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."
The Russia-led Customs Union has never hid its protectionist mandate. It’s been called Vladimir Putin’s Soviet Union-lite for a reason: Formerly Soviet states that don’t sign up will be isolated or pushed around until they do. Just look at Ukraine.
Now, new regulations on car imports that came into effect last month will protect the car manufacturing industries in all three members – Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. But they will specifically hurt one of Uzbekistan’s few successful joint ventures, a GM plant in the Fergana Valley that has thrived off exports to Russia and Kazakhstan.
Uzbekistan has previously expressed only the most tepid interest in the Customs Union. For Tashkent, the new rules show that staying out can hurt.
Kazakhstan's Kolesa.kz online car-sales platform reported on February 20 that Customs Union technical regulations have banned imports of some of the bestselling cars in Kazakhstan, including the Uzbek-made Chevrolet Nexia and Matiz.
The regulations, which came into force on January 5, require imported cars to have at least one air bag, an anti-lock braking system, specific attachment points for child-safety seats, and daytime headlights, among other things. GM Uzbekistan’s Nexia and Matiz have none of these features, Kolesa.kz said.
Cars produced by Customs Union members are exempt from the regulations until 2015.
"We are now selling leftovers in warehouses,” Kolesa.kz quoted an unnamed Kazakh dealer of Uzbek cars as saying. “The [Uzbek] plant will hardly be able to reequip these models [to meet] these technical requirements."
The railway was supposed to diversify trade routes in one of the least-connected parts of Central Asia. But six months after workers broke ground on a new rail line from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan via northern Afghanistan, a dispute threatens to derail the whole project.
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.
Umida Akhmedova -- with one of her "offensive" photos of life in her native Uzbekistan -- at the Moscow Biennale in September.
UPDATE, January 30: EurasiaNet.org has spoken with Timur Karpov. He was released this evening after a Tashkent court fined him and three others up to approximately $900 for participating in the unsanctioned rally. Of the eight detained January 29, three –including cultural critic Alex Ulko – have received 15-day sentences; one, Gulsum Osmanova, remains unaccounted for. It's possible she has been released or is still being held.
The whereabouts of at least six activists who had held a small rally to express support for Ukrainian protestors remain unknown after they were apparently detained by police January 29.
The six – prominent photographer Umida Akhmedova and her photojournalist son Timur Karpov, cultural affairs commentator Alex Ulko and three others – were detained two days after they picketed the Ukrainian Embassy in Tashkent in support of pro-democracy protestors, Fergana News reported. Fergana News believes the activists are being held in Tashkent's Khamza District police department, where an officer told Akhmedova's daughter late on January 29 that the group had already been released.
Akhmedova's husband Oleg Karpov fears the detainees, who appear to have not had access to a lawyer, may face "repressive measures" (such as torture, which is “systematic” in the justice system, according to Human Rights Watch). Activists throughout the region and further afield have called on Uzbek authorities to immediately release the group.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s personality cult has so saturated Turkmenistan that people seem to be fed up with purchasing dictator memorabilia. Sluggish demand for calendars featuring portraits of the president (month after month) is reportedly forcing traders to raise their prices in a bid to minimize losses.
The Chronicles of Turkmenistan reports that this year’s version of the calendar featuring Berdymukhamedov striking a pose on each page have not been selling well. The Chronicles suggests the rising price is further damping demand: For one version of the calendars, the price has risen by 25 percent year-on-year, from 45 manats (approximately $16) to 56 manats ($20).
"They are bought only by bureaucrats and businessmen who keep them in their offices to show their loyalty to the president," the Chronicles of Turkmenistan, a website run by exiles in Vienna, explained.
Despite losses, the state-run publisher is still printing desk and wall calendars – along with other mementos including giant posters and icon-like charms for car dashboards – because "propaganda is more important than profit in Turkmenistan.”
When you think of cotton and forced labor in Central Asia, you probably think of Uzbekistan. But a new report offers a reminder that Turkmenistan continues to force thousands of citizens into the cotton fields each autumn against their will.
On January 21, Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) released its assessment of the 2013 cotton harvest (by email): “Tens of thousands” of Turkmen, many of them public sector employees, were forced into the fields during the harvest. "Forced labor is still widely practiced throughout the country," the report – authored in collaboration with the Cotton Campaign, an international advocacy group – said.
The findings support reporting last autumn from Radio Free Europe’s Turkmen Service, which said that teachers were shepherding their students to the cotton fields on an "unprecedented" scale, with girls as young as 10 spotted picking cotton.
ATN describes a feudal system wherein government officials lease cotton plots from the state and then force their underlings to perform the manual labor. Like in neighboring Uzbekistan, the farmers (in this case the officials) then sell their harvest to the government at low prices. The government then sells the raw cotton abroad at market prices, says ATN:
We have information that shows that in the majority of cases, when the regional employees of the social sector are used as cheap laborers, the land is owned not by local farmers, but by high-ranking state or regional officials. These officials rent out land under the names of their wives, children, other family members, etc., however they do absolutely nothing by way of harvesting cotton on their land; many of these officials do not even live on this land or even in the region where the land is leased. [...]