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Qishloq Ovozi

A combo photo of Uzbek national Abdulkadir Masharipov, suspected of being the gunman who killed 39 people at an Istanbul nightclub.

The words "terrorist attack" and "Uzbek" have appeared together several times in 2017 -- starting just minutes into the new year with a mass shooting at an Istanbul nightclub. Turkish police said the suspect was born in Uzbekistan and had trained in Afghanistan. In early April, when the St. Petersburg subway was bombed, Russian investigators said the attack was carried out by a Kyrgyzstan-born ethnic Uzbek with Russian citizenship. Just weeks after that, in Stockholm, a truck attack that left four dead was admitted to by an Uzbek national.

Now, in New York, the October 31 pickup-truck attack that left eight dead is being pinned on a 29-year-old immigrant from Uzbekistan.

It is obvious that the alleged actions of four people do not speak for a worldwide Uzbek population of some 30 million, but to a global news audience that is generally unfamiliar with the closeted and predominantly Muslim state and its people, the question inevitably arises: When it comes to Central Asians and terrorist attacks, why is it that Uzbeks are so often linked to the violence?

In the case of each of these four attacks, the suspects had been outside Uzbekistan (or, in the case of the St. Petersburg attack, Kyrgyzstan) for several years.

This, at least according to recent studies, would place them at greater risk of being radicalized. Open Democracy, for example, concluded that Central Asian migrants in general are more susceptible to the ideas of radical Islamic groups once away from their homelands.

For most Central Asian migrants, this means Russia, where several million take up work as seasonal laborers. Some are exposed to the propaganda of Islamic extremist groups while there. Some become radicalized, and of those who do nearly all are believed to travel on to conflict areas such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Yemen.

Strangely enough, while there have been reported cases of groups -- and, in some cases, communities -- of people from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan picking up and leaving to fight in those conflict areas, there have been no documented cases of a group from Uzbekistan doing so.

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Yet, it is not individual Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, or Turkmen whose names become tied to terrorist attacks abroad, further raising the question of "why Uzbeks"?

Part of the answer may lie in the repressive and turbulent environment of post-Soviet Uzbekistan.

Under President Islam Karimov, who died last year after ruling Uzbekistan since the country became independent in 1991, dissenting voices -- especially Islamist ones -- were viewed as challenges to the regime, and muted.

Anyone who criticized the Uzbek government was immediately branded as an enemy of the state, as was the case with one of the first to criticize Karimov’s rule, a group called Adolat (Justice).

Adolat was an Islamic group that advocated in the first weeks of independence that Uzbekistan move toward an Islamic form of government.

When the Uzbek government tried in late 1991 to exert more control on the eastern region of Namangan, where Adolat was active, by ordering the replacement of local clerics, it didn't go as planned. Tens of thousands of people turned out to protest, prompting Karimov to travel to the area to try to calm the situation. Instead, he was made to sit and listen while a young would-be cleric named Tohir Yuldash lectured the Uzbek president about good governance.

Uzbek national Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the deadly New York City attack on October 31
Uzbek national Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the deadly New York City attack on October 31

It was the last lecture Karimov would ever listen to from an Islamic group.

From then on, the Uzbek state held sway on all things Islam in the country, regulating what could be preached in mosques, what could be taught in madrasahs, even what was considered acceptable clothing and appearance for Muslims.

It left many of Uzbekistan’s Muslims pondering whether their faith was being tailored to serve the state, and led to questions about the role of Islam in society and personal obligations to the religion.

Of those who left, some turned to alternative sources of information, such as the teachings of foreign mosques or radical Islamic voices disseminated on the Internet.

This alone does not answer the question as to why Uzbek names appear to have been more commonly associated with terrorism attacks of late, but it helps paint a picture of repression that could help foment enmity.

In Uzbekistan, quite simply, Islam emerged as a force of resistance to the government.

Uzbek authorities stamped out secular opposition within the first few years of independence, despite warnings at the time that they would drive the opposition underground, where it could be radicalized. That is exactly what happened.

The same Tohir Yuldash who lectured President Karimov in Namangan in December 1991 reemerged in 1999 as the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose initial goals were to overthrow Karimov’s government and establish an Islamic caliphate in its place.

The IMU never came close to achieving its goal, though it did continue to worry the Uzbek government from lairs in Afghanistan, where the group joined with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But the IMU did plant the idea that, when it came to Uzbekistan, Islamic-based resistance might be the most effective resistance to the Uzbek government, specifically, and to repression in general.

The reality is that there are now many Uzbeks far from Uzbekistan, in foreign countries, in alien cultures. Some have experienced difficulties assimilating; some are isolated; many struggle financially.

Of these, some seek solace in the guidance they receive via their computers; they search Internet websites seeking answers, acceptance, and a purpose.

The specific incident or moment that transforms them is always different, but the chosen response -- resorting to violence -- is often the same and, at least to some extent, may be explained by their experience growing up in post-independence Uzbekistan.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Iran’s First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri (right) met with Armenia's minister for energy infrastructure and natural resources, Ashot Manukian, in Tehran in December 2016.

Energy politics around the Caspian Sea breeds complications, as a recent example involving Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia reminds us.

Turkmenistan is in a serious bind. The country has the fourth-largest natural gas reserves in the world but currently has only one customer -- China -- at a time when Turkmenistan's economy appears to be spiraling downward.

Turkmenistan would likely sell gas to anyone at this point, considering its extreme revenue shortages, and needs to start selling to someone, soon.

So, according to reports from October 23-25, Turkmenistan is proposing a gas-swap deal with Iran to get Turkmen gas to Turkey, where it could be pumped into the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) that is currently under construction.

Iranian National Gas Company (INGC) Director Hamid Reza Araki, who is also deputy oil minister, replied that Iran was not "positively disposed" to the idea.

That response is hardly surprising.

Since the late 1990s, Turkmenistan has been shipping gas to northern Iran, an area that is poorly connected to Iran's gas-rich south.

At the end of 2016, Turkmenistan demanded Iran pay somewhere around $2 billion (the figure is not entirely clear) for supplies of Turkmen gas to northern Iran during the winter of 2007-08.

Iran countered that the figure was too high and claimed that Turkmenistan had jacked up the gas price during that particularly bitter winter to $360 per 1,000 cubic meters, about nine times the usual price at the time.

Last-minute negotiations before the new year appeared to end in an agreement, but on January 1 Turkmenistan shut off the gas supplies -- and they have remained off.

Iran says Turkmenistan illegally broke the contract and has periodically threatened to take Turkmenistan to international arbitration.

With that as a backdrop, there is little wonder Araki indicated that Tehran has no enthusiasm for helping Turkmenistan.

But Araki mentioned another reason the Turkmen proposal was never likely to be met with sympathy in Tehran.

"We are against the sale of a rival country's gas to Turkey via swap operations," Araki stated, an indication that even if the debt dispute between Turkmenistan and Iran is resolved, there is little hope Iran will ever cooperate in exporting Turkmen gas to Turkey.

There is no pipeline running the length of northern Iran from the Turkmen to Turkish border, so Ashgabat wants a swap: Turkmenistan exports gas for use in northern Iran, and Iran pumps a like amount into a pipeline (or one day probably pipelines) leading to Turkey.

TANAP is the prize for both Turkmenistan and Iran.

TANAP, a 1,840-kilometer pipeline to bring gas from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz-2 Caspian Sea field across Turkey to Europe, is currently under construction and is tentatively scheduled to be launched next year.

In its initial stages, TANAP will carry only Azerbaijani gas. But as the pipeline expands capacity on its way to eventually reaching some 60 billion cubic meters (bcm), there will be space for gas from other countries.

Turkmenistan would like to be one of those countries, but Iran -- and potentially Iraq and northeastern Syria -- are better positioned to provide gas to TANAP.

However, Turkmen gas is, and, according to INGC chief Araki, will continue moving to the west, at least as far as Azerbaijan.

Araki said Iran had no objections to a gas swap with Turkmenistan as concerns gas for Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan is a gas producer, but it purchases Turkmen gas during the summer, when the price is low, to make "maximum use of the commercial potential of storage facilities" of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR).

Reports did not mention the amount of Turkmen gas Azerbaijan purchases, but it could not be very much.

SOCAR buys Turkmen gas in the summer to "top off" its gas storage facilities, then resells the gas in winter at a profit.

Armenia is hoping for a similar arrangement and has offered to mediate the Turkmen-Iranian debt dispute in an agreement that would see a Turkmen-Iranian gas swap supplying gas to Armenia.

On October 20, Armenia's minister of energy infrastructure and natural resources, Ashot Manukian, claimed that "we have proposed our involvement in settling debt-management issues between Turkmenistan and Iran, and they have accepted our proposal."

Ashgabat certainly has not confirmed this, and it is difficult to see why Turkmenistan would agree to the Armenian proposal.

Manukian's solution would see Iran settle its debt by shipping gas to Armenia; Armenia would then pay off Tehran's debt to Ashgabat, but by barter, not cash.

Barter was exactly the deal Turkmenistan had with Iran before the dispute erupted.

Ashgabat had agreed to accept goods and services as compensation for the first $3 billion worth of gas exported to Iran, though Ashgabat was trying to renegotiate that agreement since Iranian gas imports rarely exceeded $3 billion.

Turkmenistan's government wants cash, not goods, so it is difficult to see how the Armenian deal would suit Ashgabat.

Additionally, Turkmenistan did sell gas to Armenia in the 1990s via Russian pipelines and Armenia was regularly deep in debt for those supplies.

And, in any case, Manukian indicated Turkmenistan would probably be competing even for the small Armenian gas market.

Manukian said Armenia was ready to import more gas from Iran "if Iran offers lower prices."

Manukian noted that Armenia also purchases gas from Russia for $150 per 1,000 cubic meters; meaning that if Iran, and presumably Turkmenistan, could sell their gas for less than that amount, Yerevan would be interested.

So it seems that Turkmenistan's possibilities to export gas westward are, at best, limited.

It is interesting that Turkmenistan made the swap offer to Iran.

After all the acrimony this year in Turkmen-Iranian ties, Turkmen officials must have known the offer would probably get a cold reception in Tehran.

But Ashgabat made the offer all the same, because there are so few options and so little time left for the Turkmen regime to turn the country's economy around.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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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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