Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov greets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping upon the latter's arrival to Uzbekistan for the SCO summit. (photo: president.uz)
As the 15th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is set to start on Thursday in Tashkent, the group is poised to continue its growth, with two new members and five new partners. The group's purpose, however, remains unclear, with its diverse members apparently unable to agree on a consistent agenda.
The biggest headline after last year's summit was that India and Pakistan were invited to join the organization as full members, the first expansion since the group was founded. (The SCO currently consists of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.)
But on the eve of this year's summit, it's not clear what the timetable for their accession is. Their final accession should take place next year, Yuriy Ushakov, a senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said. "The process of accepting India and Pakistan into the SCO will enter the final stage and we expect that at the next summit in Kazakhstan, India and Pakistan will be finally admitted into the SCO ranks," he said.
A senior Indian diplomat suggested that the timetable may be looser and hinted that it is dependent on the desires of current member states. “We need to work out what we need to do … As far as India’s pace of accession at the SCO being a function of Russia, China and the four countries of Central Asia, I would say we see ourselves as following fairly flexible multilateralism. So we are quite happy to engage in multiple processes. We have been working with other members of SCO on several other fields,” said the diplomat, Sujata Mehta, at a press conference Wednesday.
Uzbekistan is reportedly closing its borders to all citizens from neighboring Central Asian countries in the most drastic measure adopted to date to enhance security for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit this month.
The plan was reported in local media on June 15 and partly confirmed by authorities in Tashkent.
“From June 15 to June 25, Uzbekistan will be halting the passage of people, transportation and cargo entering the country from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan,” KyrTAG news agency reported.
KyrTAG reported that an exception is being made for residents of the Kyrgyz enclave of Barak, which lies fully within Uzbek territory.
Closing borders has long become a customary practice in Uzbekistan ahead of major public events, such as the Nowruz holidays.
There had been rumors earlier this week that authorities in Tashkent would close the city off to all public transport from outside the capital from June 16 onward. Law enforcement officials denied that claim, however. (A report about the claimed transport ban on Nuz.uz has since been pulled).
The U.S.'s primary interests in Central Asia are making sure the region doesn't become a terrorist sanctuary and protecting it from Russian influence, a senior State Department official has testified. The statement suggests a shift in Washington (rhetorically, at least) toward a Central Asia policy oriented toward security and away from political reforms and human rights.
U.S. official statements about Central Asia policy usually describe Washington's interests as threefold: promoting political and economic reform, developing the region's oil and gas resources, and improving security. The introduction to the testimony of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Daniel Rosenblum at a congressional hearing last year was typical:
Since the fall of the Soviet Union nearly 25 years ago, the United States has supported the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of the states of Central Asia, while also promoting the political and economic reforms that can ensure their long-term stability and prosperity. U.S. security is directly tied to a stable Central Asia. Central Asia’s energy resources and transport corridors can help drive regional and global economic growth in the decades to come. And some of Central Asia’s most serious challenges – such as transnational crime, terrorism, violent extremism, and climate change – affect our national interests as well, and require us to work closely together with them.
For the first time in Uzbekistan’s post-Soviet history, the customary of breaking fast at sundown during the Ramadan period is being banned from mosques and restaurants.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, reported this week that the ban was introduced not by the government itself, however, but by the state-run Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Uzbekistan.
“The ban on performing iftar in cafes, restaurants and mosques is not government policy. We have gone down this road bearing in mind the history of Islam. At the time of the Prophet Muhammed, iftar was organized solely for those who had little or nothing to eat. But now iftar, which had always been a manifestation of the need to care for the needy, has become another display of waste and ostentatious celebration,” Abdulaziz Mansur, the deputy head of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Uzbekistan, told Ozodlik in an interview.
Accordingly, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Uzbekistan is inviting people to invite small groups of people home instead of gathering in large groups in public places.
“In Mecca people perform iftar because people (pilgrims) do not have their own home there. Our citizens have their own home. They should have iftar at their place, within their family circle,” Mansur said.
The holy month of Ramadan began this year on June 6.
This period is typically a considerable money-spinner for cafes and restaurants in the old part of the capital, Tashkent, which would put on special menus to celebrate the daily breaking of the fast.
A hugely popular football website in Uzbekistan appears to have taken down after it became a mustering point for critics of the country’s sporting authorities.
Since June 4, visitors to uff.uz have been unable to open site, which was a lively forum of discussion for soccer fans in Uzbekistan. The site drew around 20-30,000 visits daily.
Trouble began when a friendly match between Uzbekistan and Equatorial Guinea scheduled for June 2 was canceled without explanation. The national football federation tried to placate fans by telling them that tickets bought for the match could be used instead for a game against Syria to be played on September 2.
That did little to soothe bad tempers, however, and fans flocked to uff.uz to voice their criticism of the federation. Such was the torrent of condemnation though that somebody seems to have thought it wise to pull the plug, forcing unhappy supporters to turn to social media to vent instead.
“The decision of the federation to cancel the match is show of total lack of respect toward fans of Uzbekistan. Why do we not have the right to openly criticize the work of this organization? You can’t treat fans like enemies,” one disgruntled fan, Babur Isamov, said on his Facebook account.
A sporting publication linked to the same website, a newspaper called Chempion, has also been canned.
“The newspaper’s management explained that it stopped operations because of financial problems,” the BBC’s Uzbek service reported.
The official website of the Uzbek football federation has remained mute on all these developments.
Uzbekistan soldiers deploy out of an Airbus AS 332 Super Puma in a screenshot from an armed forces promotional video.
Uzbekistan's military has shown off several European-made helicopters it apparently bought from Airbus, a deal that had been under threat because of German concerns about Uzbekistan's human rights record.
The helicopters, AS 332 Super Pumas and AS 350 Ecureils, both produced by the company Airbus Helicopters, were shown in a promotional video about the Uzbekistan armed forces posted in February but just noticed recently by the Russian military blog BMPD. (The video is below, and the helicopters are shown starting at about 2:00.)
In 2014, an Airbus executive said that a deal to sell 14 military helicopters to Uzbekistan was being held up because Germany, which produces parts for the helicopter, was refusing to allow the export due to concerns about human rights and the rule of law in Uzbekistan. Exactly what helicopters were under consideration was not made public, so it's not clear that this is the same deal, and if so, what changed between 2014 and now. "Airbus Helicopters is not at liberty to discuss about contractual commitments it may or may not have with Uzbekistan," a company spokesman told The Bug Pit in an emailed response to questions.
Both the AS 332 and AS350 are transport helicopters, and in the video, Uzbekistan soldiers are shown rappelling out of the AS350 on to a rooftop and filing out, with weapons drawn, of the AS 332, suggesting that Uzbekistan sees these as means for deploying small groups of soldiers into combat.
With a major international summit approaching, authorities in Uzbekistan’s capital have taken to dismantling satellite dishes and tinted windows along a main city thoroughfare.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization heads of state summit scheduled for June 23-24 has sparked a frenzy of tidying up in Tashkent.
Over the past weekend, brigades of city employees went up and down Prospekt Kosmonavtov, exhorting local residents to take down balcony awnings, chimney stovepipes, satellites dishes or anything else that might offend the view of visiting dignitaries. In some cases, the city workers did the work themselves.
Prospekt Kosmonavtov, or Kosmonavtlar Prospekti to use its Uzbek name, is otherwise known as the “presidential road” and links President Islam Karimov’s city residence, Oqsaroy, to his country residence on the outskirts of the city.
Foreign-based news website eltuz.com featured a comment from one disgruntled resident, who identified herself as Sh. Kuryazova, as saying the embellishment works had disrupted her daily routine.
“I came home and switched on the TV and nothing appeared. Without warning, they had taken down the satellite dishes and cable TV connections. They were repaired recently after the heavy rains, and now the SCO has come along!” Kuryazova wrote.
An employee of an office along Prospekt Kosmonavtov told EurasiaNet.org that he and his fellow workers expect to be kept away from their jobs for the duration of the SCO summit.
The harvest for Uzbekistan’s perhaps most famous export, silkworm cocoons, has begun in earnest and with the usual concern for rights violations that the ancient industry brings with it.
Silkworm breeders gather vast amounts of cocoons every year — as much 26,000 tons in 2015, according to official figures. That puts Uzbekistan in third place in global silkworm cocoon production, behind China and India.
Some aspects of the harvest season are reported upon in earnest by state media. UzA news agency carried a report from one of the main sources of the commodity, in the Bukhara region.
“Silkworm breeders in the Jondor district of Bukhara region plan to harvest 419 tons of this valuable material,” UzA reported on May 24.
The main official in charge of a raw silk gathering facility, Naim Sodikov, said supply agreements have been signed with 290 farming enterprises.
But as the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights revealed in a recent report on the silk industry in Uzbekistan, the business relies on forced labor that often deprives farmers of deserved levels of income.
“The central government establishes cocoon production policy, prices, and annual silk production targets, and requires regional- and district-level officials to ensure targets are met. Local officials use coercion, including threatening farmers that they will lose their land, to force farmers and public-sector institutions to fulfill annual silk quotas,” the report stated. “Farmers, in turn, oblige family members, including children, or pay local laborers to assist in the cultivation of silkworm cocoons to meet required production quotas and avoid penalties.”
College students in some of Uzbekistan’s largest cities will start their holidays early this year.
Staff at colleges in Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand and Urgench were told this week that summer holidays will start from June 9 to make way for preparations ahead of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization heads of state summit scheduled for June 23-24. Semesters normally finish on June 30.
In order to make up for the lost time, courses will be accelerated and graduate theses have to be handed in early. Exams are also being brought forward, which means there will be a lot of cramming to do.
“Students that have not already finished their thesis will have to be helped by the lecturers. By June 10, students from the regions will be required to vacate their institutes. This means we will have to work through the weekends,” a lecturer at a pedagogical institute in Tashkent told EurasiaNet.org.
Students appear to be taking the news in their stride and some are even happy since this means they will get to go home earlier. Discount tariffs on train and plane tickets are being provided for students having to return home.
This situation will affect most of the country’s 74 institutes of higher learning — 34 of which are in Tashkent.
The government is working flat out to prepare for the SCO summit.
An employee with a bank in Tashkent told EurasiaNet.org that since Uzbekistan is experiencing a period of liquid shortages, the bulk available ready cash has been going toward completion of roads and other infrastructure in preparation of the summit. Tashkent has been seized by a flurry of reparation works and tree- and flower-planting to prepare for the event.
Uzbekistan has for the first time in its history opened a college devoted exclusively to the study of Uzbek language and literature.
The Alisher Navoi University, which was created at the behest of President Islam Karimov, will be constituted of three faculties teaching Uzbek philolology, Uzbek literature and language, and Uzbek and English translation.
The UzA state news agency reported that the university would help to improve the quality of Uzbek language instruction and teaching materials.
Such efforts should be understood as a slowly evolving undertaking to inculcate a distinct national identity that has been evolving since Soviet times.
Uzbekistan adopted a law elevating Uzbek to the official state language back in 1989, when it was still constituent republic of the Soviet Union.
Independence only intensified the adoption of the Uzbek, a process that was accompanied by the gradual displacement of not just Russian but also the Cyrillic alphabet. In September 1993, a law was passed to formalize an Uzbek alphabet, which was based closely on the Latin script. That alphabet was fine-tuned in 1996 and remains in use to this day.
That was only the latest of many chapters in the convoluted history of the written language in Central Asia, however — one that has had the unfortunate of repeatedly rendering large sections of the population functionally illiterate. The written word in the region, before the Soviets codified what came to be identified as the Uzbek language, was transcribed in Arabic script. The Latin alphabet was brought in by the mid-1920s only to give way, under Russian influence, to Cyrillic in 1940.