The thick ice that has long coated relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan continues to thaw. Last week the Tajik parliament announced the establishment of a Tajik-Uzbek “friendship and cooperation group.” Officials have not disclosed details of what this body would do, and the Uzbek side has yet to confirm its participation, but the symbolism is accompanied by growing cross-border links.
The same day, April 24, a delegation of Uzbek border guards led by the chief of the Border Service's General Staff, Major-General Nosirbek Usmonbekov, visited northern Tajikistan to discuss cooperation.
Despite a common 1,300-kilometer border, border guards from the two sides had never before officially met, according to authorities in Khujand, Tajikistan’s second city. The two countries have long been at odds over the border, much of which remains undefined. Uzbekistan has mined sections of the frontier and shootings remain common.
The talks produced a woolly statement, but even that is progress given how poor relations had become. “The parties noted the willingness and interest in further development of cooperation on all issues of mutual interest in ensuring the reliable protection of the Uzbek-Tajik state border,” a press officer for the Uzbek Border Service told Uzbekistan’s 12News.uz.
New data show that Central Asian governments have been right to fear Russia’s economic crisis was heading their way: Remittances from migrant laborers are falling sharply, more than in any other region worldwide.
Migrant remittances are the largest single source of foreign currency in Tajikistan and an important factor in declining poverty rates throughout Central Asia in recent years. So the contracting Russian economy and stricken ruble – brought on by a sudden fall in oil prices and Western sanctions – have a direct impact on millions of the region’s laborers and their families back home.
“Overall, reduced remittances are likely to worsen standards of living in remittance-receiving countries, and the increasing number of returned migrants could put upward pressures on unemployment rates,” the World Bank said in a regular briefing on April 13.
Tajikistan – which sends approximately one-half of its working age males to labor in Russia – is the most remittance-dependent country in the world. Remittances account for the equivalent of 49 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank. In dollar terms, they fell 8 percent last year, largely in the fourth quarter, and are expected to decline another 23 percent in 2015.
Kyrgyzstan is the world’s second most remittance-dependent country, with remittances totaling the equivalent of 32 percent of GDP. Last year they fell 1 percent, but are expected to drop another 23 percent this year.
In Uzbekistan, where remittances total the equivalent of 11.9 percent of GDP, they fell 16 percent last year; they are expected to drop another 30 percent in 2015.
Torture is “a defining feature” of Uzbekistan’s criminal justice system, routinely employed by the security forces not only to extract confessions but also to extort bribes, a new report by an international human rights watchdog finds.
Torture “is central to how the Uzbekistani authorities deal with dissent, combat security threats and maintain their grip on power,” says the study by Amnesty International, published on April 15.
The watchdog accuses the international community of turning a “blind eye” to “endemic” torture in order to protect its strategic interests with a “perceived geo-strategic ally.” (Tashkent has supported the “war on terror” and the US-led coalition in neighboring Afghanistan.)
“The attitude of Uzbekistan’s international partners to the routine use of torture appears at best ambivalent, and at worst silent to the point of complicity,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia director, said in a statement. “As long as Uzbekistan uses torture-tainted evidence in court, it will remain a torture-tainted ally.”
The report, based on over 60 interviews with victims and relatives, details a range of gruesome torture methods, from beatings; asphyxiation; rape; and sexual assault to psychological torment; food, water, and sleep deprivation; exposure to extreme temperatures; and electric shocks.
“They beat me everywhere, on my head, kidneys…When I lost consciousness they would throw water on me to wake me up and beat me again,” one victim recalled. “They beat me bloody. The first time I came to they must have suspended me from above because I couldn’t bend. The second time I came to they put me on a chair and put a cellophane bag on my head, suffocated me and beat me and I lost consciousness.”
The waters of the Syr-Darya river are highly polluted and should not be used for irrigating crops, let alone for drinking, scientists from Kazakhstan have concluded.
Tests of the waters of Central Asia’s longest river – which flows for 2,200 kilometers through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – found dangerous concentrations of metals including chromium, copper, nickel, mercury, molybdenum, and zinc, the Nur.kz site quoted scientists from South Kazakhstan State University as saying.
“The water of the Syr-Darya is not recommended for use either for agricultural needs or for the fishing industry,” concluded Uylesbek Besterekov, one of the professors who took part in the three-year study funded by a €600,000 NATO grant.
The scientists (who tested waters flowing for around 1,000 kilometers through Kazakhstan, from the border with Uzbekistan up to the Aral Sea) could not pinpoint which industrial enterprise was the greatest polluter – or even which of the four countries through which the river flows is causing the most contamination. Even if the main polluters could be identified and stopped, it would take at least a decade for the waters to become clean, Besterekov said.
The findings – which back up 2009 data suggesting that the Syr-Darya’s waters were too dirty to drink or use in agriculture safely – are worrying for the Central Asian governments, since the river is used to irrigate crops that are then transported all over the region for public consumption. (It was the use of this river’s waters for agricultural irrigation – particularly for cotton – that led to the shrinking of the Aral Sea into which it empties.)
Every year the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan creates a storm of controversy over the use of forced and child labor. But a damning new report by a German-based watchdog sheds fresh light on the scale of human rights abuses.
Forced labor during the fall harvest “decimated” public services as teachers and doctors were driven into the cotton fields, while the cotton-production system itself rests on “rampant, widespread and systematic corruption,” said the report by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) published on April 13.
The forced-labor system “took an even greater toll” in 2014, it said, “as the government mobilized more public sector workers than in previous years, decimating the provision of essential public services such as health care and education.”
The UGF, which gathered data from human rights monitors and interviews with people who participated in the harvest, found that – as in previous years – Tashkent’s efforts to stamp out child labor had shifted the burden to adults, including students.
Some 4 million adults were pressed into the harvest last fall, the Cotton Campaign (a coalition pushing to end forced labor in the sector, of which the UGF is a member) has estimated.
Schoolchildren and younger students were not mobilized en masse in 2014, the UGF report found. However, “many” 17-year-olds were, “and in some regions local authorities forcibly mobilized younger children […] to meet quotas assigned by the same central government authorities that simultaneously decreed children should not pick cotton.”
Uzbekistan’s currency is sliding on the black market, where the dollar-sum rate is volatile following last week’s presidential election.
The black market rate hit a record high of 4,700 sums to the dollar on April 2, the Uzmetronom website reported.
It has since fallen back and was trading at 4,220-4,270 on April 6, a source in Tashkent told EurasiaNet.org. The sum has thus lost between 5 and 7 percent of its value since the presidential election on March 29, when it was trading at 4,000-4,100 to the dollar.
The divergence between the official and black market exchange rates has grown exponentially in recent weeks: Traditionally, the sum has traded for around one-third more on the black market, but the gap is now around 66 percent. The National Bank of Uzbekistan is selling dollars for 2,540 sum, according to its website.
One possible explanation for the sum’s decline is that it is mirroring the trajectory of Russia’s ruble, which has caused currencies across Central Asia to plunge in value. A drop in remittances sent home by labor migrants in Russia owing to the economic crisis there is another possible reason: Remittances from Russia to Uzbekistan fell by 15.5 percent last year, according to data recently released by Russia’s Central Bank, which means fewer dollars circulating in the economy.
Uzmetronom speculated that the currency was just settling at its real market value, and predicted that the rate could hit new highs of 5,000-5,500 sums to the dollar by summer.
Military transport aircraft lined up on the runway at Termez, Uzbekistan. (photo: Google Earth)
Just months after reaching an agreement to extend the presence of the German air base in Uzbekistan, the two sides are back at the negotiating table, with Uzbekistan again reportedly demanding a big rent increase.
Last November, the two countries agreed on terms to keep the base at Termez, on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border, operating. No details of the agreement were released, including its price and expiration date, but Uzbekistan media reported during those negotiations that Tashkent was trying to raise the rent, which had been between 10 and 15 million Euros per year.
Now, according to a report in the German magazine Der Spiegel and picked up by Deutsche Welle's Russian service, the rent is 35 million Euros -- and Uzbekistan wants to raise it to 72.5 million Euros annually starting next year. The newspaper reports that a German delegation is traveling to Tashkent this week to discuss the base lease extension.
The Termez base provides support to German soldiers in Afghanistan, and while the formal combat mission there is over, Germany has 850 troops (as of February 2015) in the NATO follow-on mission to support the Afghanistan security forces.
Incumbent strongman Islam Karimov has won a universally predicted landslide with over 90 percent of the vote in Uzbekistan’s competition-free presidential election, according to preliminary results released by the Central Electoral Commission the day after the vote.
The 77-year-old incumbent swept to victory with 90.39 percent of votes cast, electoral commission chairman Mirzo-Ulugbek Abdusalomov told a briefing on March 30. Turnout, he said, was 91.08 percent.
No one had doubted Karimov would win a fourth term in an election in which he faced only three stalking horses. Akmal Saidov came a distant second with 3.08 percent of the vote followed by Khatamzhon Ketmonov with 2.92 percent, while Narimon Umarov trailed last with 2.05 percent. Karimov’s margin of victory was slightly smaller than the 90.76 percent he won last time, in 2007.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued some damning preliminary findings on March 30, singling out issues ranging from Karimov’s flouting of the constitution, a lack of real competition and widespread proxy voting.
“The figure of the incumbent dominated the political landscape without genuine opposition,” the OSCE said, adding that Karimov did not enjoy the legal right to stand in the election he has now won: “Despite a clear constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms, the Central Election Commission registered the incumbent as a candidate in contravention of the rule of law, raising doubts about its independence.”
An unseasonal blizzard in Tashkent did not affect turnout during Uzbekistan’s presidential election on March 29, with incumbent strongman Islam Karimov galloping to victory in a one-horse race.
“I voted for Islam Karimov. He’s a good man,” said railway worker Rustam after casting his ballot (like other interviewees, he declined to supply his last name). “We know him and we don’t know who the others are.”
Rustam was summing up the mood prevailing among voters, who overwhelmingly say they back Karimov and know little about the other three candidates: Khatamzhon Ketmonov, Narimon Umarov, and Akmal Saidov.
These stalking horses, widely believed to be standing in the election to create a semblance of competition, have effectively been campaigning for Karimov, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in findings released ahead of the vote.
The iron rule of the 77-year-old president – who has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989 – may come under fire in the West. But it wins praise at home among voters subjected to a constant barrage of propaganda praising their leader. “I voted for Karimov. He keeps a tight grip on things,” said pensioner Hassan approvingly.
Human rights campaigners have criticized the election for offering voters in Uzbekistan (where no genuine opposition parties exist and dissenters are routinely jailed) no real competition. They also charge that Karimov is flouting the constitution – which limits presidents to two terms of office – by standing for his fourth term.
Troops from Russia and Uzbekistan are helping Turkmenistan guard its border against militant incursions from Afghanistan, a Turkmenistani exile website reports, citing residents of border areas.
According to the report on Chronicles of Turkmenistan, "residents of Afghan border villages have recently noticed the presence on Turkmen territory border units from Uzbekistan." And it added: "About a month ago military instructors from Russia also appeared on the border. Obviously, the Turkmen authorities appealed to the Russian leadership for help guarding the border with Afghanistan, a situation where, with the arrival of warm weather, has begun to heat up."
Turkmenistan has been taking various aggressive steps to address the rise of Taliban and (some claim) ISIS units in the northern provinces of Afghanistan bordering Turkmenistan. Those steps reportedly include mobilizing reserve troops and carrying out incursions into Afghan territory. However, they have seemed to be trying to prosecute the fight on their own, without any other country's help.
The report of Uzbekistani and Russian troops is obviously sketchy information, and there's nothing to corroborate it. But the news comes as Turkmenistan has begun to come under some public (and undoubtedly private) Russian cajoling to let Moscow help. Just last week, a top Russian security official complained about Ashgabat's refusal to cooperate with Moscow on Afghanistan security issues.