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Uzbek rights activist Yelena Urlaeva was taken into custody on March 1 and confined to a psychiatric hospital. Urlaeva "has an enormous amount of compassion and understanding of people of all walks of life and religious backgrounds," says Steve Swerdlow of Human Rights Watch.

The administration of new Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev seemed to be making progress in freeing political prisoners incarcerated during the previous regime of President Islam Karimov, whose death was announced on September 2, 2016.

Four activists -- three of whom had served sentences of 17 years or longer -- have left prison since late October 2016, and another activist was released from forced confinement in a psychiatric hospital after spending nearly all of the last 10 years in such facilities.

But on March 1, Mirziyaev’s government took a big step backward when it detained rights activist Elena Urlaeva and confined her to a psychiatric hospital.

How to read these seemingly mixed signals? Does Mirziyaev’s administration have a new policy toward jailed activists, political opponents, independent journalists, and others who were thrown into Uzbekistan’s prisons during the last 25 years under Karimov? Or was there another reason for freeing the activists? Is it still business as usual in Uzbekistan, despite the new president?

Those are the questions we ask in this week's Majlis podcast as we review the Uzbek government’s recent moves toward perceived regime opponents.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Germany, Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, joined the talk. From the United States, Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, took part in the Majlis. News that Urlaeva had been forced into a psychiatric hospital hit me like a brick to the head, so I wanted to say something also.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev

Karimov’s government put thousands of people in prison over the course of 25 years. Most of them were jailed for religious reasons -- suspicions their piety had led, or would lead, them into Islamic extremist groups.

Any critic of the Uzbek government was targeted and measures taken to neutralize their potential influence on society.

"It has been a momentous six months," Swedlow said, as he recounted the release of an activist from the Ezgulik (Compassion) group, Bobomurod Razzaqov, in October, and Samandar Kukanov, a former member of Uzbekistan’s parliament who crossed Karimov and was imprisoned in 1993. "Perhaps after Nelson Mandela, [Kukanov] may have been the longest imprisoned political prisoner in the world."

And in February, there was Rustam Usmanov, founder of Uzbekistan’s first private bank but also a supporter of the opposition Erk party, who was jailed in 1998. And then the release of Muhammad Bekjon (Bekjonov), who Human Rights Watch called the longest imprisoned journalist in the world, put behind bars in 1999.

Bekjon is the brother of Muhammad Solih, the leader of the opposition Erk party. Swerdlow noted the significance of that, saying, "Many people believed that Mirziyaev could release others, but how could he possibly release the brother of probably the most hated enemy of the Uzbek government? But he did so."

Niyazova welcomed freedom for the four, but she noted, "Mirziyaev has not released them. ... [Three of them] already served all their [prison] terms," and added, "For Mirziyaev to release them, it cost him nothing, but it is in his favor that their detention term was ended."

Swerdlow pointed out that many of Uzbekistan’s prisoners, including those already mentioned here, have had their prison terms prolonged, usually just before they were due for release. Niyazova credited Mirziyaev for that: "It’s good that he decided not to prolong their terms."

And it was noted that these four men are now elderly, in their 60s and 70s, and probably do not represent much of any kind of threat to Uzbek authorities anymore.

Jamshid Karimov, the nephew of former Uzbek President Karimov, was also let out of a psychiatric hospital at the end of February. Karimov, a rights activist who was also an independent journalist, was first put in a psychiatric hospital in 2006. His relation to Karimov made no difference to the former president, who had been estranged from the rest of his family for many years.

These all seemed like very hopeful signs.

But on March 1, police took Urlaeva into custody.

As Niyazova explained, "The same evening, a man who introduced himself as a doctor at a psychiatric clinic called Elena’s son and said that Elena had been admitted for compulsory treatment."

Urlaeva has been instrumental in bringing to light the abuses that Uzbek authorities have been committing, particularly the annual conscription of up to 1 million people to go into the cotton fields at harvest time and pick cotton for the state.

WATCH: Uzbek Antislavery Activist Held In Mental Institution

Uzbek Antislavery Activist Held In Mental Institution
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Not so many years ago, many of these conscripts were children, but thanks to work by Urlaeva and others, this is no longer the case (although the authorities simply substituted the minors with their parents or other adults).

Niyazova said she has known Urlaeva for 15 years and "during all these years, we have lost count of how many times she has been arrested [or] she has been beaten."

As has previously been the case, Uzbek authorities have offered no reason why Urlaeva was detained, but Swerdlow offered one possible explanation for this latest detention.

"She was supposed to have a meeting with the World Bank and the [International Labor Organization] to discuss the results of the monitoring work she’s been doing, to discuss the cotton harvest," he said.

Uzbek authorities have attempted for years to point to Urlaeva’s psychiatric treatments as proof she is not mentally competent to make any judgments about events inside Uzbekistan.

"I remember very well, about 15 years ago, when Elena was standing on the street, a man who was most likely an SNB (National Security Service) agent kicked Elena in her stomach with all his strength in front of my eyes," Niyazova said.

"The trauma she has suffered means that sometimes Elena needs medical psychiatric help. We should be clear on this," Niyazova explained. "But this does not undermine or discredit her human rights work, and the most disgusting aspect of this case is that Uzbek authorities are taking advantage of Elena’s vulnerability, so when they don’t know how to silence her they simply detain her in a psychiatric clinic."

Swerdlow said Urlaeva "has an enormous amount of compassion and understanding of people of all walks of life and religious backgrounds and is willing to help basically anyone at the drop of a hat, run to their house, or run to wherever a detention or arrest is taking place, witness it, write it down, and immediately communicate it to journalists and diplomats and anyone who will listen."

Niyazova summed up Urlaeva’s importance to Uzbekistan, saying, "Especially in Uzbek society and in a country like Uzbekistan, [where] people are living in fear, when people think about one thing and say another, Elena is unique."

Majlis Podcast: Mirziyaev And Human Rights
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Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev (right) talks with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev in Samarkand in December.

New Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyaev made his first official foreign visit as Uzbekistan's leader on March 6-7. Mirziyaev said Central Asian regional relations would be one his priorities and he followed through, visiting Turkmenistan with plans to travel to Kazakhstan later in March.

Qishloq Ovozi recently looked at Mirziyaev's first six months in office, not excluding foreign policy but focusing more on the domestic policy changes, or lack thereof.

Our regular Majlis, or panel discussion, decided to flip that and concentrate on Mirziyaev's regional foreign policy during his first months as president. There was mention of domestic policies as well.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir.From Washington, Alex Melikishvili, senior Central Asia analyst at IHS Markit Country Risk, joined the talk. From Prague, Alisher Sidikov, director of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, took part. And since I just wrote a paper on this and gave a presentation on the topic (Thank you George Washington University!), I sat in on the discussion.

'Less Baggage' Than Karimov

Mirziyaev was Uzbekistan's prime minister from 2003 to 2016 so he is more familiar with domestic politics than he is with foreign policy.

In terms of his regional policy, Sidikov said Mirziyaev "doesn't have this baggage of President Karimov, being [the] oldest in the region, or thinking he is [the] smartest in the region, or having some personal rows… so for him it's much easier to start everything from the clean page."

That is certain. It was not only that Karimov did not like many of the other Central Asian leaders, he also occasionally mocked them in public comments. When the leaders of neighboring countries implemented decisions that displeased Karimov, he closed his border to them [and Uzbekistan borders every other Central Asian state], suspended railway transit through Uzbekistan to these countries, or turned off gas supplies.

Mirziyaev's choice of Turkmenistan for his first visit was interesting. Karimov did not get along with Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, but Uzbek-Turkmen ties improved greatly after Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov came to power after Niyazov's death at the end of 2006. Uzbekistan's ties with Turkmenistan were probably better than with any other Central Asian country over the last decade.

'Safe Choice'

Melikishvili pointed out that it was "a safe choice because Turkmenistan is officially a neutral country."

There were also practical reasons for going to Turkmenistan. Melikishvili explained that "joint transportation projects and regional transportation projects" are necessary for Uzbekistan, which like all the other Central Asian countries is in the midst of a deep economic crisis at the moment.

It was mentioned that Uzbekistan is also one of the world's only double landlocked countries, meaning there are at least two countries between Uzbekistan and any access to the world's oceans.

Melikishvili noted, "Berdymukhammedov promised Uzbek companies unfettered access to the port infrastructure that is being built as we speak, on the Caspian shore."

Access to the landlocked Caspian Sea would help a bit in connecting Uzbekistan to the Caucasus countries and possibly farther westward and could boost trade modestly.

Trade Interests

Sidikov said Berdymukhammedov's is at least partially driven by trade interests, including something Uzbekistan desperately requires at the moment. "They need cheap gas and oil, which they can use in the neighboring Bukhara refinery, one of the biggest in Central Asia," Sidikov said.

Uzbekistan does have oil and natural gas, but in recent years there have been shortages of both, something noticed by segments of the population living in cold flats during the winter and observed by motorists who face regular shortages of petroleum at filling stations.

Turkmenistan has an abundance of both commodities and a severe lack of customers at the moment.

Melikishvili added that maybe the most important reason Mirziyaev needed to go to Turkmenistan was to "explain why Uzbekistan and China decided to postpone the construction of Line D of [the] Central Asia-China gas pipeline network."

That decision has huge repercussions for Turkmenistan and was examined in a recent Qishloq Ovozi.

'Kazakh Investments'

Sidikov commented on Mirziyaev's upcoming trip to Kazakhstan, saying some of the talks with President Nursultan Nazarbaev would undoubtedly involve "Kazakh investments" particularly "into property in the [Uzbek] capital Tashkent."

And Melikishvili recalled that an auto plant to assemble Uzbek cars was due to open in the northern Kazakh city of Kustanay about the time Mirziyaev comes to Kazakhstan.

Sidikov mentioned progress made in Uzbekistan's ties with Kyrgyzstan to the east. Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations have been, to put it very mildly, bad for many years.

Sidikov said part of the reason ties are suddenly improving is a renewed desire from Mirziyaev's government to "connect the Osh [Kyrgyzstan]-Andijon [Uzbekistan] region… and China, and from China to South Korean ports."

There is a railway planned from Uzbekistan through Kyrgyzstan to China but Sidikov suggested the Uzbek government would like to see a road route opened as soon as possible.

'Lucrative Opportunity' For Russia

Mirziyaev is scheduled to make his first visit as Uzbekistan's president to Russia in April.

"It will be interesting to see how far Russian-Uzbek cooperation in the military and security area advances," Melikishvili said. "In particular, I'm referring to the fact Uzbekistan needs to overhaul its military and Russia will see a very lucrative opportunity in this in terms of selling weapons and equipment, military equipment to Uzbekistan."

As for Uzbekistan's relations with the West, Sidikov explained, "The things that he [Mirziyaev] doesn't understand he tries not [to] touch at this point, so that's why issues like talking to the West [are] primarily under [the chairman of the Senate Committee for Foreign Affairs, also twice Foreign Minister Sadyk] Safayev and [current Foreign Minister Abdulaziz] Kamilov."

One of the big topics of the Majlis was some debate about how much control Mirziyaev really has over decision-making.

Convertible Currency?

Mirziyaev has made some promises, such as easing the visa regime for come countries, only to later postpone the implementation of these plans.

The announcement just before Uzbekistan's December 4 presidential election that the country would start moving in 2017 to make the national currency (the som) convertible was the last thing heard about that issue.

Melikishvili said another promise from Mirziyaev, this one to cancel requirements for an exit visa, was coming up later this year and would provide the outside world with another opportunity to see if the new Uzbek president can do the things he says he will.

The Majlis looked at all these topics in greater detail, talked about Uzbek-Tajik relations, and delved into some other matters concerning Mirziyaev's time as Uzbekistan's leader.

An audio recording of the discussion can be heard here:

Majlis Podcast: Mirziyaev Tries His Hand At Foreign Policy
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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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