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Qishloq Ovozi

Customers queue for fresh meat in Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan is a strange place. Lots of people know the government there is not exactly media-friendly but on occasion it is possible to cover social issues, especially when some event appears to be a change for the better.

Of course, no one is sure where the line is between the acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to reporting in Turkmenistan. And most times the only way to find out is to try to do a report and see if the police or security forces arrive.

It's true that not many media organizations can report from Turkmenistan on a regular basis. RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, does and its correspondents just discovered one of the boundaries in reporting.

For unclear reasons, the Turkmen government recently ordered that the price of fresh meat, mostly beef and mutton, should be lowered to 12 manat (not quite $4) per kilogram and made widely available at shops and bazaars around the country. It just happened to be the anniversary of the UN giving Turkmenistan official status as a "neutral country" and New Year is approaching, so maybe one of those events, or a combination of the two, prompted Turkmen authorities to make this gesture.

There is a downside to this story and we'll get to that in a minute.

It turns out that fresh meat is usually is hard to find, so naturally people have been lining up to buy it while it is available. There are limits on how much can be purchased, between two to five kilograms at a time, depending on the region.

Among those hurrying to the Mir Bazaar in Ashgabat to take advantage of this deal was Soltan Achilova, an Azatlyk correspondent. The line was long at 9 a.m. in the morning on December 13, but the mood at the bazaar was good as people waited to buy fresh, not frozen, meat.

Achilova saw potential to do a report about people queuing up to purchase this treat. She said she had started to take pictures when "suddenly, four or five people in civilian clothes grabbed me and started tugging on my camera." They took the camera and started asking questions while demanding to see identification documents. Achilova said one of them briefly flashed a police badge.

Achilova identified herself and told them she was from Azatlyk. She said the people knew her name and some of them even said, "So you're the Soltan from Azatlyk" and asked her why she was not ashamed to work for such an organization.

Achilova asked those questioning her to say what she had done. By then it was obvious people at the bazaar were watching this disturbance and the questioners hustled her outside to the street.

These people in civilian clothes huddled together to talk and finally called for the police to send a car. Thirty minutes later the car arrived and Achilova was taken to the Kopet Dag District police station where she waited for an hour until a clerk came and started a new round of questioning.

The questions included what her children did and what her husband did. When Achilova replied that her husband had passed away 16 years earlier, the clerk still persisted in asking what her husband did for a job when he was alive. Achilova said the clerk "wrote down all the details."

Deleted Photographs

After being released from questioning, Achilova went to complain to a police officer, telling the officer of the rude treatment she received at the bazaar. This policeman apologized on behalf of the people who detained her and gave Achilova her camera back.

Of course, all the photographs had been deleted.

What Achilova did wrong is still a mystery. But there is a clue.

Another Azatlyk correspondent was interested in covering the story about the sudden availability of meat from a different angle.

I am not at liberty to discuss all the details of what happened to this correspondent but I can talk about the topic they were exploring.

There are two elements. The first is the long lines, which started out to be 20 to 30 people when fresh meat first appeared but, after word spread, this quickly grew to be 70 to 80 people at most places around Turkmenistan.

Was fresh meat for sale really such a big deal? What was happening all these years when people could usually only obtain frozen meat?

Second, what about those selling meat? The government ordered that meat should be sold at an artificially low price. That has apparently put some merchants out of business, or at least prompted them to close up shop until prices go back to normal and they can make a profit, not a loss, from their work.

This might also account for the ever-longer lines at those places that are still selling meat.

As mentioned above, it is not easy to know what is and is not a fair topic for coverage in Turkmenistan. I did an article on this earlier this year and clearly the situation has not improved since then.

-- Bruce Pannier, with contributions from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service director, Muhammad Tahir

There are more than 2 million Uzbek nationals registered as living in Russia, and it is believed that the number of unregistered Uzbek migrants living in the country is at least as high. (file photo)

Uzbek migrant laborers returning from Russia to Uzbekistan to pick up their new biometric passports are being invited by Uzbekistan's National Security Service (SNB) to have a "conversation" after they return.

The "conversation" consists of the migrants being asked if they went to a mosque in Russia, if so, which mosque and who accompanied them to prayers. And in many cases the SNB already knows the answers.

Uzbekistan started issuing biometric passports in November 2011. As of July 1 this year every citizen of Uzbekistan needed to have the new biometric passport to travel outside the country.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, has been reporting on the welcome migrants laborers have been receiving when they return to their homeland.

"Kahhorjon" from Ferghana Valley told Ozodlik that his 27-year-old younger brother came back to get his new biometric passport. "They came to our home and said they were from the SNB," Kahhorjon said. "They asked, 'Where were you working, what did you do, and in which mosque did you go to pray?'"

Kahhorjon said his brother told the men the name of the mosque. The SNB gents replied, "We have different information." Kahhorjon said it was obvious that the SNB had obtained or collected information about his brother while he was working in Russia, especially which mosque he attended.

Kahhorjon's brother was called in for questioning two more times before receiving his passport after waiting for two and a half months in Uzbekistan.

Abdusalom Ergashev, a rights activist from Ferghana Valley told Ozodlik that the SNB has been strengthening its watch over migrant laborers for some time now.

Uzbekistan, like many countries around the world, is concerned about nationals being exposed to radical or extremist forms of Islam while they are outside the country, then returning home with these potentially dangerous new ideas and concepts. Since the start of this year there have been reports indicating some mosques in Russia have become centers for radicalization and recruitment for foreign jihads.

As of the start of December, Russia's Federal Migration Service said there were 2.147 million Uzbek nationals registered as staying in Russia. The number of unregistered Uzbek migrant laborers is likely at least that high.

Ergashev said attending a mosque in Russia, "especially mosques in Moscow," is now enough reason to arrest returning nationals. Ergashev claimed that there are some mosques in Russia where radical imams are allowed to preach and Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) uses these mosques as bait to lure in, and document young Muslim men who are inclined to listen to calls for jihad.

Ergashev said a friend, "from my neighborhood," worked in Moscow and noticed cameras outside a certain mosque, put there to film those who entered. "If you go there to pray there would be trouble when you return Uzbekistan," the friend said.

Cooperation With Russia?

The SNB also checks mobile phones of returning migrant laborers for audio or video of sermons espousing jihadism. Ergashev said possession of such material is sufficient reason for arrest.

Ergashev noted that Russia's security service, the FSB, and the SNB have worked together in the past. Dozens of Uzbeks working in Russia, and wanted on charges back in Uzbekistan, have vanished from Russian cities and resurfaced later in Uzbek courtrooms and prisons.

One recent example is Uzbek political refugee Umid Yakubov, abducted in broad daylight in Moscow on April 29 while on his way to an interview at the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Uzbek authorities suspect Yakubov of membership in the banned Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Amnesty International reported that a policeman pulled over the car in which Yakubov was traveling. "While the police officer was checking the documents of the car's driver, three men, one wearing a police uniform, approached Umid Yakubov and forcibly put him in a minivan. No one has heard from Umid Yakubov since."

The European Court for Human Rights in November 2013 found Russia responsible for the kidnapping and illegal extradition of Uzbek nationals Azamatjon Ermakov and Yusuf Kasymakhunov.

So there is seemingly ample evidence of FSB-SNB cooperation.

There is also the assassination of Fuad Rustamkhojaev from the opposition People's Movement of Uzbekistan, in Ivanovo, Russia in September 2011, which remains unsolved. Some suspect the SNB was responsible. It is not the only killing outside Uzbekistan in which the SNB is suspected of being involved.

Ergashev said that almost all the people Uzbek courts have sentenced on religious charges in recent years were migrant laborers returning from Russia.

The Uzbek human rights group Ezgulik (Mercy) reported in August that a group of more than 60 migrant laborers who returned from Russia to Uzbekistan's southern Kashkadarya Province were arrested and charged with being members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) terrorist group.

Copies that were obtained of court documents show the group was accused of becoming IMU members while they were working in Russia from 2010 to 2013.

Ergashev said the situation is similar in the Andijon and Ferghana provinces.

-- Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Farruh Yusufiy of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service (Ozodlik)

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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.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws 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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