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Qishloq Ovozi

Kazakh police officers detain an opposition supporter attempting to stage a protest rally in Almaty on June 23.

Any Kazakh official with a microphone in front of them would say President Nursultan Nazarbaev enjoys widespread popularity.

They are not wrong. Most Kazakhs appear to support the first and only president the country has known since independence, upon whom parliament bestowed the title of "Leader of the Nation" in 2010.

But some officials in Kazakhstan seem to believe Nazarbaev's popularity is insufficient to fend off challenges from a declared opponent of his regime, and law enforcement bodies there are working diligently, and visibly, to stamp out any hint of protest before it begins.

On June 23, police and security forces in major cities around Kazakhstan were busy watching main squares, and at 2 p.m. they started loading people standing around or walking by onto buses and took the latter to police stations.

Dozens Detained In Kazakhstan Ahead Of Banned Rally
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At least that's what it looked like.

In reality, police and security forces were responding to an announced protest called for that day. The person who made the call was Mukhtar Ablyazov, the leader of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement, who is currently in exile in France.

Ablyazov urged people to come out and demonstrate for free education in Kazakhstan. He dissuaded people from bringing banners, signs, placards, or any material expressions of dissatisfaction. Just come out in regular clothes without any paraphernalia, he suggested.

Preemptive Measures

Kazakh authorities noticed the Democratic Choice's posts on social networks and took preemptive measures, detaining some potential participants ahead of the planned demonstration.

Journalists were included in these round-ups. Sanat Urnaliev, the Uralsk correspondent of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, was among those briefly detained hours before the June 23 public action.

The scenes of elite police picking up people and tossing them onto buses do not look like images from a country with a leader who enjoys widespread popularity.

Which is precisely the intention.

Exiled Kazakh opposition leader Mukhtar Ablyazov (file photo)
Exiled Kazakh opposition leader Mukhtar Ablyazov (file photo)

Ablyazov and his Democratic Choice have chosen to call for public demonstrations that, at a glance, seem to have nothing to do with Ablyazov or his party -- perhaps unsurprising as Ablyazov is accused of embezzling billions of dollars from Kazakhstan's Bank TuranAlem (BTA Bank) a decade ago, and in March a Kazakh court declared Democratic Choice an extremist group.

Ablyazov called for demonstrations on May 10. Some people did carry signs during those rallies, but those signs called for freeing political prisoners and an end to torture.

The same images of civilians being loaded onto buses were captured on film. In both the May 10 and June 23 detentions, there were people who said they were passersby and were unfairly taken in custody.

Dozens Detained In Kazakhstan After Calling For Release Of Political Prisoners
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Democratic Choice was formed in November 2001, but by March 2002 Ablyazov was already detained and eventually imprisoned for a short time. He expressed regret for his actions and requested, and was granted, forgiveness. His repentance seemed genuine enough and by 2005 he was chairman of BTA Bank. In early 2009, however, the government nationalized BTA, but Ablyazov and possibly billions of dollars were gone.

Zero Tolerance Of Discontent

Democratic Choice remains a small party, and Ablyazov has not been in Kazakhstan since he fled the country in 2009. The actual challenge to Nazarbaev and the Kazakh government appears to be more of an annoyance than a threat, at this point.

But judging by the reactions to the May and June demonstrations called for by Ablyazov, authorities in Kazakhstan are unwilling to allow even small manifestations of discontent. The government was taken by surprise in spring 2016, when grumbling about a proposed land-privatization law proved the catalyst for building social tensions and led to the biggest protests the country had seen since the late 1990s.

Kazakh authorities seem to be taking a cue from Tajikistan. When a small organization called Group 24 called for peaceful protests in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, in October 2014, Tajik authorities responded by blocking dozens of websites, suspending SMS operations, and deploying a large police presence to prevent any protests from starting.

A Tajik court quickly moved to declare Group 24 an extremist organization. Its leader, Umarali Kuvvatov, had fled the country and made his call for protests from Moscow. He was eventually killed in Turkey in March 2015.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov might seem to need more friends than he's made so far.

It seems that Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, known in Turkmenistan as "Arkadag" (The Protector), does not much like to socialize. Maybe he should be called "Garasoymez" (The Loner).

Since May 2017, he has had several opportunities to attend major international events but did not go. In fact, Berdymukhammedov has not seemed to stray far from home lately.

On June 14, Berdymukhammedov chose not to attend (or maybe was not invited) to the opening of the World Cup in Moscow, although the other four Central Asian presidents were all there.

Berdymukhammedov is a sports enthusiast, at least according to footage and photos released by Turkmen authorities. Admittedly, he does not seem to be much for team sports, preferring bicycling, weightlifting, or shooting baskets while riding a bicycle; so maybe soccer doesn't appeal to him.

Stranger was Berdymukhammedov's absence at the June 12 ceremony in the central Turkish city of Eskisehir to launch the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP).

Turkmenistan is a gas-exporting country, or at least it wants to be. (Turkmenistan currently exports gas only to China.) For years, Ashgabat has expressed a strong desire to sell some of its vast amounts of gas to Europe. The problem has always been lack of an export route -- a pipeline like TANAP.

Initially, TANAP will carry some 16 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas annually, and plans call for the pipeline to be expanded to accommodate 31 bcm by 2026 and eventually to 60 bcm. Azerbaijani gas production is rising, but that country is also expanding domestic gas use. Alone, Azerbaijan cannot meet the pipeline's capacity after future expansions, and Turkmen gas has frequently been mentioned as an additional source.

That would still require construction of the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) to bring Turkmen gas across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, but Berdymukhammedov has spoken confidently of that project's realization.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan telephoned Berdymukhammedov on June 2 to invite his Turkmen counterpart to join in the TANAP launch ceremony, but Berdymukhammedov wasn't there on June 12. If nothing else, it would have given Berdymukhammedov the opportunity to talk with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who did attend.

Russia is signaling that a long-awaited agreement between the five littoral states (Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran) on the legal status of the Caspian Sea is at hand and should be signed this autumn. The TANAP launch would seem to have been a propitious opportunity for Berdymukhammedov to discuss the future with Aliyev.

Of course, maybe Berdymukhammedov's absence at the TANAP launch is an indication he has concerns about the possibility of building the TCP.

Not Making Friends Or Influencing People

Berdymukhammedov missed the Central Asian summit in Astana on March 15. Instead he went to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates in search of investment in Turkmen gas-export projects.

That trip was the farthest Berdymukhammedov has traveled since he suddenly decided to head a Turkmen business delegation to Germany in September 2016.

He was not in Saudi Arabia at the summit of Muslim countries attended by U.S. President Donald Trump in May 2017, although the presidents of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan went.

Berdymukhammedov had by then already missed the One Belt One Road (OBOR) forum in Beijing on May 15, even though the transglobal trade network envisioned in OBOR includes Turkmenistan and a railway and port facility have been built there as part of the network. The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan attended that forum.

Berdymukhammedov has not been a total homebody, and he is scheduled to travel to Dushanbe for an international forum on water resources before the end of June. And aside from the trips to Kuwait and the U.A.E., Berdymukhammedov also visited Uzbekistan on April 23-24; he was in Herat, Afghanistan, for a few hours on February 23 for the launch of construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline; and he was in Sochi in October 2017 for a CIS summit.

He was also in Astana in June 2017 for the opening of EXPO-2017 there; but that was something of a quid pro quo visit, since Berdymukhammedov had invited the Kazakh president, and the other Central Asian presidents, to attend the opening ceremony of the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games that Turkmenistan hosted in September 2017.

Turkmenistan has long been seen as an isolationist country, and the leader sets the tone; but Turkmenistan could surely use some outside help at the moment, as the country's economic crisis continues to grow worse and the situation along its border with Afghanistan is uncertain.

But with no solution in sight, particularly to Turkmenistan's economic woes, Berdymukhammedov is choosing to remain aloof from contacts with leaders of countries that will necessarily play key roles in determining Turkmenistan's future as a gas exporter and transit hub.

His reasons are unclear.

But the economic crisis Turkmenistan now faces is arguably due to in part to his decisions to spend billions of dollars on projects like white-marble, four-star hotels, a beach resort in a country that doesn't allow many foreigners to visit, sports complexes for those games that Turkmenistan hosted in September, and a golf course in a country where almost no one knows how to play the game, to name just a few of the white elephants dotting Turkmenistan's landscape.

Turkmenistan has been called the hermit kingdom; but it might not augur well for the country to have a hermit leader in its time of need.

The views expressed in this piece 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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