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Qishloq Ovozi

In the worst-case scenarios some Central Asian governments grossly exaggerate or even invent groups, then imprison perceived opponents for membership.

The thing the governments in Central Asia fear the most is religion. Secular opposition there has been nearly eliminated and in its place religious opposition has appeared.

Only a very few people in Central Asia are given to joining Islamic extremist groups. But were one to judge from the actions of the region's governments and security forces, it would easy at times to get the impression there was an imminent threat to the state.

The era of the Internet and social networks has ushered in a new era of paranoia, not only in Central Asia, and the authorities in Central Asia are broadening their definitions of what an extremist group is and taking preemptive measures to cut off the perceived threats these often ill-defined groups allegedly represent.

To discuss religion and the Central Asian governments' increasingly restrictive attitude toward various groups, RFE/RL assembled a Majlis, a panel to discuss the campaign against suspect believers in the region.

Moderating the discussion was RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir. From London, Felix Corley, the editor of Forum 18 News Service, an agency monitoring religious freedom in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe, joined the talk. Participating from Washington, D.C., was Dillorom Abdullaeva of Tashabbus, a group formed by young lawyers in Uzbekistan to help protect the rights of people there. And in case you didn't notice, we have Noah Tucker from Registan.net working with us at RFE/RL now, so he was in the studio in Prague with me for the discussion.

It was not long after independence in 1991 that the Central Asian leaders, all former Communist Party officials during the Soviet era, realized that although reembracing Islam would help their countries to reinforce distinctions between them and former colonial master Russia, these leaders themselves knew very little about the religion.

Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov was confronted by a group of Muslims during a trip to Namangan in December 1991 and forced to sit and listen as the group's leaders lectured him about their ideas of good governance. Civil war broke out in Tajikistan in the spring of 1992 and the core of the government's military opponents was the Islamic Renaissance Party. These then were the early examples for Central Asian governments and it sparked different reactions from the five states.

Corley said policies toward religion evolved to the point where "the Central Asian governments are more or less saying, religion is dangerous unless we the authorities have licensed it and registered it as being acceptable within very tightly restricted bounds, which the government has set."

Any group outside those bounds becomes suspect. While the constitutions of all five enshrine freedom of religion, in practice so-called "nontraditional faiths" face significant problems.

As Abdullaeva said, "There are many religious groups who are unofficially banned in Uzbekistan," and she added, "It is practice to be arbitrary and to keep fear in people who practice religion."

And Abdullaeva added that the state-approved version "of Sunni Islam...is kind of Soviet-style, I would say, closer to culture than religion."

The Central Asian governments seem to misinterpret the intentions of many groups or misidentify them entirely. "Wahhabis" were once the favorite targets of campaigns, even going back to the Soviet era, though most if not nearly all the people detained or imprisoned in Central Asia did not seem to be practicing the form of Wahhabism associated with Saudi Arabia, its birthplace.

"Salafis" have now become one the most suspected Islamic groups in Central Asia. Tucker explained, "You'd be very pressed to find anyone in a Central Asian government who could delineate to you the exact difference between a Wahhabi and a Salafi and [when] lawyers who present this evidence in trial, there's very little effort to make any kind of definition."

There is also very little effort made to elaborate how exactly these people represented a threat. Corley said, "The government[s] should look at people who are actually committing crimes of violence or inciting, or organizing the committing of crimes of violence and not target people solely because of their religious affiliation or their perceived religious affiliation."

Not Belonging To Nonexistent Group?

In the worst-case scenarios some Central Asian governments grossly exaggerate or even invent groups, then imprison perceived opponents for membership. Tucker noted how problematic this was for the accused. "They're [the government] saying you belong to a group that doesn't actually exist so it's very hard to prove they don't belong to something, if you can't say what the group is in the first place," he said.

Corley commented, "This is a very dangerous approach which does nothing to help the security of the country and does nothing to protect the human rights of the people of an individual country."

Corley provided the example of Bahrom Saparov, the leader of a group of Sunni Muslims in Turkmenistan's eastern town of Turkmenabat who apparently was preaching without official approval. "He is believed to have received a 15-year prison term, he's in the top security prison in Owadan Depe in the desert and very, very few prisoners ever come out of there alive, he's last known to have been seen in that prison in 2014."

And Tucker said that just recently in Uzbekistan, acting President Shavkat Mirziyaev "has ordered, particularly in border areas and within Tashkent, for the security services to do house-to-house searches of people who were previously convicted on religious charges."

Abdullaeva pointed out, "Religious extremists or acts of religious extremism are the result of the severe restrictions on freedom of religion in those countries."

Tucker suggested that "the governments would do their own citizens a favor in paying attention to public safety and the public good...by having definitions [of extremist groups] that actually work."

The Majlis discussed these topics in greater detail and ranged around Central Asia looking at other specific examples of state campaigns against religious groups. You can listen to the full discussion here:

Majlis Podcast: Religious Persecution In Central Asia
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The views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
I personally have been hard at work writing new books for my people to read -- 40 so far, seven this year alone.

Authorities in Turkmenistan have announced that the country will conduct a presidential election on February 12, 2017. Incumbent President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is certain -- barring sickness or death -- to win a third term in office.

Other presidential candidates will appear, as they have the last two times Berdymukhammedov has run for president -- on February 11, 2007, and February 12, 2012. As was true in the previous two presidential elections, these "rival" candidates will probably be people little known to the Turkmen public, participating in the campaign like actors in a staged production.

The campaign and its results will be similar to what's been seen before in Turkmenistan. Berdymukhammedov took 89 percent of the vote in 2007 and 97 percent of the vote in 2012.

The big difference between the upcoming election and those previous two polls is that February 2017 is coming at arguably the worst of times in independent Turkmenistan's 25-year history.

So I'm curious what Berdymukhammedov tells his people this time around. Why should Turkmen voters show up at polling centers on February 12 to cast their ballots for the current president, the person they called "Arkadag" (The Protector)?

I am not Berdymukhammedov's speechwriter, but I am concerned he might miss some things in the campaign speeches he delivers -- if he even bothers to campaign, that is.

In the interest of presenting a well-rounded portrayal of the situation in Turkmenistan, I thought I would write a speech for the Turkmen president, in his own style.

Note: The situation in Turkmenistan is no laughing matter, and I am aware of that. If the tone of this blog post is lighthearted, its message is very serious.

***

Greetings, great and extraordinarily patient people of Turkmenistan!

I speak to you now, asking for your vote in the upcoming presidential election.

I could make a lot of promises about the future, and maybe some of them could even really happen.

But today I choose to speak about the last five years of my presidency.

When I asked for your vote in 2012, we were just coming off a year, 2011, in which we saw 14.7 percent GDP growth, a figure given by the World Bank.

Times are different now. Last year, we registered 6.5 percent GDP growth, according to the World Bank, and this year it looks like that figure will drop slightly to 6.2 percent.

As I and other officials have told you, the global economic crisis -- and not your government -- is to blame for this decrease.

These new external economic problems pose new challenges for Turkmenistan.

Five years ago, the price of natural gas on world markets was more than twice what it is today. I don't have to tell you that gas is almost the only thing we export, and in 2012 Turkmenistan appeared to be well on its way to diversifying its gas export routes. We exported gas to three customers, and there were plans to open two new routes to major markets.

As I stand before you today, we are exporting to only two customers: China and Iran.

We are sorry that our friend Russia decided at the start of 2015 not to purchase any more gas from Turkmenistan and to instead buy gas from our friend Uzbekistan.

It's true. Some of the gas we export to China goes toward paying our multibillion-dollar debt to that country. It's also true that Iran pays with goods, not money.

But we haven't given up on projects to build a pipeline to India and another across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, where our natural gas can be sent to countries in Europe. Admittedly, those plans no longer look so promising.

Our idea for a trans-Caspian pipeline to export gas to Europe has not yet been realized, and might never be, due to the objections of our Caspian littoral neighbors Russia and Iran.

Our government and media continue to report about building the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline on the territory of Turkmenistan. We cannot show you any pictures of this construction, but the government will continue to remind you of progress in constructing the pipeline.

Pay no attention to those who call TAPI a "virtual" pipeline.

Five years ago, in northwestern Afghanistan, just across our border, people lived in relative peace. That is no longer the case. There is now fighting in all the Afghan provinces bordering Turkmenistan. So there might be some small delays constructing the pipeline through Afghanistan. The same goes for Pakistan's southern Balochistan region, which is also on TAPI's route.

And since I mentioned Afghanistan, I want to repeat the words of other Turkmen government officials and tell you that there is no security problem along our border with Afghanistan. Don't listen to stories you might hear of our soldiers or border guards being involved in fighting -- or even being killed -- along the Afghan border.

Opening celebrations for a new public building in Ashgabat, the "White City"
Opening celebrations for a new public building in Ashgabat, the "White City"

And don't worry that earlier this year we conducted the largest mobilization of our armed forces ever in our 25-year history and have recently been purchasing new weapons, including a missile system from China.

Our policy of positive neutrality, recognized by the UN, has always been our best protection, and it is now enshrined in our constitution -- part of the same changes adopted in September that will make my third term in office a seven-year term instead of those five-years terms I've previously served.

But enough about the outside world. Let's look at our achievements here at home over the last five years.

As we told you earlier this year, we have reached the point in our development where the state no longer needs to provide you, its citizens, with subsidies. Turkmenistan's people are well enough off now that you do not need free electricity, gas, or water anymore, so we will soon halt these unnecessary gifts. But rest assured, these utilities will continue to be provided to you intermittently.

We still face economic challenges. Some of you have lost your jobs recently, especially those in the gas and oil sector. Having brought that up, let me now mention these tales told by foreign media about unemployment in Turkmenistan being more than 50 percent.

How could the foreign press and other outside organizations know this? We don't let them in.

And during my third term, this government will continue to reject visa applications from undesirable foreigners seeking to come to Turkmenistan for sinister reasons of trying to obtain objective information.

Our government provides facts and figures on all the things people outside the country need to know about Turkmenistan. It's all there on government websites and in state media.

Some of you who are working are not receiving your wages on time. In some cases, arrears go back several months.

It is especially to you that I wish to express my gratitude, because many of you, after this wait, had your wages garnished to pay for our country to build the facilities necessary to host the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games we are hosting in our capital, Ashgabat, next year.

Did I say "garnished"? Forgive me. I meant to say the money you are "voluntarily" giving to help build facilities for those games. "Voluntarily" -- that's what it said on those papers that officials gave you to sign when you agreed to contribute money from your salaries.

I look pretty good, don't you think?
I look pretty good, don't you think?

Turkmenistan continues to produce some of the highest quality basic goods. Most of you have seen the long lines in front of our stores. Turkmenistan's products are so good people are willing to queue up outside stores to wait for their chance to buy a rationed amount of these basic products.

Don't forget to bring your documents with you. We do enforce purchase limits for all families.

And I'll address those accusations of food shortages and higher prices for basic goods now by saying...no comment.

To those of you who smoke, I say first: Shame on you. It's bad for your health. But I'll add that you can now buy one pack of cigarettes for less than $20. That's already an improvement from just a couple of months ago. True, we're limiting the number of packs you can buy, but, again, it's a bad habit.

I'm talking about dollars here, but I don't need to remind you that dollar transactions are illegal now. Your government has no intention of helping these black markets that are offering seven or more manats, our national currency, for one U.S. dollar. Turkmenistan's government stands by its official rate of 3.5 manats to one U.S. dollar.

Let me conclude by saying that these hard times, caused again by the economic hardships outside Turkmenistan, have not stopped this government from spending money on magnificent projects. Look at Ashgabat, the "White City," recognized in 2013 by the Guinness Book of Records as having the highest density of white marble-clad buildings.

That's something to be proud of.

I know most of you don't live or work in any these buildings -- very few people do -- but you do sometimes pass them. They look good, don't you think?

And I'll add that the city looks much better without all those air conditioners local authorities ordered to be removed from the outside of buildings. These were only needed for the four or five months of the year when the temperature was over 40 Celsius anyway, so most of the year they were useless.

And work continues at Awaza, our resort area on the Caspian Sea. We've spent billions of dollars designing Awaza and building the luxurious five-star hotels that line our Caspian coast there, hotels that already have 20 to 30 percent occupancy, on occasion.

The government continues to support the arts. I don't need to remind anyone about that massive statue of yours truly on horseback in downtown Ashgabat that was unveiled in May 2015. That gold leaf really brings out the character in that work, don't you think?

And I personally have been hard at work writing new books for my people to read -- 40 so far, seven this year alone. I have been working equally hard writing new songs and will continue to appear on state television performing them for you.

To close, I want to speak to each and every one of you, the people of Turkmenistan, whether you're employed, or partly employed, or unemployed, a supporter of the government or one of those being treated at state expense for psychological problems, those of you who are content and those who authorities are currently trying to help find the correct, state-approved path to inner happiness.

Cast your vote for me, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, on February 12. I've been your president for 10 years, and thanks to another of those amendments passed in September, there is no age limit for running for president now, so I'll be your president for who knows how long?

Thanks and vote on election day! We'll know if you don't.

Farruh Yusupov and Toymyrat Bugaev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views 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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