Every year the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan creates a storm of controversy over the use of forced and child labor. But a damning new report by a German-based watchdog sheds fresh light on the scale of human rights abuses.
Forced labor during the fall harvest “decimated” public services as teachers and doctors were driven into the cotton fields, while the cotton-production system itself rests on “rampant, widespread and systematic corruption,” said the report by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) published on April 13.
The forced-labor system “took an even greater toll” in 2014, it said, “as the government mobilized more public sector workers than in previous years, decimating the provision of essential public services such as health care and education.”
The UGF, which gathered data from human rights monitors and interviews with people who participated in the harvest, found that – as in previous years – Tashkent’s efforts to stamp out child labor had shifted the burden to adults, including students.
Some 4 million adults were pressed into the harvest last fall, the Cotton Campaign (a coalition pushing to end forced labor in the sector, of which the UGF is a member) has estimated.
Schoolchildren and younger students were not mobilized en masse in 2014, the UGF report found. However, “many” 17-year-olds were, “and in some regions local authorities forcibly mobilized younger children […] to meet quotas assigned by the same central government authorities that simultaneously decreed children should not pick cotton.”
Uzbekistan’s currency is sliding on the black market, where the dollar-sum rate is volatile following last week’s presidential election.
The black market rate hit a record high of 4,700 sums to the dollar on April 2, the Uzmetronom website reported.
It has since fallen back and was trading at 4,220-4,270 on April 6, a source in Tashkent told EurasiaNet.org. The sum has thus lost between 5 and 7 percent of its value since the presidential election on March 29, when it was trading at 4,000-4,100 to the dollar.
The divergence between the official and black market exchange rates has grown exponentially in recent weeks: Traditionally, the sum has traded for around one-third more on the black market, but the gap is now around 66 percent. The National Bank of Uzbekistan is selling dollars for 2,540 sum, according to its website.
One possible explanation for the sum’s decline is that it is mirroring the trajectory of Russia’s ruble, which has caused currencies across Central Asia to plunge in value. A drop in remittances sent home by labor migrants in Russia owing to the economic crisis there is another possible reason: Remittances from Russia to Uzbekistan fell by 15.5 percent last year, according to data recently released by Russia’s Central Bank, which means fewer dollars circulating in the economy.
Uzmetronom speculated that the currency was just settling at its real market value, and predicted that the rate could hit new highs of 5,000-5,500 sums to the dollar by summer.
Military transport aircraft lined up on the runway at Termez, Uzbekistan. (photo: Google Earth)
Just months after reaching an agreement to extend the presence of the German air base in Uzbekistan, the two sides are back at the negotiating table, with Uzbekistan again reportedly demanding a big rent increase.
Last November, the two countries agreed on terms to keep the base at Termez, on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border, operating. No details of the agreement were released, including its price and expiration date, but Uzbekistan media reported during those negotiations that Tashkent was trying to raise the rent, which had been between 10 and 15 million Euros per year.
Now, according to a report in the German magazine Der Spiegel and picked up by Deutsche Welle's Russian service, the rent is 35 million Euros -- and Uzbekistan wants to raise it to 72.5 million Euros annually starting next year. The newspaper reports that a German delegation is traveling to Tashkent this week to discuss the base lease extension.
The Termez base provides support to German soldiers in Afghanistan, and while the formal combat mission there is over, Germany has 850 troops (as of February 2015) in the NATO follow-on mission to support the Afghanistan security forces.
Incumbent strongman Islam Karimov has won a universally predicted landslide with over 90 percent of the vote in Uzbekistan’s competition-free presidential election, according to preliminary results released by the Central Electoral Commission the day after the vote.
The 77-year-old incumbent swept to victory with 90.39 percent of votes cast, electoral commission chairman Mirzo-Ulugbek Abdusalomov told a briefing on March 30. Turnout, he said, was 91.08 percent.
No one had doubted Karimov would win a fourth term in an election in which he faced only three stalking horses. Akmal Saidov came a distant second with 3.08 percent of the vote followed by Khatamzhon Ketmonov with 2.92 percent, while Narimon Umarov trailed last with 2.05 percent. Karimov’s margin of victory was slightly smaller than the 90.76 percent he won last time, in 2007.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued some damning preliminary findings on March 30, singling out issues ranging from Karimov’s flouting of the constitution, a lack of real competition and widespread proxy voting.
“The figure of the incumbent dominated the political landscape without genuine opposition,” the OSCE said, adding that Karimov did not enjoy the legal right to stand in the election he has now won: “Despite a clear constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms, the Central Election Commission registered the incumbent as a candidate in contravention of the rule of law, raising doubts about its independence.”
An unseasonal blizzard in Tashkent did not affect turnout during Uzbekistan’s presidential election on March 29, with incumbent strongman Islam Karimov galloping to victory in a one-horse race.
“I voted for Islam Karimov. He’s a good man,” said railway worker Rustam after casting his ballot (like other interviewees, he declined to supply his last name). “We know him and we don’t know who the others are.”
Rustam was summing up the mood prevailing among voters, who overwhelmingly say they back Karimov and know little about the other three candidates: Khatamzhon Ketmonov, Narimon Umarov, and Akmal Saidov.
These stalking horses, widely believed to be standing in the election to create a semblance of competition, have effectively been campaigning for Karimov, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in findings released ahead of the vote.
The iron rule of the 77-year-old president – who has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989 – may come under fire in the West. But it wins praise at home among voters subjected to a constant barrage of propaganda praising their leader. “I voted for Karimov. He keeps a tight grip on things,” said pensioner Hassan approvingly.
Human rights campaigners have criticized the election for offering voters in Uzbekistan (where no genuine opposition parties exist and dissenters are routinely jailed) no real competition. They also charge that Karimov is flouting the constitution – which limits presidents to two terms of office – by standing for his fourth term.
Troops from Russia and Uzbekistan are helping Turkmenistan guard its border against militant incursions from Afghanistan, an Turkmenistani exile website reports, citing residents of border areas.
According to the report on Chronicles of Turkmenistan, "residents of Afghan border villages have recently noticed the presence on Turkmen territory border units from Uzbekistan." And it added: "About a month ago military instructors from Russia also appeared on the border. Obviously, the Turkmen authorities appealed to the Russian leadership for help guarding the border with Afghanistan, a situation where, with the arrival of warm weather, has begun to heat up."
Turkmenistan has been taking various aggressive steps to address the rise of Taliban and (some claim) ISIS units in the northern provinces of Afghanistan bordering Turkmenistan. Those steps reportedly include mobilizing reserve troops and carrying out incursions into Afghan territory. However, they have seemed to be trying to prosecute the fight on their own, without any other country's help.
The report of Uzbekistani and Russian troops is obviously sketchy information, and there's nothing to corroborate it. But the news comes as Turkmenistan has begun to come under some public (and undoubtedly private) Russian cajoling to let Moscow help. Just last week, a top Russian security official complained about Ashgabat's refusal to cooperate with Moscow on Afghanistan security issues.
Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman leader Islam Karimov, has been making international headlines for years amid charges of massive bribery and corruption. But fresh evidence unearthed by an anti-corruption watchdog suggests her avarice reached mind-boggling scales as she vacuumed up cash from telecoms companies wanting a slice of Uzbekistan’s lucrative cellphone pie.
Karimova received over $1 billion in payments and shares from Scandinavian and Russian telecoms companies such as TeliaSonera, Telenor, MTS, and Alfa Telecom, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) alleged in a report published March 21.
“Her audacious schemes may have cost the people of Uzbekistan money that could have paid for pensions or healthcare but instead went into banks, an offshore hedge fund and luxurious real estate around the world, including a castle in France and a penthouse in Hong Kong,” the OCCRP stated.
The watchdog was skeptical of the defense put forward by telecoms firms that they did not knowingly commit any wrongdoing: “While the international companies involved claim to have been innocent or unwilling dupes of her maneuvers, the blatant means by which Karimova allegedly operated made it virtually impossible for those involved not to realize they were giving in to extortion and bribery.”
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev meets with CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha in 2014. (photo: akorda.kz)
Russia is disappointed in the unwillingness of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to cooperate with its collective security bloc, and considers Iran to be a model those countries could follow, a senior Russian security official has said.
Uzbekistan quit the bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, three years ago. Turkmenistan, avowedly neutral, has never been a member. (The other three ex-Soviet Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – all are, as are Armenia and Belarus.) But Russia continues to make overtures, said CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha.
“To my great disappointment, today we have practically no working relationship with either Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, although from our side there have been repeated proposals to cooperate,” Bordyuzha said in an interview with Kazakhstani journalists. “We're not talking about the need to join the CSTO, about giving up their sovereignty. We're only talking about one thing: let's unite the efforts of the special services to jointly fight against common threats, which we're confronting today, let's talk about the possibility of offering aid from the CSTO collective forces in case it's needed. But there has been no response from either Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.”
“Why not cooperate with an organization that contains respected governments: the Russian Federation, with its military potential and military-industrial complex, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan -- all countries which are always ready to provide help?” Bordyuzha continued. "To me, we simply have to cooperate, especially considering the processes going on in the world.”
Three Central Asian men have been arrested in the United States and charged with conspiring to support the Islamic State. The charges underscore the threat of lone wolf attacks by people inspired to fight for the Islamic State without ever having traveled to the Middle East, American officials say.
The three live in Brooklyn, New York, news agencies reported.
Akhror Saidakhmetov, 19, of Kazakhstan, was arrested February 25 when boarding a flight to Turkey, the Justice Department says. Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, 24, of Uzbekistan, had purchased a flight to Istanbul for next month. Thirty-year-old Uzbekistani citizen Abror Habibov was arrested in Florida and accused of paying for Saidakhmetov’s efforts.
According to the New York Times, Juraboev and Saidakhmetov are permanent residents in the US; Habibov had overstayed his US visa. All three remain citizens of their countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, however.
It is unclear how many Central Asians are fighting for IS in Syria and Iraq, or if the suspects had any connection to compatriots there.
Investigators used a paid, confidential informant who posed as a sympathizer to record conversations between two of the men.
In those comments, Saidakhmetov allegedly said that if he were unable to travel to Syria, he would “just go a buy a machine gun, AK-47, go out and shoot all police,” Reuters reported:
Uzbekistan’s guardians of moral values have imposed a curfew on Internet cafes in Tashkent, which they believe are perverting the nation’s teens, encouraging them to view material “contradicting our national mentality.”
According to new rules issued by the Tashkent mayor’s office, Internet cafes and computer clubs must close by 9 p.m., with immediate effect. City hall says the curfew is needed because of the existence of “clips, pictures, sites, and films advocating aggression, brutality, and immorality, which exert a negative influence on minors and are one of the main causes of the increase in the number of crimes among young people.” As a further reason, the decree cites “the increase in the number of Internet cafes and computer clubs” in the capital.
The decree (which was passed on February 18 and came into force as it was published on February 25—just ahead of a presidential election next month) also banned minors from being in Internet cafes in school time or “at a late hour” without the presence of a parent or adult guardian. It did not specify what was meant by a “late hour,” but that is evidently before 9 p.m.
The decree also imposes a sweeping – and hard to define and enforce – ban on the existence “in the establishment’s computer memory” of any material “advocating immorality, religious extremism, [and] nationalism in the form of computer games, or their use through the Internet.”