UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has finished a weeklong tour of the five Central Asian states by appealing for them to improve their dismal human rights records. He called on the region’s autocrats to respect civil liberties, at the very least as a means to preserve stability.
“There is no peace without development. No development without peace. And neither is possible without a respect for human rights,” Ban told a meeting of students and officials in Turkmenistan, which campaigners describe as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
Speaking in Ashgabat on June 13, the last day of his tour, Ban pointed to concerns about a “deterioration of some aspects of human rights – a shrinking democratic space” across Central Asia.
Restrictions on freedoms might foster “an illusion of stability in the short-run,” he added, but ultimately threatened to create “a breeding ground for extremist ideologies.”
“Around the world, the way to confront threats is not more repression, it is more openness. More human rights,” he added.
A day earlier, in Uzbekistan, Ban had heeded calls by human rights campaigners to press Tashkent over the issues of forced labor and torture.
He acknowledged progress in eliminating the use of child labor, but urged the government to address “the mobilization of teachers, doctors and others in cotton harvesting,” and also “prevent the maltreatment of prisoners.”
Ban hailed “good laws” adopted in Uzbekistan to uphold the rule of law, but added that “laws on the books should be made real in the lives of people.”
Prominent human rights activist Elena Urlayeva was detained and abused by police while monitoring the Uzbek government’s use of forced labor in its springtime cotton planting effort on May 31, she has told EurasiaNet.org.
Officers subjected Urlayeva, 58, to physical and sexual abuse during her 11 hours in police custody and confiscated a camera on which she had recorded evidence of forced labor, she said by telephone from Tashkent on June 3.
“With some other activists, I was conducting monitoring of forced labor involving medics, teachers, and public-sector workers,” Urlayeva, who heads the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, explained.
The arrest took place when she was interviewing and photographing some doctors early in the morning on May 31 at a gathering point in the small town of Chinaz (60 kilometers southwest of Tashkent) from which the authorities were dispatching healthcare staff to the cotton fields.
When she refused to hand over her camera to officials, police took her to the precinct where “they started to use violence, they hit me on the head.”
Urlayeva accused officers of subjecting her to vaginal and rectal internal examinations (claiming they were searching for a hidden USB flash drive) and other sexually humiliating procedures, including photographing her nude. She was released without charge.
She has filed complaints with the Interior Ministry, the prosecutor’s office, and police authorities over her detention and treatment in custody.
Urlayeva said she believed her arrest “was an attempt to intimidate me … and to put a stop to my activity” monitoring the use of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest.
The administration of strongman President Islam Karimov regularly comes under fire over the use of forced and child labor to reap the cash crop that fills up state coffers.
A court in Tashkent has ordered one of Uzbekistan’s few privately owned newspapers to close, accusing it of undermining the nation’s moral values.
The silencing of the Noviy Vek weekly is the latest blow to the beleaguered media in Uzbekistan, which watchdogs single out as having one of the world’s worst press-freedom records.
“The newspaper was closed down” by court order, Shakhriyor Mansurov, a spokesman for the government’s Agency for Press and Information – which brought the case – confirmed to EurasiaNet.org on May 21, the day after the ruling.
Noviy Vek could not be reached for comment, its telephones going unanswered on May 21. Its website was updated on May 21, but did not mention the case against the newspaper (which is published in print every Thursday).
Mansurov said he was unable to provide any background details to the case. But the Uzmetronom.com website – the only Uzbekistani-based outlet to mention the trial – reported that the government agency had accused Noviy Vek of publishing material “contradicting principles of moral development, shaping an incorrect notion of the socio-political situation in the country, and causing detriment to traditional values.”
The Agency for Press and Information, which had found these alleged violations in the Russian-language newspaper’s reporting, refused to hold the trial in Russian (as the defense had wished) on the grounds that its officials could not speak Russian, Uzmetronom.com said.
Tashkent is reportedly restricting access to dollars for the business community, in the latest development to suggest that Uzbekistan’s government is facing a liquidity crisis.
The National Bank of Uzbekistan has “halted all convertibility operations for an unspecified period,” the Tashkent-based Uzmetronom.com website reported May 20, citing “information from reliable sources.” There was no confirmation on the website of the central bank, which EurasiaNet.org could not reach for comment.
These are the operations through which foreign and domestic companies convert their revenues earned in Uzbekistani sums into dollars, to repatriate earnings and pay for imports.
“Thus foreign investors and local entrepreneurs who depend on supplies from abroad (raw materials, parts, equipment and so on), who could still recently count on at least minimal levels of profit conversion within the limits of the quotas set for them, are now deprived of this opportunity,” remarked Uzmetronom.com (an unusually outspoken website which is believed to be close to Uzbekistan’s security services).
Investors regularly cite convertibility of sums into foreign currency and repatriation of revenues as the main barriers to doing business in Uzbekistan. Privately, businessmen report delays stretching into months to obtain permission from the central bank to convert sums to dollars, during which time they cannot access the funds since they are held in zero-interest accounts at the National Bank.
If confirmed, the suspension of currency conversion would be the latest indication that Tashkent is suffering from a shortage of dollar liquidity as it struggles under exchange rate pressures, caused in part by the depreciation of the Russian ruble (which has hit currencies across the region).
Central Asia faces a gloomy economic outlook for the rest of this year and into next, battered by the tanking Russian economy and low commodity prices, according to a regional outlook released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on May 19. Several countries face double-digit inflation.
“The region has been hit by two major external shocks: the oil price and the slowdown in the Russian economy,” Juha Kahkonen, deputy director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department, told a briefing in Almaty as the forecast was released.
Growth slowed last year and is set to decrease “much more significantly” this year, he said, before recovering “only slightly” next year.
All the Central Asian states are feeling the pinch of the slump in Russia, “which has close linkages with the region through remittances, trade, and foreign direct investment,” the IMF pointed out.
Energy exporters (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) and importers (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) alike are suffering: exporters are battling falling revenues from the drop in global oil and gas prices, while importers are feeling what Kahkonen described as “only a very small beneficial impact” from lower prices because of the long-term nature of their energy import contracts in which prices are set.
Falls in prices for other commodities (gold in the case of Kyrgyzstan and aluminum for Tajikistan, for example) are also biting.
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are also suffering from a drop in labor remittances from Russia, as migrants lose their jobs and the dollar value of remittances falls because of the depreciation of the ruble. This is causing weaker domestic demand in remittance-dependent economies.
The world’s media may be packed with coverage about the 10th anniversary of fatal unrest in the city of Andijan on May 13. But Uzbekistan’s tightly censored press has built a wall of silence about the shooting of protestors by security forces a decade ago.
Headline news in state media on the day of the anniversary covered President Islam Karimov’s tour of urban projects in Tashkent. Private outlets stuck to safe topics such as traffic jams in the capital.
Only one Uzbekistan-based outlet stepped out of line: Uzmetronom.com – a Tashkent-based website which is unusually outspoken and is believed by many Central Asia watchers to be close to the security services – carried a short and loosely worded editorial to mark the anniversary of what it described as the “tragedy” in Andijan.
“Is it worth recalling events of 10 years ago today?” Uzmetronom.com asked rhetorically. “It is, even if only so that they are never repeated.”
The editorial noted the discrepancy between the official death toll of 187 and estimates put forward by human rights campaigners, which run well into the hundreds. It hinted darkly at outside forces stirring the violence and spoke of “ordinary people who naively believed in lofty moral ideals” being “manipulated by cynical and pragmatic leaders” whom it did not name.
I met 25-year-old Akram Rustamov by chance when I was researching a story on the hardships Central Asian migrants face in Moscow, where millions work the most menial jobs.
He was facing serious charges at home in Uzbekistan.
Uzbek prosecutors accuse Akram of recruiting for the “Islamic Movement of Turkestan” (some regional experts believe the group is an invention of the Uzbek secret police), of calling for jihad at home, and of seeking militant training in Syria.
Uzbekistan has used trumped-up terrorism charges for years to jail critics and thousands of others, mostly peaceful Muslims, rights groups say. The regime of Islam Karimov uses the arrests and closed trials to perpetuate fear and legitimize its authoritarian rule both at home and abroad. The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is the latest excuse.
Activist Bahrom Hamroev at Memorial, a leading Russian human rights organization calls the charges against Akram “fabricated and falsified.”
Akram asked me to film his story. He was desperate to prove his innocence.
Spending time with Uzbeks in Moscow, I quickly came to see that many live in fear of something far worse than the nationalist Russian gangs or shady employers I had set out to document.
When one of Akram’s friends – a bulky, confident guy I will call Ahmed – heard us discussing theories that the Karimov regime was behind bombings in Tashkent in 1999, he panicked. If anyone found out, he said, he would be locked up immediately. Ahmed and another friend facing charges similar to Akram’s are so afraid that they have stopped going to work, fearing abduction by Uzbek security services operating in Moscow.
The Pentagon will provide Uzbekistan with patrol boats and vehicles worth up to $6.2 million to help the country in its counternarcotics efforts, the U.S. embassy in Tashkent has announced.
The short announcement didn't detail the number or types of boats and vehicles, but it did say that they will be allocated to Uzbekistan's State Border Protection Committee of the National Security Service and the State Customs Committee.
Security along the Amu Darya river, which separates Uzbekistan from Afghanistan, has long been a priority of U.S. security assistance to Tashkent; even in the period between roughly 2004 and 2012 when military aid to Uzbekistan was restricted due to congressional sanctions, aid and training for border forces continued.
"In early 2007, the Department of Defense sold the Government of Uzbekistan fourteen patrol boats to promote the security of the Amu River, part of which runs along Uzbekistan's southern border with Afghanistan," reported one 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable. "The Border Guards Termez Riverine Squadron maintains and operates these boats, and DOD conducts annual training on the use of these craft. Training includes basic small craft maneuvering, maintenance, shallow river patrolling techniques, night patrolling, interdiction techniques and radar-assisted patrolling."
The thick ice that has long coated relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan continues to thaw. Last week the Tajik parliament announced the establishment of a Tajik-Uzbek “friendship and cooperation group.” Officials have not disclosed details of what this body would do, and the Uzbek side has yet to confirm its participation, but the symbolism is accompanied by growing cross-border links.
The same day, April 24, a delegation of Uzbek border guards led by the chief of the Border Service's General Staff, Major-General Nosirbek Usmonbekov, visited northern Tajikistan to discuss cooperation.
Despite a common 1,300-kilometer border, border guards from the two sides had never before officially met, according to authorities in Khujand, Tajikistan’s second city. The two countries have long been at odds over the border, much of which remains undefined. Uzbekistan has mined sections of the frontier and shootings remain common.
The talks produced a woolly statement, but even that is progress given how poor relations had become. “The parties noted the willingness and interest in further development of cooperation on all issues of mutual interest in ensuring the reliable protection of the Uzbek-Tajik state border,” a press officer for the Uzbek Border Service told Uzbekistan’s 12News.uz.
New data show that Central Asian governments have been right to fear Russia’s economic crisis was heading their way: Remittances from migrant laborers are falling sharply, more than in any other region worldwide.
Migrant remittances are the largest single source of foreign currency in Tajikistan and an important factor in declining poverty rates throughout Central Asia in recent years. So the contracting Russian economy and stricken ruble – brought on by a sudden fall in oil prices and Western sanctions – have a direct impact on millions of the region’s laborers and their families back home.
“Overall, reduced remittances are likely to worsen standards of living in remittance-receiving countries, and the increasing number of returned migrants could put upward pressures on unemployment rates,” the World Bank said in a regular briefing on April 13.
Tajikistan – which sends approximately one-half of its working age males to labor in Russia – is the most remittance-dependent country in the world. Remittances account for the equivalent of 49 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank. In dollar terms, they fell 8 percent last year, largely in the fourth quarter, and are expected to decline another 23 percent in 2015.
Kyrgyzstan is the world’s second most remittance-dependent country, with remittances totaling the equivalent of 32 percent of GDP. Last year they fell 1 percent, but are expected to drop another 23 percent this year.
In Uzbekistan, where remittances total the equivalent of 11.9 percent of GDP, they fell 16 percent last year; they are expected to drop another 30 percent in 2015.