Thursday, August 25, 2016


Audio Tajik Asylum Seekers Traveling Further Abroad

There has been a big uptick in the number of asylum seekers, many of them Tajiks, appearing at the main train station in Brest, a town on Belarus's border with Poland. (file photo)

Bruce Pannier

During the last two years, authorities in Tajikistan have been carrying out a crackdown on political opponents. More of a crackdown than usual, that is to say, because the Tajik government has a long record of harassing the country's political opposition.

But the recent campaign against the opposition features a large number of arrests. Already hundreds of people have been detained and dozens, so far, imprisoned. 

Some people in Tajikistan worry they might be next, and have fled the country. It has happened before, during the 1992-1997 civil war in Tajikistan. But for those fleeing now, the safe havens of 20 years ago are no longer safe, and they are having to travel further, to Europe.

To look at who these people are, where they are going, and what is driving them there, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or discussion panel, to talk about these recent developments. 

Moderating the talk was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir.Our friend Edward Lemon, a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter who specializes in Tajikistan joined us. Also taking part from Berlin was researcher and journalist Yan Matusevich, who is the author of a recent article in The Diplomat on the topic of Tajikistan's asylum seekers. As usual, I had a couple of things to say also.

Emigre Numbers Surge

The biggest opposition group -- the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) -- lost the last two seats it had in parliament in the March 2015 elections. It was a signal that the party's fortunes were about to take a drastic turn for the worse. 

During the six-month period that followed, state media launched a relentless campaign to blacken the image of the IRPT. The party lost is registration, was ordered to cease all activities, and, by the end of September, was declared an extremist group while its leaders were rounded up and put on trial. 

Matusevich said that, since the IRPT lost its last seats in parliament, "we've seen a surge in the number of Tajik asylum seekers making their way to Poland via Belarus." Their numbers are not large, yet, but as Matusevich noted, "Tajik asylum seekers went from being nonexistent in Poland to over 500 in 2015 and already in the first half of this year they've gone over 616 asylum seekers."

More would be in Poland now except for the fact that Polish border guards have been turning them away at the frontier with Belarus. 

The reason they're showing up at the Belarusian-Polish border, Matusevich explained, is because "Poland just happens to be the closest EU border that they can make it to, transiting through Russia and Belarus, without a visa." 

Kremlin Cooperation

In the past, including during the civil war days, most people fleeing Tajikistan for political reasons went to Russia, but this is now changing. "Russia is no longer safe for Tajik opposition members," Lemon said, noting that his research shows "a real increase since 2014 in the targeting of opposition activists" on Russian territory. 

No matter what the ties have been between the Kremlin and Central Asian governments, one aspect of these relationships that has remained solid has been the cooperation between Russian and Central Asian security services. Central Asians wanted on charges back home have sometimes disappeared from the streets of Russian cities only to reappear in jail cells back home.

Turkey has been another possible destination for those fleeing Tajikistan in the past. But Lemon noted that this country has also no longer been considered safe ever since Umarali Quvatov, the leader of another Tajik opposition organization called Group 24, was assassinated in Istanbul in March 2015.

Matusevich said this latest crackdown is so broad that some of the citizens of Tajikistan now trying to get into Poland have, at best, tenuous ties to political activity. 

"There was one case of someone who was trying to seek asylum in Poland who was a security guard for the Islamic Renaissance Party, who was completely apolitical," Matusevich recalled. "As soon as the party was shut down he felt he could, potentially, end up in prison."

More Likely To Follow
 
More of Tajikistan's citizens are likely to surface in Belarus, hoping to make it further west. 

Lemon said that, in Tajikistan currently, those with ties to opposition groups are subject to "threats to family, surveillance, monitoring, and that really leads them to have a real sense of insecurity." 

Lemon added that the crackdown in Tajikistan is unlikely to abate anytime soon. "I think the legitimization of an authoritarian government is always going to be based on the construction of an enemy," he said. "So they're [the Tajik authorities] always going to need some kind of an enemy; otherwise [President Emomali] Rahmon's regime will struggle to hold some kind of legitimacy."

Matusevich said there are probably some 3,000 Tajik citizens who have been denied entry into Poland with some trying up to "40 times, 50 times, up to a point where the passport fills up with rejection stamps and they can no longer give it another attempt."

But Matusevich credited those from Tajikistan for "really following the procedure despite facing all the difficulties at the border." 

"We haven't seen many Tajiks try to cross the Belarusian-Polish border irregularly or just somehow circumvent the border crossing," Matusevich said. "Many times they call ahead, [to] NGOs in Poland to make sure they're doing this in the right way but then finding difficulties on the ground in actually making it through."

It is a very unfortunate situation. Europe is already facing its biggest refugee crisis since World War Two as people flee conflict in the Middle East. The thought of a new group of refugees coming from the east would not sit well with many people in Europe.

On the other side of the coin, the list of perceived enemies of the state is growing in Tajikistan and that will force ever more people there to want to leave the country and try to find a secure place to live. They have limited options as to where they can flee. 

The Majlis discussed these issues in greater detail and delved into other topics concerning governance and tolerance in Tajikistan, the situation in Belarus for those who make it that far, and other matters related to the asylum seekers from Tajikistan.

An audio recording of the Majlis can be heard here:

Majlis Podcast: Tajik Asylum Seekers Traveling Further Abroad
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.


Kazakhstan And The Cyber-Snitch

Hundreds of websites have been blocked by the Kazakh authorities but the efforts of the government are apparently not enough. So, the Kazakh government is calling on citizens to get involved.

Bruce Pannier

It's no secret that social-network sites on the Internet are being abused and used for foul purposes. No country is immune to this problem.

Kazakhstan has been having its own problems, particularly with sites authorities in the country say are carrying extremist messages and content. Hundreds of websites have been blocked by the Kazakh authorities but the efforts of the government are apparently not enough. So, the Kazakh government is calling on citizens to get involved.

Reports from Kazakh media on August 12 noted that the Information and Communications Ministry has launched a new website. "Dear friends, literally in the last few days on the website of our ministry a complaints section has been launched, where any citizen can inform about information on the Internet that violates the laws of Kazakhstan," a statement from the ministry read.

Reports on the launch of the new section on the ministry's website say it is mainly intended to help the authorities locate "sites and groups on social networks that carry propaganda on suicides, narcotics, terrorism, extremism, acts of cruelty, interethnic strife, etc...."

Those accessing the site can choose from a list of categories that could be relevant to their "complaint."

The website promises the ministry will check complaints from citizens to see if there are indeed violations of the country's laws on the websites and social networks in question.

The ministry also promises to explain to the people of Kazakhstan the reasons for official decisions to block particular websites.

The idea of the new complaints page seems to have some merit.

Based on reporting from RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, it is clear the number of suicides has been increasing lately amid Kazakhstan's drastic economic downturn.

There have been instances of websites available in Kazakhstan that have been promoting extremist ideas or disseminating radical content.

On the other hand, absent from the statement of the Information and Communications Ministry is mention of a vetting process for the complainer. It is unclear whether those filing a complaint could be found and held accountable for providing false information to the ministry's website if their complaints turn out to be false.

That raises the question of possible abuse of the website of the Information and Communications Ministry.

In 2015 there were several cases of bloggers being arrested and convicted for violating Article 174 of the Criminal Code, which deals with the fomentation of social, national, tribal, racial, class, or religious hatred, and actions that insult national honor or dignity or the religious beliefs of citizens. It was not always clear if those convicted intended to incite or insult, and if their writings genuinely represented a violation of the law.

Some felt the government used the law to silence government critics. The new site launched by the Information and Communications Ministry could be used toward similar ends if not properly managed.

Could it be used for personal vendettas? That is also unclear. There have been numerous examples worldwide of people creating dummy accounts to disseminate information in someone else's name.

Another aspect worth mentioning: Can this move by the Information and Communications Ministry really help prevent violence such as that seen in Kazakhstan this year?

In early June, a group of young men in the western city of Aqtobe robbed a gun store and staged an armed attack that left several civilians and police dead, and ended with a shoot-out outside a military facility where most of the attackers were killed. Their motives are still not clear.

In July, a former convict killed several people in Almaty in revenge at having been imprisoned.

Kazakh authorities have ascribed both these incidents to terrorism, a designation some people question. But if they were indeed terrorist acts, in both cases a website such as that just launched by the Information and Communications Ministry would not have helped. There was no cyber-trail.

Yerzhan Karabek of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report

Audio The Gulen Schools In Central Asia

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) rather quickly defused the problem with Turkey by making a visit to Ankara to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week.

Bruce Pannier

The events in mid-July in Turkey, events Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called an attempted coup, have had implications on Turkey's relations with many countries. Erdogan blames Fethullah Gulen, a cleric living in self-exile in the United States, for being the mastermind behind the alleged plot to overthrow his government.

After the Turkish government reestablished itself in power and started rounding up suspected participants and leaders, Ankara called on countries where Gulen-sponsored schools had opened to close down those schools. Among the countries the Turkish government called on to shut down these "Gulen schools" were Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Ankara's partners in the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States.

But the governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan did not comply.

To look at the reasons these two countries declined to acquiesce to Ankara's call, and review the difference of opinion among the Central Asian states as regards the Gulen schools, RFE/RL's communications office arranged a Majlis, a panel discussion.

Moderating the talk was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Bishkek, Emil Joroev, professor at the American University of Central Asia, joined the discussion. Alan DeYoung from the University of Kentucky in Lexington, who taught in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and has authored many works on education issues in Kyrgyzstan, also participated. And I naturally threw in a few comments from the studio in Prague.

Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev rather quickly defused the problem with Turkey by making a visit to Ankara to meet with President Erdogan. Nazarbaev did not agree to close down the Gulen schools in Kazakhstan, but he did promise to carefully scrutinize those running the schools and those teaching in them. Joroev said Nazarbaev explained to Erdogan that Kazakhstan does "take the warnings of the Turkish government seriously and that if there is any confirmed reason for taking some serious actions against these schools that Kazakhstan stands ready to do that."

Ankara urged Kyrgyzstan to close the Gulen schools also, warning they were dangerous, but Bishkek flatly rejected doing so.

Joroev said that shouldn't have been a surprise. "These 20 or so schools related to Gulen are really some of the most high-performing, highly regarded schools in the country, which are currently educating many thousands of children," he said.

DeYoung pointed out the schools have filled an important need for many in Kyrgyzstan. "The Gulen schools came and actually created schools in places where there used to be schools that weren't doing so well anymore...they provided opportunities and they provided resources, they provided classrooms with electricity."

Both Joroev and DeYoung agreed the Gulen schools appear to be providing students with a quality education. Joroev also pointed out that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the majority Muslim Central Asian states became independent, there were many questions about what form of Islam was best suited to their countries.

"I think Kazakhstan and especially Kyrgyzstan did not have a settled policy of exactly what sort of Islam we are going to teach, and in that regard I think the Gulen version of Islam, which is open to science, [a] modernizing version of Islam, sounded like an acceptable option," Joroev said.

The Majlis participants noted that is not the view in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, or Turkmenistan.

Gulen's ideas of Islam are inspired by the life and work of Sufi scholar Said Nursi (Nurchi). Tashkent was the first to believe there was a danger in the works of Nursi. In August 1997, Uzbek President Islam Karimov recalled all students studying at Nursi schools in Turkey. Nursi teachings are banned in Uzbekistan and people have been sentenced to prison for being members of the group.

Tajikistan closed the last of its Gulen schools in 2015, though that could be explained as part of a wider campaign against Islamic groups in Tajikistan that are not totally subservient to the government.

Turkmenistan, where the group is also referred to as "Nurchilar," closed the sole Gulen-linked school operating in the country at the start of August.

"It's likely the moral teachings of the movement which alarmed officials in each of those republics," DeYoung said.

Joroev said that in Kyrgyzstan, when the Gulen schools started to appear in the 1990s "there were lots of rumors about how these schools tend to indoctrinate and brainwash the kids." He said in Kyrgyzstan's case, the performance of students in those schools and lack of evidence of ulterior motives had persuaded many in the country that the Gulen schools pose no threat.

Of course, there are still doubts. "That's possibly the most important question these days, exactly what is the ultimate objective of the movement that we associate with Gulen," Joroev said.

DeYoung said the Gulen schools were a topic of conversation when he had been in Central Asia previously. "I've talked to people about how school leaders or university rectors are trained and the answer has always been 'well, they're not trained, they're just volunteers who come along.'"

For some, lack of clarity on points such as the training of teachers fuels distrust of Gulen schools.

The panelists agreed the Gulen schools that still function in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan would be well advised to show complete transparency about their organization and curriculum to help allay concerns. But it's unclear how far the schools would be willing to go or how much the authorities in those two countries would need to know to be assured there is no ill-intent.

The Majlis discussed these issues in greater detail and looked at other aspects of Gulen schools and Central Asians' attitudes toward the organization.

You can listen to the Majlis in its entirety here:

Majlis Podcast: The Gulen Schools In Central Asia
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NOTE: This was our first time doing the Majlis from Washington and Prague. There were some technical issues during the recording of the broadcast, which we expect to clear up soon. We apologize for those occasional moments when the audio broadcast breaks up

Samarkand Street Sweepers Strike Back

Street sweepers in the Uzbek city of Samarkand say they had not been paid for the past three months. (file photo)

Bruce Pannier

Armed with only the tools of their trade, a group of more than 50 street sweepers fended off police in the Uzbek city of Samarkand. Not so long ago it would have been easy to describe the events of the morning of August 6 in the ancient Silk Road city as a "rare" protest in Uzbekistan, but that is no longer the case and the street sweepers' protest might only be the tip of the iceberg.

The reason for the protest was unpaid wages, according to witnesses to the event who contacted RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik.

Carrying brooms, dustpans, and gardening tools, this group of municipal employees, mostly women, gathered at the provincial administration building and demanded to see the governor. Some 20 policemen quickly arrived at the scene -- only to be met by a picket line of brooms.

The group said they had not been paid wages for May, June, and July, they wanted their money, and they wanted the officials responsible for paying them to be held accountable.

The police called in the head of the Samarkand social welfare department, the local representative of Uzbekistan's central bank, and the director of the provincial finance office.

'No Money In The Budget'

Given Uzbekistan's record for dealing with protests, it was surprising the police did not arrest the group, but then the police and members of Uzbekistan's security agencies have been among those who have not been paid on time during the last couple of years.

Samarkand social welfare department head Mamurjon Muhsinov arrived. He told the group, "What can we do, there is no money in the budget, money isn't coming [from the central government]."

One of the women protesting answered, "You and your officials have spent all our money."

The street sweepers dispersed after officials promised to pay them their overdue salaries, and Ozodlik learned that on August 8 the workers were paid their wages for May and June. An official at the social welfare department in Samarkand told Ozodlik the July wages would be paid by August 12.

This official also said Muhsinov had been fired on the day of the protest.

Ozodlik also found out that the accountant for the Samarkand social welfare department had been questioned by the prosecutor's office.

Delayed Paychecks

Wage arrears have become a significant problem in Uzbekistan. Besides the Samarkand street sweepers, workers in the energy industry and the banking sector, state officials, security forces, and police have been among the victims of delayed paychecks.

Few have resorted to going on strike or protesting over wage arrears, but there are indications the population's patience is wearing thin.

At the end of December 2015, residents in the town of Gazalkent, some 70 kilometers northeast of Tashkent, protested for a week outside the city administration building and the local utility company after their household gas supplies were halted. By the end of that protest some people were throwing stones at the administration building. Just a couple of weeks earlier, residents the city of Ferghana blocked the main road to protest suspension of gas supplies.

The Samarkand streets sweepers' protest probably will not be reported by media in Uzbekistan. Uzbek authorities don't want people to believe they can get something through protesting.

But word spreads even without the media and the root causes of the protest in Samarkand are part of everyday life for many in Uzbekistan.

People have described the Uzbek government and President Islam Karimov as ruling with an iron fist, but there are limits to what an iron fist can do.

It is possible to repress people and deny them basic rights they never really enjoyed under the Soviet Union or prior to that under the khans and emirs of the region.

But demanding that people with barely enough to live on accept less is more difficult. Hunger and hopelessness are stronger than fear, as a group of ladies wielding brooms in Samarkand just demonstrated.

Sirojiddin Tolibov from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report

Problems With Paramilitaries In Afghanistan’s Faryab Province

A spokesman for Faryab Governor Said Anwar Sadat (above) says around 6,000 armed militants are present in Faryab. “More than half of them are helping Afghan security forces [against the Taliban]," he says, "but the other half of them are those who prey on ordinary people.”

Bruce Pannier and Mustafa Sarwar

Qishloq Ovozi has paid a good deal of attention to what is happening south of Central Asia, in Afghanistan. But most of these reports deal with unrest in the border area and the security problems militants in northern Afghanistan could pose to Central Asian countries.

Mustafa Sarwar, a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan, known locally as Azadi, came to me with a story about life and problems in Faryab, one of the Afghan provinces bordering Turkmenistan. RFE/RL’s Gandhara website visited this topic a couple of years back. What the Gandhara report described is still true but the scope is larger.

And remember, Central Asia is a big loser if the situation in northern Afghanistan falls into chaos, and this story of Faryab is likely similar to stories in most of the eight Afghan provinces bordering Central Asia.

"Around 6,000 armed militants are present in Faryab,” said Mohamad Jawid Bidar, a spokesman for Said Anwar Sadat, the Faryab governor. “More than half of them are helping Afghan security forces during operations [against the Taliban], but the other half of them are those who prey on ordinary people.”

These are Arbaky forces and Popular Uprising Forces or Kheizish-e Mardomi (as they are termed by the Interior Ministry) -- paramilitary groups that have some support from individuals in the Afghan government.

As Bidar noted, “In a province that has more than 1,300 villages with some 8,000 members of the security forces, it's very hard to establish posts in every village.” Which is why authorities have allowed these paramilitary forces to operate. Though Bidar admitted, “We do not have enough control on these [armed gangs].”

Mohammad Reza Rezayee, the head of public relations for 209 Shaheen Corps in Faryab, echoed Bidar’s comments, saying, “Some of them have played a positive role…but a number of them have caused concern for the locals, as well as for Afghan [government] forces.”

Rezayee claimed that “the provincial police command center provides them with ammunition to fight against the Taliban…but they sell some of the ammunition to the Taliban, which then is used against themselves and Afghan forces in the province.”

“Sometimes," he added, "they use the weapons against each other.”

Clearly, it is a confusing and terrifying situation for villagers, who have no way of knowing who these armed groups are -- pro-government paramilitaries or bandits connected to the government through vague promises.

Ahmad Jawid Kaiwan is the head of the Faryab Civil Society Network. He told Azadi, “Nowadays, people are more concerned about the popular uprising forces (the paramilitaries) than the Taliban because some of these [paramilitary] forces have ignited factional and ethnic fighting.”

Human Rights Watch recently released a report about abuses committed by some of these paramilitary groups, saying at one point that the use of these groups “has undermined security in northern Afghanistan.”

Kaiwan also conceded some of these paramilitary groups have “proven effective, but [they have] also created problems in many instances.”

Extortion is the biggest problem -- a fact mentioned by Bidar, Rezayee, and Kaiwan.

Said Hafizullah Fitrat is the head of the Faryab Human Rights Commission. He explained some of these Arbaky groups “are engaged in stealing. Sometime they commit sexual violence on people’s families. They want every household to pay them from 1,000 to 3,000 afghanis ($15 to $45) each month. They want people to give them food,” Fitrat said. “They even forcibly take people to their posts for hard work, such as bringing water from wells or digging…”

Some of these groups are protected by local law-enforcement officials; other groups have grown so strong that police are afraid and unable to act against them.

Abdul Karim is a villager in the Pashtun Kot district. He said the government should move against these groups.

“They are strongmen and they kill and extort people,” Karim said, “From our family, they have killed four of my brothers and I was shot.”

These paramilitary groups are a propaganda bonanza for the Taliban or other groups such as the so-called Islamic State militant group that are trying to get their own footholds in Afghanistan.

Rezayee of the 209 Shaheen Corps said the some of the groups “have created distance between the people and the government.”

We’ve heard during the Majlis podcast from analysts in Afghanistan who say that some Arbaky groups are so lawless that they are pushing villagers into the arms of the Taliban, who generally treat the population better than the paramilitaries do.

But with fighting now going on across northern Afghanistan, and government forces there stretched thin, these paramilitary groups are necessary to counter the growing number of Taliban fighters and foreign militants in the region.

In between these groups, as they have been for decades, are the villagers, who must endure the arrival of one armed group after another and wait and hope that one day, one of these groups might come to help them rather than steal from and abuse them.

Based on reporting by Mustafa Sarwar of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan

Uptick In Violence On Afghanistan's Central Asian Border 

Amid an uptick in fighting near the Amu-Darya River, Afghan-Tajik cross-border trade has been badly hit. Some days the frontier is even closed because the security situation is so bad. (file photo)

Bruce Pannier

About 1,000 years ago, on the territory of modern-day Afghanistan, Mahmud, the ruler of the Ghaznavids, ordered his engineers to build a boat-bridge across the Amu-Darya River. Mahmud used the bridge to invade Transoxania, in what is now modern-day Central Asia.
 
For the last two years there has been fighting in northern Afghanistan, just across the Amu-Darya River. The situation has gradually grown worse. Central Asia is in no danger of being invaded, but the governments of bordering Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan are concerned about the potential implications of Afghanistan's problems for their own security situations, even more so since some of their nationals are members of the militant groups in Afghanistan.
 
The breakdown in security in northern Afghanistan has coincided with a severe downturn in the economies of Central Asia, so the frustration is rapidly mounting in Ashgabat, Tashkent, and Dushanbe.
 
In the last week there has been plenty to worry about along the Afghan border. 
 
RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, and RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, and RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, have been closely following recent events along the Central Asian-Afghan border.
 
Since July 26, there has been fierce fighting in the Qoshtepa district of Afghanistan's Jowzjan Province, which borders Turkmenistan and is very close to the southwestern tip of Uzbekistan. 
 
Jowzjan Governor Rahmatullah Azizi told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service there were some 500 militants involved in the attacks in Qoshtepa. Azizi said most of the militants were (Afghan) Taliban, but there were also Pakistanis and Uzbeks.
 
According to Azizi and Haji Ubaidullah, an Arbaky paramilitary commander in the Qoshtepa district, these Uzbeks are remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). But that is no longer what they call themselves. These Uzbeks are from a new organization called the Termezi group. There appear to be only about 50 of them but they are playing leading roles among the militant groups in Jowzjan, acting as instructors and teaching how to build improvised explosive devices (IEDs). 

From Bad To Alarming
 
The day after fighting started in Qoshtepa, Uzbek President Islam Karimov chaired a meeting of the country's Security Council. The topic was security along the southern border. There were subsequently unconfirmed reports that the order was given to strengthen forces along the Afghan border.
 
RFE/RL's Gandhara website reported recently about Uzbek security forces crossing into Afghanistan and taking Afghans back into Uzbekistan. The areas just south of Tajikistan are where the security problems began several years ago. The situation in northeastern Afghanistan since then has alternated between bad and alarming. 
 
RFE/RL's Turkmen Service spoke with some locals in Afghanistan's Kunduz Province who live in villages along the Amu-Darya, across from Tajikistan but also very near Uzbekistan. They told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service there are militants sheltering on some of the islands in the Amu-Darya. They were sure, they said, because some of the militants regularly cross the river to Afghanistan to get food.
 
The city of Kunduz, the capital of Kunduz Province, briefly fell to Taliban and militant forces at the end of September 2015. There has been fighting around the city all this year and some local officials have voiced concerns that the militants could capture Kunduz city again.
 
Heavy fighting has also taken place in the Qala-i Zal district of Kunduz Province, which borders Tajikistan's Khatlon region. 
 
Local Arbaky commander Muhammad Nabi Kechi said the "Taliban and foreign mercenaries" partially or fully controlled 45 of about 50 villages in Qala-i Zal district. He said they had not yet reached the Amu-Darya but they were close.
 
Further east, in the neighboring Dasht-i Archi district, there has also been fighting for weeks and militants now seem to control most of the district. That fighting has spilled over into the Hojagor district of the neighboring Takhar Province, which also borders Tajikistan's Khatlon region. The militants have already captured some villages in Hojagor. 

Takhar Province Governor Muhammadyosin Ziyo told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that Afghan government forces are preparing an operation against the militants to drive them out, but there have been no reports saying that operation has started. Information from RFE/RL correspondents in the area suggest there are not even any preparations being made for this security operation.

Wary Truck Drivers

As to claims that the Taliban has actually captured and occupied villages in these northeastern provinces of Afghanistan, it is worth mentioning that the Taliban has not claimed this in any statements.
 
Tajikistan has been strengthening its border with Afghanistan for several years with help from Russia, China, the United States, NATO, and the European Union. The border is far from being 100-percent sealed but Tajik forces are well positioned and provisioned to repel any attempted incursions.
 
The more immediate problem is that the fighting has shut down what had been growing cross-border trade between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, easily the most vibrant trade Afghanistan has with any Central Asian country. Some days the border is closed. In Tajikistan, there are a dwindling number of truck drivers willing to take the risk of making the trip into Afghanistan because of the breakdown in the security situation.

Similarly, Turkmenistan's plans to build a railway and a gas pipeline through Afghanistan have been stymied by the outbreak of fighting just across the border. Turkmenistan has also taken to increasing the guard and establishing new fortifications on its border with Afghanistan.
 
Trade with Central Asia was supposed to have helped Afghanistan recover economically and bring stability back to the country. Instead, the continued fighting in northern Afghanistan is forcing its Central Asian neighbors to further close themselves off.

Sirojiddin Tolibov from RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Mirzo Salimov from RFE/RL's Tajik Service, and Toymyrat Bugaev and Shahmardanqul Muradi from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service helped in preparing this report.
 

With Kerry Meeting, Washington Seeks New Path In Central Asia

Central Asia leaders have traditionally looked to Russia, but China has emerged as the economic driver of the region.

Bruce Pannier

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has welcomed the foreign ministers from the five Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- to Washington. Their meeting, dubbed the C5+1, follows up on the inaugural session of the group, which was held last year in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

With its involvement in Afghanistan winding down, the United States is attempting to restructure the relationship it has had with Central Asia for the last 15 years -- where for Washington, security had been the priority.

Washington is hoping to open new trade ties with Central Asia, a difficult task at a time when Central Asia's neighbor China has come to dominate the region economically during the last decade.

The United States is also seeking to reemphasize the need for the Central Asian governments to show greater respect for basic human rights and take more credible and visible steps toward establishing and developing democratic institutions. Washington was active in prodding Central Asian governments towards democratic reforms in the 1990s, but after the September 11, 2001, attacks its focus shifted to counterterrorism efforts in neighboring Afghanistan.

Some critics have said that the U.S. change in policy was unpopular with the governments and many people in Central Asia and changed the region's view of the United States. 

While Kerry is likely to encourage the five foreign ministers to move toward greater regional integration and cooperation, the reality on the ground in Central Asia is the opposite. The five countries have been drifting further apart since they became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991.

That might mean Washington will choose to focus on its relationships with the individual countries.

Talking Democracy

For Western governments, including the United States, Kyrgyzstan still remains the great hope for democracy taking root in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan is holding a presidential election next year and the incumbent, Almazbek Atambaev, has repeatedly said he will abide by the constitutional one-term limit and step down. Peaceful transitions of power and strict observance of constitutional term limits are something Washington would like all the Central Asian governments to embrace, so U.S. officials will likely hold lengthy discussions with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Erlan Abdyldaev.

On the agenda might also be the case of Azimjon Askarov, an ethnic Uzbek rights activist and journalist jailed in the wake of interethnic riots in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. The United States has criticized the jailing and the U.S. State Department gave Askarov its Human Rights Award in July 2015. That recognition immediately soured ties between the two countries, with Kyrgyzstan renouncing a 1993 cooperation agreement with the United States.

Separate meetings with Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrisov will likely focus on economic ties. The largest U.S. investment in Central Asia is Chevron's participation in Kazakhstan's massive Tengiz oil field. The TengizChevroil project in western Kazakhstan has provided a basis for U.S.-Kazakh ties for more than two decades.

However, Kazakhstan has regressed in recent years in its attempts to implement democratic reforms. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has amended legislation to allow himself to remain president until he dies. Snap parliamentary elections earlier this year excluded any genuine opposition parties and reestablished a subservient parliament bound to do the bidding of the president. Nazarbaev just turned 76 at the start of July and has no apparent successor. Kazakhstan doesn't have a system designed to produce a second president genuinely chosen by the masses.

Individual meetings with the foreign ministers of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are likely to cover the same ground. All three states have entrenched presidents, repressive political systems, and all three are vulnerable to security threats emanating from their neighbor to the south, Afghanistan.

Afghan Insecurity

With Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, security will likely remain the focus, with their foreign ministers undoubtedly seeking guarantees that the United States will not withdraw from Afghanistan -- and leave the problem of Afghanistan's worsening security situation on their doorsteps.

For a while, Washington has been engaged in ongoing consultations with all three countries about the situation in Afghanistan and has provided military aid and infrastructure support, particularly to Uzbekistan, which in early 2015 received more than 300 mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles to help guard its frontier with Afghanistan.

Most likely, Washington will be seeking some indications that the three governments are open to moving forward on long-stalled political reforms. That might be a futile hope at this point, as all three countries are led by presidents who show no sign of ever leaving office and are resistant to altering their political systems to allow the inclusion of opposition voices.

Washington officials will likely discuss with Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov the Uzbek-U.S. car-making joint venture GM Uzbekistan, which has been mired in scandal after it emerged that the Uzbek management at the plant had allegedly embezzled millions of dollars. Those officials are in custody and facing trial in Uzbekistan but the incident will damper any enthusiasm from other U.S. companies to invest in Uzbekistan.

There is also the question of what to do with the approximately $800 million of Uzbek assets frozen by U.S. authorities, which Tashkent is attempting to get back. The frozen millions are connected to Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Karimova is under house arrest in Uzbekistan after a series of bribery and money-laundering scandals became public in several European countries.

With Russia still the major guarantor of security in Central Asia and China the dominant economic power, the United States is attempting to craft a role that includes security and trade, but crucially offers something those two great powers can't.

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. Content will draw 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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