The new head of U.S. Central Command has made his first trip to Central Asia, visiting Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and -- intriguingly -- not Kyrgyzstan. One source close to CENTCOM also pointed out to The Bug Pit that the commander, General Lloyd Austin, has been everywhere else in his area of responsibility before stopping into Central Asia, suggesting what sort of priority the region is.
The official statements about the visit were predictably vague: In Tashkent, "there was an exchange of opinions on the perspective of peaceful resolution of the situation in Afghanistan." In Dushanbe, Austin discussed "assistance in strengthening stability and security in Afghanistan and prevention of risk of spread of terrorism and extremism."
So, we are left to guess about what were the topics of discussion. No doubt at the top of the agenda was the logistical support that those countries provide to U.S. forces and equipment entering and leaving Afghanistan. A piece in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta sees a sinister hand in the timing of Austin's visit to Tajikistan, coming just before President Emomali Rahmon's trip to Russia: "In recent years a practice has developed: on the eve of Russian-Tajik discussions, without fail, an American envoy appears." That doesn't seem likely; the U.S. government usually isn't efficient enough to pull of that degree of deviousness.
Uzbekistan would supply 200,000 metric tons of cotton to Bangladesh annually under the terms of a new bilateral agreement, Dhaka’s Financial Express newspaper reported on August 5. The deal, which would mark the first time Bangladeshi purchases of Uzbek cotton are regularized, may be signed during an annual industry fair in Tashkent this October, 12news.uz reports.
"Since Uzbekistan is a major source of cotton for us, we want to make the import process easier and uninterrupted. So, we are finalizing the draft of the MoU for signing as soon as possible,” the Financial Express quoted a Bangladeshi official as saying. The memorandum will ensure direct delivery of raw Uzbek cotton “on a regular basis,” the newspaper added.
Human rights groups say deals like this help Tashkent circumvent campaigns designed to end its reliance on forced child labor during the cotton harvest. Uzbekistan, the world’s sixth-largest cotton producer and third-largest exporter, earns over $1 billion from cotton exports annually.
According to the Cotton Campaign, the government forces over a million children and adults to pick cotton each autumn. Over 130 global apparel brands have signed the Responsible Sourcing Network’s pledge not to use Uzbek cotton.
Pressure is mounting in Europe over graft probes linked to associates of Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, as reports emerge that French and Latvian investigators are closing in on corruption enquiries previously confined to Sweden and Switzerland.
French investigators have opened a probe “targeting Gulnara Karimova” and linked to a money-laundering case connected to her associates, the Rue89 news website reported on July 31, citing an unidentified judicial source.
Swiss prosecutors confirmed earlier this month that French police had raided properties in France at the behest of the Swiss inquiry, which is investigating four Uzbek associates of Karimova’s for money laundering. One of the properties was a Paris flat belonging to Karimova, BBC Russian reported at the time, citing an “informed source.”
Rue89 said properties “which could belong to Gulnara Karimova” had been searched on June 18, adding that she owns “several bolt-holes in France” including a villa outside Saint-Tropez and a property in Paris’s chic 16th arrondissement. Rue89 said Karimova owned the real estate through Paris-based companies managed by Alisher Ergashev, a suspect in the Swiss dirty money probe.
Afghanistan authorities are beefing up security in Hairaton, the border town with Uzbekistan, citing recent attempts by militants to lay mines on a road leading to the bridge to Uzbekistan.
Authorities didn't give details of the mine-laying, or of the increased security measures. The chief of police of Balkh province, Abdul Razak Kadiri said “This city has strategic significance for all countries, so we will continue to strengthen security measures,” according to a report in Afghanistan.ru.
In June, Balkh authorities established a new police post in Hairaton and the deployment of additional police units, also announcing it as an effort to increase security in the border town.
Without knowing too many details it's hard to say what this means, but the major activity in Hairaton is transportation of U.S. and NATO cargo to and from Uzbekistan. While military supply convoys have been repeatedly attacked in northern Afghanistan, as far as I'm aware there have been no attacks in Hairaton (or in Central Asia itself). As usual, we should always look with strong skepticism at any news that comes out of this area, especially with so few details, but if this is true it would certainly be raising some alarm in Tashkent.
A website that many Central Asia watchers have long believed airs leaks from Uzbekistan’s security services is taking a break after Uzbek authorities criticized its coverage of a border skirmish this week.
On July 25, Sergey Yezhkov, editor of Uzmetronom.com, said he would suspend the website indefinitely. Though Uzbekistan is one of the world’s worst countries for journalists, he expressed surprise that authorities would silence those who “utter any word which is out of tune with official propaganda.”
“We don’t understand whether it is a short-term hysteria caused by some momentary undercurrents, or a long-term program with full consequences,” Yezhkov wrote in an editorial. He also denied that the website – which proudly brands itself “blocked in Uzbekistan,” yet has operated from there since 2006 – is “close to the Uzbek security services.”
He tried to explain away this widespread belief: “[W]e did not even try to argue, although we never were ‘close.’ At least, we were not closer than others [...] unfiltered information coming from within the country is always preferable to what is produced outside.”
Moscow-based Fergana News said that Uzmetronom came under fire after publishing a report on a July 23 skirmish on the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan border that left two dead. Uzmetronom received a letter on July 24 from the Military Prosecutor’s Office warning against covering the clash “without receiving accurate information on this incident from relevant bodies,” Fergana News quoted the letter as saying. The letter added that such reporting could destabilize the situation on the border.
Uzbekistan has moved forward with plans, announced in March, to build a railway link to the Fergana Valley that would bypass Tajikistan.
Citing Finance Ministry documents, Uzdaily.uz reported on July 24 that construction of the 125-kilometer electrified railway line from Angren in Tashkent Region to Pap in Namangan Region over the 2,200-meter Kamchik Pass has commenced.
"In 2016 we will complete the construction of the railway line and we will be able to get to the Fergana Valley, and Andijan in particular, by train," Uzdaily.uz quoted Uzbek President Islam Karimov as saying in April.
The $1.9 billion project, which envisions two tunnels through the mountains, is expected to be funded by the state budget, the national rail operator, and "loans from international financial organizations," the website noted, without providing details.
The project will allow Tashkent to abandon use of a Soviet-era, 110-kilometer rail link that cuts across Tajikistan's northern Sughd Province, and, thus, acquire transport independence.
Uzbekistan, which is already shipping freight to and from the Fergana Valley by road, now uses that international rail route for moving oil and petroleum products for a reported annual transit fee of $25 million.
Uzbek school kids enjoy their summer break by taking photos at the Crying Mother Monument in Tashkent's Independence Square. The monument, which also has a pit with an eternal flame, was erected in 1999 to honor the approximately 400,000 Uzbek soldiers who died in WWII.
At least one Uzbek border guard was killed in a clash with his Kyrgyz counterparts on July 23. But that’s about all the local media on both sides of the frontier agree on. Officials from the hostile neighbors are presenting differing accounts of the skirmish, including where it occurred.
Tashkent’s 12news.uz website describes a “provocation” on a farm in Namangan Region at around 9:30 a.m. Uzbek time (10:30 a.m. in Kyrgyzstan), when two Uzbek patrolmen tried to stop several “drunk” Kyrgyz guards armed with machine guns who had "intruded" onto Uzbekistan's territory. When the Uzbek guards tried to approach their Kyrgyz colleagues to "explain the seriousness of the situation," the latter opened fire without warning, killing one on the spot and seriously wounding the other in the chest. "Having finished their dirty job, the Kyrgyz bandits left our country," 12news.uz said.
The Uzbek Border Service found spent shells about 100 meters into Uzbek territory, the website said, adding that the second guard died in hospital.
Less than a week after news broke that Gulnara Karimova, the image-conscious daughter of Uzbekistan’s long-serving strongman, had lost her post as ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, she was home courting fans and drubbing a potential rival.
In a blog entry posted July 20, Karimova described her recent trip to the distressed market town of Kokand in the Fergana Valley. As she’s done previously to win sympathy with potential supporters, there Karimova championed small businesses. But she went further, using the opportunity to attack Rustam Azimov, the first deputy prime minister and finance minister – a man often mooted as a potential successor to her father, President Islam Karimov.
“Looking at the ads and signboards, you understand that you’re in a trading city, although the old posters and billboards that have been hanging there for ten years are a telltale sign that trade was more boisterous before the super financial regulator at the ministries of economy and finance introduced excise and other operational super limitations,” Karimova wrote in a clear reference to Azimov.
This just in from the Uzbek Ministry of No Fun: For the remainder of the holy month of Ramadan, government employees, which in authoritarian Uzbekistan includes not only ministry and law enforcement workers, but also those toiling for government-run banks and medical clinics, shall go straight home after work and not consort with anyone.
So reports the Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe. Apparently, it is not bad enough that Ramadan, which requires Muslims to fast during the day and eat only after sundown, falls this year during the longest days and hottest part of summer in blistering Central Asia. As part of its continued crackdown on religion, the Uzbek government has decided to put the kibosh on the daily ritual celebrating the day’s end known as Iftar, which involves friends and family gathering for food and relaxation.
It’s not clear who issued the new rule, but it is leading to some predictable absurdities.
According to Radio Ozodliq, via the Russian-language Lenta.ru, for instance, employees of the state-owned Halk Bank have been asked to go straight home after work as per a special decree of the company’s human resources department. Eateries in Tashkent, the report says, have been forbidden from letting the pious break fast on their premises, despite the fact that reservation-takers find it impossible to distinguish those hoping to get a table for Iftar from those simply hoping to stop in for an evening meal.