Uzbekistan’s apparatchik-in-chief could still give a Sovietologist pause. Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, President Islam Karimov – an economist by training – continues to stuff his people full of fabulous statistics, records even. But like the excerpts from a Central Committee meeting, something doesn’t quite add up.
No one in Uzbekistan misses the old Soviet Union, Karimov told his nation recently, because life since independence has become even more equitable (his own multi-millionaire daughters aside): “If you recall, back in 1990 from the rostrum I addressed our people, specifically the youth, my children, to say that in the future Uzbekistan, there would be a just state where there would be neither very rich nor very poor people.” How did independent Uzbekistan, rising out of the ashes of that failed utopia, meet these ideals? The answers are in the statistics, which Karimov skims over with alacrity.
From his January 19 speech to the Cabinet of Ministers, marked by a two-hour program on state television the next day (transcription and translation by BBC Monitoring):
Now there are some people nostalgic for the old times. I am sure that there are no such people in Uzbekistan at all. […] One can hear views on TV and through the media that after the collapse of the USSR all went bankrupt. If a person wants to have a personal, independent opinion on this, let him see the figures. Let him comprehend the figures. After this, no propaganda is needed. And there is no need to persuade him or tell lies to him. Everything will be clear to him by comparing the two things.
Compare or not, despite promises the USSR is dead and buried, Karimov moves on to sound eerily like a commissar:
The government of Uzbekistan continues to deny basic human rights to its citizens, torturing detainees, persecuting the faithful, and forcing children to labor in the cotton fields, Human Rights Watch says in its World Report 2012. In essence, the New York-based watchdog says, nothing has changed and Uzbekistan’s record “remains appalling.”
The charges are nothing new to readers of this blog, but for the record:
Uzbek authorities regularly threaten, imprison, ill-treat, and torture human rights defenders and other peaceful civil society activists. In 2011 the Uzbek government continued to harass activists and interfere with independent civil society.
The Uzbek government holds at least 13 human rights defenders in prison, and has brought charges against others, because of their human rights work. They are: Solijon Abdurakhmanov, Azam Formonov, Nosim Isakov, Gaibullo Jalilov, Alisher Karamatov, Jamshid Karimov, Norboi Kholjigitov, Abdurasul Khudainasarov, Ganihon Mamatkhanov, Habibulla Okpulatov, Yuldash Rasulov, Dilmurod Saidov, and Akzam Turgunov.
Several are in very poor health and at least seven have been ill-treated or tortured in custody. For example, relatives of imprisoned rights defender Gaibullo Jalilov reported after a January 2011 visit that he had been repeatedly tortured, including being beaten with a stick that left him nearly deaf in both ears.
On the 2005 Andijan massacre:
The Uzbek government also continued to intimidate families of Andijan survivors who have sought refuge abroad. Police subject them to constant surveillance, call them for questioning, and threaten them with criminal charges or home confiscation.
Uzbekistan may be trying to improve its reputation among cat lovers.
A court in Tashkent has begun hearings on the murder of a domestic cat, the Uznews.net website reports. The cat was killed on January 7, allegedly shot by one Alisher Shukurov with an air rifle in the Mirzo-Ulugbek district of Tashkent. Animal rights activists at the January 19 hearing presented evidence including a bullet taken from the cat's skull and video footage of the execution.
But the trial has been postponed because, according to the report, a man admitted guilt in place of Shukurov, the son of a former police official who had been convicted for abuse of power: “Witnesses believe the young man is either a relative of the Shukurovs or a hired worker forced ‘to play the role of the culprit.’”
Ailurophiles may recall with horror the violent raid on the Tashkent home of Vladimir Kravchenko by health inspectors last July. The officials allegedly poisoned two of Kravchenko’s beloved cats on the spot and seized another before a fourth could jump to its death out the fourth-floor apartment window. Later, Kravchenko received anonymous calls taunting him with news the seized cat’s kittens would be fed to other animals at the zoo.
Cats are not uniformly hated in Uzbekistan, however, as evidenced by the popularity of a patriotic Uzbek version of the Nyan Cat meme on YouTube.
The defense bill that President Obama signed into law on December 31 contained a provision by which the U.S. could again start providing military aid to Uzbekistan, if the Secretary of State certifies that there is a national security reason for doing so. It also requires the State Department to provide an assessment of the progress that Uzbekistan has made in human rights.
Today, the State Department for the first time used that waiver, State Department officials tell The Bug Pit. And they sent along the language of the human rights assessment, which will likely warm the hearts of human rights groups: despite several recent statements by U.S. diplomats suggesting that Uzbekistan's human rights situation might be improving, there is no such implication in this document. (Of course, this is also probably why the State Department volunteered to send the document along.) The entire assessment is below, and it summarizes the woeful state of political, religious and media freedom; prison conditions; torture; child and forced labor; and the lack of an independent investigation into the notorious Andijan "events."
I wasn't told what aid specifically the State Department was seeking to provide via this waiver, but presumably it is the $100,000 in border guard training that has been already discussed. Anyway, the takeaway here appears to be that the U.S. can provide military aid to Uzbekistan without saying silly things about human rights there.
When it comes to assessments of political rights and civil liberties in Uzbekistan and neighboring Turkmenistan, it often feels like someone has taped down the repeat button.
Of 195 countries assessed in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2012 report, released January 19, both received the lowest score possible, again: 7 out of 7. Once more, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan made the list of the “worst of the worst,” an exclusive club of nine countries where citizens can count on essentially zero accountability from their leaders. In terms of rights and liberties, both nations have remained eerily consistent: Turkmenistan is holding a presidential election next month where we already know the winner; Uzbekistan continues to jail and torture critics; leaders in both continue to show an occasional distaste for reality.
President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan has said that the departure of U.S. and coalition troops from Afghanistan will bring "an increased threat of the expansion of terrorist and extremist activities, increased tension and confrontation" and "the creation of a permanent source of instability here." He made the comments in a televised address to the country's armed forces on the occasion of their 20th anniversary. Trend.az has reprinted a summary of Karimov's speech, but BBC Monitoring has the whole thing. This was the most intriuging part:
The Central Asian region, due to its geopolitical and geo-strategic importance and vast mineral resources in recent years become an object of close attention and the intersection of strategic interests of major states, is characterized by ongoing tension and confrontation in Afghanistan, where the war is under way already for more than 30 years.
The announced upcoming withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan and the International Security Assistance Force in 2014 could lead to an increased threat of the expansion of terrorist and extremist activities, increased tension and confrontation in this vast region as well as to the creation of a permanent source of instability here.
This will require reforms to the Uzbekistan's armed forces, Karimov continued:
[T]he drastically changed conditions and the nature of modern military operations, which differ with their suddenness, quickness and rapidity, using small mobile units, should always be borne in mind.
An analysis of military operations in modern military conflicts and local wars shows the use of radically new combat systems of special task forces; the wider use of non-contact forms and methods of warfare with the use of advanced information technologies and modern high-precision weapons.
Conform to "the traditions of national independence ideology," Tashkent has reportedly told students, or get out.
Concerned about the lax behavior they see as rampant in Uzbekistan’s universities and colleges, authorities have introduced a new set of moral regulations that, among other things, restrict criticism of teachers and govern what students write about their school online, reports the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).
Failure to adhere to the new 23-page moral code could lead to expulsion.
Unsurprisingly, students are unhappy with the “prison-style” rules targeting “gaudy dress” and calling on them to combat "foreign religious and extremist influences." On campus, “rock concerts alien to the national mentality” are also taboo.
The code may aim to stifle mockery, as well. Recently several YouTube videos have emerged, appearing to show the impudent children of Uzbekistan’s small but highly privileged elite harassing their instructors. In one video, boys dance and wave dollar bills at their bemused teacher. In a parody of the rampant corruption in the education system, the laughing students attempt to place the money in the teacher's pockets and on his desk.
Chronic shortages of gas for heating their homes and cooking meals have forced the residents of Andijan to hunt for firewood, uznews.net has reported.
With the cold winter and frequent power outages, people are even cutting down trees in a cemetery, says the news portal.
Uznews.net has regularly highlighted gas and electricity shortages in Uzbekistan this season. In a January 13 report, exiled Uzbek analyst Tashpulat Yuldashev writes that service interruptions have been become common for entire districts and cities. Lines have grown long at gasoline pumps due to shortages and some factories have halted production without diesel fuel or coal.
Uzbeks in the provinces have been scavenging everything they can find to use for fuel -- twigs, cotton stalks, dung, and lignite, says Yuldashev. The energy shortages have led to conflicts between angry customers and besieged authorities and even to attacks on utility workers. Some persistent protesters, fed up with shortages, debts and fines, have been jailed for short terms.
In response, authorities have reportedly arrested dozens of managers and punished engineers and inspectors in power companies for fraud. The energy shortages expose the invalidity of the government's claims to be over-fulfilling its energy plans.
Yuldashev says Uzbekistan’s state power companies suffer a host of problems from aging, inefficient infrastructure to poor management, which seemed to have worsened when Uzbekistan pulled out of Central Asia's Unified Energy System in 2009.
Tashkent's jitney drivers are refusing to cave to government pressure to register, uznews.net reports.
Uzbekistan's Cabinet of Ministers passed new legislation calling for all taxi drivers to obtain licenses, paint their cars ivory-colored, install meters and bank card machines, and place orange lights on the roof with the sign "taxi." They must also affix the familiar chessboard insignia on the sides of the car.
The illegal cabbies, known as bombily, have refused to comply with the new regulations, despite the threat of heavy fines of $115-230 for driving without a hack license.
Last spring, tax inspectors pretending to be regular passengers pulled sting operations on the jitney drivers, fining many.
Drivers interviewed by uznews.net said they were discouraged from working for companies that keep a hefty portion of their pay. Some complained about the heavy cost of licenses, repainting and installing credit card machines.
The new regulations have angered drivers who said they would be left without a livelihood, particularly in Andijan and other poor regions. Their threatened protests were enough to get officials to back down from enforcement for a time, says the Human Rights Alliance in an e-mail statement January 8.
Transportation officials are still determining what to charge per kilometer, says gazeta.uz
Mirjalil Abdullaev, a Tashkent transportation licensing official in the mayor's office said that with a population of one million people, the city should have 9,000 taxis. Currently, there are only about 1,500 licensed cabs, and unreliable estimates of anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 illegal drivers, he said.
Protester stopped by police near the presidential palace in Tashkent, 2003
Analysts generally agree that no Arab Spring is coming to Central Asia any time soon, despite similarly entrenched dictators and poverty. Current and former US officials; EU, American, Turkish and other experts have all weighed in with all the reasons why such upheavals are unlikely – particularly the lack of independent broadcasting, Internet, and social media.
But there is some evidence that the conversation about the Arab Spring is itself a bit of a catalyst and that lessons from the Middle East are being absorbed by authoritarian leaders and their subjects alike. There doesn't seem to be a way to independently and reliably poll public opinion in Uzbekistan about this now.
Meanwhile, the independent web site uznews.net interviewed a few prominent activists on the prospects of the Arab Spring in Central Asia.
Dilarom Ishakova, a Tashkent activist said she was disappointed that political prisoners were not released on the 20th anniversary of Uzbekistan's independence. Massive unrest as in the Arab world was unlikely, she said; the 2005 massacre in Andijan and the suppression of a popular uprising still had an effect: “The people are very intimidated."
Ruhiddin Kamilov, a Tashkent lawyer, said that an Arab Spring was hardly likely in Uzbekistan.