Regional security and domestic politics featured high on the agenda as Russian President Vladimir Putin jetted into Tashkent on December 10 for a meeting with Uzbekistan’s strongman leader, Islam Karimov.
Putin appeared both to be wooing Karimov for backing in his confrontation with Ukraine, and offering a show of support for the incumbent ahead of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Uzbekistan.
It “goes without saying” that Tashkent is “one of [Russia’s] priority partners in the region,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript. That he bypassed other Central Asian allies like Kazakhstan to pay a visit to Uzbekistan lent weight to his remarks.
Karimov responded with boilerplate compliments about how Moscow has “always been present in Central Asia, and that position has always been a stabilizing factor.” Notwithstanding isolationist Tashkent’s habit of holding Moscow at arm’s length, he added that “Uzbekistan has always been open to Russia and is open today.”
Karimov repeated his oft-voiced concerns about regional security threats emanating from Afghanistan following the drawdown of NATO troops this year, but the Ukraine conflict was the elephant in the room. In the Kremlin transcript, neither side mentioned it by name, but Karimov referred obliquely to the need to respond to “challenges” in the face of a “known confrontation,” while Putin noted laconically that neither Russia nor Uzbekistan was “indifferent to how the situation in the region as a whole develops.”
Putin took more interest in upcoming elections in Uzbekistan—the vote to the rubberstamp parliament on December 21, and the far more significant presidential election due in spring (in which Karimov has not stated if he intends to stand).
If Central Asia’s two poorest countries ever get around to building their massive but long-delayed hydropower dams, the facilities may be useful for a few decades. After that, they’ll be rendered obsolete by a fast-warming climate that is melting the region’s once-abundant glaciers and threatens to reduce precipitation sharply.
So suggests an alarming new World Bank report on the effects of climate change around the developing world.
“Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal,” released in late November, offers just about everyone in Central Asia some bad news, especially the region’s megalomaniacal dam builders. In landlocked Eurasia, the temperatures are expected to rise “above the global mean land warming,” bringing a slew of unpleasant consequences, from decreased crop yields to contentious water shortages.
Effects like these are difficult to assess and prepare for even in places with relatively responsible and capable governments. How will they be dealt with by dysfunctional, near-sighted and volatile governments in impoverished, corrupt countries like Central Asia’s?
The 275-page report starts with the informed assumption that an increase in global average temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius by mid-century is unavoidable. It also looks at two more frightening, but plausible, scenarios: an increase of 2 degrees and 4 degrees. (Temperatures have already warmed by 0.8 degrees above pre-industrial levels.)
No matter which model they apply, forecasters predict a dramatic reduction in the size of Central Asia’s glaciers and amount of precipitation. That translates into a sharp decrease in the water flows the largely arid region can expect for hydropower and agriculture.
Senior United States diplomats have visited Tashkent for their regular consultations with the government of Uzbekistan, and in spite of continuing tension over Afghanistan and human rights, the Americans were unusually positive in their assessment of ties with Uzbekistan.
"Had a very productive meeting with President Karimov on the growing bilateral relationship and cooperation on regional and global challenges," tweeted Nisha Biswal, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. "Very impressed by the candid conversations with govt of Uzbekistan and civil society on subject of prison management and prison conditions," she added later. The delegation included 22 American officials from seven different government agencies.
Interestingly, in her public remarks Biswal appeared to have not uttered the words "human rights." The U.S. government has come under frequent criticism from human rights groups for overlooking the country's appalling record on human rights for the sake of strategic considerations. But U.S. officials nearly always meet with human rights activists when they visit the country, and at least mention the issue of human rights in their public statements. (Also unusually, while Biswal held a press conference in Tashkent the transcript wasn't released. The State Department didn't respond to a request for comment.)
The notion that authoritarian governments and their enablers abroad cynically exaggerate the threat of radical Islamism in Central Asia has become widely accepted. But even well-meaning analysts of Central Asia tend to perpetuate similar myths about politics and Islam, two scholars argue in a new report.
The report, The Myth of Post-Soviet Muslim Radicalization in the Central Asian Republics, was published by British think tank Chatham House and written by John Heathershaw and David Montgomery. As it notes, rhetoric of Islamic radicalism is not just words, but "may provide the basis for common threat perceptions, collaboration in counter-radicalization initiatives and international security assistance in the region."
What distinguishes this report from the many other treatments of this issue (on this blog, for example) is that it addresses not just the clearly self-serving exaggerated threats of regional governments, but also more respectable discourse on Central Asian Islam. It takes as its exemplary single case study the reports of the International Crisis Group. "ICG, as a well-resourced, long-standing and respected organization is far less likely to offer misrepresentative analysis than a weaker and less recognized institution. If the myth is found in ICG writing, it follows that it is even more likely to be found elsewhere," the authors write.
International tension over water in Central Asia is growing, but the United States can offer only modest help in preventing conflict, a panel of experts has told a Congressional committee.
The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing November 18, "Water Sharing Conflicts and the Threat to International Peace."
Water conflict in Central Asia takes different forms, from the international (as seen in the dispute between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over the latter's proposed Rogun Dam project) to the local (as seen in recurring border skirmishes between residents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in the Ferghana Valley).
Fresh allegations have emerged of bribery in Uzbekistan’s telecoms market involving another Nordic company and Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of President Islam Karimov.
A cellphone company partly owned by Norway’s Telenor is alleged to have paid some $25 million in kickbacks to acquire telecoms licenses in Uzbekistan, AFP reports, citing the Klassekampen daily.
The funds were reportedly transferred from Amsterdam-headquartered Vimpelcom, the operator of the Beeline brand in Uzbekistan, to the infamous Takilant Limited company, which is at the heart of two separate graft probes in Europe. Takilant is involved in a money-laundering probe in Switzerland (in which Karimova is a suspect), and also a bribery probe in Sweden involving another Nordic telecoms giant, TeliaSonera.
“Bank statements document how the money was transferred from a previously unknown company in the British Virgin Islands as Vimpelcom purchased licenses to the mobile market in the former Soviet state,” AFP quoted Klassekampen as saying.
Telenor responded that it has “zero tolerance for corruption, both when it comes to our own operations and also to the companies that we are part owners in.”
“We are a minority shareholder in Vimpelcom, so it’s up to Vimpelcom to take responsibility for answering any questions that relate to their operations,” Telenor communications head Glenn Mandelid told AFP.
Vimpelcom, which is 33 percent owned by Telenor, told EurasiaNet.org by email that there is nothing new in the information that has emerged.
Uzbekistan’s practice of sending forced laborers to pick the cotton harvest causes a furor abroad every year. But now there are rumblings of discontent from within the country.
National University students have taken the unusual step of publicly complaining about being forced to help with the harvest, publishing an open letter to the prime minister and law-enforcement agencies on the Dunyo Uzbeklari (World of Uzbeks) opposition website.
Third-year male journalism students were ordered to the cotton fields by the rector and faculty deacon, says the letter. It is addressed to Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev; the prosecutor’s office; the National Security Service (SNB); the Higher Education Ministry; and the university rector, Mirzo Mukhamedov.
“Surely the legislation of Uzbekistan does not mention the responsibility of students for taking part in the cotton harvest?” the outraged students (who remained anonymous, no doubt fearing repercussions) ask. “Of course not!”
Students who do not wish to pick cotton could cough up 300,000 sums to buy themselves out, the letter said. That is equivalent to around $125 at the official exchange rate, or two months’ worth of a student’s living grant.
Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest relies on forced labor to help farmers meet government-set quotas.
In 2012, Tashkent – facing widespread international pressure over its widely documented use of child labor to harvest its main cash crop – moved to take younger children out of the cotton fields. However, human rights groups have reported that this merely shifted the burden of forced labor onto older children (including students) and adults. Tashkent denies using forced labor at all.
Germany and Uzbekistan have reportedly agreed on an extension of the leasing agreement for the German air force base in Uzbekistan. But the details of the deal remain a tightly held secret.
The previous agreement by which Germany operated the small air base at Termez, on the border with Afghanistan, lapsed at the end of October. Germany has operated the base, which supports German troops in Afghanistan, since 2001. As of a few days before the deadline the two sides had yet to agree on an extension, but they seem to have made a deal.
"The ministries of defense of the two countries signed an agreement of the rent of the air hub," a "source familiar with the situation" in Moscow told RIA Novosti. But the source "declined to specify the new time frame of the lease and the details of the agreement." The Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported the the two sides also signed a "non-disclosure agreement" to not reveal the terms of the agreement.
Russian analysts, of course, are spinning this as really being about the U.S. The fact that the Germans are paying "a substantial sum" for the base which is "absolutely not needed for the few hundred German soldiers staying in Afghanistan after 2014 ... indirectly shows that the extension of the base lease is also being used by the U.S. Air Force," Arslan Magomedov told Regnum.ru.
But an unnamed German official told RFE/RL that Termez is still important for the German military. "Regardless of the completion of the international peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, we'll continue our important work. And that means that Termez remains an important air base for us."
As Uzbekistan continues the annual cotton harvest that is largely responsible for the Aral Sea’s demise, officials in Tashkent are boasting that a recent donor conference raised close to $3 billion to help save the endangered lake, once the world’s fourth-largest.
Verifying Uzbek government claims is never easy, and conference attendees are not hurrying to confirm or break down the impressive figure. But an event for the Aral Sea did take place in Urgench, a city not far from the Aral’s receding shoreline, on October 27 and 28. Addressing the conference via pre-recorded video, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon demanded better international coordination to “mitigate environmental catastrophe” reported uz24.uz, an Uzbek outlet. According to the independent Uznews.net, the conference was organized by the authoritarian state in conjunction with the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, a regional club, which critics say has done almost nothing since it was set up in 1993.
NASA satellite photos released in late August show that even a partial replenishment of the water-starved Aral is unlikely: The lake’s eastern tranche has completely dried up for the first time in history.
A German NH-90 helicopter of the type that crashed in Uzbekistan. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The crash of a German military helicopter in Uzbekistan in July has complicated the negotiations over the renewal of the agreement allowing the presence of Germany's air base in Uzbekistan, newspaper Die Welt has reported.
Recall that in July, a German NH90 military transport helicopter crashed near the base at Termez, Uzbekistan, just over the border from Afghanistan. Apparently the problem was so serious that the helicopter remains inoperable in Termez and the German Air Force has grounded its entire fleet of NH90s while it figures out the problem.
But the crash is also having implications over the secretive negotiations over extending the base's lease. According to Die Welt, the base agreement expires this week, on Friday. And while there has been almost no public information about the negotiations, some stories in the Uzbekistan press this summer suggested that Tashkent was trying to raise the rent, which has been between 10 and 15 million Euros a year.
Technicians from the NH-90's manufacturer, Airbus, are in Uzbekistan now, Die Welt reported.