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Qishloq Ovozi

Authorities in the capital, Ashgabat, have started distributing booklets on "what to know about the coronavirus" to hospitals and schools.

The government of Turkmenistan has a long-established habit of ignoring bad news.

Dire economic problems, natural disasters, war on the border: as far as Turkmen authorities and state media were concerned, it never happened, even when the people of the country could see it for themselves.

The recent global concern over the spread of the new strain of coronavirus from China is another example.

As the world was finding out more every day in January about the spread of the coronavirus inside and outside China, neither the Turkmen government or the media mentioned the topic. Actually, they still haven't.

But at the end of January, Turkmen officials started quietly taking certain measures: flights to and from China were canceled, students and other Turkmen citizens in China were brought home -- not flown to Ashgabat but rather to the eastern Lebap Province, where a quarantine center had been set up.

Additionally, greater attention was paid to sanitary conditions at some public facilities, such as schools, kindergartens, and hospitals in Mary Province, where even the traditional Turkmen remedy of burning camel-thorn trees was employed.*

There still was not a word publicly from officials or state media specifically about the coronavirus, which, again, is not surprising for the Turkmen authorities, considering recent practice.

Sudden Policy Change

For that reason it is somehow disquieting that suddenly, just a few days into February, authorities in the capital, Ashgabat, started distributing booklets on "what to know about the coronavirus" to hospitals and schools.

Health workers are even passing out pamphlets about the virus to people on the streets around the capital.

Health officials are also reportedly speaking to students in Ashgabat about precautionary measures they should take to avoid the "flu and hepatitis."

And although there are no reports of booklets being distributed to people in the regions, Turkmen health officials have reportedly started speaking with people about the coronavirus in towns around the country.

While this new campaign to inform the public about the virus and how to prevent its spread is commendable, it is also unprecedented for Turkmenistan. There has never been such a public-awareness campaign in Turkmenistan about a potential health hazard before this.

It is tempting to say that because President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov was previously the country's health minister, this a problem he understands.

But since he was a dentist by training, not a virologist, and his biggest accomplishment as health minister was closing down regional health centers, this reasoning seems unlikely.

The independent website, which is based in Europe, reported on February 7 that one young man who had been evacuated from China had died in the quarantine camp in Lebap Province and that his body was cremated, which is an uncommon practice in Central Asia.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, could not confirm this report, but did confirm the presence of the quarantine area in Lebap and that Turkmen who had returned from China who were being kept there for observation -- far from the public eye -- were able to contact their relatives regularly.

There are an unknown number of Chinese workers at the Bagtyyarlyk gas field in Lebap Province, which is operated by the China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC). Some of them are also reportedly in the Lebap quarantine camp.

There is no evidence that suggests the coronavirus is present in Turkmenistan.

Neighboring Central Asian countries have people in quarantine also, but so far, no Central Asian government has reported any confirmed case of coronavirus.

As for why the unprecedented campaign for public health unawareness started so suddenly and so late, that could be due to international health groups, such as the World Health Organization, urging countries to take steps to educate their populations about the virus and Turkmenistan has simply decided to finally comply with this advice.

It could also be that in this instance, Turkmenistan's elite are on equal footing with the population. A virus doesn't discriminate between ruler and the ruled.

Berdymukhammedov uncharacteristically vanished from public view for several weeks in July 2019 and was widely believed to have been severely ill. He is rumored to suffer from diabetes.

It could also simply be that for once, Berdymukhammedov sees that his future could be tied to the well-being of his people.

*According to the Turkmen Health Ministry, "Grass and flowers of camel thorn are used as anti-inflammatory and antiseptic agents for diseases of the gastrointestinal tract.

Toymyrat Bugaev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Ethnic Dungans from Masanchi cross the border outside Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan, on February 8.

Interethnic violence has broken out again in southeastern Kazakhstan, this time involving ethnic Kazakhs and members of Kazakhstan's Dungan community.

There are various accounts of what sparked the violence between the two groups on February 7 near the town of Kordai in Zhambyl Province.

But as often happens in these situations, the violence was fueled by rumors spread over mobile phones and social media, leaving 10 people dead, dozens injured, and thousands of Dungans fleeing across the border into neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

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The Dungans are a predominantly Muslim group who came into Central Asia from China, where they are called Hui.

Dungans are generally considered ethnically Han Chinese but, according to some sources, can trace their origins back more than 1,000 years. According to some sources, Dungans have an Arab-Islamic connection that dates back to the seventh century in the ethnogenesis of the Dungan/Hui. That would make them one of the oldest Muslim peoples in Inner Asia.

The Dungans also have a unique language that is neither Chinese nor Turkic.

Large numbers of Dungans began arriving in Central Asia during the latter half of the 19th century, when Chinese troops put down revolts of non-Chinese peoples in what is now called Xinjiang.

More than 100,000 Dungans now live in Central Asia, concentrated mainly in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

The Dungans adapted to life under the rule of the Russian tsars as well as Soviet domination. They've also adapted to post-Soviet life in independent Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, though they have maintained their culture. Dungans rarely marry outside their own community.

Towns and villages in Kazakhstan like Masanchi -- which bore the brunt of the February 7 violence -- continue to be populated predominantly by Dungans. That made Dungans in Masanchi easy targets for an angry crowd of Kazakhs involved in the area's latest round of violence.

Ethnic Tensions

Southeastern Kazakhstan has also seen clashes involving ethnic Kazakhs and other minorities in recent years.

In March and April 2007, there was fighting between ethnic Kazakhs and Chechens in Malovodnoye, a village in Almaty Province about 100 kilometers east of the Kordai district. That incident started at a billiard hall but quickly spread to involve hundreds of people from both communities.

The Chechens involved were the descendants of people who were forcibly resettled in the area on the orders of Soviet leader Josef Stalin during World War II.

In February 2015, clashes also broke out between members of the country's Kazakh majority and ethnic Tajiks in the predominantly ethnic Tajik village of Bostandyk in Turkestan Province.

Kazakhstan's Turkestan Province is situated immediately to the west of Zhambyl Province. Ethnic Tajiks were moved there by Soviet authorities during the 1950s to augment the region's labor force.

That violence reportedly started after an argument between a young ethnic Tajik man and a purported friend of his, a young ethnic Kazakh man, escalated into a stabbing in which the Kazakh was killed.

After the victim's funeral, a large group of Kazakhs went on a rampage in Bostandyk, setting fire to buildings and cars.

Authorities Overwhelmed

This latest violence in the Kordai district appears to have stemmed from a February 5 "road rage" incident in which an elderly ethnic Kazakh man was purportedly beaten up by an ethnic Dungan driver.

There are conflicting reports about exactly what happened in the road-rage incident and how anger in different communities was fueled by claims being made on social media.

But 48 hours later, a group of ethnic Kazakhs entered the town of Masanchi, triggering street fights in which hunting rifles, iron bars, sticks, and stones were used.

Video of violence in Masanchi posted on social networks attracted more people from neighboring areas to Masanchi and predominantly Dungan villages in the region.

Police were overwhelmed. The violence was only brought under control when special security forces from the Interior Ministry arrived.

The government in Nur-Sultan has blamed local officials for allowing the situation to get out of control. But the nearby violence in 2007 and in 2015 shows that ethnic tensions exist across southeastern Kazakhstan.

Whether people chose to settle in southeastern Kazakhstan or were forced to resettle there, the area is clearly unique and demands special consideration by officials in Nur Sultan.

Yet it seems clear that Kazakh authorities have not paid sufficient attention to the region -- leaving critics to predict that the recent violence in the Kordai district is bound to happen again somewhere in southeastern Kazakhstan.

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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