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Qishloq Ovozi

RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Soltan Achilova displays some of the bruises she suffered during an attack in late October in Ashgabat.

It's never been easy being a journalist in Central Asia. Quite the opposite, in fact. Reporting from Central Asia can lead to dire consequences: assaults, arrests, imprisonment, and, on occasion, even death.

That has been generally true for 25 years, but recently it has become even worse. How much worse was the subject of the latest Majlis podcast organized by RFE/RL (listen below).

Moderating from Washington was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From Almaty, German freelance correspondent Edda Schlager joined the discussion. She's been working in Central Asia for more than a decade and had quite a story to tell. Our friend Steve Swerdlow, Central Asian researcher for Human Rights Watch, participated from the United States. I’ve not only been following events with journalists in Central Asia for some years, I’ve had firsthand experience with being on site trying to cover the region, so I had a few things to say also.

The Majlis opened with Schlager recalling her recent experience in Uzbekistan. Schlager was in Uzbekistan at the start of November to cover, as she said, "the atmosphere of the country" ahead of the December 4 presidential election, the first such election since the death of Uzbekistan's only president, Islam Karimov, a couple of months ago.

Schlager was detained on November 10, about one week after she arrived in Uzbekistan.

She said four men came to the hotel where she was staying at around 7 a.m. one morning. "First, I was called by the receptionist to come out because the authorities were there to check my documents," Schlager recalled.

Schlager was taken to a police station, where she spent the entire day, but she pointed out that the people who were holding her treated her kindly. She had telephoned friends before she was taken from the hotel. "To my surprise, I could keep my smartphone," she said, so she was able to maintain contact with people she knew in Uzbekistan and in Germany.

"In the afternoon, the Germany Embassy managed to send me someone, the counsel together with a translator of the embassy, and they got me out," Schlager explained. But she was ordered to leave the country.

As Swerdlow noted, "It’s the first deportation of an international journalist since the interim president, Shavkat Mirziyaev, has been installed in power, and it shows that it's business as usual in Uzbekistan for freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of the media."

The situation is just as bad, or possibly even worse, in Turkmenistan. In late October, RFE/RL correspondent Soltan Achilova, 67, was taking photographs of the long lines outside state stores, where people were waiting for their chance to purchase basic goods -- sugar, cooking oil, flour, and such.

Police brought her in for questioning. After she left the police station, she was assaulted and robbed by unknown assailants, who took her camera. She was attacked again at a medical facility where she was receiving treatment in November.

Protesters supporting Saparmamed Nepeskuliev outside the Turkmen Embassy in Washington, D.C., in October.
Protesters supporting Saparmamed Nepeskuliev outside the Turkmen Embassy in Washington, D.C., in October.

Another RFE/RL correspondent, Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, has been in prison for more than a year after he was found photographing expensive buildings in the Awaza resort area on the Caspian Sea and was subsequently convicted on narcotics charges.

Swerdlow spoke about the situation in Tajikistan where "Tojnews and Nigoh…very important outlets" -- an independent website and newspaper, respectively -- were closed in November. Both cited a lack of "necessary conditions for working" as the reason they were closing. This comes after the Eurasia Net website recently reported about journalists leaving the profession, or the country, due to problems.

Kazakhstan, where the situation has been relatively better than in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, or Uzbekistan, has also seen incidents involving top people at media outlets. Bigeldy Gabdullin, the chief editor of the newspaper Central Asia Monitor and also the publisher of the website, was detained in November on suspicion of extortion.

Kazakhstan's anticorruption agency said Gabdullin published "negative material, which defamed the business reputation" of certain individuals, then demanded money to cease publishing such articles.

According to the anticorruption agency, these individuals arranged for Gabdullin to receive state funding for Central Asia Monitor and Schlager said, "In Kazakhstan, as in other countries, you have the practice that the government is paying media for covering stories, obviously in a positive way, and in connection with this practice he was arrested because he was accused of corruption."

Gabdullin has not commented publicly yet on these charges.

But his case comes after Seitkazy Mataev, the president of Kazakhstan's Union of Journalists and also the owner and founder of the National Press Club and the KazTAG news agency, and his son Aset, who is general director at KazTAG, were convicted on October 3 of fraud and tax evasion. Mataev was sentenced to six years in prison, his son to five years, and they were fined more than $1.5 million, including seizure of their personal property.

Seitkazy has denied the charges against him and his son. Kazakh political analyst and opposition figure Amirzhan Kosanov described the legal process against the Mataevs as "a demonstration that [the authorities] wanted to give to free journalism, to show, with the Mataevs as an example, that they can deal with anybody, even a person of such a high caliber, who was [Kazakh President Nursultan] Nazarbaev’s first press secretary and a person who was strongly loyal to the president and that was never in the opposition."

And even in Kyrgyzstan, where there has always been an independent media -- albeit at times an embattled independent media -- there was a warning recently.

In early November, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev warned the media about publishing "misleading" information.

The word "misleading," when spoken by top officials in Central Asia, has as often as not meant information that runs contrary to the government's narrative. So it is a red-flag word.

Kyrgyzstan is about to conduct a national referendum on controversial amendments to the country's constitution, amendments that Atambaev has supported. Kyrgyzstan will also conduct a presidential election next year, to choose Atambaev's successor.

The Majlis podcast discussed these issues and others in great detail, plus Schlager gave a much fuller description of her recent trip to -- and deportation from -- Uzbekistan.

Majlis Podcast: The Cost Of Reporting From Central Asia
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

Omurbek Babanov (left) and Kamchybek Tashiev are no longer a team.

It was clear it couldn't last for long, but now it's official: Kyrgyzstan's Respublika-Ata-Jurt party is splitting up.

Respublika and Ata-Jurt joined forces in October 2014, with an eye on boosting their chances in the country's parliamentary elections a year later. But while they succeeded to some extent in that goal, the announced dissolution of the parties' merger just weeks before local elections, and about a year before the presidential poll, has created a confusing situation.

The Respublika party, led by Omurbek Babanov, and the Ata-Jurt party, led by Kamchybek Tashiev, won 28 seats in the 120-seat parliament in 2015, coming in second after the Social Democratic Party, once President Almazbek Atambaev's party, which won 38 seats.

But Tashiev nevertheless decided to break up the "tandem" the two formed, telling RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on November 17, that he had met with Babanov to discuss Ata-Jurt's withdrawal. Tashiev said he and Babanov reached agreement "without any scandals or arguments."

Tashiev explained that the decision meant that after the elections to local councils scheduled for December 11, the same day Kyrgyzstan will conduct a national referendum on amendments to the constitution, "each party will act under its own party name."

Tashiev clarified, however, that for this election day only Ata-Jurt would be running separately, while Babanov would use Respublika-Ata-Jurt and then revert to simply Respublika in the future.

This could be a bit confusing for voters on December 11.

Babanov, one of the richest men in Kyrgyzstan, founded Respublika in June 2010, just after former President Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted from power by protesters. Respublika was seen as an ethnically inclusive party led by the sophisticated businessman Babanov.

Tashiev, a boxer who served in the Soviet military and later turned to politics, became one of the leaders of the Ata-Jurt party (not to be confused with the Ata-Jurt movement of the mid-2000s), in 2006. Tashiev has been accused of being a nationalist and a supporter of Bakiev, under whom he served as emergency-situations minister from 2007 to 2009, though he denies his party excludes other ethnic groups or that he favored Bakiev's return to power. Tashiev was excluded from the Respublika-Ata-Jurt party list in the 2015 elections after he was accused of assaulting a member of the Onuguu-Progress party.

Altynai Omurbekova of the Respublika party, also deputy speaker of parliament, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service she was aware of the split. "As far as I know, Kamchybek Tashiev met with Omurbek Toktogulovich [Babanov] and said that from now on he [Tashiev] intends to continue in a new tandem with [Adakhan] Madumarov and [Akhmatbek] Keldibekov."

Omurbekova added, however, that "the Respublika-Ata-Jurt faction [in parliament] will work until the end of the convocation." That would mean that despite the split in the party, the two parties would act as one party in parliament until 2020 when the next parliamentary elections are scheduled.

This will present a challenge to voters on December 11 when elections to local councils are held. Knowing the two parties are about to act independently, even as they work as one for the time being in parliament, what does casting a ballot for Respublika-Ata-Jurt mean?

Respublika-Ata-Jurt has not been part of the ruling coalition in parliament since the 2010 elections.* Despite pledges of unity in parliament until 2020, there is the possibility the two parties might pursue their own, different agendas in parliament, a possibility made all the more likely considering presidential elections are set for late 2017 and Babanov, and possibly Tashiev or another member of Ata-Jurt, could be candidates.

*This article has been corrected to show that Respublika-Ata-Jurt was not in the coalition that collapsed in October.

Based on material from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz 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.



Majlis Podcast: Turkmenistan Singled Out Over Enforced Disappearances
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Majlis Podcast: Turkmenistan Singled Out Over Enforced Disappearances
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