A citizen of Uzbekistan has been sentenced to 16 years in jail for spying for Tajikistan in fresh reminder of the unabated tensions between the two countries.
The way in which the news was revealed is also telling as each side seeks to sharpen its weapons in a long-standing information war.
On April 4, Uzbek state television aired a documentary titled “Traitor” (“Sotkin” in Uzbek) explaining how Sharifjon Asrorov purportedly collaborated with Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security to pass on classified information.
The information in question was related to the situation in prisons, refugees, and military bases and personnel in the Uzbek regions of Surkhandarya, Kashkadarya and Bukhara, the documentary explained.
The film stated that Asrorov, who it said is married to a woman from Tajikistan, confessed to spying.
Traitor was shown at 9 p.m. local time on the main state channel, although the station’s logo was not featured on the screen during the broadcast.
As a station employee explained, these type of programs are rarely advertised in advance, even to the channel’s management, and regularly bump scheduled shows off the running order at the last minute.
“The film was made by the television production unit of the National Security Service [SNB], which has lately taken to producing a lot of films and television programs about terrorism, drug-trafficking and espionage. In the jargon, this is what we call ‘unscheduled programing,’” the station worker told EurasiaNet.org.
As the television station employee said, editorial staff are never informed about the content of SNB films before they are aired. The feature on Asrorov will likely be repeated.
With nerves on the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border only now dissipating, authorities in Bishkek have embarked on the potentially foolhardy move of helping themselves to four Uzbek-owned resorts at a popular tourist destination.
Local media has been full of the news about embattled Prime Minister Temir Sariyev signing a government order to appropriate the resorts on Issyk-Kul lake on April 4.
The timing is awkward, although it could stand to help Sariyev out of a tight spot.
On March 26, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan pulled back troops from a disputed section of shared border, ending an uneasy week-long standoff sparked by the sudden deployment of Uzbek soldiers and military vehicles to the area.
On balance, it feels like Uzbekistan lost the battle of wits and nerves. It withdrew its forces first from the high-altitude territory without ever properly explaining what prompted it to mobilize its men in the first place.
Still, the episode did momentarily blow some wind into the beleaguered opposition’s sails, so Sariyev may be looking to shore up his position and exploit the patriotic card to forestall an expected vote of no-confidence in parliament.
By all appearances, this looks like an ill-conceived gambit. According to a report by Tazabek.kg, only one of the four resorts seems to be long-term leased to a commercial organization, while the other three were controlled by state-owned Uzbek entities.
The agreements underpinning the ownership of the resorts date back to the Soviet era, when power-brokers in Moscow decided to boost Issyk-Kul’s profile as a place of rest and therapeutic treatments.
Uzbekistan has made another advance in the country’s slow march toward a nominally stronger parliament with the creation of a body to monitor prosecutors.
The Senate, the upper house of parliament, voted during a two-day plenary session that wrapped up on April 1 to approve formation of an oversight commission comprising 15 senators drawn from all the regions.
The creation of the commission is in line with 2014 amendments to the constitution that ostensibly bolster the legislature’s status in its relations with the government and executive bodies.
Other than the General Prosecutor’s Office, other institutions that must now report before parliament include the the Prime Minister’s office, the central bank and the national auditing chamber.
President Islam Karimov spoke about the need for tightening prosecutorial oversight during a December 4 speech to mark to Constitution Day. On that occasion, Karimov also spoke about the need to adopt a law creating the framework for parliamentary inquiries. That legislation was accordingly adopted on March 31.
Explaining the urgency for the bill, Karimov cited the flood of complaints coming in from Uzbekistan’s population.
“Over nine months in 2015, 426 citizen complaints were made about employees in the General Prosecutor’s office. As a result of these complaints, 45 employees faced disciplinary measures, 22 were dismissed from their position, while 33 were dismissed from the prosecutor’s office altogether,” Karimov said.
Even though parliament may gain in stature on paper, the distinction remains a formality since the legislature’s democratic credentials are weak.
A security crisis in Central Asia has yet again raised questions about the efficacy of Russia's post-Soviet security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to maintain peace in the region.
The dispute between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over an undelimited part of their border was resolved over the weekend without any shots being fired, as both sides pulled back the armored vehicles and troops they had deployed.
But before that happened, Kyrgyzstan called a special session of the CSTO's permanent council in Moscow. (Kyrgyzstan is a member of the organization, while Uzbekistan is not, having dropped out in 2012.) But the response from Moscow was mild: the organization's deputy secretary general was dispatched to Bishkek to monitor the situation.
The CSTO's (and by extension Russia's) relative passivity once again gave ammunition to the critics who say that the organization is focused on phantom threats (like spillover of radical Islam from Afghanistan) or Russia's geopolitical posturing, rather than the real security threats its member states face.
"As tension grows on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, it must be stated that the CSTO is again remaining indifferent to the security problems of its member states," wrote Belarusian analyst Sergey Ostryna. Ostryna noted that while border problems in Central Asia continue to fester, the CSTO has done nothing to address them.
Uzbekistan has withdrawn its troops from a contested section of border with Kyrgyzstan, bringing a close to the uneasy tensions of the past week, according to a statement from Kyrgyzstan’s presidential administration.
The chairman of the State Border Service, Raimberdi Duishenbiev, told President Almazbek Atambayev that the Uzbek forces had pulled out their equipment and manpower from the Chalasart settlement, in the Aksy district of the Jalal-Abad region, as of 8:00 a.m. local time on March 26.
In accordance with the outcome of negotiations, which took place on March 25, border defenses will now revert to routine levels.
Uzbek troops arrived in the area on March 18 and occupied an unmarked section of road linking the Kyrgyz settlements of Kerben and Ala-Buka. Kyrgyz officials said Uzbekistan’s military deployed armored personnel carriers, two Kamaz trucks and up to 40 troops to the disputed area, which is around 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the Ferghana city of Namangan.
That sparked a hasty mobilization of troops by the Kyrgyz army, which warned that it would not stand down before the Uzbeks gave assurances they would do the same. On the southern flank of Uzbekistan’s portion of the Ferghana Valley, Kyrgyz troops also blocked roads linking the Uzbek enclaves of Sokh and Shahimardan to the rest of the country, effectively stranding its residents. Those troops have also now been pulled back.
On March 21, both sides agreed on measures to soothe tensions in Chalasart by bringing down troop numbers to eight apiece, according to Kyrgyz officials.
While the likelihood of an imminent border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan may be dimming, the tension has been ably exploited by Bishkek to head off opposition forces in the act of gathering their strengths.
On March 24, the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) announced that it had detained two individuals on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. No full names were provided, but the initials of the suspects, B.A. and K.K., have been reported as being those of Bektur Asanov and Kubanychbek Kadyrov, both figures associated with the emergent southern-based opposition.
Moves against the pair followed the leak of recorded phone conversations — allegedly among Asanov, Kadyrov, another prominent and veteran opposition figure and seasoned rabble-rouser, Azimbek Beknazarov, and a former top government official, Duulatbek Turdunaliev — about purported plans to sow instability and seize power.
Kadyrov, for one, has called the recording a crude edit and complained that his constitutional rights were violated when his phone conversations were recorded.
Whether the recording is indeed fake or not, Kadyrov may be onto something.
The GKNB has claimed that the recordings were obtained through a court order related to a criminal investigation. The security services have not been forthcoming about the nature of that investigation, however, and the sudden timely appearance of the recording online suggests this intercept was part of an orchestrated effort to discredit the opposition.
Kyrgyzstan’s opposition has reportedly nixed plans to hold a large rally in the southern city of Osh amid stewing tensions on the border with Uzbekistan and an escalating public relations war with the government.
One opposition figure, former Jalal-Abad governor Bektur Asanov, told local media the decision to call off the Kurultai, or people’s assembly, on March 24 was taken amid fears of a government “provocation.”
Prior to the announcement, the government had announced plans to bolster security in Osh for the event with a deployment of 3,000 police and 2,000 volunteers.
The show of force indicated Bishkek was taking the opposition more seriously in light of the standoff between Kyrgyz and Uzbek troops at a disputed section of the border.
That is understandable following a March 22 rally in Kerben, a Kyrgyz settlement very close to the elevated territory where both Tashkent and Bishkek have stationed troops and armored vehicles.
The rally organized by regional opposition figures targeted perceived government negligence over the border issue and gathered 700 people according to the Interior Ministry. The opposition claimed the crowd was as large as 2,500 people.
Prime Minister Temir Sariyev flew down to address the Kerben gathering, while nationalist opposition leader and all-round troublemaker Kamchibek Tashiyev, who donned military fatigues for the event, was warmly welcomed by the crowd after issuing calls to resolve the standoff with Tashkent through “people’s diplomacy.”
As explained by news website Zanoza.kg, government and opposition offered competing narratives vis-a-vis the mood at the Kerben rally. One painted Sariyev as a timely pacifier, the other as a sore loser who escaped with the microphone in his hand having been poorly received by angry locals.
Nerves on the Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan cooled somewhat on March 21 with news that both sides agreed to draw back their forces from a disputed area.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan, who have been the only ones willing to volunteer any firm information, said that the de-escalation was the result of negotiations among border officials.
The standoff is focused around a road that links two remote Kyrgyz towns, Kerben and Ala-Buka, but passes through contested territory fringing Uzbekistan. There are many similar roads lacking demarcation across the Ferghana valley and drivers are frequently obliged to pass through neighboring territory.
Kyrgyzstan’s border service reported on March 18 that Uzbek troops had blocked an unmarked section of the Kerben-Ala-Buka road. Officials said Uzbekistan’s military deployed armored personnel carriers, two Kamaz trucks and up to 40 troops to the disputed area, which is around 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the Ferghana city of Namangan.
The number of troops from either side has been brought down to eight apiece, according to Kyrgyz officials.
Some local media in Uzbekistan cited border service sources in Tashkent as saying that the mobilization was a routine reinforcement for Nowruz festivities on March 21.
But officials in Kyrgyzstan are pointing to another explanation.
The Kyrgyz government’s special envoy on border issues, Kurbanbai Iskandarov, told Kloop.kg news website that the Uzbek closure of the border area was linked to a water reservoir in the area that is used by Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan alike.
A sudden deployment of troops by Uzbekistan along a disputed section of border has rattled nerves in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan’s border service reported on March 18 that Uzbek troops have blocked an unmarked section of the frontier linking the localities of Kerben and Ala-Buka, two areas of Kyrgyzstan lying either side of a spur of Uzbekistan.
Officials said Uzbekistan’s military deployed armored personnel carriers, two Kamaz trucks and up to 40 troops to the disputed area, which is around 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the Ferghana city of Namangan.
The Foreign Ministry in Bishkek summoned Uzbek ambassador Komil Rashidov and handed him a note of protest. The letter demanded that Uzbek forces dismantle checkpoints set up in the border area.
Sections of the border between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, as well as Tajikistan, zigzag haphazardly for several hundred kilometers, requiring local people to either undertake long detours or traverse the neighboring nation’s territory, which can entail long waits.
Uzbek forces have closed the Madaniyat-Avtodorozhnyi crossing and are barring Kyrgyz citizens from entering Uzbekistan through the Dostuk-Avtodorozhnyi crossing. People are being allowed to leave Uzbekistan through the latter crossing, but cannot re-enter.
In response to the Uzbek deployments, Kyrgyzstan’s armed forces on March 19 dispatched two troop carriers of their own to the same area, explaining that they needed to bolster border security. Bishkek said it would draw back the troops as soon as Uzbekistan recalls its own forces.
Georgia is one sad post-Soviet place, according to the World Happiness Report, which for the second year running rated the Caucasus nation as the most downbeat country in the former Soviet Union. Out of this bunch, the Central Asian autocracy of Uzbekistan, ranked 49th out of 157 countries, is apparently having the most fun.
Judging by the report, Georgia has gone a long way from being the fun-in-the-sun spot of the USSR. American writer John Steinbeck once recalled that the Russians and Ukrainians he had met during his late 1940s travels to the Soviet Union all yearned for “magical” Georgia. “People who had never been there, and who possibly could never go there, spoke of Georgia with a kind of longing and admiration,” Steinbeck observed in his 1948 Russian Journal. “They spoke of Georgians as superman, as great drinkers, great dancers, great musicians, great workers and lovers. And they spoke of the country in the Caucasus and around the Black Sea as a kind of second heaven.”
Soviet media propaganda helped cultivate Georgia’s role as the place for happiness and abundance. In movies, female collective farmers in straw-hats picked tea leaves and warbled cheerful songs in piercing sopranos. News presenters on national TV were prone to smile when sharing news from what they persistently referred to as cолнечная Грузия, “sunny Georgia. “
Were Georgians faking it, then? Or have the economic struggles, civil turmoil and loss of territories of the post-Soviet era just ruined their mood?