Usually wary of Moscow-led initiatives, Uzbekistan has suddenly expressed cautious interest in joining the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia – the trade bloc Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a key feature of his foreign policy.
Senate Speaker Ilgizar Sobirov, the powerful head of the Uzbek parliament's upper chamber, showed interest in joining the Russia-led group on November 12 after meeting a delegation from the Russian parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported.
Sobirov reportedly said Uzbekistan holds a "positive" attitude toward possible membership in the trade body, which lately has been marked by increasingly rancorous internal disputes. “I think we shall support,” Itar-Tass quoted him as saying, in a report light on details.
Uzbekistan's interest in the Customs Union makes sense on paper. Russia is the country’s largest trade partner, according to statistics distributed in Uzbek media by the State Statistics Committee.
Russia is also the primary magnet for the millions of Uzbek labor migrants who sent about $5.7 billion home in remittances last year, or the equivalent of 16.3 percent of GDP.
Drivers in Uzbekistan have long complained about gasoline shortages. With little explanation, it seems the secretive government is trying to address mounting domestic gasoline shortages and panic at local petrol stations.
Tashkent intends to increase imports of oil from neighboring Turkmenistan, Moscow-based Fergana News reported on November 11, citing Uznefteprodukt, the state-run refining company.
It’s unclear how large the increase will be, however. Repeated calls to Uznefteprodukt went unanswered on November 12. The company’s website confirms the plans for imports, but does not name figures.
Oil output in Uzbekistan fell from 78,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 2010 to 68,000 bpd in 2012, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy for 2013, largely due to aging infrastructure and limited investments. Over the same period, consumption increased from 75,000 bpd to 82,000 bpd, BP said.
Neither Uzbekistan nor Turkmenistan disclose energy import or export figures. Uzbekistan also imports oil and petroleum products from Russia and Kazakhstan.
Uznefteprodukt has dismissed reports of hours-long queues at gas stations in Tashkent, blaming “rumors” for fears that petrol prices, which are strictly controlled by the state, would soon rise. But EurasiaNet.org has seen queues, which are ongoing.
As a result of a U.S. attack that killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban, there are renewed threats in Pakistan to shut down the border with Afghanistan to U.S. and NATO forces. This, of course, would have a direct impact on Central Asia, by forcing the U.S. military to again shift its supply routes back to the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia and Russia. And this just as American military officials have managed to get away from the more expensive, difficult northern route and back to Pakistan.
The political party that rules the province that borders Afghanistan "passed a resolution that threatened to block the supply lines through the region in response to a C.I.A. missile strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, on Friday," the New York Times reported. It set a deadline of November 20 for the U.S. to stop drone attacks, after which they promised to shut the border. The resolution, the Times says, "was a means of building pressure on the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to end American drone strikes, while buying time to avoid a tricky confrontation with Mr. Sharif’s administration, which does not favor blocking NATO lines."
And also, crucially, the Pakistani military appears to favor the strike and to oppose closing the border. From an analysis of the political fallout by Ariq Rafiq in Foreign Policy:
It's no surprise Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s president, has enemies. Described as a “robber baron” by a leaked US diplomatic cable, she encourages speculation she wishes to succeed her father, 75-year-old Islam Karimov.
Now she says “they” have tried to kill her.
Amid mounting scandals in recent weeks – a public feud with her sister and a blackout at her media empire, for starters – Karimova tweeted on October 31 someone is trying to poison her and she knows who it is.
“[They’ve] already tried to poison me with heavy metals like mercury. Thank God, they have not killed me, although I am still receiving treatment,” she wrote, without elaborating.
Asked by a follower whether she knew who the culprit was, Karimova replied, “Yes.....”
She did not unmask the failed assassin. Many will assume the Tweet was yet another one of her attention-grabbing antics. But in recent days she has repeatedly attacked the head of the National Security Service, Rustam Inoyatov, whom she accuses of trying to seize power.
On October 29 Gulnara Karimova confirmed in a tweet that the Uzbek Agency for Communications and Information had closed four television channels she is believed to control for violating laws on the media, on advertising, on children, copyrights, licensing and so on. The stations regularly profile Karimova and her activities. Their shuttering robs her of a platform she uses to sculpt her image at home. Karimova has long been thought to crave the presidency after her 75-year-old father, Islam Karimov, moves on.
In response to a Twitter user’s question whether the reports were true, Karimova – using her handle @GulnaraKarimova – responded in her idiosyncratic Russian (translated here with an effort to retain the original style): “[H]owever silly this list sounds, but yes! How have you obtained this list? As far as I understand is this already part of the public domain?!”
On October 30, Radio Free Europe reported that bank accounts for the media holding company behind the stations, Terra Group, had been frozen and that the company’s accounting office had been “padlocked.” Rumors are also circulating that investigators are looking into embezzlement allegations at Karimova’s Fund Forum charity network.
In her inimitable style, Karimova is also using Twitter to address the reported rifts in her family and clashes with the powerful figures surrounding her father.
Critical websites that have been blocked in Uzbekistan for years reportedly became accessible within the country in recent weeks. But sources tell EurasiaNet.org they are blocked again.
On October 27, Moscow-based Fergana News reported that from October 17 users in Namangan, Tashkent and Fergana could "freely access" Fergananews.com and other sites that frequently carry material critical of the Uzbek government and President Islam Karimov.
Sources in Tashkent told EurasiaNet.org on October 28, however, that the sites, including EurasiaNet.org, are again blocked. (They can be accessed using proxy servers.) Uzmetronom also reports that the sites are again inaccessible from within Uzbekistan.
State media regularly warns about the supposedly harmful effects foreign media, culture, and social-networking websites have on young people, especially since the Arab Spring saw similar dictatorships toppled in the Middle East. Reporters Without Borders consistently ranksUzbekistan an "Enemy of the Internet."
Scandal-plagued Nordic telecom giant TeliaSonera has distanced itself from its local subsidiary in Uzbekistan, Ucell, after Ucell sponsored an event hosted by Gulnara Karimova, the controversial daughter of the country’s strongman.
Ucell sponsored a concert this week marking the opening of Karimova’s annual weeklong arts, music, and fashion extravaganza, Style.uz.
That’s likely a little embarrassing for TeliaSonera, which is embroiled in a corruption investigation in Sweden, accused of paying over $300 million in bribes to a Karimova associate for access to Uzbekistan’s telecoms market.
A spokesperson for TeliaSonera confirmed that Ucell had sponsored the event but stressed the decision was taken locally without its involvement, Sweden’s The Local website said on October 24. "Ucell contributes to projects meant to contribute to Uzbek society," The Local quoted the TeliaSonera representative as telling the TT news agency. TeliaSonera did not disclose the amount of money Ucell had paid for Karimova's bash, which is billed as a charity fundraiser, The Local said.
In February, an audit unearthed no evidence of corruption, but found TeliaSonera had not employed adequate safeguards when entering as opaque an environment as Uzbekistan, which Transparency International ranks as 170 out of 174 on its Corruption Perceptions Index.
Four television stations close to Gulnara Karimova, the Uzbek president’s eldest daughter, remain off air today, sources in Tashkent confirm, three days after mysteriously disappearing from the airwaves.
The channels – Forum, TV-Markaz (TVM), NTT, and SoFTS, which are linked to Karimova via her Fund Forum cultural organization – disappeared on October 21 and are not available on the Internet either.
Today TV-Markaz says it is switching formats: “Due to a switch to a new broadcasting format, the TVM television channel temporarily suspended broadcasting on October 21, 2013 […] All shows and projects are continuing to be produced and TMV staff are working as usual,” the company said in an October 24 statement.
But the timing is odd and fostering suspicion that Karimova – often mooted as a potential successor to her aging father – is in trouble at home. The blackout comes during one of Karimova’s most important annual events, Style.uz, which opened on October 22. The stations often promote Karimova, her charity and fashion projects, and her sultry music videos.
Uzbekistan stands to earn $1 billion annually exporting cotton, an industry that has planted the Central Asian country prominently on the inaugural Global Slavery Index published by an Australian watchdog this week.
Citing officials, Uzreport news agency reported on October 17 that at the ninth annual Cotton and Textile Fair in Tashkent on October 16 and 17, Uzbekistan signed contracts to export 680,000 metric tons of cotton fiber and textile products worth $1 billion a year.
In awkward timing, while Uzreport was hailing the cotton contracts as "a solid basis for future long-term, sustainable and mutually beneficial cooperation between Uzbekistan and foreign countries," the Brisbane-based Walk Free Foundation published its inaugural Global Slavery Index.
During the annual cotton harvest, Uzbekistan “is the country with the second highest prevalence of modern slavery (after Mauritania) in the world,” the accompanying report said. The index ranked Uzbekistan 47th globally overall.
Uzbekistan relies on forced labor to pick the cotton, which is then purchased from farmers at artificially low prices and sold abroad for hard currency. The State Department said this year that Tashkent “subjects its citizens to forced labor through implementation of state policy.”
During a visit to Latvia this week, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov got just what he wanted: recognition from a Western leader and promises of more, without any annoying questions about his well-documented human rights abuses.
Following a meeting with Karimov on October 17, Latvian President Andris Berzins promised that in the first half of 2015, when Latvia holds the rotating European Union presidency, improving relations between the EU and Central Asia would be high on the Baltic nation’s agenda, Latvia's Leta news agency reported.
Berzins also promised to back Tashkent’s bid to join the World Trade Organization.
At least publicly, Latvian officials failed to mention Uzbekistan’s troubled human rights record, instead prioritizing economic and security cooperation. Uzbekistan is critical to the so-called Northern Distribution Network, which NATO uses to supply, and now withdraw from, the war in Afghanistan. Latvia lies at the other end of the vast network spanning the former Soviet Union.
The Baltic nation, a member of both the EU and NATO, has been criticized in the past for offering undeserving prestige to Central Asian autocrats craving attention from Western leaders. Last year Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov met Berzins in Riga. Again, human rights were not publicly discussed. Berzins doubled the tribute with a visit to Ashgabat this year.
Ahead of Karimov's visit to Riga, activists urged Berzins to address human rights.