When you think of cotton and forced labor in Central Asia, you probably think of Uzbekistan. But a new report offers a reminder that Turkmenistan continues to force thousands of citizens into the cotton fields each autumn against their will.
On January 21, Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) released its assessment of the 2013 cotton harvest (by email): “Tens of thousands” of Turkmen, many of them public sector employees, were forced into the fields during the harvest. "Forced labor is still widely practiced throughout the country," the report – authored in collaboration with the Cotton Campaign, an international advocacy group – said.
The findings support reporting last autumn from Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen Service, which said that teachers were shepherding their students to the cotton fields on an "unprecedented" scale, with girls as young as 10 spotted picking cotton.
ATN describes a feudal system wherein government officials lease cotton plots from the state and then force their underlings to perform the manual labor. Like in neighboring Uzbekistan, the farmers (in this case the officials) then sell their harvest to the government at low prices. The government then sells the raw cotton abroad at market prices, says ATN:
We have information that shows that in the majority of cases, when the regional employees of the social sector are used as cheap laborers, the land is owned not by local farmers, but by high-ranking state or regional officials. These officials rent out land under the names of their wives, children, other family members, etc., however they do absolutely nothing by way of harvesting cotton on their land; many of these officials do not even live on this land or even in the region where the land is leased. [...]
Customs officials in Uzbekistan say they have stopped 20 luxury cars stolen in Europe from transiting to neighboring Tajikistan over the past year.
The vehicles, including BMWs and Range Rovers, are worth approximately $1.5 million, the State Customs Committee said in a January 4 statement. Tajik citizens had shipped the cars by rail from the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania with forged registration documents. According to the customs service, Interpol has confirmed the vehicles were stolen.
The announcement comes two weeks after German officials alleged that associates and relatives of Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rakhmon, are driving some 200 luxury cars swiped from the streets of Germany. Investigators said they traced many of the vehicles with their built-in GPS location-tracking systems.
That purloined autos are plying Tajikistan’s roads has long been an open secret in Dushanbe, the capital. Western officials there often complain that their Tajik counterparts are unwilling to address the problem. Indeed, mounting frustration may have led officials in Berlin to leak the embarrassing accusations.
Tajik authorities deny the German accusations. A spokesman for Rakhmon called them “provocative and untrue.” The Foreign Ministry said any blame must rest with transit countries that allow the cars to pass.
The U.S.'s foreign policy panjandrums have determined what are the most likely global crises facing the U.S. in 2014 and have found that the Caucasus and Central Asia pose almost no threat to U.S. interests.
The Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S.'s most prestigious foreign policy think tank, has released its annual Preventative Priorities Survey for 2014. The survey, CFR says, "seeks to help policymakers choose among competing conflict prevention demands by offering what is essentially a risk assessment of the United States’ geopolitical environment over the next twelve months." It does so by first crowdsourcing a list of 30 potential crisis scenarios, then polling experts and policymakers as to how likely the threat of a crisis is, and how much of a threat to U.S. interests the crisis would be. The only Eurasian scenario to make the top 30 is "an outbreak of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh," and that was ranked in the lowest possible tier as both a low risk of happening and posing a minor threat to U.S. interests.
The survey also asked the respondents to suggest other possible scenarios, and of the handful that CFR said were mentioned more than others included some more Eurasian scenarios: "rising political instability in Russia," "possible Russian intervention in Georgia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet states," and "rising political instability in Kyrgyzstan."
A delegation from Uzbekistan visited Washington this week as the two countries try to figure out how the impending withdrawal from Afghanistan is going to affect their relationship. The content of the discussions, part of the annual high-level talks that the U.S. has with every Central Asian country, were kept very quiet, but no doubt focused heavily on security issues.
"No new deals, agreements, just heart-to-heart discussions between U.S. and Uzbekistan -- I hear Russia's pressure on Central Asia was a big topic," said Washington-based Voice of America Uzbek service reporter Navbahor Imamova on twitter (edited slightly to detwitterize).
The talks included Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, as well as officials from the Pentagon, White House, and Congress. The State Department statement on the talks, naturally, didn't mention Russia. "The participants discussed all aspects of the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship, including political developments, regional stability and security, human rights and labor, education and cultural exchanges, and economic development and trade. The United States looks forward to broadening and deepening its relationship with Uzbekistan on the basis of these candid and constructive conversations."
An obscure offshore oil and gas company is reportedly under investigation for stealing oil in Uzbekistan. The news will come as no surprise to the few brave Western investors still operating in the business-unfriendly Central Asian state, where a major redivision of spoils appears underway as President Islam Karimov’s once-powerful daughter comes under unprecedented attack.
Authorities have launched an investigation into an alleged theft of government-owned oil by Tethys Petroleum, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency reported on December 4, quoting an anonymous source. The firm, which denies wrongdoing, announced the launch of new oil and gas prospecting projects in the country only six months ago.
RIA Novosti said the company had been accused of stealing oil worth between $30 million and $40 million. Bakhrom Salakhitdinov, identified as the head of Tethys's operations in Uzbekistan, has been arrested, the news agency added.
Tethys calls the allegations “entirely without foundation.”
“We are in contact with the relevant authorities in order to reach an understanding of the reasons for the allegations and a satisfactory resolution of the situation as soon as possible. We are exploring all appropriate means to protect the company’s interests and ensure the safety of our employees in Uzbekistan. Oil production continues as normal,” the company told EurasiaNet.org via email.
Four executives have been dismissed from Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera amid an ongoing corruption investigation in Sweden that has come uncomfortably close to Gulnara Karimova, the scandal-hit daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
“The Board’s conclusion is that some senior employees no longer have the trust of the Board,” Marie Ehrling, its chairwoman, said in a statement posted on TeliaSonera’s website on November 29. “Therefore they have been notified that their employment with TeliaSonera will be terminated and they will leave their position effective immediately.”
The dismissals come amid repercussions from an ongoing corruption probe that Swedish police opened in September 2012 into claims that the Swedish-Finnish telecoms giant paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to enter Uzbekistan’s telecoms market.
The probe forced the resignation of CEO Lars Nyberg in February, and now four more heads have rolled. The company did not name them all but said in a second statement on November 29 that Chief Financial Officer Per-Arne Blomquist would “leave his position effective immediately.” The Financial Times reported that Tero Kivisaari, the company’s former head of the Eurasia division, was another of the fired employees.
Eleven citizens lost their lives as a result of the forced-labor system this year. The tragic losses included Tursunali Sadikov, a 63-year-old farmer who died of a heart attack after being beaten by a Department of Internal Affairs official, and Amirbek Rakhmatov, a six-year-old schoolboy who accompanied his mother to the cotton fields, napped in a trailer, and suffocated when cotton was loaded on top of him.
“It is the largest number of people who have died in a year, as far as I know,” Matt Fischer-Daly of the Cotton Campaign told the Toronto Star. “There have been tragedies but [I’ve] never seen a year with so many deaths.”
Though there were fewer young children mobilized than in years past, authorities “systematically” coerced high school students, university students, and adults into the fields, the reports says. They are part of an opaque chain of transactions that concludes with authorities buying cotton from farmers at artificially low prices and selling it abroad at a huge markup for hard currency. Researchers found that students were threatened with expulsion if they did not comply and adults told they would be fired if they refused.
U.S. forces drop supplies for base in Bala Marghab, Afghanistan. Coming soon to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan? (photo: Sgt. Seth Barham, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division Public Affairs)
In the wake of the U.S.'s announcement that it is moving its air base in Kyrgyzstan to Romania, the conspiracy theories continue to be propagated -- even in relatively respectable Russian analytical and official circles. A couple of weeks ago, The Bug Pit looked at one popular conspiracy theory: that the U.S. wasn't in fact leaving Manas, but was involved in an elaborate deception to cover up its aims of setting up a state-of-the-art intelligence-gathering operation in Kyrgyzstan.
But that's not the only theory being mooted as the "real" explanation for what the U.S. is doing (moving operations to Romania, if you're naive enough to believe the Pentagon). A piece in the Russian Ministry of Defense newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, entitled "The Pentagon Intends to Stay," suggests that the withdrawal from Manas is merely a tactical retreat, and that the U.S.'s strategy in Central Asia is "to leave, in order to stay." According to this analysis, the small training centers that the U.S. has set up in Tajikistan and had planned to set up in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the military supply routes of the Northern Distribution Network, represent a foothold that the U.S. can use to maintain influence with a smaller footprint.
But that piece is relatively measured. Other analyses get more specific, and a lot more conspiratorial. One theory is that the U.S. is moving to Aktau, on Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea shore. This theory is promulgated by a number of people, including analyst Nikolay Bobkin, writing for the Russian think tank Strategic Culture Foundation.
Authorities in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, have ordered local eateries to switch to alternative sources of fuel, such as coal and wood, in a bid to ease energy shortages this winter.
The measure was prompted by a surge in the consumption of gas for heating, Uzmetronom.com reported this month, and marks the start of Uzbekistan’s annual energy crisis.
Uzmetronom, which is believed to have ties to the security services, said cafes and restaurants in Tashkent would most likely use condensed natural gas sourced privately in bottles, rather than from government-run mainlines, for cooking. Others will burn wood. The Moscow-based Fergana News website reported on November 21 that "an increasing crisis in gas supplies and deliveries" had led to “skyrocketing” wood prices.
One of Gulnara Karimova's November 21 Twitter missives.
After spending most of the day airing her family’s dirty laundry on Twitter – shedding light on the murky world of clan politics in Tashkent – Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of long-serving strongman Islam Karimov, has gone quiet.
On November 21, Karimova again took to one of the few public channels she can still access, Twitter, to accuse her mother Tatyana of organizing the spectacular personal implosion that has riveted Central Asia watchers for the past month.
Within hours, the account @GulnaraKarimova, which is widely believed to be authentic, disappeared.
Karimova had earlier sent a series of tweets containing image files, each with a long text in Russian. EurasiaNet.org downloaded the nine image files before the account disappeared. One example can be found to the right.
Karimova tweeted that the "women in our family" resent her and are plotting against her. "I have long wanted to tell my mother about this...She has promised to destroy everything connected to me if I dare 'meddle in her affairs'!"
Karimova said the October arrest of her cousin Akbarali Abdullayev – sometimes described as her “purse” – had been ordered by her mother in a bid to take over Abdullayev’s business interests in the Ferghana Valley.
When Karimova tried to help her cousin by interceding with her father, she said, her mother
"snatched [his assets] and imprisoned him in October 2013 for an unknown period, promising to destroy me for this!"