A quick tip to anybody planning a bank heist in Uzbekistan — make sure your getaway can carry heavy loads.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service has reported on a robbery that took place at a Mikrokreditbank branch ub the western Khorezm region in early April that netted its organizers 16 million Uzbek sum. Though that sounds like a lot, it is a mere $2,560 at the black market rate.
The thieves got into the bank around midnight by disconnecting the alarm system and then cracked a safe containing 45 sacks of cash. Officials told RFE/RL that the robbers loaded the sacks onto a Damas minibus.
Two people have reportedly been arrested for the heist. One of those charged was none other than a local police officer.
“The head of the criminal gang used to guard this bank in his capacity as an officer with the patrol service. The policeman enlisted his unemployed 34-year old brother to take part in the robbery,” a law enforcement official told RFE/RL.
One businessman queried by RFE/RL expressed dismay at the small quantity of money that appeared to be in the bank, which he said confirmed the grave lack of liquidity gripping Uzbekistan. State workers regularly complain of not being able to receive their salaries because of the lack of hard cash in the banks. Others are unable to collect remittances sent from relatives abroad.
While the authorities are remaining mum about the events of the heist, one local journalist in the Khorezm region confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that he too had heard about the event.
He said that the thieves made away with 14 sacks of cash, however, and not 45, as claimed by RFE/RL.
In March, officials from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were at one another’s throats over a border dispute. But a month is a long time in frontier politics.
With moods now significantly calmed, representatives from both countries’ border services met on April 18 to discuss the recent discovery of an illegal cross-frontier smugglers’ tunnel.
Russian state-run news service Sputnik reported that the meeting took place at the “Uzbekistan” border crossing and organized at Tashkent’s instigation.
The underground passage discovered in March led from the village of Burbolik in Uzbekistan’s Altyaryk District to the village of Kyrgyz-Kyshtak in the Kadamzhai district in the Batken region. Sputnik cited Uzbek officials as saying they are still trying to establish who was running the smuggling operation.
Uzbek news website Podrobno.uz reported in March, that the 120-meter long tunnel was built six meters below ground and was around 70 centimeters wide and more than a meter high.
For all those relatively modest dimensions, Kyrgyz and Uzbek officials believe there is almost no limit to the evil that might have been coursing through the tunnel.
“Both sides are studying the possibility that this structure was being used to transport weapons, ammunition, explosives, unconstitutional literature, narcotics and militants,” Podrobno.uz reported.
The likelihood of “unconstitutional literature” — typically a codeword for religious pamphlets — is perhaps the most risible item on the list, since the Internet would be a far more secure way of conveying such material.
Uzbekistan is trying to give farmers a helping hand as the country seeks to lessen its dependence on cotton-growing and find much-needed sources of revenue.
Local media reported last week that as of July 1, companies and private entrepreneurs holding the proper permits could once again begin to export fruits and vegetables by road. The government in September slapped a ban on trucks taking produce out of the country, leaving all but a select few only the costly alternative of getting their wares out by air or railway freight.
Those measures were taken to avoid Uzbek wares being re-exported onward to lucrative markets like Russia by companies in Kazakhstan. In November 2014, deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov told a government meeting that the amount of Uzbek produce being exported to Russia had fallen by 10 percent because of unfavorable tariffs barriers created by the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
That state of affairs in turn led to the creation of various opaque and illegal schemes, Azimov said. Fruit and vegetables were first exported to Kazakhstan, where companies would label the goods as Kazakh and then sell them on to Russia and benefit from favorable tariffs for produce cultivated with the EEU, a bloc that Uzbekistan has resisted joining. That set Uzbekistan the challenge of trying to thwart middlemen in Kazakhstan and dealing directly with Russia.
A video uploaded to Internet showing a police officer in Uzbekistan stamping on a woman’s face has caused a ripple of indignation.
It is unclear who created or uploaded the footage, which has now been circulated more widely by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik.
What can be seen in the short video is a woman lying face up on the ground as she is aggressively addressed by a policeman standing next to her. At one stage the officer stamps on the woman’s face and then kicks her in the head.
Ozodlik reported that the incident took place on April 10 in the Uchtepa district in the capital, Tashkent. The radio station reported that the victim of the maltreatment was 55 years old and that the police officer was called Izzatulla Hashimov.
When Ozodlik contacted Hashimov for comment on the incident, he denied that it had even taken place.
“The police got a report that this woman was disrupting the public peace. She was shouting, running after small children and threw herself under a car. She then lay on the hood of a car. We called an ambulance and the doctors took her away. We later learned that she attacked the doctors as well,” Hashimov said, relating his version of events.
A local resident told Ozodlik that the woman in the incident was well presented and was indeed shouting in the street, apparently in the grip of psychotic fit. A group of people gathered around and tried to calm her down, but to no avail, which is when the police were called.
A citizen of Uzbekistan has been sentenced to 16 years in jail for spying for Tajikistan in fresh reminder of the unabated tensions between the two countries.
The way in which the news was revealed is also telling as each side seeks to sharpen its weapons in a long-standing information war.
On April 4, Uzbek state television aired a documentary titled “Traitor” (“Sotkin” in Uzbek) explaining how Sharifjon Asrorov purportedly collaborated with Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security to pass on classified information.
The information in question was related to the situation in prisons, refugees, and military bases and personnel in the Uzbek regions of Surkhandarya, Kashkadarya and Bukhara, the documentary explained.
The film stated that Asrorov, who it said is married to a woman from Tajikistan, confessed to spying.
Traitor was shown at 9 p.m. local time on the main state channel, although the station’s logo was not featured on the screen during the broadcast.
As a station employee explained, these type of programs are rarely advertised in advance, even to the channel’s management, and regularly bump scheduled shows off the running order at the last minute.
“The film was made by the television production unit of the National Security Service [SNB], which has lately taken to producing a lot of films and television programs about terrorism, drug-trafficking and espionage. In the jargon, this is what we call ‘unscheduled programing,’” the station worker told EurasiaNet.org.
As the television station employee said, editorial staff are never informed about the content of SNB films before they are aired. The feature on Asrorov will likely be repeated.
With nerves on the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border only now dissipating, authorities in Bishkek have embarked on the potentially foolhardy move of helping themselves to four Uzbek-owned resorts at a popular tourist destination.
Local media has been full of the news about embattled Prime Minister Temir Sariyev signing a government order to appropriate the resorts on Issyk-Kul lake on April 4.
The timing is awkward, although it could stand to help Sariyev out of a tight spot.
On March 26, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan pulled back troops from a disputed section of shared border, ending an uneasy week-long standoff sparked by the sudden deployment of Uzbek soldiers and military vehicles to the area.
On balance, it feels like Uzbekistan lost the battle of wits and nerves. It withdrew its forces first from the high-altitude territory without ever properly explaining what prompted it to mobilize its men in the first place.
Still, the episode did momentarily blow some wind into the beleaguered opposition’s sails, so Sariyev may be looking to shore up his position and exploit the patriotic card to forestall an expected vote of no-confidence in parliament.
By all appearances, this looks like an ill-conceived gambit. According to a report by Tazabek.kg, only one of the four resorts seems to be long-term leased to a commercial organization, while the other three were controlled by state-owned Uzbek entities.
The agreements underpinning the ownership of the resorts date back to the Soviet era, when power-brokers in Moscow decided to boost Issyk-Kul’s profile as a place of rest and therapeutic treatments.
Uzbekistan has made another advance in the country’s slow march toward a nominally stronger parliament with the creation of a body to monitor prosecutors.
The Senate, the upper house of parliament, voted during a two-day plenary session that wrapped up on April 1 to approve formation of an oversight commission comprising 15 senators drawn from all the regions.
The creation of the commission is in line with 2014 amendments to the constitution that ostensibly bolster the legislature’s status in its relations with the government and executive bodies.
Other than the General Prosecutor’s Office, other institutions that must now report before parliament include the the Prime Minister’s office, the central bank and the national auditing chamber.
President Islam Karimov spoke about the need for tightening prosecutorial oversight during a December 4 speech to mark to Constitution Day. On that occasion, Karimov also spoke about the need to adopt a law creating the framework for parliamentary inquiries. That legislation was accordingly adopted on March 31.
Explaining the urgency for the bill, Karimov cited the flood of complaints coming in from Uzbekistan’s population.
“Over nine months in 2015, 426 citizen complaints were made about employees in the General Prosecutor’s office. As a result of these complaints, 45 employees faced disciplinary measures, 22 were dismissed from their position, while 33 were dismissed from the prosecutor’s office altogether,” Karimov said.
Even though parliament may gain in stature on paper, the distinction remains a formality since the legislature’s democratic credentials are weak.
A security crisis in Central Asia has yet again raised questions about the efficacy of Russia's post-Soviet security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to maintain peace in the region.
The dispute between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over an undelimited part of their border was resolved over the weekend without any shots being fired, as both sides pulled back the armored vehicles and troops they had deployed.
But before that happened, Kyrgyzstan called a special session of the CSTO's permanent council in Moscow. (Kyrgyzstan is a member of the organization, while Uzbekistan is not, having dropped out in 2012.) But the response from Moscow was mild: the organization's deputy secretary general was dispatched to Bishkek to monitor the situation.
The CSTO's (and by extension Russia's) relative passivity once again gave ammunition to the critics who say that the organization is focused on phantom threats (like spillover of radical Islam from Afghanistan) or Russia's geopolitical posturing, rather than the real security threats its member states face.
"As tension grows on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, it must be stated that the CSTO is again remaining indifferent to the security problems of its member states," wrote Belarusian analyst Sergey Ostryna. Ostryna noted that while border problems in Central Asia continue to fester, the CSTO has done nothing to address them.
Uzbekistan has withdrawn its troops from a contested section of border with Kyrgyzstan, bringing a close to the uneasy tensions of the past week, according to a statement from Kyrgyzstan’s presidential administration.
The chairman of the State Border Service, Raimberdi Duishenbiev, told President Almazbek Atambayev that the Uzbek forces had pulled out their equipment and manpower from the Chalasart settlement, in the Aksy district of the Jalal-Abad region, as of 8:00 a.m. local time on March 26.
In accordance with the outcome of negotiations, which took place on March 25, border defenses will now revert to routine levels.
Uzbek troops arrived in the area on March 18 and occupied an unmarked section of road linking the Kyrgyz settlements of Kerben and Ala-Buka. Kyrgyz officials said Uzbekistan’s military deployed armored personnel carriers, two Kamaz trucks and up to 40 troops to the disputed area, which is around 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the Ferghana city of Namangan.
That sparked a hasty mobilization of troops by the Kyrgyz army, which warned that it would not stand down before the Uzbeks gave assurances they would do the same. On the southern flank of Uzbekistan’s portion of the Ferghana Valley, Kyrgyz troops also blocked roads linking the Uzbek enclaves of Sokh and Shahimardan to the rest of the country, effectively stranding its residents. Those troops have also now been pulled back.
On March 21, both sides agreed on measures to soothe tensions in Chalasart by bringing down troop numbers to eight apiece, according to Kyrgyz officials.
While the likelihood of an imminent border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan may be dimming, the tension has been ably exploited by Bishkek to head off opposition forces in the act of gathering their strengths.
On March 24, the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) announced that it had detained two individuals on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. No full names were provided, but the initials of the suspects, B.A. and K.K., have been reported as being those of Bektur Asanov and Kubanychbek Kadyrov, both figures associated with the emergent southern-based opposition.
Moves against the pair followed the leak of recorded phone conversations — allegedly among Asanov, Kadyrov, another prominent and veteran opposition figure and seasoned rabble-rouser, Azimbek Beknazarov, and a former top government official, Duulatbek Turdunaliev — about purported plans to sow instability and seize power.
Kadyrov, for one, has called the recording a crude edit and complained that his constitutional rights were violated when his phone conversations were recorded.
Whether the recording is indeed fake or not, Kadyrov may be onto something.
The GKNB has claimed that the recordings were obtained through a court order related to a criminal investigation. The security services have not been forthcoming about the nature of that investigation, however, and the sudden timely appearance of the recording online suggests this intercept was part of an orchestrated effort to discredit the opposition.