Uzbekistan 2015: Year in Review

It was another rough year for Uzbekistan, with entrenched corruption, forced cotton labor, and an economy weakened by the Russian remittance crisis among the key trends. My report for Nations in Transit is out today. Here is an excerpt:

Despite the government’s isolationism, Uzbekistan’s economy is dependent on Russia through its heavy reliance on migrant labor remittances. The Russian currency crisis and tightening of work restrictions for Central Asian migrants negatively impacted Uzbekistan’s economy, prompting a black market currency crisis in the fall. Uzbekistan also bore the international fallout from presidential daughter Gulnara Karimova’s corruption scandals in the telecommunications industry, which drove away major international investors like the Swedish telecoms giant TeliaSonera. Karimova remained under house arrest for all of 2015, while both her business associates and the state officials who prosecuted them were arrested under allegations of corruption. The arrests of Karimova’s prosecutors, many of whom had served in the national security services, signaled an internal power struggle among Uzbek elites.

In October, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Uzbekistan, prompting international human rights groups to implore him to convince the Uzbek government to release political prisoners. Shortly after Kerry’s visit, political prisoner Murod Juraev, held since 1995, was released in what appears to be a token gesture. Uzbekistan’s other political prisoners remain incarcerated while harassment, arrests, and abuse of Uzbekistan’s few remaining human rights activists continued throughout the year. In July, the State Department upgraded Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to Tier 2 in its annual human-trafficking report due to an alleged cessation in the use of child labor in the cotton fields. Uzbek citizens and activists noted that while child labor may have lessened, adults were still being forced to work the fields under brutal conditions. Although overseen by local authorities, the forced cotton labor industry is an apparatus of the state. In October, local officials in the Ferghana region allegedly instructed laborers to glue white tufts of cotton back onto their bolls to give an impression of a bountiful harvest in anticipation of a visit by Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev.

In March, President Karimov was reelected for a fourth presidential term with 90 percent of the vote, despite a constitutional amendment that limits the presidency to two terms. Karimov’s opposing candidates sang Karimov’s praises during their own campaigns, and the election was criticized as unfair and unfree by international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Throughout 2015, the government continued to target Uzbekistan’s few remaining human rights activists, subjecting them to torture, sexual assault, forced hospitalization, and persecution of their families. Pious Muslims were also targets of state harassment, as security services forced women to remove their hijabs and banned children from religious celebrations.

Independent media remained nearly non-existent, but social media proved a lively avenue through which Uzbeks documented the harsh conditions of daily life, particularly the use of forced labor in the cotton industry. Social media campaigns showcased mounting frustration among Uzbeks and in some cases, a willingness to protest their plight, with the most popular campaign involved Uzbeks proclaiming “We are not afraid” to state officials. But protest on the ground remained minimal, as most Uzbeks are primarily concerned with surviving in a weak economy made more vulnerable by the Russian economic crisis.

Read the full report at Nations in Transit. I encourage you to check out the other country reports as well.

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