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Qishloq Ovozi

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered unprecedented snap military exercises at the end of March.

Turkmenistan's official policy of "positive neutrality" appears to have been slightly punctured, and the source of this perforation is Afghanistan.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, interviewed Allaberen Karyadar from the Fayzabad district of Afghanistan's Jowzjan Province. He had returned recently to Afghanistan from Turkmenistan. In fact, he came back earlier than planned "because the Taliban were attacking my village."

Karyadar added, "I came back and drove the Taliban out."

Driving the Taliban out is Karyadar's job. He is a commander of a local "Arbaky" force -- nominally, pro-government paramilitaries or local militias. There are mixed feelings about these groups inside Afghanistan.

So what was Arbaky commander Karyadar doing in Turkmenistan?

"I spent some days in the hospital, being treated by doctors," Karyadar said. He said he was not always at the hospital, though. He said he spent some time visiting "with friends" and, of course, there are some Afghan Turkmen now living in Turkmenistan.

Karyadar said he was in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, for "eye treatment." He was able to obtain a visa for the visit (and that is a very difficult feat, usually). The visa and the medical care were free.

And Karyadar was not the only person from Jowzjan who was in Turkmenistan. Karyadar said he "heard" the Qarqeen district police chief "Ayub" and another Arkbaky commander, Gurbandurdy, who we've met before in the Qishloq, were also in Turkmenistan. Also reportedly in Turkmenistan was another Arbaky commander from Jowzjan, Sapar Ra'is, and Rozi Bay, the police commander responsible for the highway that runs between Jowzjan and Faryab Province to the west.

Jowzjan borders Turkmenistan. The northern most part of the province actually protrudes into Turkmenistan and therefore is bounded by Turkmenistan on three sides.

Turkmenistan has so far attempted to avoid getting involved in Afghanistan's problems as much as possible. Turkmen officials have brought up the country's UN-recognized neutral status when speaking about the subject of Afghanistan. This shield of neutrality worked in the 1990s. It appears to have worked more recently, at least once, when some 70 to 80 armed Taliban met Turkmen border guards on an island in Amu-Darya in October 2015. On that occasion, the Turkmen border guards told the Taliban fighters they could come no further because Turkmenistan was a neutral country.

The Taliban respected the status that time. But in 2014, armed militants crossed the border into Turkmenistan and killed three border guards in February and three soldiers in May.

The Alternative Turkmenistan News website reported on June 8 that the bodies of 27 Turkmen border guards had been brought to the capitals of the Mary and Lebap provinces at the start of May for relatives to collect and bury. According to the report, which is not possible to confirm due to the opaque nature of the Turkmen government, the Defense Ministry told the parents of one of the soldiers that their son had committed suicide. The parents reportedly opened the coffin and found their son's body with 17 bullet wounds.

And Sergei Shoigu made the first visit ever to Turkmenistan by a Russian defense minister on June 8. Russian media reported that Turkmenistan agreed to accept Russian help with training and to purchase weapons from Russia. Turkmenistan had long held out against taking any Russian help and, in fact, Ashgabat continues to insist publicly that there is no problem along its frontier with Afghanistan.

Ashgabat has also never confirmed reports about a mass call-up of reserves or the deployment of some 70 percent of the country's troops and equipment to the Afghan border area.

Turkmen media did widely report on the unprecedented snap military exercises President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered at the end of March. Those drills lasted well into April.

And that brings us back to Allaberen Karyadar and what he and other Arbaky commanders and Jowzjan police officials were doing in Turkmenistan recently.

If border security has so deteriorated that Turkmen troops are again being killed, it explains why the Afghan Turkmen from a district along Turkmenistan's border are "visiting" their northern neighbor. It also explains Shoigu's visit.

It seems Turkmenistan's hand is being forced here. And judging from the visit by Karyadar and the others, Ashgabat is finally taking a side in the conflict just over the border.

Turkmenistan's policy of neutrality might be one of the latest casualties of the Afghan conflict.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir contributed to this report
Kazakh weightlifters Maiya Maneza (left), Zulfiya Chinshanlo (center), and Svetlana Podobedova (right) are welcomed at Almaty airport in August 2012.

Qishloq Ovozi is pleased to welcome back Matthew Kupfer. In this article, Kupfer takes a look at the recent doping scandal in Kazakhstan and at that country’s efforts to develop national Olympic champions, even when these champions were not originally from Kazakhstan.

On June 15, the International Weightlifting Federation announced that four Olympic weightlifting champions from Kazakhstan had failed tests to detect performance-enhancing drugs carried out on samples taken at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The four weightlifters, who all won gold medals in London, have now been provisionally suspended from active competition and will likely be stripped of their medals -- a major blow for Kazakhstan's weightlifting program, which will fall from 12th to 23rd in the medal standings. It is also huge blow for Ilya Ilyin, the men's 94-kilogram gold medalist and a major celebrity in Kazakhstan.

However, the doping revelation also returns us to a controversy surrounding two of the less widely renowned gold medalists: Zulfiya Chinshanlo, who set a new world record in the 53-kilogram weight category of "clean-and-jerk" lifting in 2012, and Maiya Meneza, who set a world record in the 69-kilogram category of the clean and jerk.

In 2012, these two female weightlifters found themselves caught up in an odd scandal when China's Xinhua news agency published an article claiming that Chinshanlo and Maneza were, in fact, born in China. This information contradicted their Olympic biographies and the official story that Chinshanlo and Maneza were Dungans, an ethnic group related to Chinese Hui Muslims, born in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, respectively.

In July 2012, I published a short investigation into Chinshanlo and Maneza's origins on the Registan.net blog. All the information I found -- video interviews showing the weightlifters speaking fairly basic Russian with a heavy Chinese accent and talking about moving from China to Kazakhstan; an interview with their trainer; and a report on the Kazakh weightlifting program -- suggested that they had indeed been born in China, recruited by the Kazakhstan Weightlifting Federation, granted Kazakh citizenship, and brought to Kazakhstan to train.

The Registan.net post highlighted several interesting aspects of Chinshanlo and Maneza's story: Kazakhstan's deliberate development of its women's weightlifting program, its search for budding champions abroad, and its attempts to develop authentically "Central Asian" champions its population could rally behind. Although the practice of granting citizenship to foreign athletes so they can compete on a country's Olympic team is fairly common, many perceive it as dishonest. Kazakhstan sought to avoid this perception.

While Chinshanlo and Maneza's true ethnic origins remain unclear, their Dungan identity (whether real or fictional) gave their recruitment abroad greater legitimacy. Their trainer, Aleksey Ni, has admitted as much himself.

"We specifically sought out ethnic Dungans, so that their roots would be from Kazakhstan," he said in an interview with Kaspionet.kz.

Despite the controversy about Chinshanlo and Maneza's national origins, their story was compelling. Both were young weightlifters in whom Kazakhstan clearly saw potential when China did not. Thus, whether by birth or by training, I argued on Registan.net, they were very much Kazakhstan's champions.

However, the doping scandal now casts doubt on this story.

Was it Chinshanlo and Maneza's inherent potential and training that won them the gold medals and helped them break two world records or was it simply performance-enhancing drugs?

This is, perhaps, what makes the scandal such a damning blow for Kazakhstan. After investing no shortage of efforts into building a weightlifting team of champions who would have both athletic and "national-cultural" legitimacy, Kazakhstan's cover has been blown. And recruiting athletes abroad -- a sometimes-criticized practice that one Kazakh sports official justified by noting that China didn't train Chinshanlo and Maneza and "let them leave easily" -- now appears especially unsavory.

Matthew Kupfer is a writer focusing on Central Asia, Russia, Ukraine, and the former Soviet Union. His work has been published in EurasiaNet.org, The Moscow Times, Eurasia Outlook, and Registan.net. Previously a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he is currently pursuing an M.A. in Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia regional studies at Harvard University. The views expressed in this blog are his own. You can follow Kupfer on Twitter @Matthew_Kupfer.

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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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