Wedding Plov comes with slices of kazy (horse sausage) at the Plov Center in Tashkent.
Each day around lunchtime, Tashkent’s plov cognoscenti start gathering in the shadow of the city's landmark TV tower. Theirs is an open secret: the best plov money can buy.
Follow the groups of men, or your nose, to the appropriately named Plov Center for a fix of Uzbekistan's beloved rice-based dish.
In Uzbekistan plov rules supreme – the country practically runs on this hearty staple, which is based on rice simmered for hours in a broth of seared meat chunks, carrots, onions, garbanzos, garlic, dried fruit and spices. The Plov Center does not disappoint. In an outdoor kitchen, five cauldrons bubble away over wood fires, permeating the air with the scent of cooked meat, rice and spices.
Forget about fancy surroundings or over-attentive service: At the Plov Center the food is the draw. The Center's cavernous hall, which can hold about 500 people, is no-frills. Clusters of men, interspersed with a few families, peck at shared platters of plov with forks, though fingers – the traditional utensil – are acceptable.
The Plov Center specializes in variations of Wedding Plov, a rich blend, which, as the name suggests, is usually served on special occasions. You can have Wedding Plov with the meat of your choice – lamb or beef. Slices of kazy, smoked horsemeat sausage, are optional, though no true celebration is complete without a serving of Central Asia’s favorite ungulate.
The platter of plov is accompanied by small roundels of nan bread and a choice of two salads – diced tomatoes and onions or pickled vegetables. Pots of green tea help with digestion.
With prices ranging between 4,500 sums and 8,900 sums ($2.25 - $4.50 at the official exchange rate) for a generous serving, at the Plov Center your belt may need loosening but your finances will not take much of a hit.
Soap opera writers in Uzbekistan need not look far for inspiration.
This spring, the state-run Uzbektelefilm studio is scheduled to release a series on the inner workings of a fictional local mobile phone company, Silkphone.
The private Podrobno.uz website reports that the 100-part series will be filmed at the Uzbekistan national broadcasting company, O'zbekiston. Director Andrey Afrin says he will employ over 100 actors and the first 20 episodes of “Steps of Life” will air in May and June.
As they turn Silkphone into Uzbekistan’s leading mobile provider, the soap’s main characters – young female manager Dilyafruz and her underlings – will tangle with "important topics such as love and betrayal, problems of morality and rethinking mistakes,” says Podrobno.
The topic may prompt some observers to snigger: Over the past year two large international telecoms firms working in Uzbekistan have been embroiled in scandals linked to the strongman president’s socialite daughter, Gulnara Karimova. Russian giant MTS was summarily closed and its assets seized last year when authorities accused the company of tax evasion. MTS was forced to write off over $1 billion in assets and said the state was trying to expropriate its business. An appeals court later ordered the assets returned, in exchange for fines and penalties to the tune of $600 million.
Energy exports from Uzbekistan jumped in value by 81 percent last year, new figures show, thanks in part to a new pipeline to China. But as Tashkent enjoys the windfall, the vast majority of Uzbeks continue to face gas, electricity and heat shortages.
According to the State Statistics Committee, gas and other energy exports were worth $5.03 billion in 2012. That’s an increase of 81 percent over 2011, when the country exported $2.78 billion worth of energy products, mostly hydrocarbons. Citing government statistics, Uzdaily.uz reports that energy accounted for 35.3 percent of Uzbekistan’s total exports in 2012, up from 18.5 percent in 2011.
Last year, Uzbekistan joined a Turkmenistan-to-China pipeline that had opened in 2010 and, in August, started pumping China-bound gas for the first time. The pipeline was expected to export up to 4 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Uzbek gas to China by the end 2012 and 10 bcm this year.
The exports are sparking some resentment in Uzbekistan, however, as they negatively impact domestic supplies. Net output from Uzbekistan’s aging wells also appears to be falling. Local reports suggest output of oil and gas condensate in 2012 decreased by 11.6 percent year-on-year to 3.2 million metric tons and gas production by 0.2 percent year-on-year to 62.9 bcm.
France’s Foreign Minister should have used a trip to Uzbekistan this weekend to demand an artist be allowed the right to travel abroad, an international group of artists urged last week.
In January, Vyacheslav Akhunov was barred from leaving Uzbekistan. He has been invited to perform at the prestigious Venice Biennale this June.
In an open letter last week to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who visited Uzbekistan on March 2 to talk trade and development with President Islam Karimov, artists from the United States, Russia and other countries called on France’s top diplomat to "urge the government of Uzbekistan to honor the rights and freedoms of artist Akhunov, who represents the modern independent art of Uzbekistan abroad."
There is no indication Fabius responded to the request or discussed Akhunov’s situation with Karimov during his visit.
Akhunov has taken part in approximately 200 international exhibitions. But in January "authorities banned him from going abroad, explaining that his creative tours are 'inadvisable.' This response points to a political motive in the decision," the artists said in their letter, which was posted on February 27.
Once-flourishing Uzbek-German trade is nosediving. German businessmen are coming forward with horror stories about doing business in Uzbekistan, a country where powerful, voracious families often seize profitable businesses or simply fail to pay for services rendered. But Berlin – eyeing a retreat from Afghanistan through Uzbekistan – is in no position to protest.
"The German private sector, statistics show, is losing faith in Uzbekistan," Germany's international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) reported on February 28. “German companies have filed complaints of stolen shares, missing payments and frozen profits.”
Bilateral trade fell 30 percent between 2010 and 2011, from 759 million euros to 518 million euros, the broadcaster said. Germany's Economics Ministry predicts a further 20 percent decrease in 2012.
More than twenty German construction companies, for example, built the Palace of Forums in the capital, Tashkent, in 2009. They are still owed some 60 million euros. "In total, experts estimate that up to 500 million euros are being withheld from German companies by Uzbek partners," DW concluded.
The Swiss-registered Zeromax conglomerate, widely believed to have been linked to the president's daughter Gulnara Karimova, was behind the Palace of Forums and other major construction projects. The company went bust in 2010, leaving behind huge debts. It’s unclear if Karimova suffered, or divested just in time.
Coca-Cola has almost disappeared from sale in Uzbekistan, say reports from Tashkent that – if confirmed – suggest trouble may be brewing at a company linked to Gulnara Karimova, daughter of President Islam Karimov.
The soft drink is no longer on the shelves of any of the 12 Tashkent branches of the popular local Korzinka supermarket, CA-News reported on February 26, quoting a Korzinka official. The report said one branch of another Tashkent supermarket, Mega PLANET, had also run out; another had a limited supply left.
The development has sparked rumors in Tashkent that the factory bottling the drink for the local franchise, Coca-Cola Ichimligi Uzbekiston, has either closed or slowed production.
A Coca-Cola official stamped on speculation, telling Central Asia Newswire on February 26 that it was very much business as usual.
“It's an incorrect rumor," Dana Bolden, corporate communications chief of Coca-Cola’s Eurasia and Africa Group, said. “Coca-Cola has not closed or suspended anything – [the plant] is still in operation.”
Conflicting reports are still emerging from Tashkent, however: A retail trade source told EurasiaNet.org the factory was still bottling Coca-Cola in glass bottles, but not in plastic bottles.
Bolden acknowledged some supply problems, “but it's not to the extent that is being described.”
This face passes the censors. Uzbekistan vs UAE in Tashkent, March 2012.
Tashkent is usually keen to foster patriotism among the people of Uzbekistan. But sometimes enough’s enough, apparently. In a land known for its rules, Uzbekistan has now established guidelines for just how far football fans can take their fun.
The 12uz.com website reports that the Ministry of Culture and Sport has banned Uzbek fans from "chanting" during football matches, painting "faces and other body parts," and otherwise getting rowdy.
Some of the new rules, which were signed by Interior Minister Bahodir Matlyubov and Uzbekistan Football Federation President Mirabror Usmanov on February 21, may help keep the peace. They require police to search fans entering stadiums. No more standing on stairways or hanging on fences and railings. And fans’ banners should not contain "insults" against the opposite side's religious, ethnic or other feelings.
Fans will have to leave their animals at home, but they will still be allowed to take their vuvezelas, drums, cameras and mobile phones to matches.
But some of the rules border on the overbearing. Fans must “respect” the symbols of Uzbekistan, the Football Federation and all teams. Banners should not exceed 2 square meters and no side should be longer than 1.2 meters.
The new rules will be tested on March 26 when Uzbekistan faces Lebanon in World Cup qualifiers at Tashkent's sleek new Bunyodkor Stadium.
Tashkent’s efforts to prevent young men from leaving Uzbekistan to work abroad have largely failed. Authorities now seem to be adopting a different approach: state-run Uzbekistan Railways has cut ticket prices from major Russian cities to encourage Uzbek citizens to return home.
Between today and June, tickets from Moscow, St Petersburg, Saratov, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg and a number of other cities will be discounted 20 percent.
This is a significant reduction: According to online ticket booking services, before the discount a second-class ("coupe") ticket from Moscow to Tashkent cost $376, and a third-class ("platzkart") ticket cost $224. Prices from Uzbekistan to Russia remain unchanged.
Last week multiple news agencies reported that Uzbek police were preventing young men suspected of going abroad to work from reaching the Uzbek-Kazakh border outside Tashkent. Observers speculated that the Interior Ministry was responding to President Islam Karimov's recent criticism that the ministry was doing little to create jobs for young men at home.
High unemployment in Uzbekistan prompts millions of Uzbek citizens to search for unskilled work abroad, mostly in Russia and Kazakhstan. Their families depend on the remittances these migrant workers send home.
A much-anticipated World Bank study is expected to rule later this year on the feasibility of building the world’s tallest hydroelectric dam, Rogun, in Tajikistan. This week, the Bank has given a sneak peak at its findings, and the moderately encouraging remarks are likely to divide archrivals Tajikistan and downstream Uzbekistan further along traditional lines.
Dushanbe says Tajikistan needs the Soviet-designed project to ensure its energy independence. For President Emomali Rakhmon, Rogun is more than an investment in his country’s future: It’s central to Tajikistan’s identity and his legacy.
Downstream on the Amu Darya, Tashkent is aggressively opposed to the project, saying it will hurt Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector and poses an unnecessary risk in a seismically active region. Over the last few years, Tashkent has done just about everything it can to make life hell for Tajikistan and stop the project – closing borders randomly, preventing transit of goods and people to the region’s most isolated country, and cutting off gas supplies during the coldest months. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has even warned of war.
So supportive comments from the World Bank’s regional director, Saroj Kumar Jha, are no doubt welcome in Dushanbe.
“[O]n the key issues of dam and public safety, including analysis of possible earthquakes,” Jha says, “[t]he interim findings from the presentations, reports and feedback from the Panels of Experts are that the dam type under consideration and stability of the slopes appear to be acceptable.”
A special police unit from Tajikistan's Ministry of Internal Affairs during counter-terrorism training.
A program by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to provide human rights training to police in Uzbekistan has sparked controversy, with local activists arguing that such training is at best useless and would simply be window dressing.
The training, funded by the government of Germany, will train 50 police in the Kashkadarya, Andijan, Ferghana and Namangan regions. According to an OSCE press release:
Participants in the training courses will study basic principles of human rights and the international system of human rights protection. They will also discuss case studies on the role of law enforcement agencies in ensuring rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and privacy.
Well, who could object to that? It turns out, human rights activists in Uzbekistan, according to a report on UzNews.net.
Human rights activists in Tashkent are convinced that these training courses serve no useful purpose and what the OSCE and the German government are doing is simply the imitation of training.
Human rights activist Tatyana Dovlatova believes that the Uzbek police “could not care less about international law”. “All these courses of the OSCE are just idle talk,” she said....
Another human rights activist, Shuhrat Rustamov, said that training courses for the Uzbek police would turn into a mere “talking shop”.
“This event is only for appearance sake,” he said.