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Qishloq Ovozi

Looking for some in-depth knowledge about Central Asia from an authority in the field?

Need it in a hurry?

Or are you already an authority in Central Asian studies but are having trouble gaining some notoriety?

Or maybe you are looking for someone to compare notes with on some Central Asian topic, someone from Central Asia, or someone who has spent some serious time in the region.

The Central Eurasian Scholars and Media Initiative, or CESMI, can help solve all these problems.

CESMI is a bridge, two bridges actually: one connecting the Central Asia to the West, and another connecting Central Asian scholars to those in the media who are reporting about Central Asia.

The recently started project is run by a group of bright, ambitious, and highly motivated people, all volunteers, in areas stretching from the western borders of China to the western coast of North America. They are out to show Kipling might not have been entirely correct about the “twain.”

Jeanne Feaux de la Croix is the German-based junior research leader of CESMI and since 2006 has been traveling every year to Kyrgyzstan for fieldwork, with side trips to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. She is currently working on a comparative study of water issues in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

“Both journalists and scholars do research and offer their results and opinions to the public, but they do this in very different ways,” she said. “Like a race horse, journalists have to chase deadlines and supply the public with the most up-to-date information possible. More like the Central Asian camels of old, scholars take their time in delivering their ’goods’, but have rich parcels to offer at the end."

Getting those “rich parcels” into media reports is the difference between a cursory and a comprehensive look at events.

Maral Madieva-Martin is originally from Bishkek but currently lives in Paris. Madieva-Martin has worked for the World Bank and Save the Children UK in Central Asia as well as conducting field research in 2005 for the UNODC on the narcotics situation in southern Kyrgyzstan. She is currently a consultant on Central Asian affairs for the French Foreign Ministry, the Indian Embassy and the Kyrgyz Embassy in Belgium.

She mentioned the need for “quality knowledge” about Central Asia is most required in the Central Asian countries themselves. State media is dominant in four of the five Central Asian states and Madieva-Martin noted that in the fifth country, her homeland of Kyrgyzstan, while there is “an abundance of news outlets, most [are] owned by politicians and a balanced view is becoming a rarity.”

Madieva-Martin also said, “media cooperation between Central Asia and the West can have numerous benefits, including: giving a voice to unbiased opinions or takes on crucial events; direct access to local informed sources in Central Asia, promotion of opinions of Central Asia specialists including journalists to offer an alternative to Russian media outlets.”

Sounds a little bit like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; and at this point I’ll mention that the BBC Central Asian Service, thanks to Hamid Ismailov, has made space available for CESMI members to post their blogs (“My Take On”) in English, Kyrgyz, or Uzbek.

CESMI, by its nature and considering the nationalities of its members, is a multilingual organization and tries to promote the publication and broad dissemination of work in a number of languages. The CESMI website, for example, is in English and Russian but work is under way to have more languages represented.

CESMI was formed after the June 2010 interethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan when scholars well acquainted with that area watched with frustration as big media outlets struggled to understand and report the roots of the problems.

Jeanne was one of the founders as was Gulnara Aitpaeva from Kyrgyzstan, but the idea for CESMI predates 2010 and is the brainchild of John Schoeberlein, formerly of Harvard University, currently teaching at Nazarbaev University in Astana.

And if you don’t know who John Schoeberlein is, and you claim to know something about Central Asia, all I can say is shame on you.

Seriously.

If I had to count off the top five people in the field of Central Asian studies today on one hand, Dr. John would certainly be one of those fingers. I won’t say which finger (joking, we've known each other a long time).

John, who has been studying Central Asia since the early 1980s, has dreamed of bridges between Central Asia and the West for more than a decade and he has found qualified people to help realize this dream.

CESMI is not simply advertizing the expertise of its members. CESMI also organizes a variety of events.

Till Mostowlansky, currently living in Switzerland was CESMI’s first president and is still on CESMI’s board. Till previously did research in Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan, in the latter country he focused on life in the Pamir Mountains (his dissertation topic), but he has also traveled around the other Central Asian countries.

Till pointed out, “CESMI members have organized events such as roundtables at conferences from the US to Central Asia since 2011. There is a very active group in Almaty organizing a workshop for scholars at the moment.”

Jesko Schmoller is a Berlin-based Central Asia scholar who has been conducted his field work mainly in Uzbekistan, since 2006, but like all the CESMI people mentioned here, has done a fair amount of traveling around other parts of the region.

Jesko has arranged roundtable panel discussions at Central Asian conferences. One of the most recent was at the last annual conference of the Central Eurasian Studies Society in Madison, Wisconsin last October. That panel included Monica Whitlock of the BBC, author of several books, including “Beyond The Oxus: The Central Asians” and Navbahor Imamova from Voice of America’s Uzbek Service and provided the mainly academic audience at the conference with an opportunity to ask questions and exchange views on what constitutes good, accurate coverage of Central Asian events.

One of CESMI’s goals is to help scholars communicate better with the public, through the media.

Jesko summed up the potential symbiotic relationship between the two fields this way: “Academic knowledge is very specific and can help a journalist writing on a particular topic to frame the article. Journalists, on the other hand, usually know better how to bring out the essence of an event or a phenomenon.”

Daniyar Karabaev is an ethnic Kyrgyz from the Murghab district in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. Daniyar studied at Khorog State University before moving on to the OSCE Academy on Central Asian Politics in Bishkek, then receiving a second MA in international studies at Tsukuba University in Japan.

Working with other CESMI members, Daniyar is attempting to change what he called “inactive cooperation of local scholars and media representatives” in Kyrgyzstan.

Daniyar is currently organizing a workshop for local journalists and scholars “aimed at building a good bridge for collaborative cooperation.”

To be sure, others have a hand in working with or helping CESMI. The pedigree of its founders and the organizations helping the group testify to the fact that those knowledgeable in Central Asian studies see something special in CESMI.

CESMI’s advisory board also includes, Dr. Beate Eschment (Zentralasien Analysen, Germany) Professor Eric Freedman (Michigan State University), Dr. Madeleine Reeves (University of Manchester), Bettina Ruigies (Deutsche Welle Academy, Germany), and Chris Schwartz (Neweurasia/University Leuven, Belgium).

It cost nothing to become a member. CESMI is assembling an “experts directory” on its website and though it is still a short list the qualifications of those on it speaks for itself.

CESMI member Emily Canning has already done a book review for Qishloq Ovozi and it is my hope we will hear from more CESMI members in the coming weeks and months.

Central Asia has long been, is still and will continue to be a major crossroad of civilizations. Therefore, understanding what is happening and why it is happening will be important and people like those involved with CESMI hold this knowledge.

And it is only one click away on your computer.

-- Bruce Pannier
Turkmen dissident Akmuhammet Baykhanov: "I learned a lot about Turkmen life, dictatorship politics, and the Turkmen government's repression against the people from my prison experience, from inside the darkness."
It has been a long time since a new Turkmen opposition party or movement appeared. Which is why I was intrigued when RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Azatlyk, told me about Akmuhammet Baykhanov's new group; "Hereket" (the Movement).

Most of the Turkmen opposition leaders of the late 1990s and early part of this century are still out there, mainly living in Europe now. Their statements, opinions, or comments about Turkmenistan do not appear much outside of opposition websites such as Gundogar.org and Chrono-tm.org.

They are not dormant but they are also not well publicized.

So what is the Movement about, why is Baykhanov announcing it now, and what can he, currently located in Turkey, and his group do that others have not tried?

According to Baykhanov, the reason for the Movement is to extricate the Turkmen people from the legacy of Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, or "Turkmenbashi" (Head of the Turkmen), as Niyazov was commonly called. Niyazov died at the end of 2006 but his legacy as a rights violator, enemy of the press, and waster of public funds is still alive under successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

The announcement of the Movement's creation was timed to coincide with the seventh anniversary of the death of Turkmenistan's first foreign minister, Avdy Kuliev, who became one of the leading opponents of Niyazov's regime barely a year after Turkmenistan became independent.

Kuliev is Baykhanov's primary inspiration and he repeated during interviews, in Turkmen and Russian, that his group would follow the principles of Kuliev's opposition to Turkmenistan's regime.

In Baykhanov's words, those principles mean "to work for the independence of the Turkmen people, to prevent the authorities' criminal actions against the people, like jailing innocent people, demolishing houses, depriving people of property." And like Kuliev, Baykhanov says he has no aspirations to become Turkmenistan's president. "Who is going to lead is not up to me, the people will decide who their leader is," he told Azatlyk.

At this point I should mention that I knew Avdy Kuliev. I spoke with him many times. He did have ideas about how democracy could work in Turkmenistan and he followed events in countries RFE/RL broadcasts to, looking for successes that he believed could be repeated in his own country.

Unfortunately, as Avdy was contemplating how to fit other countries' models of democratic reforms into Turkmenistan, the political realities of Turkmenistan were changing, Niyazov's government was becoming more repressive, and the country was fading into isolation.

Baykhanov conceded that Kuliev did not have sufficient time to gain momentum in his quest to change Turkmenistan's political course but Baykhanov pointed out "Kuliev wanted to work against Niyazov by being present in the country." Kuliev tried to return on April 17, 1998, but was detained at the Ashgabat airport and charged with plotting a coup. He was fortunate to be released on April 20, the same day Niyazov arrived in the United States for his first, and only, official visit to Washington.

There could be a lesson there for Baykhanov, who himself was jailed in 2003 for meeting with Kuliev in Moscow and spent the next five years being transferred from one prison to another in Turkmenistan.

It is precisely his time in jail that has Baykhanov convinced of the merits of his cause and his ability to make changes in Turkmenistan despite the greats odds against him and the Movement.

"I learned a lot about Turkmen life, dictatorship politics, and the Turkmen government's repression against the people from my prison experience, from inside the darkness," Baykhanov said.

But in these various prisons Baykhanov met others like him. "While I was there [jail] a lot of people found out who I was, and got to know me. For example, there were some 3,500 people with me in one prison and in all the other prisons people knew me," he said. "Now these people are free" and most still live in Turkmenistan.

Baykhanov also pointed out that while he lived for years in the capital, Ashgabat, he is from the central Mary Province and he says he knows many people in the eastern Lebap Province.

All these people, Baykhanov explained, are the conduits for quietly and carefully spreading the Movement's message. And he has selected one the oldest forms of political dissent in Central Asia as the vehicle for his message -- poetry and literature.

Baykhanov claims to have written 10 volumes of work, much of it while he was incarcerated or during the years 2008 to 2013 when he was out of prison but essentially under house arrest in Ashgabat.

He is not against using more contemporary means to spread his message, saying his contacts in Turkmenistan "are listening every time I speak on Radio Svoboda [Azatlyk], and tell people quietly what they heard because of course you can't speak freely in the dictator's regime and they listen and pass along what they've heard to a great number of people."

To say Baykhanov faces an uphill battle would be an understatement. The highest priority of Turkmenistan's government is and always has been self-preservation, and even the smallest perceived threats within the country are met with an overwhelming and hostile response.

The greatest value of Baykhanov and the Movement at the moment is what I said at the start; they are new and show that not everyone has given up on trying to change Turkmenistan. Even hushed words from one person to another can carry a great amount of hope.

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

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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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