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Qishloq Ovozi

Thursday 13 January 2022

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A transmission line across the Amu Darya river bringing power from Uzbekistan into Afghanistan, which is dependent on its neighbors for much of its electricity. (file photo)

The first two weeks of this year have brought a reminder that Central Asia’s relationship with the Taliban authorities in Afghanistan are far from smooth and could potentially turn bad very quickly.

The Tajik government does not communicate directly with the Taliban and made clear in August when the militants captured Kabul that until the Afghan government is “inclusive” -- meaning the large ethnic Tajik population is represented in government -- Dushanbe will not consider recognizing the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate government.

That's one reason the Tajik border has been the tensest section of Afghanistan’s northern frontiers, as Dushanbe continues to say there are militants in northeastern Afghanistan that are a threat to Tajikistan.

At a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit on January 10, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon said: “According to the Tajik intelligence services, the number of camps and training centers for terrorists bordering the southern borders of the CSTO in the northeastern provinces of Afghanistan totals more than 40, and their numerical strength is more than 6,000 militants.”

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon

Rahmon also told the leaders of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and the head of Kyrgyzstan’s cabinet of ministers taking part in the summit that "You and I know very well that since the second half of August 2021, thousands of members of [Islamic State], Al-Qaeda, [Jamaat] Ansarullah, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and other terrorist groups have been released from prisons in Afghanistan."

Ansarullah is comprised mainly of Tajik citizens who have been fighting alongside the Taliban for years.

The Taliban reportedly deployed some of the Ansarullah fighters to guard the border with Tajikistan, prompting Dushanbe to further strengthen its forces along the Afghan border.

As for Rahmon’s latest claims of training camps and thousands of militants in northeastern Afghanistan, Bilal Karimi, the deputy spokesman for the Taliban, said, “There is no such training center in any part of the country in which insurgents are being trained."

Return Our Aircraft

The Taliban also had a complaint of its own against Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Mawlawi Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar and currently the militant group’s defense minister, said on January 11 that the Taliban want the warplanes and helicopters in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan that escaping Afghan government forces flew to those two countries as the Taliban were moving on Kabul to be returned to the Taliban.

Information from just before the Taliban took control of most of Afghanistan showed 46 or 47 Afghan warplanes and helicopters landed in the Uzbek border town of Termez, and two passenger and 16 military aircraft had flown to Tajikistan, though Tajik officials said only three Afghan planes and two helicopters were on its territory.

A subsequent report suggested some of the helicopters have already been moved to the U.S. Air Force’s “bone yard,” a huge parking lot for mothballed aircraft in the state of Arizona.

“Our planes that you have, that are in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, must be returned to us,” Yaqoob said.

Yaqoob also warned Tajikistan and Uzbekistan “not to test our patience and not to force us to take possible retaliatory steps to [reclaim the aircraft].”

Taliban Defense Minister Mohammad Yaqoob (file photo)
Taliban Defense Minister Mohammad Yaqoob (file photo)

Tashkent Playing Nice

Such talk has been going back and forth between Tajik authorities and the Taliban for months, but Uzbekistan has taken an entirely different and more amiable position toward the Taliban.

Since the Taliban seizure of power, Tashkent has worked to keep cargo, including humanitarian aid, moving across the Uzbek-Afghan border and officials from the two sides -- from local leaders to foreign ministers -- have met to discuss issues of common interest.

Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have been supplying electricity to Afghanistan for years as part of deals reached with the Afghan government of 2001-2021.

All three have said they would continue sending electricity to Afghanistan even though the Taliban admits it cannot pay for it now.

But Afghan state power company Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat said in a statement on January 12 that Uzbekistan had reduced electricity exports to Afghanistan by 60 percent and that 16 Afghan provinces are facing shortages.

Uzbek officials reportedly pointed to a technical problem at a substation as the reason for the reduction and said the electricity should return to its regular flow in two or three days. But Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat said on January 13 that full power had already been restored.

Turkmen Beware?

And recently a video was posted of Taliban fighters near Turkmenistan’s border showing off a Turkmen Army military belt they say was left behind by a Turkmen soldier who crossed into Afghanistan.

One Taliban fighter said in Turkmen that the soldier had crossed the border with others to steal near the village of Qarqeen, in Afghanistan’s Jowzjan Province, which borders Turkmenistan’s Mary Province.

But when they saw Taliban fighters in the area, the Taliban soldier claims, the intruders ran away and one dropped his belt.

The Taliban fighter warns that neither he nor his associates will have sympathy for anyone who covets land or property in Afghanistan.

This comes just a little more than a week since the Taliban said Turkmen border guards shot dead an Afghan citizen, and days later fired on Taliban fighters who came to investigate in the Khamyab district, to the west of Qarqeen in the Jowzjan Province.

That exchange of fire reportedly lasted several hours, with Taliban fighters firing rockets at the Turkmen border guards. There were no reports of casualties.

Though it is quite likely that none of the governments in Central Asia wanted to see the Taliban return to power, that is now the reality. The first days of 2022 are another reminder to the Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan that they are dealing with a militant group, not politicians.

Following tumultuous protests last week, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (right) appears to have gained the upper hand in his relationship with his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbaev (left).

The dust is settling in Kazakhstan after a tumultuous start to the year in which initially peaceful protests were hijacked by violent groups who left carnage in Almaty and other parts of the country.

Amid the unrest, it also became apparent that there was a power struggle going on within the government between the current president, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, and loyalists of his still powerful predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev.

The turmoil now seems to be ending with members of the family of the country’s first president and his close associates seemingly facing a bleak future.

If there were any doubts about who emerged victorious, Toqaev put them to rest on January 11 at a session of parliament when he ordered the end to any state business with a massive waste and recycling company linked to Nazarbaev’s youngest daughter, Aliya.

“Entrepreneurs and society in general have a lot of questions about the activities of the company, which is called the Operator ROP,” Toqaev said.

Operator ROP is a recycling monopoly founded in 2015.

Kazakh Ecology, Geology, and Natural Resources Minister Serikkali Brekeshev told a meeting of the government on January 12 that the company has earned some 692 billion tenge (almost $1.6 billion) since 2016.

The company's website features a large photo of President Nazarbaev with a strong recommendation for the heads of Kazakh regions to do business with Operator ROP.

Toqaev’s January 11 comments were the first clear indication that the vast wealth and holdings of members of the Nazarbaev family might be in jeopardy.

Toqaev had announced that he was taking Nazarbaev's seat as secretary of Kazakhstan’s Security Council on January 5, a move many saw as an indication that the fortunes of the 81-year-old former president known as “Elbasy” -- or Leader of the Nation -- might have taken a turn for the worse.

Nazarbaev had used that powerful post to retain a great deal of his influence after he officially stepped down as president in March 2019 and handed over the presidency to Toqaev, his hand-picked successor.

Nazarbaev press spokesman Aidos Ukibay said on January 9 that the ex-president had voluntarily stepped down as Security Council secretary, though no one else in the Kazakh government repeated this claim.

What's Behind The State Of Emergency And Protests Erupting Across Kazakhstan?
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Amid speculation as to Elbasy's whereabouts – he has not been seen in public since December 28 -- Ukibay said on January 8 that Nazarbaev was still in the capital, Nur-Sultan.

In his January 11 speech, Toqaev added that “Thanks to the first president, Elbasy, a group of very profitable companies emerged in the country, as well as a group of people whose wealth is significant even by international standards.”

Toqaev announced that a special social fund “for the people of Kazakhstan” would be created and would receive “significant and regular contributions" from businesses.

He said the government “will have to establish the group of companies with which it will have to agree with upon the size of their annual contributions to the foundation.”

Toqaev added: “I believe the time has come to pay that which is due to the people and help them.”

Toqaev did not mention any specific names, but he didn’t need to.

People like Kazakhmys chief Vladimir Kim or banker Bulat Utemuratov -- well connected to the former president -- are known to have made billions of dollars during Nazarbaev's nearly 30-year reign.

And everyone in Kazakhstan knows that the members of Nazarbaev’s family have grown fantastically wealthy, something detailed in a December 2020 report by RFE/RL.

Nazabaev’s second-oldest daughter, Dinara, and her husband, Timur Kulibaev, are regularly ranked as being among the richest people in Kazakhstan with assets in excess of $1 billion.

Prior to the recent outbreak of violence, it seemed like most of the time when Kazakhstan was mentioned in Western media it was because of mansions, villas, and even castles members of the Nazarbaev family owned in Europe, the United States, or Dubai -- or for the massive yachts and private jet planes they bought.

Where most of the members of the Nazarbaev family are today remains unclear at the moment.

An aide to Darigha Nazarbaeva, Nazarbaev’s eldest daughter and parliament member, said on January 12 that she had COVID and is still in Almaty, which is why she missed sessions of parliament.

Darigha Nazarbaeva (file photo)
Darigha Nazarbaeva (file photo)

Kyrgyzstan’s 24.kg website reported on January 12 that Nazarbaev’s notorious brother, Bolat, crossed into Kyrgyzstan by car in the early morning of January 6 and later the same day boarded a flight from Bishkek to Dubai.

And the investigative outlet Bellingcat tracked “a Bombardier Challenger 604 private jet [that] flew from Almaty to Geneva” on January 4, two days after the protests started.

Bellingcat said “this aircraft’s past flight record shows trips to several European countries, Russia, the Maldives, and Dubai.”

Bellingcat also reported that “On 5 January, between 10 and 11 UTC…a Bombardier Global 6000 with no registration number and no other identifying details was spotted flying from Almaty…[and] we found that it landed at Farnborough Airport just outside London, a common destination for private jets coming to the U.K."

And there were two Kazakh planes that briefly landed at Kyrgyzstan’s Manas airport on January 5, one arriving from Dubai and the other from North Macedonia. The planes stopped only briefly for maintenance and refueling before traveling onward.

The abundance of private jets flying in and out of Kazakhstan during the days of upheaval have many suggesting that close and extended members of the Nazarbaev family left the country.

Toqaev has not openly said Kazakh authorities are going after the Nazarbaevs and, considering Toqaev has been in the Kazakh government working for Elbasy since the first days of independence, he will need to tread carefully in attacking the family of the man he served for so long.

But Toqaev would have an abundance of public support for stripping Nazarbaev family members of their ill-gotten gains and Toqaev will need this support as he finally steps out of the shadow of his predecessor and forms his own government.

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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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

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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