanistan. That won't be the case with these vehicles, however, they are instead being delivered from the U.S. and other American military bases abroad under the Excess Defense Articles program, the standard way that the U.S. military gives leftover equipment to allies. Uzbekistan's government is paying the cost to ship them to Uzbekistan, Rosenblum said.
The U.S. has given Central Asian states some used gear under the EDA program in the past, notably patrol ships to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and utility helicopters to Kazakhstan. But this dwarfs any of those transfers. It's not yet clear what variant of the MRAP Uzbekistan will be getting, but the DoD has valued most of the MRAPs it's given away lately at about $100,000 each, which would make this deal worth over $30 million.
The International Monetary Fund has revised downward its forecast for growth in Central Asia and the former Soviet Union to account for dramatically lower oil prices and the shriveling Russian economy. The region’s poorest countries can expect sharply higher inflation.
The assessments are part of an economic update released January 21 in Washington.
For energy importers like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the IMF says, any gains from lower oil prices are overshadowed by weakness in Russia, Central Asia’s largest trade partner and the destination for millions of Central Asian labor migrants. The IMF projects Russia’s economy to shrink 3 percent this year due to “geopolitical tensions” (the Kremlin’s adventure in Ukraine) and sharply lower prices for its chief export, oil.
Already the Central Asian countries are reeling from the 45 percent drop in the value of the ruble against the dollar last year. Kyrgyzstan’s currency, the som, lost 17 percent against the dollar, even as the National Bank spent hundreds of millions of dollars defending it. Oil-exporter Kazakhstan devalued the tenge by 19 percent last February and another downward adjustment appears imminent. Turkmenistan’s manat dropped 19 percent on January 1.
Tajikistan spent over half its hard-currency reserves in 2014 defending the somoni, the Central Bank said this week. Yet the rumpled somoni still fell 11 percent and is bound to plunge further as remittances – which make up the equivalent of half of Tajikistan’s GDP – shrink.
Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are among the world’s dictatorships benefiting from the services of lobbyists in Europe’s corridors of power, a new report alleges.
“Repressive regimes outsourcing their diplomacy to public relations firms, lobbyists, and front groups, is increasingly big business in Europe,” claims the study by the Corporate Europe Observatory, a campaign group that seeks to “challenge the privileged access and influence enjoyed by corporations and their lobby groups in EU policy making.”
It singles out the regimes of Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan – which uses a host of international PR firms, including that of former British prime minister Tony Blair, to buff its international image – and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan – which benefits from the services of a powerful European trade lobby with links to the country’s controversial cotton sector – as among the beneficiaries.
Nazarbayev’s “strategic use of PR and lobbying, particularly via Tony Blair’s network of influence, has to be one of the most successful examples of a dictator whitewashing his image,” the report claims.
Tony Blair Associates says its work for Astana on a multi-million dollar contract since 2011 “focuses on supporting political, economic and social reform.” Critics say it is more about spinning the regime’s atrocious human rights record—including tips on how to handle the international fallout from the fatal shooting of protestors in 2011.
Central Asian governments are failing to address problems posed by violent radicalization, instead encouraging a growing number of Central Asians to take up arms in Syria and Iraq on behalf of the Islamic State. So says a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), “Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia.”
Estimates of the number of Central Asians currently living in the Islamic State (IS) vary. The ICG calls Central Asian government figures “conservative” and instead gives greater credence to Western officials’ counts, placing the number between 2,000 and 4,000—most from the “long-rebellious” Fergana Valley.
Poverty, migration, marginalization and state repression push Central Asians to join radical groups, the report says. But the Islamic State also provides “a meaningful alternative to post-Soviet life.”
The report debunks the myth, oft championed by Central Asian regimes, that it is only young, poor and uneducated men who have travelled to Syria and Iraq. Instead, the ICG documents the broad appeal that the Islamic State has in the region. Jihad appeals to rich and poor, educated and uneducated alike.
Many fighters are recruited through family networks, with as many as 20 Tajiks from one village departing together in September 2014. A commitment to holy war, the report argues, is the main reason that Central Asians are drawn to the Islamic State.
One unique aspect of the report is its focus on the growing number of women who join radical Islamic groups. Although many women travel to be with their husbands in Syria and Iraq, some go alone. ICG interviewed one woman from a group of four preparing to go to Syria. She told the researcher: “[Our husbands are] against religion, against Islam. My friends do not want to live with them anymore.”
Three shootings took place on three different sections of Central Asian frontier over the weekend, highlighting how violence-prone the region’s porous borders have become.
The first incident, at a Kyrgyz border post near Tajikistan, left one border guard dead and two wounded. A private has now allegedly confessed to killing his superior in the January 16 shooting, Kloop.kg reports.
Conditions for junior soldiers in Central Asia’s militaries are notoriously abysmal, with senior officers meting out physical abuse and sometimes requiring their underlings to perform in slave-like conditions. So fragging is not inconceivable.
Two days later, Kyrgyz border guards shot a man they describe as an Uzbek hunter who crossed the border illegally, with two others, and opened fire. The Kyrgyz Border Service says it has handed over the wounded man to the Uzbek authorities, which apprehended the other two when they retreated back home. (Update: An Uzbek official later said Kyrgyz border guards had illegally crossed into Uzbekistan and illegally seized the hunters' rifles before retreating.)
Also on January 18, on the drug-saturated Tajik-Afghan border where shootings are common, a Tajik conscript was shot by drug smugglers, Tajik authorities say.
Four of the five Central Asian states have failed to meet basic fiscal transparency standards, according to the U.S. State Department’s latest Annual Fiscal Transparency report. The study does not appear to affect whether a country receives U.S. government funding, however.
In addition to ascertaining whether countries meet State’s minimum standards (such as publishing receipts and expenditures in publicly available national budget documentation and bidding and contract information for natural resource extraction), the study assesses progress—or lack thereof.
Published by the Office of Monetary Affairs since 2008, the report only includes “those governments it anticipated would receive bilateral allocations of assistance” in fiscal year 2014. The latest version of the report was released January 14.
This year, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were all judged to have made “no significant progress” toward meeting minimum fiscal transparency standards, joining 35 other countries in that category. Overall, 50 fell below the minimum-standards threshold.
Kyrgyzstan, which has harnessed international assistance from USAID and other donors to improve public access to state budgets was judged to have met minimum transparency standards for the second year running.
In 2012, Tajikistan made significant progress toward the benchmark. It has slipped over the last two years, however.
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which routinely rank at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, have never glittered in this report.
Whether or not Vladimir Putin bribed Uzbekistan, as a Bishkek newspaper claims, it is welcome news all around that Uzbek gas is once again flowing into southern Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan is happy because 60,000 customers in a potentially restive part of the country aren’t relying on dung to heat their homes; Uzbekistan again has revenue from the cross-border gas trade; and Russia, whose energy giant Gazprom promised a constant supply of gas when it bought Kyrgyzstan’s gas distribution network last year, gets to save face.
But the sudden resumption of gas deliveries from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan on December 30 begs two related questions: Why wasn’t a deal reached earlier, after Uzbekistan abruptly cut supplies last April? And what made the recalcitrant Uzbeks change their mind?
Kyrgyz newspaper Vechernii Bishkek, citing an unidentified Kyrgyz government source, claims it knows the answer to the second question.
The source told Vechernii Bishkek today that no less a figure than Russian President Vladimir Putin negotiated the gas deal during a December 10 meeting with his counterpart Islam Karimov in Tashkent. Karimov, according to this account, pushed Moscow to forgive $3 billion of Uzbek debt (oddly, that’s much more than the $890 million other media reported Uzbekistan as owing). In the end the Kremlin agreed to write off $865 million.
Tajikistan's armed forces are setting up a new base near the Afghanistan border in response to the apparent massing of fighters on the Afghan side of the border.
The base, to be called "Khomiyon," will be in the Kulyab region. "Tanks, armored vehicles and other weaponry" will be deployed to the base, which "units of all security structures of the country will be able to use for conducting maneuvers," reported RFE/RL, citing a source in Tajikistan's Ministry of Defense. While there is no "immediate threat" from the Taliban fighters apparently massing near the Tajikistan border, Dushanbe still chose to take "preventative measures," the official said.
(Technically, the facility is not a "base" but a "polygon," a Russian word suggesting something smaller than a base, though the report also noted that the polygon would operate "under the regime of a military base.")
An unnamed source in Tajikistan's State Committee on National Security (GKNB) told the Russian news agency TASS that "groups not controlled by Kabul" have massed on the Afghanistan side of the border.
"We are closely tracking the situation close to the border of Afghanistan, especially in the Badakhshan and Pyanj areas, where intelligence has noted a gathering of armed individuals, coming from various extremist and terrorist communities like the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan," the source said.