I got to see a little bit of Uzbekistan, but only from the air. Here's what's left of the Aral Sea.
I wanted to shoot a story about Uzbek weddings, lavish affairs that are the stuff of legend among the Uzbek migrant population in Moscow, where I live.
As a Russian citizen, I don’t need a visa to visit Uzbekistan. But I knew the country is deeply suspicious of journalists of any sort. So as not to look too professional, I selected only a few lenses for my trip. And, another precaution: I deleted some phone contacts, cleared the browsing history on my iPad, deleted the Facebook app.
Around midnight last Wednesday I took off from Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport and at 5.30 a.m. landed in Tashkent. My future fixer was at the airport to fetch me and take me to a barbeque at his home.
At passport control, I waited behind a crowd of Uzbek migrant laborers. But when it was my turn with the immigration officer, something was clearly wrong. He scanned my passport several times, then frowned and said, gesturing to a bench, “Bro, would you be so kind to wait a little bit over there?”
The crowd thinned and disappeared. After maybe half an hour, two polite men in the olive-green uniforms of border agents across the former Soviet Union asked me to follow them. As we walked, they asked if I’d ever been to Uzbekistan. Yes, I’d lived briefly in Tashkent as a first-grader, but I grew up in Russia. And I’d visited some friends there in 1998.
They looked disappointed. I asked what was happening and they said only that I was on a “blacklist” and that I was being sent home.
At the gate, the olive-green men approached an attendant for the return Moscow flight and said, “This guy is being deported back to Russia. Find him a free seat.” They handed her my passport.
In the second major utility tariff increase in six months, Uzbeks will soon begin paying about 10 percent more for water, gas and electricity. Gasoline, when consumers can get it, soared in price repeatedly last year and another 20 percent this January. Yet officially, inflation somehow manages to stay under 7 percent.
Uzbekneftegaz, the national oil and gas company, http://www.ung.uz/business/tarifs " title="" target="">said this week that according to a March 17 Finance Ministry resolution, the price of natural gas would rise 8.9 percent on April 1. The price last rose 8.5 percent in October 2013.
The state-run electricity provider, Uzbekenergo, announced on March 18 that its tariffs would rise 9.5 percent on April 1. Electricity prices climbed 7 percent last October.
On March 13 the state-run Suvsoz water-supply company said that in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, water prices would jump between 9.8 and 10.5 percent above rates set last October. Suvsoz said the hike was "due to an increase in the prices of electricity and other resources."
The Gazeta.uz news website reported on March 14 that tariffs for hot water and heating would climb 11.7 percent in Tashkent next month because of "a growth in prices of energy sources and materials."
Hot on the news that Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbekistan’s strongman president Islam Karimov, is a formal suspect in a Swiss money-laundering investigation, embattled Nordic telecommunications giant TeliaSonera has become the target of a related corruption probe in the United States.
“TeliaSonera has been informed that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has an ongoing investigation regarding TeliaSonera’s transactions in Uzbekistan,” the company said in a March 17 statement. “The DOJ has sent a request for documents to TeliaSonera. In addition, TeliaSonera has received a request from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to submit documents and information related to Uzbekistan.”
The company made the announcement five days after revealing that two of its daughter companies, TeliaSonera UTA Holding B.V. and TeliaSonera Uzbek Telecom Holding B.V (the holders of TeliaSonera’s operations in Uzbekistan, where it operates the Ucell brand), are under investigation in The Netherlands in a bribery and money-laundering case.
“Dutch authorities have requested collateral for any financial claims which may be decided against TeliaSonera UTA Holding BV,” TeliaSonera said on March 17, adding that the request for collateral stands at 10-20 million euros.
Switzerland's Office of the Attorney General (OAG) is investigating Gulnara Karimova, the scandal-embroiled eldest daughter of Uzbekistan's strongman president Islam Karimov, on suspicion of money laundering, it said on March 12. The news comes as another blow to Karimova, who has been embroiled in a public feud with powerful rivals in Uzbekistan since last fall.
The OAG statement said that Karimova had come under suspicion following the arrest in July 2012 of two Uzbek nationals in Geneva and the subsequent opening of a money-laundering probe in Switzerland targeting four Karimova associates.
Karimova could not at the time be made a suspect because of the “diplomatic immunity she benefited from until last summer,” the OAG said. She was made a formal suspect on September 16, after losing her immunity last July along with her post as Uzbekistan’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva.
The money-laundering probe is focused on “acts presumed illicit having taken place in the telecommunications market in Uzbekistan,” which are considered the “initial breaches” of the law in the Swiss money-laundering case, the statement added.
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."
While foreign military aid to the countries of Central Asia is unlikely to have a large impact on security in the region, it's unclear whether the positive effects will outweigh the negative ones. That's according to a comprehensive new report (pdf), "External Support for Central Asian Military and Security Forces," written by Dmitry Gorenburg for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (and supported by the Open Society Foundations, which also funds EurasiaNet).
The 90-page paper is the most exhaustive accounting of military aid given to the Central Asian countries. While "Russia remains the main source of military and security assistance for most Central Asian states" the report also looks at American and other countries' military aid, Both the U.S. and Russian aid is based primarily on quid pro quos, Gorenburg argues: for Russia it is for the sake of "basing rights and a certain level of acquiescence on Russian foreign policy priorities" while for the U.S. it's been "assuring continued access for transferring supplies and personnel to Afghanistan."'
Gorenburg notes that the possibility of Central Asian militaries receiving excess U.S. military equipment from Afghanistan is insignificant relative to the amount of attention it gets:
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."
A global survey of 223 cities ranks some of the capitals in Central Asia and the South Caucasus the world’s worst places for foreigners to live. Tajikistan’s capital, Dushanbe, for example – where officials build themselves multi-million-dollar palaces and ignore basic property rights, education, and a failing healthcare system – now ranks the worst city in Asia for expatriates to make a home.
The annual ranking, released February 19 by Mercer, a New York-based human resources consultancy, measures cities based on quality of living for foreigners, not locals. The company takes into consideration 39 factors including political stability, the effectiveness of law enforcement, censorship, pollution and healthcare, electricity supplies, the quality of schools and public services, availability of consumer goods and climate. The scores are “weighted to reflect their importance to expatriates.” The ranking has been published since 1994.
A decade ago, Asia would probably have offered more competition at the lower end of the rankings. But with stunning economic growth across much of the continent, today it is post-Soviet Central Asia that sweeps the bottom of the table. Dushanbe (ranked 209 globally) was one-upped in Asia by the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka (208), and fell two places in two years. Ashgabat came third from the bottom in Asia at 206, falling seven places since 2012. Fourth- and fifth-worst, respectively, Bishkek ranked 204 and Tashkent 202. (Almaty ranked 169 in 2012; Astana wasn’t surveyed. If you want to know where they rank this year, you’ll have to shell out $499 for the report.)
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.
The General Atomics "Avenger" UAV, which may soon be based in Central Asia. (photo: General Atomics)
The U.S. is making plans to set up drone bases in Central Asia in the case that the government of Afghanistan doesn't allow U.S. troops to remain in that country past this year, the Los Angeles Times has reported. The military wants to maintain the ability to carry out attacks against militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan even if it has no military presence in those countries, and the next best options are the Central Asian states. The officials interviewed didn't specify which countries were being considered: "There are contingency plans for alternatives in the north," said one official quoted by the paper.
So which would it be? The story's publication prompted much speculation among Central Asia watchers as to where the putative base might be located. Each of the three Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan would have serious downsides from the U.S.'s perspective. Tajikistan is highly susceptible to Russian pressure, and the Kremlin is surely not inclined to let the U.S. reestablish its military presence in Central Asia. Uzbekistan might be willing to host a base and is relatively immune to Russian pressure, but is a bit of a bete noire in Washington and setting up a drone base there would surely face resistance from human rights-inclined members of Congress. And Turkmenistan would have some of the same problems as Uzbekistan, but also has a proudly held neutrality that would seem to preclude hosting U.S. drones.
One wrinkle that could affect the decision is whether the bases are run by the military or the CIA. As the Times notes, the current drone program in Afghanistan and Pakistan is operated by the CIA, which can remain covert. President Barack Obama has said he wants to shift U.S. drone programs to the military, but in this case that would require the bases to be relatively public: