Uzbek officials are still ordering women to be forcibly sterilized, but Tashkent has christened 2012 the “Year of the Family,” pledging to help young couples marry and families stay together. Getting into the spirit, First Daughter Gulnara Karimova and her charitable foundations are promising parties in a campaign dubbed “1,000 weddings, 1,000 circumcisions.”
Karimova’s charity-cum-PR agency Fund Forum presented the idea at UN Plaza in New York earlier this month with representatives from both her country’s Permanent Mission to the UN and Consulate General in New York in attendance.
In Uzbekistan, the celebrations have already begun. At the end of March, 123 weddings and 200 sunnat-toys (circumcisions) were held in the Navoi and Kashkadarya regions with Fund Forum sponsorship. According to the UzDaily, a pro-government news portal, these ceremonies help orphans and couples from needy families get married, and for the male children of needy families to be circumcised free of charge. The new couples received gifts of furniture, televisions, and refrigerators, while the boys were given bikes, toys, and books. Fund Forum is tight-lipped on how the project is financed.
Though she could not make the party in person, Karimova sent her blessings to the new couples, as well as weddings dresses from her own designer fashion line, Guli. Guli was in the news last fall when human rights activists protested Karimova’s planned appearance at New York Fashion Week, prompting organizers to cancel her show.
Stories have been leaking out for years about doctors secretly performing hysterectomies on women who have given birth in hospitals. The surgeries are described as “voluntary,” but EurasiaNet.org has reported how increasing numbers of women are choosing to give birth at home, fearing doctors will tie up their fallopian tubes or cut out their uteri without their consent.
The UN Committee Against Torture and the US State Department have both expressed concern. Nevertheless, it appears Tashkent is issuing doctors quotas for the procedures.
"Every year we are presented with a plan. Every doctor is told how many women we are expected to give contraception to; how many women are to be sterilized,” a gynecologist from Tashkent told the BBC’s Natalia Antelava.
Several doctors I spoke to say that in the last two years there has been a dramatic increase in Caesarean sections, which provide surgeons with an easy opportunity to sterilize the mother. These doctors dispute official statements that only 6.8% of women give birth through C-sections.
"Rules on Caesareans used to be very strict, but now I believe 80% of women give birth through C-sections. This makes it very easy to perform a sterilization and tie the fallopian tubes," says a chief surgeon at a hospital near the capital, Tashkent.
One local expert estimated tens of thousands of forced sterilizations have happened in the past few years across Central Asia's most populous nation, a vast country of, officially, 28 million.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov hopes to lure big spenders to Tashkent with promises of fixed tax rates and less bureaucracy. But while he hatches plans to spend big in the capital, authorities in rural areas are taking farcical steps to shore up their failing economies.
Karimov signed a decree on April 10 allowing foreign companies that spend over $5 million to have their tax rate fixed at the time of investment for ten years, and not be subject to Uzbekistan’s unpredictable legislative process. The president’s decree also warns local powerbrokers and police officers to lower bureaucratic hurdles, which have scared off foreign companies in the past.
Maybe the measures will help soften Uzbekistan’s image after a series of scandals, allegedly orchestrated by foreign-owned companies’ Uzbek partners, forced some big investors to liquidate their assets, which were quickly bought for cheap by the government. “The central thrust of the plan to draw foreign companies appears based on making conditions more predictable,” the Associated Press said of the decree.
Human rights activist Elena Urlaeva has been admitted to a psychiatric clinic in Tashkent.
Opposition news agency Uznews.net reports that Urlaeva’s “fellow activists” admitted her to Psychiatric Clinic Number 1 on April 5 because they were concerned about her behavior following a recent visit to Turkey.
Urlaeva, who runs The Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, had reportedly gone to Turkey to meet with the head of the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU), an umbrella group of exiled Uzbek opposition parties and activists. Upon returning, her relatives say, she wasn’t herself, became hysterical, and chanted the phrase “Allahu Akbar,” meaning “God is Great” in Arabic. Some loved ones fear her hospitalization will conveniently keep her from attending a meeting of human rights activists in Switzerland next month.
Whenever it comes to human rights in Uzbekistan, the story gets confused. On April 5, Uzmetronom, a website that often appears close to the Uzbek security services, posted an article entitled “True-believer Elena.” The article alleges that people close to Urlaeva claim she had converted to Islam while on a recent trip to Sweden. An unnamed source in the article asserts, “It was specifically that step that caused the sharp psychological break in a woman with heightened susceptibility.”
Before announcing the release of her latest disco pop album yesterday, the daughter of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov – who records under her father’s pet name for her, Googoosha – has been traipsing the globe promoting Uzbek culture, including her country’s Islamic heritage.
Under the auspices of her Fund Forum, an exhibition, “Masterpieces of Eastern Calligraphy and Miniature Art: Traditional Culture of Uzbekistan,” opened last week in Dubai with works borrowed from the Institute of Oriental Studies at Uzbekistan’s Academy of Sciences, the Spiritual Council of Muslim of Uzbekistan, and private collections. Fund Forum, an organization claiming to promote art and culture within Uzbekistan and abroad, published an accompanying book – "Models of Eastern Calligraphy and Miniatures."
Some might find it odd that as Karimova publicizes the role of Islam in Uzbek art, her father bans religious clothing, installs cameras to keep track of worshippers, and locks away anyone suspected of an interpretation of Islam that does not conform to his standards. Throw in his penchant for torture, and watchdogs call Uzbekistan one of the most repressive countries on the planet.
But Karimova endorses a more “traditional” Uzbek art.
Uzbekistan appears to be expanding its de facto economic blockade of Tajikistan, pushing the impoverished country further into Central Asia’s most remote corner.
Since a mysterious explosion at a bridge in Uzbekistan last November severed southern Tajikistan from rail traffic, the region’s 3.5 million residents have remained dependent on alternative, more expensive transport routes. Even humanitarian food aid has had trouble reaching the Tajiks.
Tashkent claimed the blast was the work of terrorists. But eyewitnesses discount that explanation, fostering speculation that the Uzbeks damaged the bridge on purpose to punish Tajikistan. The two countries have had a contentious relationship, particularly in terms of water resources.
Now Tajik authorities say that the Uzbeks, rather than repairing the bridge and reopening the line as promised, have found a new excuse for further delays. According to an official at Tajik Railroads, the Uzbeks have begun dismantling parts of the line to move a train station closer to the Tajik border.
On March 30, Vladimir Sobkalov, vice chairman of Tajik Railroads, told Radio Free Europe’s Tajik Service that Dushanbe, which jointly operates the railroad line, has not been informed about Tashkent’s intentions. Uzbek authorities have not commented.
Another Uzbek refugee has been deported from South Korea, according to a Korean human rights lawyer.
Jong Chul Kim of Advocates for Public Interest Law writes that an Uzbek man who was living as a refugee in South Korea claiming “he would be persecuted and tortured by [the] UZB [Uzbek] government for his Muslim activities on return to his country of origin,” has been handed over to Uzbek authorities in Seoul. The man’s application for refugee status was rejected on March 21, and he was ordered to return to Uzbekistan the same day.
“According to relevant law, he was supposed to enjoy right to appeal to the Minister of Justice for 14 day after his first instance application is rejected,” Kim writes.
Kim says that in the six years he has dealt with such cases, this is the first time a refugee with the right to appeal his case has been immediately deported. According to Kim, two Uzbek officials met the man at Incheon Airport to escort him back to Uzbekistan. The man’s wife and two daughters live in Seoul on valid visas.
This is not the first time an Uzbek refugee has been deported from South Korea. In 2011, Uzbek businessman Abdullah Rabiev, who similarly fled to South Korea fearing that he would be persecuted for his involvement with an Islamic group, also faced deportation after his numerous appeals for refugee status were rejected.
Relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are about to grow a little colder.
Tashkent has said that from April 1 it will cut all natural gas supply to Tajikistan, again. This time, the story is that Uzbekistan needs to reroute the gas to fulfill its obligations to China.
But under an agreement signed in January, Tashkent would send Dushanbe 200 million cubic meters of natural gas annually. To put this in perspective, Uzbekistan produces 200 million cubic meters of natural gas a day. So, Tajik authorities are suspicious that the threat is not so much about gas shortages as politics.
Tashkent has a record of withholding gas from Dushanbe. For example, on January 4, Uzbekistan cut all gas to Tajikistan. After a brief visit from the Tajik vice prime minister, the gas was turned back on.
Local news agencies in Dushanbe have speculated that Tashkent is attempting to punish its upstream neighbor. The two countries have long been at odds over hydropower projects in Tajikistan.
In November, an explosion at a bridge on the Galaba-Amuzang railroad, which routes supplies into southern Tajikistan, left the line inoperable. A few days later, the Uzbek government claimed the explosion was an act of terrorism and vowed it would repair the bridge. But the railroad remains closed. As of February, an official with Tajikistan’s state railroad company said that 298 wagons of material bound for southern Tajikistan have been marooned in Uzbekistan and that three and a half million residents of southern Tajikistan are living under an economic blockade.
Uzbekistan’s long-serving leader Islam Karimov has been granted an extension of his current seven-year term of office, which will now stretch into 2015.
According to a law passed by the Senate on March 23, Karimov will face reelection in spring 2015, though his term officially ends in December 2014.
The new law stipulates that presidential elections will be held 90 days after the official results of parliamentary elections, scheduled for December 2014, are published, meaning that voters won’t get to choose their president until spring 2015.
The Senate session heard that the law would “give a powerful impulse to further modernization of the state legal and political system and deepening of democratic reforms and the formation of civil society,” the official UzA news agency reported.
That will no doubt be welcome to the people of Uzbekistan, which has never held an election deemed free and fair by credible international observers.
Like many a Central Asian strongman, Karimov is no stranger to sleights of hand over term limits.
In 1995 he didn’t bother going to the ballot box, using a referendum to extend his rule. In 2000 he stood for reelection in a one-horse race: The “opposition” challenger publicly acknowledged that he had chosen to vote against himself and for Karimov.
In 2002 presidential terms were extended to seven years from five by referendum, prolonging this political survivor’s rule for two more years.
Scenes from the Navruz spring festival in Samarkand.
In the fabled Silk Road city of Samarkand there’s singing, dancing and kite flying, and the city’s a riot of color as women take to the streets in their bright Uzbek silks. Uzbekistan may have put a dampener on Valentine’s Day last month, but it’s celebrating Navruz -- “new day,” the Persian New Year -- in style.
The Navruz spring equinox festival is marked by Turkic and Persian peoples across Central Asia and in places such as Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey (chiefly, in the latter, among Kurds).
Despite unusually freezing temperatures and recent snow on the ground, Samarkand, with its mixed population of Uzbeks and ethnic Tajiks, is embracing the festival enthusiastically. Residents are particularly glad to be marking the end of what’s been an abnormally long, harsh winter.
Children are performing stunts with colorful kites above the majestic turquoise domes of the Registan, and schools are competing to see which has produced the grandest stall this year. The stalls are manned by bowing girls dressed as brides or wearing traditional atlas silks, and they are plying passers-by with free snacks. These are dishes traditionally cooked up for Navruz and believed to fortify the body after the winter.
King among them is sumalak, made of wheat shoots, oil, flour and water. Women make a culinary festival out of this cooking ritual—sumalak must be stirred continuously for 24 hours, and they gather at each other’s houses to help with all that arduous mixing, casting stones into the pot for luck. The people of Uzbekistan attach mystical properties to sumalak: One Samarkand resident said his wife had wished for a son every year while cooking sumalak, and after seven years (seven is a lucky number here) her wish was granted and he fathered a boy.