Since the infamous comic character Borat burst onto the world stage seven years ago, Central Asian states have had trouble shedding their images as tinpot dictatorships run by vainglorious, venal leaders.
Kazakhstan, the fictional home of Borat, has since spent millions on PR buffing its image. So news that a TV series lampooning the Central Asian states à la Borat – with some uncomfortable parallels to the truth – is about to air in the UK will come as an unwelcome shock.
As The Independent reports, the show Ambassadors, airing on the BBC2 channel from late October, is set in the fictional country Tazbekistan, a hybrid of the real-life Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.
“The fictional Tazbekistan is run by the dictatorial President Kairat who presides over a regime with a dubious human rights record,” reports the newspaper, a description that will sound familiar (albeit perhaps not amusing) to the inhabitants of the Central Asian states.
The authoritarian leaders of real-life Tajikistan (Emomali Rahmon), Uzbekistan (Islam Karimov), and Kazakhstan (Nursultan Nazarbayev) may not take kindly to this depiction – and they may be surprised to learn that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has assisted in the program’s making.
The series's writers spent time at the British Embassy in Astana and were given access to other diplomats to learn about the realities of the diplomatic lifestyle.
It may be just an accident: the consequence, for example, of aging infrastructure. But a derailed troop train from Tajikistan passing through rival Uzbekistan is likely to draw scrutiny.
The train carrying almost 300 passengers en route from Dushanbe to northern Tajikistan slipped off the tracks early October 10 in Uzbekistan’s Jizzakh Region, injuring several dozen people, most of them conscripts, Asia-Plus reported. Radio Ozodi reported 52 injuries. There are no reports of fatalities.
Asia-Plus said there were about 200 recruits and several officers on board.
No rail lines connect Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, with northern Sughd Province, which is in the Fergana Valley, forcing all train traffic to pass through Uzbekistan. This arrangement worked fine until the late 1980s, when both countries were constituent republics of the Soviet Union. But today the two independent countries barely speak. Uzbekistan is vehemently opposed to Tajikistan’s plans to build a giant hydropower plan upstream, fearing it will give Dushanbe economic leverage and control over the region’s limited water resources. Uzbekistan's president has said it could lead to war. Tashkent often looks like it is trying to blockade isolated Tajikistan – closing borders, halting freight, turning off gas supplies – in apparent attempts to prevent construction at Rogun.
NATO logistics officers dependent on Uzbekistan’s rail network to haul supplies out of Afghanistan are likely to take notice.
Critical journalist Sergei Naumov has been freed after serving a short sentence for allegedly abusing a stranger on the street, Fergana News reports. Media outlets and human rights groups throughout the region had campaigned for his release.
Naumov was sentenced to 12 days on September 21 after he bumped into a woman who accused him of "harassing her, grabbing her breasts and insulting [her] with swear words." He denied the charges. He was held incommunicado, raising fears for his safety.
Naumov had been reporting on the use of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s annual cotton harvest, along with corruption and abuse of power by government officials, fostering widespread suspicions that authorities were trying to muzzle him.
“Sergei Naumov’s detention bears all the hallmarks of an illegal, enforced disappearance and appears aimed at silencing his independent reporting,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said on September 24.
Bakhrom Khamroyev, president of the Moscow-based Society for Political Immigrants of Uzbekistan, organized a rally in Moscow on October 2 demanding Naumov’s release, Fergana News said.
The World Bank released summaries of the first two studies in a series of long-awaited reports on Tajikistan’s controversial Rogun hydropower dam this week. Prepared by French consultancy Coyne et Bellier, the technical assessments are designed to help Tajikistan make informed engineering decisions about the complicated project.
Depending on how you read the carefully worded reports, which have been reviewed by Tajik officials, they could be seen as a victory for either Tajikistan or downstream Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is vehemently opposed to the project, arguing that it is not safe and that it will give Tajikistan unfair control over water resources. President Islam Karimov has even said that such a project could lead to war.
Yet the reports also allow Tajik officials to argue that everything is under control, that the consultants outlined necessary, but manageable repairs.
For certain, the reports recommend what sounds like a lot of repairs to previously built structures, and expensive-sounding mitigation efforts to address an underground threat.
Uzbekistan's state-run oil and gas company increased the price it charges domestic customers for natural gas by 8.5 percent on October 1, moving further to close the giant gap between domestic and export prices.
Uzbekneftegaz announced on its website in late September that it will now charge local consumers, including domestic industries, 151,740 sums ($70.70 at the official exchange rate) per thousand cubic meters (tcm) of natural gas. According to calculations by the private Novyy Vek daily, that’s an 8.5-percent rise. The paper notes the domestic tariff also rose 14 percent in April and has risen 45 percent over the past 12 months.
Uzbekistan sells gas at $290 per tcm to Kyrgyzstan, a Kyrgyz official told Kazakhstan's Tengrinews this summer. So the subsidized domestic price is less than a quarter of what Tashkent earns from selling gas abroad.
That might explain widespread shortages of gas and electricity in rural areas each winter, as Tashkent increases exports to neighboring countries and China.
According figures cited by Novyy Vek, domestic consumption stands at around 50 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually. Output fell by 0.2 percent to 62.9 bcm in 2012.
Asked about the $1 billion Russian military aid package,, Omuraliyev didn't specify exactly what sort of equipment would be given, but said the priority would be in getting equipment that would work together as a system. "For example, there is a need for an air surveillance system, ground surveillance, special operations battle management systems that all make up a single complex and together complement one another," he said. "I can't now say exactly how many tanks, airplanes or helicopters we will get, but I can verify that they will be weapons systems which allow us to significantly strengthen our military capabilities. And he added that the equipment may not be straight off the production line: "We should remember that 'new' could also mean equipment produced earlier but kept in warehouses... which still fulfill current requirements."
Human rights groups have long urged consumers and apparel manufacturers to boycott cotton from Uzbekistan, the world’s second largest cotton exporter, because it is picked using forced and child labor. But as the number of international – mostly Western – manufacturers pledge to eschew Uzbek fibers, Tashkent is looking east, increasing exports to countries where human rights are less of a concern.
In August, Uzbekistan signed a deal to supply 200,000 metric tons of cotton fiber – about one-third of exports – to Bangladesh annually. Now Beijing is ready to purchase 300,000 metric tons – over half of Uzbekistan’s total cotton fiber exports – a year, Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported on September 25.
"Accords on stable annual supplies to the tune of at least 300,000 metric tons have been achieved by the governments of the two countries. 'Firm' contracts will be signed in October as part of a cotton fair in Tashkent," RIA Novosti quoted a source in the Uzbek cotton industry as saying.
RIA Novosti said that Uzbek cotton exports were expected to total no less than 600,000 metric tons in the 2012-2013 season, slightly less than 620,000 metric tons sold abroad last year.
The new deal means Bangladesh and China will together account for over 83 percent of Uzbek cotton exports. Previously, Bangladesh accounted for 35 percent, China for 15 percent and South Korea for 7 percent, according to RIA Novosti. (Uzbekistan annually produces over 3 million metric tons of raw cotton and over 1 million metric tons of cotton fiber; about 60 percent of the fiber is exported.)
Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, the youngest daughter of Uzbekistan's strongman, says her socialite sister Gulnara Karimova has a “slim” chance of assuming the presidency after their father, Islam Karimov, departs from the political scene.
In an interview with the BBC Uzbek Service published on September 25, Karimova-Tillyaeva, 35, said she had not spoken to her sister in 12 years and said she learns about the near-constant scandals surrounding Gulnara from the media.
"I believe her chances are slim," Lola said of Gulnara's apparent ambitions to succeed their 75-year-old father.
Lola, Uzbekistan's permanent representative at UNESCO in Paris, distanced herself from her father’s human rights abuses and her sister’s corruption inquiries, explaining that she spends little time in the country.
Gulnara Karimova, 40, styles herself a pop star and fashion designer. Until recently she was Uzbekistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva. She resigned in July after authorities in France searched several of her properties at the request of Swiss prosecutors investigating a money-laundering case involving her associates.
Gulnara has also been named in a corruption investigation in Sweden over Scandinavian telecoms giant TeliaSonera’s purchase of the rights to operate in Uzbekistan. The company denies wrongdoing.
Defying calls from human rights activists, a court in Uzbekistan has sentenced Bukhara-based human rights activist Bobomurod Razzakov to four years in prison on charges his supporters say are fabricated.
On September 24, a court in Bukhara found Razzakov, 60, guilty of human trafficking, Human Rights Watch reports. The New York-based advocacy group says the charges were in retaliation for Razzakov’s human rights activities.
Human Rights Watch had earlier called on Uzbek authorities to immediately drop the case and unconditionally release Razzakov, the leader of the Bukhara branch of Uzbekistan's only registered independent human rights group, Ezgulik ("Mercy").
Uzbekistan often brings trumped-up charges of drug trafficking, rape and extortion against critics in what look like attempts to shut them up.
Razzakov's "prosecution fits a typical pattern of fabricated criminal charges brought to silence human rights defenders and should be dropped immediately," Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a September 14 statement.
A local woman accused Razzakov of forcing her into the custody of a person who pressed her into prostitution. Razzakov maintains that several days before his detention the woman asked him to help find a relative who had gone missing in Russia. His lawyer suggested that Uzbek security services had pressured her into bringing the charges against him, Human Rights Watch said.
An independent journalist missing for three days in Uzbekistan has been jailed on what human rights activists are calling politically motivated charges.
Sergei Naumov disappeared in the western city of Urgench on September 21 after telling friends he had been having trouble with local police. Given Uzbekistan’s record of forcibly silencing critics, and Naumov’s reporting on the use of forced labor in the annual cotton harvest, his friends feared the worst.
Nadejda Atayeva, France-based leader of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, wrote on her blog on September 24 that Naumov had been located in a detention center in Urgench after the city court found him guilty of "petty hooliganism" and sentenced him to 12 days after a remarkably speedy trial on September 21.
Human Rights Watch, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Uzbek human rights activists expressed alarm about Naumov’s disappearance. “The brutal practice of ‘disappearing’ government critics is a terrible blight on Uzbekistan’s already abysmal human rights record,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a September 24 statement.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on Tashkent to “scrap the fabricated charges."