Ukraine’s security service has said it has detained a citizen of Uzbekistan engaged in fighting alongside separatist forces with the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.
Just as significantly, the news has also been reported by media inside Uzbekistan, which has tried to adopt a neutral position toward events involving Ukraine, and Russia by extension, in recent years.
In a video confession posted on the website of the Ukrainian Security Services (SBU), the suspected 20-year old fighter identifies himself as Alexander Brikin and says he joined the ranks of separatist forces in December 2014 as a way of earning some money. Brikin, who bears clear signs of rendering his confession under duress, said he had been engaged in fighting in Horlivka and Shyrokyne, two intense hotspots in the eastern Ukrainian conflict.
Ukrainian authorities said Brikin was captured after he traveled to the government-controlled city of Mariupol in an attempt to register as a Ukrainian citizen.
The government in Uzbekistan is only too aware that volunteers and mercenaries have been heading to Ukraine. In January, the Uzbek Embassy in Ukraine posted a statement on its website warning people against trying to enroll with separatist forces.
“The Embassy is hereby informing that according to Article 154 of Uzbekistan Criminal Code … it is a crime to participate in any armed conflict or military activities in foreign states even where there is no evidence of mercenary activity. Such actions envisions punishment of up to ten years in prison,” the statement read.
Tashkent is concerned about its citizens fighting on either side of the conflict, however.
The wave of arrests of suspected coup plotters and sympathisers in Turkey has spread to engulf the emigre Central Asian community, mainly people from Uzbekistan.
From early July to the current day, around 140 Central Asian citizens have been detained, RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, has reported.
“On July 29, following the coup attempt, Turkish security services detained 29 citizens of Uzbekistan in Istanbul, after which another 100 Uzbek migrants were detained,” Ozodlik reported over the weekend.
The BBC Uzbek service, meanwhile, cited rights groups in Turkey as presenting other figures.
“In deportation centers in Istanbul’s Kumkapi neighborhood, they are holding 45 Uzbek families, 150 Uzbekistani citizens,” the broadcaster reported.
For all this pressure against these emigre communities, there are no confirmed reports of charges being filed.
But the BBC quotes Adam Chevlik, head of the Istanbul-based Uzbek Unity group, as saying that police is investigating the alleged involvement of eight citizens of Uzbekistan in the coup attempt. The suspects’ homes have been searched, Chevlik told the BBC.
Chevlik said that 142 citizens of Uzbekistan have been arrested and 11 released from custody. Prosecutors have ordered 88 Uzbeks to be held in custody, he said.
Concern is also mounting at the fate of those that could be forced out of the country.
Ozodlik quoted the Turkish-based People’s Movement of Uzbekistan opposition group as saying that 40 people have been ordered to leave Turkey within the month.
Uzbekistan’s upper house of parliament is due later this month to consider long-awaited legislation outlining the rules and responsibilities of the police force.
The Central Asian nation’s absence of law regulating its notoriously corrupt and violent police and security services has been object of much criticism from rights organizations. Proposals to be considered by the Senate on August 24-25 for a law titled “On Interior Affairs Organs” do not seem to relate to the National Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB and the country’s de facto administrator.
A law on the police was devised by members of parliament and security officials toward the end of 2012 following earlier calls to do so from President Islam Karimov, but that initiative lost steam along the way.
As a result, police to this day operate under non-statutory guidelines drawn up in 1991. This means that police operate without explicit rules of engagement when deploying live ammunition and treat criminal suspects in a manner at their discretion.
Karimov spoke again about the need to adopt a law on police during a speech to mark Independence Day last December. Somewhat surprisingly, he spoke with some asperity about shoddy practices among law enforcement bodies.
“It is not unusual to come across cases of nonobservance and crude violations of legal norms and provisions and principles of justice, as well as sloppy attitudes among law enforcement and regulatory authorities toward their duties. This is a reality and it is impossible not to notice it,” Karimov said.
But quite how Karimov noticed it is something of a mystery. Even his most generous champion could hardly accuse the president of having his finger on the pulse.
Unlike in much of the former Soviet Union, young men in Uzbekistan clamor to do military service, and the competition is so intense that authorities have introduced stringent new entrance requirements.
Officials estimate that only one out of every 10 hopeful applicants is successful.
A decree published this week on legal affairs website Norma.uz contains all the details. The fitness section comprises three routines: chin-ups, a 100-meter dash and a 3,000-meter run. Next comes a three-part written exam testing knowledge of math, and Uzbek language and history.
Enrolment takes place just once annually and hopeful conscripts can apply only once.
The relative prestige associated with doing obligatory service in Uzbekistan dates back to reforms enacted in 2008, when the length of service was reduced from 24 months to 12. Wages paid to conscripts were also raised.
There are numerous correlated benefits to serving. One is that it increases chances of getting government jobs or the professional army itself, where positions are also highly sought after for the perks. The Defense Ministry has said that between 2007 and 2015, it allocated more than 3,000 apartments to servicemen and their families.
With unemployment a chronic problem in Uzbekistan, any path to regular, respectable and well-paid work is eagerly pursued.
Those that have completed military service are also eligible to receive additional benefits while completing their university studies.
Perhaps most importantly, it would appear that Uzbekistan has been fairly successful is clamping down on hazing in the armed forces. The systematic bullying that occurs across the former Soviet Union is typically compounded by long terms of conscription and low levels of professionalism.
A pyramid scheme in Uzbekistan that reeled many high-profile celebrities into its net is now costing officials their job.
Since investigations began in mid-June, the fraud allegedly engineered by well-known businessman Ahmad Tursunbayev has caused enough ripples to knock dry political programing off the airwaves in favor of at least three television programs devoted to the case to date.
Among the officials to have lost their job are Behzod Mirsoatov, prosecutor for the Chinasky district of Tashkent out of which Tursunbayev operated. On July 25, the district head of police also got the chop and is now being questioned as a witness in the case. There are also unconfirmed reports that the head of the district is next for the metaphorical firing squad.
The removal of relatively important local officials signals a rare concession to restive public sentiment in Uzbekistan, although the story is actually a little less straightforward than that.
Tursunbayev’s suspected scam consisted simply of promising 100 percent yearly returns on investments made either in cash, gold or other assets, mainly cars. The bulk of his clients — estimated at between 40,000 and 80,000 people — appear to have been naive Uzbeks unused to market speculation.
Uzbekistan’s transition to a market-based economy has been negligible over the past 25 years and untrained investors are ripe subjects for fraudulent get-rich quick scams.
Against all odds, however, despite the unfolding scandal, Tursunbayev continues to enjoy some support from the public. Victims of his scheme have drowned prosecutors with letters — not to demand his punishment, but instead to ask that he be released, so that he might return their money and jewelry.
Uzbekistan’s unfortunate pop stars have been landed in hot water once again. This time it is for what they are getting up to outside the motherland. Namely, giving concerts.
State run arts association Uzbeknavo has in recent times suspended a slew of pop artists for supposedly violating national mores. On July 20, it announced it had revoked performing licenses from another three artists.
Sitora Farmonova, Sarvara Azimova and Komila Fazylova earned the sanction for performing overseas in violation of the terms of their license, according to an Uzbeknavo statement cited by news website uz24.uz.
What is unclear is whether the pop artists are being banned from performing overseas outright or whether what is bothering the authorities is that the singers are plying their trade in a way that somehow embarrasses their home country.
And what is it that is so shaming for Uzbekistan?
Uzbeknavo license department chief Olizhon Abukhakharov claimed that punished singers had been unable to gather crowds of 200-250 people at their performances, which he said “greatly harms the reputation of Uzbek pop art.”
“As a result of repeated recurrence of such cases, it was decided to deprive them of their licenses,” Abukhakharov was cited as saying by uz24.uz.
And yet none of this likely applies to Sitora Farmonova, who recently won gold at the popular KVN comedy tournament in Russia’s Kaliningrad region as part of a team representing Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
A puppet polling organization in Uzbekistan has revealed that 98.9 percent of the population are positively disposed toward the introduction of bank cards.
The figure defies belief considering the intensely cash-based nature of the national economy.
Local media cited slavishly government-loyal polling company Izhtimoy Fikr as stating that cards are increasingly giving way to cash in retail transactions.
“Cards are very convenient, safe and reliable means of payment,” website Nuz.uz quotes 98.9 percent of people as thinking, according to the Izhtimoy Fikr research.
Banks cards were made available to local customers in Uzbekistan in 2004 as a means of reducing the public’s reliance on cash. The payment system was first introduced in the retail and catering sectors, since these are areas of the economy where the grey economy is strongest. Authorities made it mandatory for retail outlets to install payment terminals, which were imported in large quantities from abroad.
Outlets refusing to accept payment by card were subject to substantial fines, which could be as high as the equivalent of 200 times the minimum wage. Advertisements on television and radio stations publicized telephone numbers that members of the public could call to complain about retailers’ failure to accept card payments.
The drive has been largely successful in the capital, Tashkent. But paying by card is hardly convenient, as the Izhtimoy Fikr poll claims.
In a bad year for grain, farmers in Uzbekistan are feeling pressure from all sides as they struggle to meet government-imposed quotas.
The grain harvest reached 8.2 million tons in 2015, a slight increase on the year before, and a similar amount was expected this year. Blights brought on by patches of spring and summer showers may well have put a dent in crop returns this year, however.
To ensure that the plan is fulfilled, officials are applying particularly strong pressure on farmers. Under an agreement between farmers and the government, grain growers are permitted to retain a certain amount of the crop for their own uses. Instead, local official are pressuring farmers into giving up even their own stores.
“Farmers that don’t meet the grain quota need to find the missing tons any way that they can. As a rule, they buy it from farmers with extra supplies or they pay [the government] 750,000 sum ($125) per ton. And that is while the government purchases grain for 500,000 ($84) per ton,” Muhammadasodyk, a farmer from the Ferghana Valley, told EurasiaNet.org.
Things are especially bad in arid southern regions. In the Kashkadarya region, the local government enlists policemen to confiscate grain grown on low-yield, rain-fed lands, which provokes particularly intense dismay and rage.
“All I have is 2 hectares (20,000 square meters) of land and the police brought a combine harvester to take away my crop. And while they’re doing it, they threaten and intimidate us. This is the harvest I am supposed to use to feed my family and cattle. And now are waiting for winter,” Murad, a farmer in the Yakkabagsky district of the Kashkadarya region, told EurasiaNet.org.
Even without official interference, arable farming makes for a tough, hardscrabble life in many parts of Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan is all a-hubbub these days over the case of a prominent businessman facing charges of fraud for his creation of what amounts to a crude pyramid scheme.
State television station Channel One on July 1 aired a second program in quick succession about the arrest of Ahmad Tursunbayev, who went popularly by the name Ahmadbai Chinazsky.
Tursunbayev’s arrest, in the middle of June, came as a major surprise to many.
According to Uzbek TV, 38-year old Tursunbayev and a group of around 30 collaborators duped people into handing over their savings with promises they would provide a minimum 100 percent return within the year.
The scheme appears to have gulled no small number of gullible investors. According to Uzbek state television, around 40,000 people willingly parted with cars, money and gold, apparently against written assurances that their profits would be paid. Curiously though, no guarantee was given that any money would be returned in the event of Tursunbayev’s death, presumably as some crude form of protection. Rumors on the streets of Tashkent put the number of defrauded investors even higher than that offered by Uzbek television, at around 80,000.
The scheme does not in truth appear to have been especially sophisticated. Tursunbayev’s team compiled accounting information in children’s school copybooks. Television footage showed stacks of hundreds of copybooks and huge bags spilling over with Uzbek sum and US dollars. Police reportedly seized a whopping 13.1 billion sum (around $2.1 million at the unofficial rate) and $12 million in hard cash.
In an interview with Channel One, a woman called Halima said that she sold 20 large sheep and handed Tursunbayev around $2,600 dollars in the hope of doubling it within a year. Halima said she is now penniless.
The trail of the terrorist attack on Istanbul airport that killed 42 people looks now to be leading inexorably to the former Soviet Union, and Central Asia in particular.
The New York Times cited Turkish officials as saying on June 30 that the three suicide bombers that mounted the attack were citizens of Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Uzbekistan.
Turkey has already linked this to the Islamic State militant group, which is known to have large groups of Central Asian and Russian citizens among its ranks. Estimates on the exact number of Central Asians in the group vary, however, from the low hundreds into the thousands.
Turkey has said that 13 people, including three foreigners, have been detained in connection with the attack on Istanbul’s main airport on June 28. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, which also claimed victims among Uzbek citizens, according to Turkish media.
Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry cast some confusion over proceedings by telling media that it could not confirm that one of its citizens had been linked the bombings.
“Employees from the Kyrgyz consulate met with representatives from the anti-terrorism department in Istanbul. They did not confirm the information. According to them, the identity of the suicide bombers is still being established,” the ministry said.
That statement appeared to have been superseded by events, however.