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Qishloq Ovozi

A new stadium under construction in Ashgabat -- but does the government still have the money for such extravagances?

The economic crisis is hitting Central Asia hard now. Turkmenistan has not been immune; if anything, the country's dependence on natural gas exports has made it more vulnerable than its Central Asian neighbors.

But one would never know it looking at the number of costly and arguably fruitless projects into which Turkmenistan's government is pouring money. According to the Turkmen government this is still "Altyn Asyr," the Golden Age, a time of prosperity for Turkmenistan domestically and growing importance for the country internationally.

How bad is the economic situation inside Turkmenistan? Why does the government there continue to talk about spending billions of dollars on projects that seem to lead to a dead end? What sort of pressure might Turkmen authorities be facing due to this economic downturn?

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel to delve into these matters.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir chaired the panel. Participating in the discussion was Dr. Luca Anceschi, professor of Central Asian studies at Glasgow University and noted authority on Turkmenistan. Also sitting in for the talk was Dr. Slavomir Horak, researcher at the Department of Russian and East European Studies at Charles University in Prague and author of many articles about Turkmenistan. And I, naturally, threw in some comments as well.

"If we look at the [Turkmen] economy of 2015, it's very much the same as in 1995; no significant change has been introduced," Anceschi said regarding Turkmenistan's continued reliance on gas exports for state revenues.

Actually, the panelists used the word "overreliance" many times when describing Turkmenistan's dependence on gas to prop up the country's economy. The price of gas on world markets has decreased by nearly half since the start of 2014, and the effects are now becoming visible in Turkmenistan.

After Turkmenistan became independent in late 1991, the government offered the country's population free gas, electricity, and water, though all these were rationed. The Turkmen government also subsidized basic foodstuffs. But in the last few years, Turkmen authorities started cutting back on subsidies. Up to a limit, utilities are still free; but above the imposed limits, the population now has to pay. The prices of basic foods have also slowly started to rise.

The Council of Elders, one of Turkmenistan's rubber-stamping bodies, has already proposed doing away with all subsidies starting in 2016.

Horak noted new regulations in Turkmenistan also limit the amount of hard-currency transactions that can be made. "That presents difficulties to business operations with Turkmen partners in general, not only with gas exports but also the small trade sector and other productive sectors of the Turkmen economy," Horak said.

With all these signs of economic decline, one would think the Turkmen government would be economizing on all its expenses, especially some of the big projects Turkmenistan is undertaking.

But that is not the case.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has already announced that construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline will start in December on Turkmenistan's territory. Turkmenistan is even offering to fund the bulk of the $8 billion-$10 billion project despite decaying security situations along the proposed route, in northern Afghanistan and southern Pakistan's Balochistan Province.

Turkmen authorities just announced the completion of the Turkmen section of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway line. The Turkmen government has vowed that construction of the Afghan section, just across the border from Turkmenistan, will start in early 2016 despite increased fighting in northern Afghanistan and the fact that both the Afghan and Tajik governments lack funding for their parts of the line.

Turkmenistan will finish the East-West gas pipeline in December. The pipeline will carry some 30 billion cubic meters of gas to Turkmenistan's Caspian shore where, currently, there is no pipeline linking to any other country.

And there are the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games that Turkmenistan is hosting in 2017. The government is spending billions of dollars on construction of facilities for that event.

Horak noted, "The tendency of self-presentation of Turkmenistan and the president is highly positioned behind any of these projects" as something that is fueling these projects. Turkmenistan's government, specifically President Berdymukhammedov, has said many times in state media these projects were important to the country. The authorities, Horak said, "can make some part of the TAPI project and show it on TV as the plan has been accomplished and we are doing something good for people, the same with other projects."

Anceschi said this was an important fact. Turkmenistan's government has created a facade, an image that will not bear close scrutiny, especially from the country's people. "When you grow up in a context where you're told that this is the golden age and that Turkmenistan…and all these myths crash one after the other then some people would actually start to question who are we actually ruled by," he said.

Anceschi also pointed out that the extremely opaque nature of the Turkmen government raises questions about what role corruption among the elites might be playing in these multibillion-dollar projects.

In any case, Anceschi drew attention to the fact Turkmen authorities seem to be trying to address the economic problems as quietly as possible. "What we've seen so far, at least in 2015, is a very significant change in the way in which the regime is operating in the economy," he explained.

Both Anceschi and Horak cautioned that the deteriorating economic situation in Turkmenistan does not necessarily mean the regime is in danger of collapsing anytime soon. "Maybe we will see in the coming years that the Turkmen regime is more sustainable than we can see now," Horak said.

The panelists discussed in greater detail these issues and other matters. You can hear the whole discussion here:

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The Islamic State group is the newest terrorist boogeyman to spur a crackdown in Uzbekistan.

With fear of extremist attacks running high in many places of the world, the authorities in Uzbekistan appear to moving to preempt any acts of terrorism there. According to information coming out of Uzbekistan, more than 160 people have been detained in areas around the capital, Tashkent, since the end of October, all apparently on suspicion of being involved with the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

However, Uzbek authorities have a history of casting a very wide net when security operations are initiated and there is already reason to believe many of the people being incarcerated are not from IS, though they are from an outside Islamic sect that has grown popular in Central Asia.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, has been reporting about the detentions.

Ozodlik reported the first group of 16 people was detained in Tashkent's Zangiatin district on October 29. At least 25 more people were taken into custody during the first days of November and detentions have continued regularly since then, all in the Zangiatin district. Most are from the village of Nazarbek, the others were from the mahallas (neighborhoods) of Oltin Tepa and Eshonguzar.

Uzbek law enforcement said on November 6 that those detained were "Salafis" who were connected to militants in Syria.

Members of the banned Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, speaking under condition of anonymity from Uzbekistan, told Ozodlik most of those detained were fellow members. "Up to 90 percent," one Hizb ut-Tahrir member claimed.

Uzbek authorities banned Hizb ut-Tahrir more than 15 years ago, claiming it was an extremist group. It is an Islamic sect, tracing its origins back to Palestinian refugees in the 1950s. Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks to create an Islamic caliphate but disavows the use of violence to achieve this goal. It has gained thousands of followers in Central Asia despite being banned in every one of the five Central Asian states.

Governments in the region, particularly the Uzbek government, have tried for years to blame Hizb ut-Tahrir for violent acts committed in Central Asia but to date none of these governments has been able to supply compelling evidence to back up their claims.

Uzbekistan's government for many years attempted to link Hizb ut-Tahrir to a legitimately violent group -- the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Now it seems Tashkent is linking Hizb ut-Tahrir to the IS group.

Russia's Regnum news agency was the first to report that more than 150 people had been taken into custody in the Tashkent area on suspicion of ties to IS. Regnum cited "sources" in Uzbekistan's law enforcement organs.

Ozodlik called veteran Uzbek rights defender Surat Ikramov, who for some 20 years has been invaluable in bringing to light facts surrounding the detentions of hundreds of people (at least) in Uzbekistan.

Ikramov confirmed detentions in Zangiatin district, some 60 to 70, he said. Ikramov added that about 10 more people had been detained in Tashkent's Shaykhantakhur district and at least one more person in the capital's Almazar district. Ikramov said that in the Almazar district the figure could be higher.

Ikramov has visited the districts and spoken with relatives and associates of many of those detained. Ikramov said most of those currently in custody are "believers" and that they were being accused of involvement with IS and other extremist organizations.

Ikramov also said almost all of the detained had been worked as migrant laborers outside Uzbekistan.

"In law enforcement organs they work the same old way," Ikramov said. "Maybe in those countries where they worked they were able to visit various websites, in particular the website of the 'Islamic State,' and this became known to our security forces."

A resident of the Shaykhantakhtur neighborhood told Ozodlik he heard more than 160 "of the brothers in faith" had been detained recently. This person said homes being searched were usually of "those who just returned from working abroad."

So who are these people who are being detained?

At first, the Uzbek authorities said publicly they were Salafis but it appears from what Ikramov said that now Uzbek authorities are investigating the detainees for links to IS. The Hizb ut-Tahrir supporter said many of those in custody were supporters of his group.

In any case, suddenly detaining such a large number of people in the same district of the capital raises some questions about whether these are preemptive proxies.

In the spring, Uzbek law enforcement and security agencies conducted a series of exercises in Uzbekistan's section of the Ferghana Valley. Often during these "exercises," people were officially taken, briefly, into custody.

There was the tale of the two female suicide bombers in Uzbekistan's eastern Ferghana Province in mid-August. Uzbekistan's media reported about it at that time; Uzbek authorities launched a security sweep of the area in which they were allegedly seen. The two women vanished, "possibly into Kyrgyzstan," officials said. Nothing more was ever heard of them.

Then there was the explosion at a bus stop in downtown Tashkent on a Friday afternoon in early September. The authorities later called that a "drill" to test the response of various law enforcement agencies and emergency services, none of which had been informed that the explosion was a simulated event.

A drill, possibly, but in all these events since spring there seems to be some intent to sow a bit of respect and fear among the people of Uzbekistan, to show the people the authorities are watching and ready to act.

So once again, who are these people who are being detained?

Are some of them genuinely a threat to Uzbekistan's stability or are they wrongly accused and simply meant to serve as an example?

Based on material from 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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