Here's looking at the world's worst economy cabin.
When the countries of Central Asia end up on a list, they’re usually at the bottom (or the top, depending on how you look at it, as in “most-corrupt”). A new ranking is no different: Three of the region’s national air carriers, surprise, have placed among the world's worst.
Business Insider, an online magazine, has ranked economy-class cabins and found the flag carriers of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan offer passengers a “most unpleasant in-flight experience,” measured by "seat comfort, in-flight entertainment, cabin cleanliness and condition, quality of meals served, and service efficiency."
The magazine compiled its list from ratings made available by airline reviewer Skytrax. It then "adjusted each measure to be out of 100, and averaged them to produce a final score that reflects the overall in-flight experience."
The magazine and Skytrax offer little quantitative data to back the rankings, which may lead regular Central Asia travellers to quibble or ask why some of the region’s fly-by-night airlines did not make the list.
Perhaps the judges have never been stranded on the runway in Osh waiting for East OK Avia to fetch them. Maybe the judges who sampled UTair simply met violent deaths. One EurasiaNet correspondent likes to tell a story from Ariana Afghan Airlines: As the plane tilted forward for landing, passengers in the front of the cabin got acquainted with the contents of an overflowing toilet in the rear.
Federal authorities in Idaho have arrested an Uzbek man on suspicion of conspiring with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a Washington-designated terrorist group, and providing the organization with bomb-making training.
The arrest of Fazliddin Kurbanov, 30, comes only weeks after news emerged that the alleged Boston Marathon bombers hailed from the former Soviet Union. It is likely to fuel growing concerns in the United States about terror threats emanating from the ex-Soviet states, which regional leaders are already eager to exaggerate to justify their widespread repression against followers of Islam.
Some media in Uzbekistan have seized the opportunity to link Kurbanov to refugees who found asylum in Idaho after Uzbek authorities opened fire on unarmed civilian protestors in the eastern town of Andijan in 2005. Tashkent has long alleged it was battling Islamic militants that day and has sought to tar the refugees as radicals. But the Uzbek media attempts to make a connection are extremely tenuous.
The Associated Press reports that Kurbanov was arrested May 16 in Boise after a grand jury charged him with "conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization," "conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists," and "possession of an unregistered explosive device." The indictment alleges that Kurbanov provided money and computer software to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) "to be used in preparation for and in carrying out an offense involving the use of a weapon of mass destruction."
After causing a storm of speculation by alleging that Uzbek President Islam Karimov had suffered a heart attack in March, exiled opposition leader Muhammad Solih has said he sees no role for himself in a post-Karimov Uzbekistan.
In an interview with the Moscow-based Fergana News website published on May 16, Solih – who many feel discredited himself with the rumor – insisted his information on Karimov's heart attack and subsequent bedridden condition was accurate and said that Karimov’s appearance looking alive and well on state television several days after the reports surfaced did not contradict his information.
Solih said it had taken his group 15 hours to verify the heart attack and confirm it with "several sources" inside the Uzbek government. "According to our information, the day Karimov suffered a heart attack he had an argument with his daughter, Gulnara [Karimova]," Solih told Fergana News editor Daniil Kislov.
Solih explained that the argument between father and daughter was caused by Karimova’s "frivolous" behavior: Uzbekistan's powerful security service, the SNB, intercepted material compromising Karimova before it appeared in the Russian press to "save the family."
That part is certainly credible: Karimova is a dilettante, an aspiring pop star and fashion designer who posts sultry pictures of herself wearing negligee on the Internet: Enough to embarrass any father.
"And she is partially to blame for his suffering such an attack," Solih explained, "but I absolutely did not think that there would be such a fuss about the heart attack because something similar could happen to anyone."
Participants, including Gulnara Karimova and Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping, at a conference on Chinese-Uzbekistan relations in Beijing. (photo: Center For Political Studies)
Given how prolific she is as a pop star, fashion designer, philanthropist and businesswoman, it's sometimes easy to forget that Gulnara Karimova is also a foreign policy expert. But Uzbekistan's first daughter is a diplomat, political science professor, and think tank head, as well, and it was in that capacity that she traveled to Beijing this week to speak at a conference, with an audience including the deputy Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, on China-Uzbekistan relations. She called Uzbekistan-Chinese relations "strategic" but noted that they face "threats and challenges, according to a press release from her think tank, the Center for Political Studies.
Karimova noted the fact that today there is no doubting the strategic level of Uzbek-Chinese relations. These relations represent one of the systematic components of the structure of security in Central Asia. The cooperation of the two sides in the field of energy security can serve as confirmation of that. Uzbekistan carries out transit of natural gas from Turkmenistan and China, and after the construction of the third and possibly fourth branches of the gas pipeline between Central Asia and China can become one of the major gas suppliers to China.
Karimova paid special attention to the potential threats and challenges, which Uzbekistan and China will face in the near future. Among them, the great risk of Afghanistan turning into a component of Islamist expansionism coming from North Africa and the Middle East, geopolitical processes unfolding in the Asia-Pacific region, the persistent effect of the global financial-economic problems, clashes of different value systems...
Shokir Fayzullayev, chairman of state-run Uzbekneftegaz, says Uzbekistan exports only 20 percent of the natural gas it produces, blaming faulty and aging infrastructure, much of it dating from Soviet times, for increasing domestic shortages. Fayzullayev was speaking at a May 13 press conference ahead of the 17th Oil and Gas Uzbekistan International Exhibition and Conference in Tashkent on May 14-16.
"Despite [gas] resources and quite extensive networks, we have had problems with supplying gas to end consumers, especially in winter," Uzdaily.uz quoted Fayzullayev as saying.
Fayzullayev says gas shortages could end this year with planned work to upgrade networks and better coordination between gas distributors. "The majority of the existing problems will be solved this year,” he said.
But he also blamed customers for the shortages: "We all know there are different consumers: There are honest consumers who make timely payments and dishonest consumers who do not pay on time.”
Uzbekistan produces over 60 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas annually, according to official (and thus not always reliable) data cited by Uzdaily.uz. Most news reports and analysts agree on one thing: Gas output stood virtually unchanged last year, while exports – to Russia and China, especially – increased and are scheduled to keep increasing.
Without ramping up production, how is that possible? Despite Fayzullayev's explanation, many customers – the good ones and the bad ones – are blaming these rising exports for their shortages.
As many as 10,000 people languish in Uzbek prisons for their faith. Once there, they are subjected to another injustice, a religious-freedom watchdog reported this week: They are often denied access to clergy and religious literature.
Oslo-based Forum 18 has collected new evidence that Uzbekistan's brutal penal system prevents prisoners of conscience, and those locked up on dubious extremism charges, from worshipping in prison.
Relatives of Muslim prisoners of conscience told Forum 18 that Muslims "cannot openly pray, or read any Muslim literature – even the Koran."
Forum 18 says that prisoners, both Muslims and Christians, are regularly denied visits by clergy. Even the state-controlled Spiritual Board of Muslims and the state-friendly Russian Orthodox Church have limited access to prisons, while clergy from other denominations have virtually no access, the watchdog said.
An official from one recognized religious group, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals, told Forum 18 that authorities did not allow his clergy to visit or conduct religious ceremonies in prisons. Though the Board of Muslims claimed to Freedom 18 that it has no problem accessing prisoners, it declined to specify when it had last visited any prisoners.
According to recent estimates by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Islam Karimov’s government has imprisoned "as many as 10,000 individuals" for their non-violent Islamic religious affiliations.
With foreign trade already under tight government control, Uzbekistan increased customs duties on a number of foodstuff imports from May 1.
The Novyy Vek newspaper reports that, according to a government resolution signed by President Islam Karimov last week, the import duty on meat products rose from 50 percent previously to 70 percent; on pasta it rose from 20 to 30 percent.
Tashkent, a major supplier of produce to CIS countries, slapped a 50 percent duty on imports of fruit and vegetables (up from 30 percent) and a duty ranging from 10 to 30 percent on fresh vegetables.
The duty on imported beer increased to 100 percent of declared customs value, up from 70 percent. The duty on imported cigarettes jumped from about $18 to $40 per 1,000 smokes.
The new taxes are probably attempts to reverse a trend by encouraging Uzbek shoppers to buy local. According to official figures from the State Statistics Committee, food imports increased by about 19.5 percent to $1.2 billion last year, while food exports fell by 55.9 percent to $884 million.
Food already makes up a substantial chunk of the average Uzbek household’s income. The Korzinka.uz chain of supermarkets prices domestic beef at about $8.50 per kilo and domestically produced sausages at between $6.20 and $8.60 per kilo (at the black-market exchange rate). The average monthly salary is believed to be about $200.
Her father is tough when it comes to religion, but it looks like Gulnara Karimova is now reaching out to Muslims. Could this be, some wonder, a bid to assert herself as an inclusive candidate to succeed her father, President Islam Karimov?
The Uzdaily.uz website reports that Karimova, in her capacity as chairwoman of the Mekhr Nuri (“Ray of Mercy”) foundation, awarded grants to 20 distinguished students from ten (officially sanctioned) Islamic educational establishments in Uzbekistan on May 4.
The ceremony was held in Bukhara Region as part of a folk art festival. The Directorate of Muslims, a state body, provided organizational assistance to Karimova’s charity, Uzdaily said. Uzdaily did not specify the size of the grants, but noted that Karimova pledged to improve infrastructure at Islamic institutions as well.
Embroiled in money-laundering and bribery investigations in Switzerland and Sweden, Karimova, Uzbekistan's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, seems to be spending a lot of her time in Uzbekistan lately. Some observers believe Karimova’s active public life at home, and on Twitter, in recent months is a sign of her growing presidential ambitions as her aging father’s health is questioned.
A little-known Las Vegas-based showman crowned Karimova the "Princess of Uzbekistan" in a recent PR stunt.
But as a potential leader Karimova would inherit the nasty consequences of her father's brutal policy toward followers of Islam.
Members of the U.S. Congress visit Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov in February 2013 (photo: president.uz)
The bombing of the Boston marathon has appeared to whet the appetites of some members of Congress to increase cooperation with post-Soviet governments in taking a strong hand against the threat of Islamist radicals.The House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing on Friday, "Islamist Extremism in Chechnya: A Threat to the U.S. Homeland?" And it provided the opportunity for several members of Congress to tout not just greater security cooperation with Russia vis-a-vis Chechnya, but across the post-Soviet space.
In his opening statement, Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican and chair of the subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, promoted the idea of closer security ties to Russia and Central Asia:
What outside forces have sought to transform the North Caucasus and Central Asia into a region of Muslin extremism which did not exist before?
Greater cooperation with Russia and the governments Central Asia should be explored in order to properly respond to this emerging threat. This part of the world is critical to the future of the human race. If it becomes dominated by a radical version of Islam, it will change the course of history in an extremely negative way.
Later in the hearing, Rohrabacher returned to a theme he is fond of, the notion that the Uzbekistan government's violations of human rights are necessary to maintain security there:
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, two of the world's most repressive dictatorships, came under harsh criticism from Western democracies during the latest Universal Periodic Review hearings at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva this week. But likeminded authoritarian regimes came to their defense, praising the two for "progress" at improving their records in recent years.
The Human Rights Council, made up of 47 UN member states, is examining the progress the two Central Asian countries have achieved since their first review in December 2008. Ahead of the hearings, Human Rights Watch called on the council "to expose and denounce the ongoing repression" in both countries and to exert pressure on them to "end abuses."
“The extraordinarily high levels of repression in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, coupled with their governments’ refusal to acknowledge problems, let alone to address them, underscores the need for a strong, unified message,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Ashgabat and Tashkent need to hear, loud and clear, just how unacceptable their abusive records are, and what specific changes they need to make.”