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Qishloq Ovozi

Wrestler Ikhtiyor Navruzov of Uzbekistan celebrates with his coach after winning a bronze medal.

Sport -- it's good for your health. It also has the power to, however briefly, bind a nation together during those times when the national team is competing internationally. No matter where people are on the political spectrum, or if they are entirely apolitical, when their country’s athletes are competing at an event such as the Olympic Games, the eyes of the nation truly are upon these athletes and the hopes of the country are focused for a few minutes on “their” men or women.

Central Asia, overall, did surprisingly well in these recent summer games in Rio de Janeiro. The Olympic Games are a big deal in Central Asia. It’s partly due to their Soviet past and the emphasis the U.S.S.R. placed on its athletes competing internationally. But the five Central Asian countries really view the Olympic Games as the pinnacle, the world’s greatest sports competition. Many will remember Kazakhstan was bidding to host the 2022 Olympics, but few would remember in Tashkent, in 1992, before Uzbekistan marked one whole year of independence, a common plastic shopping bag one was likely to receive in stores and bazaars advertised “Tashkent Summer Olympic Games 2000.”

I wish I had kept one of those.

To look at how the teams from Central Asia did in these recent Olympic Games in Rio, the unexpected victories, the disappointments, the different approaches the countries take toward grooming athletes, and get an idea of why an Olympic medal means so much to a country, RFE/RL gathered a Majlis, a panel, to discuss Rio 2016.

Moderating the talk was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, Ruslan Medelbek participated. Medelbek covered the Olympic Games in Rio for Azattyq. Another member of Azattyq, Galym Bokash, participated from Prague where he was coordinating Azattyq’s Olympic coverage. And from Bishkek, political analyst, Kyrgyz sports fan, and one of the organizers of Kyrgyzstan’s Olympic team in Atlanta in 1996, Edil Baisalov, joined in the discussion. And me, I was away this time.

Medelbek summed up the results for Central Asian states in Rio. “Four golds for Uzbekistan, three golds for Kazakhstan, and one gold for Tajikistan. It’s the first-ever gold for Tajikistan.”

According to a point tally, Uzbekistan placed 21st overall in the Rio Olympics taking, besides the four gold medals, two silver, and seven bronze medals. Kazakhstan came right behind in 22nd, taking, besides the three gold medals, five silver, and nine bronze medals.

Tajikistan’s lone gold medal, won by Dilshod Nazarov in the men’s hammer throw, put the country in 54th place in the Rio games. More importantly, it was a welcome distraction for the people in Central Asia’s poorest country.

Kyrgyzstan’s Izzat Artykov won the bronze medal in the 69-kilogram men’s weightlifting competition but later was disqualified for doping.

“Of course it was a huge, huge disappointment,” Baisalov said, “You know, first of course it was great pride in winning a bronze medal, we all felt good.” But Baisalov said some good came out of it. “Actually I think it [led to] an important discussion about ethics in sports.”

And Baisalov said, in the end, “We felt bad for the individual athlete but I think a lot of us felt angry at his trainers, at his coaches, at the team.”

Kyrgyzstan did lose its only medal but the Central Asian state not yet mentioned did not even get close.

Turkmenistan, once again, performed poorly, despite a government-driven public campaign of many years urging the country’s people to exercise and be fit. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is the poster boy for this campaign. He is regularly shown in photographs and brief (very brief) videos riding a bicycle, jogging, playing ice hockey, basketball, lifting weights, and on and on.

Berdymukhammedov had some harsh words for the Turkmen team and its trainers when they returned and ordered a reorganization of the country’s sports system.

Bokash pointed out that a big part of the growing successes of Kazakhstan’s athletes is “the huge budget allocation, state spending on sports overall. It’s increasing and it’s around $100 million per year.”

Turkmenistan is also investing large amounts of money on its sports programs and has been devoting billions of dollars towards construction of sports facilities, so far, to no effect.

The Majlis devoted attention to the role the state should play in promoting sports. Bokash mentioned a tendency on the part of some Central Asian governments to “Sovietize” their sports programs, “celebrating the Olympic success not as personal achievements, but at the collective [level].”

Baisalov noted a country like Kyrgyzstan cannot hope to allocate much money from the state budget for sports programs. Baisalov said in any case, Kyrgyzstan is better served by devoting money towards promoting sport among the public, not selecting individual athletes and funding their training and expenses.

The subject of “poaching” athletes from other countries also came up. Bokash pointed out four of Kazakhstan’s 17 medals at Rio were won by people who are naturalized citizens of Kazakhstan. Again, a country such as Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan has little in the way of incentives they can offer to athletes from other countries to entice them to change citizenship and compete for their national teams.

One of the most important themes that emerged from the discussion was the regional support many Central Asians still seem to feel for athletes from neighboring countries.

“I would like to join in congratulating our brotherly nations of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan with their achievement on an unprecedented scale and I think their victories were celebrated by all of us here in Central Asia,” Baisalov said.

Medelbek explained there was similar sentiment from the Central Asian athletes and journalists sent to Rio. A victory for Kazakhstan, or Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan, was cause for celebration among many of those from Central Asia.

The Majlis looked closer at these topics and also discussed other issues, such as the importance of events like the Olympics in reinforcing a sense of nation and why Central Asian athletes are good in some events and not so good in others.

Listen here:

Majlis Podcast: Talking About The Olympics
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Listen to or download the Majlis podcast above or subscribe to Majlis on iTunes.

There has been a big uptick in the number of asylum seekers, many of them Tajiks, appearing at the main train station in Brest, a town on Belarus's border with Poland. (file photo)

During the last two years, authorities in Tajikistan have been carrying out a crackdown on political opponents. More of a crackdown than usual, that is to say, because the Tajik government has a long record of harassing the country's political opposition.

But the recent campaign against the opposition features a large number of arrests. Already hundreds of people have been detained and dozens, so far, imprisoned.

Some people in Tajikistan worry they might be next, and have fled the country. It has happened before, during the 1992-1997 civil war in Tajikistan. But for those fleeing now, the safe havens of 20 years ago are no longer safe, and they are having to travel further, to Europe.

To look at who these people are, where they are going, and what is driving them there, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, or discussion panel, to talk about these recent developments.

Moderating the talk was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir.Our friend Edward Lemon, a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter who specializes in Tajikistan joined us. Also taking part from Berlin was researcher and journalist Yan Matusevich, who is the author of a recent article in The Diplomat on the topic of Tajikistan's asylum seekers. As usual, I had a couple of things to say also.

Emigre Numbers Surge

The biggest opposition group -- the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) -- lost the last two seats it had in parliament in the March 2015 elections. It was a signal that the party's fortunes were about to take a drastic turn for the worse.

During the six-month period that followed, state media launched a relentless campaign to blacken the image of the IRPT. The party lost is registration, was ordered to cease all activities, and, by the end of September, was declared an extremist group while its leaders were rounded up and put on trial.

Matusevich said that, since the IRPT lost its last seats in parliament, "we've seen a surge in the number of Tajik asylum seekers making their way to Poland via Belarus." Their numbers are not large, yet, but as Matusevich noted, "Tajik asylum seekers went from being nonexistent in Poland to over 500 in 2015 and already in the first half of this year they've gone over 616 asylum seekers."

More would be in Poland now except for the fact that Polish border guards have been turning them away at the frontier with Belarus.

The reason they're showing up at the Belarusian-Polish border, Matusevich explained, is because "Poland just happens to be the closest EU border that they can make it to, transiting through Russia and Belarus, without a visa."

Kremlin Cooperation

In the past, including during the civil war days, most people fleeing Tajikistan for political reasons went to Russia, but this is now changing. "Russia is no longer safe for Tajik opposition members," Lemon said, noting that his research shows "a real increase since 2014 in the targeting of opposition activists" on Russian territory.

No matter what the ties have been between the Kremlin and Central Asian governments, one aspect of these relationships that has remained solid has been the cooperation between Russian and Central Asian security services. Central Asians wanted on charges back home have sometimes disappeared from the streets of Russian cities only to reappear in jail cells back home.

Turkey has been another possible destination for those fleeing Tajikistan in the past. But Lemon noted that this country has also no longer been considered safe ever since Umarali Quvatov, the leader of another Tajik opposition organization called Group 24, was assassinated in Istanbul in March 2015.

Matusevich said this latest crackdown is so broad that some of the citizens of Tajikistan now trying to get into Poland have, at best, tenuous ties to political activity.

"There was one case of someone who was trying to seek asylum in Poland who was a security guard for the Islamic Renaissance Party, who was completely apolitical," Matusevich recalled. "As soon as the party was shut down he felt he could, potentially, end up in prison."

More Likely To Follow

More of Tajikistan's citizens are likely to surface in Belarus, hoping to make it further west.

Lemon said that, in Tajikistan currently, those with ties to opposition groups are subject to "threats to family, surveillance, monitoring, and that really leads them to have a real sense of insecurity."

Lemon added that the crackdown in Tajikistan is unlikely to abate anytime soon. "I think the legitimization of an authoritarian government is always going to be based on the construction of an enemy," he said. "So they're [the Tajik authorities] always going to need some kind of an enemy; otherwise [President Emomali] Rahmon's regime will struggle to hold some kind of legitimacy."

Matusevich said there are probably some 3,000 Tajik citizens who have been denied entry into Poland with some trying up to "40 times, 50 times, up to a point where the passport fills up with rejection stamps and they can no longer give it another attempt."

But Matusevich credited those from Tajikistan for "really following the procedure despite facing all the difficulties at the border."

"We haven't seen many Tajiks try to cross the Belarusian-Polish border irregularly or just somehow circumvent the border crossing," Matusevich said. "Many times they call ahead, [to] NGOs in Poland to make sure they're doing this in the right way but then finding difficulties on the ground in actually making it through."

It is a very unfortunate situation. Europe is already facing its biggest refugee crisis since World War Two as people flee conflict in the Middle East. The thought of a new group of refugees coming from the east would not sit well with many people in Europe.

On the other side of the coin, the list of perceived enemies of the state is growing in Tajikistan and that will force ever more people there to want to leave the country and try to find a secure place to live. They have limited options as to where they can flee.

The Majlis discussed these issues in greater detail and delved into other topics concerning governance and tolerance in Tajikistan, the situation in Belarus for those who make it that far, and other matters related to the asylum seekers from Tajikistan.

An audio recording of the Majlis can be heard here:

Majlis Podcast: Tajik Asylum Seekers Traveling Further Abroad
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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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