An obscure offshore oil and gas company is reportedly under investigation for stealing oil in Uzbekistan. The news will come as no surprise to the few brave Western investors still operating in the business-unfriendly Central Asian state, where a major redivision of spoils appears underway as President Islam Karimov’s once-powerful daughter comes under unprecedented attack.
Authorities have launched an investigation into an alleged theft of government-owned oil by Tethys Petroleum, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency reported on December 4, quoting an anonymous source. The firm, which denies wrongdoing, announced the launch of new oil and gas prospecting projects in the country only six months ago.
RIA Novosti said the company had been accused of stealing oil worth between $30 million and $40 million. Bakhrom Salakhitdinov, identified as the head of Tethys's operations in Uzbekistan, has been arrested, the news agency added.
Tethys calls the allegations “entirely without foundation.”
“We are in contact with the relevant authorities in order to reach an understanding of the reasons for the allegations and a satisfactory resolution of the situation as soon as possible. We are exploring all appropriate means to protect the company’s interests and ensure the safety of our employees in Uzbekistan. Oil production continues as normal,” the company told EurasiaNet.org via email.
Four executives have been dismissed from Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera amid an ongoing corruption investigation in Sweden that has come uncomfortably close to Gulnara Karimova, the scandal-hit daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
“The Board’s conclusion is that some senior employees no longer have the trust of the Board,” Marie Ehrling, its chairwoman, said in a statement posted on TeliaSonera’s website on November 29. “Therefore they have been notified that their employment with TeliaSonera will be terminated and they will leave their position effective immediately.”
The dismissals come amid repercussions from an ongoing corruption probe that Swedish police opened in September 2012 into claims that the Swedish-Finnish telecoms giant paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to enter Uzbekistan’s telecoms market.
The probe forced the resignation of CEO Lars Nyberg in February, and now four more heads have rolled. The company did not name them all but said in a second statement on November 29 that Chief Financial Officer Per-Arne Blomquist would “leave his position effective immediately.” The Financial Times reported that Tero Kivisaari, the company’s former head of the Eurasia division, was another of the fired employees.
Eleven citizens lost their lives as a result of the forced-labor system this year. The tragic losses included Tursunali Sadikov, a 63-year-old farmer who died of a heart attack after being beaten by a Department of Internal Affairs official, and Amirbek Rakhmatov, a six-year-old schoolboy who accompanied his mother to the cotton fields, napped in a trailer, and suffocated when cotton was loaded on top of him.
“It is the largest number of people who have died in a year, as far as I know,” Matt Fischer-Daly of the Cotton Campaign told the Toronto Star. “There have been tragedies but [I’ve] never seen a year with so many deaths.”
Though there were fewer young children mobilized than in years past, authorities “systematically” coerced high school students, university students, and adults into the fields, the reports says. They are part of an opaque chain of transactions that concludes with authorities buying cotton from farmers at artificially low prices and selling it abroad at a huge markup for hard currency. Researchers found that students were threatened with expulsion if they did not comply and adults told they would be fired if they refused.
U.S. forces drop supplies for base in Bala Marghab, Afghanistan. Coming soon to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan? (photo: Sgt. Seth Barham, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division Public Affairs)
In the wake of the U.S.'s announcement that it is moving its air base in Kyrgyzstan to Romania, the conspiracy theories continue to be propagated -- even in relatively respectable Russian analytical and official circles. A couple of weeks ago, The Bug Pit looked at one popular conspiracy theory: that the U.S. wasn't in fact leaving Manas, but was involved in an elaborate deception to cover up its aims of setting up a state-of-the-art intelligence-gathering operation in Kyrgyzstan.
But that's not the only theory being mooted as the "real" explanation for what the U.S. is doing (moving operations to Romania, if you're naive enough to believe the Pentagon). A piece in the Russian Ministry of Defense newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, entitled "The Pentagon Intends to Stay," suggests that the withdrawal from Manas is merely a tactical retreat, and that the U.S.'s strategy in Central Asia is "to leave, in order to stay." According to this analysis, the small training centers that the U.S. has set up in Tajikistan and had planned to set up in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the military supply routes of the Northern Distribution Network, represent a foothold that the U.S. can use to maintain influence with a smaller footprint.
But that piece is relatively measured. Other analyses get more specific, and a lot more conspiratorial. One theory is that the U.S. is moving to Aktau, on Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea shore. This theory is promulgated by a number of people, including analyst Nikolay Bobkin, writing for the Russian think tank Strategic Culture Foundation.
Authorities in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, have ordered local eateries to switch to alternative sources of fuel, such as coal and wood, in a bid to ease energy shortages this winter.
The measure was prompted by a surge in the consumption of gas for heating, Uzmetronom.com reported this month, and marks the start of Uzbekistan’s annual energy crisis.
Uzmetronom, which is believed to have ties to the security services, said cafes and restaurants in Tashkent would most likely use condensed natural gas sourced privately in bottles, rather than from government-run mainlines, for cooking. Others will burn wood. The Moscow-based Fergana News website reported on November 21 that "an increasing crisis in gas supplies and deliveries" had led to “skyrocketing” wood prices.
One of Gulnara Karimova's November 21 Twitter missives.
After spending most of the day airing her family’s dirty laundry on Twitter – shedding light on the murky world of clan politics in Tashkent – Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of long-serving strongman Islam Karimov, has gone quiet.
On November 21, Karimova again took to one of the few public channels she can still access, Twitter, to accuse her mother Tatyana of organizing the spectacular personal implosion that has riveted Central Asia watchers for the past month.
Within hours, the account @GulnaraKarimova, which is widely believed to be authentic, disappeared.
Karimova had earlier sent a series of tweets containing image files, each with a long text in Russian. EurasiaNet.org downloaded the nine image files before the account disappeared. One example can be found to the right.
Karimova tweeted that the "women in our family" resent her and are plotting against her. "I have long wanted to tell my mother about this...She has promised to destroy everything connected to me if I dare 'meddle in her affairs'!"
Karimova said the October arrest of her cousin Akbarali Abdullayev – sometimes described as her “purse” – had been ordered by her mother in a bid to take over Abdullayev’s business interests in the Ferghana Valley.
When Karimova tried to help her cousin by interceding with her father, she said, her mother
"snatched [his assets] and imprisoned him in October 2013 for an unknown period, promising to destroy me for this!"
The prejudice (and sometimes violence) faced by labor migrants from Uzbekistan abroad is well-documented. But the trials and tribulations they face just leaving home is less publicized.
Most migrants heading to Russia first cross the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan at Chernyayevka, near Tashkent.
Thousands of people mass every day at Chernyayevka, which is the old Soviet name for a village now called Gisht-Kuprik on the Uzbek side and Zhibek Zholy in Kazakhstan.
On a recent November afternoon the crowds – travelers visiting relatives and taking trips as well as labor migrants – were waiting several hours just to leave Uzbekistan.
The longest line was to enter the border crossing: Hundreds of people massed outside in a disorderly queue, which patrolling border guards made no attempts to control other than to open the gates and allow around 10 people through every five minutes or so. It’s a survival-of-the-fittest exercise: Every time the gates open, the line surges forward and the strongest push the weakest back in order to fight closer to the front.
Verbal arguments frequently break out among frustrated travelers, and the occasional scuffle too. One woman fainted in the crush, but the patrolling border guard refused to allow her to bypass the line. The guard intervened only once, when, unable to bear the wait any longer, one couple gave up and climbed over the barrier to leave. “What are you doing?” he shouted at them. “Going home,” replied the man. “This is impossible!”
First authorities shut her television and radio stations in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent. Then they went after her network of stations around the country. Now Gulnara Karimova, the beleaguered elder daughter of Uzbekistan’s president, says someone is trying to force her into exile.
Radio Ozodlik (Radio Liberty’s Uzbek Service) reported this week that the broadcasting licenses of five non-governmental television network-operated channels (NTT) in Kashkadarya, Fergana and Bukhara regions and Karakalpakstan were suspended on November 1. An executive from one of the affected stations told Ozodlik that 80 percent of Uzbekistan’s non-state-run television stations are now off air.
Karimova is believed to have controlled these channels through Firdavs Abdukhalikov, her former spokesman. Abdukhalikov's whereabouts are unknown. He was last seen at the opening of Karimova's annual Style.uz arts festival on October 22, Ozodlik said. A new suspiciously detailed report by a name that few believe belongs to a real person – possibly a pseudonym used by the security services, acting alone or in collaboration with exiled opposition leader Muhammad Solih – says he is being held by the secret police.
Usually wary of Moscow-led initiatives, Uzbekistan has suddenly expressed cautious interest in joining the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia – the trade bloc Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a key feature of his foreign policy.
Senate Speaker Ilgizar Sobirov, the powerful head of the Uzbek parliament's upper chamber, showed interest in joining the Russia-led group on November 12 after meeting a delegation from the Russian parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council, Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported.
Sobirov reportedly said Uzbekistan holds a "positive" attitude toward possible membership in the trade body, which lately has been marked by increasingly rancorous internal disputes. “I think we shall support,” Itar-Tass quoted him as saying, in a report light on details.
Uzbekistan's interest in the Customs Union makes sense on paper. Russia is the country’s largest trade partner, according to statistics distributed in Uzbek media by the State Statistics Committee.
Russia is also the primary magnet for the millions of Uzbek labor migrants who sent about $5.7 billion home in remittances last year, or the equivalent of 16.3 percent of GDP.
Drivers in Uzbekistan have long complained about gasoline shortages. With little explanation, it seems the secretive government is trying to address mounting domestic gasoline shortages and panic at local petrol stations.
Tashkent intends to increase imports of oil from neighboring Turkmenistan, Moscow-based Fergana News reported on November 11, citing Uznefteprodukt, the state-run refining company.
It’s unclear how large the increase will be, however. Repeated calls to Uznefteprodukt went unanswered on November 12. The company’s website confirms the plans for imports, but does not name figures.
Oil output in Uzbekistan fell from 78,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 2010 to 68,000 bpd in 2012, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy for 2013, largely due to aging infrastructure and limited investments. Over the same period, consumption increased from 75,000 bpd to 82,000 bpd, BP said.
Neither Uzbekistan nor Turkmenistan disclose energy import or export figures. Uzbekistan also imports oil and petroleum products from Russia and Kazakhstan.
Uznefteprodukt has dismissed reports of hours-long queues at gas stations in Tashkent, blaming “rumors” for fears that petrol prices, which are strictly controlled by the state, would soon rise. But EurasiaNet.org has seen queues, which are ongoing.