Had she known that true stories are sometimes more terrifying than fiction, the little girl may not have pleaded for a bedtime tale.
But in this short film, father yields and tells his daughter of “a rich and powerful man” in a “country far, far away” who grows wealthy off slave labor. Of course, the father is talking about Uzbekistan, and that man is President Islam Karimov: “Schoolchildren have to get on buses and ride for hours to the cotton fields. […] They must pick cotton. All day long. The bag must be filled.”
Teachers, doctors, nurses and children are forced to pick the president’s cotton, the father says. It is a terrifying story, indeed: the thorny plants, the police cordon, schools closed while the children sleep in barns and tents through summer heat and autumn snow. It sounds like a concentration camp.
As her father shuts off the lights, the little girl realizes she is part of this global supply chain: “But the blanket ... and my pajamas … do they also …” – “Yes, they too may come from Uzbekistan. Well, good night,” he says, not so reassuringly.
The video – which ends with the uncomfortable truth, “You most likely sleep in Uzbek cotton” – was released this week by the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and the Inkota Network. An accompanying article shames Western companies for continuing to purchase Uzbek cotton, companies such as H&M, which “have enormous power to end modern-day slavery,” but don’t.
Each year hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of Uzbek citizens seek refuge from joblessness by heading abroad to look for work. As a side effect of that exodus, some fall victim to human traffickers.
Judging by the dearth of official statements, the scourge has never been a priority for Tashkent.
Now, however, a top migration official has acknowledged the problem of “modern slavery,” as he calls human trafficking. Yet instead of warning citizens how to avoid falling into the traffickers’ hands, he’s done what any self-respecting Uzbek official might do: He’s used the opportunity to praise his country’s policies and point out that, besides, Uzbeks are not the only victims.
In a commentary published in the government mouthpiece Narodnoye Slovo, Samariddin Mamashakirov of the State Agency for External Labor Migration, says that human trafficking is a problem that must be handled internationally and blames unemployment (don’t worry, they’re working on it) as the single biggest cause.
The transformations that are taking place in our country are becoming the foundation of socioeconomic stability. […] A growth in GDP, industrial production and agricultural output and the development of the trade and services sphere has improved the quality of people's lives. Issues of improving the social sphere and increasing the population’s income are the focus of state policy. […]
Russian telecoms giant MTS has filed for bankruptcy in Tashkent amid its long-running dispute with the Uzbek government, which is currently embroiled in telecoms scandals on several fronts.
MTS’s Uzbekistan subsidiary O’zdunrobita has petitioned for bankruptcy due to its “inability” to carry out a November court ruling ordering it to pay fines and penalties of $600 million, MTS said in a January 16 statement.
The company’s troubles began last July, when Tashkent accused it of using equipment illegally, then brought tax evasion charges, and finally shut it down.
In September, a court ordered MTS’s assets in Uzbekistan seized. To the surprise of many, that ruling was overturned on appeal in November. But with the good news came a catch: The court that overturned the assets seizure ordered MTS to pay penalties of $600 million – the approximate value of the assets the court had just returned. Some $150 million has already been seized from its bank accounts in Uzbekistan, MTS says.
MTS has protested its innocence, condemning the affair as the kind of assets grab not uncommon in Uzbekistan’s murky business climate – a charge Tashkent denies.
Tashkent has long worked hard to erase Uzbekistan’s Soviet legacy. But the process, it seems, is far from complete. Authorities have ordered another 240 street and place names in the Uzbek capital renamed, the olam.uz website reports.
Having run out of Bolshevik leaders to purge, municipal authorities have turned to the artists and international heroes that once made Tashkent’s cosmopolitan residents proud. For example, a street named after Soviet Uzbek theater director Mannon Uygur became Gulobod (Flower Garden), while Anna Akhmatova Street, named after the Russian poetess, became Nemat (Blessing) Street, according to the recent order.
For some, the campaign to rename squares, streets, parks and subway stations looks like a politically motivated effort to erect a new political culture. That was understandable when the process started, soon after Uzbekistan obtained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But many now wonder when it will end.
Among the first victims of the campaign 20 years ago were the capital's landmark Lenin Square (now Independence Square), which was home to a giant Lenin statue, and Revolution Square (now Amir Temur Square), a leafy park that marked the geographical center of the city with a bust of communist demigod Karl Marx. Lenin was replaced with a globe showing Uzbekistan at the center of the world, and Marx relinquished his seat to a monument of Amir Temur, better known in the West as tyrant conqueror Tamerlane whom President Islam Karimov has reinvented as an Uzbek hero.
Perceptions of corruption penetrate just about every aspect of life in Kyrgyzstan, including the spiritual side. For years, the Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca required of every able Muslim – has been beset by allegations of graft involving those responsible for distributing the limited number of places.
Uzbekistan is facing a public health time bomb, experts are warning. Authorities contend they are making gains in the battle to contain the spread of HIV/AIDS, but independent specialists say such claims are built on twisted figures and deceptive methodology.
When the liberal daily Taraf was launched some five years ago, it was presented as prime evidence of how much Turkey has moved forward. Staffed with muckraking journalists who were especially committed to exposing the misdeeds of Turkey's powerful military, the scrappy newspaper truly did break new ground, covering stories that most of the Turkish mainstream media stayed away from for fear of crossing the powers that be.
Five years later, Taraf might be put forward as prime evidence of how much Turkey is slipping backwards, particularly in terms of press freedom issues. On Dec. 14, Taraf's top two editors -- Ahmet Altan, a vocal critic of the government, and Yasemin Congar, as well as two leading columnists -- resigned from the newspaper, effectively stripping it of some of its most powerful voices. The reasons for the resignations were not immediately given, but they came at a time when Taraf was facing increasing pressure from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and some of its supporters after the newspaper started turning a critical eye towards how the government was managing Turkey's affairs.
Writing in Today's Zaman, veteran journalist and media observer Yavuz Baydar describes the role Taraf played in recent years:
As a probe into allegations of shady payments in Uzbekistan by a Swedish-Finnish telecoms firm continues, fresh accusations have surfaced linking the deal directly to Gulnara Karimova, daughter of President Islam Karimov, whose name has repeatedly emerged in connection with the controversy.
Swedish broadcaster SVT -- which this fall broadcast the exposé that sparked the opening of a corruption investigation in Sweden involving TeliaSonera’s acquisition of the rights to operate in Uzbekistan -- says it has interviewed two senior TeliaSonera executives who linked Gulnara Karimova to the agreement allowing the company to enter Uzbekistan’s lucrative cellphone market.
“To reach a deal with Gulnara was a prerequisite to the whole deal,” one executive (both requested anonymity) told SVT’s “Uppdrag granskning” program. The executives said TeliaSonera officials traveled to Uzbekistan in 2007 to negotiate with the president’s daughter, who has extensive economic interests in Uzbekistan. (One WikiLeaked US Embassy cable describes her as a “robber baron.”) Karimova, who casts herself a sultry pop diva and fashion designer, and is her country's permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, has not commented on any of the corruption allegations.
One of the sources linked Karimova to Bekhzod Akhmedov, formerly a major player on the Uzbekistan’s telecoms market and currently the prime suspect in a separate money-laundering probe under way in Switzerland.
Authorities in Uzbekistan have instructed television executives to keep the local version of Santa Claus off the airwaves this holiday season, the Associated Press reports.
Throughout the former Soviet Union, the robed Father Frost – Ded Moroz as he’s known in Russian – is the beloved figure who appears with gifts on New Year’s Eve, a entirely secular holiday.
Independent news website UzMetronom reported Monday that President Islam Karimov's authoritarian government imposed the informal ban on Father Frost and his snow maiden sidekick. […]
The ban is similar to the semiofficial 2005 ban on celebrating New Year's Eve.
It all looks like part of Karimov’s ongoing effort to shield his 30 million people from any foreign influences, and invent an entirely Uzbek "culture." As part of the campaign, high school students are subjected to lectures on "Uzbek national values," which demand they to submit to authorities.
In March, legislators, acting out of concern for children's “moral health,” mulled a vague ban on foreign toys that did not conform to these "national values." And earlier this year Karimov's government called off Valentine’s Day:
Uzbekistan has cancelled concerts marking the holiday and instructed young people instead to celebrate the birthday of a local hero—Moghul emperor Babur, who was born in Andijan in 1483 and conquered much of South Asia. The Associated Press recently cited an Uzbek newspaper article calling Valentine's Day the work of “forces with evil goals bent on putting an end to national values.”
With a pinch of of whataboutism, President Islam Karimov says Uzbekistan is democratizing in its own way, and no one should rush it.
Speaking on state television on December 7 to mark the 20th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s constitution, Karimov said his country is rapidly developing into “a modern sovereign country with democratic, social, political and civil institutions that view human rights and freedoms as real values.”
Most EurasiaNet readers will scoff at the suggestion that one of the world’s longest-ruling autocrats, who throws critics into prison while his family seems to seize anything not nailed down, has much belief in values like the rule of law or protection of private property.
Nonetheless, the speech, though nothing unusual for Karimov, will give our readers a taste of the verbose spin the 74-year-old employs. Much of it sounds as dated as he is – which may help explain why he views things like the Internet and Western video games as such a threat.
Karimov – who has run Uzbekistan for 23 years – paints himself as a reformer. Democratization “is a long and continuous process that is not limited to a certain period of time, and we are certainly aware of that,” he said of the “Uzbek model” of development.
Transcript and translation provided by BBC Monitoring.
[We are] implementing a blueprint for evolutionary development, making sure that the economy is free of ideology, introducing democratic reforms gradually, ensuring the supremacy of law, recognizing the state's role as the chief reformer and further increasing its influence during the transitional period, and taking into account our country's unique features, conducting a strong social policy.