Security and energy topped the agenda on the first day of European Union foreign affairs envoy Catherine Ashton’s visit to Central Asia, disappointing campaigners hoping she would make vocal calls for improvements to what they see as the five states’ dismal human rights records.
Following the EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting in Kyrgyzstan on November 27, Ashton cited first security (due to the region’s proximity to Afghanistan) then energy and trade as key to “the growing importance of Central Asia.”
“We face shared security challenges. We have great potential to further develop our energy, trade and economic relations,” she said, only then pointing to the EU’s desire to “support the efforts of the countries of Central Asia as you take that journey of political and economic reforms.”
She listed topics of discussion as education; the rule of law; the environment; and energy and water resources (a particular bone of regional contention). “And we talked about democratization and human rights and the development of civil society,” Ashton then added.
Human rights campaigners had been hoping for stronger language from the EU foreign policy chief, who promised ahead of her visit in an interview with Radio Free Europe to make human rights “a core part of the dialogue.”
Uzbekistan will come crawling back into the arms of Russia as soon as the security situation in Afghanistan worsens, says the head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Nikolay Bordyuzha. Bordyuzha, speaking at a Moscow event commemorating the 20th anniversary of the organization, emphasized that for the CSTO, Uzbekistan's departure from the Russia-dominated security bloc was no big deal, and even had some positives, he insisted: "For several months we have agreed on many projects and decisions, acceptance of which Uzbekistan was blocking." But its departure from the CSTO will be a big deal for Uzbekistan, he says: "As soon as things get difficult, the situation will change. I don't think this will take long."
It seems that the CSTO doth protest too much. At the organization's security council meeting next month in Moscow, members will "make the final decision" regarding Uzbekistan's membership (apparently without Uzbekistan's input). The frequency with which CSTO officials talk about Uzbekistan reminds one of a guy whose girlfriend dumps him, who then proceeds to constantly talk about how much better off he is without her -- adding that she will probably come back to him anyway when she understands the mistake she's made.
Uzbekistan's government and media have been pretty silent on this issue, but this most recent statement was apparently enough to elicit a response from Fakhriddin Nizamov, writing on Polit.uz.
Apparently, Mr. Bordyuzha rubs his hands with pleasure that the situation in Central Asia will worsen after the announced withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan and events will develop according to a scenario of those whose interests he represents...
As the temperature drops, and residents scramble to heat their homes, prices often rise in Uzbekistan.
But once again, Tashkent’s economic band-aids don’t look likely to provide much relief from the annual crisis. As he’s done before, on November 9, President Islam Karimov hiked salaries, pensions, and student allowances – this time by 10 percent. Starting December 1, the minimum monthly wage will be increased to about $30.
Can that compensate for the skyrocketing prices of goods and services?
According to the independent news outlet UzNews.net, the price of milk and butter in Tashkent has risen by 18 percent in the past month. Part of the rise in costs, milk sellers say, is to compensate for the 50 percent increase in train tickets on the rail line connecting the capital with its suburbs.
Tashkent residents complain of gas shortages and hikes in taxi fares. What’s more, says the UzNews report, the government is struggling to control the price of coal even though last month authorities set up distribution points for coal in the capital and many parts of the countryside and fixed coal prices and purchase quotas.
No matter what it does, Tashkent’s numbers don’t add up. Maybe because the numbers are wrong?
When a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) went to visit a journalist jailed in Uzbekistan’s southern Karshi region recently, ICRC staff thought they had finally scored a meeting with a political prisoner. Prison officials had been hiding journalist Salijon Abdurahmanov for months, according to a report by the independent Uznews.net.
On one previous ICRC visit to prison camp No 64/61, Abdurahmanov, who worked for Uznews.net before his 2008 arrest, was reportedly taken away and hidden from the inspectors. This time, according to the Uznews.net report, which cites the journalist’s son, prison authorities presented the delegation with an imposter. ICRC has not commented.
This autumn, the journalist’s son, Davron, said, ICRC inspectors came to the prison again, but this time the prison administration arranged a meeting with “a fake Abdurahmanov.”
“Father said that he was driven away in an unknown direction and a different prisoner was brought to the meeting instead, as if he were Salijon Abdurahmanov,” Davron said.
ICRC representatives immediately established that it was someone else before them, the journalist himself told his son at a meeting.
The “fake” journalist said he was Salijon Abdurahmanov, but ICRC members refused to believe him, saying that they had seen a photo of the journalist and have their own view of him.
Abdulvosi Latipov had been in and out of Russian courts facing extradition hearings for years. Authorities in his native Tajikistan wanted to try Latipov, who allegedly fought with the opposition during the country’s 1990s civil war, on charges including kidnapping and terrorism. He was seeking asylum, fearing, probably rightly, that he would never receive a fair trial in Tajikistan.
Under its commitments to the European Court of Human Rights, Russia cannot extradite a suspect to a country where he might be tortured (like Tajikistan, where abuse is well documented).
Yet somehow, Amnesty International reports, Latipov is back in Tajikistan and being held incommunicado. “Reportedly he was released from detention [in Russia] on 15 October 2012 and days later forcibly taken from a flat he had been staying [in] by unidentified armed men wearing masks,” Amnesty said this month. Now in Tajikistan, “his lawyer fears that his client is being tortured and otherwise ill-treated in order to extract confessions or force him to incriminate other people.”
It's not the first time a Central Asian has disappeared in Russia only to reappear a few days later in a prison cell at home.
A U.S. Army colonel has argued that the Ferghana Valley is at risk of becoming a stronghold of terrorists like the FATA region of Pakistan and advocates a strong U.S. security cooperation presence there. In a paper called "Fergana as FATA? A Post-2014 Strategy for Central Asia," Colonel Ted Donnelly of the U.S. Army War College argues that U.S. military policy in Central Asia is currently too focused on maintaining access to Afghanistan:
The Central Asian States (CAS) region has played a critical supporting role in OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF) since 2001. However, current U.S. military strategy addresses the region only in the context of its operational importance relative to OEF. Failure to view the CAS region through a broader, long-term strategic lens jeopardizes success in post-withdrawal Afghanistan, is detrimental to regional security and stability, and increases the likelihood that the U.S. will be drawn back on less than desirable terms.
Donnelly argues that extremist groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are poised to take advantage of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and establish themselves in the Ferghana Valley, the conservative, densely populated region shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan:
[T]he most likely post-2014 outcome is that the Fergana Valley will increasingly resemble the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region of Pakistan. Like the FATA, the future Fergana Valley will consist of significant ungoverned space which would serve as a safe haven, breeding ground, and staging area for VEOs [violent extremist organizations] and militants. The IMU and other VEOs would use this safe haven, as well as reconstituted rear areas in Afghanistan, to increase Islamist insurgent pressure on secular Central Asian governments.
In the latest twist in the long-running saga of Russian cellphone operator MTS in Uzbekistan, a Tashkent appeals court reportedly has made a landmark ruling and promised to return the company to its Russian owners. Tashkent had shut down the billion-dollar firm this summer.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency quoted a “source close to the company” as saying that MTS had been told verbally that the appeals court had overturned a September ruling granting Tashkent the property of O’zdunrobita, MTS’ Uzbekistan arm, following a months-long dispute over alleged legal violations and tax evasion charges that the company vehemently denied.
Vedomosti newspaper quoted another source “close to one of the sides in the proceedings” as confirming the news, but said that the court had ruled that the company should pay Tashkent “the monetary equivalent of the cost of its assets -- around $600 million.” The report said MTS had declined to comment.
If confirmed, the ruling would signal an abrupt about-face by Tashkent that could suggest it has bowed to pressure from Moscow, which -- although not too vocal in its criticism -- has made it clear that it does look kindly on the treatment meted out to one of its oligarchs, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, owner of MTS.
Tashkent is maintaining a stony silence over the fate of wrestler Soslan Tigiev. This week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped the Uzbek of his Olympic bronze medal after he tested positive for a banned substance. Thus far, official media outlets in Uzbekistan have failed to cover the story.
Private media outlets, including olam.uz and gazeta.uz, have carried the IOC press release detailing the facts, but have refrained from making any comment. While these outlets are privately owned, they toe the official government line when it comes to reporting. Uzbek government mouthpiece Narodnoye Slovo and the Foreign Ministry's information agency, Jahon, have studiously ignored any reference to the embarrassing case.
Tigiev took bronze in London this summer in 74kg freestyle wrestling, adding to the silver he won in Beijing in 2008. The IOC reported on November 7 that it was stripping Tigiev of the London medal after he tested positive for the prohibited substance methylhexaneamine in an August 10 urine sample. The IOC asked for the immediate return of his medal, diploma and medallist pin.
International pressure is mounting on Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov: Already associated with two corruption investigations in Europe, now Russian media are reporting that an apartment she owns in Moscow has been seized by court order.
The Lenta.ru website on November 2 quoted Interfax news agency as reporting that Karimova’s luxury apartment in downtown Moscow -- said to be worth $10 million -- had been seized as part of an antitrust case launched by Russian telecommunications company MTS after its business in Uzbekistan was appropriated this summer.
Observers interpreted the unconfirmed report -- which cites an anonymous law-enforcement source and has not been officially confirmed -- as bad news for Karimova. “Leaks to the media about Karimova’s apartment are a sign to her that a war has started against her [in Russia],” Daniil Kislov, editor-in-chief of Fergananews.com, was quoted as saying by the Bfm.ru website.
He pointed to the MTS conflict as the cause. This summer, Tashkent first suspended the operations of MTS’s Uzbekistan subsidiary O’zdunrobita (accusing it of legal violations that the company denied) and later ordered its assets seized, forcing MTS to write off over $1 billion in losses.
Three women in Uzbekistan have been sentenced to long prison terms for spying on behalf of neighboring Tajikistan, Uzbek state television reported, in a special program called "Betrayers of the Motherland."
The three women all lived in the Surxondaryo region of southern Uzbekistan, bordering Tajikistan. One of them married a police officer from Tajikistan in 1998, a wedding that was planned by Tajiikistan's State Committee on National Security for the purpose of making her into a spy, the program said.
The three women allegedly worked in cooperation, passing on information about:
"[T]he military unit in Surxondaryo Region, including equipment and weapons being kept there; the prosecutor's office, the police department and customs complex of Sariosiyo District. She also provided information on employees and servicemen working in these facilities, their combat readiness and number plates of their cars."
The BBC Monitoring report on the TV program notes:
The programme dubbed "Betrayers of the Motherland" featured interviews with the women all whom said that Tajik security bodies forced them into spying. TV, however, dismissed these claims by saying that the three took money for the information they provided. "If they were forced into spying in Tajikistan, why did not they appeal to relevant state bodies after returning to Uzbekistan?" the programme asked.
At the conclusion of the broadcast, TV strongly condemned the women for"betraying" homeland, relatives and compatriots.