"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).
As the European Union prepares to review its Central Asia strategy, a leading international human rights watchdog has urged Brussels to demand the five republics improve their human rights records, or face consequences.
In a June 21 statement ahead of an EU meeting on Central Asia policy, Human Rights Watch urged the 27-member organization not to allow geopolitical interests to serve as “an excuse for downplaying the EU’s focus on human rights abuses in the region.”
“Affecting positive change in Central Asia isn’t easy, but being clear about expectations and linking closer engagement to progress is a good place to start,” Veronika Szente Goldston, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia advocacy director, said in a statement. “The EU has resisted doing this so far, but it’s not too late to set things right.”
EU foreign ministers will meet on June 25 to assess its 2007 program, “The EU and Central Asia: Strategy for a New Partnership.”
HRW said the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan “all have distinctly poor human rights records and to various degrees resist meaningful reform.”
The watchdog documented concerns in a report issued on June 20, which singled out all five states for failing to prevent torture in places of confinement, restricting media freedoms and pressuring civil society activists.
For all its promises of easy riches, Uzbekistan is having a hard time keeping foreign businessmen around.
The head of the Uzbek branch of Russian telecom firm MTS has apparently become the latest foreign executive to bolt. According to the semi-official Uzmetronom, Bekzod Akhmedov fled this month after government auditors alleged tax evasion, misuse of funds and theft.
He's far from alone. Earlier this year, the general director of beer maker Carlsberg Uzbekistan, Russian citizen Evgeny Shevchenko, quietly left for Latvia. A Carlsberg executive confirmed to Central Asia Newswire that "We have temporarily suspended production [in Uzbekistan] due to an unavoidable shortage of raw materials.” He also said "Shevchenko left Uzbekistan to take up a new position elsewhere in the [Carlsberg] Group at the beginning of 2012."
The timing of these high-profile departures does not bode well for Tashkent's recent investment drive. In May, Tashkent promised to privatize 500 state-run companies. But privatization alone does not a good investment environment make. A June 19 article by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting lists a string of companies that have recently experienced “hostile takeovers” by the Uzbek government.
Tashkent's "Diplomatic Shop": Where prices are secrets.
In Uzbekistan, it’s sometimes like the Soviet Union never really went away.
Walking around downtown Tashkent recently, I spotted a store advertising itself in English as a “Diplomatic Shop.”
In the USSR, state-run Beriozka stores sold imported wares and hard-to-find local goods to foreigners in exchange for hard currency to supplement state coffers. Could it be that this Soviet institution had made a comeback in Uzbekistan, some 20 years after the collapse of the Union?
Like it’s predecessor, the Diplomatic Shop had well-stocked shelves lined with imported premium-brand liquor and perfume. Payment was accepted in hard currency or by credit card only. But there was a catch – a notice on the door said the goods were only for sale to diplomats or those with Foreign Ministry accreditation to live and work in Uzbekistan (that’s more than just a business visa).
Playing the dumb foreigner, I entered the store anyway. The assistant immediately asked to see my diplomatic ID or accreditation card. I came clean, admitting I had no such documents, and asked if I could have a look around.
“That's not possible,” replied the assistant.
“Could you, for instance, tell me the price of a bottle of wine?” I enquired.
“That's a secret.”
The question was relevant as Uzbekistan applies notoriously high taxes on imported wine and liquor. An average bottle of foreign wine starts at around 60,000 som ($35) in a shop and about double that in a restaurant.
Russia considers the transfer of U.S. military equipment from Afghanistan to Central Asian armed forces to be "unacceptable," and contrary to agreements those countries have signed as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. That's according to an anonymous Russian diplomat quoted in the newspaper Kommersant (and helpfully translated into English by RIA Novosti).
The U.S., recall, has said it is planning to hand over some of the equipment it is now using in Afghanistan to Central Asian militaries, as part of the U.S.'s Excess Defense Articles program. From Kommersant:
If implemented, this plan would allow Washington to expand its military cooperation with Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) member countries. A Russian diplomat said, on condition of anonymity, that Moscow considers this scenario to be “absolutely unacceptable....”
A Russian diplomat said this scenario ran counter to specific agreements with Moscow’s Central Asian partners and other agreements within the CSTO framework.
But the last two paragraphs of the Kommersant story gently suggest that Russia's objections may not really be about the legal issues of the CSTO:
A sizable U.S. presence might emerge on the Central Asian arms market, which primarily receives Soviet and Russian-made equipment. Moscow’s partners might eventually get used to having U.S. equipment.
It appears that CSTO members have every right to independently negotiate U.S. military equipment deliveries, all the more so as Moscow has recently turned Ulyanovsk into a transshipment center for NATO consignments being withdrawn from Afghanistan, without coordinating the decision with the CSTO.
Kazakhstan military officers observe the SCO drills, after taking the scenic route to northern Tajikistan.
The annual military exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization wrappied up today in northern Tajikistan, with member militaries practicing "air-to-ground fire attack, joint encirclement and suppression, charging into depth for pursuit and annihilation and vertical interception and annihilation" against the usual "terrorist" threat.
Taking part were about 2,000 soldiers and 500 military vehicles and airplanes from Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. That's all the SCO countries except Uzbekistan, which -- in keeping with its standard practice -- didn't participate. But Uzbekistan seemed to go a bit further this year, and even forbade Kazakhstan's troops and equipment from transiting through its territory en route to Tajikistan, according to Kazakhstan's defense attache in Tajikistan, Serik Zhumadilov:
"The Uzbek authorities have not allowed Kazakhstan's military equipment to pass through Uzbekistan to participate in the exercises. Military equipment and personnel of the armed forces of Kazakhstan, which are involved in anti-terror exercises have been delivered to Tajikistan, bypassing Uzbekistan through Kyrgyz territory."
Uzbekistan, recall, has also declined to participate in various activities of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a similar political-military bloc. It's also bowed out of Western-led regional initiatives, like the "Istanbul Process" for Afghanistan. And given that Uzbekistan sees Kazakhstan as a rival, it's maybe not too surprising that they don't want the Kazakhstan military marching through their territory.