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Qishloq Ovozi

Kazakh police officers detain protesters during an opposition rally in Nur-Sultan earlier this year.

Officials in Kazakhstan have recently begun easing the lockdown that was imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the country.

That means people are coming back out onto the streets, businesses are reopening, and life is slowly returning to something resembling normal.

But while the lockdown was in force, there were some in the government and others connected to it who were busy going after civic activists.

Yevgeny Zhovtis is a well-known human rights lawyer based in Almaty and the director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR).

Zhovtis and his organization have been critical of the proposed revisions to the law on assembly that parliament has been debating, even while the lockdown was in place in big cities around the country and people were unable to gather to publicly express their opinions about the new legislation (the Mazhilis, Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament, approved the bill on April 8 and approved changes to the draft law on public assembly on May 20).

The law defines how many people can attend a demonstration, what venues are available for rallies, and what permission is needed to conduct such public events.

'Unjustified Restraints'

KIBHR released a statement on April 20 that said the law was "generally not compliant with international human rights standards and there are severe and unjustified restraints on the time and place of assemblies, and burdens placed on the organizers of assemblies," and recommended Kazakh authorities send the draft law to the OSCE Panel of Experts on Freedom of Assembly and Association or the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights for review before adopting it.

According to a May 11 statement released by the international Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OPHRD), "on April 28, 2020, a large-scale, well-orchestrated smear campaign was launched in the media and social networks against Mr. [Yevgeny] Zhovtis, the KIBHR, and other civil society organizations critical of the draft law."

Kazakh human rights campaigner Yevgeny Zhovtis (file photo)
Kazakh human rights campaigner Yevgeny Zhovtis (file photo)

The OPHRD said that, between April 28 and May 2, "Several dozens of publications appeared on social networks and online media, that systematically receive funds from the state" that were "primarily accusing the KIBHR of defending the right of foreigners to peaceful assembly [and] also focused on the ethnicity of the KIBHR employees and on the fact that the organization receives funding from foreign donors."

The statement added: "Besides ordinary Internet users and fake accounts, among the authors of publications are public figures known for extreme nationalist views and owners of a government-linked 'troll factory.'"

The KIBHR posts its statements on the organization's website, so it would have been easy for Kazakh authorities to notice KIBHR's criticism, but even if the criticism had been only on social networks, it would also likely have been noticed.

Since it was not possible to stray far from home in Kazakhstan in recent weeks due to the pandemic, social networks have seen increased activity.

'An Excuse To Prosecute'

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, reported on May 21 that Kazakh authorities have hired firms to keep track of what is being said on social networks accessible in Kazakhstan.

These firms are contracted to search for posts that could create a "threat" to sociopolitical stability and also, as part of the fight against the spread of the coronavirus, the dissemination of false information about the virus or government measures to battle it. But in the process they also find people's messages criticizing the government.

The OPHRD said in its May 11 release that "Kazakhstan authorities seem to use a state of emergency as an excuse to prosecute its critics and opponents."

The statement pointed to the case of Danaya Kaliyeva, who on May 4 was summoned for interrogation "because of a repost of a publication concerning the construction of hospitals for patients with COVID-19, which she made on her Facebook page," and charged under Article 274.4 (2) of the Criminal Code -- dissemination of knowingly false information -- and made more serious as it came "in a state of emergency or in a state of combat, or in wartime, or in the course of a public event."

Kazakh activist Alnur Ilyashev (file photo)
Kazakh activist Alnur Ilyashev (file photo)

RFE/RL also reported on the detention of activist Alnur Ilyashev on April 17 on charges of spreading false information for his posts on social networks criticizing the ruling Nur-Otan party.

Ilyashev has been helping to organize protests against the government since 2019 and took the Almaty mayor's office to court, unsuccessfully, after his requests to hold peaceful public meetings were rejected some 35 times.

The Observatory report lists other cases.

Serikzhan Bilash is an ethnic Kazakh who originally came from China's western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and moved to Kazakhstan where he obtained citizenship and, in 2017, founded the group Atajurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland).

Shedding Light On Abuses

The organization has been instrumental in shedding light on the abuses against ethnic Kazakhs, Uyghurs, and others in Xinjiang at the hands of Chinese authorities in the so-called reeducation camps set up by Beijing.

Bilash's work has complicated the Kazakh government's relations with its large eastern neighbor, the more so because China has become a leading investor in Kazakhstan and one of the country's main trading partners.

Kazakh authorities already moved to mute Bilash and his group when a splinter faction of Atajurt Eriktileri that was much less critical of China was registered in September 2019.

Bilash continued his group's work, slightly altering its name to Naghiz Atajurt Eriktileri (the Authentic Volunteers of the Fatherland) in an effort to differentiate itself from the former group taken over by the government.

On April 25, RFE/RL received a message from Bilash saying he was under investigation for inciting social, national, tribal, racial, class, or religious hatred, the same charge he was on trial for during 2019 and eventually convicted, but fined only the equivalent of some $300 and freed.

Serikzhan Bilash (file photo)
Serikzhan Bilash (file photo)

On April 29, RFE/RL reported that the registered faction of Atajurt Eriktileri was filing a lawsuit against Bilash's faction, charging that his group was using emblems, symbols, names, and other property that belong to the registered Atajurt Eriktileri.

Bilash was summoned for questioning again.

There were concerns by many in some countries that as authorities introduced measures to combat the spread of the deadly coronavirus, they might also use the opportunity to clamp down on dissent and neutralize perceived threats.

Many would now point to Kazakhstan as an example of this fear being put in practice.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov

The patience of many in Turkmenistan seems to have reached its limit when it comes to poor government services and officials seemingly apathetic to the plight of the average person.

One must only look at the severe drop in the standard of living in Turkmenistan during the last five years to understand people's anger.

There are shortages of food, shortages of money, skyrocketing unemployment and the government -- faced with serious revenue shortfalls -- has increasingly shifted financial burdens onto the people.

There are also widespread concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, which the government continues to insist has not afflicted anyone in Turkmenistan -- which would make it one of the few countries in the world where the pandemic has not raged.

And mother nature has also added to the misery of many Turkmen.

Black Clouds Forming

On May 13, a crowd that the independent Turkmen.news website reported numbered up to 1,000 people, gathered in the Zhelezhnodoroga district of Turkmenistan’s eastern city of Turkmenabat (formerly Charjou) to vent their anger over authorities’ apparent lack of concern for the massive damage done to their neighborhood.

Hurricane-force winds hit the area on April 27, accompanied by torrential rain.

The government did not send any help to the stricken people.

On May 4, heavy rains hit the area again. Still no help came. The bad weather and damage caused was not even mentioned on the state TV newscasts.

The rains came again on May 13, and this time the people came out into the streets to complain that electricity had not been restored since it went out after the April 27 windstorm and, in the meantime, basements were full of water.

With no way to pump it out, the stagnant water was not only damaging their homes and businesses -- some of which had lost their roofs in the storm -- it was also becoming a breeding ground for mosquitos.

If there were genuinely some 1,000 people protesting in the Zhelezhnodoroga district of Turkmenbat on May 13, that would make it the largest rally against the government since Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Public demonstrations of discontent with officials are a very risky venture in authoritarian Turkmenistan, where protests are usually dealt with quickly in arrests, detentions, or prison sentences.

The last large anti-government rallies were in July 1995 when there were two protests, both in the desert country's dusty capital, Ashgabat.

On July 12, 1995, a group of several hundred people marched to the city's central square to protest against poor economic conditions and the government of then-President Saparmurat Niyazov.

Only about 200 made it to the square as police detained people en route to the city center.

The rally was dispersed and police detained dozens of protesters, whom authorities later said were participating in an “antisocial provocation” and were "high on drugs and alcohol."

That was the largest protest in independent Turkmenistan up to that time, though another protest took place later the same month when about 100 women marched on the presidential palace -- also protesting deteriorating economic conditions and harsh government rule -- only to be waylaid by security forces before they reached the palace.

Short History Of Protests

But before looking at other recent examples of discontent in Turkmenistan, it is worth taking a moment to consider the role of local officials, who are often shuffled from post to post, meaning few stay in their jobs long enough to become well acquainted with their responsibilities.

In December 2018, as Turkmenistan’s economy continued to plummet, mercurial President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov told provincial administrations they would have to find their own sources of funding, which, among other things, triggered a drastic increase in the number of fines issued for traffic offenses.

Essentially, local officials are responsible for resolving their own problems and that has already proven risky for officials.

In Dashoguz in October 2017, a group of parents, mainly mothers, marched to the provincial Education Department to complain about a decision to sharply increase fees for children attending kindergarten.

An official from the Education Department came out to talk with the group and suggested they would be better off airing their grievances at the city mayor’s office.

The group headed toward the mayor’s office but were intercepted by police.

The Education Department official was sacked, then detained on charges of trying to undermine the state’s authority.

So it is not surprising that during the recent protest, when help did come to Turkmenbat on May 14, it came in the form of the deputy mayor accompanied by police, who came to help oversee the start of repair work. There was no mention of the mayor's whereabouts.

On May 10, in the Saparmurat Turkmenbashi district of Dashoguz Province, a group of women were waiting in line to buy flour when, by chance, the district chief, Serdar Meredov, arrived at the scene.

The women recognized Meredov and left the line to surround him and complain.

“It’s all your fault,” they reportedly told him. “You are only planting cotton and now we have nothing to eat.”

Meredov quickly fled the area and sent the police back to detain some of the women.

It is true that under the order of Berdymukhammedov, some land that was used to grow wheat has been turned over to cotton production, no doubt to try to make up for revenue lost from falling sales of natural gas, Turkmenistan’s main and nearly only significant export.

Obviously, the state’s concern over falling revenue and the need to sell cotton rather than grow wheat falls on deaf ears when people are having problems feeding themselves.

At the beginning of April there were small protests in Mary Province over shortages of flour and cooking oil.

On April 3, a group of several dozen people, mainly women, from villages on the outskirts of the city of Mary briefly blocked the road connecting the city to the rest of the country, then marched to the provincial administration building to complain about the lack of food.

Lines for food outside a grocery store in Ashgabat.
Lines for food outside a grocery store in Ashgabat.


Provincial officials quickly sent a truck to the scene to distribute two-kilogram sacks of flour to the group -- which then stopped protesting.

On April 4, a group of some 30 women gathered outside the Mary Provincial Administration to complain about the flour and cooking oil shortage and about the rising prices for those and other goods.

The governor, his two deputies, and the police chief did come out to meet with the women and, according to the independent website Khronika Turkmenistana, the governor promised to resolve the problem within three days.

This simmering unrest being seen in Turkmenistan is not likely to go away any time soon. As mentioned, Turkmenistan's major source of revenue, as much as 70 to 80 percent of the country’s revenue, comes from sale of natural gas.

The price of gas has fallen precipitously since 2014 and is set to fall even lower this year as the plunging price of oil drags down the price of gas.

And Turkmenistan’s only significant gas customer, China, which has been buying more than 30 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas in recent years, signaled weeks ago that it would cut those imports by 20-25 percent this year while Beijing deals with its own economic downturn caused by the coronavirus crisis.

Helping The Neighbors

To compound the situation, while Turkmen must contend with repairs to their damaged homes and businesses in the Lebap and Mary provinces, and the entire country deals with shortages of basic goods, the Turkmen government is sending aid to Russia and Iran to help those countries deal with the pandemic.

Additionally, it is sending aid to Afghanistan to help the needy there (although some of those supplies were reportedly intercepted by the Taliban in Faryab Province).

And amazingly, Ashgabat sent aid to Uzbekistan in early May to deal with the damage caused by flooding when a dam burst while at the same time people in eastern Turkmenistan were not getting any help to deal with the damage done by the hurricane and heavy rains.

Later a group of Turkmen citizens in the United States raised some $5,000 to help the victims of the April 27 storm, but Turkmen officials prevented the money from being sent and Turkmenistan’s security service reportedly threatened the person in Lebap Province who was supposed to receive the aid to distribute it.

Anger Abroad

Meanwhile, Turkmen in Istanbul staged a rally outside the Turkmen Consulate on May 15 to express solidarity with the people of Lebap and Mary and remind everyone that at least 35 people died in those provinces as a result of the April 17 storm, another detail that Turkmen state media and officials have not mentioned.

Several Turkmen in Cyprus also held a rally on May 11 in support of the storm victims and to criticize the Turkmen government for not doing anything to help.

And in Washington, two Turkmen held up signs outside the Turkmen Embassy reminding them that the storm-caused deaths were not being officially acknowledged by authorities.

Activists show their support for the residents of Lebap and Mary in Washington, D.C.
Activists show their support for the residents of Lebap and Mary in Washington, D.C.

What Pandemic?

And like people everywhere around the globe, people in Turkmenistan are concerned about the coronavirus.

Despite the repeated insistence by the government that the virus is not present in Turkmenistan, evidence is mounting that it is already taking a toll on the country.

There are reports of coronavirus patients being transferred from the regions to the better-equipped medical facilities in Ashgabat and reports about a sudden increase in burials in Ashgabat.

Additionally, street crime is reportedly on the rise in Turkmenistan.

There are reports from Ashgabat of women being robbed of jewelry on the streets and even of assailants robbing a 60-year-old woman of money she had just taken from a money machine and then killing her.

Reports of such crimes have always been very rare in Turkmenistan.

Regime Change Questions

But it's not surprising that some Turkmen are becoming frustrated and desperate enough to openly challenge the authorities.

The current situation inevitably raises questions about whether the events taking place in Turkmenistan indicate that the government is under threat and could be toppled.

Some analysts think a change in government is possible because of the unhappiness among people, but the spontaneous protests against the government are occurring in the regions, not in the capital, and with the exception of the protest in Turkmenabat, the rallies involve only dozens of people.

The population of Turkmenistan is estimated to be some 5 million, almost 20 percent of who live in or on the outskirts of Ashgabat.

There are less than 250,000 people living in Turkmenabat and only about 160,000 in Dashoguz, while the population of the city of Mary is some 115,000.

There are hundreds of kilometers of sparsely inhabited, mainly desert land between these cities making it relatively easy to cut them off and isolate them should a revolt start.

The problems of food shortages and rising prices also exist in Ashgabat, but not to the same extent as in the regions.

Police in Ashgabat, often in plainclothes, monitor lines outside stores and banks and mingle with crowds in bazaars looking for people who complain about the current situation or criticize the government and, as has been their practice for many years, quickly detain those who speak ill of the government or its policies.

As long as the government has control of Ashgabat, it is doubtful Berdymukhammedov could be ousted through a popular uprising.

But there is also no indication the economic situation in Turkmenistan will improve any time soon and there could come a day when local officials will not be able to provide flour, or cooking oil, or any of the other things that are in short supply in Turkmenistan these days, and the pangs of hunger will be stronger than the fear of reprisal from authorities, even in the capital.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, contributed to this report

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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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