With only an eight-week pause, I was back in Uzbekistan, courtesy of SOLACE on behalf of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (counterpart: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan).
Once again, I was the sole UK contribution to the OSCE/ODIHR ‘Limited Election Observation Mission’, this time for the Presidential elections to be held on Sunday 29 March 2015.
On this occasion, I had the continuing good fortune to be based in the city of Nukus, the capital of (the Autonomous Republic of) Karakalpakstan – for anyone without a map to hand, that’s the part of the country that hosts the Aral Sea (what’s left of it). The territory of Karakalpakstan alone makes up approx. 40% of Uzbekistan – that’s one of the reasons that Karakalpakstan has its own parliament and autonomous powers, but there are other historical, political, ethnic and language reasons.
This time, I was accompanied by my new team-mate Irina (Russia), who graciously helped me to improve my Russian… which I can now speak quite ‘ploha’, also known as ‘nemnoga’ 🙂
Irina and Andy, guests at official celebrations marking ‘Nauruz’ (Central Asia New Year).
From Nukus, with Interpreter Kuuat, and Driver Rashid, for five weeks we covered the main highways, and many of the lesser byways of Karakalpakstan. We also covered the smaller, or should I say ‘compact’, region of Khorezm, that is on the southeast boundary of Karakalpakstan.
Karakalpakstan is best known for having the bottom half of the Aral Sea on its territory. Unfortunately, the Aral Sea is now one of the world’s environmental disaster spots. The main symptom is that the Aral Sea has been drying up due to water being diverted from its main feeder river, the Amu Darya, mainly for cotton production upstream.
Nukus is the capital of Karakalpakstan. Famously, it has nothing going for it as far as tourism is concerned, except for the world-famous Savitsky Museum. Amongst others, The Guardian and The New York Times (“One of the most remarkable collections of 20th century Russian art”) have published positive write-ups about the museum.
We were fortunate to discover that Marinika Babanazarova, the Director of the Museum, is also the Karakalpak member of the Uzbekistan Central Election Commission. Following our first meeting in her office, she insisted on giving us a personal guided tour of the 3% of the collection on show in the massive museum – the other 97% either comes out in rotation in Nukus, or is loaned out internationally for exhibitions, or never sees the light of day. Fortunately, the new extension buildings will triple the local capacity of the Nukus museaum.
There is a desirable film documentary about the museum, “The Desert of Forbidden Art”, voiced by Ben Kingsley, Sally Field and Ed Asner.
Really, it’s an inland lake, according to my Primary School teacher – a very, very big lake, but not a real sea (argue with my teacher, not with me!).
Towns that formerly were ports on the Aral Sea, are now 50-100km from the receding coastline. Moynak, for example…
… with its Ship Cemetery:
On the southeast boundary of Karakalpakstan region is the region of Khorezm. The modern capital, Urgench, is the gateway to the historic walled town of Khiva.
Khorezm has its own interesting history, and a few historical sights that we took in on the way – not least was the old walled town of Khiva, formerly one of the staging posts of the Silk Route, with its own dark history of trading in slaves as well as silk, etc.
Khiva – map of the old walled town
Music and dance while we dine, courtesy of our host, the Mayor of Khiva
VIDEO (music and dance, Khiva style)…
Khorezm region has produced some big names in mathematics, astronomy, geography and so much more, including
Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khorazmiy (Khwarizmi) (780-850)
Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Beruniy (Biruni) (973-1048)
Khorazmiy is named after the region of Khorezm; the town of Beruniy is named after Beruniy.
Thinking back to Election Day on 29th March, when the Voting had finished and the Counting took place in the Polling Stations, I have to wonder what these two Khorezm local lads from way back would have made of the counting skills and short-cut methodology of some of the modern election officials.
INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY 2015
8th of March, International Women’s Day, is a big event in Central Asia. We were honoured to be invited as special guests to the official IWD concert in Nukus. I wasn’t the only man in the audience, but there weren’t all that many of us. At least I was ushered into a front row seat.
‘NAURUZ’ – the Central Asia New year (“Navro’z” in Uzbek language)
This was my third Nauruz / Nowruz in Central Asia – the previous two were in Kazakhstan. Nauruz coincides with the 21st March Spring Equinox, and many people and institutions make extensive preparations for the big day – in fact, some celebrations last for a week. As well as being called the Central Asia New Year, it is widely known as the Iranian New Year, or Persian New Year.
We were honoured to be invited to the official Nauruz concert in Nukus, as special guests of the Vice Chairman of the Karakalpakstan Parliament. The concert was opened by the head of the Parliament of Karakalpakstan, speaking to an invited audience of thousands from all over Karakalpakstan, made up of local officials, cultural figures, other dignitaries and key locals, and some visiting internationals.
Head of the Karakalpakstan Election Commission, with Irina and Andy at official celebrations marking ‘Nauruz’ (the Central Asia New Year).
On the following day, we were invited by the Karakalpak Election Commission to the ‘open’ concert for the general public, in the same venue, with many of the same acts, but this time lasting only an hour.
“Happy New Year!”
I can’t finish this section without thanking our hotel, Jipek Joli (‘Silk Road’) for inviting us to a special, traditional Nauruz lunch on 21st of March (New Year’s Day). My camera-work doesn’t do it justice…
Irina observes up close in a Nukus polling station
Let the Count begin !
…and the winner at this polling station is… Mr Karimov, the sitting President !
polling stations register their results at the Nukus District Election Commission, beginning 11pm Sunday, ending Monday afternoon
polling station results are reviewed by the Nukus District Election Commission
press conference by the Nukus District Election Commission
On the day following Election Day, the OSCE/ODIHR mission published its “Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions” in Tashkent. The Final Report will be published in June 2015.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uzbekistan.
UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office.