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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’
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:
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.
VIDEO (music and dance, Khiva style)…
Khorezm region has produced some big names in mathematics, astronomy, geography and so much more, including
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.
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…
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.
After twelve years, I was back in Uzbekistan. Selected by SOLACE on behalf of the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, I was the sole UK contribution to the OSCE/ODIHR ‘Limited Election Observation Mission’ for the parliamentary elections. I then had the good fortune to spend a number of weeks based in the historic city of Samarkand, that once was the centre of Tamerlane’s empire.
From Samarkand city, accompanied by team-mate Eldrid Roine (Norway), Assistant-Interpreter Alisa (and Shakhnoza temporarily), and driver Sherzod, we struck out over a number of weeks across the Great Silk Route regions of Samarkand, Navoiy, Bukhara, and Qashqadaryo, holding meetings with election officials, candidates, political parties, journalists (article: visiting the studios of Samarkand TV), civil society organisations and human rights defenders, amongst others.
The “Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions”, published the day after the elections, concluded that the 21 December 2014 parliamentary elections in the Republic of Uzbekistan “were competently administered but lacked genuine electoral competition and debate.”
SAMARKAND – ANCIENT CAPITAL OF THE GREAT SILK ROUTE
Amir Timur (1336-1405) – Tamerlane – monument in Samarkand
Tamerlane’s mausoleum & tomb (black, centre) in Samarkand, surrounded by loved ones
The ‘Registan’ (‘Sandy Place’) Square
The Registan was the official centre of Samarkand in the Fifteenth Century
Siab Bazaar, farmers market
BUKHARA – ANCIENT CITY OF THE GREAT SILK ROUTE
TOWN & CITY – MODERN LIVING
ELECTION CAMPAIGN SAMPLERS
Setting up the Polling Stations…
Training the Polling Station’s commission members, by lecture…
The ‘Christmas’ festive season is celebrated colourfully in Uzbekistan, but not as a religious occasion, just as an occasion for celebration. It is mingled with other events nearby in the calendar – for example, the Chinese New Year (19th February, 2015) will bring in the Year of the Sheep (or Goat, or Ram), hence Santa and a sheep are depicted in this shop window painting (almost every shop window was painted over with a seasonal scene).
After three months of pining, finally I was back in my beloved eastern Ukraine city of Kharkiv.
…as OSCE/ODIHR Team 38… Veronika (Lithuania), Anastasiya (Assistant/Interpreter), Olga (Assistant/Driver), The Token Man (UK), and our faithful Qashqai…
“Should Scotland be an independent country?”
To be, or not to be… that is the question on the ballot paper, 307 years after Scotland agreed to a parliamentary union with England.
A flying visit home to Glasgow. How could I miss my own country’s independence referendum?!
My fading recollection of the failed 1979 devolution referendum needed a top up, especially after my absence for the successful 1997 devolution referendum. I can still remember how I voted in 1979, in Stirling, but it is hardly relevant – “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, as a chap once wrote.
I escorted my 94-years old aunt to the local polling station. The polling station officials agreed to her request for me to assist her in the voting booth, since her eyesight is too bad to read the ballot properly. I stuck a small piece of yellow post-it paper beside each option, “Yes” and “No”, letting her fingers guide the pen to the box of her choice.
Around the corner from my aunt’s home, outside another polling station, I bumped into Nicola Sturgeon, the no.2 in the Scottish National Party that currently controls the devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, and leads the independence “YES” campaign. A handshake and some pleasantries exchanged, doutless l left her pleased to have been in the right place at the right time (yes? no?).
Whatever the people decide, the Scottish constitutional arrangement with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, is about to be torn up.
Yes: 44.7 (1,617,989)
No: 55.3 (2,001,926)
A detailed breakdown of the result is here, courtesy of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland.
Most other cities and regions said NO.
The leader of the NO campaign, Alastair Darling, was relieved.
The leader of the YES campaign, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, relieved himself of his leadership of the independence movement, the Scottish Parliament and the SNP, with a resignation speech on the day after the referendum. Favourite to replace him is his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, who has been known to hang around the streets of Glasgow chewing the fat with me (see above).
I didn’t bump into any international observers, unfortunately. I loved this article about Russian observers, and wonder if they’ll next pitch up somewhere in Ukraine for the 26th October parliamentary elections?!
It was a blast. Looking forward to the next time!
My OSCE colleague, my friend, Pim de Kuijer, died over Donetsk, Ukraine, on Flight MH17. On Thursday 17th July 2014, he was aged 32.
Pim was my OSCE elections team-mate in September 2007, in eastern Ukraine, when we observed the parliamentary elections. Based in Melitopol, we visited polling stations from Melitopol down to the Sea of Azov, close to Crimea.
Anyone meeting Pim for the first time would know in less than a minute that he was a very smart, well-educated, sociable and witty guy. He was clearly someone with a bright future ahead, and a big contribution to give to humanity – he had made a lot of progress since 2007, until flight MH17 was brought down.
Rest in peace, mate.
The Guardian published an article about Pim, written by a friend.
BBC: MH17 Crash