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.
Torture is “a defining feature” of Uzbekistan’s criminal justice system, routinely employed by the security forces not only to extract confessions but also to extort bribes, a new report by an international human rights watchdog finds.
Torture “is central to how the Uzbekistani authorities deal with dissent, combat security threats and maintain their grip on power,” says the study by Amnesty International, published on April 15.
The watchdog accuses the international community of turning a “blind eye” to “endemic” torture in order to protect its strategic interests with a “perceived geo-strategic ally.” (Tashkent has supported the “war on terror” and the US-led coalition in neighboring Afghanistan.)
“The attitude of Uzbekistan’s international partners to the routine use of torture appears at best ambivalent, and at worst silent to the point of complicity,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia director, said in a statement. “As long as Uzbekistan uses torture-tainted evidence in court, it will remain a torture-tainted ally.”
The report, based on over 60 interviews with victims and relatives, details a range of gruesome torture methods, from beatings; asphyxiation; rape; and sexual assault to psychological torment; food, water, and sleep deprivation; exposure to extreme temperatures; and electric shocks.
“They beat me everywhere, on my head, kidneys…When I lost consciousness they would throw water on me to wake me up and beat me again,” one victim recalled. “They beat me bloody. The first time I came to they must have suspended me from above because I couldn’t bend. The second time I came to they put me on a chair and put a cellophane bag on my head, suffocated me and beat me and I lost consciousness.”
The waters of the Syr-Darya river are highly polluted and should not be used for irrigating crops, let alone for drinking, scientists from Kazakhstan have concluded.
Tests of the waters of Central Asia’s longest river – which flows for 2,200 kilometers through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – found dangerous concentrations of metals including chromium, copper, nickel, mercury, molybdenum, and zinc, the Nur.kz site quoted scientists from South Kazakhstan State University as saying.
“The water of the Syr-Darya is not recommended for use either for agricultural needs or for the fishing industry,” concluded Uylesbek Besterekov, one of the professors who took part in the three-year study funded by a €600,000 NATO grant.
The scientists (who tested waters flowing for around 1,000 kilometers through Kazakhstan, from the border with Uzbekistan up to the Aral Sea) could not pinpoint which industrial enterprise was the greatest polluter – or even which of the four countries through which the river flows is causing the most contamination. Even if the main polluters could be identified and stopped, it would take at least a decade for the waters to become clean, Besterekov said.
The findings – which back up 2009 data suggesting that the Syr-Darya’s waters were too dirty to drink or use in agriculture safely – are worrying for the Central Asian governments, since the river is used to irrigate crops that are then transported all over the region for public consumption. (It was the use of this river’s waters for agricultural irrigation – particularly for cotton – that led to the shrinking of the Aral Sea into which it empties.)
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.