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Qishloq Ovozi

Border Ceremony As Kyrgyzstan Joins Eurasian Union
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Kyrgyzstan officially joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EES) on August 12.

The process of Kyrgyzstan joining an economic union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan started several years ago when that troika were the sole members in the CIS Customs Union. Membership has been a topic of hot debate inside Kyrgyzstan ever since.

Supporters and critics had their arguments for and against entry into such a union, and as Kyrgyzstan officially joined there was still great division inside the country as to the wisdom of becoming the EES’s fifth member (Armenia joined at the start of this year).

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel to look at Kyrgyzstan’s decision to join the EES and consider some of the pros and cons of the move.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel. Participating were Emil Joroev, a professor at the American University of Central Asia, located in Bishkek, and Peter Leonard, who covered Central Asia for the Associated Press from 2007 to 2013 and recently returned to Kyrgyzstan (after covering Ukraine for AP), where he is again covering Central Asia, now for EurasiaNet. I made a few comments as well. (Listen to the entire roundtable by clicking the link below.)

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Joroev opened, saying, “People have been excited especially about the possibilities of exporting certain goods, mostly in agriculture and food products from Kyrgyzstan to these other economies, thinking of it as a much greater market, much higher prices and so on, but…people are at the same time worried about the possibilities of inflation, of consumer prices catching up with those of Kazakhstan and Russia."

Joroev also mentioned that for Kyrgyzstan’s migrant laborers, EES membership eases regulations for working in Russia and Kazakhstan, which helps guarantee those laborers will continue to send back remittances, “a major factor in [Kyrgyzstan’s] economy.”

However, many in Kyrgyzstan were still reluctant to tie the country’s fortunes closer to a Russian-dominated organization and according to Leonard, some of Kyrgyzstan’s officials still do not seem to have fully grasped what EES membership entails. Leonard recounted that just some two weeks ago a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Council, “the watchdog of the union,” took place in Kyrgyzstan.

“This particular panel was to deal specifically with the kind of macroeconomic data that will be going on in the years to come and…the questions [from officials of Kyrgyzstan’s Finance Ministry and central bank] were sort of, 'How will you do it? How will you collect information? How will this happen?’”

“This really kind of told me about the lack of preparedness that a lot of officials have really encountered this whole situation with,” Leonard said.

As discussions of Kyrgyzstan’s entry into an economic union went on, some had the feeling Russia was pushing Kyrgyzstan to join and that Bishkek really did not have much of a choice.

Tahir said that Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the EES seemed more a political rather than an economic or trade decision.

Joroev explained, “When you say political decision, obviously it's very hard for Kyrgyzstan to distinguish its political and economic interests, especially when it comes to relations with Russia."

That is because few countries, and notably very few Western countries, have shown much of an economic interest in Kyrgyzstan. China has been making great economic inroads across Central Asia in recent years and Kyrgyzstan is no exception.

But Leonard pointed out that “Russia is offering [Kyrgyzstan] large amounts of money."

"Something in the area of $1.2 billion has been promised as part of a package to assist Kyrgyzstan into being eased into the Eurasian Economic Union. Already $200 million of that money has been disbursed and so it's not very difficult to see why Kyrgyzstan decided to make that decision [to join the EES] in the end,” he said.

And Joroev noted, “Current geopolitical tensions on the world stage, especially between the West and Russia over Ukraine and much else” have left Kyrgyzstan and other some other countries “caught in this fault line, as it were, and it's very difficult for these smaller countries to maneuver between the two sides."

“When Kyrgyzstan is faced or perceives itself to be in a position of a zero-sum choice between Russia or the West...of course for Kyrgyzstan the safest bet is to stay close with Russia,” he said.

The panel delved much deeper into Kyrgyzstan’s ties with Russia and the West and what EES membership would mean for those relationships, the prospects for Kyrgyzstan as an EES member in the years to come, and more.

NOTE: Starting in September our panel discussions will appear on the RFE/RL website under "Majlis." Qishloq Ovozi will continue to announce the posting of the discussions but will no longer produce a text to accompany the podcast.

Nepeskuliev was jailed for possession of “pills with narcotic substance.”

You are causing problems and you’re going to get into trouble. You are risking your future and the future of your family.”

Those words, or something similar, are common features when authorities in countries ruled by so-called “strongmen” confront local independent journalists and rights activists.

I’ve been working with RFE/RL for some 20 years and I’ve heard some of our correspondents in Central Asia recount such lectures. Officials, or security agents, or the police tell our correspondents they are traitors to their country, working, spreading lies for a foreign government. Some of our correspondents have been beaten, detained, or both, and one was killed in jail.

So when these representatives of the state strongly advise a change of employer or even profession it is understandable, to me certainly, that some choose to take that advice.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, has been experiencing a series of setbacks recently, more than is usual even in a country such as Turkmenistan.

The latest incident involves Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, 35, who works in Turkmenistan as a correspondent for Azatlyk and also with Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN). Nepeskuliev traveled from his hometown of Balkanabat to the coastal resort area of Avaza in early July to research future stories. He phoned his family July 7 from Avaza to tell them he was going out and would return later that day.

Instead, Nepeskuliev disappeared. Relatives contacted local authorities to report Nepeskuliev was missing; those officials at first said they had no knowledge of Nepeskuliev’s whereabouts.

Nepeskuliev’s family searched all the facilities where Nepeskuliev could conceivably be, even morgues. Finally, on July 28 his sister visited the prison in Akdash, some 30 kilometers from Avaza, and an official confirmed Nepeskuliev was there -- held on charges of illegal possession of “pills with narcotic substance.”

ATN contacted some of Nepeskuliev’s relatives who denied he could have been involved with illegal narcotics. Since the end of July, international rights organizations including Human Rights Watch (HRW), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and Amnesty International, and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic have released statements calling on Turkmen authorities to free Nepeskuliev or at least allow him access to a lawyer of his choice.

After the news broke Nepeskuliev had been found in jail, ATN again called the number of Nepeskuliev’s family and spoke with a person claiming to be Nepeskuliev’s sister who said Nepeskuliev was a “drug addict” who “regularly beat me and my mother.” ATN asked to speak with Nepeskuliev’s mother but the alleged “sister” said the mother had been taken to intensive care that morning. ATN said that since then, it has been unable to reach Nepeskuliev’s mother at her phone number.

Nepeskuliev has still not been formally charged with any crime.

Nepeskuliev’s troubles came on the heels of Azatlyk freelance contributor Osmankuly Hallyev’s encounters with Turkmen authorities.

Hallyev, who had worked with Azatlyk since 2006, suddenly resigned in early June “citing an unprecedented campaign of intimidation waged against him by the authorities.” Hallyev’s decision came after he was summoned to the office of the chief of the Garashsyzlyk district in the western Lebap Province, where he was “publicly denounced by local authorities and community leaders."

Hallyev resumed work for Azatlyk at the start of July, saying harassment had not stopped despite his resignation and that if he and his family would be under pressure regardless, he would rather do his job.

Turkmen officials rarely comment on such incidents except possibly to say Western media have not got its facts straight.

However, now there is something new. A website that recently appeared, Gundogar-news.com -- not to be confused with the Turkmen opposition website Gundogar.org, which has been posting articles for some 15 years -- offers a different version of recent events.

This new Gundogar site wrote on August 1 that Nepeskuliev worked “secretly” for Azatlyk and ATN. The report casts doubt on ATN editor Ruslan Myatiev’s competence, calling him a “young journalist with not more than 3-4 years experience.”

The report then features a statement from Ashirkuly Bayryev, a former Azatlyk correspondent who received the David Burke Distinguished Journalism Award in 2010, while he was working for Azatlyk.

Before delving into the words attributed to Bayryev, I remind everyone what I said at the beginning of this article about intimidation. I do not know what Bayryev’s motivations were for making these comments. Perhaps they are sincere, perhaps not.

Bayryev is quoted as saying that HRW, Amnesty International, and RSF “discredit rights defense movements and civic activists’ institutions” by jumping to conclusions based on the accusations of ATN. He refers to Nepeskuliev’s purported claim that after "he demanded his personal rights" several years ago, he was forced into a psychiatric hospital, dismissing such an allegation on the grounds that “in [Turkmenistan] every day someone is insisting on their personal rights in courts, in arbitration, with law enforcement agencies…this is a normal process in the everyday life of any country.”

“I have never encountered [a situation where] our [law enforcement] organs, moreover the special services, incarcerated someone in a psychiatric hospital -- [that’s laughable],” he is quoted as saying.

Bayryev then is quoted as saying that in his opinion Nepeskuliev, “for money,” worked for ATN “and possibly for Azatlyk” as a cover “so as not to arouse the interest of law enforcement bodies” in his drug trafficking business.

I would have to call such an assumption ludicrous, since working for Azatlyk is generally cause for attracting the attention, or better said the scrutiny, of Turkmen law enforcement bodies.

I don’t like to contradict Bayryev but I’m far from being the only person to know something about Turkmenistan and no one I know or can think of would believe working for Azatlyk is a good cover for drug dealing in Turkmenistan.

It is not absolutely clear who sponsors the Gundogar-news.com website, but looking at the site’s content it’s fair to assume it is a pro-Turkmen government creation.

Azatlyk has reported this year on authorities ordering the removal of satellite dishes and on the demolition of homes in and around Ashgabat. Gundogar-news.com presented its own video reports about these topics.

In the video about satellite dishes, another former Azatlyk correspondent, Dovletmurad Yazkuliev, defends the decision to take down the dishes. In October 2011, Yazkuliev, an Azatlyk contributor at the time, was sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted of urging his sister-in-law to commit suicide. He was subsequently released under a presidential amnesty, and shortly afterward took a position with a state institution where he remains to this day.

Yazkuliev’s video “report” is mixed with images of numerous dishes obscuring the facades and rooftops of buildings in Ashgabat. He criticizes international rights organizations for their complaints to the Turkmen government about the forced dish removals but does not mention why so many people would be interested in having satellite dishes when the government is offering its own cable television package.

The video report about the demolition of homes rejects reports by Azatlyk and others that residents are being evicted from their homes, which are then razed, and that authorities are not offering any compensation. Bayryev appears in this video criticizing foreign nongovernmental organizations and media outlets for spreading information that is “not objective.” Bayryev claims evicted homeowners are given newly constructed dwellings and while the report shows construction and even a new neighborhood, conspicuously absent from the video are any interviews with the residents of these new homes.

The reason Azatlyk is being targeted seems clear enough. Azatlyk attracts 335,500 monthly visits to its web and mobile sites, and has more than 113,500 followers on Facebook.”

Azatlyk’s growing popularity comes at a time when Turkmenistan is experiencing unprecedented security problems along its border with Afghanistan and is just beginning to feel the effects of the country’s dependence on natural gas exports for revenue.

As our intern (and Qishloq resident) Bradley Jardine wrote, "With uncertainty growing inside the country, Azatlyk’s reports are more important than ever before. And that’s exactly what the ruling elites are afraid of."

Turkmen authorities have worked zealously since independence to prevent such information from reaching the Turkmen public, so the timing of this more intense than usual campaign seemingly targeting Azatlyk probably should not come as a surprise. Turkmen authorities have simply come up with some new twists to familiar repression.

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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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