President Islam Karimov, who rules one of the most paranoid states on earth, has decreed that Uzbekistan’s most senior government officials must seek his personal permission to travel abroad on business. At the same time, his government is expanding its network of vigilante groups to police the hoi polloi, who already require exit visas.
According to a presidential resolution published March 10 on Uzbekistan's official online database of legislation, lex.uz, several dozen figures now need, in essence, an exit visa signed by the strongman president, who has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989. The resolution "aims to improve the rules for officials to go abroad, improve the efficiency of official trips, ensure national security and protect state secrets."
The list of prominent affected figures includes the prime minister and deputy prime ministers, chairmen of parliamentary chambers, presidential advisers, the secretary of the Security Council, chairman of the Central Bank, top judges and their deputies, the prosecutor general, ministers, regional governors and even the head of the feared National Security Service.
Lesser figures – such as the head of the state news agency, the chiefs of major state-run industrial enterprises, and deputy regional governors and mayors and even university presidents – must seek permission from the Cabinet of Ministers to travel abroad on "business trips."
While foreign military aid to the countries of Central Asia is unlikely to have a large impact on security in the region, it's unclear whether the positive effects will outweigh the negative ones. That's according to a comprehensive new report (pdf), "External Support for Central Asian Military and Security Forces," written by Dmitry Gorenburg for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (and supported by the Open Society Foundations, which also funds EurasiaNet).
The 90-page paper is the most exhaustive accounting of military aid given to the Central Asian countries. While "Russia remains the main source of military and security assistance for most Central Asian states" the report also looks at American and other countries' military aid, Both the U.S. and Russian aid is based primarily on quid pro quos, Gorenburg argues: for Russia it is for the sake of "basing rights and a certain level of acquiescence on Russian foreign policy priorities" while for the U.S. it's been "assuring continued access for transferring supplies and personnel to Afghanistan."'
Gorenburg notes that the possibility of Central Asian militaries receiving excess U.S. military equipment from Afghanistan is insignificant relative to the amount of attention it gets:
The Russia-led Customs Union has never hid its protectionist mandate. It’s been called Vladimir Putin’s Soviet Union-lite for a reason: Formerly Soviet states that don’t sign up will be isolated or pushed around until they do. Just look at Ukraine.
Now, new regulations on car imports that came into effect last month will protect the car manufacturing industries in all three members – Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. But they will specifically hurt one of Uzbekistan’s few successful joint ventures, a GM plant in the Fergana Valley that has thrived off exports to Russia and Kazakhstan.
Uzbekistan has previously expressed only the most tepid interest in the Customs Union. For Tashkent, the new rules show that staying out can hurt.
Kazakhstan's Kolesa.kz online car-sales platform reported on February 20 that Customs Union technical regulations have banned imports of some of the bestselling cars in Kazakhstan, including the Uzbek-made Chevrolet Nexia and Matiz.
The regulations, which came into force on January 5, require imported cars to have at least one air bag, an anti-lock braking system, specific attachment points for child-safety seats, and daytime headlights, among other things. GM Uzbekistan’s Nexia and Matiz have none of these features, Kolesa.kz said.
Cars produced by Customs Union members are exempt from the regulations until 2015.
"We are now selling leftovers in warehouses,” Kolesa.kz quoted an unnamed Kazakh dealer of Uzbek cars as saying. “The [Uzbek] plant will hardly be able to reequip these models [to meet] these technical requirements."
A global survey of 223 cities ranks some of the capitals in Central Asia and the South Caucasus the world’s worst places for foreigners to live. Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, for example – where officials build themselves multi-million-dollar palaces and ignore basic property rights, education, and a failing healthcare system – now ranks the worst city in Asia for expatriates to make a home.
The annual ranking, released February 19 by Mercer, a New York-based human resources consultancy, measures cities based on quality of living for foreigners, not locals. The company takes into consideration 39 factors including political stability, the effectiveness of law enforcement, censorship, pollution and healthcare, electricity supplies, the quality of schools and public services, availability of consumer goods and climate. The scores are “weighted to reflect their importance to expatriates.” The ranking has been published since 1994.
A decade ago, Asia would probably have offered more competition at the lower end of the rankings. But with stunning economic growth across much of the continent, today it is post-Soviet Central Asia that sweeps the bottom of the table. Dushanbe (ranked 209 globally) was one-upped in Asia by the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka (208), and fell two places in two years. Ashgabat came third from the bottom in Asia at 206, falling seven places since 2012. Fourth- and fifth-worst, respectively, Bishkek ranked 204 and Tashkent 202. (Almaty ranked 169 in 2012; Astana wasn’t surveyed. If you want to know where they rank this year, you’ll have to shell out $499 for the report.)
Prosecutors in Uzbekistan say that they have summoned for questioning associates of the president's controversial daughter, businesswoman and aspiring pop star Gulnara Karimova. It is unclear if the investigation concerns Karimova directly, but it follows a spectacular public fall for the woman once believed in line to succeed her aging father.
In a statement late February 17, the Prosecutor General's Office in Tashkent said that Rustam Madumarov, Gayane Avakyan and Ekaterina Klyuyeva had been summoned for questioning as part of a criminal investigation into tax evasion, concealing foreign currency and other crimes opened against executives of Terra Group, Prime Media and Gamma Promotion.
Terra Group is believed to have been Karimova’s media holding company, overseeing her TV and radio stations and glossy magazines until authorities shut them down last October. That happened during a public conflict with her sister, mother and the head of Uzbekistan's secret police, the SNB, much of which played out on Twitter. Until the struggle spilled into the open, Karimova had been seen as a potential successor to her brutal 76-year-old father, Islam Karimov, who tolerates no dissent and does not discuss his plans for succession.
The General Atomics "Avenger" UAV, which may soon be based in Central Asia. (photo: General Atomics)
The U.S. is making plans to set up drone bases in Central Asia in the case that the government of Afghanistan doesn't allow U.S. troops to remain in that country past this year, the Los Angeles Times has reported. The military wants to maintain the ability to carry out attacks against militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan even if it has no military presence in those countries, and the next best options are the Central Asian states. The officials interviewed didn't specify which countries were being considered: "There are contingency plans for alternatives in the north," said one official quoted by the paper.
So which would it be? The story's publication prompted much speculation among Central Asia watchers as to where the putative base might be located. Each of the three Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan would have serious downsides from the U.S.'s perspective. Tajikistan is highly susceptible to Russian pressure, and the Kremlin is surely not inclined to let the U.S. reestablish its military presence in Central Asia. Uzbekistan might be willing to host a base and is relatively immune to Russian pressure, but is a bit of a bete noire in Washington and setting up a drone base there would surely face resistance from human rights-inclined members of Congress. And Turkmenistan would have some of the same problems as Uzbekistan, but also has a proudly held neutrality that would seem to preclude hosting U.S. drones.
One wrinkle that could affect the decision is whether the bases are run by the military or the CIA. As the Times notes, the current drone program in Afghanistan and Pakistan is operated by the CIA, which can remain covert. President Barack Obama has said he wants to shift U.S. drone programs to the military, but in this case that would require the bases to be relatively public:
Users of Uzbekistan’s tightly controlled Internet are accustomed to hearing officials tell them that Western culture is harmful and its influence must be contained.
So they might wonder why their country keeps producing knock-off social networking websites, clones of modern Western culture. The latest is Bamboo, rolled out this week as an Uzbek answer to Twitter using the motto "One Country, One Network!"
Bamboo.uz was developed exclusively for Uzbeks, its developers said on the website (though the interface is available in 14 languages). The main difference from Twitter is that users can be more verbose: Bamboo messages can be up to 700 characters long, five times longer than messages on Twitter. Otherwise, the newsfeed and interface look almost identical to Twitter. Popular topics trend with hashtags, just like the ones Twitter uses.
Programmers in Uzbekistan, which Reporters Without Borders annually ranks an "Enemy of the Internet,” have previously launched local versions of Facebook, apparently with the government’s encouragement. State television has called social media a tool foreign powers use to foment revolution in former-Soviet states, but said local versions like Muloqot.uz and Sinfdosh.uz, "improve the moral and physical health of youth and form high morals."
President Islam Karimov’s would-be hosts in Prague say the Uzbek strongman has postponed his trip to the Czech Republic, according to a local news outlet. The announcement follows concerted pressure on Prague from dozens of human rights groups concerned that the February 20-22 visit would allow Karimov to whitewash his brutal record.
Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek confirmed the news to the Respekt.cz news website on February 13.
It seems unlikely we'll ever know who initiated the postponement, Karimov or his Czech counterpart Milos Zeman. Both may have bowed to the pressure, fearing the visit could become a PR nightmare.
But only two days ago, Zeman was defending the visit, telling the umbrella group of watchdogs to butt out of his affairs.
The Uzbek Foreign Ministry wasn't immediately available for comment on February 13. If the visit is cancelled, it is unlikely they will say much, since Uzbekistan’s tightly controlled media use Karimov’s rare trips abroad to enhance his prestige and make him appear as a recognized elder statesman.
The last time Karimov visited the West was in January 2011 when he was invited by NATO to Brussels.
With Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov scheduled to visit the Czech Republic next week, a coalition of human rights organizations has been urging his host, President Milos Zeman, to deny Karimov the "prestige and recognition associated with an official state visit." Today they are horrified by Zeman’s blistering response.
In a February 10 open letter, international watchdogs including Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists reminded Zeman that Karimov runs one of the most repressive governments in the world and has been "rightly shunned by most western leaders," particularly after Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of civilians in Andijan in May 2005. For Uzbekistan's refusal to allow an independent international probe into the Andijan killings the European Union, including the Czech Republic, had imposed targeted sanctions on the Uzbek government between 2005 and 2009, the letter noted.
Should he meet Karimov during the scheduled February 20-22 visit, the activists urged Zeman to push the Uzbek leader on his regime’s gross human rights violations and to hold a joint news conference to allow journalists to question Karimov. (Karimov hasn’t taken questions in public for years.)
Clearly irritated, Zeman fired back in an open letter February 11 that the visit was a “diplomatic courtesy,” the invitation for which had been issued by his predecessor (translation by Czech NGO People in Need):
Second, President Islam Karimov recently held talks with senior officials of the European Union in Brussels. I did not think you were protesting against the visit.
Third, the United States evaluated Uzbekistan as an ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. I did not think you protested against this American view protested.
The U.S. Congress has again given the State Department the go-ahead to give military aid to Uzbekistan in spite of concerns about the country's poor record on human rights, a State Department official has told The Bug Pit.
Congress imposed restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan in 2004 after the country's government failed to implement promised political reforms. Those restrictions remain in place today. But two years ago Congress, at the urging of the Obama administration, agreed to allow the Secretary of State to waive those restrictions if it were necessary for national security reasons. That waiver needed to be renewed every six months, and the ability to waive expired in October 2013. But Congress renewed the provision and last month the waiver was exercised again, a State Department spokesperson said.
"This waiver will allow the United States to provide assistance to the central government of Uzbekistan, including equipment to enhance Uzbekistan's ability to combat transnational and terrorist threats," the spokesperson said in an email to The Bug Pit. "Examples of this equipment include night vision goggles, personal protective equipment, and Global Positioning Systems. Enhancing Uzbekistan's defensive capacity improves the security of the U.S. supply transit system to Afghanistan and our ability to support our troops there." The new authority to waive will expire September 30, 2015.
The equipment in question includes not just the examples the spokesperson noted, but also tactical surveillance drones. Uzbekistan is also lobbying for some of the used mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles the U.S. is looking to offload as it pulls its troops out of Afghanistan.