In the latest twist in the long-running saga of Russian cellphone operator MTS in Uzbekistan, a Tashkent appeals court reportedly has made a landmark ruling and promised to return the company to its Russian owners. Tashkent had shut down the billion-dollar firm this summer.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency quoted a “source close to the company” as saying that MTS had been told verbally that the appeals court had overturned a September ruling granting Tashkent the property of O’zdunrobita, MTS’ Uzbekistan arm, following a months-long dispute over alleged legal violations and tax evasion charges that the company vehemently denied.
Vedomosti newspaper quoted another source “close to one of the sides in the proceedings” as confirming the news, but said that the court had ruled that the company should pay Tashkent “the monetary equivalent of the cost of its assets -- around $600 million.” The report said MTS had declined to comment.
If confirmed, the ruling would signal an abrupt about-face by Tashkent that could suggest it has bowed to pressure from Moscow, which -- although not too vocal in its criticism -- has made it clear that it does look kindly on the treatment meted out to one of its oligarchs, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, owner of MTS.
Tashkent is maintaining a stony silence over the fate of wrestler Soslan Tigiev. This week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped the Uzbek of his Olympic bronze medal after he tested positive for a banned substance. Thus far, official media outlets in Uzbekistan have failed to cover the story.
Private media outlets, including olam.uz and gazeta.uz, have carried the IOC press release detailing the facts, but have refrained from making any comment. While these outlets are privately owned, they toe the official government line when it comes to reporting. Uzbek government mouthpiece Narodnoye Slovo and the Foreign Ministry's information agency, Jahon, have studiously ignored any reference to the embarrassing case.
Tigiev took bronze in London this summer in 74kg freestyle wrestling, adding to the silver he won in Beijing in 2008. The IOC reported on November 7 that it was stripping Tigiev of the London medal after he tested positive for the prohibited substance methylhexaneamine in an August 10 urine sample. The IOC asked for the immediate return of his medal, diploma and medallist pin.
International pressure is mounting on Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov: Already associated with two corruption investigations in Europe, now Russian media are reporting that an apartment she owns in Moscow has been seized by court order.
The Lenta.ru website on November 2 quoted Interfax news agency as reporting that Karimova’s luxury apartment in downtown Moscow -- said to be worth $10 million -- had been seized as part of an antitrust case launched by Russian telecommunications company MTS after its business in Uzbekistan was appropriated this summer.
Observers interpreted the unconfirmed report -- which cites an anonymous law-enforcement source and has not been officially confirmed -- as bad news for Karimova. “Leaks to the media about Karimova’s apartment are a sign to her that a war has started against her [in Russia],” Daniil Kislov, editor-in-chief of Fergananews.com, was quoted as saying by the Bfm.ru website.
He pointed to the MTS conflict as the cause. This summer, Tashkent first suspended the operations of MTS’s Uzbekistan subsidiary O’zdunrobita (accusing it of legal violations that the company denied) and later ordered its assets seized, forcing MTS to write off over $1 billion in losses.
Three women in Uzbekistan have been sentenced to long prison terms for spying on behalf of neighboring Tajikistan, Uzbek state television reported, in a special program called "Betrayers of the Motherland."
The three women all lived in the Surxondaryo region of southern Uzbekistan, bordering Tajikistan. One of them married a police officer from Tajikistan in 1998, a wedding that was planned by Tajiikistan's State Committee on National Security for the purpose of making her into a spy, the program said.
The three women allegedly worked in cooperation, passing on information about:
"[T]he military unit in Surxondaryo Region, including equipment and weapons being kept there; the prosecutor's office, the police department and customs complex of Sariosiyo District. She also provided information on employees and servicemen working in these facilities, their combat readiness and number plates of their cars."
The BBC Monitoring report on the TV program notes:
The programme dubbed "Betrayers of the Motherland" featured interviews with the women all whom said that Tajik security bodies forced them into spying. TV, however, dismissed these claims by saying that the three took money for the information they provided. "If they were forced into spying in Tajikistan, why did not they appeal to relevant state bodies after returning to Uzbekistan?" the programme asked.
At the conclusion of the broadcast, TV strongly condemned the women for"betraying" homeland, relatives and compatriots.
A month after a law restricting alcohol sales in Uzbekistan came into force, trade in beer, wine and spirits – over the counter at least – has dried up in downtown Tashkent.
Where the city used to be scattered with small shops selling alcohol, only a handful remain since the law designed to safeguard the nation’s health took effect on October 1.
The law bans sales of alcohol and cigarettes within a 500-meter radius of schools, places of worship and sports facilities. That rules out just about any spot in Tashkent and other towns, “despondent” alcohol traders have pointed out to the independent Uznews.net website.
A stroll around downtown Tashkent reveals that many stores that used to sell the demon drink have shut down or changed their trade. A handful of alcohol stores remain in the city center (some of which appear to be remarkably close to schools). Not surprisingly, those still in business are doing a brisk trade.
Implementation of the law seems patchy: Uznews.net found many alcohol stores still in business earlier this month, and there is anecdotal evidence that some stores sell alcohol under the counter. Restaurants, bars and nightclubs are not covered by the ban.
Trade in cigarettes seems unaffected: They remain on sale in shops and at stalls all over Tashkent. For anti-smoking campaigners, the law looks like a missed opportunity, prohibiting smoking in “places of work” but stopping short of a ban in restaurants and bars.
Uzbekistan may have suspended its membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization this summer, but the CSTO wants the final word: the organization's collective security council is holding a meeting in Moscow on December 19, where the presidents of member states "will make the final decision and we will state our position on that step" by Uzbekistan. That's according to CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Borduyzha, on a visit to Belarus, adding that he hoped Uzbekistan's suspension was temporary.
And Russia's representative to the CSTO, Igor Lyakin-Frolov, said "the door was open" to Tashkent: "We are moving toward a suspension of Uzbekistan's membership, bu we would hope that the door would not be closed for the return to the organization in the case of a change in the political situation in that country," he said.
And he added that Uzbekistan's move "wasn't unexpected," and had to do with Uzbekistan's concern about where the organization was heading:
"The fundamental reason for Uzbekistan's suspension of its membership in the CSTO is principally different views toward the development of the organization. Uzbekistan's leadership put the fundamental accent on rendering support in the case of aggression against one or several CSTO members," the diplomat said.
But lately, a course was discussed and supported by the majority of governments, including Russia, on turning the organization into a multi-profiled structure not only acting against external aggression, but also repelling contemporary threats and challenges -- terrorism, drug trafficking, illegal migration, and cyberterrorism, said Lyakin-Frolov.
As the United States has grown more dependent on the countries of Central Asia for transit routes into and out of Afghanistan, policymakers in Washington have talked up the military’s Northern Distribution Network as the beginning of a “New Silk Road.” The idea is to help the region’s stagnant economies by promoting regional trade and, hopefully in the process, bring stability to Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton trumpeted the idea at a town hall meeting in Dushanbe in October 2011, saying she hoped the New Silk Road would increase “economic opportunity here in Tajikistan so that so many of your people do not have to leave home to find work, that there can be a flourishing economy right here.”
But a new study says these hopes are overly optimistic. The Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a logistics supply chain that has, since 2009, become the primary overland supply route for the war in Afghanistan, has not helped ease trade or cut corruption throughout the region. Instead, the study, released by the Open Society Foundations on October 19, finds it may be having the opposite effect in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. [Editor’s Note: EurasiaNet operates under OSF’s auspices.]
The report, by Graham Lee (a former EurasiaNet contributor), asks four key questions: Is the NDN incentivizing regional cooperation and border reforms? Is the NDN helping to fight corruption in Central Asia? Has the NDN made transshipment through Central Asia more efficient? Are ordinary Central Asian citizens benefitting from NDN trade?
Internet users in Uzbekistan have long circumnavigated draconian restrictions with the help of proxy servers – online pit stops that allow users to access blocked pages by concealing their IP addresses. But Tashkent has caught on.
Uznews reports that Uztelecom, the state telecommunications service, has started targeting proxy servers, too. Uztelecom, which controls access to all international phone and Internet connections, has begun denying access to websites with “proxy” in their URL addresses by blocking requests that use that word.
With one eye on the social media-led events in the Arab world, Tashkent has become increasingly wary of the Internet’s potential threats and has set its cyber police to work overtime. The cyber cops are, in turn, monitored by a secretive body -- the Expert Commission on Information and Mass Communications. This body was identified in Freedom House's Freedom of the Net 2012 report, in which the UzNet was described, unsurprisingly, as "not free."
The closing of the proxy route leaves Internet users depending on more technically advanced options to beat the blockers (or, for now, proxy servers that don't use the word "proxy" in their name). One option is Tor, free software that allows anonymous browsing. But Tor's site is also blocked in Uzbekistan.
The chief suspect in the shooting of an exiled Uzbek imam in Sweden last winter has been detained in Russia, according to Swedish media.
Swedish media reported on October 13 that a 35-year-old man was detained in Russia on suspicion of the attempted murder of Obid-kori Nazarov, a prominent Uzbek imam who has political asylum in Sweden. Nazarov has been in a coma since the shooting, the independent Uznews.net website says.
The arrest has not been officially confirmed by Swedish or Russian law-enforcement bodies, but Uznews.net suggested that the man was Yuriy Zhukovskiy, a citizen of Uzbekistan and Russia identified as chief suspect by Swedish police after the shooting on February 22 in Stromsund. The arrest reportedly came after Swedish intelligence spotted the suspect using his cellphone in Russia.
An Uzbek couple suspected of complicity in the shooting were acquitted by a Swedish court in July.
In the 1990s, Nazarov gained popularity as an imam in Uzbekistan, where his fiery sermons led President Islam Karimov’s administration to cast him as an opponent at a time when the main challenge to Karimov’s rule came from clerics with wide public followings. He is still an influential preacher with a wide following.
Uzbekistan has long faced international scorn for forcing children to pick its cotton. Because Tashkent will not allow international observers to see how its promises of ending the practice are working out, journalists have been left to fill the void.
This year, journalists are finding fewer children in the cotton fields. But conscripted in their place: doctors, nurses and other government employees – along with the same high school and university students as before.
On October 16, the BBC reported that “Tashkent's authorities have required every district to contribute 330 medical staff” to the cotton effort:
Uzbekistan is one of the world's main producers of cotton and the crop is a mainstay of its economy. The government controls production and enforces Soviet-style quotas to get the harvest off the fields as quickly as possible.
A history of using child and forced labour at harvest time has led to a number of retailers - including H&M, Marks and Spencer and Tesco - to pledge to source their cotton from elsewhere.
In response, earlier this year Uzbekistan's Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev issued a decree banning children from working in the cotton fields. Yet many adults, including teachers, cleaners and office workers, are still forced to return to the land during October and November.
This year, like last year, medical staff have been ordered to join them. There are reports of patients in towns being turned away because their doctor is "in cotton".