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.
After seven years of filming, thousands of interviews, and the arrest, torture and even murder of some of his sources, journalist-turned-activist Michael Andersen is about to release his documentary investigating the 2005 Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan.
On May 13, 2005, military forces loyal to President Islam Karimov opened fire on protestors in the eastern city of Andijan. Uzbekistan has ignored calls for an impartial investigation and said it was battling Islamic militants, rather than peaceful protestors. The official death count is 187, while some activists say over 1,000 may have perished.
Andersen, a Dane, was inspired to make the film because of what he calls the “hypocrisy of Western governments who coddle Karimov in exchange for military supply routes and basing rights to support the war in Afghanistan.” Andersen has covered the region since 2000, and lived in Uzbekistan from 2000 to 2002. He was unable to film in Uzbekistan, however: He says Uzbek authorities “utterly ignored” 28 applications for a visa and repeated requests for comment. Instead, he relied on footage collected over the years from numerous sources and on interviews with witnesses outside the country.
The film, “Massacre in Uzbekistan,” seeks to inform Westerners about the events and shine a spotlight on the pattern of engaging (now fallen) dictators like the Shah of Iran and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. But more importantly, perhaps, Andersen hopes to reach Uzbeks who, he says, don't even know about the tragedy, by translating the film into Uzbek and Russian and putting it online – the only space for free information that Karimov has trouble controlling.
Customers line up outside a Ucell office in Tashkent on July 18. MTS clients mobbed rival mobile providers after the company was forced to suspend operations in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan has suspended the operations of Russia’s largest cellphone company amid accusations of legal violations in the use of equipment, prompting an exodus to other operators and sending rumors swirling that vested economic interests are behind the move.
The suspension of all operations of O’zdunrobita, MTS’s Uzbekistan arm, took effect in Uzbekistan from 6pm on July 17 for 10 working days, under a decree from Tashkent’s Communications and IT Agency.
The shutdown left 9.5 million clients -- a third of Uzbekistan’s 29.5-million population -- without MTS mobile communications at least until July 31.
MTS insists it has complied with all government requirements and is operating within the law. A July 17 press release spoke of “ungrounded attacks” on its business, including the shutdown and “the use of the tactic of intimidation and arrest of O’zdunrobita staff.” Five managers are in detention facing criminal charges, while general director Bekzod Akhmedov has fled Uzbekistan.
The arrests came after what MTS described as “synchronized inspections” over recent months, leading to accusations of tax evasion, theft and breaches of Uzbekistan’s complicated currency regulations.
MTS customers reportedly mobbed other providers to buy new SIM cards. “People are going crazy trying to get numbers from other companies,” said a Tashkent resident who subscribes to rival operator Perfectum Mobile on condition of anonymity on July 18.
"Rustam" fled Uzbekistan six years ago for what he thought was a safe haven, Norway. Now the 26-year-old says he’s in danger of being deported back to Uzbekistan, where he could face imprisonment, torture and maybe worse.
Known to us only by his pseudonym, lest his family in Uzbekistan face reprisals, Rustam has been has been held in a detention center in Oslo since June 12. On that day Norwegian authorities rejected his third plea for asylum, he has told Danish journalist Michael Andersen.
Andersen – who has long covered human rights abuses in Uzbekistan – reports that Rustam fled Uzbekistan in 2006 after he was imprisoned and tortured for starting an NGO called “Movement for Freedom” to protest the use of child slave labor in the Uzbek cotton harvest.
In Norway, Rustam says he has been working as the Webmaster for an opposition site, Jarayon, run by prominent dissident-in-exile Mutabar Tadjibaeva. Tadjibaeva, who has lived in France since 2008, confirms she has employed Rustam since August 2010 and says she has hundreds of emails to prove it. She is incredulous that the Norwegian authorities rejected Rustam’s case and worries that Rustam’s links to her and her website mean certain jail and torture if he sent back.
Andersen, the Danish journalist, told EurasiaNet.org he is concerned not only for the health of Rustam, but for his life, and says the West is too eager to look the other way.
If you’re Russian mobile operator MTS, finding yourself threatened by another hostile Central Asian dictatorship must feel like a sick joke. But this time it’s Uzbekistan -- not Turkmenistan -- where MTS faces the unpredictable business culture of an authoritarian country.
The sequel to Mobile TeleSystems’ 2010 Turkmenistan troubles began in mid-June when authorities in Tashkent announced they were searching for Bekzod Akhmedov, the head of MTS Uzbekistan. Akhmedov, authorities said, fled when they accused him of theft and tax evasion.
Uzbekistan’s mobile-connection inspector (GIS) then announced it was investigating MTS Uzbekistan for illegally using 48 cell base stations and for user reports of poor service. GIS threatened to suspend the company’s operating license. MTS promptly denied the allegations, saying that in 2012 alone the company has delegated $150 million dollars to construction of new cell towers.
Finally, on June 28 the Prosecutor General’s office said it was investigating MTS Uzbekistan for “tax evasion, money laundering, being involved in illegal activities, etc.”
The prosecutor claims it has received letters signed by the head of MTS, Andrei Dubovskov, asking the government to investigate MTS Uzbekistan’s “questionable and illegal schemes to hide funds and evade taxes,” and for help locating Akhmedov, the missing head of MTS Uzbekistan.
It wasn't exactly a surprise when Uzbekistan pulled out of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow’s alternative to NATO, this week. But while many Russian commentators appear offended, some are asking if a new CSTO rule on hosting foreign bases was just too much for Tashkent to stomach.
Tashkent has long been the nebulous body’s sulking brat, refusing to participate in joint military exercises and antagonizing fellow members such as neighboring Tajikistan. At the same time, Uzbekistan has become critical to the NATO war effort in Afghanistan. So the withdrawal, for those who see the CSTO in direct competition with NATO, stings.
Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the CIS Institute in Moscow, told RIA Novosti that Uzbekistan’s choice displays "a clear desire of President [Islam] Karimov to flirt with the United States."
The Voice of Russia calls the move “risky.” Andrei Grozin, the head of the Central Asia Department at the CIS Institute, told the outlet that “Tashkent’s foreign policy is zigzagging” while it tries to “win the love of NATO.”
A Tashkent advertisement for “Your favorite soft drinks.”
A family of Soviet-era soft drinks has suddenly reappeared this summer to quench the thirst of Central Asians.
In Almaty's upmarket Samal district, a retro vending machine is offering a choice of plain fizzy water or three old, syrupy favorites. And in Tashkent, a billboard has popped up around town featuring a matronly Slavic woman standing by an old-fashioned soda fountain.
The Almaty dispenser is a throwback to the carbonated-water dispensers that were found on many a street corner in Soviet times. After the collapse of the USSR these machines largely disappeared or fell into disuse (some still languish, rusting and forlorn, in the occasional back alley or small-town bus station), unable to compete with imported sodas such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola.
But now the familiar flavors are fighting back, almost literally. The Almaty dispenser is decorated with the figure of a Bolshevik revolutionary on a striking red background. For 40 tenge ($0.30) you can have a Buratino, a caramel-colored concoction named after Russia’s indigenous Pinocchio. A radioactive-green, tarragon-flavored Tarkhun will set you back 50 tenge ($0.35), while a flowery, pear-inspired Duchess costs 60 tenge ($0.40).