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Qishloq Ovozi

Sunday 30 April 2017

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Kazakh riot police in Almaty detain demonstrators during a protest against proposed land reforms, in May 2016.

The events of April and May 2016 were a shock to many inside and outside the Kazakhstan who had come to believe that such massive demonstrations of discontent were no longer possible there.

It has been a year since protests broke out in Kazakhstan. The events of April and May 2016 were a shock to many inside and outside the country who had come to believe that such massive demonstrations of discontent were no longer possible there.

The first anniversary of the April 24 protest has just passed without much attention being paid to it.

What has happened in the year that has gone by since Kazakhstan saw the biggest protests in the country's 25-year history? Were the concerns of protesters allayed? Or was it something else? Or was it a combination of factors?

To look at what has happened in Kazakhstan since the spring 2016 protests, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel, to review the events that have occurred in Kazakhstan since April 2016.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. Aigerim Toleukhanova, a journalist for the Conway Bulletin, took part in the discussion from Kazakhstan. The Majlis was joined from Washington, D.C. by Reid Standish, an associate editor at Foreign Policy magazine, who has written extensively on Central Asia. I was just back from vacation, rested and ready, so I also took part in the proceedings.

Popular Unrest

Popular unrest was sparked in April last year by the Kazakh government's plans for land reform, which included privatization and the possibility of foreigners being able to lease land. "Foreigners" were interpreted by some in Kazakhstan to mean Chinese.

According to Toleukhanova, "this anti-Chinese movement was sparked first on social media."

Some of the information posted on these sites was downright false, especially claims that Chinese would be able to buy Kazakh land. There was a provision to lease land to foreigners, but there was never any proviso allowing any foreigner to own any of Kazakhstan's land.

"A big part of the fear over this land issue [was the] idea that this land would be rented out to the Chinese government or to Chinese settlers and that Kazakhs were the ones who would lose," Standish said,

In western Kazakhstan, in cities such Atyrau and Aqtobe, where people had long felt neglected by the authorities, protests started on April 24, 2016, and continued for several days.

WATCH: Kazakhs Protest Land Privatizations

The Kazakh government then announced it was suspending plans to implement the land-reform package.

But that issue opened the gates to other grievances, as Standish pointed out.

"These protests were about land issues but they became this catch-all for a lot of other anxieties and frustrations that people have with the government of the country," he said.

WATCH: Kazakh Protests Spread

In Toleukhanova's view, "People [were] disgusted [with] corruption and probably [the] dead political environment, fake elections, and all of these things that before they didn't pay attention to or didn't discuss, but with this land movement people became more open and more willing to discuss this."

Toleukhanova said the protests in western Kazakhstan were "a shock both for the authorities and the people."

Ineffective Media

As surprising as the protests were for the authorities, the inability of the government to use media to calm the situation was just as troubling.

"The government tried to use state media a lot to communicate with its own people," Standish said, adding that the ineffectiveness of this communication "was quite surprising for a lot of officials."

Standish explained that the government's message to people to "'go home, don't come out and protest, there are other ways to deal with this…' really didn't resonate at all with anyone."

A much larger protest was organized for May 21, mainly via social networks. Despite repeated warnings from officials not to participate, protesters took to the streets across Kazakhstan in what was arguably the biggest protest the country has ever seen.

WATCH: Kazakh Authorities Crack Down On Land Code Protests

One year later, there are no signs that the events of spring 2016 could be repeated any time soon.

How did the situation go from critical to calm in the span of a year?

Toleukhanova said, that, after the May 2016 protest, "the government indeed did try to listen to people's voices. For example, they created a land commission. although most of the [commission members] were not from the opposition."

Standish agreed that the Kazakh government has shown "some movement, or at least [is] trying to create the appearance of movement so that people don't need to go out into the streets to express their frustrations."

Carrot And Stick

Kazakh authorities, however, have resorted not only to the carrot, but to the stick as well.

It was noted in the conversation that many of the bloggers or other people who posted messages and information about the protests were subsequently detained and some were incarcerated.

Toleukhanova explained: "After these protests, there was the creation of a new Ministry of Information and Communication, which is also, I think, a response of the government to the people, maybe to show that they're trying to communicate with [their] own people."

However, she added that this ministry is the one pushing "to change media law, [which] is becoming more restrictive to journalists."

Another big change between spring 2016 and spring 2017 is Kazakhstan's economic situation.

New Realities

The effects of the drop in oil prices on world markets hit Kazakhstan hard, as oil is one of the country's major exports. The government allowed the national currency, the tenge, to float toward the end of 2015 and by January 2016 it had lost half its value to the U.S. dollar.

Many people in Kazakhstan had taken out large loans based on the dollar rate during the previous decade, when the country's economy was thriving and often saw an annual growth in gross domestic product that was near or more than double-digits.

Protests by homeowners were already occurring in early 2016, much smaller than those in spring, but in hindsight, these were warnings of festering discontent among the population.

For the time being, it appears Kazakhstan's people have settled into the new realities of life. The economic situation has stabilized and the tenge has even strengthened a bit, largely due to slightly higher oil prices on world markets.

Land reform plans have been suspended and won't come into effect any time before Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's current term of office expires in 2020.

The immediate future does not look so gloomy anymore.

But, as Standish pointed out: "It's interesting to see that, even [after] 25 years of post-Soviet independence, this sort of push, a voice from the people, is not gone even in a country that's authoritarian like Kazakhstan.”

You can listen to the full discussion here:

Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes.

An Afghan security official stands guard at a checkpoint as security is intensified ahead of the Persian New Year, known as Norouz, in Nangarhar Province, last month.

With the dreaded annual Taliban spring offensive expected to start in earnest any day now, there are many nervous people on both sides of the Central Asia-Afghan border, and the situation is already more alarming and far more confusing than it was last year.

With the dreaded annual Taliban spring offensive expected to start in earnest any day now, there are many nervous people on both sides of the Central Asia-Afghan border.

The situation in northern Afghanistan is already more alarming and far more confusing than it was in the spring of 2016.

Adding to the anxiety, the Taliban recently published a map showing what they claim is territory in Afghanistan where they have influence, and while the Taliban is known to exaggerate its situation, some believe this map is fairly accurate and this site explains the color key.

To attempt to shed some light on the murky state of affairs along the Central Asia-Afghan border, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel, to discuss which groups are present in northern Afghanistan and the extent of their influence, or control in the region.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From New Jersey, Bill Roggio, the editor of Long War Journal, who was earlier embedded with Canadian troops in Afghanistan, joined the Majlis. From Prague, we were happy to welcome back Amin Mudaqiq, the director of RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, who has great knowledge of events in Afghanistan. And I've been following the situation in Afghanistan for a while so I jumped in with comments of my own.

First, the Taliban map that showed areas the group says it controls and areas that are contested to varying degrees.

Tahir broke that down, reminding us that there are more than 400 districts in Afghanistan and the Taliban claims to have 34 districts under its control, says 167 others are contested, and has a significant presence in 52 more districts.

Roggio said much of the map corresponds with what he has been seeing. "I think it was pretty accurate as far as the security situation in areas we could see… the reason I find it credible is not because it matches with the information that I currently have, but there are large areas of Afghanistan where they're saying, 'Look, we don't control any [of this] territory.'"

Mudaqiq agreed the Taliban has spread its influence across northern Afghanistan since spring 2016 but cautioned that "if control means to hold it [territory] as well, then the Taliban's claims are really exaggerated; but if control means the presence, yes, the Taliban have a presence in almost 50 percent of the country and even 60 percent in the east and south [of Afghanistan]."

And Mudaqiq said even with that estimate, "they [the Taliban] are there as long as there is no Afghan or coalition, ISAF, or NATO forces there."

IS Presence, At Least In Name

The Taliban is not the only militant group present in northern Afghanistan. Mudaqiq said one of the big reasons for the deterioration in the security situation in northern Afghanistan is "the increasing presence of Daesh [the Islamic State militant group]."

Mudaqiq recalled that earlier this year militants set fire to Sufi shrines in the Darzab district of Jowzjan Province, which borders Turkmenistan. "People in Darzab who were arrested by Daesh, and they [later] escaped, they claim that Daesh has a big presence there," he said.

And Roggio pointed out there are fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in northern Afghanistan, but on which side they are fighting is still unclear. "A large segment of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan swore allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015, so the group split and it's debatable how much joined the Islamic State and how much stayed loyal to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban," he said.

Mudaqiq noted that even among those claiming to be from IS there are divisions within Afghanistan, and that neither is like the IS groups in Syria and Iraq. "We have two kinds of Daesh, which are very different from each other. We have Daesh in [the eastern province of] Nangarhar, which is mostly made up of the Pakistani Taliban who lost control in their own area [of Pakistan]," he said. "On the other hand, you have Daesh or IS in northern Afghanistan who are only using the name of Daesh to survive."

Outside Actors

There is also the question of who outside of Afghanistan is helping whom. U.S. military commanders and Afghan officials have recently expressed concerns about Russia's connections to the Taliban, which may even include arming the militants, an accusation Russia denies.

Roggio said, "What I think is happening here is the Russians are reading the tea leaves in Afghanistan and they've determined that the U.S. and NATO is losing this war and that the Taliban are going to have a presence."

Roggio explained that if this is true, Russia is playing a dangerous game. "The Taliban are allied with numerous jihadist groups including Al-Qaeda, which has a far more significant presence when you put together Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the satellite jihadist groups that are operating with the Taliban [and] these groups have been a threat to the Russians in the form of the Caucasus Emirate," he said.

An influential former Afghan mujahedin commander from the days of the Soviet occupation, Mohammad Ismail Khan, in early March accused Turkmenistan of aiding militants in northwestern Afghanistan, a charge Turkmen authorities quickly denied.

But Mudaqiq said, "Turkmenistan has a kind of history in dealing with extremist groups, in dealing with the Taliban, just to save and protect their own boundary," and he recalled that when the Taliban took over most of Afghanistan in the late 1990s the Turkmen Consulate in Herat Province, which borders Turkmenistan, continued to function.

Mudaqiq said that last year "some of the members of the National Assembly were complaining in Faryab [Province] and Jowzjan [Province] that some of the Taliban injured were also taken to Turkmenistan and they were treated there."

The situation is likely to become even more violent and confused in the coming months.

The Majlis discussed this and other issues, including comments from Mudaqiq about reports of militants "freely moving between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan through Tajikistan."

You can listen to the full discussion here:

Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to the Majlis on iTunes.

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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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