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.
After a spectacular, months-long campaign to discredit her mother, her sister, and Uzbekistan’s secret police boss, the elder daughter of Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov went silent in mid-February. Reports that Gulnara Karimova has been held against her will could not be independently confirmed, but she’s been unavailable for comment as prosecutors in two European countries have named her as a suspect in corruption investigations.
Now the BBC says it has received a letterthat appears to be from Karimova. In it, the author claims she is under house arrest in Tashkent and has been beaten by men working for her notoriously brutal father.
"I am under severe psychological pressure, I have been beaten, you can count bruises on my arms," reads the letter, apparently smuggled out, which the BBC reproduced in part on March 24. "How naive I was to think that the rule of law exists in the country.”
A graphologist specializing in Cyrillic handwriting told the BBC that there is a 75 percent chance the unsigned letter was written by the scandal-plagued Karimova, Uzbekistan’s former ambassador to the United Nations, who describes herself on her website as a “poet, mezzo soprano, designer and exotic Uzbekistan beauty.”
"I never thought this could happen in a civilized, developing nation that Uzbekistan portrays itself as," the letter says, complaining of "Pinochet-style persecution."
I got to see a little bit of Uzbekistan, but only from the air. Here's what's left of the Aral Sea.
I wanted to shoot a story about Uzbek weddings, lavish affairs that are the stuff of legend among the Uzbek migrant population in Moscow, where I live.
As a Russian citizen, I don’t need a visa to visit Uzbekistan. But I knew the country is deeply suspicious of journalists of any sort. So as not to look too professional, I selected only a few lenses for my trip. And, another precaution: I deleted some phone contacts, cleared the browsing history on my iPad, deleted the Facebook app.
Around midnight last Wednesday I took off from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport and at 5.30 a.m. landed in Tashkent. My future fixer was at the airport to fetch me and take me to a barbeque at his home.
At passport control, I waited behind a crowd of Uzbek migrant laborers. But when it was my turn with the immigration officer, something was clearly wrong. He scanned my passport several times, then frowned and said, gesturing to a bench, “Bro, would you be so kind to wait a little bit over there?”
The crowd thinned and disappeared. After maybe half an hour, two polite men in the olive-green uniforms of border agents across the former Soviet Union asked me to follow them. As we walked, they asked if I’d ever been to Uzbekistan. Yes, I’d lived briefly in Tashkent as a first-grader, but I grew up in Russia. And I’d visited some friends there in 1998.
They looked disappointed. I asked what was happening and they said only that I was on a “blacklist” and that I was being sent home.
At the gate, the olive-green men approached an attendant for the return Moscow flight and said, “This guy is being deported back to Russia. Find him a free seat.” They handed her my passport.
In the second major utility tariff increase in six months, Uzbeks will soon begin paying about 10 percent more for water, gas and electricity. Gasoline, when consumers can get it, soared in price repeatedly last year and another 20 percent this January. Yet officially, inflation somehow manages to stay under 7 percent.
Uzbekneftegaz, the national oil and gas company, http://www.ung.uz/business/tarifs " title="" target="">said this week that according to a March 17 Finance Ministry resolution, the price of natural gas would rise 8.9 percent on April 1. The price last rose 8.5 percent in October 2013.
The state-run electricity provider, Uzbekenergo, announced on March 18 that its tariffs would rise 9.5 percent on April 1. Electricity prices climbed 7 percent last October.
On March 13 the state-run Suvsoz water-supply company said that in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, water prices would jump between 9.8 and 10.5 percent above rates set last October. Suvsoz said the hike was "due to an increase in the prices of electricity and other resources."
The Gazeta.uz news website reported on March 14 that tariffs for hot water and heating would climb 11.7 percent in Tashkent next month because of "a growth in prices of energy sources and materials."
President Islam Karimov, who rules one of the most paranoid states on earth, has decreed that Uzbekistan’s most senior government officials must seek his personal permission to travel abroad on business. At the same time, his government is expanding its network of vigilante groups to police the hoi polloi, who already require exit visas.
According to a presidential resolution published March 10 on Uzbekistan's official online database of legislation, lex.uz, several dozen figures now need, in essence, an exit visa signed by the strongman president, who has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989. The resolution "aims to improve the rules for officials to go abroad, improve the efficiency of official trips, ensure national security and protect state secrets."
The list of prominent affected figures includes the prime minister and deputy prime ministers, chairmen of parliamentary chambers, presidential advisers, the secretary of the Security Council, chairman of the Central Bank, top judges and their deputies, the prosecutor general, ministers, regional governors and even the head of the feared National Security Service.
Lesser figures – such as the head of the state news agency, the chiefs of major state-run industrial enterprises, and deputy regional governors and mayors and even university presidents – must seek permission from the Cabinet of Ministers to travel abroad on "business trips."
Prosecutors in Uzbekistan say that they have summoned for questioning associates of the president's controversial daughter, businesswoman and aspiring pop star Gulnara Karimova. It is unclear if the investigation concerns Karimova directly, but it follows a spectacular public fall for the woman once believed in line to succeed her aging father.
In a statement late February 17, the Prosecutor General's Office in Tashkent said that Rustam Madumarov, Gayane Avakyan and Ekaterina Klyuyeva had been summoned for questioning as part of a criminal investigation into tax evasion, concealing foreign currency and other crimes opened against executives of Terra Group, Prime Media and Gamma Promotion.
Terra Group is believed to have been Karimova’s media holding company, overseeing her TV and radio stations and glossy magazines until authorities shut them down last October. That happened during a public conflict with her sister, mother and the head of Uzbekistan's secret police, the SNB, much of which played out on Twitter. Until the struggle spilled into the open, Karimova had been seen as a potential successor to her brutal 76-year-old father, Islam Karimov, who tolerates no dissent and does not discuss his plans for succession.
Users of Uzbekistan’s tightly controlled Internet are accustomed to hearing officials tell them that Western culture is harmful and its influence must be contained.
So they might wonder why their country keeps producing knock-off social networking websites, clones of modern Western culture. The latest is Bamboo, rolled out this week as an Uzbek answer to Twitter using the motto "One Country, One Network!"
Bamboo.uz was developed exclusively for Uzbeks, its developers said on the website (though the interface is available in 14 languages). The main difference from Twitter is that users can be more verbose: Bamboo messages can be up to 700 characters long, five times longer than messages on Twitter. Otherwise, the newsfeed and interface look almost identical to Twitter. Popular topics trend with hashtags, just like the ones Twitter uses.
Programmers in Uzbekistan, which Reporters Without Borders annually ranks an "Enemy of the Internet,” have previously launched local versions of Facebook, apparently with the government’s encouragement. State television has called social media a tool foreign powers use to foment revolution in former-Soviet states, but said local versions like Muloqot.uz and Sinfdosh.uz, "improve the moral and physical health of youth and form high morals."
President Islam Karimov’s would-be hosts in Prague say the Uzbek strongman has postponed his trip to the Czech Republic, according to a local news outlet. The announcement follows concerted pressure on Prague from dozens of human rights groups concerned that the February 20-22 visit would allow Karimov to whitewash his brutal record.
Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek confirmed the news to the Respekt.cz news website on February 13.
It seems unlikely we'll ever know who initiated the postponement, Karimov or his Czech counterpart Milos Zeman. Both may have bowed to the pressure, fearing the visit could become a PR nightmare.
But only two days ago, Zeman was defending the visit, telling the umbrella group of watchdogs to butt out of his affairs.
The Uzbek Foreign Ministry wasn't immediately available for comment on February 13. If the visit is cancelled, it is unlikely they will say much, since Uzbekistan’s tightly controlled media use Karimov’s rare trips abroad to enhance his prestige and make him appear as a recognized elder statesman.
The last time Karimov visited the West was in January 2011 when he was invited by NATO to Brussels.
With Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov scheduled to visit the Czech Republic next week, a coalition of human rights organizations has been urging his host, President Milos Zeman, to deny Karimov the "prestige and recognition associated with an official state visit." Today they are horrified by Zeman’s blistering response.
In a February 10 open letter, international watchdogs including Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists reminded Zeman that Karimov runs one of the most repressive governments in the world and has been "rightly shunned by most western leaders," particularly after Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of civilians in Andijan in May 2005. For Uzbekistan's refusal to allow an independent international probe into the Andijan killings the European Union, including the Czech Republic, had imposed targeted sanctions on the Uzbek government between 2005 and 2009, the letter noted.
Should he meet Karimov during the scheduled February 20-22 visit, the activists urged Zeman to push the Uzbek leader on his regime’s gross human rights violations and to hold a joint news conference to allow journalists to question Karimov. (Karimov hasn’t taken questions in public for years.)
Clearly irritated, Zeman fired back in an open letter February 11 that the visit was a “diplomatic courtesy,” the invitation for which had been issued by his predecessor (translation by Czech NGO People in Need):
Second, President Islam Karimov recently held talks with senior officials of the European Union in Brussels. I did not think you were protesting against the visit.
Third, the United States evaluated Uzbekistan as an ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. I did not think you protested against this American view protested.