Nerves on the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan cooled somewhat on March 21 with news that both sides agreed to draw back their forces from a disputed area.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan, who have been the only ones willing to volunteer any firm information, said that the de-escalation was the result of negotiations among border officials.
The standoff is focused around a road that links two remote Kyrgyz towns, Kerben and Ala-Buka, but passes through contested territory fringing Uzbekistan. There are many similar roads lacking demarcation across the Ferghana valley and drivers are frequently obliged to pass through neighboring territory.
Kyrgyzstan’s border service reported on March 18 that Uzbek troops had blocked an unmarked section of the Kerben-Ala-Buka road. 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.
The number of troops from either side has been brought down to eight apiece, according to Kyrgyz officials.
Some local media in Uzbekistan cited border service sources in Tashkent as saying that the mobilization was a routine reinforcement for Nowruz festivities on March 21.
But officials in Kyrgyzstan are pointing to another explanation.
The Kyrgyz government’s special envoy on border issues, Kurbanbai Iskandarov, told Kloop.kg news website that the Uzbek closure of the border area was linked to a water reservoir in the area that is used by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan alike.
A sudden deployment of troops by Uzbekistan along a disputed section of border has rattled nerves in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan’s border service reported on March 18 that Uzbek troops have blocked an unmarked section of the frontier linking the localities of Kerben and Ala-Buka, two areas of Kyrgyzstan lying either side of a spur of Uzbekistan.
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.
The Foreign Ministry in Bishkek summoned Uzbek ambassador Komil Rashidov and handed him a note of protest. The letter demanded that Uzbek forces dismantle checkpoints set up in the border area.
Sections of the border between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, as well as Tajikistan, zigzag haphazardly for several hundred kilometers, requiring local people to either undertake long detours or traverse the neighboring nation’s territory, which can entail long waits.
Uzbek forces have closed the Madaniyat-Avtodorozhnyi crossing and are barring Kyrgyz citizens from entering Uzbekistan through the Dostuk-Avtodorozhnyi crossing. People are being allowed to leave Uzbekistan through the latter crossing, but cannot re-enter.
In response to the Uzbek deployments, Kyrgyzstan’s armed forces on March 19 dispatched two troop carriers of their own to the same area, explaining that they needed to bolster border security. Bishkek said it would draw back the troops as soon as Uzbekistan recalls its own forces.
Georgia is one sad post-Soviet place, according to the World Happiness Report, which for the second year running rated the Caucasus nation as the most downbeat country in the former Soviet Union. Out of this bunch, the Central Asian autocracy of Uzbekistan, ranked 49th out of 157 countries, is apparently having the most fun.
Judging by the report, Georgia has gone a long way from being the fun-in-the-sun spot of the USSR. American writer John Steinbeck once recalled that the Russians and Ukrainians he had met during his late 1940s travels to the Soviet Union all yearned for “magical” Georgia. “People who had never been there, and who possibly could never go there, spoke of Georgia with a kind of longing and admiration,” Steinbeck observed in his 1948 Russian Journal. “They spoke of Georgians as superman, as great drinkers, great dancers, great musicians, great workers and lovers. And they spoke of the country in the Caucasus and around the Black Sea as a kind of second heaven.”
Soviet media propaganda helped cultivate Georgia’s role as the place for happiness and abundance. In movies, female collective farmers in straw-hats picked tea leaves and warbled cheerful songs in piercing sopranos. News presenters on national TV were prone to smile when sharing news from what they persistently referred to as cолнечная Грузия, “sunny Georgia. “
Were Georgians faking it, then? Or have the economic struggles, civil turmoil and loss of territories of the post-Soviet era just ruined their mood?
A draft bill in Uzbekistan is pursuing a markedly puritanical line with its rules to ban eroticism in commercials and online advertising for gambling.
The proposed legislation was posted online this week and the government has said it will invite public consultation until March 24.
While aggressively hounding anybody vaguely suspected of holding radical Islamic views, authorities in Uzbekistan have over many years also sought to stamp out perceived immorality and promote conservative values.
President Islam Karimov gave a stark illustration of that at a public event in February, when he robustly condemned same-sex relationships.
“If a man lives with a man, or a woman with a women, I think that something there isn’t quite right, or some change has happened,” Karimov was quoted as saying by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik.
Some conservative drives are promoted under the pretext of protecting national cultural values.
In December, BBC News cited local media as reporting that professional musicians were being compelled to provide regular reports on their appearances on pain of being stripped of their licenses.
“The government has ordered the Uzbeknavo performing rights authority to tighten up licensing after accusing it, the national broadcaster, internet regulators, and the culture ministry of allowing performances ‘that can have a negative impact on the moral upbringing of the younger generation,’” the BBC reported.
Campaigners have handed a petition to the World Bank urging it to suspend funding for agricultural projects in Uzbekistan until Tashkent roots out forced labor in the cotton harvest.
A petition addressed to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and signed by 140,000 people was delivered to the institution’s Washington HQ on March 9, said the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of advocacy groups.
On the same day, one human rights group released a damning report documenting allegedly systematic use of forced labor during last year’s cotton harvest.
“To harvest cotton, officials once again forced more than a million people, including students, teachers, doctors, nurses, and employees of government agencies and private businesses to the cotton fields, against their will and under threat of penalty, especially losing their jobs,” the report by the Berlin-based Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) stated.
The World Bank press office told EurasiaNet.org by e-mail that the organization “does not condone forced labor in any form and takes seriously the reports of such practices in the cotton production system of Uzbekistan.”
“Over the past 2-3 years, the Bank has maintained an intensive dialogue with the Government of Uzbekistan on issues related to child and forced labor in the cotton sector. During this period, the authorities introduced changes to the national legal framework related to the protection of the rights of workers and the prohibitions on child and forced labor,” the World Bank said.
Uzbekistan has never been a fan of free speech — but Tashkent is now literally equating debate to terrorism.
Ozodlik, the Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has reported that two academics who wrote a manual on how to foster debating skills among young people are facing suspicions of terrorism and pursuing the overthrow of the government.
According to Ozodlik’s anonymously sourced report, Eleni Duras and Dilfuza Kurolova are under investigation for authoring or disseminating material liable to present a threat to public order.
None of the people involved in the story responded to EurasiaNet.org’s queries for clarification.
Published three years ago with the support of the United Nations Development Program, the Guide to Debating aimed to develop oratorical skills among young people — a common practice in universities worldwide.
The manual has now been withdrawn from educational institutions and copies have been burned, according to RFE/RL’s source.
The two authors — both respected academics — and Bahodir Ayupov, the head of the UNDP’s Social Innovation and Volunteering in Uzbekistan project, have reportedly been called in for interrogation by prosecutors and intelligence agents from the National Security Service.
Kurolova is a law graduate and MA student at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, according to her LinkedIn professional profile. She is also a member of the OSCE-backed Central Asian Youth Networking forum, which brings together young people from around the region to promote understanding of topical issues.
Uzbekistan hopes it will begin to see the first dividends of a much-touted privatization drive as early as this summer with the sale of state-owned assets in 55 enterprises.
Local news website Novy Vek on February 24 cited a decree signed by President Islam Karimov estimating that the privatizations could raise up to $437 million.
Those acquisitions would cement agreements reached during an international investment forum that took place in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in November.
A government commission has been formed to oversee the privatization process and will be headed by Uzbekistan’s most prominent proponent of economic liberalization, Finance Minister Rustam Azimov.
Negotiations on acquisitions between Azimov’s commission and investors should either be concluded by March 1 or the assets will be offered to alternative buyers by July 1, Novy Vek reported.
A Cabinet decree published on February 10 approved the formation of 89 joint stock companies in which stakes of at least 15 percent are to be sold to foreign investors.
Those companies include telecoms company Uzbektelecom, five banks — one of them being scandal-tainted Asaka Bank — the Uzbek postal service and trading company Uztadbirkorexport.
A 15 percent share is being made available in 64 of the joint stock companies by means of an issue of additional shares. Those companies include 17 servicing the oil and gas industry, nine alcoholic goods factories, and 10 construction companies operating under the auspices of the Uzbekenergo power company.
Companies in Uzbekistan have shelled out around half a billion dollars in fines after failing to pay salaries to their staff.
This is the latest indication that the country is grappling with economic problems which are absent from the rosy official picture of steady growth.
Firms were slapped with fines worth a total of 1.5 billion sum ($500 million at the official exchange rate) last year for wage arrears owed to employees, Russian state news service Sputnik reported this week.
The fines resulted from 1,300 complaints filed with the State Legal Labor Inspection service, Sputnik said.
The wage arrears were generally the result of a lack of funds at the organization in question, an unnamed labor inspection official. Other reasons included organizations holding money back to make a profit on interest, and simple bureaucratic hitches in making payments.
The revelation suggests that companies may be ailing in the face of the economic crisis that is gripping Central Asian — although the government is in denial about the impact of the region-wide crisis on Uzbekistan.
Its bullish economic forecast sees growth at 7.6 percent this year, despite falls in key commodity prices — gold, cotton and gas — and a massive drop in remittances from migrant laborers in Russia that is eating into disposable incomes.
With recession in Russia forcing many migrants out of work, the government is reporting that jobs are being created at home in Uzbekistan on a massive scale.
If Tashkent’s statistics are to be believed (and economists warn that they should be taken with a grain of salt), nearly 2 million extra jobs will have been created over two years by the end of 2016: 980,000 in 2015 and 990,000 in 2016, according to Sputnik.
Russian-owned telecommunications giant VimpelCom is to shell out $835 million in fines after admitting to securing its foothold on the market in Uzbekistan through bribery.
The U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement on February 18 that it is also seeking the forfeiture of $850 million of bribes payments allegedly made by VimpelCom another Russian-owned company, MTS, and now being held in bank accounts in Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Ireland.
U.S. government officials have described these as historic turning points.
“These cases combine a landmark [Foreign Corrupt Practices Act] resolution for corporate bribery with one of the largest forfeiture actions we have ever brought to recover bribe proceeds from a corrupt government official,” said Assistant Attorney General Caldwell.
The lion’s share of the fines — $795 million — will be paid to the U.S. and Dutch corruption-busting bodies that have been investigating the activities in Uzbekistan of VimpelCom and other telecoms companies.
VimpelCom officially admitted earlier this week to engaging in corrupt practices in Uzbekistan.
VimpelCom admitted it had “through various executives and employees, paid bribes to an Uzbek government official, who was a close relative of a high-ranking government official and had influence over the Uzbek governmental body that regulated the telecom industry,” the Justice Department said.
That individual is widely held to be Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov.
Tashkent is also seeking the return of those frozen funds, arguing that it is a victim of bribery.
An international telecoms company has admitted engaging in corrupt practices in Uzbekistan, following bribery probes spanning several continents whose tentacles reach into the heart of the ruling Karimov family.
This marks the first official admission by an international telecommunications company of illegal practices in a case that centers on the affairs of the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, Gulnara Karimova, who was last heard of under house arrest in Uzbekistan on corruption charges.
Russian-owned VimpelCom said it is prepared to “acknowledge certain violations of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and relevant Dutch laws” and pay fines to corruption-busting bodies in the United States and Holland.
The admission was made in a report on final quarter results for 2015, released on February 17 by VimpelCom, which is majority owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman. Norway’s state-owned Telenor owns a minority stake that it is trying to sell.
VimpelCom said that discussions with the U.S. Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission and the Dutch Public Prosecution Service had resulted in “prospective settlements” that, subject to approval, will see it admit breaking U.S. and Dutch anti-corruption laws and paying “fines and disgorgements.”
The size of the anticipated payments was not disclosed, but VimpelCom said that it was within the $900m it set aside last November to cover potential liabilities from the corruption probes.