The head of Swedish-Finnish telecoms giant TeliaSonera, Lars Nyberg, has resigned after an auditor found the company was negligent when purchasing mobile licenses in graft-saturated Uzbekistan.
The 2007 deal was thrust into the spotlight in September, when Swedish journalists accused TeliaSonera of paying some 2.2 billion Kroner ($337 million) to a small, offshore company linked to President Islam Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova.
Mannheimer Swartling, which carried out the review for TeliaSonera, found no evidence of bribery or money laundering, but said “the suspicions of crime expressed in the media and by the Swedish Prosecution Authority cannot be dismissed by this investigation.”
Biörn Riese, a lawyer for Mannheimer Swartling, “notes that the transactions have been surrounded by so many remarkable circumstances that at least someone should have reacted to the lack of clarity regarding the local partner,” the firm said in a February 1 statement.
“If one carries out business in a corrupt country, one should quite simply be more thorough than TeliaSonera has been,” Riese said.
Last month documents surfaced showing TeliaSonera knew it was dealing with Karimova, who has been described in US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks as a “robber baron,” for the way she uses her father’s leverage to take over profitable businesses in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan is seeking to get mine-protected vehicles, small arms, and even helicopters and drones from NATO forces who are using its territory for logistics support in Afghanistan, the New York Times has reported. That Uzbekistan is seeking some sort of leftover weapons is old news; this has been discussed (publicly) for more than a year. But the Times story provides a lot of new detail on what in particular Uzbekistan might be looking for, and it looks like they're aiming their sights high:
[T]he Uzbeks have been broadening the scope of their demands, said a senior American official directly involved in the diplomacy of the Afghan logistical routes, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the delicate negotiations.
The requests have gone from relatively common items like night-vision goggles to large and expensive American-made goods like MRAP vehicles, the 14-ton armored utility trucks that help protect troops from roadside bombs.
Other items that the Uzbeks have eyed in the American arsenal in Afghanistan are small arms, mine detectors, navigation equipment and possibly drones, according to Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, suggesting that the Uzbeks are looking at the pullout next year as a sort of everything-must-go moment for military shopping.
And Uzbekistan isn't just looking to the U.S., but Germany, too:
After years of watching helicopters fly in and out of Termez airfield, which is used as a German base in Uzbekistan, the government in March told Germany’s defense minister, Thomas de Maizière, who was visiting, that it would not mind getting its hands on a few of them, the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported....
Such talks have alarmed members of the German Parliament, who requested clarification from their government.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has labeled 2013 the “Year of Prosperity and Wellbeing.” Starting today, prosperity is best measured in bricks of small-denomination Uzbek sums.
The streets of Uzbekistan’s cities have long been home to a thriving black market cash exchange, where dollars are worth approximately 40 percent more than in banks. Unsurprisingly, that’s kept hard currency out of the hands of central bankers.
Uzbekistan's Central Bank says it is moving to "improve" regulations regarding the sale of hard currency by making it basically impossible to buy dollars, euros and the like, starting February 1. Its new protocols are based on a "thorough" study of local and foreign practices, the Bank says.
Previously, any adult Uzbek citizen had the right – theoretically – to purchase foreign cash of up to $2,000 in value per quarter at the official exchange rate. To ensure no one got more than his or her fair share, the bank made notes in each citizen’s passport with details of the transaction, including the date.
Because it is so much more valuable outside on the street, the hard currency was in high demand. So the banks rarely had enough cash for more than a few customers per day. Late on January 31 in Tashkent, for example, commercial banks were advertising dollars at 2,038 sums (advertising, not necessarily selling), while the black market rate was about 2,800 sums to the dollar. (The highest-denomination sum note is 1,000, meaning stacks of bricks are required for many purchases.)
The substantive rate difference spawned all sorts of schemes, your correspondent can attest. At many banks women (at least it always seemed to be gangs of women) would queue from early in the morning, intimidating, with the help of police and bank security, any one else trying to buy dollars. Those dollars, most Tashkent residents believe, quickly ended up on the black market.
These days, most discussions of Islam Karimov’s age end up drifting to a logical end: Who, oh who will next mount the throne in Tashkent? Many fear a power struggle when the oldest leader in the former Soviet Union inevitably exits. And yet, at least publicly, Karimov goes on ignoring the obvious.
On his 75th birthday, we’ll leave thoughts of mortality to the president himself. Journalists, perhaps eagerly practicing for his obituary, are using the occasion to reflect on the strongman’s living legacy – his 24 years in power, which make him the second longest-serving head of state in the former Soviet Union. (The other Soviet relic is Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, 72, whom Moscow appointed one day before Karimov, in June 1989.)
To mark the birthday, Daniil Kislov, the respected Uzbekistan-born, Moscow-based editor of Fergananews, posed a question in an op-ed for the Russian daily Moskovskiy Komsomolets: "On his 75th birthday, I don't understand one thing: Is he indeed the most brutal dictator of modern times, or just a sham and useless persona on which nothing in the country depends anymore?" Kislov's conclusion: "The time of his rule will go down in the history of the [Central] Asian republic as a time of the rosiest hopes and most bitter disappointments."
Karimov understood early on, Kislov writes, that in order to stay in power he had to stifle freedom of speech and destroy his political opponents.
Result: Uzbekistan hasn't had opposition leaders for 15 years – all of them are either in prison or in exile. [...]
Uzbek censorship is total, as the country has not a single independent media outlet, hundreds of news sites are blocked, tens of journalists have had to leave the country, while those who used to open their mouths too wide are either in prison or mental institutions. [...]
International pressure can affect the abysmal human rights situation in Uzbekistan, it turns out: After years of withering criticism, Tashkent is deploying fewer children into its cotton fields and relying increasingly on teenagers and adults – including public service workers threatened with loss of employment and loss of benefits such as pensions – Human Rights Watch says.
The “abuses persist,” however, in all of Uzbekistan’s provinces, says the New York-based watchdog in a report released late Friday night.
For the 2012 harvest, the Uzbek government forced over a million of its own citizens, children and adults – including its teachers, doctors, and nurses – to harvest cotton in abusive conditions on threat of punishment, Human Rights Watch found. The authorities harassed local activists and journalists who tried to report on the issue. In 2011, Uzbekistan was the world’s fifth largest exporter of cotton.
“The issue here is forced labor, plain and simple” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Forcing more older children and adults to work in the cotton fields to replace some younger children, does not change the fact that Uzbekistan is forcing a million of its people to labor in these fields involuntarily every year at harvest season.”
It is widely acknowledged that the Uzbek government has long relied on forced labor, including of children as young as nine, to pick cotton produced for export. In 2012, the burden was shifted somewhat to older children and adults, according to cotton workers, independent activists, and local rights groups across Uzbekistan who spoke with Human Rights Watch.
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. […]