Fresh allegations have emerged of bribery in Uzbekistan’s telecoms market involving another Nordic company and Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of President Islam Karimov.
A cellphone company partly owned by Norway’s Telenor is alleged to have paid some $25 million in kickbacks to acquire telecoms licenses in Uzbekistan, AFP reports, citing the Klassekampen daily.
The funds were reportedly transferred from Amsterdam-headquartered Vimpelcom, the operator of the Beeline brand in Uzbekistan, to the infamous Takilant Limited company, which is at the heart of two separate graft probes in Europe. Takilant is involved in a money-laundering probe in Switzerland (in which Karimova is a suspect), and also a bribery probe in Sweden involving another Nordic telecoms giant, TeliaSonera.
“Bank statements document how the money was transferred from a previously unknown company in the British Virgin Islands as Vimpelcom purchased licenses to the mobile market in the former Soviet state,” AFP quoted Klassekampen as saying.
Telenor responded that it has “zero tolerance for corruption, both when it comes to our own operations and also to the companies that we are part owners in.”
“We are a minority shareholder in Vimpelcom, so it’s up to Vimpelcom to take responsibility for answering any questions that relate to their operations,” Telenor communications head Glenn Mandelid told AFP.
Vimpelcom, which is 33 percent owned by Telenor, told EurasiaNet.org by email that there is nothing new in the information that has emerged.
Uzbekistan’s practice of sending forced laborers to pick the cotton harvest causes a furor abroad every year. But now there are rumblings of discontent from within the country.
National University students have taken the unusual step of publicly complaining about being forced to help with the harvest, publishing an open letter to the prime minister and law-enforcement agencies on the Dunyo Uzbeklari (World of Uzbeks) opposition website.
Third-year male journalism students were ordered to the cotton fields by the rector and faculty deacon, says the letter. It is addressed to Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev; the prosecutor’s office; the National Security Service (SNB); the Higher Education Ministry; and the university rector, Mirzo Mukhamedov.
“Surely the legislation of Uzbekistan does not mention the responsibility of students for taking part in the cotton harvest?” the outraged students (who remained anonymous, no doubt fearing repercussions) ask. “Of course not!”
Students who do not wish to pick cotton could cough up 300,000 sums to buy themselves out, the letter said. That is equivalent to around $125 at the official exchange rate, or two months’ worth of a student’s living grant.
Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest relies on forced labor to help farmers meet government-set quotas.
In 2012, Tashkent – facing widespread international pressure over its widely documented use of child labor to harvest its main cash crop – moved to take younger children out of the cotton fields. However, human rights groups have reported that this merely shifted the burden of forced labor onto older children (including students) and adults. Tashkent denies using forced labor at all.
Germany and Uzbekistan have reportedly agreed on an extension of the leasing agreement for the German air force base in Uzbekistan. But the details of the deal remain a tightly held secret.
The previous agreement by which Germany operated the small air base at Termez, on the border with Afghanistan, lapsed at the end of October. Germany has operated the base, which supports German troops in Afghanistan, since 2001. As of a few days before the deadline the two sides had yet to agree on an extension, but they seem to have made a deal.
"The ministries of defense of the two countries signed an agreement of the rent of the air hub," a "source familiar with the situation" in Moscow told RIA Novosti. But the source "declined to specify the new time frame of the lease and the details of the agreement." The Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported the the two sides also signed a "non-disclosure agreement" to not reveal the terms of the agreement.
Russian analysts, of course, are spinning this as really being about the U.S. The fact that the Germans are paying "a substantial sum" for the base which is "absolutely not needed for the few hundred German soldiers staying in Afghanistan after 2014 ... indirectly shows that the extension of the base lease is also being used by the U.S. Air Force," Arslan Magomedov told Regnum.ru.
But an unnamed German official told RFE/RL that Termez is still important for the German military. "Regardless of the completion of the international peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, we'll continue our important work. And that means that Termez remains an important air base for us."
As Uzbekistan continues the annual cotton harvest that is largely responsible for the Aral Sea’s demise, officials in Tashkent are boasting that a recent donor conference raised close to $3 billion to help save the endangered lake, once the world’s fourth-largest.
Verifying Uzbek government claims is never easy, and conference attendees are not hurrying to confirm or break down the impressive figure. But an event for the Aral Sea did take place in Urgench, a city not far from the Aral’s receding shoreline, on October 27 and 28. Addressing the conference via pre-recorded video, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon demanded better international coordination to “mitigate environmental catastrophe” reported uz24.uz, an Uzbek outlet. According to the independent Uznews.net, the conference was organized by the authoritarian state in conjunction with the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, a regional club, which critics say has done almost nothing since it was set up in 1993.
NASA satellite photos released in late August show that even a partial replenishment of the water-starved Aral is unlikely: The lake’s eastern tranche has completely dried up for the first time in history.
A German NH-90 helicopter of the type that crashed in Uzbekistan. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The crash of a German military helicopter in Uzbekistan in July has complicated the negotiations over the renewal of the agreement allowing the presence of Germany's air base in Uzbekistan, newspaper Die Welt has reported.
Recall that in July, a German NH90 military transport helicopter crashed near the base at Termez, Uzbekistan, just over the border from Afghanistan. Apparently the problem was so serious that the helicopter remains inoperable in Termez and the German Air Force has grounded its entire fleet of NH90s while it figures out the problem.
But the crash is also having implications over the secretive negotiations over extending the base's lease. According to Die Welt, the base agreement expires this week, on Friday. And while there has been almost no public information about the negotiations, some stories in the Uzbekistan press this summer suggested that Tashkent was trying to raise the rent, which has been between 10 and 15 million Euros a year.
Technicians from the NH-90's manufacturer, Airbus, are in Uzbekistan now, Die Welt reported.
Airbus has a contract to sell military helicopters to Uzbekistan but it is in peril because of a dispute over export regulations between the two main partners, France and Germany.
The deal for the helicopter had not been previously reported, and the information emerged during a conference in Berlin. It seems that Germany has many more reservations about selling weaponry to countries with bad human rights practices than does France. From Bloomberg:
Delivery of 14 Airbus military helicopters to Uzbekistan is being held up after Germany blocked a permit to sell a slip ring needed in the flyer’s optical system, Airbus Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders told executives and reporters in Berlin yesterday. Blocking the sale of a “sub-sub component” is “grotesque,” said Enders, adding that he’s considering shifting helicopter development to France from Germany.
Moscow’s sanctions-struck energy giant Gazprom has announced it is no longer interested in buying Central Asian gas, leaving Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan dependent on exports to China.
Contractually, Gazprom officials have noted they are locked into obligations to buy from Ashgabat and Tashkent for the short term. But Gazprom is “working to annul these contracts,” Vsevolod Cherepanov, head of Gazprom’s Department for Gas Production, said at the St Petersburg International Gas Forum on October 7. Cherepanov did not explain the reasons for cutting back on purchases in Central Asia, but noted that Gazprom’s domestic production is expected to increase in the coming years.
According to Gazprom’s website, the official line remains that the production and import of “natural gas from Central Asia and the Transcaucasian region is an important element in the formation of [Gazprom’s] resource base, meeting the demands of Russia’s internal market, CIS countries and beyond. The business strategy of Gazprom in Central Asia rests on a strengthening of its position in this region. This will maintain and increase the share of Russian gas provided to its traditional markets in Europe.”
Gazprom’s exit will leave purchases of Central Asian gas an increasingly Chinese pursuit. In the two years prior to the opening of the China-Turkmenistan pipeline, which went into operation in late 2009, Gazprom imported an average of 63.4 billion cubic meters of gas (bcm) from Central Asia annually, over two-thirds of which came from Turkmenistan. In the years since, the company says, the volume going to Russia has shrunk to an average 34.1 bcm annually, less than a third of which is sourced in Turkmenistan.
Uzbekistan has made “no advancement” in eliminating the worst forms of child labor, the US Department of Labor has found, despite Tashkent’s efforts to remove younger children from the cotton fields.
The judgment will come as a blow to the administration of strongman President Islam Karimov, which – under sustained international pressure – says it has banned children from picking cotton and last year invited the International Labor Organization (ILO) in to monitor the issue.
“Notwithstanding initiatives to reduce child labor, Uzbekistan has received this [“no advancement”] assessment based on the government's continued complicity in the use of forced child labor,” the Labor Department’s annual Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, released October 8, state.
“Although the government continues to publicly deny the use of forced labor, including of children, in the cotton harvest, information indicates that children continue to be required to engage in the worst forms of child labor in cotton production,” it continued.
The findings acknowledged that Tashkent had by and large ensured that children under 15 “were able to continue to attend school during the harvest season,” but said local officials continued shutting down colleges and lyceums, “mobilizing children ages 15 to 17 to pick cotton to meet the government-mandated harvest quotas.”
In 2012, Tashkent – facing widespread international pressure over its widely documented use of child labor to harvest its main cash crop – moved to take younger children out of the cotton fields. However, human rights groups reported that this merely shifted the burden of forced labor onto older children and adults, while Tashkent denies using forced labor at all.
As the fallout from a criminal investigation targeting Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of President Islam Karimov, continues to resonate in Uzbekistan, several high-ranking law-enforcement officers have been arrested on corruption charges in Tashkent.
The two probes may not be linked, but the latest arrests suggest that the elite infighting that has destabilized Uzbekistan over the last year may be spilling into a turf war between the country’s powerful security agencies.
The latest investigation targets the State Customs Service. Among the senior officers rounded up were the head of customs for Tashkent Region, Lieutenant Sirozhiddin Gulamov, and his deputy, Umar Bekov, Uzbekistan’s Podrobno news agency reported on September 30.
Another of the five detainees named was Major Abdusattor Abduraimov, the head of the Oybek border crossing on the frontier with Tajikistan. A chief inspector from Oybek and another inspector from the Gisht-Kuprik crossing on the frontier with Kazakhstan (better known as Chernyayevka), were also arrested, the report said. It quoted an unidentified source in the customs service for Tashkent Region, where both crossings are located.
The detainees are suspected of setting up an extortion ring and have already been charged with several crimes, including bribery, Podrobno said. They are alleged to have extorted money from entrepreneurs crossing official border checkpoints, where shakedowns are common during what is often a protracted and stressful process.
As Gulnara Karimova, the embattled daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman President Islam Karimov, stares the prospect of a jail term in the face, a new report by an international human rights watchdog offers a chilling peak at life behind bars in her father’s authoritarian state.
The report, released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on September 26, details the cases of 34 detainees and ten former detainees whom the watchdog views as political prisoners, jailed on trumped-up charges ranging from plotting to overthrow Karimov to corruption, illegal religious activity, and human trafficking.
These cases “shed light on larger trends of political repression in Uzbekistan and on the government’s attempt to suppress a wide range of independent activity that occurs beyond strict state control,” the watchdog said in the 121-page report, entitled Until the Very End: Politically Motivated Imprisonment in Uzbekistan.
The detainees profiled include human rights campaigners, political activists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and witnesses to the shooting of protesters in Andijan in 2005.
Tashkent “appears to have a policy of using imprisonment to target virtually anyone engaged in activities outside very tight state controls,” Steve Swerdlow of HRW, the report’s author, told EurasiaNet.org.
Like other detainees inside Uzbekistan’s notoriously harsh jails, political prisoners are held in tough conditions and suffer “a wide range of human rights abuses,” the research found, with “credible allegations of torture or ill-treatment” made in 29 of the case studies.