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).
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."
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.
One of Gulnara Karimova's November 21 Twitter missives.
After spending most of the day airing her family’s dirty laundry on Twitter – shedding light on the murky world of clan politics in Tashkent – Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of long-serving strongman Islam Karimov, has gone quiet.
On November 21, Karimova again took to one of the few public channels she can still access, Twitter, to accuse her mother Tatyana of organizing the spectacular personal implosion that has riveted Central Asia watchers for the past month.
Within hours, the account @GulnaraKarimova, which is widely believed to be authentic, disappeared.
Karimova had earlier sent a series of tweets containing image files, each with a long text in Russian. EurasiaNet.org downloaded the nine image files before the account disappeared. One example can be found to the right.
Karimova tweeted that the "women in our family" resent her and are plotting against her. "I have long wanted to tell my mother about this...She has promised to destroy everything connected to me if I dare 'meddle in her affairs'!"
Karimova said the October arrest of her cousin Akbarali Abdullayev – sometimes described as her “purse” – had been ordered by her mother in a bid to take over Abdullayev’s business interests in the Ferghana Valley.
When Karimova tried to help her cousin by interceding with her father, she said, her mother
"snatched [his assets] and imprisoned him in October 2013 for an unknown period, promising to destroy me for this!"
It's no surprise Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s president, has enemies. Described as a “robber baron” by a leaked US diplomatic cable, she encourages speculation she wishes to succeed her father, 75-year-old Islam Karimov.
Now she says “they” have tried to kill her.
Amid mounting scandals in recent weeks – a public feud with her sister and a blackout at her media empire, for starters – Karimova tweeted on October 31 someone is trying to poison her and she knows who it is.
“[They’ve] already tried to poison me with heavy metals like mercury. Thank God, they have not killed me, although I am still receiving treatment,” she wrote, without elaborating.
Asked by a follower whether she knew who the culprit was, Karimova replied, “Yes.....”
She did not unmask the failed assassin. Many will assume the Tweet was yet another one of her attention-grabbing antics. But in recent days she has repeatedly attacked the head of the National Security Service, Rustam Inoyatov, whom she accuses of trying to seize power.
On October 29 Gulnara Karimova confirmed in a tweet that the Uzbek Agency for Communications and Information had closed four television channels she is believed to control for violating laws on the media, on advertising, on children, copyrights, licensing and so on. The stations regularly profile Karimova and her activities. Their shuttering robs her of a platform she uses to sculpt her image at home. Karimova has long been thought to crave the presidency after her 75-year-old father, Islam Karimov, moves on.
In response to a Twitter user’s question whether the reports were true, Karimova – using her handle @GulnaraKarimova – responded in her idiosyncratic Russian (translated here with an effort to retain the original style): “[H]owever silly this list sounds, but yes! How have you obtained this list? As far as I understand is this already part of the public domain?!”
On October 30, Radio Free Europe reported that bank accounts for the media holding company behind the stations, Terra Group, had been frozen and that the company’s accounting office had been “padlocked.” Rumors are also circulating that investigators are looking into embezzlement allegations at Karimova’s Fund Forum charity network.
In her inimitable style, Karimova is also using Twitter to address the reported rifts in her family and clashes with the powerful figures surrounding her father.
A nephew of Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, who was once tipped as a potential successor to the aging strongman, has been detained on suspicion of operating an organized crime ring.
Citing a source at the Fergana Region prosecutor's office, Uznews.net reported today that Akbarali Abdullayev, a son of the first lady's sister, was arrested October 10 on embezzlement, tax evasion and bribery charges.
"He is in a detention center in Tashkent at the moment. His arrest warrant has been sanctioned from on high," Uznews.net quoted the source as saying.
Abdullayev and his mother Tamara Sobirova, the president’s sister-in-law, are widely believed to control large swathes of the economy in Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley, including industrial giants like the Fergana oil refinery and a cement plant in Kyvasay.
In the summer of 2012, Abdullayev reportedly fled Uzbekistan following the arrests of several of his business associates on corruption charges. After Sobirova received guarantees her son was safe, Abdullayev returned in late 2012, Uznews.net said.
Prior to that drama, Abdullayev had been mooted, Uznews said, for a seat in parliament's upper chamber, the Senate (where the president has the right to appoint 16 of 100 members), and was sometimes tipped as a potential successor to Karimov.
Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, the youngest daughter of Uzbekistan's strongman, says her socialite sister Gulnara Karimova has a “slim” chance of assuming the presidency after their father, Islam Karimov, departs from the political scene.
In an interview with the BBC Uzbek Service published on September 25, Karimova-Tillyaeva, 35, said she had not spoken to her sister in 12 years and said she learns about the near-constant scandals surrounding Gulnara from the media.
"I believe her chances are slim," Lola said of Gulnara's apparent ambitions to succeed their 75-year-old father.
Lola, Uzbekistan's permanent representative at UNESCO in Paris, distanced herself from her father’s human rights abuses and her sister’s corruption inquiries, explaining that she spends little time in the country.
Gulnara Karimova, 40, styles herself a pop star and fashion designer. Until recently she was Uzbekistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva. She resigned in July after authorities in France searched several of her properties at the request of Swiss prosecutors investigating a money-laundering case involving her associates.
Gulnara has also been named in a corruption investigation in Sweden over Scandinavian telecoms giant TeliaSonera’s purchase of the rights to operate in Uzbekistan. The company denies wrongdoing.
Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, who is more known for jailing journalists than praising them, has warned that his country will end up on the "fringes of global progress" unless it wholeheartedly embraces the media.
Congratulating journalists on a Soviet-era holiday in their honor that is celebrated in Uzbekistan on June 27, Karimov hailed his country’s media as a "mirror of deep socio-political reforms and democratic renewal" and a "powerful force capable of changing the thinking and outlook of our people," the state-run UzA news agency quoted him as saying.
Though he didn’t go so far as to say that Uzbekistan needs a “free media,” the ideas are a bit out of character for the strongman who brooks no decent and jails journalists.
For the past several years Uzbekistan has been continuously ranked one of Reporters Without Borders’ “Enemies of the Internet” for censorship and online snooping. Freedom House ranked Uzbekistan 195 of 197 countries (just ahead of Turkmenistan and North Korea) in its most recent "Freedom of the Press" index because "independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the regime, citizens’ access to unbiased information is severely limited, and dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture, and other forms of repression."
In a rare public appeal, 12 leading US senators have urged Uzbekistan’s strongman to release a human rights activist and two journalists who are serving "politically motivated" prison sentences.
A bipartisan letter to President Islam Karimov, initiated by senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), and signed by prominent Republican senators John McCain and Marco Rubio among others, requested information about the "health and status" of human rights lawyer Agzam Turgunov and journalists Dilmurod Saidov and Salijon Abdurakhmanov, whose "continued detention is inconsistent with our countries' cooperation in many other areas and symbolic of a troubling pattern of harsh treatment for political prisoners" in Uzbekistan, the June 26 letter said.
Washington is generally cautious about criticizing Uzbekistan's rights record, activists say, as the country is critical to NATO's plans for evacuating Afghanistan by the end of next year. In recent years, Washington has softened its rights rhetoric and lifted some sanctions relating to Uzbekistan's poor human rights record.
All three prisoners, the senators believe, are being held on trumped-up charges: Turgunov, 61, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for extortion in 2008; Saidov, 51, received over 12 years for extortion and forgery in 2009, and Abdurakhmanov, 63, was imprisoned in 2008 for selling drugs.