Scandal-plagued Nordic telecom giant TeliaSonera has distanced itself from its local subsidiary in Uzbekistan, Ucell, after Ucell sponsored an event hosted by Gulnara Karimova, the controversial daughter of the country’s strongman.
Ucell sponsored a concert this week marking the opening of Karimova’s annual weeklong arts, music, and fashion extravaganza, Style.uz.
That’s likely a little embarrassing for TeliaSonera, which is embroiled in a corruption investigation in Sweden, accused of paying over $300 million in bribes to a Karimova associate for access to Uzbekistan’s telecoms market.
A spokesperson for TeliaSonera confirmed that Ucell had sponsored the event but stressed the decision was taken locally without its involvement, Sweden’s The Local website said on October 24. "Ucell contributes to projects meant to contribute to Uzbek society," The Local quoted the TeliaSonera representative as telling the TT news agency. TeliaSonera did not disclose the amount of money Ucell had paid for Karimova's bash, which is billed as a charity fundraiser, The Local said.
In February, an audit unearthed no evidence of corruption, but found TeliaSonera had not employed adequate safeguards when entering as opaque an environment as Uzbekistan, which Transparency International ranks as 170 out of 174 on its Corruption Perceptions Index.
Four television stations close to Gulnara Karimova, the Uzbek president’s eldest daughter, remain off air today, sources in Tashkent confirm, three days after mysteriously disappearing from the airwaves.
The channels – Forum, TV-Markaz (TVM), NTT, and SoFTS, which are linked to Karimova via her Fund Forum cultural organization – disappeared on October 21 and are not available on the Internet either.
Today TV-Markaz says it is switching formats: “Due to a switch to a new broadcasting format, the TVM television channel temporarily suspended broadcasting on October 21, 2013 […] All shows and projects are continuing to be produced and TMV staff are working as usual,” the company said in an October 24 statement.
But the timing is odd and fostering suspicion that Karimova – often mooted as a potential successor to her aging father – is in trouble at home. The blackout comes during one of Karimova’s most important annual events, Style.uz, which opened on October 22. The stations often promote Karimova, her charity and fashion projects, and her sultry music videos.
Uzbekistan stands to earn $1 billion annually exporting cotton, an industry that has planted the Central Asian country prominently on the inaugural Global Slavery Index published by an Australian watchdog this week.
Citing officials, Uzreport news agency reported on October 17 that at the ninth annual Cotton and Textile Fair in Tashkent on October 16 and 17, Uzbekistan signed contracts to export 680,000 metric tons of cotton fiber and textile products worth $1 billion a year.
In awkward timing, while Uzreport was hailing the cotton contracts as "a solid basis for future long-term, sustainable and mutually beneficial cooperation between Uzbekistan and foreign countries," the Brisbane-based Walk Free Foundation published its inaugural Global Slavery Index.
During the annual cotton harvest, Uzbekistan “is the country with the second highest prevalence of modern slavery (after Mauritania) in the world,” the accompanying report said. The index ranked Uzbekistan 47th globally overall.
Uzbekistan relies on forced labor to pick the cotton, which is then purchased from farmers at artificially low prices and sold abroad for hard currency. The State Department said this year that Tashkent “subjects its citizens to forced labor through implementation of state policy.”
During a visit to Latvia this week, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov got just what he wanted: recognition from a Western leader and promises of more, without any annoying questions about his well-documented human rights abuses.
Following a meeting with Karimov on October 17, Latvian President Andris Berzins promised that in the first half of 2015, when Latvia holds the rotating European Union presidency, improving relations between the EU and Central Asia would be high on the Baltic nation’s agenda, Latvia's Leta news agency reported.
Berzins also promised to back Tashkent’s bid to join the World Trade Organization.
At least publicly, Latvian officials failed to mention Uzbekistan’s troubled human rights record, instead prioritizing economic and security cooperation. Uzbekistan is critical to the so-called Northern Distribution Network, which NATO uses to supply, and now withdraw from, the war in Afghanistan. Latvia lies at the other end of the vast network spanning the former Soviet Union.
The Baltic nation, a member of both the EU and NATO, has been criticized in the past for offering undeserving prestige to Central Asian autocrats craving attention from Western leaders. Last year Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov met Berzins in Riga. Again, human rights were not publicly discussed. Berzins doubled the tribute with a visit to Ashgabat this year.
Ahead of Karimov's visit to Riga, activists urged Berzins to address human rights.
A nephew of Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, who was once tipped as a potential successor to the aging strongman, has been detained on suspicion of operating an organized crime ring.
Citing a source at the Fergana Region prosecutor's office, Uznews.net reported today that Akbarali Abdullayev, a son of the first lady's sister, was arrested October 10 on embezzlement, tax evasion and bribery charges.
"He is in a detention center in Tashkent at the moment. His arrest warrant has been sanctioned from on high," Uznews.net quoted the source as saying.
Abdullayev and his mother Tamara Sobirova, the president’s sister-in-law, are widely believed to control large swathes of the economy in Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley, including industrial giants like the Fergana oil refinery and a cement plant in Kyvasay.
In the summer of 2012, Abdullayev reportedly fled Uzbekistan following the arrests of several of his business associates on corruption charges. After Sobirova received guarantees her son was safe, Abdullayev returned in late 2012, Uznews.net said.
Prior to that drama, Abdullayev had been mooted, Uznews said, for a seat in parliament's upper chamber, the Senate (where the president has the right to appoint 16 of 100 members), and was sometimes tipped as a potential successor to Karimov.
Since the infamous comic character Borat burst onto the world stage seven years ago, Central Asian states have had trouble shedding their images as tinpot dictatorships run by vainglorious, venal leaders.
Kazakhstan, the fictional home of Borat, has since spent millions on PR buffing its image. So news that a TV series lampooning the Central Asian states à la Borat – with some uncomfortable parallels to the truth – is about to air in the UK will come as an unwelcome shock.
As The Independent reports, the show Ambassadors, airing on the BBC2 channel from late October, is set in the fictional country Tazbekistan, a hybrid of the real-life Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.
“The fictional Tazbekistan is run by the dictatorial President Kairat who presides over a regime with a dubious human rights record,” reports the newspaper, a description that will sound familiar (albeit perhaps not amusing) to the inhabitants of the Central Asian states.
The authoritarian leaders of real-life Tajikistan (Emomali Rahmon), Uzbekistan (Islam Karimov), and Kazakhstan (Nursultan Nazarbayev) may not take kindly to this depiction – and they may be surprised to learn that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has assisted in the program’s making.
The series's writers spent time at the British Embassy in Astana and were given access to other diplomats to learn about the realities of the diplomatic lifestyle.
It may be just an accident: the consequence, for example, of aging infrastructure. But a derailed troop train from Tajikistan passing through rival Uzbekistan is likely to draw scrutiny.
The train carrying almost 300 passengers en route from Dushanbe to northern Tajikistan slipped off the tracks early October 10 in Uzbekistan’s Jizzakh Region, injuring several dozen people, most of them conscripts, Asia-Plus reported. Radio Ozodi reported 52 injuries. There are no reports of fatalities.
Asia-Plus said there were about 200 recruits and several officers on board.
No rail lines connect Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, with northern Sughd Province, which is in the Fergana Valley, forcing all train traffic to pass through Uzbekistan. This arrangement worked fine until the late 1980s, when both countries were constituent republics of the Soviet Union. But today the two independent countries barely speak. Uzbekistan is vehemently opposed to Tajikistan’s plans to build a giant hydropower plan upstream, fearing it will give Dushanbe economic leverage and control over the region’s limited water resources. Uzbekistan's president has said it could lead to war. Tashkent often looks like it is trying to blockade isolated Tajikistan – closing borders, halting freight, turning off gas supplies – in apparent attempts to prevent construction at Rogun.
NATO logistics officers dependent on Uzbekistan’s rail network to haul supplies out of Afghanistan are likely to take notice.
Critical journalist Sergei Naumov has been freed after serving a short sentence for allegedly abusing a stranger on the street, Fergana News reports. Media outlets and human rights groups throughout the region had campaigned for his release.
Naumov was sentenced to 12 days on September 21 after he bumped into a woman who accused him of "harassing her, grabbing her breasts and insulting [her] with swear words." He denied the charges. He was held incommunicado, raising fears for his safety.
Naumov had been reporting on the use of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s annual cotton harvest, along with corruption and abuse of power by government officials, fostering widespread suspicions that authorities were trying to muzzle him.
“Sergei Naumov’s detention bears all the hallmarks of an illegal, enforced disappearance and appears aimed at silencing his independent reporting,” Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said on September 24.
Bakhrom Khamroyev, president of the Moscow-based Society for Political Immigrants of Uzbekistan, organized a rally in Moscow on October 2 demanding Naumov’s release, Fergana News said.
The World Bank released summaries of the first two studies in a series of long-awaited reports on Tajikistan’s controversial Rogun hydropower dam this week. Prepared by French consultancy Coyne et Bellier, the technical assessments are designed to help Tajikistan make informed engineering decisions about the complicated project.
Depending on how you read the carefully worded reports, which have been reviewed by Tajik officials, they could be seen as a victory for either Tajikistan or downstream Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is vehemently opposed to the project, arguing that it is not safe and that it will give Tajikistan unfair control over water resources. President Islam Karimov has even said that such a project could lead to war.
Yet the reports also allow Tajik officials to argue that everything is under control, that the consultants outlined necessary, but manageable repairs.
For certain, the reports recommend what sounds like a lot of repairs to previously built structures, and expensive-sounding mitigation efforts to address an underground threat.
Uzbekistan's state-run oil and gas company increased the price it charges domestic customers for natural gas by 8.5 percent on October 1, moving further to close the giant gap between domestic and export prices.
Uzbekneftegaz announced on its website in late September that it will now charge local consumers, including domestic industries, 151,740 sums ($70.70 at the official exchange rate) per thousand cubic meters (tcm) of natural gas. According to calculations by the private Novyy Vek daily, that’s an 8.5-percent rise. The paper notes the domestic tariff also rose 14 percent in April and has risen 45 percent over the past 12 months.
Uzbekistan sells gas at $290 per tcm to Kyrgyzstan, a Kyrgyz official told Kazakhstan's Tengrinews this summer. So the subsidized domestic price is less than a quarter of what Tashkent earns from selling gas abroad.
That might explain widespread shortages of gas and electricity in rural areas each winter, as Tashkent increases exports to neighboring countries and China.
According figures cited by Novyy Vek, domestic consumption stands at around 50 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually. Output fell by 0.2 percent to 62.9 bcm in 2012.