Saturday, June 25, 2016


Neutral Turkmenistan Chooses A Side In Afghan Conflict

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered unprecedented snap military exercises at the end of March.

Bruce Pannier

Turkmenistan's official policy of "positive neutrality" appears to have been slightly punctured, and the source of this perforation is Afghanistan.
 
RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, interviewed Allaberen Karyadar from the Fayzabad district of Afghanistan's Jowzjan Province. He had returned recently to Afghanistan from Turkmenistan. In fact, he came back earlier than planned "because the Taliban were attacking my village."
 
Karyadar added, "I came back and drove the Taliban out."
 
Driving the Taliban out is Karyadar's job. He is a commander of a local "Arbaky" force -- nominally, pro-government paramilitaries or local militias. There are mixed feelings about these groups inside Afghanistan.
 
So what was Arbaky commander Karyadar doing in Turkmenistan?
 
"I spent some days in the hospital, being treated by doctors," Karyadar said. He said he was not always at the hospital, though. He said he spent some time visiting "with friends" and, of course, there are some Afghan Turkmen now living in Turkmenistan.
 
Karyadar said he was in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, for "eye treatment." He was able to obtain a visa for the visit (and that is a very difficult feat, usually). The visa and the medical care were free.
 
And Karyadar was not the only person from Jowzjan who was in Turkmenistan. Karyadar said he "heard" the Qarqeen district police chief "Ayub" and another Arkbaky commander, Gurbandurdy, who we've met before in the Qishloq, were also in Turkmenistan. Also reportedly in Turkmenistan was another Arbaky commander from Jowzjan, Sapar Ra'is, and Rozi Bay, the police commander responsible for the highway that runs between Jowzjan and Faryab Province to the west.
 
Jowzjan borders Turkmenistan. The northern most part of the province actually protrudes into Turkmenistan and therefore is bounded by Turkmenistan on three sides.
 
Turkmenistan has so far attempted to avoid getting involved in Afghanistan's problems as much as possible. Turkmen officials have brought up the country's UN-recognized neutral status when speaking about the subject of Afghanistan. This shield of neutrality worked in the 1990s. It appears to have worked more recently, at least once, when some 70 to 80 armed Taliban met Turkmen border guards on an island in Amu-Darya in October 2015. On that occasion, the Turkmen border guards told the Taliban fighters they could come no further because Turkmenistan was a neutral country.
 
The Taliban respected the status that time. But in 2014, armed militants crossed the border into Turkmenistan and killed three border guards in February and three soldiers in May.
 
The Alternative Turkmenistan News website reported on June 8 that the bodies of 27 Turkmen border guards had been brought to the capitals of the Mary and Lebap provinces at the start of May for relatives to collect and bury. According to the report, which is not possible to confirm due to the opaque nature of the Turkmen government, the Defense Ministry told the parents of one of the soldiers that their son had committed suicide. The parents reportedly opened the coffin and found their son's body with 17 bullet wounds.
 
And Sergei Shoigu made the first visit ever to Turkmenistan by a Russian defense minister on June 8. Russian media reported that Turkmenistan agreed to accept Russian help with training and to purchase weapons from Russia. Turkmenistan had long held out against taking any Russian help and, in fact, Ashgabat continues to insist publicly that there is no problem along its frontier with Afghanistan.
 
Ashgabat has also never confirmed reports about a mass call-up of reserves or the deployment of some 70 percent of the country's troops and equipment to the Afghan border area.
 
Turkmen media did widely report on the unprecedented snap military exercises President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered at the end of March. Those drills lasted well into April.
 
And that brings us back to Allaberen Karyadar and what he and other Arbaky commanders and Jowzjan police officials were doing in Turkmenistan recently.
 
If border security has so deteriorated that Turkmen troops are again being killed, it explains why the Afghan Turkmen from a district along Turkmenistan's border are "visiting" their northern neighbor. It also explains Shoigu's visit.
 
It seems Turkmenistan's hand is being forced here. And judging from the visit by Karyadar and the others, Ashgabat is finally taking a side in the conflict just over the border.
 
Turkmenistan's policy of neutrality might be one of the latest casualties of the Afghan conflict.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir contributed to this report
 

Doping Scandal Blows Kazakhstan's Cover

Kazakh weightlifters Maiya Maneza (left), Zulfiya Chinshanlo (center), and Svetlana Podobedova (right) are welcomed at Almaty airport in August 2012.

Matthew Kupfer

On June 15, the International Weightlifting Federation announced that four Olympic weightlifting champions from Kazakhstan had failed tests to detect performance-enhancing drugs carried out on samples taken at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The four weightlifters, who all won gold medals in London, have now been provisionally suspended from active competition and will likely be stripped of their medals -- a major blow for Kazakhstan's weightlifting program, which will fall from 12th to 23rd in the medal standings. It is also huge blow for Ilya Ilyin, the men's 94-kilogram gold medalist and a major celebrity in Kazakhstan.

However, the doping revelation also returns us to a controversy surrounding two of the less widely renowned gold medalists: Zulfiya Chinshanlo, who set a new world record in the 53-kilogram weight category of "clean-and-jerk" lifting in 2012, and Maiya Meneza, who set a world record in the 69-kilogram category of the clean and jerk.

In 2012, these two female weightlifters found themselves caught up in an odd scandal when China's Xinhua news agency published an article claiming that Chinshanlo and Maneza were, in fact, born in China. This information contradicted their Olympic biographies and the official story that Chinshanlo and Maneza were Dungans, an ethnic group related to Chinese Hui Muslims, born in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, respectively.

In July 2012, I published a short investigation into Chinshanlo and Maneza's origins on the Registan.net blog. All the information I found -- video interviews showing the weightlifters speaking fairly basic Russian with a heavy Chinese accent and talking about moving from China to Kazakhstan; an interview with their trainer; and a report on the Kazakh weightlifting program -- suggested that they had indeed been born in China, recruited by the Kazakhstan Weightlifting Federation, granted Kazakh citizenship, and brought to Kazakhstan to train.

The Registan.net post highlighted several interesting aspects of Chinshanlo and Maneza's story: Kazakhstan's deliberate development of its women's weightlifting program, its search for budding champions abroad, and its attempts to develop authentically "Central Asian" champions its population could rally behind. Although the practice of granting citizenship to foreign athletes so they can compete on a country's Olympic team is fairly common, many perceive it as dishonest. Kazakhstan sought to avoid this perception.

While Chinshanlo and Maneza's true ethnic origins remain unclear, their Dungan identity (whether real or fictional) gave their recruitment abroad greater legitimacy. Their trainer, Aleksey Ni, has admitted as much himself.

"We specifically sought out ethnic Dungans, so that their roots would be from Kazakhstan," he said in an interview with Kaspionet.kz.

Despite the controversy about Chinshanlo and Maneza's national origins, their story was compelling. Both were young weightlifters in whom Kazakhstan clearly saw potential when China did not. Thus, whether by birth or by training, I argued on Registan.net, they were very much Kazakhstan's champions.

However, the doping scandal now casts doubt on this story.

Was it Chinshanlo and Maneza's inherent potential and training that won them the gold medals and helped them break two world records or was it simply performance-enhancing drugs?

This is, perhaps, what makes the scandal such a damning blow for Kazakhstan. After investing no shortage of efforts into building a weightlifting team of champions who would have both athletic and "national-cultural" legitimacy, Kazakhstan's cover has been blown. And recruiting athletes abroad -- a sometimes-criticized practice that one Kazakh sports official justified by noting that China didn't train Chinshanlo and Maneza and "let them leave easily" -- now appears especially unsavory.

Matthew Kupfer is a writer focusing on Central Asia, Russia, Ukraine, and the former Soviet Union. His work has been published in EurasiaNet.org, The Moscow Times, Eurasia Outlook, and Registan.net. Previously a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he is currently pursuing an M.A. in Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia regional studies at Harvard University. The views expressed in this blog are his own. You can follow Kupfer on Twitter @Matthew_Kupfer.

Audio Majlis Podcast: Confusion, Fighting In Northern Afghanistan

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (right) meets with U.S. Central Command commander, General Joseph Votel, in Dushanbe on June 15.

Bruce Pannier

Top-ranking military officials from Russia and the United States recently visited Central Asia less than a week apart. The Russian defense minister was in Turkmenistan and the commander of the U.S. Central Command visited Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the three Central Asian countries that border Afghanistan.

One -- if not the main -- topic of these meetings would have been the deteriorating security situation just south of the border in Afghanistan. The situation in the eight northern Afghan provinces has grown steadily worse for the past two years and by some estimates half the districts across northern Afghanistan might now be under the control of the Taliban and its foreign allies.

It is difficult to judge the current state of affairs in northern Afghanistan. Reports paint a confusing picture but do show that fighting now takes place there regularly.

To get a better idea of what the situation is in northern Afghanistan and how this might be viewed from Central Asia, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, gathered a majlis, or panel, to discuss current events along the Afghan-Central Asian border.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the talk. Both of our guests joined in the majlis from Afghanistan. Omar Safi is the former governor of Kunduz Province, which borders Tajikistan; Obaid Ali is a researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network. I said a few things about the situation north of the border, but the focus of the talk was northern Afghanistan.

For more than two years, the Majlis podcast and Qishloq Ovozi have looked at what has been going in northern Afghanistan. To recap briefly: When Pakistan launched its military operation into North Waziristan in mid-2014, it sent many of the militants sheltering there into northern Afghanistan, a region that had been relatively peaceful for more than a decade. Violence increased significantly due to the influx of Taliban and foreign fighters. Previously quiet border areas with Central Asia became contested ground and prompted Central Asian governments to reinforce their sides of the border and redouble the watch on their own populations to root out the potential enemy from within.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (right) meets with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Ashgabat on June 9.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (right) meets with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Ashgabat on June 9.

Safi said one of the reasons the government is having such a difficult time maintaining control in the north is the need to strengthen thinly stretched government troops with local paramilitaries, known as the Arbaky.

“The reason why [the Taliban and militant allies] chose northern Afghanistan was that there is some vulnerability. One was the warlords, the illegal armed groups...” Safi portrayed the Arbaky as unreliable and untrustworthy, going so far as to accuse some Arbaky units of selling government-supplied ammunition to the Taliban. Safi said some of these paramilitary groups impose crushing taxes on the locals.

Safi recalled that when he was governor of Kunduz Province, there was one Arbaky commander who “was controlling one district where he had 2,000 militia and our police were only 100 people, so police had no control over the district.” Safi continued, “[The commander] was taking all sort of taxes from the people and when people came to the police, the police openly said that [they] cannot have any control over him.”

Safi said the Arbaky “are like a machine that can produce the Taliban in the area because they always undermine the reputation of the Afghan government.”

Ali described the scene in northwestern Afghanistan’s Faryab Province where travel by road has become extremely risky.

“The Taliban often appeared on the highway. They established illegal checkpoints, searching the vehicles and searching for government employees,” he said.

Such reports came from Kunduz Province, hundreds of kilometers to the east, at the end of May when a dozen people were killed and dozens kidnapped by Taliban militants who waylaid four buses. RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, just reported on the diminishing number of truck drivers who are willing to take the route from Tajikistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan because of militants along the road.

Ali said some people who had to travel were taking detours of many kilometers to lower the chances of running into a militant roadblock.

Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum has led security operations in his native northwestern Afghanistan four times since the summer of 2015. Ali said these operations have not done much to bring security back to northwestern Afghanistan.

“[Dostum and his forces] get there, they stay there for a week… then they return back. Once they turned back, then the territory again fell into Taliban hands,” Ali explained.

Safi estimated that in Kunduz Province “70 percent of the territory is apparently under the Taliban and insurgents and only 30 percent of the territory is under government control.” He said across northern Afghanistan “45 percent would be under government control and 55 [percent] is under the Taliban, in what we call the nine provinces.”*

Speaking about Faryab Province, Ali said in “Qaysar [district], most parts of the district are under Taliban control. Almar district also seems to be controlled by the Taliban.” Ali added, “So out of these 14 or 15 districts, one can say there are some heavily contested districts and also some of the districts where the government has wider influence.”

The panelists addressed the topic of foreign militants in northern Afghanistan. Russian and Central Asian security officials, and people presented as “experts,” have estimated the number of these foreign militants to be in the thousands.

Safi and Ali put the figure much lower, in the dozens in any particular province, possibly in the hundreds if all the northern provinces are taken into account. Most of these appear to be from Central Asia, but many haven’t been in Central Asia in more than a decade. Ali said the group of militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan who were sent to northwestern Afghanistan by their leader, Usmon Ghazi, after Ghazi swore the group’s allegiance to the so-called Islamic State extremist group have either been killed, scattered or, in most cases, joined with local Taliban groups.

It is information such as this that brought Sergei Shoigu to Ashgabat on June 8, the first visit by a Russian defense minister to Turkmenistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And likely a big part of the reason General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, visited Uzbekistan on June 14 and Tajikistan on June 15.

The group discussed these issues in greater detail and addressed other issues concerning security along the Afghan-Central Asian border.

Majlis Podcast: Rising Instability In Central Asia, Afghanistan
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

*The nine provinces are, running from east to west along the Central Asian border: Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz, Balkh, Jowzjan, Faryab, Badghis, Herat, and slightly removed from the border, Baghlan.


The Breaking Of A Tajik Defense Lawyer

Lawyer Ishoq Tabarov had lost about 20 kilograms in the final turbulent months of his life.

Bruce Pannier

Ishoq Tabarov was known for defending Tajiks who most needed defending. He was a rare lawyer for Tajikistan, one who would take cases representing opposition figures, people who some would say had already been marked for exclusion from society by the authorities.

Tabarov died during the evening of June 12, officially of a heart attack. But there is a big difference between a heart attack and a broken heart, and some feel it was the latter that actually led to Tabarov's death on his 61st birthday.

Tabarov defended many people who -- to put it mildly -- were not viewed kindly by the Tajik government. Tabarov's best-known client was Zayd Saidov, once a successful businessman and someone who enjoyed good connections with the government.

In April of 2013, the year of Tajikistan's last presidential election, Saidov declared his intention to create a new political party: Tojikistoni Nau, or New Tajikistan. The next month, Saidov faced a series of charges ranging from financial wrongdoing to sexual assault and polygamy. Government opponents had faced charges before, but in Saidov's case the charges were numerous and covered a wide array of violations.

His case was really hopeless from the start, but Tabarov and fellow defense lawyers Shukhrat Kudratov and Fakhriddin Zokirov agreed to defend Saidov. Saidov's defense team repeatedly pointed to procedural violations and flimsy evidence during the trial process. Tabarov even showed that evidence used by prosecutors to substantiate a rape charge was fake; but to no avail. In December 2013, Saidov was found guilty of financial fraud, polygamy, and sexual relations with a minor and sentenced to 26 years in prison.

Losing the case was only the start of the problems.

Anticorruption police arrested Zokirov in March 2014 and kept him in detention until November 2014, when he was amnestied. However, he was arrested again on extortion charges in August and released in November after paying an approximately $2,000 fine.

Fellow defense lawyer Kudratov, who is also the deputy leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, was arrested on bribery charges in July 2014. He was found guilty of that charge and fraud at a trial in January 2015 and sentenced to nine years in jail, which was later reduced on appeal to three years and eight months.

Tabarov wondered if he was next to be arrested. In fact, he wasn't that lucky.

Instead, Tabarov's oldest son, 27-year-old Firuz, was arrested in July. Ishoq Tabarov said his son was tortured into making a confession in pretrial detention. Firuz Tabarov was found guilty on February 11 of serious crimes, including extremism and facilitating mercenary fighters, and sentenced to 13 1/2 years in prison.

In March, another son, Daler Tabarov, was arrested on charges of failing to report a crime. On June 2, just 10 days before his father died, Daler was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail.

'It Broke Him Completely'

Ishoq Tabarov's wife, Zuhro Sherova, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service, known locally as Ozodi, that in recent months her husband had trouble breathing and had lost about 20 kilograms. "He worried a lot about the arrest and imprisonment of our son Firuz, and when they sent our second son Daler to prison, it broke him [Ishoq] completely," Sherova said.

Members of Tabarov's family said the cause of his death is not clear, despite reports that he died of a heart attack.

Steve Swerdlow, Central Asian researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), has been tireless in trying to help and highlight the cases of opposition figures, activists, and others who have encountered legal and other entanglements, not only in Tajikistan but throughout Central Asia.

He has been keeping a close eye on the Tabarov family's problems. He told Qishloq Ovozi, "While the exact circumstances of Mr. Tabarov's death are not yet fully known, Human Rights Watch is aware of the terrible moral and psychological toll he had been under for many months due to the politically-motivated attacks on his family and the imprisonment of both of his sons in a matter of months."

Tabarov also lived long enough to see other attorneys put on trial who were known for defending government opponents and rights activists.

HRW, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and Amnesty International have released statements questioning the legal processes against Buzurgmehr Yorov, Nuriddin Makhamov, and others. 

And before Tabarov died, he witnessed Tajik authorities starting work to disbar attorneys who defended perceived enemies and nuisances of the state through the introduction of a new mandatory test for all lawyers. Some Tajik attorneys and international rights organizations have noted the new test contains many questions that have nothing to do with the law but all the same can lead to a suspension of licenses to practice law if not answered correctly.

Based on material from RFE/RL's Tajik Service
 

Russia Flexes Its Muscles In Turkmenistan

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (right) meets with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Ashgabat on June 9.

Bruce Pannier

Judging by recent events it appears that Turkmenistan and Russia are experiencing a thaw in their relationship. Top officials from the two countries have been meeting face-to-face in recent days.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu flew to Ashgabat to meet with Turkmen officials on June 9.The same day the speaker of Turkmenistan's parliament was in Moscow meeting with State Duma chairman Sergei Naryshkin.

To a great degree, media reports are portraying this as simply discussions between partners. But at the start of this year, Russia sent signals to Turkmen authorities that something in their relationship needed to change, and it was Turkmenistan that would have to make those changes. 

Barely two weeks before these friendly meetings on June 9, Russian state gas company Gazprom indirectly repeated that message to Turkmenistan, via the Russian TASS and Interfax news agencies, hinting at the one-sided nature of this rapprochement. 

The purpose of Shoigu's visit was clear before he arrived. Russia has been increasingly concerned at the growth of violence in the four northwestern Afghan provinces along Turkmenistan's border, and equally frustrated at Ashgabat's insistence that the situation along the border is under control and Turkmenistan requires no assistance keeping watch along the frontier.

Russian officials have several times publicly offered to assist Turkmenistan with whatever help Turkmen authorities feel might be required to ensure border security. Most recently Aleksandr Sternik, the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Third CIS Department, made just such an offer on January 3, 2016, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated the proposal during a visit to Ashgabat at the end of January. 

Irresponsible Behavior?

Some Russian officials even implied that, since this was technically the southern border of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Turkmenistan was behaving irresponsibly by not allowing its friends and allies to help with security along the Afghan frontier. 

In October 2015, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev, after a meeting with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin, expressed concern about the volatile Turkmen-Afghan border area drawing an immediate rebuke from Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry.

Fighting in northwestern Afghanistan has grown worse with the start of this year's spring offensives.It is difficult to say how many Afghan districts along Turkmenistan's border are under government control and how many are under militant control. Turkmen authorities might now feel less confident about being able to control the border.

Shoigu's visit by itself indicates something has changed. Russian media noted it was the first time since Turkmenistan became independent that a Russian defense minister has visited the country.

Shoigu spoke with his Turkmen counterpart Yaylym Berdiev and with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. Russian media made it clear that Russian cooperation in strengthening Turkmenistan's military capabilities was the main topic of conversation, including weapons sales and training, mixed in with a more general discussion on fighting international terrorism. 

Essentially, Turkmenistan agreed to accept at least some of the help the Kremlin has long been pressing Ashgabat to take. 

Moscow Visit Barely Registers

Turkmen parliamentary speaker Akja Nurberdieva's visit to Moscow the same day as Shoigu's to Ashgabat went by almost unnoticed. If Nurberdieva had not mentioned that amendments would be made to Turkmenistan's constitution before the end of this year there might not have been any reports about her trip at all. 

While it's safe to say Nurberdieva does not receive anywhere near the attention President Berdymukhammedov or even Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov get, it's worth noting that, as speaker of parliament she is, according to the constitution, next in line to assume power should the Turkmen president be unable to perform his duties. 

Her visit should have elicited a bit more interest than it apparently did. This is especially true since, according to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service (known locally as Azatlyk), it was the first visit by a speaker of Turkmenistan's parliament to Moscow. Nurberdieva's brief publicized remarks mentioned only a loose timeframe for making amendments to Turkmenistan's constitution. It was not totally apparent what she was there to discuss with her Russian counterpart and other Russian officials.

Turkmen parliamentary speaker Akja Nurberdieva's recent visit to Russia received scant media attention. (file photo)
Turkmen parliamentary speaker Akja Nurberdieva's recent visit to Russia received scant media attention. (file photo)

What Turkmenistan would really like from Russia is for Gazprom to renew imports of Turkmen gas. The Russian company suspended purchases of Turkmen gas entirely at the start of 2016. That came after Gazprom had reduced the amount of Turkmen gas it bought from more than 40 billion cubic meters [bcm] in 2008 to some 3.1 bcm in 2015. 

Gazprom's announcement of a total suspension of imports from Turkmenistan came the day after Russian Foreign Ministry official Aleksandr Sternik made his offer of security assistance for Turkmenistan.

Gazprom announced on January 4, 2016 that, rather than purchasing Turkmen gas, the company would instead buy 3.1 bcm of gas from Turkmenistan's neighbor, Uzbekistan.

On May 25, TASS and Interfax cited "material" from Gazprom announcing new deals had been reached for gas imports from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan at a lower price than was previously paid.TASS did not provide the new price. Neither did Interfax, but that news agency did report Gazprom paid Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan an average of $180.39 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas in 2015, down from $259.22 in 2014. 

Mysterious Explosion

The price of gas has been the major sticking point in Russian-Turkmen ties since the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. In 2007, Gazprom attempted to corner the Central Asian gas market by offering to pay Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan "European prices" for their gas. There were even plans for a new pipeline along the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea to bring extra Central Asian gas to Russia.

"European prices" went down shortly after that offer and Gazprom felt the price of gas from Central Asia should decrease commensurately. Turkmenistan did not feel that way and insisted on the 2007 price of European gas. The major pipeline connecting the two countries mysteriously blew up in 2009 amid heated disputes over price. When it was finally repaired, Gazprom reduced the amount of Turkmen gas it would purchase by nearly 75 percent.

Of the 173 words in a TASS article titled "Gazprom Reaches Agreement On A Lower Price For Gas From Uzbekistan And Kazakhstan," 33 are devoted to the Gazprom-Kazakh-Uzbek deal. The remaining 140 words recall the recent problems Gazprom has had with Turkmenistan.

As a gas exporter, Turkmenistan is not only feeling the bite of lower world prices but is also on the edge of losing Iran as a gas customer after already losing Russia. Even the gas pipeline to its only remaining customer, China, which can now be seen as Turkmenistan's only hope of propping up its exports, is having problems. Delays were recently announced to line "D" of the network, which will be the biggest of the four pipelines leading from Turkmenistan to China. 

It is difficult to get news out of Turkmenistan but even such information that does make its way out indicates the country is facing huge economic challenges.

Only Option

Turkmenistan desperately needs to sell gas to someone besides China and, as it stands now, selling to Russia, even on unfavorable terms, is the only gas export option open to Ashgabat and it might remain so for another decade, at least. 

During Lavrov's January visit to Turkmenistan, President Berdymukhammedov extended an invitation for Russian President Vladimir Putin to make an official trip to the country and this visit is expected to happen later this year. The state of Russian-Turkmen ties should be clearer after this visit. 

But it seems Ashgabat is increasingly at the Kremlin's mercy due to Turkmenistan's problematic security and economic situation. Look for a lot more Russian influence in Turkmenistan in the months to come.

One last note: of all the information contained above, the only topic Turkmen state media covered was the Shoigu visit. And even then, the report on the government website focuses on "the partnership which has an equal, strategic and fruitful character" or "developing constructive interstate dialogue," and a lot of talk about Turkmenistan's policy of "neutrality." There is no mention of Afghanistan, problems along Turkmenistan's border with that country, or the impending Russian help in strengthening Turkmenistan's armed forces. 

RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Muhammad Tahir contributed to this report

Audio Podcast: Lack Of Information Adds To Fears About Aqtobe Violence

People place flowers outside a gun shop in memory of a salesman who was killed during the June 5 attacks in Aqtobe.

Bruce Pannier

It was a Sunday, on the eve of Ramadan, when a group of mainly young men in the northwestern city of Aqtobe, Kazakhstan, robbed two gun shops and set off to attack a military facility. Eventually, 25 people would be dead and dozens wounded, making it the deadliest day in Kazakhstan’s nearly 25-year history.

Three days passed before Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev spoke to the nation about the June 5 violence in Aqtobe. But rather than comfort the nation, his words were of enemies, plots hatched outside the country, color revolutions, and the need to “destroy” the suspects still at large if they offered any resistance.

The names and photographs of the suspects were published in Kazakhstan media (although at least one picture was of someone not involved in the violence), but it remains unclear what the connection was between this group of at least 28 suspects and what motivated them to allegedly commit this violence.

To take a closer look at what happened, the government’s handling of the situation, and what the possible cause of this violence might be, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a majlis, a panel.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. Joining from Astana was Aigerim Toleukhanova (@aygeryma), a correspondent for The Conway Bulletin. The Almaty-based correspondent for bne IntelliNews, Naubet Bisenov, also participated. And since I had just written a report about western Kazakhstan, I made some comments, too.

The violence in Aqtobe came some two weeks after Kazakhstan saw the biggest protest in the country’s history. That protest happened despite repeated warnings from officials and preemptive detentions of dozens of people who were calling for demonstrations on May 21. The protests over the government’s land-privatization plans initially started spontaneously in late April in major cities throughout Kazakhstan.

So the country was already on edge when the shooting started in Aqtobe, a city of some 400,000 people located about 100 kilometers south of the border with Russia.

Bisenov started the majlis, saying, “Despite authorities branding them as terrorists, we don’t know who these people are and what their goals were.” He continued: “Looking at their pictures and the little information [from] their biographies, it could be any person living in Aqtobe, or in Atyrau, or in Almaty.”

Toleukhanova agreed the picture was still very unclear, but she said the choice of target might say something about the motives of the attackers.

“Even though they didn’t say anything, they showed with their actions. They attacked...official places, like military buildings, [so] they’re kind of attacking the government,” Toleukhanova said.

The government has not provided much information. Authorities have delivered a rough sequence of events in Aqtobe on June 5, given casualty figures, warned that six suspects are still at large (five of whom were killed in a June 10 security operation), and announced the country would be on a heightened state of alert for 40 days.

Toleukhanova said she had spoken with people in Aqtobe. “People are still going to work and doing their usual things, [but] they’re still very afraid because they heard all the shooting right in front of their homes, and in parks, and they think this may happen again.”

And on June 7, authorities offered conflicting information about an alleged shooting at an Aqtobe kindergarten and children’s summer camp. Toleukhanova explained: “Our security service confirms one attack while the Ministry of Internal Affairs denies that this has happened, so people here are really getting confused about what’s going on in Aqtobe.”

Nazarbaev was shown on national television on June 7 receiving the apparently erroneous report about the shooting at the kindergarten from the National Security Committee.

The Kazakh president later addressed the nation, speaking about “terrorists” and “extremists,” radical sects (presumably Islamic), about the different guises “colored revolutions” can assume, including in the form of protests, and how they can lead to rash attempts to overthrow the government.

“Nazarbaev, after days of silence, tried to address people on the issue," Bisenov said. "But as the president of the country, he didn’t offer solutions to the problems."

Toleukhanova said Nazarbaev’s reference to foreign influence in the Aqtobe violence, rather than domestic causes, has become a standard response from the authorities amid the recent problems.

“Claims that it’s outside forces that are responsible for these attacks are also kind of showing us that the government denies that anything is wrong inside the country," Toleukhanova said. "It’s everything from outside.”

As for the cause of this recent unrest, Bisenov said, “The origins of such events is a huge poor-rich divide and the gap that has emerged between ordinary people and the authorities, which of course has been exacerbated by the ongoing economic crisis...”

Toleukhanova agreed, saying, “It’s mostly about social and economic problems.”

Aqtobe, and western Kazakhstan in general, is home to the country's oil and gas fields. Kazakhstan grew rich from this oil and gas, but most of the money goes east, to the capital, Astana, and the commercial capital, Almaty. Billions of dollars have been poured into building up Astana, once a modest city called Tselinograd during Soviet times. After the capital was transferred at the end of 1997 from Almaty to Astana (then called Aqmola), Kazakhstan’s government embarked on a huge program to raise a modern capital, filled with architectural wonders and excess, such as the city's giant aquarium.

By contrast, Bisenov said, “If you go to western Kazakhstan, you will see bad roads, lack of water supplies, a lot of social problems, and the cost of living in these regions is very high because of geography and because of climate.”

And during the current economic downturn, Bisenov added, the people of western Kazakhstan are “also the ones who are suffering the consequences of the problems in the oil industry, such as layoffs of workers, and it is the local population in these regions which have put up with the damage the oil and gas industry inflicts on the regional environment and on the health of the local population.”

Apparently, Kazakh authorities are themselves at a loss as to what led this group of people to take such measures, but the government’s attempts at crisis management have already revealed some severe deficiencies in communication between government agencies and ministries and between the government and Kazakhstan’s people.

The panel explored all of these topics in greater detail and looked at other factors that might have contributed to the violence in Aqtobe and the rift that is widening between the authorities and the people.

Majlis Podcast: What's Behind Aqtobe Violence?
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Why Do So Many Bad Things Happen To Western Kazakhstan?

A photo shared on social media apparently showing the aftermath of a deadly shoot-out in Aqtobe, Kazakhstan, in which at least 18 people were killed.

Bruce Pannier

The June 5 violence in Kazakhstan's northwestern city of Aqtobe was surprising. Such incidents don't usually happen in Kazakhstan.
 
But on those rare occasions when they do, it seems like it's in western Kazakhstan, or more specifically, the Aqtobe area.
 
Kazakh officials were scrambling on June 6 to explain who was behind the shooting that had left at least 18 people dead, at latest count, including 12 of the attackers, or why they'd done it.
 
But the explanation might be staring them in the face.
 
Aqtobe, with a population of around 400,000, is located in Kazakhstan's western oil region. Oil sales have driven Kazakhstan's economic success for years (or at least they had until the recent drop in world oil prices), but little of that money has trickled down to the major oil cities of western Kazakhstan, Aqtobe among them.
 
Meanwhile, billions of dollars have been spent building up the capital, Astana, and the commercial capital, Almaty.
 
So there is general discontent over state neglect of the social conditions in western Kazakhstan in general, and especially in Aqtobe. To make matters worse, western Kazakhstan has been portrayed as a region where Islam has deeply rooted itself since the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991 -- leading Kazakh officials to ascribe acts of violence to Islamic extremists or their influence and giving parts of western Kazakhstan an image many residents feel it doesn't deserve.
 
Aqtobe has the dubious distinction of being the only place in Kazakhstan where a suicide bomber has staged an attack. That happened on May 17, 2011, when 25-year-old Rahimjan Makhatov walked into a regional branch of the National Security Committee and detonated his explosives, killing himself and injuring two other people. Kazakh authorities were quick to claim that Makhatov had connections to Islamic extremists, but there was never much proof available publicly. 
 
Some Kazakh officials have already linked the June 5 attacks in Aqtobe to "nontraditional" religious groups, a term that usually denotes Islamic extremists. At this early stage, there is no publicly available evidence of such a connection. But it would not mark the first time Kazakh officials have linked unrest in western Kazakhstan to Islamic extremism.
 
Following Makhatov's 2011 suicide bombing, Kazakh media reported the existence of Salafi communities in western Kazakhstan, villages with young bearded men who were extremely pious and, the reports hinted, potentially dangerous.



When two policemen were killed in late June 2011 in a village some 200 kilometers south of Aqtobe, authorities sent elite forces to the area. During the ensuing operation, nine suspects and one policeman were killed. The initial official suggestion that the group was influenced by Islamic extremism eventually evolved to claiming the suspects were members of a criminal organization operating under the guise of religion.
 
A bit farther away, there was also the so-called Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate) terrorist group founded by three Kazakh citizens from Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea port city of Atyrau, around 500 kilometers southwest of Aqtobe. That group claimed responsibility for two bombings in Atyrau in November 2011 and for an attack days later in Almaty, in which five militants and two policemen were killed.
 
Though Kazakh authorities claimed that Jund al-Khilafah had links to Pakistan's tribal region, the three founders of the group were all later found and arrested in Kazakhstan.
 
Kazakhstan's western regions have proven to be the most restive in the country in the last half decade. There was also the six-month strike by oil workers in Zhanaozen that ended with at least 15 people being killed when police opened fire on demonstrators on Kazakhstan's Independence Day on December 16, 2011.
 
So if violence was going to happen, it is perhaps unsurprising that it struck in western Kazakhstan. Nor is it a surprise that investigators are having a hard time establishing a motive for the June 5 attacks.
 
But as much as many officials in the Kazakh government would like to believe this latest violence was inspired, or even planned, by forces outside the country, the reasons are probably easy to see in the everyday lives of residents of western Kazakhstan.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report
 

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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