Authorities in Uzbekistan are increasing their surveillance of Muslims, while showing greater concern about what they wear.
At the beginning of March, a representative from the government-controlled Muslim Spiritual Board in Namangan Region requested that cameras be installed in and around 181 mosques in the area, Regnum reported. Authorities claim the installation of security cameras follows thefts at some mosques.
However, an Uzbek imam living across the border in neighboring Kyrgyzstan told Radio Free Europe’s Uzbek Service he believes “the authorities are trying to control what happens during prayer, to track what imams say to believers and to see whether young people are attending prayers.”
Also this month, Uzbek authorities have prohibited the sale of religious clothing, specifically hijabs and burqas, at several Tashkent markets. After receiving an oral order, venders at several markets including the massive Chorsu Bazaar, quickly pulled headscarves and other coverings from their racks. Local authorities reportedly confiscated some clothing, reported the Institute of War and Peace Reporting:
Tashkent businesswoman Mutabar, who imports goods from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, still offers the items to customers, but only in secret.
“Islamic clothing is being sold under the counter,” she said. “I am selling it from home, but only to trusted customers.”
Officials in Tashkent confirmed the ban was in place but were reluctant to comment in detail.
Russia has confirmed that it is planning to help NATO set up a transportation hub in the Volga city of Ulyanovsk, confirming its willingness to cooperate with U.S. goals in Central Asia and setting off a mild political controversy among Russians uncomfortable about working with NATO.
As first reported a month ago by the newspaper Kommersant, NATO is looking at using the Ulyanovsk facility to fly in equipment that it is moving out of Afghanistan as it withdraws. The equipment will then be sent onward to Europe via train.
The first official confirmation of the plan was made this week by Dmitry Rogozin, formerly Moscow's ambassador to NATO and now deputy prime minister dealing with defense industry. In his inimitable way, he addressed a controversy that had been brewing on Russian online fora, writing on his facebook page (and reported by RIA Novosti):
Reading about a ‘U.S. base near Ulyanovsk’ is annoying. Let me explain: we are talking about a so-called multimodal transit of non-lethal cargos to serve the needs of international security assistance forces in Afghanistan.
In Ulyanovsk, mineral water, napkins, tents and other non-military cargos will be reloaded from trains onto planes and then moved to Afghanistan.
This will be a commercial transit, which means the Russian budget will get money from it. I don’t think that the transit of NATO toilet paper through Russia can be considered the betrayal of the Fatherland.
The next day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mentioned the NATO-Russia deal, which he said had not yet been formally approved:
"This draft agreement… has not entered force yet, it has not yet been considered by the government,” Lavrov told State Duma members...
The two big post-Soviet military blocs, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, have announced their respective plans for large-scale exercises this year. The CSTO's will take place in September in Armenia, while the SCO's will happen in Tajikistan in June.
Last September's CSTO exercises were a pretty big deal, involving 24,000 troops and taking place amid a concerted Kremlin effort to gin up the threat from Afghanistan, prompting a lot of observers to speculate that Moscow was trying to use the CSTO as a means of exerting a heavier hand in Central Asia. This year's exercises were still months away, and there are few details available about them, so it's hard to compare yet. But the choice of location in Armenia is curious, given that last year so much of the rhetoric justifying the organization's existence related to Afghanistan. So now is the shift toward the Caucasus, or is it just Armenia's turn?
Meanwhile, the choice of Tajikistan for the SCO exercise, Peace Mission 2012, has prompted one dropout already: Uzbekistan won't be taking part in the exercise, Regnum reports (in Russian):
"During the exercises, a special anti-terror operation in a mountainous area will be worked on. New methods will be used to detect, block and destroy mock outlawed armed formations that have captured a mountain village, according to the legend," the [Tajikistan Ministry of Defense] press centre said.
One Tajikistan member of parliament interviewed by Regnum had harsh words for Uzbekistan's decision:
In an email to supporters, journalists and friends, one of Uzbekistan’s few human rights activists, Elena Urlaeva, is pleading for help from Tashkent’s unrelenting attacks on herself and most recently, her family.
Urlaeva, a leader of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, writes that authorities are now trying to turn her husband against her to force her to stop her human rights work. In the past, Urlaeva says authorities have attempted to place her adopted son into foster care, and have threatened to commit Urlaeva to a psychiatric hospital – a Soviet-era method of silencing critics that has continued under President Islam Karimov.
In the March 13 email, Urlaeva recounts how on March 12 she returned home from attempting to lead a small protest march to Karimov’s residence, which was blocked by police, to find her husband, Mansur Mashurov, furious.
Urlaeva writes that a police officer had repeatedly called Mashurov, telling him that his wife was breaking the law and instructing him to evict her for holding “illegal human rights activities” in his home.
In an emotional email, Urlaeva recounts how over the course of two days, March 12 and 13, her husband, under what Urlaeva believes is the authorities’ influence, threatened both herself and their seven-year-old adopted son. In detail, Urlaeva describes how she, as well as her friends and neighbors, tried to contact local police to come to her aid, and how the authorities continually ignored her calls for help. Urlaeva believes the authorities are encouraging her husband to act in such a way. She writes:
Lawmakers in Uzbekistan have declared war on toys that harbor foreign values.
Members of the pro-government Milliy Tiklanish (National Revival) party in the lower house of parliament have proposed a bill to protect the “moral health” of children and teenagers by limiting the import of foreign-made toys, Regnum reports. A supporting article by government-run UzDaily.uz has denounced toys “that harm the spiritual and moral development of children and teenagers and lead to sadistic tendencies.”
“Unfortunately, right now, our children mostly play with toys that are produced outside the country and are not tied to our national traditions,” UzDaily explained.
This is not the first time authorities in Tashkent have sought to staunch so-called foreign values. In 2010, authorities launched the “Year of Harmonious Development of this Generation” and passed a series of laws that allowed the government “more effectively to protect children and formulate their respect for national values and tradition.”
In April 2011, those laws led Uzbek authorities to finger another culprit in society’s moral decline—rap music. They created a special committee to censor rap lyrics and oversee future recordings by Uzbek rappers.
A prominent cleric from Uzbekistan is recovering after being shot several times in an apparent assassination attempt in Sweden.
Obid-kori Nazarov was attacked on February 22 by an assailant who lay in wait near his home in the small town of Stromsund, the independent Uznews.net website reported, citing an unnamed associate.
The attacker fled after Nazarov shouted for help. He was taken to a hospital for an operation and there were conflicting reports about his condition, described by Uznews.net as “serious but stable” and by RFE/RL as “critical.”
Nazarov gained popularity as an imam in Uzbekistan in the 1990s, where his fiery sermons led President Islam Karimov’s administration to cast him as an opponent at a time when the main challenge to Karimov’s rule came from clerics with wide public followings.
He still has “tens of thousands of followers and admirers” and “is considered one of the most powerful opponents of the regime,” RFE/RL commented.
The story of the alleged incursion by an Uzbekistani drone into Kazakhstani airspace has taken a strange turn: The Kazakhstan government on Tuesday officially confirmed that the incursion happened, while aviation experts have cast doubt on the video that purports to show the drone, saying the "drone" appears to be a radio-controlled model.
The story was originally reported by Kazakhstani TV station KTK, which cited unnamed officials, But on Tuesday a spokesman for Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry, Altai Abibullaev, confirmed the incursion at a briefing:
"Staff of the Committee of National Security border troops confirmed that violation by an Uzbek UAV violated [Kazakhstan's] airspace. The relevant services in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are negotiating with each other. Official information on the incident was sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [of Uzbekistan]," he said. "I think that as a result of these joint efforts the Kazakh side will be further informed," concluded Abibullaev.
Delivering the usual grim assessment on press freedom in Central Asia, the Committee to Protect Journalists says the region’s media continue to be shaken by “tactics to intimidate, harass and imprison journalists.” CPJ released its annual Attacks on the Press report on February 21.
Even in Kyrgyzstan, celebrated for its shift from authoritarian leadership to parliamentary rule, attacks on journalists continue to rise. In 2011, eight media workers were assaulted, CPJ counted, while ethnic Uzbeks working in the field were forced to flee or, in the case of Azimjan Askarov, remain languishing in prison.
“Rising violence, censorship, and politically motivated prosecutions against the media marred the year in Kyrgyzstan. Parliament decriminalized libel, but moved to censor foreign press coverage. Ethnic Uzbek journalists were targeted for legal reprisals” in the wake of ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010. The report adds:
After the June 2010 conflict, ethnic Uzbek media owners Khalil Khudaiberdiyev and Dzhavlon Mirzakhodzhayev faced attacks, harassment, and retaliatory prosecution. Authorities forced Khudaiberdiyev to sell his company, Osh TV. Mirzakhodzhayev suspended operation of Mezon TV and the newspapers Portfeland Itogi Nedeli. The outlets had produced news in Uzbek, as well as in Russian and Kyrgyz. As both owners fled the country, the country's largest ethnic minority was left without access to news in its native language.
Screenshot of KTK video showing alleged Uzbekistani drone incursion into Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan government officials have accused Uzbekistan of violating its airspace with an unmanned drone aircraft, backing the claim up with video showing the purported incursion. The incident happened February 16 in the area of Beyneu, on the far western end of the Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan border, according to KTK TV, citing sources in the security services. The government also has released a shaky video of the drone, which you can see at KTK's site. The drone, to The Bug Pit's untrained eye, could be either a Hermes 450 or a General Atomics MQ-9. And it's engaging in some un-dronelike behavior, buzzing close to the ground near some apartment blocks.
The UAV crossed the border of our country and went deep into the territory of Kazakhstan. The incident was reported to KTK correspondents by informed sources in the power structures. The aircraft was located in the Kazakh air space for about fifteen minutes. And it went unnoticed by air defense units because it flew at too low an altitude. The drone, presumably belonging to Uzbekistan, flew near two border posts, turned around and headed back toward the border and escaped to a neighboring state. Representatives of the Air Defense Forces and the intelligence units of the Ministry of Defense are involved in the situation. Whether the Uzbek authorities will be sent a protest note, is still unknown.
(Tengri News picked up the story and translated it into English, as well.)
Uzbek-language articles on Wikipedia – the popular, crowd-sourced online encyclopedia – have suddenly become inaccessible inside Uzbekistan, regional news outlets are reporting.
Almost 8,000 entries in the Uzbek language appear to be blocked, reports Ferghana.ru. Visitors trying to access the site are redirected to MSN.com, a news aggregator operated by Microsoft. Wikipedia pages in other languages appear to be unaffected. RIA Novosti reports Tashkent has blocked the page in the past.
The sudden change is unlikely to surprise Internet users in Uzbekistan, where authorities have blocked hundreds of websites, including EurasiaNet.org, for years.
According to statistics cited by Ferghana.ru, Wikipedia is the tenth most visited site in Uzbekistan. The agency reports that over 8,000 people are registered to contribute Uzbek-language content.
Uzbekistan has some of the most draconian Internet restrictions on the planet. Paris-based press-freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders calls the country an “Internet enemy.”
Nevertheless, Internet usage is booming. In August 2011, according to official statistics, 7.7 million of Uzbekistan’s 28 million people were online, up from only 137,000 ten years earlier. What’s more, connection speeds almost doubled in the preceding year.