With Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov scheduled to visit the Czech Republic next week, a coalition of human rights organizations has been urging his host, President Milos Zeman, to deny Karimov the "prestige and recognition associated with an official state visit." Today they are horrified by Zeman’s blistering response.
In a February 10 open letter, international watchdogs including Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists reminded Zeman that Karimov runs one of the most repressive governments in the world and has been "rightly shunned by most western leaders," particularly after Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of civilians in Andijan in May 2005. For Uzbekistan's refusal to allow an independent international probe into the Andijan killings the European Union, including the Czech Republic, had imposed targeted sanctions on the Uzbek government between 2005 and 2009, the letter noted.
Should he meet Karimov during the scheduled February 20-22 visit, the activists urged Zeman to push the Uzbek leader on his regime’s gross human rights violations and to hold a joint news conference to allow journalists to question Karimov. (Karimov hasn’t taken questions in public for years.)
Clearly irritated, Zeman fired back in an open letter February 11 that the visit was a “diplomatic courtesy,” the invitation for which had been issued by his predecessor (translation by Czech NGO People in Need):
Second, President Islam Karimov recently held talks with senior officials of the European Union in Brussels. I did not think you were protesting against the visit.
Third, the United States evaluated Uzbekistan as an ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. I did not think you protested against this American view protested.
The U.S. Congress has again given the State Department the go-ahead to give military aid to Uzbekistan in spite of concerns about the country's poor record on human rights, a State Department official has told The Bug Pit.
Congress imposed restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan in 2004 after the country's government failed to implement promised political reforms. Those restrictions remain in place today. But two years ago Congress, at the urging of the Obama administration, agreed to allow the Secretary of State to waive those restrictions if it were necessary for national security reasons. That waiver needed to be renewed every six months, and the ability to waive expired in October 2013. But Congress renewed the provision and last month the waiver was exercised again, a State Department spokesperson said.
"This waiver will allow the United States to provide assistance to the central government of Uzbekistan, including equipment to enhance Uzbekistan's ability to combat transnational and terrorist threats," the spokesperson said in an email to The Bug Pit. "Examples of this equipment include night vision goggles, personal protective equipment, and Global Positioning Systems. Enhancing Uzbekistan's defensive capacity improves the security of the U.S. supply transit system to Afghanistan and our ability to support our troops there." The new authority to waive will expire September 30, 2015.
The equipment in question includes not just the examples the spokesperson noted, but also tactical surveillance drones. Uzbekistan is also lobbying for some of the used mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles the U.S. is looking to offload as it pulls its troops out of Afghanistan.
Umida Akhmedova -- with one of her "offensive" photos of life in her native Uzbekistan -- at the Moscow Biennale in September.
UPDATE, January 30: EurasiaNet.org has spoken with Timur Karpov. He was released this evening after a Tashkent court fined him and three others up to approximately $900 for participating in the unsanctioned rally. Of the eight detained January 29, three –including cultural critic Alex Ulko – have received 15-day sentences; one, Gulsum Osmanova, remains unaccounted for. It's possible she has been released or is still being held.
The whereabouts of at least six activists who had held a small rally to express support for Ukrainian protestors remain unknown after they were apparently detained by police January 29.
The six – prominent photographer Umida Akhmedova and her photojournalist son Timur Karpov, cultural affairs commentator Alex Ulko and three others – were detained two days after they picketed the Ukrainian Embassy in Tashkent in support of pro-democracy protestors, Fergana News reported. Fergana News believes the activists are being held in Tashkent's Khamza District police department, where an officer told Akhmedova's daughter late on January 29 that the group had already been released.
Akhmedova's husband Oleg Karpov fears the detainees, who appear to have not had access to a lawyer, may face "repressive measures" (such as torture, which is “systematic” in the justice system, according to Human Rights Watch). Activists throughout the region and further afield have called on Uzbek authorities to immediately release the group.
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.