UK Defense Secretary Phillip Hammond meets with Afghan troops in Helmand.
The UK will give or sell military equipment to Uzbekistan as it withdraws its forces from Afghanistan, the country's secretary of defense has reaffirmed, suggesting that London will have a pretty liberal policy for doing so.
During a visit to British forces in Helmand, Afghanistan, defense secretary Philip Hammond was asked about Uzbekistan's prospects for getting British equipment, The Times (UK) reports:
Mr Hammond, on a brief tour in Helmand, said: "Clearly those that have helped us would have a strong claim on any surplus material." He added that gifting or selling equipment under value would have to be reported to Parliament. "We have already agreed on the structure of the deal and it's just going through the ratification process now, and I am highly confident that that will happen," he added.
"We have a general principle that we don't transfer equipment that might be used for internal repression, but the Uzbeks have a clear challenge in the post-2014 period around their long border with Afghanistan. This is not just against an insurgency or Islamists, but also against crime and narcotics."
Thousands of migrant workers, many from Central Asia and the Caucasus, are toiling in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi to help stage the most expensive Olympic Games in history. Many are abused and exploited, working in miserable conditions for little or no pay, Human Rights Watch said today.
Released a year before the games kick off, the 67-page report, entitled “Race to the Bottom: Exploitation of Migrant Workers Ahead of Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi,” documents gross violations of Russian and international law, as well as the Olympic spirit.
Tens of thousands of workers, including an estimated 16,000 workers from outside Russia, are helping prepare Sochi for the showcase games, which open next February 7. Human Rights Watch (HRW) focused on these migrant laborers because, compared with Russian workers, they are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Researchers interviewed 66 construction workers from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine.
Migrant workers said employers subjected them to a range of abuses and exploitation, including: failing to pay full wages, excessively delaying payment of wages, and in some cases failing to pay any wages at all; withholding identity documents, such as passports and work permits; failing to provide employment contracts, or failure to respect terms of a contract; and requiring excessive working hours and providing little time off. […] In several cases documented by Human Rights Watch, employers retaliated against foreign migrant workers who protested against abuses by denouncing them to the authorities, resulting in the workers’ expulsion from Russia.
Authorities and construction companies interviewed by HRW deny the allegations.
Elite police units in Tashkent have started rounding up and arresting black market currency dealers days after new restrictions on the circulation of foreign currency came into force, according to witnesses and media reports.
Russia's RIA Novosti news agency quotes a law-enforcement official as saying that authorities are trying to prevent the exchange rate of Uzbekistan’s national currency, the sum, from plummeting against hard currencies.
"Since it is now impossible to purchase foreign currency in cash and there is a shortage, foreign currency has sharply gone up [in value] against the local sum, and authorities have decided to eliminate everywhere the so-called 'black [market]' dealers from whom in most cases the population and business buy foreign currency," RIA Novosti cites its source as saying. "The idea is that if there are no dealers, there won't be the possibility of selling and buying foreign currency; therefore, there won't be demand and foreign currency won't grow [in value]."
Sources in Tashkent have confirmed to EurasiaNet.org that elite Interior Ministry OMON troops have indeed raided major markets in the capital, sweeping areas where black market currency dealers operate, including the Sergeli car market. For practical reasons, major items such as apartments and cars are often traded for dollars: The Uzbek sum equivalent of a few thousand dollars is so bulky that it must be transported in garbage bags or suitcases.
OMON units wearing black balaclavas detained about 20 people, including women, in a raid on the Chorsu Market in Tashkent's old town on February 1, an eyewitness told EurasiaNet.org. The suspects were put onto a bus and driven away.
Uzbekistan has asked NATO for assistance in defense education, the alliance has said in the Secretary General's annual report:
Education is a key agent of transformation and NATO is using it to support institutional reform in partner countries. The Alliance’s education and training programmes, which initially focused on increasing interoperability between NATO and partner forces, have been expanded. They now also provide a means for Allies and partners to collaborate on how to build, develop and reform educational institutions in the security, defence and military domain. Defence education enhancement programmes have been set up with Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan and the Republic of Moldova. In 2012, Iraq and Mauritania also began cooperating in this field with NATO, while Ukraine and Uzbekistan have requested assistance.
In terms of building up Uzbekistan's military capacity, this isn't going to do much: these sorts of institutional reform projects, while probably more productive in the long run, tend to be viewed skeptically by post-Soviet countries, who would much rather have "hard" tactical training or equipment aid.
So the significance of this is geopolitical. While that diverse group of countries (including Collective Security Treaty Organization members Armenia and Kazakhstan) should temper any sweeping judgments about what the geopolitical significance of this is, it's still an intriguing step by Tashkent. And as Uzbekistan has just left the CSTO, much to the consternation of Russia, this will undoubtedly be viewed in the Kremlin as evidence of Uzbekistan's drift westward.
The head of Swedish-Finnish telecoms giant TeliaSonera, Lars Nyberg, has resigned after an auditor found the company was negligent when purchasing mobile licenses in graft-saturated Uzbekistan.
The 2007 deal was thrust into the spotlight in September, when Swedish journalists accused TeliaSonera of paying some 2.2 billion Kroner ($337 million) to a small, offshore company linked to President Islam Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara Karimova.
Mannheimer Swartling, which carried out the review for TeliaSonera, found no evidence of bribery or money laundering, but said “the suspicions of crime expressed in the media and by the Swedish Prosecution Authority cannot be dismissed by this investigation.”
Biörn Riese, a lawyer for Mannheimer Swartling, “notes that the transactions have been surrounded by so many remarkable circumstances that at least someone should have reacted to the lack of clarity regarding the local partner,” the firm said in a February 1 statement.
“If one carries out business in a corrupt country, one should quite simply be more thorough than TeliaSonera has been,” Riese said.
Last month documents surfaced showing TeliaSonera knew it was dealing with Karimova, who has been described in US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks as a “robber baron,” for the way she uses her father’s leverage to take over profitable businesses in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan is seeking to get mine-protected vehicles, small arms, and even helicopters and drones from NATO forces who are using its territory for logistics support in Afghanistan, the New York Times has reported. That Uzbekistan is seeking some sort of leftover weapons is old news; this has been discussed (publicly) for more than a year. But the Times story provides a lot of new detail on what in particular Uzbekistan might be looking for, and it looks like they're aiming their sights high:
[T]he Uzbeks have been broadening the scope of their demands, said a senior American official directly involved in the diplomacy of the Afghan logistical routes, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the delicate negotiations.
The requests have gone from relatively common items like night-vision goggles to large and expensive American-made goods like MRAP vehicles, the 14-ton armored utility trucks that help protect troops from roadside bombs.
Other items that the Uzbeks have eyed in the American arsenal in Afghanistan are small arms, mine detectors, navigation equipment and possibly drones, according to Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, suggesting that the Uzbeks are looking at the pullout next year as a sort of everything-must-go moment for military shopping.
And Uzbekistan isn't just looking to the U.S., but Germany, too:
After years of watching helicopters fly in and out of Termez airfield, which is used as a German base in Uzbekistan, the government in March told Germany’s defense minister, Thomas de Maizière, who was visiting, that it would not mind getting its hands on a few of them, the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported....
Such talks have alarmed members of the German Parliament, who requested clarification from their government.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has labeled 2013 the “Year of Prosperity and Wellbeing.” Starting today, prosperity is best measured in bricks of small-denomination Uzbek sums.
The streets of Uzbekistan’s cities have long been home to a thriving black market cash exchange, where dollars are worth approximately 40 percent more than in banks. Unsurprisingly, that’s kept hard currency out of the hands of central bankers.
Uzbekistan's Central Bank says it is moving to "improve" regulations regarding the sale of hard currency by making it basically impossible to buy dollars, euros and the like, starting February 1. Its new protocols are based on a "thorough" study of local and foreign practices, the Bank says.
Previously, any adult Uzbek citizen had the right – theoretically – to purchase foreign cash of up to $2,000 in value per quarter at the official exchange rate. To ensure no one got more than his or her fair share, the bank made notes in each citizen’s passport with details of the transaction, including the date.
Because it is so much more valuable outside on the street, the hard currency was in high demand. So the banks rarely had enough cash for more than a few customers per day. Late on January 31 in Tashkent, for example, commercial banks were advertising dollars at 2,038 sums (advertising, not necessarily selling), while the black market rate was about 2,800 sums to the dollar. (The highest-denomination sum note is 1,000, meaning stacks of bricks are required for many purchases.)
The substantive rate difference spawned all sorts of schemes, your correspondent can attest. At many banks women (at least it always seemed to be gangs of women) would queue from early in the morning, intimidating, with the help of police and bank security, any one else trying to buy dollars. Those dollars, most Tashkent residents believe, quickly ended up on the black market.
These days, most discussions of Islam Karimov’s age end up drifting to a logical end: Who, oh who will next mount the throne in Tashkent? Many fear a power struggle when the oldest leader in the former Soviet Union inevitably exits. And yet, at least publicly, Karimov goes on ignoring the obvious.
On his 75th birthday, we’ll leave thoughts of mortality to the president himself. Journalists, perhaps eagerly practicing for his obituary, are using the occasion to reflect on the strongman’s living legacy – his 24 years in power, which make him the second longest-serving head of state in the former Soviet Union. (The other Soviet relic is Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, 72, whom Moscow appointed one day before Karimov, in June 1989.)
To mark the birthday, Daniil Kislov, the respected Uzbekistan-born, Moscow-based editor of Fergananews, posed a question in an op-ed for the Russian daily Moskovskiy Komsomolets: "On his 75th birthday, I don't understand one thing: Is he indeed the most brutal dictator of modern times, or just a sham and useless persona on which nothing in the country depends anymore?" Kislov's conclusion: "The time of his rule will go down in the history of the [Central] Asian republic as a time of the rosiest hopes and most bitter disappointments."
Karimov understood early on, Kislov writes, that in order to stay in power he had to stifle freedom of speech and destroy his political opponents.
Result: Uzbekistan hasn't had opposition leaders for 15 years – all of them are either in prison or in exile. [...]
Uzbek censorship is total, as the country has not a single independent media outlet, hundreds of news sites are blocked, tens of journalists have had to leave the country, while those who used to open their mouths too wide are either in prison or mental institutions. [...]
International pressure can affect the abysmal human rights situation in Uzbekistan, it turns out: After years of withering criticism, Tashkent is deploying fewer children into its cotton fields and relying increasingly on teenagers and adults – including public service workers threatened with loss of employment and loss of benefits such as pensions – Human Rights Watch says.
The “abuses persist,” however, in all of Uzbekistan’s provinces, says the New York-based watchdog in a report released late Friday night.
For the 2012 harvest, the Uzbek government forced over a million of its own citizens, children and adults – including its teachers, doctors, and nurses – to harvest cotton in abusive conditions on threat of punishment, Human Rights Watch found. The authorities harassed local activists and journalists who tried to report on the issue. In 2011, Uzbekistan was the world’s fifth largest exporter of cotton.
“The issue here is forced labor, plain and simple” said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Forcing more older children and adults to work in the cotton fields to replace some younger children, does not change the fact that Uzbekistan is forcing a million of its people to labor in these fields involuntarily every year at harvest season.”
It is widely acknowledged that the Uzbek government has long relied on forced labor, including of children as young as nine, to pick cotton produced for export. In 2012, the burden was shifted somewhat to older children and adults, according to cotton workers, independent activists, and local rights groups across Uzbekistan who spoke with Human Rights Watch.
Uzbek human rights activists have plenty of reasons to feel unsafe at home and in exile. Their well justified fears may now spread: A prominent Russian activist who has written extensively about human rights abuses in Uzbekistan says he has received death threats originating in Tashkent.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on Russian authorities to investigate the death threats against Vitaliy Ponomarev, the lead Central Asia expert with the Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center, and his family.
His latest report, published on December 26, detailed the Uzbek security services’ interrogations of Uzbek migrant worker Latif Zhalalbaev in a Russian prison: Uzbek operatives have allegedly tortured Zhalalbaev, who was arrested last October on counterfeiting charges, in attempts to extract information on the financing of an Islamist militant group, Ponomarev reported.
On January 12, Ponomarev received three emails within several minutes threatening him and his family. The authors of the emails said they know where Ponomarev lives and specifically threatened to decapitate him. The emails, which came from a single IP address in Tashkent but from different addresses, also warned him against travelling to southern Kyrgyzstan. When Ponomarev publicized the death threats on January 18, he received another threatening email.