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Nazir Habibov was arrested in August on charges of possession and sale of narcotics.

One of Turkmenistan’s most famous singers, Nazir Habibov, is on his way to prison. In fact, he is probably already there.

Habibov was arrested in August on charges of possession and sale of narcotics, but that might not be the reason he ran into trouble with the law.

Habibov has a public reputation as a drug user. But that has never damaged his popularity and, according to relatives, Habibov was booked to perform at various functions, usually private functions of Turkmenistan’s elite, up to six months in advance.

But Habibov's popularity may have come at a price.

It is no secret all around Central Asia that if you are a popular singer you will receive invitations from powerful people to perform at their parties. Such invitations are, in reality, a sort of summons. Performers are paid, but there is not much opportunity to refuse these requests.

Habibov’s troubles seem to have begun after he accepted one such invitation -- and later received another invitation to perform on the same day.

Habibov honored the deal he made with the first customer.

That may have been a big mistake.

In the murky political and social world of Turkmenistan, it is difficult to identify who many of the elite are and even more difficult to say just how far their influence extends.

Apparently, even performers such as Habibov cannot always divine who stands higher in the hierarchy.

The invitation that Habibov spurned seems to have come from someone close to one of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s sisters. (He has five.) Habibov’s legal problems started not long after he failed to appear at the event organized by customer No. 2.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, contacted Habibov's wife, Rita, through her Instagram account. She said that her husband did not sell narcotics and canceled her account after leaving further questions unanswered.

A source familiar with the case says members of Habibov's family said they had been warned not to speak to anyone about Habibov's case. The same source and others contacted by Azatlyk said a chain of clothing stores Habibov's wife owned has been seized by the authorities.

Accounts vary as to Habibov's sentence. Some people say he received 15 years in prison; others say 12.

Habibov has been vilified on state television, which aired a program on his arrest, featuring what it claimed was his "confession," on October 4. State media have also shown images of a bag containing a large amount of an unidentified dirty white substance that allegedly belonged to Habibov.

Berdymukhammedov indicated in a November 2 speech to Turkmenistan’s State Security Council that clemency was not likely for Habibov and others convicted on narcotics charges.

Berdymukhammedov spoke of "selfish businessmen" who engage in illegally selling cigarettes and who "abused and distributed drugs." The president said such people deserve only "contempt," and he urged security services to strengthen efforts to eliminate "smoking and drug abuse."

Whether or not Habibov has used drugs, the circumstances of his arrest and sentencing seem more likely to be rooted in his failure to appease an influential figure with connections in the Turkmen government.

Had Habibov performed for this second client, would he still be free, despite the drug allegations? Was his real offense his refusal to heed the wishes of someone with power?

Turkmenistan’s appalling rights record over the last 25 years makes those questions difficult to answer.

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service
A Chinese worker walks along the Kazakh stretch of a pipeline linking China and Turkmenistan.

China’s massive One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project aims to connect the world like never before, using land and sea routes to form trade links across Asia and Europe and down to Africa. It’s an extremely ambitious project that will take many years to realize but already OBOR has many people excited about the economic possibilities to come.

Among the billions of people who could benefit immensely from OBOR are the roughly 65 million residents of Central Asia. But being part of OBOR is not necessarily a guarantee for a better future.

To look at OBOR in Central Asia, and some of the potential advantages and disadvantages, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or panel, to review the situation.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Exeter University in the U.K., senior lecturer and Central Asian expert David Lewis joined the discussion. From Geneva, journalist, researcher, and native of Kyrgyzstan Cholpon Orozobekova, who has written for the Jamestown Foundation and The Diplomat took part. I was just back from Washington, New York, and the CESS conference at Princeton and was raring to go, so I pitched in a few comments also.

As Lewis mentioned at the start of the Majlis, the numbers for OBOR are genuinely unprecedented -- $1 trillion of investment with routes potentially reaching some 44 countries with more than half the population of the planet. And, as Lewis pointed out, “This being the initiative of [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, it’s something that the Chinese leadership is committed to and it does involve significant funding for Central Asia in particular, and of course, governments, at least in Central Asia, are very enthusiastic about funding flowing into major infrastructure projects.”

OBOR has already started in Central Asia. Lewis recalled the oil pipeline from Kazakhstan, the natural gas pipelines from Turkmenistan, and a road network from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan already lead to China.

These projects and others were started, and some completed, before the autumn of 2013 when Beijing first articulated the OBOR project. As Orozobekova reminded, “In 2013, trade between China and the five Central Asian states was $50 billion already, while, for example, trade between Russia and these [Central Asian] countries was only $30 billion.”

That trend has only become stronger as Russia’s economy has weakened, limiting Russian investment potential. China, meanwhile, has continued to vigorously pursue OBOR. In February this year, the first cargo train from China arrived in Iran after passing through Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan along new railways in the latter two countries. In September, the first train from China to Afghanistan arrived after crossing through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

According to the plan, the part of the route that runs through Central Asia should continue west through northern Iran into Turkey. Central Asia could benefit greatly from this new route for shipping goods to, and receiving goods from countries with access to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea.

But already parts of Central Asia are seeing some of the negative aspects that come with these Chinese-funded projects.

“In Central Asia there are some concerns regarding the flow of migrants from China,” Lewis said. He explained: “Typically Chinese companies like to use their own people, bring in Chinese labor to get a job done. It’s often very effective but it doesn’t always give people local jobs and employ local specialists.”

That has led to problems in the oil fields of western Kazakhstan where Chinese employees work, in mining areas in Kyrgyzstan where Chinese employees work, and along various parts of the roads being constructed in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan where locals work alongside Chinese workers. Sometimes the problems are caused by rumors of the Chinese receiving better wages, sometimes the lack of the locals’ ability to communicate with the Chinese workers has led to fights.

Chinese farmers are also tending agricultural land in Tajikistan vacated by local farmers who left to find work in Russia. A proposal to lease farmland in Kazakhstan earlier this year sparked the largest protests seen there in some 20 years, when rumors spread that Chinese farmers would lease portions of Kazakhstan’s farmland.

Orozobekova said, “In Central Asia there are some concerns regarding the flow of migrants from China.”

Additionally, while Chinese workers are coming to Central Asia, Lewis said, “China just doesn’t offer that kind of labor migration, there’s no real option to go to China to work.” So Central Asia’s migrant laborers continue to mainly go to Russia.

And there are also environmental concerns. Chinese companies do not have a good track record when it comes to ecological considerations. Lewis explained, “In Kyrgyzstan and in Tajikistan recently, new cement plants developed by China are notoriously polluting industries and can have a really negative effect on local people.” Refineries in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan built or operated by Chinese companies have also received complaints from local administrations and residents.

Orozobekova also pointed out for Kyrgyzstan, OBOR is a competitor project. She said many in Kyrgyzstan “are overwhelmed with the EEU, the Eurasian Economic Union.” The EEU is the Russian-led organization that also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan officially joined in August 2015. Orozobekova said, “When it comes to OBOR and the EEU there’s a little bit of a clash between them because currently, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan joined the EEU with Russia [and] there are so many problems within this organization [EEU].”

And Orozobekova reminded that since 1998, Kyrgyzstan is also a member of the World Trade Organization, so officials in Bishkek must do some furious juggling to try to simultaneously meet the regulations of all these organizations.

And Lewis noted, “We know there’s a slowdown going on in the Chinese economy and so these very ambitious plans, which require a lot of funding, may be more difficult than was considered.”

OBOR is a thick topic, and one the Majlis will address again in the near future. Participants in this latest Majlis session explored more deeply the benefits and detriments of being one of the first sections of OBOR, including potential security problems, now and in the future.

An audio recording of the discussion can be heard at:

Majlis Podcast: What’s China’s One Belt, One Road Project To Central Asia?
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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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