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.
As lecturers and union officers at London Metropolitan University we are sorry to report that our university – whose mission includes the promotion of social justice – is about to embark on quality assurance and related training programmes at the University of World Economy and Development [sic] in Tashkent. We believe such a relationship will do nothing to promote social justice for the people of Uzbekistan, but will instead lend legitimacy to a regime whose existence depends on the systematic repression and torture of its political opponents.
President Islam Karimov’s widely hated daughter, Gulnara, received a PhD from the school in 2001 and claims to have taught there since 2009.
Authorities around Central Asia seem to have it in for Valentine’s Day.
Uzbekistan has cancelled concerts marking the holiday and instructed young people instead to celebrate the birthday of a local hero—Moghul emperor Babur, who was born in Andijan in 1483 and conquered much of South Asia. The Associated Press recently cited an Uzbek newspaper article calling Valentine's Day the work of “forces with evil goals bent on putting an end to national values.”
Students in western Kazakhstan say their university wouldn’t let them celebrate the holiday, which has become popular in the generation since independence. And in Kyrgyzstan, a parliamentary deputy says Valentine’s promotes an “alien ideology,” which drives people to suicide (when they don’t get enough cards).
In Turkmenistan, officials are apparently too busy still celebrating President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s dazzling 97 percent victory in Sunday’s election to discuss much else. Never mind, it’s clear whom everyone loves there.
So what’s with the assault on Valentine’s Day? Yes, it’s nominally a Christian holiday in a predominantly Muslim region, but the elites who call the shots are secular. Could it be that menace of the heart, jealousy, gripping Central Asia’s leaders?
The White House today released its proposed budget for the upcoming year, and the big news from The Bug Pit's area of interest is that the U.S. is now giving the same amount of military aid to Uzbekistan as it is to the rest of the Central Asian republics. Last year, Uzbekistan was budgeted a mere $100,000 in Foreign Military Financing aid, which allows countries to buy U.S. equipment. Still, that was the first FMF money Uzbekistan had been budgeted since 2005, because of Congressional concerns about human rights. But according to the budget documents (pdf) released today, in the current fiscal year Uzbekistan's aid has been bumped up to $1.5 million, and it is slated to get the same next year. That's still small potatoes compared to the big U.S. military aid recipients: Pakistan is budgeted to get $350 million, Egypt $1.3 billion and Israel $3.1 billion. And this also is dwarfed by the cash these countries get as reimbursement for being part of the Northern Distribution Network. But Uzbekistan's aid package is now the same as its neighbors': Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also are budgeted to get $1.5 million, Kazakhstan $1.8 million and Turkmenistan $685,000.
The countries of the Caucasus get more: Armenia and Azerbaijan $2.7 million each, and Georgia $14.4 million (though we'll have to wait and see if any of that includes weaponry). Except for Uzbekistan's aid, and a doubling of Tajikistan's aid, there aren't many changes from last year. And the documents contain very little explanation of the aid packages for these countries. Georgia does get highlighted briefly:
France is finding it difficult these days to get its troops to and from the fight in Afghanistan. In an interview with L'Orient-Le Jour, the French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet says that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan via Uzbekistan and the rest of the Northern Distribution Network is "too costly." From RFE/RL, which cited the interview:
Longuet said the route was "not optimal" for withdrawing NATO forces but conceded the better option -- via Pakistan -- was currently more complicated due to "spoiled relations" between NATO countries, particularly the U.S., and the Pakistani government.
That chill in ties followed a November 26 NATO air strike that hit Pakistani troops on Pakistan's side of the Afghan border, killing 26 soldiers.
The interview doesn't give any indication of how France intends to deal with that dilemma. France, of course, just announced that it is withdrawing from Afghanistan a year earlier than planned, after four of its troops were killed by a rogue Afghanistan government soldier. That, too, could be pinned on the Americans; the killer allegedly attacked the French because he was angry about a video showing U.S. Marines urinating on dead Taliban members.
NATO and Russia are working on an agreement to set up a multi-modal transport hub in Ulyanovsk, in Russia's Volga region, to assist the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, reports the Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing Russian diplomats. Via Johnson's Russia List:
Talks on establishing a NATO logistics base in central Russia started one-and-a-half years ago. A source from the Russian Foreign Ministry said that the United States proposed a Russian city where "cargo from Afghanistan could be airlifted and then forwarded by rail to Latvia or Estonia." After discussing several locations, both parties agreed to set up the hub in Ulyanovsk because its airport is best suited to the task in that region due to the proximity of railway lines.
Russian Railways and Volga-Dnieper Airlines, which are already involved in delivering NATO cargo from Afghanistan to Europe, are expected to benefit, as the project will increase cargo traffic considerably.
The report adds that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will soon sign an agreement on the proposal.
Intriguingly, one of the reasons that the facility at Ulyanovsk will be needed is because Uzbekistan is wary of the reverse transit, specifically about the possibility of drugs or arms being smuggled in along with it:
[The Ulyanovsk hub] is also important because of Uzbekistan, whose territory is currently used for the supply of goods to Afghanistan, does not want to allow them in the opposite direction.
"The Uzbeks are afraid of the importation of drugs and weapons. It's not so easy to check whole trainloads of military equipment," says the diplomat.
Uzbekistan is slated to get some new night vision goggles, bulletproof vests and GPS equipment from the U.S., a State Department official has said. A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. formally notified Congress that it intends to again start giving Uzbekistan military aid, which had been halted since 2002 because of concerns about human rights. At the time it wasn't clear what exactly would be given to Tashkent under the waiver, but now the State Department has described in a little more detail what is under discussion here. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, at a press conference on February 1:
Examples of the kinds of things that this waiver was given for – this will enhance the Uzbeks’ ability to counteract transnational terrorism and all – things like night vision goggles, personal protection equipment, global positioning systems. It’s defensive in nature, and it’s also supportive of their ability to secure the routes in and out of Afghanistan.
It's not clear that there is in fact any significant threat to the NDN in Uzbekistan. The closest thing so far, initially called a "terror" attack by the Uzbek authorities, appears more and more to be looking like an inside job. More likely, this is the pretext that the Uzbekistan government is using to justify the aid, knowing that that will resonate with U.S. policymakers; their real interest is likely geopolitical, that is showing Russia that they have other options for security other than Moscow and the CSTO.
At the press conference, Nuland also addressed the question of human rights and this aid:
What's the biggest "threat" emanating from the Caucasus and Central Asia? Every year the head of the U.S. intelligence community is required to give to Congress a "Worldwide Threat Assessment" describing all the things that could go wrong for the U.S. around the world. Yesterday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper submitted this year's version (pdf), and our humble region got four paragraphs in the 30-page report. The facts in the report won't be news to readers of The Bug Pit, but what threats the intelligence community chooses to highlight are worth looking at:
The unresolved conflicts of the Caucasus and the fragility of some Central Asian states represent the most likely flashpoints in the Eurasia region. Moscow‟s occupation and military presence in and expanded political-economic ties to Georgia‟s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia account for some of the tensions. Meanwhile, Tbilisi charged Russia with complicity in a series of bombings in Georgia in 2010 and 2011, while the Kremlin has been suspicious about Georgian engagement with ethnic groups in Russia‟s North Caucasus. Georgia‟s new constitution strengthens the office of the Prime Minister after the 2013 presidential election, leading some to expect that President Saakashvili may seek to stay in power by serving as Prime Minister, which could impact the prospect for reducing tensions.