TV footage released Wednesday suggests President Islam Karimov has not been felled by a heart attack, contrary to the widely distributed claims made by one of Uzbekistan’s exiled opposition leaders. The 75-year-old Uzbek strongman was shown this evening in a televised broadcast that appeared to be shot March 27, eight days after he was rumored to have suffered the massive attack.
On March 22 and 24, Muhammad Solih, head of the Norway-based People’s Movement of Uzbekistan, said, citing separate unnamed sources in Tashkent, that Karimov was near death. The rumor has percolated unchallenged through much of the Russian-language media in recent days. But this evening Karimov looked pretty much like he did eight days ago, last time he was on television: old, yes, but alive.
State-run Yoshlar’s evening news program showed Karimov hosting Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov at his Oksaroy residence. Yesterday, Idrissov’s ministry had announced that he would be in Tashkent the following day. In the footage, Karimov wore a black suit with a red tie and appeared to speak in his usual tone and manner. The two discussed bilateral relations, with Karimov praising Kazakhstan’s relatively new initiative to conclude a treaty of strategic partnership.
A rumor that Uzbek President Islam Karimov has suffered a debilitating heart attack is spreading as quickly as a pandemic in a thriller. As more media outlets reprint the rumor, it may be increasingly perceived as the truth, but in fact the sourcing remains as thin as it was when this started last weekend.
The allegations all go back to the same person, an exiled opposition figure thousands of miles away in Norway – Muhammad Solih, head of the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU). On March 22, Solih’s website cited an unnamed source in Tashkent as saying Karimov, 75, had suffered a heart attack after attending festivities marking the Navruz spring holiday. On March 24, Solih reiterated the rumor by citing a second source, a journalist “working for one of the state media outlets, performing his activities directly under the oversight of the National Security Committee and the press service of the president of Uzbekistan.”
The U.S.'s growing military ties with Uzbekistan may be a strategic necessity, given the importance of the Central Asian country in the U.S.'s war effort in Afghanistan. But it is forcing the U.S. to confront an important, if little-discussed, complication: Uzbekistan is the least-trusted, most-feared country in the region. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have well-known border and water conflicts with Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan sees Uzbekistan as a regional rival. So is the U.S.'s military aid to Uzbekistan raising regional tensions?
U.S. military aid, after being suspended for several years because of human rights concerns, is steadily being ramped up. That the U.S. is giving small surveillance drones to Uzbekistan is the worst-kept secret in Washington (OK, in the narrow slice of Washington that The Bug Pit inhabits). It's also giving Uzbekistan's armed forces night-vision goggles, body armor, and GPS systems, and there are credible rumors in Washington of heavier military equipment being considered for Uzbekistan to either buy or be given. (And it's not just the U.S.: Uzbekistan has pledged to work more closely with NATO on training, and the U.K. is also planning to make some donations to Uzbekistan as well.)
Gulnara Karimova, Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s eldest daughter, seems to have had a change of heart: Once described as a “robber baron” for the way she used her position of privilege and power to seize successful enterprises in Uzbekistan, she’s now championing the cause of the small businessman.
The private Novyy Vek newspaper reports that Karimova has complained about the difficulties small- and medium-sized businesses face in Uzbekistan due to, in the paper’s words, “bureaucratic and other obstacles created by government agencies.”
Speaking on March 25 at the awards ceremony of a fair showcasing handicrafts made by select artisans from across Uzbekistan, Karimova described the plight of a “promising” factory in southern Surkhandarya Region that had been forced to close because of such obstacles, Novyy Vek quoted her as saying.
“Once we visited a factory in Surkhandarya and it made very beautiful items and quality carpets and silks and it had a very interesting and good team of women and girls. Generally, it was such a decent small business,” said Karimova, who has long been rumored to covet her father’s position.
“We discussed how this enterprise could supply its products to Tashkent in order expand the factory’s sales and opportunities, but several months later we learned that the enterprise was shut,” she explained, because of “difficulties” meeting raw silk quotas set by Uzbekistan’s state body overseeing the textile industry.
One of Uzbekistan’s opposition groups-in-exile has reported that President Islam Karimov has had a heart attack, prompting a denial from officials, while reigniting speculation about the aging leader’s health.
The People’s Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU), headed by Muhammad Solih from his base in Norway, reported on March 22 that the 75-year-old president suffered a heart attack on March 19. The report cited the PMU’s “own correspondent” in Tashkent, who was not named.
On March 24 the PMU reported confirmation of the news from a second source, a journalist “working for one of the state media outlets, performing his activities directly under the oversight of the National Security Committee and the press service of the president of Uzbekistan.”
The report quoted the unnamed journalist as saying that Karimov had a heart attack on the evening of March 19 and is “now seriously ill.”
No other sources apart from the PMU have independently confirmed the report of Karimov’s alleged heart attack.
A source in the presidential administration denied the news. “The president of Uzbekistan is in excellent form as always and does not have any signs of any indisposition,” the unnamed source told Russian news agency RIA Novosti on March 22.
In a separate report the same day, RIA Novosti quoted a source in the presidential administration (it was not clear if it was the same person) as saying the report was “most likely a canard” and pointing out that Karimov had been seen in public on March 19 at celebrations of the Navruz spring equinox holiday.
Uzbekistan has begun drilling for shale oil at the Sangruntau deposit in northern Navoi Region, an unnamed government official told the Novyy Vek newspaper on March 20.
Business New Europe reported in February that the $600-million project, the first attempt to develop shale oil in Central Asia, would compensate for falling oil production in Uzbekistan and reduce its reliance on imports from Kazakhstan. Officials are tightlipped about who’s paying for all this, but Novyy Vek said financing came partially from “foreign loans.”
The project will provide up to 8 million metric tons of shale oil and up to 1 million metric tons of oil products a year, Novyy Vek reported, adding that Uzbekistan's shale oil reserves are estimated at 47 billion metric tons.
According to the 2012 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, Uzbekistan's oil production fell from 7.2 million metric tons in 2001 to 3.2 million in 2011, while consumption decreased from 6.7 million metric tons to 4.4 million over the same period.
Nothing irritates Tashkent more than neighboring countries' plans to build hydropower dams upstream. But rather than making the usual effort to thwart those plans with blockades and talk of “war,” a senior Uzbek official has offered some constructive advice.
Uzbekistan’s Deputy Water and Agriculture Minister Shavkat Khamraev told UN Radio this week that the only way to solve arguments about Central Asia’s unevenly distributed water resources is to construct small hydropower stations instead of giant dams, like the ones upstream Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan hope to build on the tributaries of the region's main rivers – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya.
Speaking of Tajikistan and the Amu Darya in particular, he said in a March 19 interview, "Let them build. We are also building small hydropower stations that do not alter the water and environmental pattern of this river and its basin.”
Khamraev is in New York to attend a March 22 meeting on water cooperation at UN headquarters. A Tajik delegation is also expected to attend.
The two countries are at loggerheads over Dushanbe’s plans to build what would be the world's tallest dam, Rogun. Dushanbe pins great hopes on the 335-meter dam, believing it will ensure energy security for the country, which now depends heavily on its neighbors.
Tashkent, however, says Rogun will hurt its agricultural sector and poses unnecessary risks in a seismically active region. Last fall, President Islam Karimov said projects like Rogun could “spark not simply serious confrontation but even wars.”
Conflicting reports about a bloody skirmish, or two, on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border in recent days have generated some basic questions -- like, who got killed? Some Russian-language media say the Uzbeks killed three Afghan police officers on March 16; Tashkent says it killed three Afghan attackers on March 14.
According to Tashkent’s account, about 10 Afghans attacked Uzbek border guards on March 14 and tried to seize their weapons. Uzbek guards were forced to shoot, wounding four Afghans, three of whom died.
But on March 17, Afghanistan’s border police commander, General Mohammad Jan Mamozai, said that Uzbek border guards had shot seven Afghan “police” on an Afghan island in the Amu Darya river, according to an Afghanistan.ru report, killing three.
The "police" narrative seems to have taken hold in the Russian-language media. But Pajhwok Afghan News, also citing Mamozai, says the seven Afghans were civilians.
Haji Sharfuddin, an elder from Kaldar District in Afghanistan’s Balkh Province, denounced the killings. He said the civilians had not crossed the border into Uzbekistan, according to Pajhwok.
The two countries share a 137-kilometer border defined by the Amu Darya.
Neither the Uzbek border service, nor the National Security Service (SNB, formerly the KGB), which operates it, have responded to the Afghan allegations.
World Cup fever is gripping Uzbekistan, where tempers flared this week as some 1,500 football aficionados queued for tickets for an upcoming group game match at Tashkent’s Bunyodkor Stadium. The BBC's Uzbek Service reported that police used force to disperse the disorderly crowd.
The excitement is understandable: A first for Central Asian football, Uzbekistan's national team stands on the verge of qualifying for the game’s top contest, to be held in Brazil next year.
The Uzbekistan Football Federation website reported the supporters flooded Bunyodkor's ticket offices on March 18, expecting tickets to go on sale at 2 p.m. When ticket windows failed to open, disgruntled fans started revolting. The police moved in with batons and made several arrests, according to the kun.uz website.
The 12news.uz website claimed 6,000 tickets were sold later in the day, but a fan commenting on the story claimed that only 200-500 tickets had been sold after 18.30 and that enthusiasts were unhappy with the process.
Fans will now have to wait until after the Navruz holiday to get their hands on the precious tickets, which will go on sale again March 22. The tickets, which cost between 15,000 and 30,000 sum ($7.50 to $15.00 at the official exchange rate), are limited to two per person.
Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman President Islam Karimov, has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons lately. But in the pages of one magazine – her own glossy published in Uzbekistan – she’s a superstar.
A recent copy of Bella Terra, a Karimova project that publishes articles and interviews on style and fashion (and which also has a website), is packed to the gills with material promoting the president’s daughter and her fashion label, Guli.
The December 2012/January 2013 issue of the Russian-language magazine is devoted to the Style.uz event, which Karimova (dubbed “the princess of Uzbekistan” in a promotional interview that recently came to light) organizes in Tashkent every year. Style.uz is a jamboree of fashion shows and cultural events that attracts the Tashkent glitterati and a handful of foreign B-list celebrities.
From the magazine we learn some fascinating facts about Style.uz: This year foreign visitors lauded Uzbekistan’s famed hospitality a full 1,467 times; 76 bottles of hairspray were used in the hairdressing competition; and 10 parachutes could have been made from the 1,050 meters of silk and adras (a silk and cotton mix) used in one fashion event.
But for the most part the magazine gets down to the serious business of promoting Karimova (who is also known as Googoosha, her stage name when she is in her pop star persona).