The Russian newspaper Kommersant created a splash yesterday when it reported, citing "sources close to the Uzbekistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs," that the U.S. is planning to set up a Rapid Response Center in Tashkent. The Center would "coordinate actions in the event of deterioration of the situation after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014" and would "essentially perform the functions of an American military base after 2014."
It went on: "'By and large, we are talking the largest American military object anywhere in the Central Asian region,' said a source."
Perhaps because Kommersant is a generally well respected newspaper, perhaps because of the apparent specificity of its report, the report was widely disseminated around the Russian-language internet. (UzNews.net went so far as to suggest that the U.S. was forcing Uzbekistan to allow a base by blackmailing Tashkent, threatening to "create problems" with the Western bank accounts of presidential daughter Gulnara Karimova.)
The U.S.'s top diplomat responsible for Central Asia just finished a trip to Uzbekistan, amid increasing speculation that the two countries are seeking to upgrade their relationship, in particular their military cooperation.
Robert Blake, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, visited Tashkent from August 15-18. His visit came after an eventful summer: in June, Uzbekistan suspended its membership in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Many observers interpreted the move as motivated by Uzbekistan's intention to allow the U.S. to set up some sort of military base in the country. The CSTO requires members to get permission from other members before allowing foreign military bases; i.e., Russia gets a veto. Leaving the CSTO could free Uzbekistan up to allow a U.S. base. But then, earlier this month, Uzbekistan's parliament passed a new law forbidding foreign military bases.
That didn't stop many from continuing to speculate that the purpose of Blake's visit to Uzbekistan was to set up a military base. Most notably, the Kazakhstan newspaper Liter, an organ of the ruling Nur Otan party, reported that "We can dare to suggest that Robert Blake's visit will result in signing an agreement on deploying US troops on Uzbek soil." Blake, of course, denied that was on the agenda. And at a press conference in Almaty just before his trip to Tashkent, he said that while the U.S. will be leaving Uzbekistan some lefover military equipment after it leaves Afghanistan, that equipment likely won't include lethal weapons:
With the dust now settling on the London Olympics, Kazakhstan has emerged as the undisputed Central Asia champion, finishing a laudable 12th in the overall medal table, up from 29th four years ago in Beijing. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan also made it to the winner’s podium.
But besides the considerable costs of training and putting athletes forward for Olympic glory, what have the wins cost Central Asia’s thin pocketbooks? Leaders across the region promised more than fame to athletes who could score a medal in London, including cash prizes, apartments and luxury cars.
In Kazakhstan’s case, the cash prizes to be doled out total over $2 million – $250,000 for each of seven golds, $150,000 for one silver, and $75,000 for each of five bronzes. Uzbekistan will fork out $100,000 to its gold winner, 120-kilogram freestyle wrestler Artur Taymazov, and $50,000 to each of three bronze winners. It’s not clear what Tajikistan was offering its bronze winner, however. President Emomali Rakhmon set the prize for gold at $63,000. But the Dushanbe mayor and the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party each promised female boxer Mavzuna Chorieva – who won a bronze – an apartment.
Authorities in Uzbekistan are searching private homes for what they consider incendiary material -- Bibles.
Forum 18, an Oslo-based religious-freedom watchdog, says that Roman Nizamutdinov, a Baptist living in Navoi, was fined 2,516,800 Uzbek sums (a hefty amount, considering the monthly minimum wage in Uzbekistan is around 72,355) for "illegally" storing religious books in his private home.
The judge presiding over the case, Oltynbek Mansurov of Navoi Criminal Court, said the books were affiliated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group that only has official permission to exist in Tashkent Region, but presumably not Navoi. Forum 18 says the books were actually Protestant books, like “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” by Josh McDowell. Nizamutdinov says he will contest the fine.
In early August, in the Fergana Region, local Protestants told Forum 18 that police searched the home of a local Christian and confiscated “one Bible in Uzbek, one Bible in Russian, and a book by John Bunyan,” the 17th-century English preacher best known for his Christian allegory, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” According to local residents, police said it is prohibited to keep “such books at home.”
Uzbekistan has adopted a law banning foreign military bases on its territory, ending feverish speculation that a rapprochement with the United States – and recent distancing from Moscow – was the precursor to Tashkent welcoming the US military back in.
Uzbekistan’s new foreign policy doctrine, passed by the lower house of parliament on August 2, specifically prohibits foreign military bases from operating on its territory, the government-run Uzdaily.com website reported.
Speculation that President Islam Karimov was preparing to welcome the US military had been fed by Washington’s courting of Uzbekistan ahead of the drawdown of troops from neighboring Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is a key cog on the Northern Distribution Network supply route into and out of Afghanistan, and the US operated a military base in the country until 2005, when Tashkent ejected it following Washington's criticism of the shooting of protestors in Andijan.
In June, Tashkent’s abrupt suspension of its membership in the Russia-led regional Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) also fed the rumor mill.
The US State Department’s annual terrorism report, released this week, provides a brief overview of how Foggy Bottom views terrorist threats abroad. On Central Asia, unfortunately, the cautious survey adds little to our understanding of the problem.
In its introduction to the region, the report notes that Central Asian governments “faced the challenge” of balancing human rights with security concerns. Further down, the report lists myriad examples where authorities heavily favored security, often at the expense of basic human rights.
State hedges on Central Asian governments’ tendency to hype threats. For the most part, the report simply lists what authorities describe as terrorist attacks and as anti-terrorist operations, but uses qualifying terms – “reportedly”; “potentially” – that make it clear State is as in the dark on the nature of the events as the rest of us.
The report does cautiously point out that Central Asian governments’ widespread human rights abuses may end up creating terrorists.
For example, Kazakhstan’s 2010 amendments to the law on “religious activities” had “severely restricted the peaceful practice of religion,” the report says, adding that some commentators linked subsequent violent incidents to the new law.
In the Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan sections, the report states the widely held belief that the three countries misuse counterterrorism statutes to persecute legitimate political and religious actors. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, despite their well-documented use of the same playbook, are not censured directly on this point.
The London Olympics have offered mixed successes for Central Asia in their first week.
Kazakhstan got off to a great start, meeting its target of three gold medals in the first four days of competition. Uzbekistan has picked up a bronze and also the dubious distinction of seeing a gymnast kicked out for failing a drug test. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have yet to trouble the winner's podium.
Kazakhstan's weightlifting sensations Zulfiya Chinshanlo and Maiya Maneza struck gold on July 29 and July 31, after cyclist Alexander Vinokourov sped to victory on July 28.
The victories were not without controversy, however. Chinshanlo and Maneza's roots were called into question, as some years previously they had been part of China's weightlifting set-up. A Kazakh official refuted charges the athletes had no right to represent Kazakhstan.
“We led them to this victory for a whole Olympic cycle, and before that they were already members of our national team,” Aleksey Kryuchkov, acting head of the sporting body in charge of Kazakhstan's national teams, told KTK television.
It's been a busy games for Kryuchkov, who also had a kit malfunction to deal with. Some weightlifters from Kazakhstan were shown in competition wearing uniforms reading “Kzakhstan.” An investigation revealed five or six rogue, misspelled T-shirts.
Two independent journalists have been detained in Uzbekistan’s capital for taking photos of a local market.
Reporters Without Borders writes that police stopped the two journalists, Pavel Kravets and Sid Yanyshev, around 1700 on July 30 at Askia Market in Tashkent. While the two say they were taking photos of the market for stories about Uzbekistan’s upcoming Independence Day, the police accused the two of “pursuing a strategic goal.”
According to an emailed statement from the Tashkent-based Human Rights Aliance, the police released the two men that evening after destroying their materials and instructing them to return to the local police station the following day with their passports.
Throughout Central Asia, photographers will often find themselves harassed by authorities (and/or local thugs) for snapping just about anything, from colorful markets and city scenes to so-called strategic objects, like government buildings and railroad stations. ("The whole world can see this on Google Earth," isn't generally an effective defense.)
But Uzbekistan, where pictures of anything aside from smiling children and monumental architecture are generally frowned upon by the government, takes the paranoia to a new level. In 2010, celebrated Uzbek photographer Umida Akhmedova was found guilty of “slander” by an Uzbek court for her images documenting the difficulties of rural life and the life of women. Under intense international pressure, the court amnestied her before she served any time in prison. (See some of her photos here.)
A bit bruised and on vastly inferior financial terms, Russian cell operator MTS is returning to Turkmenistan.
In a July 26 statement, MTS said authorities in Ashgabat had granted the company a five-year contract for mobile operations, with the possibility of another five-year extension if all goes well. Both sides, the statement said, have agreed to drop legal action against one another.
The hitch? The new agreement with state-run Altyn Asyr requires MTS to pay the company 30 percent of its net profits every month.
MTS was kicked out of Turkmenistan in late 2010 after Ashgabat abruptly suspended the company’s operating license. Since then, MTS has tried to get the government to pay the $137.8 million it claims to have lost when it was booted out of the country, and rumors have circled regularly that MTS would return. As EurasiaNet.org has reported, the dithering and overloaded Altyn Asyr is not loved by most Turkmen, and some have even saved their MTS SIM cards hoping that one day the operator would return.
According to Reuters, MTS claims its cell towers and equipment in Turkmenistan are still in good shape, so its 2.4 million former customers should be able to reconnect soon.
Visitors to a popular local news site posted comments celebrating MTS’ return. But after years of speculation, some were skeptical. “It’s really not sure whether this will happen or not,” said a user identified as Kerki.
A clash on the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan frontier that left one dead on each side has sparked a spat between Tashkent and Bishkek about who was responsible. In response, Tashkent has reportedly closed the border to citizens of Kyrgyzstan.
Bishkek says the July 17 shootout occurred when Uzbek border guards opened fire as a dispute with local villagers got out of hand. But Tashkent, after reportedly firing the head of the Border Service, has upped the ante by describing it as an “armed bandit attack” by Kyrgyz guards, regional media report.
The shootout happened in an undemarcated (hence potentially disputed) sector of the border between eastern Uzbekistan’s Namangan Region and southern Kyrgyzstan’s Jalal-Abad Province.
According to the Kyrgyz Border Service, villagers from the settlement of Bulak-Bashi and staff from the nearby Bozymchak gold mine started repairing a road in the undemarcated sector, refusing to heed Kyrgyz guards’ entreaties to stop.
When border guards from Uzbekistan demanded a halt to the repairs, villagers “reacted aggressively,” Kyrgyzstan’s Border Service said, in comments carried by Kyrgyzstan’s state news agency. “As a result the border detachment of Uzbekistan used weapons; Kyrgyz border guards opened return fire,” it continued, leaving one Kyrgyz border guard dead and two Kyrgyz citizens wounded.