A draft bill in Uzbekistan is pursuing a markedly puritanical line with its rules to ban eroticism in commercials and online advertising for gambling.
The proposed legislation was posted online this week and the government has said it will invite public consultation until March 24.
While aggressively hounding anybody vaguely suspected of holding radical Islamic views, authorities in Uzbekistan have over many years also sought to stamp out perceived immorality and promote conservative values.
President Islam Karimov gave a stark illustration of that at a public event in February, when he robustly condemned same-sex relationships.
“If a man lives with a man, or a woman with a women, I think that something there isn’t quite right, or some change has happened,” Karimov was quoted as saying by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik.
Some conservative drives are promoted under the pretext of protecting national cultural values.
In December, BBC News cited local media as reporting that professional musicians were being compelled to provide regular reports on their appearances on pain of being stripped of their licenses.
“The government has ordered the Uzbeknavo performing rights authority to tighten up licensing after accusing it, the national broadcaster, internet regulators, and the culture ministry of allowing performances ‘that can have a negative impact on the moral upbringing of the younger generation,’” the BBC reported.
Campaigners have handed a petition to the World Bank urging it to suspend funding for agricultural projects in Uzbekistan until Tashkent roots out forced labor in the cotton harvest.
A petition addressed to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and signed by 140,000 people was delivered to the institution’s Washington HQ on March 9, said the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of advocacy groups.
On the same day, one human rights group released a damning report documenting allegedly systematic use of forced labor during last year’s cotton harvest.
“To harvest cotton, officials once again forced more than a million people, including students, teachers, doctors, nurses, and employees of government agencies and private businesses to the cotton fields, against their will and under threat of penalty, especially losing their jobs,” the report by the Berlin-based Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) stated.
The World Bank press office told EurasiaNet.org by e-mail that the organization “does not condone forced labor in any form and takes seriously the reports of such practices in the cotton production system of Uzbekistan.”
“Over the past 2-3 years, the Bank has maintained an intensive dialogue with the Government of Uzbekistan on issues related to child and forced labor in the cotton sector. During this period, the authorities introduced changes to the national legal framework related to the protection of the rights of workers and the prohibitions on child and forced labor,” the World Bank said.
Uzbekistan has never been a fan of free speech — but Tashkent is now literally equating debate to terrorism.
Ozodlik, the Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has reported that two academics who wrote a manual on how to foster debating skills among young people are facing suspicions of terrorism and pursuing the overthrow of the government.
According to Ozodlik’s anonymously sourced report, Eleni Duras and Dilfuza Kurolova are under investigation for authoring or disseminating material liable to present a threat to public order.
None of the people involved in the story responded to EurasiaNet.org’s queries for clarification.
Published three years ago with the support of the United Nations Development Program, the Guide to Debating aimed to develop oratorical skills among young people — a common practice in universities worldwide.
The manual has now been withdrawn from educational institutions and copies have been burned, according to RFE/RL’s source.
The two authors — both respected academics — and Bahodir Ayupov, the head of the UNDP’s Social Innovation and Volunteering in Uzbekistan project, have reportedly been called in for interrogation by prosecutors and intelligence agents from the National Security Service.
Kurolova is a law graduate and MA student at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, according to her LinkedIn professional profile. She is also a member of the OSCE-backed Central Asian Youth Networking forum, which brings together young people from around the region to promote understanding of topical issues.
Uzbekistan hopes it will begin to see the first dividends of a much-touted privatization drive as early as this summer with the sale of state-owned assets in 55 enterprises.
Local news website Novy Vek on February 24 cited a decree signed by President Islam Karimov estimating that the privatizations could raise up to $437 million.
Those acquisitions would cement agreements reached during an international investment forum that took place in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in November.
A government commission has been formed to oversee the privatization process and will be headed by Uzbekistan’s most prominent proponent of economic liberalization, Finance Minister Rustam Azimov.
Negotiations on acquisitions between Azimov’s commission and investors should either be concluded by March 1 or the assets will be offered to alternative buyers by July 1, Novy Vek reported.
A Cabinet decree published on February 10 approved the formation of 89 joint stock companies in which stakes of at least 15 percent are to be sold to foreign investors.
Those companies include telecoms company Uzbektelecom, five banks — one of them being scandal-tainted Asaka Bank — the Uzbek postal service and trading company Uztadbirkorexport.
A 15 percent share is being made available in 64 of the joint stock companies by means of an issue of additional shares. Those companies include 17 servicing the oil and gas industry, nine alcoholic goods factories, and 10 construction companies operating under the auspices of the Uzbekenergo power company.
Companies in Uzbekistan have shelled out around half a billion dollars in fines after failing to pay salaries to their staff.
This is the latest indication that the country is grappling with economic problems which are absent from the rosy official picture of steady growth.
Firms were slapped with fines worth a total of 1.5 billion sum ($500 million at the official exchange rate) last year for wage arrears owed to employees, Russian state news service Sputnik reported this week.
The fines resulted from 1,300 complaints filed with the State Legal Labor Inspection service, Sputnik said.
The wage arrears were generally the result of a lack of funds at the organization in question, an unnamed labor inspection official. Other reasons included organizations holding money back to make a profit on interest, and simple bureaucratic hitches in making payments.
The revelation suggests that companies may be ailing in the face of the economic crisis that is gripping Central Asian — although the government is in denial about the impact of the region-wide crisis on Uzbekistan.
Its bullish economic forecast sees growth at 7.6 percent this year, despite falls in key commodity prices — gold, cotton and gas — and a massive drop in remittances from migrant laborers in Russia that is eating into disposable incomes.
With recession in Russia forcing many migrants out of work, the government is reporting that jobs are being created at home in Uzbekistan on a massive scale.
If Tashkent’s statistics are to be believed (and economists warn that they should be taken with a grain of salt), nearly 2 million extra jobs will have been created over two years by the end of 2016: 980,000 in 2015 and 990,000 in 2016, according to Sputnik.
Russian-owned telecommunications giant VimpelCom is to shell out $835 million in fines after admitting to securing its foothold on the market in Uzbekistan through bribery.
The U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement on February 18 that it is also seeking the forfeiture of $850 million of bribes payments allegedly made by VimpelCom another Russian-owned company, MTS, and now being held in bank accounts in Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Ireland.
U.S. government officials have described these as historic turning points.
“These cases combine a landmark [Foreign Corrupt Practices Act] resolution for corporate bribery with one of the largest forfeiture actions we have ever brought to recover bribe proceeds from a corrupt government official,” said Assistant Attorney General Caldwell.
The lion’s share of the fines — $795 million — will be paid to the U.S. and Dutch corruption-busting bodies that have been investigating the activities in Uzbekistan of VimpelCom and other telecoms companies.
VimpelCom officially admitted earlier this week to engaging in corrupt practices in Uzbekistan.
VimpelCom admitted it had “through various executives and employees, paid bribes to an Uzbek government official, who was a close relative of a high-ranking government official and had influence over the Uzbek governmental body that regulated the telecom industry,” the Justice Department said.
That individual is widely held to be Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov.
Tashkent is also seeking the return of those frozen funds, arguing that it is a victim of bribery.
An international telecoms company has admitted engaging in corrupt practices in Uzbekistan, following bribery probes spanning several continents whose tentacles reach into the heart of the ruling Karimov family.
This marks the first official admission by an international telecommunications company of illegal practices in a case that centers on the affairs of the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, Gulnara Karimova, who was last heard of under house arrest in Uzbekistan on corruption charges.
Russian-owned VimpelCom said it is prepared to “acknowledge certain violations of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and relevant Dutch laws” and pay fines to corruption-busting bodies in the United States and Holland.
The admission was made in a report on final quarter results for 2015, released on February 17 by VimpelCom, which is majority owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman. Norway’s state-owned Telenor owns a minority stake that it is trying to sell.
VimpelCom said that discussions with the U.S. Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission and the Dutch Public Prosecution Service had resulted in “prospective settlements” that, subject to approval, will see it admit breaking U.S. and Dutch anti-corruption laws and paying “fines and disgorgements.”
The size of the anticipated payments was not disclosed, but VimpelCom said that it was within the $900m it set aside last November to cover potential liabilities from the corruption probes.
Hot on the heels of a corruption scandal in Uzbekistan’s financial sector comes news that a commercial bank that has foreign shareholders has been barred from conducting hard currency operations.
The development is the latest sign of troubles hitting Uzbekistan’s banking industry, as Central Asia reels from an economic crisis that is slowing growth and pressuring currencies across the region.
Uzbekistan’s central bank has imposed a six-month ban on Hamkorbank conducting foreign currency operations with businesses on the grounds that it has been breaking currency laws, the Anhor.uz news website reports.
No further specifics were offered for the ban, which is unusual and will present a significant barrier to a bank with foreign capital conducting commercial operations.
The International Finance Corporation (a financing arm of the World Bank) and the Netherlands Development Finance Company (a development bank controlled by the Dutch government) between them own 30 percent of shares in Hamkorbank, according to documents filed with Uzbekistan’s stock exchange.
A top banker has been arrested in Uzbekistan on suspicion of making a fortune out of Uzbekistan’s black currency market and laundering the proceeds.
The arrest comes as the rate of the currency, the sum, soars against the dollar on the black market, creating even larger than usual profit margins for those in control of the illegal trade.
Asaka Bank chairman Kahramon Oripov is in detention on suspicion of “currency crimes and legalization of criminal revenues,” an unnamed spokesperson for the General Prosecutor’s Office told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency on February 12.
The confirmation of Oripov’s arrest, which had been rumored, came days after he was dismissed by the government as chairman of the state-owned Asaka Bank, which handles payments for the automobile industry in Uzbekistan.
Oripov is suspected of exploiting the bank’s position as the financial institution responsible for taking payments for car purchases to carry out his scheme, the Tashkent-based Uzmetronom.com website reported earlier this month.
This was allegedly made possible by the unorthodox system through which payments are made to purchase cars in Uzbekistan, whereby only dollars, rather than sum, are accepted to buy some models of vehicles assembled in-country by the GM Uzbekistan, a US-Uzbekistani joint venture which accounts for the bulk of the country’s car sales.
The money to buy a car must be deposited in dollars at an account in Asaka Bank, which is supposed to transfer it in hard currency to Uzavtosanoat, the state company that holds Tashkent’s share in GM Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov has joined in with the chorus of gay-bashing sweeping the former Soviet Union by condemning same-sex relationships as a “vile phenomenon of Western culture.”
The tenor of the remarks should not come as altogether surprising since homosexual acts are illegal in Uzbekistan and are punishable by prison sentences of up to three years.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik, reported on February 6 that Karimov made the comments during a council session of the people’s deputies of the Tashkent region.
“If a man lives with a man, or a woman with a women, I think that something there isn’t quite right, or some change has happened,” Karimov was quoted as saying.
It is unclear what motivated the president to make the comments.
Sexual minorities are among many social groups targeted for regular intimidation by authorities in Uzbekistan.
In a recent case, two police officers were fired after a video came to light showing them beating a transvestite in the Tashkent district of Chilanzar.
Ozodlik reported that the footage, which was circulated through the Telegram messaging program, shows the two police officers in civilian clothing bursting into a rented apartment and assaulting a young man dressed in women’s clothing and two of his male companions. The raid is said to have taken place following complaints from neighbors.
The incident reportedly occurred in August, but only gained exposure earlier this year.
Uzbekistan is the only country in the former Soviet Union where male homosexuality is illegal, but legislation has been implemented in Russia and is being considered in Kyrgyzstan that aims to further ostracize the LGBT communities there.