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Uzbek President Shavkat Mirzyaev will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese officials, as well as with representatives of leading Chinese companies.

Shavkat Mirziyaev has arrived in China to pay his first official visit to that country as Uzbekistan's president.

The visit lasts through May 13, after which he will attend his first major international conference as Uzbek head of state when he stays on in China for the May 14-15 One Belt-One Road forum.

Mirziyaev is due to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese officials, as well as with representatives of leading Chinese companies.

According to Asad Khojaev, the head of Mirziyaev's press service, Uzbekistan and China will sign around 100 agreements worth an estimated $20 billion in Beijing.

China is already one of Uzbekistan's leading trade partners and a key investor in projects in Uzbekistan.

Chinese companies helped construct the Pap-Angren railway, a 123-kilometer-long line from eastern Uzbekistan to an area not far from the capital, Tashkent, a $1.9 billion project financed in part by China's Export-Import Bank.

China has also helped fund and construct three gas pipelines from Turkmenistan to China that run through Uzbekistan. And Beijing has signed contracts with Tashkent for Uzbekistan to eventually supply up to 10 billion cubic meters of gas annually through those pipelines.

Mirziyaev signaled early on in his presidency that he would be seeking closer economic cooperation with other countries to help invigorate Uzbekistan's flagging economy.

China has proven to be a prime source of foreign investment and loans, not just for Uzbekistan but for all the Central Asian states. However, Beijing has already helped fund most of the major projects that link Central Asia to China, including roads, railway lines, and oil and gas pipelines, and Uzbek businessmen accompanying Mirziyaev might find fewer opportunities for cooperation with China than during the last decade.

Press releases ahead of Mirziyaev's trip made just passing mention of talks on security cooperation, though this is likely to be a key topic in Mirziyaev's conversations with Chinese officials.

Uzbekistan has a short (approximately 160 kilometers long) border with Afghanistan, and Beijing is said to be increasingly concerned about Muslims from China's western Xinjiang Autonomous Uyghur Region appearing in the ranks of Islamic extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.

According to some reports, as these groups are being forced out of these two Middle Eastern countries, many of the Central Asians and Uyghurs in these extremist organizations are making their way to Afghanistan.

China and Uzbekistan are both members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, along with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan (and soon India and Pakistan). That organization has commitments to cooperation in countering terrorism.

Mirziyaev served as Uzbekistan's prime minister from 2003 to 2016, so he has been to China several times before and is already acquainted with some Chinese officials.

Beyond improving trade ties with China, Mirziyaev might also be seeking to maintain and strengthen the political ties between the two countries. China has become a linchpin in Uzbekistan's foreign policy, helping Tashkent fend off Western criticism of rights abuses in Uzbekistan and serving as an important counterweight to former colonial master Russia.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
The tradition of featuring portraits on tombstones comes from Russia. (file photo)

If you walk through a cemetery in former Soviet Central Asia and take a look around, you’re likely to find someone looking back. Several people, actually.

They’re the portraits etched on some of the tombstones, copied from photographs provided by family or friends.

Inscriptions on tombstones frequently tell visitors what the person might have accomplished, when they were born, when they died, maybe that they were married, or had children. But a portrait shows what the person buried there looked like at some point in their life.

A local imam in Turkmenistan's southwestern Balkan Province wants such portraits removed from tombstones.

Imam Sayat Gulbaev*, of the Bereket district, cited conservative interpretations of the Koran that prohibit depictions of human beings as grounds for removing the portraits.

But while the Turkmen are predominantly Muslims, the Turkmen government is absolutely secular, so there seems to be more to this tale than the whim of a local cleric.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, spoke with a person who recently visited the Bayram Shehit cemetery on the outskirts of the town of Bereket. There, this visitor found that 76 of the tombstones were being catalogued for -- for lack of a better word -- defacement.

This visitor went to the Bayram Shehit cemetery to visit the grave of his son, which has a tombstone with his son’s portrait on it. He said he was informed that, according to Gulbaev’s orders, relatives of those laid to rest in those graves are obliged to somehow erase the portraits of their deceased loved ones from these tombstones -- by painting over them, covering them, whatever it takes so the portraits are no longer visible.

Azatlyk called Gulbaev to ask about him about this matter. But when the imam understood someone from Azatlyk was calling him, he hung up.

Other people in the area spoke with Azatlyk, though. They said they were aware of the order to remove portraits from tombstones.

They also said Gulbaev is well-known in the Bereket community. For several years, he has been preaching against worshipers marking the passing of loved ones on the third, seventh, and 40th days after their death, and, according to some Bereket residents, local clerics have been forbidden from attending these anniversaries.

This whole story seemed strange. Clerics have comparatively minor influence in Turkmenistan, and they almost certainly do not make policy -- local or national -- without approval from the government.

After Azatlyk first aired the story of plans for the Shehit cemetery, Gulbaev appears to have reconsidered his order to remove portraits from tombstones. The visitor to the cemetery who contacted Azatlyk said the imam had phoned him to say the portrait on his son’s tombstone could remain.

Azatlyk then contacted the chief imam of Balkan Province, Akhmed Amanliev. Amanliev said he knew about the plans to remove or cover portraits of the deceased in the Bayram Shehit cemetery, but he said those plans had been canceled.

He indicated, however, that the order for the portraits' removal came not from the Bereket district imam but "from above" -- seemingly implying someone in the government.

As with so many things in Turkmenistan, it is difficult to see the logic behind this move.

Portraits on tombstones are certainly not a Turkmen, or even a Central Asian, tradition. It comes from Russia and therefore could be seen as a reminder of the region's many decades under Russian and Soviet rule.

The practice of having the portraits of the deceased etched on tombstones continues in Central Asia, but it appears to be losing popularity and is generally frowned upon by Islamic clerics in the region.

The reason Turkmenistan's government might want these tombstone portraits erased is unclear. No one in the government has commented on, or even acknowledged, such a move.

According to Balkan Province Imam Amanliev, the idea has been scrapped, but if this really is an order "from above," these images of the dead are marked for oblivion.

*CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to identify the local imam in Bereket district as Sayat Gulbaev.

Azatlyk Director Farruh Yusupov contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views 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.