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Qishloq Ovozi

The Karakiya district of Kazakhstan is very dry and very hot and in winter can be bitterly cold -- a curious place to host a refugee center.

Kazakh authorities have selected two sites and allocated funds to set up two refugee centers in a move that appears to have come as a surprise to area residents.

But the biggest questions now are: Who are these refugees? And when and why did Kazakh authorities decide to accept them?

Russia's TASS news agency carried one of the first reports of this curious development on January 29. That report quoted Svetlana Nareshova, acting head of the economy and budget planning department of the government of Kazakhstan's southwestern Mangistau Province, as saying, "The regional budget provides for the establishment of refugee centers under the antiterrorism article of the defense program."

That report made it sound as if these plans for refugees were common knowledge. But, in fact, many people in Mangistau did not seem to know about it and were not happy when they found out.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, went to the region and learned that a petition against housing refugees was being circulated in Mangistau. Some 3,000 people had already signed it. "The experience in Europe shows that a flood of refugees is always accompanied by an increase in crime and additional strains on the budget," the petition says.

Azattyq spoke with former Kazakh Deputy Defense Minister General Amirbek Togusov, who was asking the same questions that many people in Mangistau are asking.

"It's not clear to me which refugees we are talking about," Togusov said. "Where will they come from? From Afghanistan or Iraq?"

Togusov then came to the crux of the matter. "How will the local population receive them?" he said.

Judging by the petition, there are at least 3,000 locals who are against the idea. Its authors claim the government never discussed such a plan with local residents. The authors also recommended spending the money allocated for the refugee center on "low-income families and invalids" in Mangistau.

But rights activist Togzhan Kizatova claimed there is just a small group of xenophobes behind the circulation of the petition and noted that in the first half of the 20th century people of many nationalities were given refuge on the territory of present-day Kazakhstan.

Kazakh political analyst Dos Koshim said there are no refugees but that it makes sense to at least be prepared and have a facility to house them, if they ever appear.

Azattyq sought local officials who could shed light on what the plans were for the refugee centers. Azattyq first telephoned the deputy secretary of the provincial council, Sarzhok Saybagytov. Asked about the planned refugee centers, Saybagytov replied, "We have so many matters to look at every day. I'm not a computer. I can't keep everything in my head. Ask the budget-planning department; ask [Svetlana] Nareshova."

So Azattyq returned to where this story started: Svetlana Nareshova. But while Nareshova was willing to provide some information to Russia's TASS news agency, she was not quite as accommodating with Azattyq. Nareshova said questions should be addressed to Gulmira Balgozhaeva, the press secretary for the Mangistau governor. Balgozhaeva said she would need the questions in written form. Azattyq still has not heard back from her.

As mentioned, Nareshova was a bit more informative with TASS. She suggested that 340 million tenges (around $850,000) had been allocated for the first refugee center, near the border with Uzbekistan, and that a similar center could be established near the border with Turkmenistan. Nareshova also said no refugees were expected in the near future.

The locations are curious. One center would be located in the Beyneu district along the Uzbek border and the other in the Karakiya district on the Uzbek and Turkmen borders. In terms of the landscape, this area -- the only place where Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan meet -- is the northwestern part of the Kara-Kum Desert. It's very dry and very hot and in winter can be bitterly cold.

It is also difficult to believe authorities in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been consulted about this planned refugee camp on their borders. Refugees from Afghanistan made their way into Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the mid-1990s. Neither country welcomed them, and both were anxious to repatriate them as quickly as possible. As recently as 2010, Uzbekistan made clear it would not provide any more than brief shelter for refugees, even when those refugees were ethnic Uzbeks fleeing from Kyrgyzstan.

Azattyq pointed out that maybe nothing will come of this by recalling that, in April 2010, Kazakhstan set up a center in Zhambyl Province to accept anticipated refugees from the unrest in Kyrgyzstan, when the government of former President Kurmanbek Bakiev was ousted. No one ever came. One ironic aspect to the episode is that Kazakhstan will mark its first Day Of Gratitude on March 1. President Nursultan Nazarbaev created the holiday to remember all the different peoples whom Stalin forcibly resettled in Kazakhstan during World War II.

Based on material by Azattyq correspondent Saniya Toyken
Members of the Afghan security forces stand guard near a tank that was burned by Taliban militants in the Chardara district of Kunduz Province.

The situation in northern Afghanistan, in areas along the border with Central Asia, has been deteriorating for more than two years now. Local officials, military officials, and residents of the northern provinces admit there are districts near or at the border of Central Asia that are currently under the control of the Taliban and their foreign militant friends.

Winter, as it does, had led to a lull in fighting in northern Afghanistan. But in recent weeks a renewal of hostilities has seen power lines coming from Central Asia cut and some amazing allegations from Afghan officials about militants in the north and their ability to sustain their efforts.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a "majlis," or panel, to discuss the recent developments in northern Afghanistan and how these developments are impacting neighbors to the north.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the discussion. Participating from Kabul was Obaid Ali of the Afghan Analysts Network who recently visited Kunduz, one of the more restive provinces of northern Afghanistan. Joining the talk from Canada was Helene Thibault, professor at the University of Montreal's School of Public and International Affairs who has spent a great deal of time in Tajikistan doing research there and has authored many articles about the country. And I threw in a few comments also.

The panel first listened to an audio recording of Imomuddin Kureyshi, the head of the Imam Sahib district in Kunduz Province, who spoke with RFE/RL at the start of February.

"The people who make explosives and carry out suicide bombings are organized by Tajik and Uzbek militants. According to reports we have received from the intelligence [service], their numbers are about 200 in Imam-Sahib and Dashti Archi districts," Kureyshi said.

The Imam Sahib and Archi (sometimes called Dashti Archi) districts border Tajikistan.

Ali confirmed some of what Kureyshi said. Ali was in the Archi district and he said, "There they [foreign militants] have their training bases where they train Afghans, Taliban, and also other Central Asian fighters who came to Afghanistan." But Ali cautioned about the numbers of these foreign fighters. "I would like to mention that the number of Central Asian fighters or foreign fighters supporting the Taliban in Kunduz Province is not clear," he said.

Kureyshi had even more sensational news. "Some of them have even created a base...in Tajikistan on the other side of the river. When militants come under pressure on the Afghan side they escape to their base in Tajikistan," he claimed.

Tajik border guards reject this claim. Thibault has been to the border area and she also found it difficult to believe militants would be able to cross from Afghanistan into Tajikistan because, she said, there is not much support for militant groups on the Tajik side of the border. "The connections between the two peoples are actually quite limited," Thibault explained. "Within [Tajikistan's] population there isn't much support for Taliban and even not so much interest in Afghanistan."

Reporting on the situation along the Tajik-Afghan frontier on February 3, Russia's TASS news agency quoted a "representative" of Tajikistan's State Security Committee as saying there were some 5,000 militants along the Tajik border in northern Afghanistan. Russia media has been prone to quoting officials and experts who provide dire and sometimes incredible assessments and information about the Central Asian-Afghan border region. But interestingly, the "representative" TASS quoted also mentioned "several hundred militants in the Imam Sahib district," which jibes with what Kureyshi told RFE/RL.

Ali said, "What I noticed particularly in Kunduz Province, the places or the areas where the militants are more interested to establish their bases, actually it's very close to the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border."

But on the other side of the border Thibault said that at the moment, "Tajik authorities are more concerned with internal politics than they are with external politics, especially the Afghan conflict."

Power Cuts

Moving further west, there has been fighting in Baghlan Province since late January. During that fighting the power line from Uzbekistan to Kabul, which provides more than 30 percent of Afghanistan's electricity, was cut, leaving the Afghan capital and other areas with limited or no electricity. And moving a bit more to the west, the power line from Turkmenistan to Faryab Province was also knocked out.*

These acts of sabotage in themselves would be bad enough but there is more to the story here. Members of the Baghlan provincial council said Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs Golab Mangal made a deal with the Taliban that handed over the Dand-e Ghowri area, where the fighting has been going on, to Taliban control in exchange for promises to leave the provincial capital Puli Khumri alone.

There are accusations that similar deals between officials and the Taliban have also been made in Kunduz, Badakhshan, and Faryab provinces, again, all provinces that border Central Asia.

Tahir mentioned that Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum has not followed up on his pledge to drive the Taliban and their foreign allies from northern Afghanistan. Dostum led successful counteroffensives against militants last summer in northwestern Afghanistan, Dostum's native region. But there has been little evidence of a new push in recent weeks.

Ali concluded the discussion by saying, "this is the time the government needs to gain the ground." He followed that comment by saying, "If they [the government] lose it at this time it means that during the spring and summer the Taliban will obviously start their so-called spring offensive, so that will be very difficult for the government to fight against the Taliban in several fronts across the country."

The group discussed these issues and greater detail and looked at other issues of security along the Central Asia-Afghan border. You can listen to the full roundtable below:

Majlis Podcast: Security On Northern Afghan Border
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* On February 11, the day after the panel discussion, the power line from Tajikistan to Kunduz was also cut.

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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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