President Islam Karimov attended the informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as well as a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Moscow December 19-20, although he made it absolutely clear prior to the meeting that he saw no need to reconstitute the Soviet Union. Karimov has generally stayed away from CSTO meetings and activities, to the point where Belarusian autocrat Aleksandr Lukashenka has even called for Uzbekistan to be expelled from the security body.
When Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gathered the leaders of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan together back in October to declare the formation of a Eurasian Union, Karimov ignored the meeting. Then on November 30 in Karshi, the Uzbek leader gave a speech saying: “Unfortunately, today in some places of the former territory of the former Union there are certain forces who are imposing the idea of a return in a new form of the empire which was called the USSR,” the semi-official news site uzmetronom.com reported, citing the state news agency UzA.uz.
Uzbekistan has been reluctant to have the CSTO or even the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) involved in conflicts within Central Asia. Even when pogroms against ethnic Uzbeks broke out in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and then-president Roza Otunbayeva asked Russia and the CSTO for help, Tashkent reportedly opposed both CSTO and OSCE intervention, preferring to open its borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees -- then sending them back home to Kyrgyzstan after only a few weeks.
At the CIS summit, Karimov said that while he saw a reason to keep the CIS as a platform for dialogue, other parallel integration processes were under way (possibly a reference to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and that Tashkent would participate in any regional bodies "guided above all by its long-term national interests," the state news agency UzA.uz quoted him as saying.
In the last year, with the rising importance of Uzbekistan's role in the Northern Distribution Network supplying NATO troops, the West appears reluctant to criticize Tashkent's poor human rights record. The European Parliament's
rejection of a textile tariff reduction by a vote of 603-8 therefore seemed an unexpected flash of resistance to the Realpolitik that has been practiced of late in capitals. The MEPs strongly condemned the use of forced child labor and demanded an investigation by the International Labor Organization to assess the situation. The London-based Anti-Slavery International gathered over 13,000 signatures calling on parliamentarians to help stop the exploitation of Uzbek children in the cotton harvest.
The United Nation's World Food Program also spoke up in protest of Tashkent's actions .last week, protesting the continued blockade of cargo bound for Tajikistan, including international food aid, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported. Traffic on the line has been halted since a bomb attack on a rail bridge that many suspect has been used as an excuse to punish Tajikistan further for going ahead with plans for the Roghun hydroelectric power station against Tashkent's wishes, and also to remove any possible competition to Uzbekistan's business supplying NATO, the Bug Pit blog noted.
A dramatic story of an Uzbek student in Germany who supposedly returned home to Andijan region in Uzbekistan, then was detained, tortured and forced to agree to a plan to kill an opposition leader abroad, turned out to be a hoax. For weeks, human rights activists, journalists and bloggers were kept busy trying to get to the bottom of the saga of the mysterious young woman, Gulsumoy Abdujalilova, who seemed to be a real person behind her Facebook account (under a pseudonym) where she was described as working for the émigré opposition group the Popular Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU). As Choihona noted, the story bore the signs of a Soviet-era espionage meme, yet in some of its elements was distressingly common-place – and therefore believable.
Elena Urlaeva, a Tashkent-based human rights leader who was contacted by a woman purporting to be Gulsumoy’s sister, Mohlara, began calling police in search of the student reportedly in custody, only to be told the next day that she had committed suicide. Urlaeva persisted in trying to reach police and prosecutors about the case, then trudged through Gulsumoy’s supposed neighborhood and school, coming up with no confirmation that such a person had ever existed. Her further inquiries in hospitals and morgues found no one by that name or any such case.
Ultimately, Urlaeva concluded that while she had agreed to help a woman in need in good faith, there was no validation of the story. A report in the semi-official uzmetronom, a website notorious for leaking information from law-enforcement agencies, had earlier claimed to get confirmation from both the Uzbek and German authorities that no such student existed, and had theorized that exiled opposition figures were trying to smear the regime.
Yet it seemed just as likely that Uzbek intelligence operatives were trying to tarnish an opposition that has increasingly become active, on social media. Otherwise, it was puzzling why the PMU, which had sought to attract people to its Facebook group and demonstrations in European cities would risk discrediting themselves with an easily refuted rumor. Officials at the German university where the fictitious Gulsumoy was said to study told reporters that no such person was registered.
Although the story seemed to be over with that expose, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Radio Ozodlik subsequently reported on a woman, Khurshida Jurabayeva, who surfaced in Moscow after traveling from Uzbekistan via Kazakhstan, claiming that she, too was detained and tortured and had Gulsumoy’s suicide note and a copy of her birth certificate. Later, she traveled to Turkey, bringing out the documents. Ozodlik reporters examined the story and arranged an online conference with various people involved in the account, but could not substantiate the facts. Their inquiries with the morgue in Andijan found no one by the name of the official who supposedly signed the death certificate. Ultimately, Jurabayeva admitted she had made up the story -- but claimed it was all a plot by Uzbek intelligence agents,
While this story proved untrue, the reason it resonated for so many people was because there are so many cases of detention and torture in Uzbekistan. Both students abroad as well as émigrés do not feel safe from the watchful eye of their country’s intelligence agencies. Social media like Facebook and Twitter as well as opposition websites are going to continue to be an arena for competing political forces which the Uzbek regime will likely attempt to manipulate.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick compiles the Uzbekistan weekly roundup for EurasiaNet. She is also editor of EurasiaNet's Choihona blog.