Elections in Kyrgyzstan on October 10 went surprisingly peacefully, according to international monitors and EurasiaNet correspondents who covered the poll. Ethnic Uzbeks in the Osh region appeared able to cast their ballots, despite fears that they might be intimidated or reluctant to participate after so many unresolved issues following the pogroms in June. Yet the rise of some nationalist parties, and the anger at some parties that did not meet the threshold for a seat in parliament, indicate that the ethnic Uzbek community of Kyrgyzstan is far from secure, much less empowered. While the peaceful election is a significant accomplishment, some experts remain concerned that influential political forces unhappy with the voting results could still foment street protests, says EurasiaNet.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov immediately sent a congratulatory message to interim Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva, praising the elections held "in a stable and democratic atmosphere." Yet the aftermath of the violence last summer continues to make itself felt. Local and international human rights groups are greatly troubled that as the Kyrgyz authorities prosecute those they say are responsible for instigating the riots, nearly all the defendants are ethnic Uzbeks. Four imams have been sentenced for broadcasting a call to prayer on the night of June 11 in Kara-Suu district, which prosecutors characterize as an incitement to riot. Yet according to an investigation by the independent news site ferghana.ru, as with the "SOS" trial earlier this month, the four imams said they were not calling for violence, but sounding an alarm to the community of impending danger. The men were sentenced to four years of imprisonment.
Tashkent's annual cotton fair opened October 13 with 300 companies from 34 countries expected to purchase at least 600,000 tons of cotton, providing at least $500 million in revenue for Uzbekistan. Human rights group called for a boycott, citing repeated reports this year of the use of forced child labor in the harvest. While formally Uzbekistan outlawed such exploitation in 2009, top officials look the other way as local administrators and school principals continue the practice of taking children to the fields.
Elena Urlaeva of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan said mainly 7th through 9th graders have been used in the harvest, and has documented the use of children as laborers, despite being discouraged by an increased security presence in the fields. With the price of cotton at an all-time high of $1.00 a pound, farmers forced to fulfill state quotas at fixed prices regrettably have an incentive to use low-paid forced labor. Parents also continue to send their children to pick cotton to supplement their incomes at a time of unemployment and fear of reprisals if they don’t heed state calls for “everyone” to bring in the harvest.
In recent months, journalists and human rights activists have found themselves increasingly restricted and harassed by the Uzbek government in their work. Vasila Inoyatova, head of the Ezgulik (Mercy) civic group, told EurasiaNet that with the end of the European Union's sanctions, and deepening U.S. cooperation with Tashkent for the sake of energy and security needs, the government feels a sense of impunity and has launched crackdowns on reporters and human rights monitors with libel suits and fabricated criminal charges. Inoyatova urged Western leaders visiting Uzbekistan to continue to raise human rights cases in the hopes that some political prisoners may be released.
Following protests by U.S. diplomats, the independent press corps of Uzbekistan had some rare victories this week. Russian journalist Vladimir Berezovsky, charged with libel for his reprints of Russian wire service stories and his own articles, was pardoned after being found guilty. He immediately returned to publishing articles on his site, vesti.uz. Voice of America correspondent Abdumalik Boboyev, similarly charged with "defamation of the Uzbek people" was also found guilty of slander charges,” but spared a jail sentence as a third charge of “illegal border crossing” was dropped. He was fined the equivalent of $11,000 and plans to appeal the sentence. Boboyev also resumed his journalism work.
President Karimov's daughter Gulnara Karimova, who has acquired a colorful reputation in Western media due to her various high-profile business and charity activities and association with her father's dictatorship, was in the news again with the launch of a fashion magazine in Tashkent, L'Officiel Central Asia. The Spanish daily El Pais has claimed a connection between Karimova, Uzbekistan’s ambassador to Spain, and Zeromax, a multi-million dollar conglomerate seized by the government earlier this year. Mirodil Jalolov, former CEO of Zeromax, was arrested in Uzbekistan in September. Some regional press seems less certain about Karimova's connection to the Swiss-registered company; centrasia.ru says the link to Zeromax has never been proven and Karimova denies it.
An analyst from Radio Ozodlik, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe's Uzbek Service who requested anonymity says that in fact Zeromax had "fulfilled its mission" and allegedly enabled Karimova to amass billions in profit from the gas, oil, gold, cotton and other industrial sectors in Uzbekistan and then through intermediaries, spirit these funds abroad.
Questions are being asked about a subsidiary of Zeromax, FMN, an American-owned business which has managed logistics for soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and Central Asia, says EurasiaNet. Attacks on U.S. military supply lines in Pakistan have raised the possibility that the U.S. and NATO will be forced to increase their use of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), says EurasiaNet -- and that means increased dependence on Uzbekistan's leadership. While the NDN has been plagued with delays in Uzbekistan, the route is still vital to U.S. military planning. Human rights activists like Inoyatova are hoping the U.S. can use this new proximity to the Uzbek government to ensure freedom for journalists and human rights activists caught in the net of state persecution.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Uzbekistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Choihona blog. To subscribe to Uzbekistan News Briefs, a weekly digest of international and regional press, write [email protected]