Uzbekistan launches its own version of Facebook, Muloqot, on September 1 with claims the new social networking site will be “a convenient and cheap communication platform” for Uzbekistan’s mushrooming legions of social networking addicts.
The name of the bilingual Uzbek-Russian site says it all: Muloqot means “dialogue” or “communication” in Uzbek, and the forum is being touted as cheaper-to-access than sites hosted on foreign servers, with the added bonus of offering an Uzbek-language interface.
So has Uzbekistan – which global watchdogs call an “internet enemy” and say ranks as one of the most repressive countries on earth – suddenly committed itself to freedom of information? Hardly, say critics: Muloqot is more likely just another way of controlling the flow of information.
Uzbek IT company Simple Networking Solutions, which operates the site, is promoting Muloqot as a “web-based project which helps people express themselves and find an audience.”
The company does not mention that the website can also help the government’s cyber-spies find people who are trying to express themselves too freely.
To open an account, Muloqot users must give an Uzbek cellphone number, providing an easy means of monitoring who is posting what. There is no option to sign up without an Uzbek number, reducing chances the system will be infiltrated with dangerous foreign ideas. And to register for an Uzbek cellphone number, of course, one must present a passport.
More trouble in western Kazakhstan, which is beginning to acquire a reputation as a hotbed of Islamic militancy: Police in the oil city of Atyrau have shot dead a suspect they feared was plotting to commit “violent acts,” the Kazinform state news agency reports.
The suspect was mowed down in a gun battle on August 29 as law enforcers rounded up a group of 20 people they suspected of plotting “violent acts both on the territory of Atyrau Region and in neighboring regions of Kazakhstan,” Kazinform reported, citing “operational information.” The other members of the group were detained, reportedly in possession of weapons and explosives.
The incident comes on the heels of a bloody shootout in another energy-rich western region, Aktobe, last month. That episode left nine suspects and four law-enforcement officers dead. Officials offered the baffling account that the suspects were organized criminals sheltering behind the guise of religion.
In late July another cop was killed in Aktobe by gunfire from inside a house in which a man then blew himself up.
Until now, officials have appeared intent on denying that Kazakhstan faces any terror threat: The country’s first-ever suicide bomb in May in downtown Aktobe was blamed on the mafia rather than militants, and a later blast in Astana remains shrouded in mystery.
Usually Kyrgyzstan’s politicians kiss up to Moscow. So it’s peculiar when one says something that looks (if anyone is looking) deliberately designed to provoke the Kremlin.
Russia must pay billions for its “Kyrgyz genocide” 95 years ago, says Nurlan Motuyev, one of Kyrgyzstan’s 83 presidential candidates in the upcoming October 30 polls. Motuyev – nicknamed the “coal king” for allegedly seizing a profitable mine during political unrest in 2005 – has reemerged on something of a pro-Islam ticket and seems to be looking for an enemy. While usually China or the United States make easy, anodyne targets, Motuyev is pointing a finger, according to an account in the Kyrgyz press, at Russia.
Back in 1916, as the Russian Empire was losing World War I in Europe, the Tsar attempted to draft non-Slavs into the army. Rebellion, which the Russians brutally suppressed, broke out in the distant provinces of Central Asia. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands were killed or died fleeing over the mountains to China. Hushed up throughout the Soviet era, today the episode is commemorated as Urkun (“exodus”).
Genocide is a strong word, as Kyrgyzstan knows well from the global opprobrium following last year’s bout of ethnic violence in the south. That was not genocide either, but the word – bandied about in press reports – stung many Kyrgyz who still feel the international community has unfairly judged them.
Amb. George Krol (L) and Sen. Lindsey Graham at President Karimov's residence, August 27, 2011
US Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina was received by President Islam Karimov at his residence in Tashkent on August 27, Uzbek state media reported. Ambassador George Krol, the new US envoy to Tashkent, also attended the meeting. Uzbek TV quoted Karimov as saying Uzbekistan “highly values relations” with the US and has seen “great positive things in our relations, especially most recently.“ According to the typically filtered government reports, the American senator was said to discuss resolution of the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan and ways to stabilize the region.
Gov.uz quoted Graham as stressing the importance of economic renewal and solving social problems in Afghanistan. While official reports didn't specifically mention the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) which supplies NATO soldiers in Afghanistan, no doubt the senator discussed Tashkent's crucial role in helping the NDN. Uzbekistan is known to serve as a key transit air hub through Termez and has supplied food and fuel by train as well. The US has been actively involved in promoting business and economic opportunities around the NDN, seeing it as important to security of the region and an evenutal "Silk Road" to prosperity.
Permanent Mission of the Republic of Uzbekistan to the UN
Logo for 20th Anniversary of Uzbekistan's Independence
In preparation for the 20th anniversary of Uzbekistan's independence, to be celebrated September 1, authorities have been furiously cleaning out any "undesirables" from the capital of Tashkent. Months ago, under the rubric of urban renewal, more than a thousand small businesses were destroyed, reportedly without compensation, and numerous people have lost their homes, EurasiaNet reported. Police are also capturing and destroying stray cats and dogs.
Police are checking documents and anyone found without a mandatory resident permit is subject to detention and removal. Those detained are taken to a special Center for Detention and Assignment of Vagrants and put on buses home. While the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago, independent Uzbekistan still retains the Soviet-era system of propiska, or residential registration.
Turkmenistan celebrates its famous melons in August, and every year, the festivities become more elaborate as the holiday is invested with patriotic and political significance in the "Era of New Revival," as President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has dubbed his reign.
Following the tradition, the national holiday, the Turkmen Melon Day is widely and solemnly celebrated throughout Turkmenistan on the second Sunday of August. Serving as a hymn to diligence and constructive talent of Turkmen melon growers, it has gained a new scale and content today, in the epoch of new Revival and become a vivid embodiment of historic changes taking place in the ancient Turkmen land.
The holiday involves elaborate festivals, concerts, scientific conferences, displays and so on, prompting the State News Agency of Turkmenistan to claim that there is likely no agricultural holiday in the world of this nature celebrated so extensively at a national level. And they may be right.
Turkmenistan boasts 420 melon types that scientists claim have existed for 14 centuries, and 200 of these are still grown today.
This year, the state horticulturalists outdid themselves.
According to the daily state newspaper Neitralnyi Turkmenistan, Omurguly Akhmedov from Lebap province, the oldest melon cultivator in Turkmenistan, has bred three special melons this year: one named "Ruhnama," after the cult book imposed by past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov which still remains a required subject for university exams; another called "Arkedag," which is the title increasingly used to refer to Berdymukhamedov, and which means "Protective Mountain" or "Protector" and a third, a watermelon, called "President."
As the world winces at allegations Tajik authorities tortured a BBC journalist, a new cache of Wikileaked US diplomatic cables provides insight into the challenge of even discussing human rights in Tajikistan.
Several of the dispatches date back to an episode in late 2005, when US diplomats tried to organize a roundtable with university students to mark the UN’s Human Rights Day. Why students? Because this is a touchy topic their “government brethren smile at politely and ignore,” then-Ambassador Richard Hoagland writes in a cable, “The Grinch Who Stole Human Rights Day.”
When it comes time to hold the event, behind the scenes officials do everything they can to thwart it. At one university venue, and then the next, Tajik and Russian diplomats used “fabricated excuses that canceled the planned discussions.”
Once Tajikistan’s image is at stake, however, the official tone changes, a cable entitled “The Grinch Changes His Mind” explains. Astutely appealing to authorities’ vanity, an American diplomat dropped word at the MFA that the US embassy was drafting its annual human rights report and “this current development would not reflect at all well in Tajikistan's evaluation.” The Americans were allowed to proceed with their “lecture” – as one Tajik official described it.
“In Tajikistan, we are increasingly convinced that the grade-school lesson of how to react to playground bullies is pertinent: give them an inch and they'll continue to take ten miles,” Hoagland writes.
Life for Tajikistan’s conscripts manning the drug-infested Afghanistan border is dismal. Frequent reports tell us they are cold, hungry and untrained (“recruits fire only nine shots over a 40-day” Russian-led training). But life for their dogs may be even worse, we now have learned thanks to Wikileaked American embassy cables.
The cables range in dates from 2006, in the era of past dictator Saparmurat Niyazov, to 2007 through 2010 under the rule of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, and illustrate intense US interest in improving relations and trade with this secretive Central Asian nation located next to Iran and Afghanistan.
Many of the cables are very short, containing routine demarches on subjects as wide-ranging as complaints about illicit cash couriers to explanation of the US position on the Goldstone report at the UN to efforts to gain Ashgabat's cooperation to ban individuals in Iran.
Quite a few of the dispatches illustrate American preoccupations with its often difficult relationship with Turkmenistan, where no US ambassador was stationed for nearly five years.
The railroad connecting Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, with the Uzbekistan border town of Hairatan, has opened, putting into operation a key node of the U.S. military's overland transport route through Central Asia to Afghanistan. reports Central Asia Online:
TASHKENT – Service began last weekend on the long-awaited Hairatan-to-Mazar-i-Sharif railway.
Uzbekistan Railways (UTY) built the route, which was scheduled to open in July before contingencies forced a postponement.
“We have been working out the route’s status as well as who will run it and how (since early July),” said Rasul Holikov of UTY.
Uzbekistan and Afghanistan signed a three-year cortract August 4 under which Uzbekistan will provide commercial services and operate the 75km railway.
Curiously, the report doesn't mention the military origins of the railroad, even though the website is run by US Central Command. It does, at the end, refer lightly to the security issues related to operating a train in Afghanistan:
“I drove a locomotive through all of the stations up to Mazar-i-Sharif,” said Umid Hursandov, a UTY engineer. “Like all other the new railways built by our company, (it) is reliable and meets all standards. Many railway workers in our country are worried about their safety if they work this route. Of course, it would be foolish not to recognise that tension in the region persists, but I saw sound security along the entire railway and soldiers were guarding every crossing and important railway yard.”
It's also curious that no one else seems to be reporting this, but anyway, for more on the military aspect, see this previous post.