As the European Union prepares to review its Central Asia strategy, a leading international human rights watchdog has urged Brussels to demand the five republics improve their human rights records, or face consequences.
In a June 21 statement ahead of an EU meeting on Central Asia policy, Human Rights Watch urged the 27-member organization not to allow geopolitical interests to serve as “an excuse for downplaying the EU’s focus on human rights abuses in the region.”
“Affecting positive change in Central Asia isn’t easy, but being clear about expectations and linking closer engagement to progress is a good place to start,” Veronika Szente Goldston, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia advocacy director, said in a statement. “The EU has resisted doing this so far, but it’s not too late to set things right.”
EU foreign ministers will meet on June 25 to assess its 2007 program, “The EU and Central Asia: Strategy for a New Partnership.”
HRW said the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan “all have distinctly poor human rights records and to various degrees resist meaningful reform.”
The watchdog documented concerns in a report issued on June 20, which singled out all five states for failing to prevent torture in places of confinement, restricting media freedoms and pressuring civil society activists.
For all its promises of easy riches, Uzbekistan is having a hard time keeping foreign businessmen around.
The head of the Uzbek branch of Russian telecom firm MTS has apparently become the latest foreign executive to bolt. According to the semi-official Uzmetronom, Bekzod Akhmedov fled this month after government auditors alleged tax evasion, misuse of funds and theft.
He's far from alone. Earlier this year, the general director of beer maker Carlsberg Uzbekistan, Russian citizen Evgeny Shevchenko, quietly left for Latvia. A Carlsberg executive confirmed to Central Asia Newswire that "We have temporarily suspended production [in Uzbekistan] due to an unavoidable shortage of raw materials.” He also said "Shevchenko left Uzbekistan to take up a new position elsewhere in the [Carlsberg] Group at the beginning of 2012."
The timing of these high-profile departures does not bode well for Tashkent's recent investment drive. In May, Tashkent promised to privatize 500 state-run companies. But privatization alone does not a good investment environment make. A June 19 article by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting lists a string of companies that have recently experienced “hostile takeovers” by the Uzbek government.
Tashkent's "Diplomatic Shop": Where prices are secrets.
In Uzbekistan, it’s sometimes like the Soviet Union never really went away.
Walking around downtown Tashkent recently, I spotted a store advertising itself in English as a “Diplomatic Shop.”
In the USSR, state-run Beriozka stores sold imported wares and hard-to-find local goods to foreigners in exchange for hard currency to supplement state coffers. Could it be that this Soviet institution had made a comeback in Uzbekistan, some 20 years after the collapse of the Union?
Like it’s predecessor, the Diplomatic Shop had well-stocked shelves lined with imported premium-brand liquor and perfume. Payment was accepted in hard currency or by credit card only. But there was a catch – a notice on the door said the goods were only for sale to diplomats or those with Foreign Ministry accreditation to live and work in Uzbekistan (that’s more than just a business visa).
Playing the dumb foreigner, I entered the store anyway. The assistant immediately asked to see my diplomatic ID or accreditation card. I came clean, admitting I had no such documents, and asked if I could have a look around.
“That's not possible,” replied the assistant.
“Could you, for instance, tell me the price of a bottle of wine?” I enquired.
“That's a secret.”
The question was relevant as Uzbekistan applies notoriously high taxes on imported wine and liquor. An average bottle of foreign wine starts at around 60,000 som ($35) in a shop and about double that in a restaurant.
Russia considers the transfer of U.S. military equipment from Afghanistan to Central Asian armed forces to be "unacceptable," and contrary to agreements those countries have signed as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. That's according to an anonymous Russian diplomat quoted in the newspaper Kommersant (and helpfully translated into English by RIA Novosti).
The U.S., recall, has said it is planning to hand over some of the equipment it is now using in Afghanistan to Central Asian militaries, as part of the U.S.'s Excess Defense Articles program. From Kommersant:
If implemented, this plan would allow Washington to expand its military cooperation with Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) member countries. A Russian diplomat said, on condition of anonymity, that Moscow considers this scenario to be “absolutely unacceptable....”
A Russian diplomat said this scenario ran counter to specific agreements with Moscow’s Central Asian partners and other agreements within the CSTO framework.
But the last two paragraphs of the Kommersant story gently suggest that Russia's objections may not really be about the legal issues of the CSTO:
A sizable U.S. presence might emerge on the Central Asian arms market, which primarily receives Soviet and Russian-made equipment. Moscow’s partners might eventually get used to having U.S. equipment.
It appears that CSTO members have every right to independently negotiate U.S. military equipment deliveries, all the more so as Moscow has recently turned Ulyanovsk into a transshipment center for NATO consignments being withdrawn from Afghanistan, without coordinating the decision with the CSTO.
Kazakhstan military officers observe the SCO drills, after taking the scenic route to northern Tajikistan.
The annual military exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization wrappied up today in northern Tajikistan, with member militaries practicing "air-to-ground fire attack, joint encirclement and suppression, charging into depth for pursuit and annihilation and vertical interception and annihilation" against the usual "terrorist" threat.
Taking part were about 2,000 soldiers and 500 military vehicles and airplanes from Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. That's all the SCO countries except Uzbekistan, which -- in keeping with its standard practice -- didn't participate. But Uzbekistan seemed to go a bit further this year, and even forbade Kazakhstan's troops and equipment from transiting through its territory en route to Tajikistan, according to Kazakhstan's defense attache in Tajikistan, Serik Zhumadilov:
"The Uzbek authorities have not allowed Kazakhstan's military equipment to pass through Uzbekistan to participate in the exercises. Military equipment and personnel of the armed forces of Kazakhstan, which are involved in anti-terror exercises have been delivered to Tajikistan, bypassing Uzbekistan through Kyrgyz territory."
Uzbekistan, recall, has also declined to participate in various activities of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a similar political-military bloc. It's also bowed out of Western-led regional initiatives, like the "Istanbul Process" for Afghanistan. And given that Uzbekistan sees Kazakhstan as a rival, it's maybe not too surprising that they don't want the Kazakhstan military marching through their territory.
These CFCs won’t punch a hole in the ozone layer, but the Colonel would still be horrified.
A little bit of Kentucky has landed in Central Asia’s largest city.
The logo and the overall design may look familiar – yes that's Colonel Sanders looking out from the center of the billboard – but welcome to Champions Fried Chicken (CFC) Uzbekistan's homegrown response to the restaurant formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Fans of fried chicken in Tashkent had hoped for a taste of Colonel Sander's secret recipe when advertisements appeared on a downtown development last fall promising a KFC franchise would open soon. The billboard has since disappeared and the KFC never materialized, but Tashkent has struck back with its own fried chicken emporium.
Located in the new Poytaxt shopping mall on the pedestrianized Sailgokh Street (better known to locals as “Broadway”) CFC is providing Uzbeks an alternative to plov, the national rice and meat dish, by introducing its customers to the wonderful world of “finger lickin' good” chicken.
In the heart of Central Asia, the KFC-Colonel connection may be lost on some. But the founders of CFC likely had another marketing opportunity in mind.
Chelsea Football Club, owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, is wildly popular in Uzbekistan. Chelsea is the current holder of the Champions League title. And so Tashkent's CFC puts the champions into fried chicken in more ways than one.
The jet-setting, hyper-fashionable daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman president is doing everything she can to pretend she organized a recent charity event with American stars and European royalty. From her own web statements, snapshot album, and the dutiful state-run press back home, one would think she hosted the event – which was held to raise money for foundations run by former American President Bill Clinton and Prince Albert II of Monaco.
Articles on both Karimova’s personal website and the website of her charity group, Fund Forum, state that her jewelry company, Guli, co-sponsored the fundraiser – “Nights in Monaco” – where tickets started at $5,000 per person. But on the official webpage of the May 23 gala, Guli is buried in the sponsor list. It seems the jewelry was offered at auction, though there is no word yet if anyone bought the stuff. And among all those photographs of the glamorous and rich, there is none of Karimova.
Poor Gulnara: It seems she was relegated to the sidelines at the black-tie affair. She was at least allowed to set up her own exhibition, boasts Fund Forum:
A major exposition titled “Generations Pass, Traditions Remain” mounted by Guli label in collaboration with Fund Forum, a leading NGO in Central Asia headed by Gulnara Karimova, was an opportunity for those gathered to get a taste of Uzbek culture, offering a blend of modern technologies and national traditions. The guests were drawn by Guli collections that represent traditional jewelry in a contemporary interpretation like a thread connecting the present and the past.
Security in Afghanistan topped the agenda as Vladimir Putin, inaugurated as Russian president a month ago, visited Tashkent on June 4, holding late-night talks with his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov.
According to a Kremlin transcript, Karimov used the visit to expound on Uzbekistan’s “serious concern” about the dangers of security threats from Afghanistan spilling over its borders after the drawdown of NATO troops, scheduled for completion by 2014. He warned against “complacency” that everything will go to plan.
Karimov, whose country shares a southern border with Afghanistan, said Russia “has never been indifferent to the problems of Central Asia,” and he was counting on “Russia’s interest in resolving the serious, quite acute problems that will arise in the Central Asian region” with the NATO withdrawal.
Putin characterized cooperation with Uzbekistan as “extremely important” in light of the drawdown, which he described as linked to “security inside the Russian Federation itself.”
Putin and Karimov met the same day NATO announced it had secured agreements with Uzbekistan and two Central Asian neighbors -- Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – to use a key transport route to return equipment from Afghanistan to Europe. NATO already had a deal with Russia to use the Northern Distribution Network for reverse transit out of Afghanistan.
As Uzbek President Islam Karimov prepares to visit to China this week, a human rights group in Tashkent is warning that the two nations' economic ties are growing thanks, in part, to their shared disregard for human rights.
Karimov will visit China on June 5 and 6 as articles in both China’s and Uzbekistan’s state-run papers are pre-praising the deepening of ties between the two nations.
But the Expert Working Group, one of the few human rights organizations still working in Uzbekistan, released a reminder on June 4 of the other things China and Uzbekistan share, like abysmal human rights records.
Uzbekistan sees China as a very convenient partner, in particular because of China’s silence over human rights situation in this Central Asian country. It is for that reason statements in the Uzbek mass media on “strengthening bilateral cooperation in the field of human rights” and “the Uzbek support for the Chinese position on the issues of Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet” raise irony and offend the ear.
NATO reached an agreement with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to ship military equipment out of Afghanistan through Central Asia, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen reported today:
We also reached agreement on reverse transit from Afghanistan with three Central Asian partners: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. These agreements will give us a range of new options and the robust and flexible transport network we need....
With Russia we have a transit arrangement, a reverse transit arrangement already, and the fact that we have now concluded a transit arrangement, three concrete transit arrangements with Central Asian countries at the Chicago Summit, will make the use of the Russian transit arrangement even more effective.
In response to a question on payment for the reverse transit, he implied that there was some, but wouldn't specify: "I do not comment on details in the transit arrangements, but it goes without saying that we have concluded agreements that are of mutual satisfaction of the involved partners."
Meanwhile, he said negotiations with Pakistan on reopening those lines of communication continue: "I'm not going to comment on details in negotiations with Pakistan. I'll just reiterate that I still hope that a solution can be found in the very near future."
These NATO deals are not related to separate deals the U.S. has reached. Obviously the U.S. is a member of NATO, and it's not clear if this new NATO deal now covers all NATO member countries besides the U.S., or what.
The most interesting subplot here is what this means for Pakistan. The AP story on Rasmussen's comments had an intriguing bit of analysis: