Uzbek human rights activists have plenty of reasons to feel unsafe at home and in exile. Their well justified fears may now spread: A prominent Russian activist who has written extensively about human rights abuses in Uzbekistan says he has received death threats originating in Tashkent.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on Russian authorities to investigate the death threats against Vitaliy Ponomarev, the lead Central Asia expert with the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center, and his family.
His latest report, published on December 26, detailed the Uzbek security services’ interrogations of Uzbek migrant worker Latif Zhalalbaev in a Russian prison: Uzbek operatives have allegedly tortured Zhalalbaev, who was arrested last October on counterfeiting charges, in attempts to extract information on the financing of an Islamist militant group, Ponomarev reported.
On January 12, Ponomarev received three emails within several minutes threatening him and his family. The authors of the emails said they know where Ponomarev lives and specifically threatened to decapitate him. The emails, which came from a single IP address in Tashkent but from different addresses, also warned him against travelling to southern Kyrgyzstan. When Ponomarev publicized the death threats on January 18, he received another threatening email.
Kyrgyz villagers in a troubled border region are experiencing food, fuel and medicine shortages, local media reported today, as a state of emergency in southern Kyrgyzstan continues. In Bishkek, officials say they have made no progress getting their Uzbek counterparts to reopen the frontier after Tashkent unilaterally closed most checkpoints on January 17.
The latest tensions date to January 5, when residents of Sokh, an Uzbek enclave surrounded by Kyrgyz territory, reportedly attacked Kyrgyz border guards who were installing electrical wires on a contested piece of territory. The next day locals took several dozen Kyrgyz hostage and destroyed their vehicles.
Though the hostages were quickly released and the Kyrgyz received compensation for their damaged property (reportedly collected from Sokh’s residents, who are mostly ethnic Tajiks), troubles remain in this Ferghana Valley flashpoint.
Sokh is a strategic parcel of land. A 350-square-kilometer valley blessed with water in a parched agricultural region, it basically cuts Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province in half. The only all-weather Kyrgyz road passes through this Uzbek territory, meaning Kyrgyz traveling between Batken, perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s poorest province, and Osh must stop at Uzbek checkpoints. As the population grows, and land and water become scarcer, the region seethes and occasionally erupts in violence.
If a new poll is to be believed, once again Uzbeks are some of the happiest people on the planet, fully supportive of the path blazed by their strongman president, Islam Karimov, and optimistic about the future.
According to the survey released this week by Tashkent-based pollster Ijtimoiy Fikr (“Public Opinion”), Uzbekistan's citizens "fully" support Karimov’s domestic and foreign policies and his "large-scale comprehensive democratic reforms."
The poll claims that over 80 percent of respondents assess their socioeconomic well-being as "good" and "stable." Moreover, a staggering 90 percent anticipate their lot will improve further this year.
Ijtimoiy Fikr is one of the few polling outfits operating openly in closed Uzbekistan, which some observers believe is because its findings are generally favorable of government policy and the Karimov regime.
In the best tradition of Uzbek statistics management, Ijtimoiy Fikr did not provide any methodological details. If the poll was conducted by telephone, or even by door-to-door researchers, it’s no surprise people responded so positively. Uzbekistan is a neo-Stalinist police state: It’s unlikely anyone would dare criticize the government to a stranger.
Had she known that true stories are sometimes more terrifying than fiction, the little girl may not have pleaded for a bedtime tale.
But in this short film, father yields and tells his daughter of “a rich and powerful man” in a “country far, far away” who grows wealthy off slave labor. Of course, the father is talking about Uzbekistan, and that man is President Islam Karimov: “Schoolchildren have to get on buses and ride for hours to the cotton fields. […] They must pick cotton. All day long. The bag must be filled.”
Teachers, doctors, nurses and children are forced to pick the president’s cotton, the father says. It is a terrifying story, indeed: the thorny plants, the police cordon, schools closed while the children sleep in barns and tents through summer heat and autumn snow. It sounds like a concentration camp.
As her father shuts off the lights, the little girl realizes she is part of this global supply chain: “But the blanket ... and my pajamas … do they also …” – “Yes, they too may come from Uzbekistan. Well, good night,” he says, not so reassuringly.
The video – which ends with the uncomfortable truth, “You most likely sleep in Uzbek cotton” – was released this week by the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and the Inkota Network. An accompanying article shames Western companies for continuing to purchase Uzbek cotton, companies such as H&M, which “have enormous power to end modern-day slavery,” but don’t.
Each year hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of Uzbek citizens seek refuge from joblessness by heading abroad to look for work. As a side effect of that exodus, some fall victim to human traffickers.
Judging by the dearth of official statements, the scourge has never been a priority for Tashkent.
Now, however, a top migration official has acknowledged the problem of “modern slavery,” as he calls human trafficking. Yet instead of warning citizens how to avoid falling into the traffickers’ hands, he’s done what any self-respecting Uzbek official might do: He’s used the opportunity to praise his country’s policies and point out that, besides, Uzbeks are not the only victims.
In a commentary published in the government mouthpiece Narodnoye Slovo, Samariddin Mamashakirov of the State Agency for External Labor Migration, says that human trafficking is a problem that must be handled internationally and blames unemployment (don’t worry, they’re working on it) as the single biggest cause.
The transformations that are taking place in our country are becoming the foundation of socioeconomic stability. […] A growth in GDP, industrial production and agricultural output and the development of the trade and services sphere has improved the quality of people's lives. Issues of improving the social sphere and increasing the population’s income are the focus of state policy. […]
Russian telecoms giant MTS has filed for bankruptcy in Tashkent amid its long-running dispute with the Uzbek government, which is currently embroiled in telecoms scandals on several fronts.
MTS’s Uzbekistan subsidiary O’zdunrobita has petitioned for bankruptcy due to its “inability” to carry out a November court ruling ordering it to pay fines and penalties of $600 million, MTS said in a January 16 statement.
The company’s troubles began last July, when Tashkent accused it of using equipment illegally, then brought tax evasion charges, and finally shut it down.
In September, a court ordered MTS’s assets in Uzbekistan seized. To the surprise of many, that ruling was overturned on appeal in November. But with the good news came a catch: The court that overturned the assets seizure ordered MTS to pay penalties of $600 million – the approximate value of the assets the court had just returned. Some $150 million has already been seized from its bank accounts in Uzbekistan, MTS says.
MTS has protested its innocence, condemning the affair as the kind of assets grab not uncommon in Uzbekistan’s murky business climate – a charge Tashkent denies.
Tashkent has long worked hard to erase Uzbekistan’s Soviet legacy. But the process, it seems, is far from complete. Authorities have ordered another 240 street and place names in the Uzbek capital renamed, the olam.uz website reports.
Having run out of Bolshevik leaders to purge, municipal authorities have turned to the artists and international heroes that once made Tashkent’s cosmopolitan residents proud. For example, a street named after Soviet Uzbek theater director Mannon Uygur became Gulobod (Flower Garden), while Anna Akhmatova Street, named after the Russian poetess, became Nemat (Blessing) Street, according to the recent order.
For some, the campaign to rename squares, streets, parks and subway stations looks like a politically motivated effort to erect a new political culture. That was understandable when the process started, soon after Uzbekistan obtained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But many now wonder when it will end.
Among the first victims of the campaign 20 years ago were the capital's landmark Lenin Square (now Independence Square), which was home to a giant Lenin statue, and Revolution Square (now Amir Temur Square), a leafy park that marked the geographical center of the city with a bust of communist demigod Karl Marx. Lenin was replaced with a globe showing Uzbekistan at the center of the world, and Marx relinquished his seat to a monument of Amir Temur, better known in the West as tyrant conqueror Tamerlane whom President Islam Karimov has reinvented as an Uzbek hero.
Uzbekistan's president Islam Karimov delivered his annual Army Day message on January 11, and along with the predictable encomia to the country's armed forces, Karimov made a few interesting statements vis-a-vis how he sees Uzbekistan's geopolitics. (Speech translated from Russian by BBC Monitoring)
As he has frequently, Karimov says that the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan will pose a threat to Uzbekistan:
In the current difficult circumstances, the international community is particularly concerned about the danger of the spread of nuclear technology and weapons of mass destruction as well as about growing confrontation, political and religious radicalism and extremism, and the ongoing conflicts in the immediate vicinity of our borders; in the first place, tension is growing in connection with the forthcoming withdrawal of ISAF from Afghanistan before and after 2014.
But this is an interesting addition:
The situation is seriously being exacerbated by rivalry of external forces in the region. Serious challenges and threats are emerging due to the intensification of activities by armed gangs and subversive and terrorist groups in border areas, as well as because of social and economic problems, political and interethnic conflicts that could lead to destabilization of the military-political situation.
It's not clear what he means here by "rivalry of external forces," but my best guess is that it has to do with Russia's plans to give a huge military aid package to Kyrgyzstan, and a somewhat more modest one to Tajikistan, with the intention of countering what it sees as U.S. influence in Uzbekistan.
A second hostage crisis in a week has amplified concerns about ethnic tensions in southern Kyrgyzstan.
Police in Osh Province say a fight between locals and Chinese workers in the village of Kurshab on January 8 left dozens injured. The brawl reportedly started when Chinese workers, possibly intoxicated, accused a local resident of stealing a mobile phone. A fight ensued and the Chinese reportedly took a group of Kyrgyzstanis hostage. Some reports say local police were among the 28 injured in the fracas. All Chinese from the district have been evacuated to Osh city for their safety, KyrTAG reports.
The Chinese were working on a high-profile power line that will connect parts of southern Kyrgyzstan with the north. Due to the fight, the launch of the line has been delayed, said Musazhan Makelek, head of China’s TBEA energy firm in Kyrgyzstan. Makelek told 24.kg that the fight had nothing to do with the $208 million project, which is being financed by China, and blamed both sides.
Thousands of Chinese nationals work in Kyrgyzstan, most on infrastructure projects such as high-voltage electricity lines and roads, and as traders. Beijing has promised hundreds of millions in loans and assistance in recent years. But the Chinese presence and largesse is not without controversy. Many Kyrgyz are deeply suspicious and worry the giant neighbor could swallow their tiny country.
A Ferghana Valley border clash this weekend yet again highlights the potential for violence in Central Asia’s most densely populated and ethnically diverse region.
Several hundred residents of the Uzbek enclave of Sokh reportedly attacked a Kyrgyz border post and took Kyrgyz citizens hostage on January 5 and 6, according to local news wires. Sokh (also spelled Soh) is an island of territory controlled by Uzbekistan and entirely surrounded by one of Kyrgyzstan’s poorest provinces, Batken.
Though Sokh is populated mostly by ethnic Tajiks, a minority in both countries, the episode is an unsettling reminder of the fighting between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan that left hundreds dead in 2010.