Turkmenistan may have become a byword for slow-moving regional rail projects, but a long-planned link connecting the country and neighboring Uzbekistan to the Persian Gulf via Iran appears to have found momentum again.
At a “high level meeting” in Ashgabat on September 3, delegates from the three countries plus Oman and Qatar began ironing out details of a plan first agreed in April 2011, Trend.az reported. That meeting came just under a month after the Turkmen and Uzbek foreign ministers held talks on the project with their counterparts in Oman.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov first proposed the railroad in 2010. For his double-landlocked country, the project assumes a special significance. Some have noted that it could ease exports of Tashkent’s key cotton crop toward markets in the Middle East and beyond. Tashkent is particularly keen to facilitate trade ties with manufacturers indifferent to widespread evidence it uses forced labor to harvest its lucrative cash crop. Last year according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Uzbekistan produced 904,000 metric tons of cotton. Turkmenistan, which produced 327,000 metric tons over the same period, could also benefit from the line.
Gas-guzzling Kazakhstan – where the jeep has long since overtaken the horse as the favored means of transport – has been urged to save fuel, as a months-long gasoline shortage continues to distress drivers across Central Asia.
On September 2 Energy Minister Vladimir Shkolnik urged the people of his oil-rich country to cut back on consumption, suggesting carpooling and downsizing to small cars from the road-hogging jeeps his compatriots favor.
Kazakhstan is entering its third month of gasoline shortages, with long queues forming in many cities at filling stations, some of which have unilaterally imposed rationing.
The minister’s remarks caused a storm of protest on social media, as Radio Azattyq reported, prompting users to question if Shkolnik would be driving his neighbors to work and wonder where all the oil their country pumps is going, if not into their tanks.
As with so many of Kazakhstan’s economic woes these days, the answers to Kazakhstan’s fuel conundrum lies over the border in Russia, where rising prices mean Kazakhstani importers can no longer afford to buy fuel to sell at home.
This is due to the devaluation of the tenge in February, which has priced importers out of the Russian wholesale market, Aset Magauov, head of the Kazenergy industry association told Bnews on August 29. With prices at the pump controlled by the state in Kazakhstan, retail prices fell lower than wholesale prices in Russia, making imports uncompetitive.
Uzbekistan is asking Germany for an increase in rent paid for the use of the air base at Termez, on the Afghanistan border, which the Germans have operated since 2002, according to local media reports. Reports also suggest that Germany is considering helping Uzbekistan expand the airport at Termez.
"Since November of last year there have been negotiations between Tashkent and Berlin on reexamining the status of the agreement on Germany's use of the transit hub at the Termez airport," according to a piece on CentrAsia.ru, widely republished in the Uzbekistani media. "In particular, according to informed experts, the Uzbek side, with the aim of maintaining the infrastructure of this important military-strategic object in good condition, proposes increasing the rent paid for Germany's use of the Termez airport."
The piece concludes: "Continuing to prolong the resolution of the 'Termez question,' Germany risks not only being left with nothing, but also ruining its relations with Uzbekistan, the key government of Central Asia playing an important role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. It seems the Germans don't realize that the money they are trying to save on the rent paid for the use of the Termez airport is not worth the strategic importance that this object has for Germany."
Uzbekistan has taken the rare step of commenting publicly to deny reports that it plans to allow the United States to set up a military base in the country.
The rumors arose after the recent visit to Uzbekistan by the head of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, and the report on a website with good sources in Uzbekistan's government saying that the Austin was discussing setting up a base in Termez, on the Afghanistan border.
The report was implausible in many ways -- it said the U.S. was going to pay $1 billion a year in rent -- but Uzbekistan's government nevertheless saw fit to deny it. "Uzbekistan's laws do not allow to host any foreign military bases on its territory," Adilbek Kaipbergenov, spokesman for Uzbekistan's foreign ministry, told AFP.
The U.S. also denied it: “Gen. Austin has no knowledge of any plans for a possible U.S. base in Uzbekistan,” a CENTCOM spokesman told the Army Times. “He did not discuss any such options with the Uzbeks during his trip.”
The Uzbekistan opposition website uznews suggests that it was Russia's negative reaction to the rumors that may have spooked Tashkent.
Speaking on Russian radio station Govorit Moskva, Ilya Drozdov, a member of the Russian parliament and a CIS and Eurasian integration committee member, stated that if Uzbekistan really did allow the U.S. to re-open a military base, then Russia should throw out all Uzbek migrant workers from Russia. “I think then we need to take strong action at the highest level of government.” says Drozdov,
The head of United States Central Command has visited Uzbekistan as the U.S. works to "rebalance" its policies toward Central Asia, a policy which officials increasingly admit has been excessively focused on security.
General Lloyd Austin, head of CENTCOM, visited Uzbekistan and met with President Islam Karimov among other officials. There was no official word on what the visit was about. Voice of America Uzbek service's Navbahor Imamova, who has good sources on these issues, says that her sources say the visit was "purely maintenance" and included "no basing talk."
That didn't convince everyone, and the Uzbekistan news website uzmetronom reported that Austin was in Uzbekistan to negotiate a new U.S. military base there, and that the U.S. was offering Tashkent a billion dollars a year for the privilege, and that Germany was opposing it behind the scenes. That's all pretty unlikely, but it's interesting coming from uzmetronom; the site is well connected to the country's security services and in Uzbekistan there are obviously strict limits on what can be published. Whatever the reason, the report was of course eagerly picked up by the Russian media.
In March, Austin testified to Congress about the U.S. military's posture in the CENTCOM area, and said this about Uzbekistan:
A cement company owned by Russian oligarch Filaret Galchev appears to have become the latest target of an assets grab by Uzbekistan’s government, sparking speculation that this is part of a re-division of economic spoils following the fall from grace of Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of President Islam Karimov.
A Tashkent court has ruled that the post-Soviet privatization of the Akhangarantsement company – owned by Galchev’s Russia-based Eurocement – way back in 1994 was illegal, and froze assets worth 414 billion sums (nearly $180 million), the company said in a July 29 statement.
The claims of illegal privatization “are of an unfounded and illegal nature, as was convincingly demonstrated in the court hearing,” it quoted Mikhail Skorokhod, Eurocement’s president, as saying.
The assault on the firm was quite sudden, he said: The company found out about the lawsuit brought by the government’s antimonopoly committee on July 16. Hearings started two days later, and on July 21 the court deemed the privatization illegal.
The ruling effectively places the firm – Uzbekistan’s second largest cement producer – back in the hands of the state, a full two decades after it was put into private hands in the post-Soviet privatization rush.
Eurocement – whose owner, Galchev, is Russia’s 24th richest man with a fortune of $6.1 billion, according to Forbes – acquired a 75-percent stake in Akhangarantsement in 2006 and now owns an 84-percent share, with the rest in the hands of minority shareholders.
Islamic militancy is high on the agenda in Central Asia. This week, authorities have handed lengthy prison terms at two unrelated trials in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Six people were jailed for between nine and 15 years on terrorism charges at a mass trial involving 66 suspects in southwestern Uzbekistan. A court in central Kazakhstan jailed four citizens for between six and 12 years for recruiting militants to wage holy war in Syria.
At the mass trial in the city of Qashqadaryo in Uzbekistan, three men and three women were jailed on July 22 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government of the strongman president, Islam Karimov, and propagating terrorism, RFE/RL reported, citing the Tashkent-based Ezgulik (Compassion) human rights center.
In Kazakhstan, the conviction of the four over the Syria recruitment campaign in and around the city of Zhezkazgan, reported by Tengri News on July 22, came as media reports emerged of a new propaganda video showing 16 people believed to be from Kazakhstan (since some are speaking Kazakh) who have headed off to fight in the Middle East.
Authorities in Central Asia have frequently cited Syria-linked threats this year amid a growing number of reports that militants from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are waging holy war in Syria.
A German CH-53 helicopter flies between Termez, Uzbekistan, and Kunduz, Afghanistan. (photo: Ministry of Defense, Germany)
A helicopter from the German airbase in southern Uzbekistan had to make an emergency landing, accidentally setting a wheat field on fire, the German embassy in Tashkent told The Bug Pit.
The episode was first reported by Uzbek media on June 16. The website Union of Independent Journalists of Central Asia said that "a German military helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing after it began to smoke, and a spark from the engine started a field on fire. This caused a negative reaction in the local population."
In a statement to The Bug Pit, a representative of the German embassy in Tashkent confirmed that "a German helicopter experienced engine problems and had to perform an emergency landing. As the helicopter lost some hot parts of its engine, a nearby field of wheat caught fire. Competent authorities are investigating the causes of the accident. Germany is going to compensate the owners of the field." No one was injured, the embassy added.
Reporting on the German base in Termez has been very scant, but it was established in 2002 (shortly after the U.S.'s own base, a little north in Karshi-Khanabad) to support Germany's contributions to the war in Afghanistan, just across the river from Termez. Germany has been paying between 10 and 15 million Euros per year in rent to the Uzbekistan government for the use of the base. In 2006, Der Spiegel reported:
Amid reports that two close associates of Gulnara Karimova, the embattled daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman president Islam Karimov, have been jailed, a man claiming to represent her family has denied allegations of her involvement in bribery and money-laundering in Europe. The spokesman suggests the root of her troubles could be political infighting ahead of next year’s presidential election.
“There has been no proof to back up any of the claims made against Gulnara Karimova,” the spokesman – who works for a recognizable London-based communications firm, but insists that neither he nor the firm be identified – said in the statement, sent to EurasiaNet.org by email on July 14.
“However,” he continued, “given her relationship to the president of Uzbekistan, we cannot ignore the likelihood of these allegations against Gulnara Karimova being politically motivated ahead of the forthcoming 2015 elections.”
Karimova, a one-time powerful player previously tipped as a possible successor to her father, has reportedly been under house arrest in Tashkent since February. This follows a vitriolic family feud with her mother, Tatyana Karimova, and younger sister, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva.
As well as her mother and sister, Karimova has blamed Rustam Inoyatov, the head of Uzbekistan’s domestic intelligence service (known as the SNB), for her woes. In an interview with Russia’s REN TV last month, her son (called Islam after his grandfather) blamed unnamed “powerful” figures for arranging the detention of his mother and 16-year-old sister Iman in Tashkent.
Some media outlets in Ukraine have charged that Central Asians are fighting among pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east.
The most recent fodder for the rumor mill is a video interview, posted July 8 on YouTube, where a man describing himself as a native of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, explains why he is fighting with the separatists.
The man in camouflage, whose identity cannot be independently verified, is standing before a military vehicle and appears to be holding a weapon. "I decided that the weak should be defended," he explains. He says he is not paid but is fighting because of what his interlocutor described as his "sense of injustice.” He vows to fight "until the end of the war.”
In recent months, several Uzbeks have also reportedly appeared among the separatists.
On June 22, Reuters published a picture of a man carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle who was identified as "Bakhtiyor” from Uzbekistan. A few days later, RFE/RL said recruiters in Moscow told their undercover correspondent that he and an Uzbek friend could join the separatist fighters in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk "in principle."
One Uzbek citizen with pro-Kiev sympathies told RFE/RL he had been offered $50-$100 a day to fight with separatists in Luhansk.
Authorities in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have not commented on the allegations.