A Ferghana Valley border clash this weekend yet again highlights the potential for violence in Central Asia’s most densely populated and ethnically diverse region.
Several hundred residents of the Uzbek enclave of Sokh reportedly attacked a Kyrgyz border post and took Kyrgyz citizens hostage on January 5 and 6, according to local news wires. Sokh (also spelled Soh) is an island of territory controlled by Uzbekistan and entirely surrounded by one of Kyrgyzstan’s poorest provinces, Batken.
Though Sokh is populated mostly by ethnic Tajiks, a minority in both countries, the episode is an unsettling reminder of the fighting between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan that left hundreds dead in 2010.
Presidents of all CSTO member states at the group's summit in Moscow. Absent: Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov.
For months, Uzbekistan's erstwhile allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization have been discussing in public what they intend to do in regard to Tashkent's suspension of its membership in the group. When the CSTO finally held its summit meeting last week in Moscow, the group did the only thing it really could: accept the inevitable and try to put the best face on it. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Tashkent just before the CSTO meeting, saying "It is Uzbekistan's sovereign choice [to leave the CSTO]. We regret it, but the decision has been made... However, Uzbekistan, remains our ally, our strategic partner."
The CSTO did suggest that Uzbekistan can't just float in and out of the group, as it did once before, reported Russian newspaper Vedemosti:
“"Regrettably, it did certain damage to the image of the organization," admitted Russian Representative to the CIS CSTO Igor Lyakin-Frolov. "All I can say is that the door back remains open. Membership is Tashkent's for the asking." President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko meanwhile said that certain terms of the renewed membership had to be met... if it ever came to that. "Uzbekistan will have to ratify all our decisions and agreements first," said Lukashenko. When Tashkent returned to the CIS CSTO in 2006 after the suspension in 1999, it never bothered to ratify guideline documents of the organization..
As a probe into allegations of shady payments in Uzbekistan by a Swedish-Finnish telecoms firm continues, fresh accusations have surfaced linking the deal directly to Gulnara Karimova, daughter of President Islam Karimov, whose name has repeatedly emerged in connection with the controversy.
Swedish broadcaster SVT -- which this fall broadcast the exposé that sparked the opening of a corruption investigation in Sweden involving TeliaSonera’s acquisition of the rights to operate in Uzbekistan -- says it has interviewed two senior TeliaSonera executives who linked Gulnara Karimova to the agreement allowing the company to enter Uzbekistan’s lucrative cellphone market.
“To reach a deal with Gulnara was a prerequisite to the whole deal,” one executive (both requested anonymity) told SVT’s “Uppdrag granskning” program. The executives said TeliaSonera officials traveled to Uzbekistan in 2007 to negotiate with the president’s daughter, who has extensive economic interests in Uzbekistan. (One WikiLeaked US Embassy cable describes her as a “robber baron.”) Karimova, who casts herself a sultry pop diva and fashion designer, and is her country's permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, has not commented on any of the corruption allegations.
One of the sources linked Karimova to Bekhzod Akhmedov, formerly a major player on the Uzbekistan’s telecoms market and currently the prime suspect in a separate money-laundering probe under way in Switzerland.
Authorities in Uzbekistan have instructed television executives to keep the local version of Santa Claus off the airwaves this holiday season, the Associated Press reports.
Throughout the former Soviet Union, the robed Father Frost – Ded Moroz as he’s known in Russian – is the beloved figure who appears with gifts on New Year’s Eve, a entirely secular holiday.
Independent news website UzMetronom reported Monday that President Islam Karimov's authoritarian government imposed the informal ban on Father Frost and his snow maiden sidekick. […]
The ban is similar to the semiofficial 2005 ban on celebrating New Year's Eve.
It all looks like part of Karimov’s ongoing effort to shield his 30 million people from any foreign influences, and invent an entirely Uzbek "culture." As part of the campaign, high school students are subjected to lectures on "Uzbek national values," which demand they to submit to authorities.
In March, legislators, acting out of concern for children's “moral health,” mulled a vague ban on foreign toys that did not conform to these "national values." And earlier this year Karimov's government called off Valentine’s Day:
Uzbekistan has cancelled concerts marking the holiday and instructed young people instead to celebrate the birthday of a local hero—Moghul emperor Babur, who was born in Andijan in 1483 and conquered much of South Asia. The Associated Press recently cited an Uzbek newspaper article calling Valentine's Day the work of “forces with evil goals bent on putting an end to national values.”
With a pinch of of whataboutism, President Islam Karimov says Uzbekistan is democratizing in its own way, and no one should rush it.
Speaking on state television on December 7 to mark the 20th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s constitution, Karimov said his country is rapidly developing into “a modern sovereign country with democratic, social, political and civil institutions that view human rights and freedoms as real values.”
Most EurasiaNet readers will scoff at the suggestion that one of the world’s longest-ruling autocrats, who throws critics into prison while his family seems to seize anything not nailed down, has much belief in values like the rule of law or protection of private property.
Nonetheless, the speech, though nothing unusual for Karimov, will give our readers a taste of the verbose spin the 74-year-old employs. Much of it sounds as dated as he is – which may help explain why he views things like the Internet and Western video games as such a threat.
Karimov – who has run Uzbekistan for 23 years – paints himself as a reformer. Democratization “is a long and continuous process that is not limited to a certain period of time, and we are certainly aware of that,” he said of the “Uzbek model” of development.
Transcript and translation provided by BBC Monitoring.
[We are] implementing a blueprint for evolutionary development, making sure that the economy is free of ideology, introducing democratic reforms gradually, ensuring the supremacy of law, recognizing the state's role as the chief reformer and further increasing its influence during the transitional period, and taking into account our country's unique features, conducting a strong social policy.
Human rights groups are calling on Uzbekistan’s government to use a Constitution Day amnesty to release political prisoners, not just petty criminals.
Authorities often mark Constitution Day, December 8, with a mass prisoner release, freeing convicts accused of minor crimes who are not considered a threat to national security. However, those jailed on politically motivated charges are rarely released as part of these amnesties.
“Journalists, rights defenders, writers, and opposition and religious figures held solely on account of their peaceful activities shouldn’t be in prison in the first place,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a December 6 statement signed by nine groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Fiery Hearts Club. “Freeing political prisoners for Constitution Day is an opportunity for President Islam Karimov to show Uzbekistan’s people and international partners that he’s willing to take a genuine step toward reform.”
Last week, a leading activist said Uzbekistan is holding more than 2,000 political prisoners.
Nadejda Ataeva of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, one of the signatories, described how, when political prisoners’ terms are almost up, they often are charged with new transgressions. Ataeva pointed to the the case of Murad Juraev, a former member of parliament who has been jailed since 1994 and is reportedly gravely ill with tuberculosis:
His fourth term expired on November 13, but was not released. Between October 10 and 22, he was held in solitary confinement near the town of Almalyk, on a disciplinary charge.
Juraev’s lawyers have not been given access to his case files in 18 years. It’s possible there’s no evidence there.
Although Pakistan reopened its border with Afghanistan of U.S. and NATO military back in July, traffic there is still moving so slowly that the coalition forces haven't even moved all of the goods that had backed up there -- meaning the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia remains the key means of supplying foreign forces in Afghanistan. That's according to Air Force Col. Robert Brisson, chief of operations for U.S. Transportation Command, in a recent interview with Military Times.
U.S. military officials have spent the past five months wrangling with the Pakistanis over a formal legal agreement and also working to clear out the roughly 7,000 shipping containers that were stalled in transit when the Pakistanis abruptly closed the border crossings in November 2011.
Coalition forces are only able to get between 10 and 50 cargo trucks per day across the border, compared to around 100 before the border was closed, Col. Brisson said.
“We haven’t booked any new cargo into the ports of Karachi and Qasim to move northbound, nor have we started moving new cargo heading southbound out of Afghanistan,” Brisson said.
New cargo may begin moving in late December or January, he said.
The U.S. and Pakistan are still working out the terms of the new agreement to ship goods through that country, and apparently the biggest sticking point is the question of transit fees.
The U.S. spent about $1.3 billion in Central Asia on supplies for its troops in Afghanistan over the most recent fiscal year, including $820 million in Turkmenistan alone. The $1.3 billion represents a sevenfold increase from the previous year, according to figures provided to The Bug Pit by the Defense Logistics Agency, the Pentagon agency in charge of supplying forces. The totals for fiscal year 2012, broken down by country, were:
Kazakhstan: $137.3 million
Kyrgyzstan: $218.1 million
Tajikistan: $11.7 million
Turkmenistan: $820.5 million
Uzbekistan: $105.9 million
DLA was unable to provide any detailed numbers about what was bought in each country, but that eye-popping $820 million in Turkmenistan was certainly almost entirely fuel. In general, the money went to "bottled water, sodas, juices, pasta, bakery items, lumber, plywood, cement, concertina wire, generators, rebar, fuel drums, corrugated steel, galvanized steel coils, and feeder cable. We also support the region by purchasing fuel and paying associated transportation costs," the DLA said in a statement.
The agency has made efforts to boost its Central Asia buying:
"DLA has conducted market research extensively in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan for a wide range of products... DLA has consistently increased procurement in the region since FY08. DLA increased local procurement in the five Central Asian States by over 700% when compared to FY11 figures. In January 2012, DLA placed a liaison officer in the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan and one in the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan to help foster increased local procurement efforts."
The goal for the upcoming fiscal year is slightly more than this year, $1.31 billion.
The blackouts usually start this time of year. As the temperature drops and the days get shorter, Central Asia’s aging energy infrastructure struggles to keep up, leaving residents cold and in the dark.
When the region was managed by Moscow and was not divided by international borders, upstream, water-rich Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would produce hydropower in the summer, and receive gas from downstream Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the winter. The five independent countries still trade, begrudgingly. But as they bicker, the system is falling apart.
Kazakhstan is again talking about withdrawing from the system altogether, Business New Europe reports, blaming Uzbekistan for deviously siphoning off electricity from the regional grid. Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are experiencing vast shortages. From BNE:
Uzbekistan has introduced rolling electricity blackouts across the country, with the power turned off for one or two hours a day in Tashkent and until 6pm in other cities. Rural areas are receiving no electricity at all, and many towns have no heating. In addition to the electricity shortage, a lack of gasoline has resulted in mile-long queues at petrol stations, and cutbacks to public transport.
Kyrgyzstan is also struggling to supply its population with heat and electricity, which has caused the country to cut its electricity exports to both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan cut electricity generation in September to conserve water in its reservoirs, resulting in a fall in electricity exports of over 1bn kWh to 1.5bn kWh.
The start of the heating season has put further pressure on Kyrgyzstan's energy sector, with gas imports from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan having been cut due to the debts run up by the struggling government.
Security and energy topped the agenda on the first day of European Union foreign affairs envoy Catherine Ashton’s visit to Central Asia, disappointing campaigners hoping she would make vocal calls for improvements to what they see as the five states’ dismal human rights records.
Following the EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting in Kyrgyzstan on November 27, Ashton cited first security (due to the region’s proximity to Afghanistan) then energy and trade as key to “the growing importance of Central Asia.”
“We face shared security challenges. We have great potential to further develop our energy, trade and economic relations,” she said, only then pointing to the EU’s desire to “support the efforts of the countries of Central Asia as you take that journey of political and economic reforms.”
She listed topics of discussion as education; the rule of law; the environment; and energy and water resources (a particular bone of regional contention). “And we talked about democratization and human rights and the development of civil society,” Ashton then added.
Human rights campaigners had been hoping for stronger language from the EU foreign policy chief, who promised ahead of her visit in an interview with Radio Free Europe to make human rights “a core part of the dialogue.”