The period under review has seen trials of several human rights activists, oppositionists and independent journalists. The most prominent case is the one of independent journalist Umida Niyazova who was sentenced to seven years in prison on 1 May, found guilty of illegal border crossing, smuggling, and possessing or distributing materials posing a threat to public security and public order. However, except for the illegal border crossing, Umida Niyazova has denied all charges; international media and human rights organizations claim that the sentence was politically motivated. Umida Niyazova has worked for different international organizations such as Freedom House and Human Rights Watch and has extensively reported on the 13 May 2005 events in Andijon (see earlier FAST Updates). International attention about her case had a certain effect – on 8 May she was released and her sentence reduced to a three-year-suspended-sentence after having pleaded guilty and having condemned her former employer, Human Rights Watch. On 15 March, local opposition leader and member of the Central Council of the Birlik party, Mukhamadali Karabaev, was sentenced in Namangan to six years in prison for “swindling and extortion.” This accusation seems to be one of the favorites of the judiciary when persecuting oppositionists. Another prominent human rights activist, Gulbahor Turaeva, was sentenced on 24 April in Andijon to six years in prison for undermining the country’s constitutional government and threatening public order. She had been arrested at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border with books of the banned opposition Erk party on 14 January. The situation around one of the last remaining international NGOs, Human Rights Watch (HRW), is still unclear: On 13 April, the Uzbek authorities denied accreditation to the Tashkent office director, which means that the office cannot legally continue to work. On 21 April, the accreditation was orally extended for an additional three months under the condition that the organization does not violate any Uzbek laws, although there was no specification given on whether or not HRW had violated any Uzbek law before. Given the country’s overall policy regarding international NGOs and human rights, there is a high probability that HRW will not be allowed to continue its work in the country. Furthermore, the criminal investigation of two local journalists of Germany’s Deutsche Welle has been started for having worked without proper accreditation.
These persecution cases of human rights activists reveal several things: first, they might point to certain nervousness within the Uzbek government due to the presidential elections in December; and secondly, Uzbekistan is not interested in improving its relations with western countries at the cost of a relaxation on a perceived threat to internal stability. The increased pressure on human rights activists, just ahead of the EU’s decision on whether or not to lift imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan, might lead to the conclusion that the Uzbek government does not care about these sanctions. Another possible interpretation is that the increased pressure makes gestures of good will much easier on the government, since it only needs to return to its previous level of pressure in order to be applauded for improving.
In the social sphere, investment in infrastructure has continued (see last FAST Update): the construction of bazaars in Andijon province, the construction of new water pipelines in remote villages in Farg’ona province and the Republic of Qaraqalpaghistan or the extension of the phone lines in Farg’ona province. Many of these investments are still done by coercing local farmers and businesses to contribute funds, and the same holds true for job creation in different regions of the country. Local authorities also seem to be trying to engage youths, e.g. at a seminar on youth participation in public political life in Nukus on 10 March. There is, however, considerable anecdotal evidence to indicate that there is widespread hardship and dissatisfaction among the population. In Andijon, for example, state medical services were suspended due to a shortfall in funding. This means that people were no longer able to receive free medical treatment. Another grievance is the frequent shortages on utility services such as gas, water and electricity. Gas limitations have the biggest implications for the government – the population is blaming the government for selling gas to Russia thereby creating a deficit situation in the country. Whether or not such accusations are true remains questionable, but the fact that they are voiced shows a small tip of the iceberg of dissatisfaction among the population. Small protests by women against the lack of gas and electricity were reported from Andijon in March, which resulted in the police arresting several of them. Elsewhere, for example in Samarqand, there were accusations of corruption in the local administration when distributing social support – such support is only available in return for bribes, which obviously takes the notion of “social support” ad absurdum. Two separate cases of self-immolation in Jizzakh were reported. Both were committed in prominent places, namely the central square and in front of a local tax inspection. The reasons behind this are complex and difficult to grasp, but one possible explanation could be the (at least perceived) injustices from the side of local administration and courts. These self-immolations are strangely reminiscent of a similar phenomenon in the 1980’s, which could not be explained at the time. Considering the societal implications of suicide, self-immolation as one of the most extreme forms of suicide points to a high level of desperation on part of the population.
During the period under consideration, pressure on farmers from the authorities using methods reminiscent of Soviet days was reported. On the one hand, farmers (in Surxondaryo province) were punished for not having fulfilled the state quota on cotton last year. On the other hand, they were under severe police surveillance during the sowing period (Andijon and Jizzax provinces). Reports on bodily punishments by police and members from the local administration for not showing enough enthusiasm during the sowing campaign show the seriousness of the problem – either you work well enough to receive state medals or you are punished.
Surveillance of the internet has grown during the reporting period. Several independent (of the Uzbek government) news websites were barred in the country. In Qarshi, there were complaints about video cameras being installed in internet cafés, allegedly on order from the security services interested in screening people who tried to access blocked websites. In Namangan, on 17 April the local administration controlled all internet and game clubs in the province, allegedly to check the legality of the games played there. However, local observers claim that the aim of the control was to check whether or not blocked websites were still accessible. Despite President Karimov’s statement that one cannot close the internet, an increase in control of independent websites in the wake of the presidential elections in December is likely.
Several high-ranking official visits took place in the past two months, all of which underline the diversification of Uzbekistan’s international relations. One of the most important visits was the official visit by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov on 6 March. Although relations with Russia remain Uzbekistan’s priority in foreign policy, several commentators suggested a certain cooling of the bilateral relationship that manifested itself in the modest results of the visit: an agreement on a joint venture in aircraft construction, and the announcement that Russia and Uzbekistan are going to conclude an agreement to regulate labor migration from Uzbekistan to Russia. Although the latter is an important issue for both countries, it could not cover the disagreements in various spheres, such as Uzbekistan’s debt to Russia or the imbalance in mutual car exports in Uzbekistan’s favor at a margin of 20:1. Another remarkable international event was the official visit by Pakistani Prime Minster Shaukat Aziz to Tashkent on 13 March, where the two sides discussed energy and transportation links as well as the common fight against terrorism. The diversification of the country’s international relations is also demonstrated by an official state visit of President Karimov to Egypt on 17-19 April, where he discussed questions of economic partnership with his counterpart Hosni Mubarrak. Also in April, a delegation from the European Union visited Uzbekistan ahead of the decision to be made in May on whether to renew the sanctions the EU imposed on Uzbekistan after the Andijon events.
As displayed in the graph above, the overall stability of the country is at a high level. Despite the latent discontent with the economic situation, the country is set to remain on a stable course. The Uzbek government will most probably continue its tough stance on human rights activists, notwithstanding western pressure. On the international scene, the diversification of relations, especially towards Asia and countries of the Middle East, can be expected to continue. It remains to be seen how far the mentioned disagreements with Russia will harm bilateral relations.