With no teams from Central Asia making it to the 2014 World Cup finals, set to kick off tomorrow in Brazil, local interest again will focus on the man in the middle, Uzbekistan's top referee Ravshan Irmatov.
Tashkent-based Irmatov, 36, won plaudits for his smooth handling of five high-pressure matches in South Africa in 2010, including the opening game and the semi-final between The Netherlands and Uruguay. He returned home a hero and was anointed the Pride Of Uzbekistan, the state's highest honor.
Irmatov will be joined in Brazil by two assistant referees from Central Asia—Bakhadyr Kochkarov, 44, another South Africa veteran who hails from Osh, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan's Abdukhamidullo Rasulov, 38, who is making his first World Cup appearance. The three work as football instructors at home and are the only officials from the former Soviet Union presiding in Brazil (Russia’s team is competing).
The Central Asian troika will need to be on the ball to avoid repeating gaffes the group made at last year's Confederations Cup tournament also in Brazil. There, Irmatov allowed Italy a controversial goal in its match with Brazil. He initially blew for a foul and was seen pointing at the penalty spot but then allowed play to continue and Giorgio Chiellini scored for the Italians.
Irmatov accepted the goal but later admitted it should not have been allowed, that he should have stuck with the decision to give a penalty. In the same match, Rasulov and Kochkarov were both faulted for failing to spot offside goals scored by Brazil.
Four months after the precipitous downfall of Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman leader Islam Karimov, the most visible arms of her former business empire still stand shuttered in Tashkent – although some enterprises are slowly coming back to life under different management.
Karimova has reportedly been under house arrest in Tashkent since February, after coming off worst in a power struggle with the influential head of Uzbekistan’s domestic intelligence service, Rustam Inoyatov, and her own mother Tatyana Karimova and younger sister Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva.
Nothing has been heard from the once powerful president’s daughter for three months, when she apparently smuggled a letter out to media complaining of ill treatment at the hands of her captors.
When the authorities isolated Karimova in February, businesses associated with her in Tashkent, where she had fingers in many pies (from telecoms to retail and entertainment), were abruptly shuttered.
Karimova’s face still stares down from the window of one outlet on Sadyk Azimov Street in downtown Tashkent, a once bustling DVD, CD, and computer game store that was part of a chain called Nirvana. The poster advertising the president’s daughter in her pop diva persona, Googoosha, remains, although the store stands closed and Googoosha’s songs have disappeared from the airwaves.
This poster is one of the few public signs left of the business empire presided over by Karimova, who once had such an appetite for swallowing up rivals’ interests that American diplomats dubbed her a “robber baron.”
Gazprom was supposed to end Kyrgyzstan’s gas shortages and contract disputes with its neighbors. Instead, since the Russian energy giant took control of Kyrgyzstan’s bankrupt gas company almost two months ago, the country has faced one of its worst gas crises in memory.
The immediate cause of the shortage is Uzbekistan. The Uzbek state gas supplier, Uztransgaz, closed the taps on April 14, leaving an estimated 60,000 households in southern Kyrgyzstan without gas. Kyrgyz leaders are now proposing solutions that are likely to get Uzbekistan’s attention, but could prove risky.
The problem appears to have started on a technicality: Shortly before Kyrgyzgaz handed control of its debt-ridden gas network to Gazprom, its supply contract with Uzbekistan ran out. Uztransgaz agreed to add two more weeks, to April 15, but who were they supposed to negotiate with? The now-defunct Kyrgyzgaz? Gazprom? Gazprom’s new local subsidiary Kyrgyzgazprom?
That question lingers, but after almost two months it sounds like the Uzbeks are not keen to talk.
Deputy Prime Minister Valery Dil says he has tried multiple times to reach his Uzbek counterparts, yet they ignore him. Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev has also complained he can't get anyone in Tashkent to take his calls.
Apple, the beloved maker of addictive gadgets, says it is using gold mined in Uzbekistan, one of the world’s most notorious human rights abusers, in some of its most popular products.
The disclosure follows new American legislation requiring US-listed companies to reveal supply chains to show they are not using "conflict minerals" – tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold – that have helped fund Congo’s never-ending war.
According to Apple’s May 29 Specialized Disclosure Report to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), last year the California-based company used gold from Uzbekistan's Almalyk Mining and Metallurgical Complex and Navoi Mining & Metallurgy Combinat. Gold from those companies could have ended up in “Apple’s iPhone, iPad, Mac, iPod, Apple TV, displays, and accessories,” the disclosure said.
“The ethical sourcing of minerals is an important part of Apple’s mission to ensure safe and fair working conditions in its supply chain. Apple is determined to use ‘conflict free’ minerals in its products,” Apple said in its SEC filing.
The new SEC reporting requirements affect some 6,000 US-listed companies, Forbes reported last month. The SEC estimates the extra due diligence will cost these companies between $3 and $4 billion this year and $207 to $609 million annually afterward, Forbes said.
It has become standard for rights advocates to use Uzbekistan’s controversial policies – forced labor in the cotton fields and the hounding of independent religious groups, for example – to demand Uzbekistan’s international partners push for reform. But a separatist group from within Uzbekistan taking its campaign to the World Bank is something new.
On June 1, a little-known freedom movement in Uzbekistan’s resources-rich, but impoverished northwestern region of Karakalpakstan urged the president of the World Bank Group, Jim Yong Kim, to postpone loans to the Uzbek government until Tashkent has taken "concrete steps to end the use of forced labor" in the cotton sector. Alga Karakalpakstan ("Forward Karakalpakstan") said the $411 million for water management improvement and horticulture projects in cotton-growing Karakalpakstan will encourage the government to continue abusing the minority’s rights.
"The government owns all the land of Uzbekistan and forces farmers to meet annual quotas for cotton, and sell it to the state at a low purchasing price—under the threat of losing land, criminal charges and physical violence," said the English-language letter to Kim, describing a widely documented practice. "Every autumn, the Uzbek government forcibly mobilized 16-17 year old students of colleges and universities, pensioners, education and health professionals, and other public sector workers to pick cotton."
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on a visit to Brussels in 2011. (photo: NATO)
NATO formally opened its liaison office in Uzbekistan on Friday, a year after it started working and amid heightened Russian rhetoric about the western alliance encroaching on its backyard.
The opening itself was not a big deal: it only formalized a move that happened last year, which was itself described by NATO officials as just a "rotation" of NATO's representation in Central Asia from Astana to Tashkent. (NATO calls the new structure in Tashkent a "liaison office," while the preferred phrase in the Russian-language press seems to be the much more impressive-sounding "staff headquarters.") Nevertheless, the opening ceremony was held in a very different geopolitical atmosphere than obtained last year, and so it was inevitable that people would seek to try to figure out what it really meant.
Uzbekistan is unmistakably taking a different path than that of its neighbors. While Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are all (to varying degrees) participating in Russia's economic and military integration schemes, Uzbekistan has resisted. And strategic concerns have overridden Western qualms about human rights, notes Tolganay Umbetaliyeva, the director of the Kazakhstan-based Central Asian Fund for the Development of Democracy. "In spite of the fact that after the Andijan events of 2005 relations between Uzbekistan and the West sharply deteriorated, their recent improvement can be seen as the West's response to the various integration processes of the post-Soviet Central Asian states and Russia in various spheres," she told RFE/RL.
When Russian state energy giant Gazprom took control of Kyrgyzstan’s gas network last month, the prime minister called the transfer a “historic event.” Gazprom chairman Aleksey Miller promised his company "guarantees a stable gas supply.”
Neither seems very reliable to residents of southern Kyrgyzstan today, the 24th day the region has been without gas.
Four days after the formal transfer ceremony, Uzbekistan cut gas supplies to southern Kyrgyzstan. Residents of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city, complain they have been forced to use expensive electricity or cook over wood or dung stoves. Fortunately, the weather is warm. One resident describes a previous cut-off, during winter, when he used seven candles to boil water to make tea for his children.
Gazprom was meant to end such outages. Under the deal, which the Kyrgyz parliament approved in December, for a symbolic $1 Gazprom snapped up Kyrgyzgaz and its property and gained rent-free use of land any facilities stand on. In exchange it took on Kyrgyzgaz’s estimated $38 million debt and pledged some $600 million to improve Kyrgyzstan’s crumbling gas grid. In the long-term, the Kyrgyz hope Gazprom can streamline energy supplies and ease the dire power shortages the country experiences every winter.
A couple of seditious tweets and fliers usually do not merit a lot of analysis in conspiracy-prone Central Asia. But calls for independence in Uzbekistan's impoverished and "autonomous" west are likely getting ample attention from the country’s secret police following Russia’s recent annexation of another “autonomous” region in a former Soviet republic, Crimea.
Tashkent tightly controls Karakalpakistan and doesn't countenance any talk of independence, even though the region still has, on paper, “autonomous” status—a Soviet-era administrative device, essentially meaningless today in Central Asia, used to govern regions with large minority populations.
On May 5, Twitter user @amankar67 posted an announcement reminding followers that an obscure pro-independence movement that appeared this year, Alga Karakalpakstan ("Forward Karakalpakstan"), would hold a "peaceful rally" against the regime of President Islam Karimov. "Forward Karakalpakstan people's movement!!! Karakalpak people are called to a [protest] action in Nukus," the announcement reads in typo-laden Karakalpak.
(For the record, if you’re just tuning in, “peaceful rallies” don’t happen in Uzbekistan.)
Last week Forward Karakalpakstan claimed credit for a mysterious leaflet found in the town of Kungrad calling for Karakalpak independence, according to an April 29 press release by the heretofore-unknown “Shyrak Information Center” (which claimed to be set up this year by "activists of the Karakalpak democratic movement" to cooperate with "various dissident groups in the country and abroad").
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, visits Hairatan in 2010. (photo: ISAF)
Since the rail line between the Uzbekistan border town of Hairatan and Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, opened in 2011, news about its operations have been hard to come by. But it is apparently running in relative safety (contrary to some previous suggestions) and under Uzbekistan's control. That's according to a dispatch from Hairatan by American newspaper Fayetteville Observer, the local paper of some of the U.S. Army reservists who are managing the rail line (and flagged by the excellent Railways of Afghanistan blog).
The railroad, recall, was built by Uzbekistan Railways with money from the Asian Development Bank after American military logisticians identified the Uzbekistan border as the most troublesome bottleneck in getting supplies into Afghanistan.
Since then, Uzbekistan and the Northern Distribution Network generally have declined in significance to the U.S. military, which now relies much more heavily on Pakistan. But, as one U.S. soldier told the Observer: "This gives us an alternative in case Pakistan closes... It gives us negotiating leverage in Pakistan. If you guys don't play ball with us, there is another way out." Still, about 4,600 rail cars ply the Hairaton-Mazar route every month, and about 90 percent of the fuel used by coalition forces in Afghanistan travels on the rail line.
Three years after opening, Uzbekistan still operates the railroad, the piece reports:
[T]he railroad between Uzbekistan and Mazar-e-Sharif is operated by Uzbekistan as part of an agreement between that country and Afghanistan. It was built by the Asian Development Bank using donations from across the world, and the Uzbek government - not Afghanistan - collects money from the imports.
The U.S. State Department is skeptical about how Central Asian governments perceive the threat of terrorism in their countries, according to the department's annual review of terrorism around the globe.
In language similar to last year's report, the State Department said that "The effectiveness of some Central Asian countries’ efforts to reduce their vulnerability to perceived terrorist threats was difficult to discern in some cases, however, due to failure to distinguish clearly between terrorism and violent extremism on one hand and political opposition, or non-traditional religious practices, on the other." But this year it added a bit of texture with a mention of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: "[T]errorist groups with ties to Central Asia – notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union – continued to be an issue even as they operated outside of the Central Asian states." (For some serious analysis of what threat the IMU poses, see this post at the Afghan Analysts Network.)