The head of United States Central Command has visited Uzbekistan as the U.S. works to "rebalance" its policies toward Central Asia, a policy which officials increasingly admit has been excessively focused on security.
General Lloyd Austin, head of CENTCOM, visited Uzbekistan and met with President Islam Karimov among other officials. There was no official word on what the visit was about. Voice of America Uzbek service's Navbahor Imamova, who has good sources on these issues, says that her sources say the visit was "purely maintenance" and included "no basing talk."
That didn't convince everyone, and the Uzbekistan news website uzmetronom reported that Austin was in Uzbekistan to negotiate a new U.S. military base there, and that the U.S. was offering Tashkent a billion dollars a year for the privilege, and that Germany was opposing it behind the scenes. That's all pretty unlikely, but it's interesting coming from uzmetronom; the site is well connected to the country's security services and in Uzbekistan there are obviously strict limits on what can be published. Whatever the reason, the report was of course eagerly picked up by the Russian media.
In March, Austin testified to Congress about the U.S. military's posture in the CENTCOM area, and said this about Uzbekistan:
A cement company owned by Russian oligarch Filaret Galchev appears to have become the latest target of an assets grab by Uzbekistan’s government, sparking speculation that this is part of a re-division of economic spoils following the fall from grace of Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of President Islam Karimov.
A Tashkent court has ruled that the post-Soviet privatization of the Akhangarantsement company – owned by Galchev’s Russia-based Eurocement – way back in 1994 was illegal, and froze assets worth 414 billion sums (nearly $180 million), the company said in a July 29 statement.
The claims of illegal privatization “are of an unfounded and illegal nature, as was convincingly demonstrated in the court hearing,” it quoted Mikhail Skorokhod, Eurocement’s president, as saying.
The assault on the firm was quite sudden, he said: The company found out about the lawsuit brought by the government’s antimonopoly committee on July 16. Hearings started two days later, and on July 21 the court deemed the privatization illegal.
The ruling effectively places the firm – Uzbekistan’s second largest cement producer – back in the hands of the state, a full two decades after it was put into private hands in the post-Soviet privatization rush.
Eurocement – whose owner, Galchev, is Russia’s 24th richest man with a fortune of $6.1 billion, according to Forbes – acquired a 75-percent stake in Akhangarantsement in 2006 and now owns an 84-percent share, with the rest in the hands of minority shareholders.
Islamic militancy is high on the agenda in Central Asia. This week, authorities have handed lengthy prison terms at two unrelated trials in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Six people were jailed for between nine and 15 years on terrorism charges at a mass trial involving 66 suspects in southwestern Uzbekistan. A court in central Kazakhstan jailed four citizens for between six and 12 years for recruiting militants to wage holy war in Syria.
At the mass trial in the city of Qashqadaryo in Uzbekistan, three men and three women were jailed on July 22 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government of the strongman president, Islam Karimov, and propagating terrorism, RFE/RL reported, citing the Tashkent-based Ezgulik (Compassion) human rights center.
In Kazakhstan, the conviction of the four over the Syria recruitment campaign in and around the city of Zhezkazgan, reported by Tengri News on July 22, came as media reports emerged of a new propaganda video showing 16 people believed to be from Kazakhstan (since some are speaking Kazakh) who have headed off to fight in the Middle East.
Authorities in Central Asia have frequently cited Syria-linked threats this year amid a growing number of reports that militants from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are waging holy war in Syria.
A German CH-53 helicopter flies between Termez, Uzbekistan, and Kunduz, Afghanistan. (photo: Ministry of Defense, Germany)
A helicopter from the German airbase in southern Uzbekistan had to make an emergency landing, accidentally setting a wheat field on fire, the German embassy in Tashkent told The Bug Pit.
The episode was first reported by Uzbek media on June 16. The website Union of Independent Journalists of Central Asia said that "a German military helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing after it began to smoke, and a spark from the engine started a field on fire. This caused a negative reaction in the local population."
In a statement to The Bug Pit, a representative of the German embassy in Tashkent confirmed that "a German helicopter experienced engine problems and had to perform an emergency landing. As the helicopter lost some hot parts of its engine, a nearby field of wheat caught fire. Competent authorities are investigating the causes of the accident. Germany is going to compensate the owners of the field." No one was injured, the embassy added.
Reporting on the German base in Termez has been very scant, but it was established in 2002 (shortly after the U.S.'s own base, a little north in Karshi-Khanabad) to support Germany's contributions to the war in Afghanistan, just across the river from Termez. Germany has been paying between 10 and 15 million Euros per year in rent to the Uzbekistan government for the use of the base. In 2006, Der Spiegel reported:
Amid reports that two close associates of Gulnara Karimova, the embattled daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman president Islam Karimov, have been jailed, a man claiming to represent her family has denied allegations of her involvement in bribery and money-laundering in Europe. The spokesman suggests the root of her troubles could be political infighting ahead of next year’s presidential election.
“There has been no proof to back up any of the claims made against Gulnara Karimova,” the spokesman – who works for a recognizable London-based communications firm, but insists that neither he nor the firm be identified – said in the statement, sent to EurasiaNet.org by email on July 14.
“However,” he continued, “given her relationship to the president of Uzbekistan, we cannot ignore the likelihood of these allegations against Gulnara Karimova being politically motivated ahead of the forthcoming 2015 elections.”
Karimova, a one-time powerful player previously tipped as a possible successor to her father, has reportedly been under house arrest in Tashkent since February. This follows a vitriolic family feud with her mother, Tatyana Karimova, and younger sister, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva.
As well as her mother and sister, Karimova has blamed Rustam Inoyatov, the head of Uzbekistan’s domestic intelligence service (known as the SNB), for her woes. In an interview with Russia’s REN TV last month, her son (called Islam after his grandfather) blamed unnamed “powerful” figures for arranging the detention of his mother and 16-year-old sister Iman in Tashkent.
Some media outlets in Ukraine have charged that Central Asians are fighting among pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east.
The most recent fodder for the rumor mill is a video interview, posted July 8 on YouTube, where a man describing himself as a native of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, explains why he is fighting with the separatists.
The man in camouflage, whose identity cannot be independently verified, is standing before a military vehicle and appears to be holding a weapon. "I decided that the weak should be defended," he explains. He says he is not paid but is fighting because of what his interlocutor described as his "sense of injustice.” He vows to fight "until the end of the war.”
In recent months, several Uzbeks have also reportedly appeared among the separatists.
On June 22, Reuters published a picture of a man carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle who was identified as "Bakhtiyor” from Uzbekistan. A few days later, RFE/RL said recruiters in Moscow told their undercover correspondent that he and an Uzbek friend could join the separatist fighters in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk "in principle."
One Uzbek citizen with pro-Kiev sympathies told RFE/RL he had been offered $50-$100 a day to fight with separatists in Luhansk.
Authorities in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have not commented on the allegations.
Ties between Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbors to the north, in spite of years of encouragement by Western officials, remain at a very low level, with the conspicuous exception being the cross-border drug trade. That's the conclusion of a comprehensive new report, Between Cooperation And Insulation: Afghanistan's Relations with the Central Asian Republics.
"The trans-border narcotics trade between Afghanistan and Central Asia – supported, managed and/or protected by government officials and security forces on both sides of the border – is the one enduring economic connection that has demonstrated resilience since the fall of the Taleban, as well as promise for the future. It is the only true cross-border economic activity that is truly supported by all relevant state and non-state actors," write the report's authors, Christian Bleuer and Said Reza Kazemi.
And so, they argue, Western policies aimed at stemming the drug trade suffer from the fatal flaw that their partners in this effort, the Central Asian governments, benefit from the trafficking:=
"[S]ecurity risks that link Afghanistan to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia are often highly exaggerated, especially so the alleged link between narcotics trafficking and radical Islamist groups. In reality, throughout Central Asia the main players in narcotics trafficking are government employees, security officers and mafia figures," the report says. "Throughout Central Asia the narcotics trade has deeply penetrated the economic, social, political and security structures and created mutually beneficial relations. Powerful government and security figures use state resources and structures to actively assist and/or control this trade in cooperation with powerful mafia leaders."
A court in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, has slapped an enormous fine on a journalist for “threating public security” after he criticized local authorities. The case was prosecuted so quickly, in only three days, that the journalist was unable to secure a lawyer.
On June 28, the Shayhantahur District criminal court fined Said Abdurakhimov, who writes under the penname Sid Yanyshev, 9.6 million sums ($3,200 at the black market exchange rate), or 100 minimum monthly wages. The court found Abdurakhimov guilty of working without accreditation and for "producing or storing materials threatening public security and public order for distribution," the Moscow-based Fergana News website reported. The court also ordered the seizure of Abdurakhimov’s video camera.
The offending article, published by Fergana News on June 25, discussed authorities' failure to compensate residents whose homes were destroyed to build a highway.
The independent Uznews.net website said that following the publication, police in Tashkent had forced two women who had spoken to Abdurakhimov to file a complaint against him.
In the short period between the publication, the charges, and the court hearing, Abdurakhimov was not able to hire a lawyer and learn the case material, Uznews.net said. Fergana News said he would appeal.
Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon has staked his legacy on the Rogun dam. From the National Museum of Tajikistan.
Two new reports should interest anyone following progress building the world’s tallest dam—Tajikistan’s 3,600-MW dream, Rogun.
The World Bank has released drafts of its long-awaited Rogun feasibility studies. They appear to give Tajikistan the green light to build Rogun, saying the dam is the best way to end the country’s crippling energy shortages. However, the economic model used to make the recommendation seems to assume a set of unlikely conditions, from financial reforms and improvements in Tajikistan’s insolvent electricity industry to a major breakthrough in relations with a prickly neighbor.
Meanwhile, in a second report, Human Rights Watch says the resettlement of 42,000 people whose homes will be destroyed or flooded by Rogun is not going as smoothly as the government has promised.
The World Bank studies look at technical, economic, environmental and social considerations for three potential heights. Overall, the Bank found the tallest Rogun option – 335 meters, the only one Tajik officials talk about – the most economical: “building a dam at the Rogun site is a lower cost solution to meeting Tajikistan’s energy needs than any of the alternatives.”
The U.S. has substantially cut its aid for Central Asian security forces, according to newly released Pentagon data.
The report (pdf) details spending under Section 1004 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows the U.S. Department of Defense to train and equip foreign security forces involved in counternarcotics missions. In 2012, the Pentagon seemed to make Central Asia, in particular Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, a major focus. But according to the new data, that effort may have been abandoned.
The new data covers the first half of Fiscal Year 2014, from October 2013 through March 2014. Compared to the last full data (pdf), from 2012, there are big cuts across the board (even taking into account that the new numbers are for half a year, and the 2012 numbers for a full year):
Kazakhstan: $187,000 - from $8.7 million
Kyrgyzstan: $1.2 million - from $21.3 million
Tajikistan: $1.1 million - from $15.4 million
Uzbekistan: $156.000 - from $5.7 million
The training that took place under this program was directed less at the military and more at the security services like the GKNB; in 2012 the U.S. trained at least 350 GKNB officers from Tajikistan and 100 from Kyrgyzstan. (It was Tajikistan's GKNB, recall, which arrested political scientist Alexander Sodiqov and accused him of spying.)