Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, who is more known for jailing journalists than praising them, has warned that his country will end up on the "fringes of global progress" unless it wholeheartedly embraces the media.
Congratulating journalists on a Soviet-era holiday in their honor that is celebrated in Uzbekistan on June 27, Karimov hailed his country’s media as a "mirror of deep socio-political reforms and democratic renewal" and a "powerful force capable of changing the thinking and outlook of our people," the state-run UzA news agency quoted him as saying.
Though he didn’t go so far as to say that Uzbekistan needs a “free media,” the ideas are a bit out of character for the strongman who brooks no decent and jails journalists.
For the past several years Uzbekistan has been continuously ranked one of Reporters Without Borders’ “Enemies of the Internet” for censorship and online snooping. Freedom House ranked Uzbekistan 195 of 197 countries (just ahead of Turkmenistan and North Korea) in its most recent "Freedom of the Press" index because "independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the regime, citizens’ access to unbiased information is severely limited, and dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture, and other forms of repression."
Uzbeks may finally be able to trade their wheelbarrows for wallets.
Currently, Uzbekistan’s most valuable banknote is worth about $0.37. But on July 1 the Central Bank will release a 5,000-sum note, worth about $1.85 on the black market. Many hope the new bills will make life easier for shoppers who now carry around sacks of Uzbek cash to perform the simplest transactions.
The Central Bank announced its decision on June 27, after earlier denying reports of the new bills. Last time Uzbekistan introduced a new bill was in 2001, with the 1,000-sum note – the one that’s now worth about $0.37. (The official exchange rate stands at 2,093 sums to the dollar. Cash dollars are currently changing hands for slightly over 2,700 sums on the black market.)
Observers believe Uzbek authorities have been reluctant to put higher-denominated banknotes into circulation, fearing forgers would target the sum. Larger notes would also highlight decades of failure of Tashkent’s monetary policy. (In February, the BBC reported that Uzbekistan is home to the world’s most worthless coin, the tiyin, which is worth about 1/2000 of a US cent (at the official exchange rate)).
In a rare public appeal, 12 leading US senators have urged Uzbekistan’s strongman to release a human rights activist and two journalists who are serving "politically motivated" prison sentences.
A bipartisan letter to President Islam Karimov, initiated by senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), and signed by prominent Republican senators John McCain and Marco Rubio among others, requested information about the "health and status" of human rights lawyer Agzam Turgunov and journalists Dilmurod Saidov and Salijon Abdurakhmanov, whose "continued detention is inconsistent with our countries' cooperation in many other areas and symbolic of a troubling pattern of harsh treatment for political prisoners" in Uzbekistan, the June 26 letter said.
Washington is generally cautious about criticizing Uzbekistan's rights record, activists say, as the country is critical to NATO's plans for evacuating Afghanistan by the end of next year. In recent years, Washington has softened its rights rhetoric and lifted some sanctions relating to Uzbekistan's poor human rights record.
All three prisoners, the senators believe, are being held on trumped-up charges: Turgunov, 61, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for extortion in 2008; Saidov, 51, received over 12 years for extortion and forgery in 2009, and Abdurakhmanov, 63, was imprisoned in 2008 for selling drugs.
Five shepherds and at least a thousand head of sheep seem to have become the latest victims in the ongoing border dispute between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Uzbek border guards seized the wandering ruminants earlier this month, Fergananews reported on June 24, citing the Tajik service of Radio Liberty, which in turn cited Tajik border guards in the northern province of Sughd. A father of one of the disappeared shepherds said the number of abducted animals was 2,200 sheep plus 41 cows.
No comment was immediately available from the Uzbek side, which has reportedly not responded to Tajik requests for negotiations.
The two countries have long been at odds over their 1,200-kilometer border, much of which remains undefined.
The troublesome boundary is not the main source of friction, however. Dushanbe and Tashkent barely speak with one another. The Uzbeks are furious over Tajik plans to build the world’s tallest hydropower dam, Rogun, upstream, claiming it will give Tajikistan unfair control over regional water resources and could harm the environment. Tajikistan, for its part, cites Uzbekistan’s constant gas cuts as a reason it needs the giant project. The antagonism is often described as deeply personal between the two countries’ autocratic rulers.
Uzbekistan has mined much of the border since it became an international frontier in 1991 at the collapse of the Soviet Union, splitting families who once lived in the same country. Shootings are common, often of stray shepherds chasing their livestock and of smugglers who have failed to pay off the right border guards at night.
Never known for compassion, the strongman president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, has lashed out at Uzbek migrant workers in Russia, calling them “lazy people” who “disgrace all of us” by looking for work abroad.
"I call lazy people those who go to Moscow and sweep its streets and squares. One feels disgusted with the fact that Uzbeks have to travel there for a piece of bread. Nobody is starving to death in Uzbekistan,” state-run television quoted Karimov as saying on June 20.
“The Uzbek nation's honor makes us different from others. Is not it better to die [than scrounge]? Therefore, I call lazy those people who disgrace all of us by wanting to make a lot of money faster there,” Karimov added (transcript from BBC Monitoring).
Easy for him to say. In Karimov’s breathtakingly corrupt dictatorship, major industries are allegedly controlled by a coterie of senior government officials and their families. Unemployment and underemployment are rife and Karimov has done little to foster a more transparent system that might attract investors and create jobs.
Uzbekistan’s pop police have banned several star musical acts for undermining the Central Asian nation’s “moral heritage and mentality” by being insufficiently patriotic.
Three pop stars (Dilfuza Rakhimova, Otabek Mutalkhuzhayev, and Dilshod Rakhmonov) and two groups (Ummon and Mango) have had their licenses stripped, which means they cannot perform in public. Uzbeknavo, the official association controlling Uzbekistan's lucrative pop music business, made the announcement on its website this week.
An Uzbeknavo meeting heard “criticism of songs that are not in line with our national spiritual values, our moral heritage and mentality,” the sternly worded statement said.
“It is our duty to praise the Motherland, rubbing its earth onto our eyes and praising its people and its happiness,” it explained.
Seven other performers received reprimands and were warned to get in line by July 1. Uzbeknavo evidently had patriotism on the agenda as it met to discuss celebrations of Uzbekistan’s 22nd anniversary of independence on September 1.
Uzbeknavo made no mention of Uzbekistan’s most famous pop star, however.
A poster in Tashkent offers a warning about human trafficking.
The United States has given Uzbekistan the lowest possible rating in its annual report on human trafficking and forced labor.
Uzbekistan was downgraded (along with Russia and China) from Tier 2 to Tier 3 in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report for failing to make sufficient efforts to combat the trade in human flesh.
The June 19 report had harsh words for Tashkent: “The Government of Uzbekistan remains one of only a handful of governments around the world that subjects its citizens to forced labor through implementation of state policy.”
The use of forced labor in the cotton harvest featured strongly in the findings: “Internal labor trafficking remains prevalent during the annual cotton harvest, in which children and adults are victims of government-organized forced labor. There were reports that working conditions in some fields during the cotton harvest included verbal and physical abuse and lack of freedom of movement.”
There was no immediate reaction from Tashkent, which has always denied state-sponsored forced labor and points to its efforts to combat people trafficking.
The US report noted that last year Tashkent enforced a decree banning child labor in the cotton fields, resulting in a “sweeping reduction” in the number of children under age 15 in the harvest, but said that older children and adults were still being forced to reap cotton.
Getting hard currency in and out of Uzbekistan, with its notoriously tight controls over cash flows, is about to become even harder as Tashkent brings into force draconian new checks over bank transfers that will hit investors and individuals, foreign and local alike.
The new rules, announced by the UzDaily.uz website on June 17, launch a new monitoring system that forces banks to report a wide range of bank transfers into and out of Uzbekistan to the tax authorities. The report said the rules were approved on June 12, but did not specify when they will come into force.
For foreign companies, these include fines received from local partners via transfer for breaching agreements. Dividends or profits repatriated abroad to foreigners who have founded companies in Uzbekistan also come under the rules. (The right to repatriate profits is theoretically assured to foreign investors under Uzbek legislation, but frequently breached due to the Byzantine hoops through which they must jump to repatriate their money.)
The rules also cover payments to non-residents for sales of shares in Uzbekistan-based businesses and of property in Uzbekistan, which will hit both foreign companies and foreign individuals.
The rules aren’t just targeted at foreigners: Uzbek citizens will also be hit as the transfers they receive and make come under scrutiny. Any transfers abroad from Uzbek banks by individual account holders above the equivalent of $10,000 per calendar year will come under the microscope, as will all transfers from abroad to their accounts from foreign companies.
Transfers of funds via international services such as Western Union and MoneyGram – used by many labor migrants abroad to send remittances home – are not covered by the rules.
The rail line at Hairatan, Afghanistan, on the border with Uzbekistan, through which U.S. and NATO military cargo to and from Afghanistan flows. (photo: Sgt. 1st Class Peter Mayes, 101st Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division Public Affairs)
Policymakers from the U.S., Europe, and Central Asia gathered last week in Riga to discuss the "commercialization" of the Northern Distribution Network, the military transport routes that ship military goods from the West into Afghanistan via the ex-Soviet states. The idea that the NDN can be converted into a "New Silk Road" of commercial Eurasian trade has been around for some time. And it's been debunked for about as long. But it's still kicking, and in fact now has become part of the State Department's talking points.
What became clear at the conference, though, is that while the NDN may have been a military logistics success, and while there is in fact a great deal of momentum towards transcontinental Europe-Asia land transportation, those two things have little to do with one another. There was occasional political rhetoric connecting the two: Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said that he was "confident that the Northern Distribution Network has the good potential of becoming a commercially viable, long-term transit corridor also after 2014." And Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lynne Tracy spoke of "the transition of these transport corridors from the success of carrying cargo supporting operations in Afghanistan to realizing their full potential as commercially competitive and efficient routes." But for the most part, the two conversations -- about the NDN and about commercial transcontinental transit -- were entirely separate.
Water was the hot topic as the leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan met in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, on June 14.
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, struck a conciliatory note over access to Central Asian water resources, a subject which Uzbek leader Islam Karimov last year warned could lead to war.
“A great deal depends for our future on how [Central Asian states] cooperate and trust each other and together resolve our questions without hindering other states,” Nazarbayev said in remarks quoted by state news agency Kazinform.
“Our approaches on many aspects, including the water problem in the region, coincide,” he said of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. “And we want to send a friendly message to our neighbors that we ourselves have to resolve these questions. There are no unresolvable problems and questions.”
Speaking of the plans of neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to build hydropower projects on Central Asian rivers upstream, which Karimov strongly opposes, Nazarbayev said disputes could be resolved “only on the basis of negotiations and the strengthening of mutual trust, without confrontation.”
Karimov has long been a vociferous opponent of plans by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to complete long-stalled hydropower dam projects -- Rogun on the Vakhsh River (the headwaters of the Amu-Darya) in Tajikistan and Kambarata on the Naryn River (which becomes the Syr-Darya) in Kyrgyzstan.