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UZBEKISTAN


 

 

Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 9,949 9,713 11,300 91
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 420 450 550 173
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (date from the World Bank)

Books on Uzbekistan


Update No: 382 - (26/03/13)

The adjective most commonly associated with Uzbekistan's human rights record is "atrocious". Islam Karimov has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989 with an iron fist. His name is synonymous with rampant rights abuses, corruption and authoritarianism. Transparency International ranks the country 170th out of 174 countries surveyed in its most recent Corruption Perceptions Index. Western NGOs have been all but chased out by the regime and civil society is muted. The intolerant, unreasonable views which Karimov regularly airs to society would be considered eccentric at best. It recently emerged that he would not allow the country to embrace Western style democracy as it was associated with homosexuality. The self-styled moral arbiter of the nation has also backed TV shows which expound the belief that tattoos can cause moral damage.

Political pluralism is virtually non-existent in this one party state. Fear of prison sentences and physical intimidation loom over all opposition activists. On December 8 of last year, nine NGOs, among them Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, petitioned the Uzbek government to mark the 20th anniversary of the country's constitution with the unconditional release of political prisoners. An amnesty was granted to 840 convicts but there was not a single political activist among them. Those freed included more than 200 women and more than 500 convicts who had committed crimes for the first time or crimes of a petty nature. One disabled person was among those freed. The act of "humanism", as the government put it, was highly selective, critics noted. The state employs a huge apparatus to limit the actions of activists, including the rather old-fashioned use of travel restrictions. Uzbekistan is the only post-Soviet state which still demands exit visas for those wanting to leave the country, making freedom of movement extremely difficult. It frequently refuses to grant these visas as a form of political punishment. In January, for example, artist Vyacheslav Akhunov, who has been asked to perform at the Venice Biennale this June, was prevented from leaving the country. In advance of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius' visit to Tashkent on a trade mission, artists from the United States, Russia and other countries called on the diplomat to "urge the government of Uzbekistan to honour the rights and freedoms of artist Akhunov, who represents the modern independent art of Uzbekistan abroad." Political activists Dmitry Tikhonov, Bakhodir Namozov, Saida Kurbanova, Mamirjon Azimov, and Oktam Pardaev have also been denied exit visas in past years. The international response to Tashkent's rights abuses is overwhelmingly castigatory and there has been some pressure on the regime to reform. A recent example of this is an initiative by the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) to train Uzbekistan's police to respect human rights. The OSCE provided training courses for 50 police officers in the Uzbek towns of Karshi and Andijan over the course of one week in February. The programme however received much criticism from rights groups. Many wondered what the training of police in such a repressive regime served. Many were also concerned that it gave the false impression that the regime is taking rights reform seriously, when in reality, this is far from the case and the police are fully implicated in rights abuses.

Western NGOs would attempt to pressure the government from within the country, but they have, almost entirely, been chased out. The only Western NGO that remains in operation is Medecins Sans Frontieres. Its presence is invaluable as the country faces a growing drug-resistant tuberculosis epidemic which is highly difficult to treat. Medical infrastructure is underfunded. Dr Emily Wise, a Specialist Registrar in Infectious Diseases and General Internal Medicine from London, has been documenting her experiences of working on tuberculosis projects in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan on a blog One Steppe Beyond. Her description of the medical facilities in the district of Shumanay makes for sobering reading: "The radiological provision for the entire district is one portable X-ray machine in a room less sturdy than a shed. They have an inpatient ward brimming with cases and over 300 ‘chronic’ TB patients in the community they cannot cure, presumably because they are infected with drug-resistant strains. Staff have been rationing a handful of respiratory masks between them, re-using them over months." A problem in ascertaining the country's health problems is a lack of transparency in the statistical information the government provides. The country is also battling HIV. Between 2001 and 2005, when international organizations were helping to introduce testing, annual newly registered cases grew by 300 percent. At a speech given in November last year to mark World AIDS Day, the director of Uzbekistan’s National AIDS Centre, Nurmat Atabekov, announced that the number of new infections in the country was falling. Independent experts however questioned these statistics, on the basis that the country tests 2 million people a year out of a population of around 30 million, and they aim the tests at low risk groups. Drug users and gay men who tends to be a higher risk group are stigmatized and discriminated against (homosexuality is illegal) and therefore remain in the shadows. There are also concerns that the tests are not properly carried out, particularly in rural areas, producing the possibility of false negatives.

The West has more interaction with Uzbekistan through commercial ties and business links. These however are not necessarily any more felicitous than the experiences of NGOs. Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, published on December 5 last year, placed Uzbekistan at 170 out of 176 countries. The World Bank recently ranked Uzbekistan as the worst performer out of 185 countries surveyed in its Doing Business report for 2013 in the area of cross-border trading. The ongoing TeliaSonera scandal is perhaps the most serious indictment of the business climate in Uzbekistan. A TV documentary aired on Sweden's SVT public television in December entitled the "TeliaSonera and the Dictator's Daughter," seemed to validate accusations that TeliaSonera telecoms company paid $250 million in bribes to Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, in exchange for accessing the Uzbek market. Whilst the telecoms major denies wrongdoing, commenting, "We have zero tolerance against corruption and we are confident that the investigations will show what has really occurred," consensus is that clearly any form of cooperation with the Uzbek regime in business involves shady dealings. Gulnara Karimova has been described on numerous occasions as a 'robber baron' overseeing an empire of seized wealth in a system which has corruption built into it at at each stage. She is currently being investigated by Swiss authorities for dubious financial dealings. The gap between the lives of the politico-economic elite and ordinary, working citizens is colossal. Uzbekistan is frequently accused of using slave labour in its cotton industry. Cotton is Uzbekistan's primary agricultural product and one third of the population are involved in the cotton trade. When the cotton harvest rolls round, it is alleged that schoolchildren as young as nine are removed from school in order to work in the fields, under what the charity Anti-Slavery International describes as "appalling conditions." Public sector workers such as doctors, teachers and nurses are also coerced into working the fields, facing loss of wages if they do not. This archaic seeming practice has drawn considerable international attention but shows no sign of change. The agriculture industry places an emphasis on manual as opposed to mechanised labour, which doubtless serves the regime's political agenda and appears unlikely to be transformed any time soon. Another recent government initiative likely to prejudice the financial status of workers is a decision by the Central Bank to put new restrictions into place that could reduce the widespread use of hard currency by ordinary citizens. The Bank says the aim is to strengthen the status of the Uzbek som as "the only legal tender in Uzbekistan" and "to meet international standards for preventing money laundering." Many citizens are concerned that the new ruling could restrict their access to the dollars and roubles they currently receive through remittances from relatives working abroad, mainly in Russia.

Whilst Western powers decry the Karimov regime for its various iniquities, be it in terms of rights or in terms of business dealings, they have a vested interest in not aggravating the regime, due to its strategic importance in helping with the NATO war effort in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan has played a vital role in the Northern Distribution Network. The Network was created as a set of commercial agreements with Central Asian states to allow the transit of non-lethal cargo to the US troops in Afghanistan. This became particularly important as the routes via Pakistan proved increasingly perilous. It is a profitable business for Uzbekistan, which is paid transit fees. Since NATO is planning to leave Afghanistan in 2014, it has been deepening ties with Tashkent in order to secure a safe exit route. This has been met with consternation by rights activists. Prior to a meeting with the Uzbek foreign minister Abdulaziz Komilov in Washington in mid-March, Secretary of State John Kerry was warned by Human Rights Watch not to ignore the regime's rights abuses. In 2004, Congress had restricted assistance to Uzbekistan based on its deplorable rights record. Following the Andijan massacre of May 2005 when 187 citizens were shot dead by the authorities in a protest march, these restrictions increased further. However in January 2012, the Obama administration began to reduce these restrictions and re-start military aid to Tashkent. At the time Human Rights Watch protested, arguing that Uzbekistan had not even hinted that it was going to improve its record on human rights. On February 16, 2013, the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia mounted an online petition to prevent the sale of Western military supplies to Uzbekistan. Titled "No More Andijans", the petition warned that Western equipment would be used for the slaughter of civilians.

The matter has been particularly topical of late because a number of countries, among them Germany, the US and Britain, have made deals for a secure withdrawal from Afghanistan that involves the transfer of weaponry. The British Ministry of Defence announced in February that it had arrived at a deal with Tashkent which would entail “gifting” around £450,000 pounds worth of leftover equipment, such as Land Rover spare parts and Leyland DAF trucks from the war to the regime as part of its military withdrawal. Defence Secretary Philip Hammond explained that a deal had to be made with Uzbekistan because the only current transit route for equipment through Pakistan "would be hard pressed to meet the capacity demands” of the removal. The Minister was keen to assert that the weapons would not "be used for internal repression," only "in protection from the rebels or the Islamists, [and in the] fight against crime and drug trafficking." The regime also maintains that the weaponry will be used in the fight against Islamic extremists. There is some credence to this argument; external analysts have warned that groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan might be gathering strength and have their sights set on Central Asia. Tashkent says that once Western forces leave Afghanistan, this threat will only increase. It is difficult to judge the veracity of these claims. Some analysts argue that these fears are overblown and certainly do not justify the relaying of such amounts of hardware. US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake stated that there is no "imminent Islamist militant threat to Central Asian states" at a hearing held by the U.S. House of Representatives on “Islamist Militant Threats to Eurasia” on February 27 of this year. “The most capable terrorist groups with links to Central Asia, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [IMU] and the Islamic Jihad Union, [IJU] remain focused on operations in western Pakistan and Afghanistan,” added Justin Siberell, the State Department’s deputy coordinator for counterterrorism.

A central concern for rights watchers is that the threat of Islamic extremism has repeatedly proved a useful pretext for crackdowns on civil society. Indeed the authorities continue to blame Islamic extremist groups for the unrest in Andijan back in 2005. As has been the case in many Central Asian states and Russia, the threat of extremism has provided a useful excuse for quashing all manner of freedoms of expression. Despite the threat of oppression and reprisal, dissenting voices still attempt to challenge government diktat. At the start of the year it was reported that the website of Uzbekistan's National Television and Radio Company (strictly controlled by the government) has been hacked. On January 30, the website unexpectedly carried a message saying, "The news you spread are lies!" A group that called itself Clone Security took responsibility for the incident - at their peril.
 

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