Asia, Human rights, New in Lobbying

Uzbek separatist party gets US agent with environmental focus

A self-described “freelance scientist” from Washington state has registered as a US agent for an Uzbek separatist leader in exile.

Andrey Khomutov, a microbiologist originally from Ukraine, is helping Amahbay Bazarbaevich Sagidullaev with his correspondence with US and international leaders, according to his registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Now living in Norway, Sagidullaev is the leader of Alga Karakalpakstan, a party that seeks independence for northwest Uzbekistan’s theoretically autonomous Republic of the same name.

While the party has long called on the international community to help usher in a new state, Khomutov told Foreign Lobby Report that his interests are mainly environmental. He wants to draw attention to the disappearance of the Aral Sea between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which has been devastating to the people of Karakalpakstan.

“I’m working as his consultant related primarily to environmental issues,” Khomutov said. “I’m 59, but I’d like to see the Aral Sea come back to normal in my lifetime.”

He said he’d like to use his contacts around the world to apply some of the know-how from successful dry countries such as Israel to tackle the challenge.

Khomutov’s registration and increased focus on the Aral Sea come at a delicate time for Uzbekistan, which has launched a public relations campaign to end the private sector boycott of its cotton exports over allegations of forced labor. The Donald Trump administration’s decision today to ban some cotton imports from western China’s Xinjiang region could prove a boon to Uzbekistan if the so-called “cotton campaign” against its exports is lifted.

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Uzbekistan launches PR campaign to lift cotton boycott

Renewed focus on the water-intensive Uzbek cotton industry’s environmental impact could make that case more difficult.

“The policy of cotton growing has been harmful for the people of Uzbekistan for many years and has led to dramatic environmental degradation in the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan,” said Umida Niyazova, a former political prisoner and executive director of Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, a German non-governmental organization that has played a lead role in the cotton campaign. “The harm done in Karakalpakstan is a crime committed by the central government in Tashkent, which still does not exempt Karakalpakstan from cotton production despite the dire lack of water in the region.”

Still, she cautioned against mixing environmental advocacy with calls for independence.

“Raising the questions of separatism at the moment seems to me to be a rather harmful phenomenon,” she said. “In the absence of any democratic institutions and a free press, it is quite difficult to measure how the people of Karakalpakstan feel about separation from Uzbekistan.”

In her view, she said, the environmental degradation caused by large-scale cotton farming does not represent “targeted or deliberate discrimination against the people of Karakalpakstan,” even if they are some of its worst victims.

“Forced labor, land confiscation, lawlessness, corruption, the order to plant and surrender the cotton plan exist throughout Uzbekistan,” Niyazova said. “Human rights problems in general and labor rights in the cotton sector in particular apply throughout Uzbekistan.”