Another Russian mobile giant came under attack in Uzbekistan this week.
Uzmetronom, a website that frequently features leaks and opinions from well-placed sources, reports that Beeline subscribers in Uzbekistan have been experiencing "serious difficulties" with the company’s connection over the past couple of days.
That wouldn’t normally be strange, except that last summer another Russian telecoms firm was forcibly shutdown in what looked like a state-orchestrated corporate raid. At the time, authorities accused MTS’s local subsidiary, O’zdunrobita, of violating equipment-usage terms and of tax evasion. When the plug was pulled on July 17, some 9.5 million customers were forced to flee to other carriers.
Now this, from a website believed to have close ties to the Uzbek security services: "[Beeline] telephones are either showing the complete absence of a signal, even in areas where it has always been stable, or the connection is such that it is impossible to comprehend the words of the interlocutor," Uzmetronom reported on April 18.
Uzmetronom says Beeline’s "vaunted" 3G services have stopped working outside Tashkent altogether, while the company is keeping "total silence" about the problems and whatever actions it has taken to solve them. "Beeline seems to understand perfectly that after the liquidation of MTS the people of Uzbekistan practically have no choice.”
The birds didn’t get far, the stunt prompted a lot of jokes, and the selection of Uzbekistan’s border region abutting Afghanistan as the cranes’ ideal wintering ground didn’t go down well in Tashkent.
Conservationists from Flight of Hope – the organization Putin promoted with his unforgettable stunt – chose the unpopulated banks of the Amu Darya river because it is protected, in essence, like a reserve.
But Tashkent believes the birds should be guided elsewhere because Uzbek border guards often burn vegetation in the area for better visibility, the BBC Russian Service said on April 12.
After Putin’s flying lesson, the Siberian cranes were expected to fly to Uzbekistan with gray cranes from western Siberia, but, in the end, they spent the winter in Russia due to early snowfall.
Some hope Uzbek President Islam Karimov's upbeat visit to Moscow this week might lead to some international cooperation on behalf of the cranes.
The two presidents did not address the issue publicly when they met on April 15, but a Flight of Hope representative told the BBC Russian service days before Karimov’s visit that the Russian president promised to discuss the birds’ fate with his counterpart. The two sides also signed a number of agreements during and before the visit, including on environmental protection.
Putin and Karimov on April 15. (Photo: Kremlin.ru)
Amid ongoing rumors about his frail health, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov popped up in Moscow today, where he publicly glossed over strained ties with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The fight against terrorism and the pullout of NATO troops from Afghanistan topped the two leaders’ agenda, according to the Kremlin's press service.
Tashkent withdrew from the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization last summer for the second time. Since then, Moscow's promises of military aid to Uzbekistan’s regional rivals – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – and its pledges of support and investment for grand hydropower projects in those upstream countries have vexed Tashkent. Meanwhile, Washington's promises to gift Tashkent some Afghanistan leftovers in return for facilitating the pullout have alarmed Moscow.
Yet whatever was said about these delicate topics behind the Kremlin’s closed doors, it was all smiles following the April 15 talks. Praising economic and humanitarian collaboration, Putin told journalists that security cooperation in light of the NATO pullout from Afghanistan was paramount to bilateral relations.
We have, of course, discussed the situation in Central Asia in detail and talked about problems associated with the pullout of international coalition forces from Afghanistan in 2014. We have agreed to continue to follow this topic attentively and to coordinate possible joint steps. By this we mean providing necessary assistance to the Afghan leadership regarding the stabilization of the military and political situation and the fight against drug trafficking, terrorism and extremism. […] I stress: Close interaction with Tashkent on a wide range of aspects will be continued.
Broadening their campaign to crackdown on unofficial religious activities, police in Uzbekistan have carried out surprise raids on unregistered Protestant churches and private homes in recent months, according to the Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog Forum 18.
Homes of Protestant Christians from various Churches across Uzbekistan were raided in February and March, Forum 18 News Service has learned. In at least two cases, courts subsequently handed down huge fines. After a late March raid and fine on a Protestant couple in the capital Tashkent, a Protestant who knows them complained that the raiding authorities produced no warrants, no trial was held and that the fines given were "unbelievably high". "The authorities know where believers live and know that they have Christian literature in their homes," the Protestant – who asked not to be identified for fear of state reprisals – told Forum 18. "By raiding their homes the authorities harass believers and are trying to wear them down by the fines."
Religious believers' homes are also known to have been raided in Samarkand in central Uzbekistan and in Nukus, capital of the north-western autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan. Courts in both cities fined the believers and confiscated their Christian literature and other materials.
All religious literature of any kind in Uzbekistan is under tight state censorship.
In one of the raids, in Tashkent on March 18, a local police officer and seven "officials in plain-clothes" raided an apartment where an ethnic Uzbek Protestant couple was living temporarily.
The International Committee of the Red Cross will no longer try to visit prisoners in Uzbekistan because authorities are not allowing ICRC officials private access as promised, the organization said on April 12.
Uzbekistan has one of the world’s worst human rights records; torture and incommunicado detention are considered common. The Geneva-based ICRC suspended visits, which have been held sporadically since 2001, last October.
The decision, which the ICRC described as rare, came after last-ditch talks between its director-general Yves Daccord and authorities this week in Tashkent.
"Visiting all detainees of ICRC concern and speaking to them in private - without witnesses - are essential preconditions for the effective protection of detainees," said Daccord in a statement.
"Visits must have a meaningful impact on detention conditions, and dialogue with the detaining authorities must be constructive. And that's not the case in Uzbekistan," he said.
ICRC officials have been visiting prisoners on and off in Uzbekistan since 2001. In return for access, their findings are only shared with authorities.
The U.S. envoy to the U.N. Human Rights Council last month drew attention to alleged violations.
"Torture and abuse of detainees by security forces, denial of due process and fair trial, and government-organised forced and child labour in cotton-harvesting continues," ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe told the Geneva forum.
In his testimony to Congress last month, the chief of U.S. Central Command, General James Mattis, said that he had instructed the U.S.'s intelligence officers to draft "releasable products" to give to its "most trusted partners" in regions including Central Asia:
As I travel throughout the [CENTCOM area of responsibility] and see the promise of new initiatives and the risk posed by numerous challenges, I receive requests from military leaders across the region to increase intelligence sharing between our militaries. Many show determination to make tough decisions and prioritize limited resources to oppose antagonists seeking to destabilize their countries or use them to plan and stage attacks against the U.S. homeland. With this in mind, and in order to demonstrate our commitment, I requested the Intelligence Community to begin drafting releasable products for our most trusted partners in the Levant, on the Arabian Peninsula, in the Central Asian States, and in South Asia as a standard practice rather than the exception.
I am encouraged by the personal attention the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is giving these matters. Director Clapper’s strong emphasis and encouragement for the intelligence community to produce intelligence in a manner that eases our ability to responsibly share information with our military counterparts creates a stronger, more focused front against our common enemies and builds our partner nations’ confidence. We are grateful for the nimble manner in which our intelligence community has strengthened our efforts to checkmate more of our enemy’s designs.
A report in The New York Times that Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov, has resigned as her country’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva set off a flurry of speculation about her future plans.
On April 6 The Times suggested that she was “possibly positioning herself for a larger role at home” amid uncertainty about her father’s health.
However, an official at Uzbekistan’s Geneva mission denied the report of Karimova's resignation on April 8.
“This does not correspond to reality,” a spokesperson who declined to be identified by name told EurasiaNet.org by telephone from Geneva. “Ms. Gulnara Karimova is still Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Geneva.”
Karimova is a colorful personality – a pop diva and fashion designer as well as a diplomat. Many observers believe she is positioning herself to succeed her 75-year-old father, which she pointedly failed to rule out in an interview recently made public.
The subject of the presidential succession in Uzbekistan is currently the subject of much international press speculation, prompted by a report put out by Uzbekistan’s opposition-in-exile that Karimov suffered a heart attack last month. The rumor spread like wildfire but was soon proved false.
Kazakhstan's new foreign minister did some traveling in the region last week, visiting Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in an apparent effort to get the two sides to talk about their dispute over the massive, controversial Rogun dam project. The United Nations has been trying to get Kazakhstan to play a leading role in resolving the issue between its neighbors to the south and when the foreign minister, Erlan Idrissov, spoke to the press in Dushanbe, he highlighted the Rogun issue:
"It's no secret that the construction of the Rogun hydroelectric power plant is one of the important issues on the agenda. The Tajik president spoke during the meeting about his vision and approach to the construction of this facility. He suggested the importance of working together with the World Bank to conduct an independent examination of the construction of the power station," Idrisov said....
"The states in the upper waters should not violate the rights and economic interests of the states located in the lower waters and vice versa. There are international conventions according to which the two sides should sit at the negotiating table and work out a mutually acceptable scheme for the usage of water resources," Idrisov said.
TV footage released Wednesday suggests President Islam Karimov has not been felled by a heart attack, contrary to the widely distributed claims made by one of Uzbekistan’s exiled opposition leaders. The 75-year-old Uzbek strongman was shown this evening in a televised broadcast that appeared to be shot March 27, eight days after he was rumored to have suffered the massive attack.
On March 22 and 24, Muhammad Solih, head of the Norway-based People’s Movement of Uzbekistan, said, citing separate unnamed sources in Tashkent, that Karimov was near death. The rumor has percolated unchallenged through much of the Russian-language media in recent days. But this evening Karimov looked pretty much like he did eight days ago, last time he was on television: old, yes, but alive.
State-run Yoshlar’s evening news program showed Karimov hosting Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov at his Oksaroy residence. Yesterday, Idrissov’s ministry had announced that he would be in Tashkent the following day. In the footage, Karimov wore a black suit with a red tie and appeared to speak in his usual tone and manner. The two discussed bilateral relations, with Karimov praising Kazakhstan’s relatively new initiative to conclude a treaty of strategic partnership.
A rumor that Uzbek President Islam Karimov has suffered a debilitating heart attack is spreading as quickly as a pandemic in a thriller. As more media outlets reprint the rumor, it may be increasingly perceived as the truth, but in fact the sourcing remains as thin as it was when this started last weekend.
The allegations all go back to the same person, an exiled opposition figure thousands of miles away in Norway – Muhammad Solih, head of the People’s Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU). On March 22, Solih’s website cited an unnamed source in Tashkent as saying Karimov, 75, had suffered a heart attack after attending festivities marking the Navruz spring holiday. On March 24, Solih reiterated the rumor by citing a second source, a journalist “working for one of the state media outlets, performing his activities directly under the oversight of the National Security Committee and the press service of the president of Uzbekistan.”