President Islam Karimov has hit the campaign trail in Uzbekistan, after several weeks of absence from public life sparked rumors that the septuagenarian leader’s health was failing ahead of a presidential election next month.
Karimov appeared on state television late on February 19 campaigning in the southern region of Qashqadaryo, a source in Tashkent told EurasiaNet.org. TV footage showed the president addressing a meeting of several hundred voters in the city of Qarshi, after Uzbekistani media reported – citing a source in the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party of Uzbekistan – that he had left for Qashqadaryo and other regions to campaign.
Karimov had last been seen in public on January 27, when he received the credentials of incoming US Ambassador Pamela Spratlen. On February 6 he reportedly presented his election manifesto to the Liberal-Democratic Party, which he heads and which has nominated him to stand in the presidential election on March 29. But Uzbekistani TV did not broadcast footage of that appearance until February 18.
In that speech, he railed against the USSR as a “a system of totalitarianism and repression,” accorded to translated excerpts emailed by the US Embassy in Tashkent the next day.
Karimov’s unusually long absence from TV screens had fueled rumors that the health of the 77-year-old president was failing, helped along by reports on an opposition website notorious for planting canards about his imminent demise that he had fallen into a coma.
The International Crisis Group’s latest report, “Syria Calling: Radicalization in Central Asia,” has generated a lot of media buzz. But two prominent experts on the region are less than convinced. In a critique published February 17, John Heathershaw and David Montgomery slam the report’s fundamental assumptions, calling the research “suggestive impressions masquerading as solid insights.”
Heathershaw, of the University of Exeter (full disclosure: he is my PhD supervisor), and Montgomery, of the University of Pittsburgh, argue that there is little evidence to support the ICG’s assumptions on post-Soviet Muslim radicalization. Drawing on a limited number of interviews with “Islamic State sympathizers,” the ICG infers a causal relationship between what sympathizers say and what militants do, where none can be proven. By concluding that Islamization drives radicalization, the ICG helps legitimate Central Asian regimes’ repression of religious practices, the two contend.
Many of the ICG’s conclusions are based on guesswork, the authors say. The exclusive use of anonymous sources makes it difficult to judge whether the interviewees are serious academics or attention-grabbing, self-styled “experts”—of which Central Asia has so many. Yet these “experts” are uncritically cited and provide the sole evidence for the report’s conclusions.
For instance, Heathershaw and Montgomery take issue with the number of Central Asians that the report states have gone to Syria and Iraq:
Rumors that Uzbekistan’s strongman leader, Islam Karimov, has fallen ill are swirling around Tashkent, yet again, as the country heads for a presidential election in March.
The gossip stems from reports on an opposition website based abroad which is notorious for planting canards about Karimov’s alleged ill health and impending demise. Nevertheless, the fact that the ageing president – who turned 77 last month – has not been seen in public for over two weeks has set tongues wagging in the Uzbek capital.
The rumors surfaced late last month, when the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU), a Norway-based opposition group headed by long-exiled leader Muhammad Solih, reported – citing unidentified “sources” – that Karimov had fallen into a coma on January 28.
Many observers treated the report with skepticism, since the PMU is known for reporting ill-sourced information about Karimov’s health. In spring 2013, the PMU’s report that Uzbekistan’s president had had a heart attack and was at death’s door did the rounds of the world’s media. But Karimov soon turned up safe and sound.
He may well do again – but it now transpires that Karimov has not been seen in public for over two weeks, as the Fergana News website reports – despite the fact that a presidential election campaign in which he is the only realistic candidate is supposedly in full swing.
A street sweeper cleans Moscow’s Tverskaya Ulitsa. Central Asian migrants often do the dirtiest jobs in Russia.
It’s February, so Muscovites are grumbling about their city’s slippery sidewalks. The complaint isn’t unusual in winter, but this year many say they know why everything is covered in ice: The “Tajiks” have left.
Russian media report that the collapse of the ruble and strict new rules for migrant laborers have encouraged an exodus of Central Asians. But preliminary numbers are far smaller than many Muscovites believe. Besides, new government hurdles can be overcome with a bribe.
The startling number often reported and repeated is 70 percent fewer labor migrants than last year. It dates back to January 7, from comments by the head of the Federal Migration Service (FMS), Konstantin Romodanovsky, who cited it as the decrease in arriving migrants year on year. But the comparison is of dubious statistical value, referring only to the first week of 2015, which falls amid Russia’s protracted winter holidays, and also happened to be the first week that the stringent new rules were in place. Nonetheless, even migrants quote the figure when asked for estimates of how many of their compatriots have chosen to leave.
Last week FMS offered more detailed figures. In January, compared with a year earlier, the number of Uzbek citizens in Russia fell 4.3 percent and Tajik citizens by 2.2 percent, according to the RBK business-news website. Yet the number of Kyrgyzstanis had grown by 3.8 percent. (Numbers showing departures in the second half of the year are misleading, as traditionally many migrants leave Russia each winter when seasonal work dries up.)
HQ-9 air defense systems on parade in Beijing. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
China has reportedly provided both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan with sophisticated air defense systems, which would represent the largest Chinese military equipment deal thus far in Central Asia.
Reportedly, China has provided one battalion each to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan of the HQ-9 air defense system, as partial payment for natural gas that it imports from Central Asia. (Each battalion consists of eight launchers.)
The information on the deal is spotty: it comes from Chinese-language Canadian defense journal Kanwa Defense Review, and cites an anonymous Chinese defense industry source. "It is possible, even likely, but it is still unclear at which stage the deals are," Vasily Kashin, a Russian military expert at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies told The Bug Pit. "Both countries need long range [surface-to-air missile] systems to replace their S-200s which are becoming physically old and unsustainable. Both countries are well known for their careful balancing between Russia, China and the West, they are both fiercely independent from Russia. Besides, Chinese currently can provide very good financial terms for such a deal."
Calm has returned to a village in southern Kazakhstan following clashes between ethnic Kazakhs and ethnic Tajiks after a Kazakh man was murdered in an argument over a greenhouse.
Enraged friends and relatives of the murder victim, 30-year-old Bakytzhan Artykov, set fire to cars, damaged buildings, and attacked a Tajik-language school (no children were inside) in the village of Bostandyk, local resident Behruz (not his real name) told EurasiaNet.org by telephone.
“They set fire to buildings and cars,” the eyewitness said. “My own car was set on fire.”
He described how some 300 Kazakhs arrived in Bostandyk from the neighboring village of Yntymak on February 5 following the funeral of Artykov (whom police suspect was murdered by Navmidin Narmetov, a Tajik man now on the run). They rampaged through the streets from around 6 p.m. to midnight on February 5, despite the presence of riot police who arrived in response, Behruz said.
Grainy cellphone footage posted on YouTube said to be from Bostandyk (its authenticity could not be verified), a village mainly inhabited by ethnic Tajiks and located in the southern Saryagash District near the border with Uzbekistan, showed scenes of angry locals, some wielding sticks, and a burning car.
The administration of Nursultan Nazarbayev touts Kazakhstan as a model of tolerance because of the level of harmony among its 140 different ethnic groups. This unrest reveals how arguments can quickly escalate and split locals along ethnic lines.
Some of the attackers were shouting that Tajiks should leave for Tajikistan, Behruz said, “as if we were foreigners in our own country.”
The Islamic State international terrorist group has been plotting attacks in Uzbekistan—so states a much-circulated report carried by a US military-sponsored website citing a previously unknown source in Uzbekistan’s intelligence service.
Though there are plenty of reasons to suspect the report is poorly sourced agitprop helping justify US military aid to Uzbekistan, ironically it appears the US military is giving Russia an excuse to expand its military presence in Central Asia.
“ISIL members were preparing a number of terror attacks for this spring in Uzbekistan, which is precisely why we are strengthening border security,” the report, published by the Pentagon-sponsored Central Asia Online website, quoted a certain Alisher Khamdamov of Uzbekistan’s National Security Service as saying.
“Law enforcement agencies have statements from Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [IMU] and ISIL members who were detained during November and December in Uzbekistan," Khamdamov, described as “an analyst for the National Security Service” (known as the SNB), went on to say.
“The detained Uzbek citizens underwent combat training in Pakistan in 2013 and then returned to Uzbekistan in 2014 to recruit youth into ISIL.”
Khamdamov revealed no details of how the alleged plots were thwarted by the SNB, which has made no further statement. Khamdamov is not known as a spokesperson for the SNB, and a Google search brings up no reports offering further details about his identity or showing him previously commenting for Uzbekistan’s shadowy security service.
Four months after announcing it would slash the amount of gas it buys from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, Russian energy behemoth Gazprom has revealed the extent which its imports from Central Asia will fall this year.
On February 3, Vice Chairman Alexander Medvedev told an investment summit in Hong Kong that this year Gazprom will import two-fifths of the 10 billion cubic meters (bcm) it imported from Turkmenistan in 2014; it will buy less than a quarter of the roughly 4.5 bcm it bought from Uzbekistan last year.
Medvedev said the decisions had the blessings of both Central Asian states, while boasting that his company came to the agreements from a position of strength.
“For Gazprom, thanks to investment in extraction and transport infrastructure, there is no technological necessity for the purchase of foreign gas,” Medvedev said in comments picked up by state-run RIA Novosti. “Gazprom is in the situation to guarantee both the domestic demand in any region of the Russian Federation, and the delivery of gas to our customers in Europe, and in the future, Asia, with our own resources.”
The announcement came just hours before Moscow said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would make a rare stopover in Ashgabat.
The World Bank has declined a request by human rights campaigners to investigate whether its agricultural projects contribute to the use of forced and child labor in Uzbekistan. Yet it has acknowledged that farms benefiting from its assistance might be forcing adults and children to work against their will.
There is a “residual possibility that there can be child and/or forced labor on farms receiving project support,” the World Bank’s Inspection Panel (which handles complaints about projects) said in a ruling delivered in December and approved by the board on January 23. “Hence, there was a plausibility that the project could contribute to perpetuating the harm of child and forced labor.”
The oversight body declined to launch an official probe, however, on the grounds that measures are being taken to tackle forced and child labor in Uzbekistan.
“This decision calls into question the Inspection Panel’s commitment to stand with communities to end abuse,” said Jessica Evans of Human Rights Watch.
The ruling is “shocking,” added Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, in a statement e-mailed by the Cotton Campaign.
“To millions of victims of forced labor in Uzbekistan, the bank has said that despite recognizing the relationship between their plight and its loans, it is not worth investigating,” Niyazova added. “Disturbingly, the bank’s decision is also a message to the Uzbek government that it can continue its forced labor system.”
Niyazova was one of the campaigners who asked for a probe in 2013, amid concerns that the World Bank’s $108-billion Second Rural Enterprise Support Project was effectively contributing to government-sponsored forced and child labor.
Tashkent's government buildings are grandiose but redundant status symbols, empty and locked to discourage prying visitors. (EurasiaNet)
Editor’s Note: EurasiaNet.org received this colorful and revealing account from a traveler who wishes to remain anonymous to have the chance to visit Uzbekistan again.
The Washington Post recently described Uzbekistan as the North Korea you’ve never heard of, conjuring images of a country sealed off from the rest of the world. Is that really what it’s like? For many journalists and others it’s difficult to visit. I recently had the chance, on a business trip for a few days. Here are a few fleeting impressions. (The Washington Post was talking about politics – I’ll stick to a traveller’s experiences.)
I’ve never been to Pyongyang or North Korea, but Tashkent is certainly an impressively big, bustling city (biggest in Central Asia, population 2.2 million) with many of the modern trappings of Western urban life: six-lane highways crisscrossing the central district and a (wonderfully old-fashioned) subway system; American-style malls for the general public and upscale fashion boutiques for the rich; and electronic advertising displays at road junctions promoting luxury watch and jewelry brands.
The city’s café and restaurant scene comes across as cosmopolitan: I sipped cappuccino in a coffee shop that could have been in New York given the number of iPhones and laptops (although it was odd that all the Western newspapers on offer were several years old) and I drank in a ‘European’ beer hall, tapping my feet to a cheesy rock band playing Pink Floyd covers, that, at a push, could have been in Prague.
In a twist on modernity, the city center is also full of shiny white marble palaces – government and parliamentary buildings, cultural centers and embassies of other Central Asian countries – that come across as grandiose but redundant status symbols, empty and locked to discourage prying visitors.