Uzbekistan has been keeping the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russia-dominated security bloc of post-Soviet countries, at arm's length: formally, it's a member, but it hasn't lately participated in any CSTO events, like the recent large-scale military exercises the group held. And now Belarus's president Alexander Lukashenko says it's time for Tashkent to decide -- and that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agrees:
“Even Uzbekistan that today has a specific stance will eventually understand that it will find it hard to preserve independence without the CSTO,” the President of Belarus said. He emphasized that the accession is a domestic matter of Uzbekistan and “we are not interfering”. “Although I have recently shared my thoughts with the President of Russia. We need to make a decision on Uzbekistan. Because Uzbekistan cannot join the CSTO as long as it is playing this triple game,” Alexander Lukashenko is convinced. After all, Uzbekistan has not ratified a single significant document of the CSTO yet, it only formally stated that it is allegedly returning to the CSTO."
Here’s some good news for the Ferghana Valley: Uzbekistan has reopened its frontier with Kyrgyzstan, 18 months after unilaterally screwing it shut. Tashkent closed the border during the bloody ouster of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010, dramatically wounding trade in southern Kyrgyzstan.
One study last winter found commerce in the region’s largest market, Kara-Suu, had fallen by 75 percent, encouraging higher food prices and smuggling.
The Dostuk (“Friendship”) border post between Osh and Andijan reopened early on October 26, Bishkek’s AKIpress news agency reported. There is no word yet whether other posts along the 1100-kilometer frontier will open.
But why now, four days before Kyrgyzstan’s presidential election, when Bishkek is bracing for more political or ethnic violence? Wasn’t Tashkent’s original logic to keep Kyrgyzstan’s messy politics contained?
A few possibilities come to mind:
For one thing, the reopening, decided on in Tashkent, looks like a vote of confidence for Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev, the leading candidate in the October 30 poll. Opening the border would revive commerce, which could add a notch to the premier’s belt. Moreover, though the rights of minority ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan may not be the top priority on Uzbekistan’s foreign-policy list, Tashkent has shown concern about the issue, and Atambayev stands apart from the two other leading candidates as less of a nationalist hothead. (Besides, if, heaven forbid, the election should trigger a new round of interethnic strife, Kyrgyzstani Uzbeks in the south would have somewhere to run.)
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, GM Uzbekistan General Director Juergen Spendel and Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Ulugbek Rozukulov at GM factory, Tashkent, October 23, 2011
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured the General Motors plant in Tashkent while visiting Uzbekistan this past weekend, plugging Washington's promise of prosperity for the region as a new "Silk Road" emerges alongside the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) supplying US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
"GM’s presence here in Uzbekistan adds to our efforts to build closer economic connections between ourselves and the countries of South and Central Asia," Clinton said yesterday in a speech from the shop floor.
The plant is a joint venture by GM, Daewoo and the Uzbek state company UzAvtosanaot (GM owns 25 percent, the Uzbeks 75 percent) and employs about 6,600 people and produces about 250,000 vehicles a year. Clinton enthused about the operation as a "symbol of friendship and cooperation," even offering US support for $20,000 prizes for eight Uzbek entrepreneurs:
We place a priority on shared ventures like this plant. It was designed by Uzbek and American engineers and architects working together. It was built to be environmentally responsible for the local community. In fact, GM’s water purification technology will ensure the water is cleaner when it leaves the factory than when it entered.
GM’s global manufacturing processes will be carried out by skilled Uzbek workers using locally sourced components, ultimately adding over 1,000 new jobs for Uzbeks. And the use of American machinery and technology as well as the revenues created from the annual production of more than 225,000 new power-trained engines will also support jobs in the United States for Americans.
While the plant may be "environmentally responsible," concerns about conditions for workers have nevertheless emerged.
Clinton jokes about Herman Cain in Kabul, October 19, 2011
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed off to Uzbekistan this weekend as part of her tour of Central Asia which included a surprise visit to Afghanistan Thursday.
While chatting with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul yesterday, Clinton took time to joke about a recent humorous incident in the United States, when Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain told reporters that he didn't know who the president of "Uzbeki-beki-beki-stan-stan" was -- and didn't think it mattered because it had nothing to do with creating jobs.
Karzai listened to Clinton's anecdote about Cain and commented, "That isn't right, but that's how politics are" (see the video at the Washington Post here.)
Pundits are now endeavoring to explain to Cain just why Uzbekistan's president Islam Karimov is important -- because of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), the supply line to US and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The US is now intensively engaging with Karimov, a dictator who has held his country in thrall for 22 years, sending thousands of devout Muslims to prison for their religious activity outside of state confines, and jailing dozens of independent journalists and human rights activists for trying to report on the massive human rights violations.
Recently the Obama Administration persuaded the Senate Appropriations Committee to lift restrictions on military aid to Uzbekistan, in place for 7 years over severe human rights problems in Uzbekistan, in order to help bolster the NDN, proffered to Uzbekistan as an opportunity to build stability and prosperity in a new US-backed "Silk Road".
The sight of the bloodied corpse of an overthrown dictator being beamed around the world might give US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pause for thought as she heads to Uzbekistan this weekend.
The dictator in question is, of course, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, whose demise on October 20 Clinton said would give Libyans a fresh start. And the dictator Clinton is going to meet is Islam Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan who has been in power for 20 years.
Flags are flying in downtown Almaty to welcome delegates to the upcoming Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States summit. But hang on a minute. You thought there were six Turkic-speaking states? Why, then, are only four flags on display?
Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey, who jointly set up this “Turkic Council,” are taking part. Where are Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan?
President Nursultan Nazarbayev will host the October 21 summit in Kazakhstan's commercial capital. Kyrgyzstan's Roza Otunbayeva and Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev have RSVP’d their plans to attend, along with representatives from Turkey—Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pulled out on October 19 after violence at home.
The Council was set up in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan, in 2009, with the aim of enhancing links in areas such as trade, energy, education, agriculture and tourism.
In 2010, following the Heads of the Turkic Speaking States summit (yes, another grouping), Ashgabat embraced the Turkic Council enthusiastically, but it has since melted away and is not taking part this week. Tashkent has struck its usual go-away-and-leave-us-alone pose.
So, with delegations from perpetual spoilers Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan out of the picture, could we witness something meaningful come out of the summit? Or will it be just another photo op?
A boycott of Uzbek cotton by leading Western clothing retailers may be nipping at Tashkent’s pockets, though Asian buyers seem happy to pick up the slack.
The Wall Street Journal reports that at Tashkent’s annual showpiece international cotton fair last week, “not a single Western buyer signed a contract for Uzbekistan’s cotton.”
Last month over 60 multinationals pledged “to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced child labor in its cotton sector.”
As EurasiaNet.org reported in September, Tashkent is coming under unprecedented pressure to end the use of child labor, which has been documented by human rights campaigners again during this year’s cotton harvest.
Tashkent firmly denies using child labor. The WSJ quoted an unnamed government official as pointing to a legal ban on children under 16 working at all, and quoted him as saying that if kids are out doing the backbreaking work of picking cotton, “it wasn't because they were forced to do so but because they wanted to.”
As the U.S. and NATO prepare to pull their troops out of Afghanistan starting in 2014, everyone is wondering how to keep the country -- and its neighbors -- from the instability that seems inevitable. And the preferred strategy seems to be regional integration: the U.S. is convening a regional conference in Istanbul next month to coordinate strategies with Afghanistan and its neighbors, of which the U.S.'s new Silk Road Strategy is one component. Russia, too, is promoting the CSTO as the security component of what promises to be a larger, regional diplomatic effort including Pakistan, China and other neighbors.
But as an excellent analysis by George Gavrilis in Foreign Affairs suggests, the countries surrounding Afghanistan are not likely to be too invested in any regional coordination:
Top: gov.uz; Bottom: Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights
Top: Traders at Tashkent Cotton Fair. Bottom: 5th Grader in Karakalpakstan September 2011
Tashkent's 6th international cotton and textile fair opened this week, and Uzbekistan's state media trumpeted the event, initiated by President Islam Karimov, as a triumph of the national economy and the dictator's "Uzbek model of reform" practiced for the last 20 years since independence.
Once again, the government web site gov.uz trotted out figures claiming a stunning growth of the GDP -- numbers that are difficult to check given heavy state control over information and persecution of independent journalists.
The event is not only a source of a good chunk of Uzbekistan's foreign currency revenue -- Tashkent took in $500 million in orders last year and expects more this year -- it also serves to further glorify the state:
"The Conception for further deepening of democratic reforms and formation of civil society in our country designed by our head of state has opened up a new stage of democratic market reforms and liberalization of the economy," gushed the government website."
Yet agriculture remains under state control as it did in the Soviet era, with farmers forced to meet state quotas and sell their cotton at fixed prices. With the high price of cotton and the drought in Uzbekistan this year, farmers have been pressured more than ever by local administrators.
Some farmers in Surkhandarya last month who were unable to produce their state quotas were thrown in jail, and sadly one man, Ismail Turanazarov, committed suicide. He left a note that he was unable to get fuel or a loan for his crops -- an all too common story, according to human rights monitors in Uzbekistan. State propaganda claims that farmers can get favorable loans to develop their land, but activists report that many banks are corrupt and officers loan only to government officials and their relatives.