It has become standard for rights advocates to use Uzbekistan’s controversial policies – forced labor in the cotton fields and the hounding of independent religious groups, for example – to demand Uzbekistan’s international partners push for reform. But a separatist group from within Uzbekistan taking its campaign to the World Bank is something new.
On June 1, a little-known freedom movement in Uzbekistan’s resources-rich, but impoverished northwestern region of Karakalpakstan urged the president of the World Bank Group, Jim Yong Kim, to postpone loans to the Uzbek government until Tashkent has taken "concrete steps to end the use of forced labor" in the cotton sector. Alga Karakalpakstan ("Forward Karakalpakstan") said the $411 million for water management improvement and horticulture projects in cotton-growing Karakalpakstan will encourage the government to continue abusing the minority’s rights.
"The government owns all the land of Uzbekistan and forces farmers to meet annual quotas for cotton, and sell it to the state at a low purchasing price—under the threat of losing land, criminal charges and physical violence," said the English-language letter to Kim, describing a widely documented practice. "Every autumn, the Uzbek government forcibly mobilized 16-17 year old students of colleges and universities, pensioners, education and health professionals, and other public sector workers to pick cotton."
Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov meets NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on a visit to Brussels in 2011. (photo: NATO)
NATO formally opened its liaison office in Uzbekistan on Friday, a year after it started working and amid heightened Russian rhetoric about the western alliance encroaching on its backyard.
The opening itself was not a big deal: it only formalized a move that happened last year, which was itself described by NATO officials as just a "rotation" of NATO's representation in Central Asia from Astana to Tashkent. (NATO calls the new structure in Tashkent a "liaison office," while the preferred phrase in the Russian-language press seems to be the much more impressive-sounding "staff headquarters.") Nevertheless, the opening ceremony was held in a very different geopolitical atmosphere than obtained last year, and so it was inevitable that people would seek to try to figure out what it really meant.
Uzbekistan is unmistakably taking a different path than that of its neighbors. While Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are all (to varying degrees) participating in Russia's economic and military integration schemes, Uzbekistan has resisted. And strategic concerns have overridden Western qualms about human rights, notes Tolganay Umbetaliyeva, the director of the Kazakhstan-based Central Asian Fund for the Development of Democracy. "In spite of the fact that after the Andijan events of 2005 relations between Uzbekistan and the West sharply deteriorated, their recent improvement can be seen as the West's response to the various integration processes of the post-Soviet Central Asian states and Russia in various spheres," she told RFE/RL.
When Russian state energy giant Gazprom took control of Kyrgyzstan’s gas network last month, the prime minister called the transfer a “historic event.” Gazprom chairman Aleksey Miller promised his company "guarantees a stable gas supply.”
Neither seems very reliable to residents of southern Kyrgyzstan today, the 24th day the region has been without gas.
Four days after the formal transfer ceremony, Uzbekistan cut gas supplies to southern Kyrgyzstan. Residents of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city, complain they have been forced to use expensive electricity or cook over wood or dung stoves. Fortunately, the weather is warm. One resident describes a previous cut-off, during winter, when he used seven candles to boil water to make tea for his children.
Gazprom was meant to end such outages. Under the deal, which the Kyrgyz parliament approved in December, for a symbolic $1 Gazprom snapped up Kyrgyzgaz and its property and gained rent-free use of land any facilities stand on. In exchange it took on Kyrgyzgaz’s estimated $38 million debt and pledged some $600 million to improve Kyrgyzstan’s crumbling gas grid. In the long-term, the Kyrgyz hope Gazprom can streamline energy supplies and ease the dire power shortages the country experiences every winter.
A couple of seditious tweets and fliers usually do not merit a lot of analysis in conspiracy-prone Central Asia. But calls for independence in Uzbekistan's impoverished and "autonomous" west are likely getting ample attention from the country’s secret police following Russia’s recent annexation of another “autonomous” region in a former Soviet republic, Crimea.
Tashkent tightly controls Karakalpakistan and doesn't countenance any talk of independence, even though the region still has, on paper, “autonomous” status—a Soviet-era administrative device, essentially meaningless today in Central Asia, used to govern regions with large minority populations.
On May 5, Twitter user @amankar67 posted an announcement reminding followers that an obscure pro-independence movement that appeared this year, Alga Karakalpakstan ("Forward Karakalpakstan"), would hold a "peaceful rally" against the regime of President Islam Karimov. "Forward Karakalpakstan people's movement!!! Karakalpak people are called to a [protest] action in Nukus," the announcement reads in typo-laden Karakalpak.
(For the record, if you’re just tuning in, “peaceful rallies” don’t happen in Uzbekistan.)
Last week Forward Karakalpakstan claimed credit for a mysterious leaflet found in the town of Kungrad calling for Karakalpak independence, according to an April 29 press release by the heretofore-unknown “Shyrak Information Center” (which claimed to be set up this year by "activists of the Karakalpak democratic movement" to cooperate with "various dissident groups in the country and abroad").
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, visits Hairatan in 2010. (photo: ISAF)
Since the rail line between the Uzbekistan border town of Hairatan and Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, opened in 2011, news about its operations have been hard to come by. But it is apparently running in relative safety (contrary to some previous suggestions) and under Uzbekistan's control. That's according to a dispatch from Hairatan by American newspaper Fayetteville Observer, the local paper of some of the U.S. Army reservists who are managing the rail line (and flagged by the excellent Railways of Afghanistan blog).
The railroad, recall, was built by Uzbekistan Railways with money from the Asian Development Bank after American military logisticians identified the Uzbekistan border as the most troublesome bottleneck in getting supplies into Afghanistan.
Since then, Uzbekistan and the Northern Distribution Network generally have declined in significance to the U.S. military, which now relies much more heavily on Pakistan. But, as one U.S. soldier told the Observer: "This gives us an alternative in case Pakistan closes... It gives us negotiating leverage in Pakistan. If you guys don't play ball with us, there is another way out." Still, about 4,600 rail cars ply the Hairaton-Mazar route every month, and about 90 percent of the fuel used by coalition forces in Afghanistan travels on the rail line.
Three years after opening, Uzbekistan still operates the railroad, the piece reports:
[T]he railroad between Uzbekistan and Mazar-e-Sharif is operated by Uzbekistan as part of an agreement between that country and Afghanistan. It was built by the Asian Development Bank using donations from across the world, and the Uzbek government - not Afghanistan - collects money from the imports.
The U.S. State Department is skeptical about how Central Asian governments perceive the threat of terrorism in their countries, according to the department's annual review of terrorism around the globe.
In language similar to last year's report, the State Department said that "The effectiveness of some Central Asian countries’ efforts to reduce their vulnerability to perceived terrorist threats was difficult to discern in some cases, however, due to failure to distinguish clearly between terrorism and violent extremism on one hand and political opposition, or non-traditional religious practices, on the other." But this year it added a bit of texture with a mention of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: "[T]errorist groups with ties to Central Asia – notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union – continued to be an issue even as they operated outside of the Central Asian states." (For some serious analysis of what threat the IMU poses, see this post at the Afghan Analysts Network.)
Tashkent is set to host an international tourism expo on April 17 and 18. But the timing isn’t very auspicious, coming only a few days after state television warned viewers that inviting unknown foreigners to Uzbekistan is “like playing with fire.”
Uzbekistan TV reported this month that an Uzbek citizen had set up "fake" tourist outfits to unlawfully provide visa support to 300 Pakistani and Chinese nationals since February 2013. Another Uzbek woman "illegally" helped 42 foreigners enter Uzbekistan in 2013 alone, the program said.
The broadcast criticized such people "for bringing so many people from abroad and not doing any business with them.”
Tourism might count as doing business with visitors, though the tone of the program echoed other state media campaigns warning Uzbeks to shun anything alien. The authorities regularly use state media to warn about the “harmful” effects of foreign toys, video games, and anything else that might undermine Uzbeks’ “moral heritage and mentality.”
“What if the visiting foreign entrepreneurs have totally different intentions? Our point is reinforced by the fact that some of the people are complete strangers to business," Uzbekistan TV said on April 3, in remarks carried by BBC Monitoring. The report did not specify what kind of intentions the unwanted visitors may have had, but warned, “Every one of us should be vigilant and watchful.”
Wine tastings at a bucolic vineyard sound like a distinctly foreign idea. At the very least, for $50 to $75 per person, they’re more likely to attract foreigners.
Following the admission by embattled Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera this week that its operations in Kazakhstan and four other countries had breached the company’s own ethical requirements and may have broken the law, the firm is bracing itself for a new round of scrutiny.
TeliaSonera's dealings with the rich and powerful in Uzbekistan, where its payments of millions of dollars to an intermediary of Gulnara Karimova’s, the president’s daughter, have already put the company in the crosshairs of investigators in Sweden, The Netherlands and the United States. TeliaSonera is also linked to a money-laundering probe in Switzerland in which Karimova is a suspect.
Now questions are being asked about TeliaSonera’s dealings in neighboring Kazakhstan, where it owns the Kcell brand (with 14.1 million subscribers in a country with a population of 17 million). Kazakhstan’s media has previously noted some striking similarities between TeliaSonera’s modus operandi in the two countries—namely its dealings with business people well connected to the powers-that-be and with links to rival companies.
As Russia, China and Central Asian countries plan for post-2014 Afghanistan, they are floating plans to create "mini buffer states" in northern Afghanistan in order to stanch the potential flow of Islamism and violence into the post-Soviet space.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the China-led security organization that also includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, held a meeting of member state defense ministers this week in Khujand, Tajikistan. The participants made the usual vague public statements about how the SCO was playing a key role in regional stability. “We do not share the West’s optimism about the chances of stabilising the situation in Afghanistan following continued actions by international terrorist and Islamic extremist organisations,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. “The SCO is turning into one of most important structures, to our mind, not only in Central Asia, but also in the East,” he added. The defense ministers also discussed the upcoming iteration of the annual Peace Mission joint military exercises, to be held this year in August in China's Inner Mongolia.
Nordic telecoms giant TeliaSonera is at the heart of several international corruption probes involving its activities in Uzbekistan. Now it says it may have broken the law in neighboring Kazakhstan and other countries, as well.
An external review of TeliaSonera's dealings in five countries has found that “several transactions, and actions during [2007-2013] have been conducted in a manner inconsistent with sound business practice and TeliaSonera’s ethical requirements,” board chair Marie Ehrling told an Annual General Meeting on April 2.
“It cannot even be ruled out that certain conduct has been in violation of the law,” she said.
The review, commissioned last April and conducted by international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, covered Nepal, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Georgia but focused mainly on the first three countries.
Ehrling did not specify which transactions may have been unethical or illegal, but said the review mainly concerned the “establishing of operations and acquisitions of companies and licenses.”
Areas of concern included “substantial payments to advisors and intermediaries for, among other things, lobbying activities; lack of control of business partners; and inadequate handling of warning signs.”
“One area singled out is the inadequate governance of the Eurasian operations,” Ehrling said.