The security forces in Uzbekistan have been carrying out regular, large-scale antiterror exercises in Tashkent, suggesting a heightened concern about terror attacks or riots, opposition media are reporting.
The webstie uznews.com has been carrying a series of reports about police and military exercises carried out in the city. A common theme of the reports is that the authorities don't provide any information about the exercises, which then sow panic among locals who wonder what is going on when soldiers storm their neighborhoods. In February, one exercise led residents to believe that there was a hostage situation at a school:
Residents in a Tashkent neighbourhood were terrified to find themselves under attack from terrorists on 25th February, only to learn that the frightening events unfolding around them were apparently being staged as an exercise.
School number 149 was at the centre of events that day; people in camouflage fatigues, helmets and carrying weapons, began to herd passers by away from the neighbourhood and the school.
People who did not come out of their flats were ordered to remain there. At one point the sound of shooting and grenade explosions were clearly audible.
Another drill, at a railway station near the Tashkent airport earlier this month, prompted rumors that prisoners had broken out of a train that was transporting them:
Tenants said that they were frightened when military personnel and a great number of armoured vehicles started shootings at the railway station on 4 May....
“I walked on the bridge and saw military personnel come towards me, some 20 of them wearing helmets and bulletproof vests. ‘Are you going to detain someone?’ I asked. ‘No, do not worry, grandma, we are conducting drills,’ they replied,” the elderly woman said.
A new report by the United Nations drug agency sheds light on the nuts and bolts of narcotics transit from Afghanistan through Central Asia, highlighting the former Soviet republics’ lackluster efforts at interdiction.
The 106-page report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), released this month, describes how smugglers traffic heroin and opium from Afghanistan, the world’s largest producer, to Russia, the world’s largest consumer. Ninety tons of highly pure heroin, roughly a quarter of the substance exiting Afghanistan, passes through Central Asia annually. Yet in 2010 authorities in the region seized less than 3 percent of it. And despite international efforts to help, that number keeps falling.
Central Asia’s entrenched corruption makes the region a perfect smuggling route, says the report. Senior officials are complicit in the trade, or at least take bribes to look the other way, especially in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. A lack of cooperation among neighbors also offers a boon to traffickers.
The stakes are huge.
“UNODC estimates that in 2010 drug traffickers in Central Asia made a net profit of $1.4 billion from heroin sales. Much of this profit was likely incurred by Tajik traffickers, given that Tajikistan is estimated to handle most of the flow,” said the report. They profit by marking up the heroin by as much as 600 percent once it gets to Russia. Between 70 and 75 percent of the drugs travel by road, leaving a trail of new addicts across Central Asia.
The city of Tashkent is making it easier for police to sort residents into “insiders” and “outsiders” by forcing everyone to get a new stamp in their internal passports. It’s unclear what’s behind the new measure, but in one of the most corrupt places on earth the extra red tape could provide police another opportunity to stick their hands in residents’ pockets, observers fear.
As of May 14, the inhabitants of Uzbekistan’s capital have been formally divided into two groups, and must line up for the proper stamps to show it. Residents who were born in Tashkent or already have a permanent Tashkent living permit will have one stamp; outsiders, those who have come to Tashkent from the provinces, will have a different stamp.
According to Uzmetronom, a news site believed by some to be connected to Uzbekistan’s security services, the stamps allow police to “quickly determine whether the holder of the document is a native resident of the capital city or region or if he/she came to the capital from a distant region [of Uzbekistan].” Uzmetronom does not say why police must be able to quickly separate residents from non-residents.
The Ministry of the Interior says it is training officials and lawyers on the new law’s specifics, but the regulations are lengthy. Requiring all residents to get a new stamp sounds like a paperwork-generating nightmare ripe for misreading.
Authorities in Uzbekistan don't like to discuss how they push schoolchildren, college students and teachers to toil in the country’s feudal cotton industry. But now that spring planting is underway, again a few brave activists are bringing us reports on both children and adults being dragged out of school and forced to work in the cotton fields, in dangerous conditions for no pay.
A two-page report by the Expert Working Group, one of the only independent NGOs left in Uzbekistan, provides the latest details, including testimonies. From the English version:
From the first days of May the Uzbek youth at secondary schools, lyceums and colleges in Bukhara, Samarkand, Jizzakh, Syrdarya, Khorezm regions and autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan were forced to attend spring cotton cultivation activities. This type of work usually includes weeding and hilling of the ground. It can be suggested that the same type of practice with forced spring labor is taking place in all other areas of the country. The minors from secondary schools involved in this type of forced spring labor are 13-16 years old (7-8-9th grades of school) and minors from lyceums and colleges are 16-18 years old.
From Monday to Friday the Uzbek youth involved in forced spring labor attend the local cotton fields from 13.00 afternoon till 18.00 evening. And on Saturdays and Sundays they attend the cotton fields from 09.00 of morning till 18.00 evening. Thus on Saturdays the classes for these groups of children are cancelled. The sources say the spring forced labor for the children would last until May 20-25.
The report likewise notes that “Uzbek authorities have never acknowledged the forced child labor problem and have avoided any public promise to eradicate it.”
The study finds that Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan have made huge strides in reducing child malnutrition. It singles out Uzbekistan (alongside Angola) as one of “two priority countries that have made the fastest progress in reducing child malnutrition – both cut stunting rates in half in about 10 years.”
Uzbekistan topped the list of states that have made the greatest strides. Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan came fifth and sixth respectively.
As The Economist pointed out, half of the top six success stories identified by Save the Children are in Central Asia (while number six is North Korea). “This finding is – how can one put it politely? – counter-intuitive,” The Economist commented.
“Number one on the list is Uzbekistan, a vicious dictatorship which imprisons political opponents and has been the site of mass killings,” it continued, while Turkmenistan “had for many years one of the world’s stranger dictators [Saparmurat Niyazov] who renamed the days of the week after himself and his family.” (Turkmenistan is still run by a dictator who is fostering his own personality cult.)
In April, officials in Uzbekistan announced a high-profile, nationwide crackdown on prostitution. According to local news reports, prostitution has been growing unchecked throughout the country in recent years. But Fergana News says officials’ efforts to stem the supply of sex workers may be more about price control than altruism.
As part of the government’s campaign, state television broadcast a documentary including footage of alleged prostitutes confessing and grainy shots of a hotel room with American dollars fanned out on the table. While the documentary intended to show how police are enforcing laws against prostitution and sex trafficking, a retired Tashkent police officer says the depiction is nonsense, telling Fergana that controlling prostitution is simply in some cops’ economic interests:
For many it isn’t a secret that senior police officers and regular policemen often control and regulate sold women, this ‘good’ on the market. Of course the proponents of this undercover business obviously are not happy with a sharp increase in [the availability of] sex-work services. A campaign against prostitution would decrease the supply and restore control of this specific market [to the police].
In interviews conducted by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in 2005, sex workers in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley claimed they paid a monthly fee to local police for protection. In addition, some said they were contracted by police to help fell high-ranking politicians and businessmen by entrapping them in sex scandals.
TeliaSonera's is a familiar logo in Central Asia and the Caucasus
Traveling to the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku this month? You might think twice before picking up an Azercell SIM card for your mobile phone, even though the company is one of the event's main sponsors.
An investigation by the Swedish public broadcaster, Sveriges Television (SVT), last month alleges that TeliaSonera, the Swedish-Finnish telecommunications giant, is helping authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union spy on their own citizens, making the company complicit in human rights abuses.
TeliaSonera has given dictatorships like Azerbaijan, Belarus and Uzbekistan – which rank among the world's worst human rights abusers – access to its systems in exchange for lucrative contracts, says the hour-long report, which aired on April 17 and is available online with English-language subtitles.
A former executive from the company said on condition of anonymity that TeliaSonera – which is 37 percent owned by the Swedish government – has granted security services in these countries real-time access to all telephone calls, data and text messages, which has facilitated the arrest of opposition members in Belarus and a savage attack on an Azerbaijani journalist.
In Azerbaijan, the security agency even has an office of its own in the Azercell building, said the report. TeliaSonera operates Azercell in Azerbaijan, Geocell in Georgia, Kcell in Kazakhstan, Tcell in Tajikistan and Ucell in Uzbekistan, among others. It also holds a major stake in Turkey's Turkcell.
“If there was a glitch [with monitoring calls], the security agency called. They’d want us to shut down the network until the problem was solved,” the former TeliaSonera executive said of his experience dealing with the Belarusian KGB.
Everything is fine, no need to look here, we don’t secretly cut out our women’s wombs.
That’s the message from Uzbekistan’s state-run Uzdaily.uz, which has decried as the work of the “yellow press” a recent BBC report on how Uzbek doctors are secretly sterilizing tens of thousands of women.
Only women who wish to be sterilized are having the procedure, says Uzdaily. The BBC, however, reported that doctors are convincing women to give birth by Caesarean section in order to gain access to their internal reproductive organs: "Rules on Caesareans used to be very strict, but now I believe 80 percent of women give birth through C-sections. This makes it very easy to perform a sterilization and tie the fallopian tubes," a senior surgeon at a Tashkent hospital told the BBC. Uzdaily reiterated the government claim, which doctors ridicule, that only 6.8 percent of Uzbek women have C-sections.
The controversial sterilizations are not new, but the BBC report – which suggested officials are concerned with Uzbekistan’s ranking on international maternal mortality indices – appears to have gotten Tashkent’s attention. The Associated Press reported in 2010 on the “Uzbek women who have been surgically sterilized without their knowledge or consent in a program designed to prevent overpopulation from fueling unrest.”
The doctor “never asked for my approval, never ran any checks, just mutilated me as if I were a mute animal," one mother, who had part of her uterus removed during a C-section, told the AP, shortly after the death of her first, and last, baby.
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov Meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Will he be shaking hands with Obama next?
U.S. President Barack Obama should meet with his Uzbekistan counterpart, Islam Karimov, at the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago, says the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce. The AUCC has written two letters, one to Obama and the other to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arguing that an Obama-Karimov meeting would improve opportunities for American businesses in Uzbekistan:
[T]he Republic of Uzbekistan is important to U.S. interests in ensuring stability and security in the region, and under the Partnership for Peace Program, NATO and Uzbekistan are developing practical cooperation in a number of areas through Uzbekistan's Individual Partnership Program and the Planning and Review Process.
The Republic of Uzbekistan's political stability as well as its determination and commitment to ensure peace in the region are important features for business success. For AUCC member companies, the positive political dialogue between the United States of America and the Republic of Uzbekistan pursued by your office reinforces the U.S. business community's ability to increase investments and exports to the Uzbek market.
The AUCC would welcome your support for the request that you meet Uzbek President Islam A. Karimov during the NATO Summit in Chicago, IL. The U.S. business community believes that such a meeting with further enhance our bilateral relations, reiterate the U.S. commercial interest in this resource-rich country and strengthen our companies' business stance in the region.
The Bug Pit obtained copies of the letters, you can read the entire letter to Obama here. (The letter to Clinton is almost identical.)
The person who sent me the letter wasn't sure if Karimov was already planning to attend the NATO summit, but if he does, that will certainly be a bit of a spectacle.
Rumors are circulating that London has rejected the daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman Islam Karimov as his ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. Gulnara Karimova, the self-styled glamorous society queen, has already served as Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Spain and representative to the United Nations in Geneva. If true, the rebuff could spell trouble for Britain’s Afghanistan exit plans.
Though the idea Gulnara would seek such a sinecure is not far-fetched, for now the main source seems to be Craig Murray, a scandalous former British ambassador to Tashkent known for his debauched parties and long-standing hatred for the Karimov regime.
In an interview published April 19 with the BBC’s Uzbek service, Murray, citing “friends” in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), insists London has not agreed to Tashkent’s request.
BBC: We have asked the Foreign Office about the possible appointment of Gulnara Karimova as ambassador to the UK, but the Foreign Office said there had been no such agreement or request. You are not a member of the British government, but where are you getting this kind of information? Why should we trust you?
Murray: I worked as a member of the British government for over 20 years […] I still have many friends among former colleagues that I worked with during that time. They keep giving me information about what is going on. I’d like to stress one thing: The British government has not agreed to host Gulnara Karimova as ambassador and no deal has been achieved to this effect. But the information that there has been no such a request or demand is false. This request was sent to Britain from Tashkent.