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Qishloq Ovozi

Late on February 26, three Turkmen border guards were shot dead along the Afghan frontier. Suspicion quickly fell on the Taliban. They, or people allied to them, are known to be in the area where the killings took place. The Taliban has since denied any involvement.

But information obtained by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Azatlyk, indicates Turkmen border guards and Taliban fighters have run into each other more than once recently.

A previous Qishloq Ovozi post reported on the presence of Taliban and other militants along Turkmenistan’s borders with Afghanistan’s Jowzjan and Faryab provinces. The three Turkmen border guards were killed along the border of the Baghdis Province, just west of Faryab Province.

The Village Of Marchak

There is a man named Haji Molla Karim who is an ethnic Turkmen tribal leader in the village of Marchak, Baghdis Province. Marchak is located along the Murghab River. On the other side of the river is Turkmenistan.

Karim told Azatlyk that Taliban forces currently surround his village. Marchak is cut off from the rest of Afghanistan; though Karim said the Taliban militants occasionally allow a few people, apparently the very old and very young males, to leave the village and travel to the district center some 35 kilometers away for supplies and return.

The half-dozen or so soldiers stationed in Marchak make the village a government outpost. Karim said the Taliban fighters attack the village regularly and that recently a bomb was found in the village and safely detonated without any villagers being harmed.

Karim knows what is happening around Marchak. He knew about the three Turkmen border guards being killed “near the village of Mukur.” He said he believed it was retaliation.

According to Karim, there was an earlier incident, sometime around February 10 -- several people Karim described as Taliban fighters crossed the Murghab River, further upstream from Marchak, and entered Turkmenistan. Turkmen border guards shot one of them dead, wounded three, and captured two of the militants.

Karim said the Taliban gathered fighters together on the Afghan side of the river and threatened to attack. He said the Turkmen border guards then returned the body of slain fighter and surrendered the two captives to the Taliban.

Apparently that was not sufficient and the Taliban took revenge on the three Turkmen border guards a couple of weeks later.

None of this was reported by Turkmen media. That's not surprising considering Turkmen state media, the only media the country has, did not even report on the start of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan in late 2001 despite the fact bombing was under way not far from the Turkmen border.

This reluctance of Turkmen media to report news about fighting and militants makes it difficult to dismiss another of Karim’s claims. He said incidents, including clashes, between Turkmen border guards and militants in Afghanistan happen “regularly.”

On March 3, the website Afghanistan.ru quoted Taliban representatives as continuing to deny that their fighters were involved. These representatives insisted that Afghan government forces killed the Turkmen border guards and were blaming the Taliban to discredit the group to neighboring countries.

Karim said the militants involved in the killing of the Turkmen border guards were all from the Taliban. But he admitted he could not even walk one kilometer from Marchak (four young men who did so recently vanished).

In “Turkmenistan: The Achilles Heel Of Central Asian Security,” locals in Jowzjan and Faryab provinces said there was a mixture of ethnic groups in the militant units and not all were from Afghanistan, or part of the Taliban, though they all were Taliban allies. So the Taliban might not be alone in these events along Baghdis's border with Turkmenistan.

One Village’s War

Quite naturally, Karim was less concerned with border problems than he was with the fate of Marchak. “Turkmenistan has its own soldiers...and they call themselves a neutral state,” he said.

Karim said he, his fellow villagers, and the few government troops in Marchak were prepared to fight the Taliban surrounding their village alone. “Our belts are tightened and we are ready to fight,” he told Azatlyk.

But Karim was hoping that Azatlyk would make the plight of Marchak known to Afghan authorities in Kabul and that relief would finally come to the village.

While recounting the restive situation along the Turkmen-Afghan frontier in the Marchak area to Azatlyk, Karim several times said, “Please tell the government to come help us.”

-- Muhammad Tahir of RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service and Bruce Pannier
Windsurfing in Avaza
Turkmenistan has received a small token of international recognition.

Hosting an international sports event seems to be something of a status symbol in Central Asia. Uzbekistan hosted the President’s Cup tennis tournament from 1997-2002, which did draw some big names in the tennis world such as Tim Henman, Marat Safin, and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Kazakhstan hosted the 2013 World Boxing Championship last November and Almaty, which did host the Asian Winter Games in 2011, is bidding for the Winter Olympic Games in 2022 (in the early 1990s Tashkent contemplated a bid for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games).

Ashgabat will never host the Olympics -- it’s 50 degrees Celsius in the summer and, although it did just snow in Turkmenistan a few weeks ago, the conditions really don’t exist there for winter sports on an international level.

But windsurfing is apparently a different story. The pro-government website Turkmenistan.ru reported on February 28 that Turkmenistan’s Caspian Sea resort area Awaza has been chosen by the Professional Windsurfing Association as one of the venues for the months-long, 15-stage Windsurfing 2014 World Cup.

It sounded crazy to me and given the source of the information I figured I’d better investigate this further.

Sure enough, according to the Professional Windsurfing Association’s website, www.pwaworldtour.com the “Awaza PWA World Cup Turkmenistan” competition is scheduled to take place from July 1 to July 6. That’s after the competition at Magarita Island, in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Venezuela, and just before nearly a month of competitions at three of the Canary Islands.

But seriously, Awaza?

The list of venues for the PWA 2014 World Cup also includes Costa Brava, Bonaire (Netherlands Antilles), Alacati (Turkey), Maui (Hawaii), New Zealand, and Chile.

Awaza?

It turns out the announcement came from Erol Tabaja, the head of Turkish company Polimeks. Tabaja reached the agreement with the PWA, a gesture of gratitude no doubt for Turkmenistan’s government awarding Polimeks billions of dollars in construction contracts, including deals to build the new Ashgabat airport and the “Yelken Yacht Club” at Awaza.

Turkmenistan.ru says some 100 windsurfers from more than 40 countries will participate “and also a large group of representatives of foreign media” will be on hand to cover the competition.

That might already give the PWA event the record for the most visas issued to any group by Turkmen authorities.

And to follow that thought, there was the question why isolationist Turkmenistan would even want to hold an international sports event, regional prestige reasons aside.

It occurred to me that windsurfing is actually a perfect event for Turkmenistan to host.

There’s an airport at Turkmenbashi City, near Awaza, so none of the foreign guests will ever see much of Turkmenistan. The “Yelken Yacht Club,” with gates behind it to keep out Turkmenistan’s citizens, has been operating for a couple of years now and will be the viewing area for guests and media. The athletes won’t even be on Turkmen soil when they are competing.

It is sort of like being in Turkmenistan but not really being there.

I will not be there (for some reason I can never get a visa to Turkmenistan), but according to Turkmenistan.ru the event will be available live on the Internet.

There was no mention of any Turkmen competitors taking part in the event, but something tells me there will be more than a few pictures of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov riding a windsurfing board before the cup leaves Awaza.

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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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