Germany's air base in Termez, Uzbekistan. (photo: Bundeswehr)
Germany has officially left its air base in Uzbekistan, the German embassy in Tashkent has confirmed, officially ending a 14-year military presence in Central Asia.
In October Germany announced that it would be leaving the base by the end of the year and [insert German stereotype] they have. A closing ceremony at the base was held December 11, a spokeswoman for the embassy, Melanie Moltmann, told The Bug Pit.
The closure wasn't officially announced, which is consistent with the extremely low profile that the base enjoyed; German officials almost never spoke about it until it was about to close.
The base, at Termez on the Afghanistan border, was a logistics point for German troops operating in northern Afghanistan. But the two sides got involved in a dispute over the rent: earlier this year Uzbekistan tried to raise the rent to 72.5 million Euros annually, German media reported; just months before Tashkent had secured a new agreement approximately doubling the rent to 35 million Euros a year.
With the German departure, there are now no foreign military bases in Central Asia other than Russian ones. France's small detachment left in 2013, and the U.S. closed down its base at Manas, in Kyrgyzstan, in 2014.
After almost a quarter of century, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov has decided it is time to shake up the police force.
The force, he said on December 5 during a speech to mark Independence Day, lacks proper regulation and is as a consequence rife with shoddy practices.
“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, speaking 24 years after Uzbekistan’s Interior Ministry was formed.
Karimov said he was moved to criticism by the flood of public complaints brought to his attention.
“Over the first nine months of this years, 500 complaints have come in from citizens about the law enforcement officials and regulatory authorities,” he said. “Every fifth complaint concerned the unlawful actions of police officers.”
Karimov was eager to convey the impression that the feedback process is working well, however, and said that 96 percent of complaints registered over the phone had been resolved satisfactorily.
“What do these data tell us? They tell us that complainants had every right to be unhappy with the decisions taken by state bodies,” Karimov said.
The claims may cause jaws to drop even among a rights advocacy community already used to egregious whitewashing.
A recent United Nations Human Rights Committee report on Uzbekistan notes that while torture, for example, remains commonplace throughout the criminal justice system, recourse is rarely an option.
The use of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest is becoming rarer, but there were indications that adults are being press-ganged into service this year, the World Bank has said in a report.
While offering hope of improvement, the report published on November 20 evinced disquiet about the harassment of independent harvest monitors — a sure indication authorities remain nervous about damage incurred to the country’s cotton public image in recent years.
The findings were based on observations by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which was this year asked to broaden its remit by checking for signs of forced labor.
Claims that child labor is on the wane echoes conclusions from independent campaigners since 2012, when the government banned the practice following a punishing cotton boycott by leading western brands.
“Authorities have taken a range of measures to reduce the incidence of child labor and make it socially unacceptable,” the World Bank said.
The assessment is broadly shared.
Apparent efforts by Uzbekistan to reduce reliance on underage workers prompted the U.S. State Department to promote Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to Tier 2 on its watch list in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report.
The burden of meeting harvest quotas has instead shifted to adults, who are often recruited against their will.
“Large numbers of citizens seem to be willing recruits and see the harvest as an opportunity. But organized recruitment of large numbers of people in such a short period of time carries certain risks linked to workers’ rights, which need further work, and certain indicators of forced labor have been observed,” the World Bank said.
Remote control airborne drones are becoming increasingly popular playthings for hobbyists around the world, but not in Uzbekistan.
Officials in Guliston, a town some 100 kilometers south of the capital, found and confiscated four small pilotless drones during what appears to have been a major multi-departmental operation.
The government’s Electromagnetic Compatibility Enforcement Service produced pictures with its November 23 statement that showed several Phantom unmanned aerial vehicles, which are made by Chinese company DJI. The brand is widely available and can be bought over the Internet for less than $500.
The Guliston haul wasn’t exactly massive, despite the many different government bodies involved. The raid included officials from the state communications inspectorate, the customs committee, the tax inspectorate, and the anti-money laundering department.
The ban on drones was introduced on January 1 in what the government says was an effort to ensure aircraft security and avoid the unsanctioned use of Uzbekistan’s airspace.
Such regulations are inexistent in most parts of the world, and in the region for that matter. Drone footage is becoming popular in production of wedding videos in places like Kyrgyzstan.
Still, use of the devices is not uncontentious.
Flying drones over national parks is illegal in the United States, for example.
Across the world, drones are also typically banned around military bases and airport.
Russia too has been looking to tighten use of the vehicles.
About 4,500 Islamist militants are operating in northern Afghanistan near the borders of Central Asia, and are planning to create an "emirate" consisting of much of the territory of the region, Russian officials have said.
"According to the information we have, in that area groups of militants are moving toward the border of the [former Soviet Union], in particular to the borders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan," said Alexander Manilov, coordinator of the Commonwealth of Independent States border guard services, at a meeting on Thursday of the group in Astana. (The CIS is an organization of post-Soviet states.)
"Therefore one of our tasks today is to discuss how to liquidate these threats on the border and that they don't cross into the CIS countries," he said. "According to estimates about the Afghan border, around 4,500 militants, terrorists, are located in the Afghan territories bordering immediately on the CIS countries."
"I believe this is significantly more than it used to be before," Manilov added. "I think there are real threats - from penetrations across the border to attempts to destabilize the states on the [Afghan] border."
For more than two decades, Murod Juraev languished behind bars in Uzbekistan and was subjected to torture and ill-treatment so bad that all his teeth fell out.
All kinds of pretexts were cooked up to extend the political activist’s jail term, including, on one occasion, a charge that he peeled carrots incorrectly.
Now, after 21 years in detention — a timespan that has made him “one of the world’s longest imprisoned peaceful political activists” — Juraev has been released, nine human rights groups said in a joint statement on November 12.
Juraev was a member of the Erk opposition party and a former local mayor in southern Uzbekistan when he was jailed, in 1994.
“The last 21 years have been a living hell that Murod Juraev and his family should never have had to experience,” Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch, said in the joint statement. “The Uzbek authorities should see to it that those who are alleged to have tortured Juraev and arbitrarily extended his prison sentence are promptly investigated and brought to justice.”
Swerdlow was referring to abuse to which Juraev, now 63 years old, was allegedly subjected in jail and to apparently groundless extensions to the original nine-year prison sentence.
Juraev had his jail term extended four times to keep him in jail — in 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2012 — after authorities found he had broken prison rules, including “peeling carrots incorrectly.”
In a signal not all is well, Uzbekistan has posted a slightly below-average economic growth forecast for 2016.
And on the black market — typically a more reliable barometer of economic well-being than the generously massaged government statistics — the national currency, the sum, sank to new lows of 6,000 against the dollar on November 12.
Government figures on predicted gross domestic product (GDP) growth for next year, as reported by the UzA state news agency, suggest the authorities are gradually acknowledging Uzbekistan is not immune from the economic shocks roiling Central Asia.
According to a national budget for 2016 passed by Uzbekistan’s parliament on November 11, GDP will grow by 7.8 percent.
The number ostensibly looks healthy for a region suffering the consequences of low commodity prices and from the repercussions of slowdowns in Russia and China, both major trading partners and investors. To make matters worse, remittances from migrant laborers abroad have been falling steadily, by 14 percent in 2014 and 45 percent in the first quarter of 2015, compared to the same period the previous years, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
But Tashkent has for years stubbornly predicted 8 percent growth and then proceeded to meet its targets precisely. Admission of anything even a whisker below is striking and shows the government is facing up to some of the economic challenges that will translate into slower growth.
Uzbekistan is also forecasting a budget deficit — of 1 percent — for the first time in years. It generally posts a surplus.
The government is sticking to its guns for this year at least and has reported 8 percent growth in the economy over the first three quarters.
Uzbekistan is on a mission to woo foreign investors, touting a massive privatization drive that will see the state relinquish some control over an economy in which it retains a heavy hand.
However, investors may be leery of channeling their cash into a country with a reputation for seizing foreign assets without recompense.
Uzbekistan is putting up stakes for sale in a whopping 1,247 enterprises, First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov said at an investment forum in Tashkent on November 6, as reported by the UzA state news agency.
Foreign investors are being offered the opportunity to snap up state-owned stakes in 68 companies and bid at auctions against local investors for another 667 enterprises, Azimov said.
They will also have the chance to take on 512 (evidently loss-making) businesses for free, if they take on investment obligations.
A top Norwegian business executive has been arrested in Oslo on corruption charges relating to a multimillion-dollar bribery case involving the ruling Karimov family of Uzbekistan.
The detention ramps up the pressure from international investigations into alleged bribery by multinationals of Gulnara Karimova, the disgraced daughter of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov, to gain a foothold in the country’s lucrative telecoms market.
Jo Lunder, former chief executive of embattled Russian-owned telecoms company VimpelCom, was arrested as he flew into Oslo airport late November 4, a public prosecutor told Norwegian media the following day.
“He has been charged in connection to the VimpelCom case. It is a corruption charge,” Marianne Djupesland said in remarks quoted by Stockholm-based newspaper The Local, declining to reveal further details.
Lunder’s lawyer Cato Schiotz says the accused believes he is innocent, the newspaper reported.
The arrest comes three months after the U.S. Department of Justice won a ruling in a New York court to have $300 million dollars frozen as part of an investigation into what it described as an “international conspiracy to launder corrupt payments.”
The lawsuit alleges that illicit payments were made by two telecoms companies, Russia’s MTS and Amsterdam-based VimpelCom, which is majority owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman, to curry influence and secure favorable decisions to operate in Uzbekistan’s telecommunications sector.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is interviewed by Kazakhstan's Mir TV in Astana. (photo: State Department)
As United States Secretary of State John Kerry heads home after an unpecedented five-country tour of Central Asia, the U.S. role in the region remains more uncertain than it's been since the 1990s.
The mere fact that the trip happened was the biggest news to come out of it. It was the first time a high-ranking U.S. official had done this five-country tour that has of late become the standard for world leaders (though Japan, India, and China have all sent their presidents, rather than their top diplomat as the U.S. did).
The tour came at a time when U.S. interest in the region seems to be waning as a result of the (albeit now delayed) drawdown from Afghanistan, and so appeared to be an attempt to demonstrate that no, the U.S. isn't gone just quite yet. Also noteworthy -- throughout the entire trip Kerry barely mentioned the much-derided New Silk Road Initiative, which had been the supposed centerpiece of the State Department's post-Afghanistan Central Asia policy.
Kerry's trip also inagurated the "C5+1" format of talks, with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian states plus the U.S. In an area with remarkably little interregional cooperation, that is actually a genuinely novel and potentially important new platform. But what might it be used for?