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Between Russia, China, And A Warming World: Central Asia's State Of Play

A rusting boat lies on the bed of what was once the Aral Sea. The increasing threat that this ecological disaster might be repeated in the Caspian Sea is just one of many environmental challenges facing Central Asia. (file photo)
A rusting boat lies on the bed of what was once the Aral Sea. The increasing threat that this ecological disaster might be repeated in the Caspian Sea is just one of many environmental challenges facing Central Asia. (file photo)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan – Speakers at a conference dedicated to Central Asia this week struggled to find good things to say about the region -- or at least enough good to rival all of the bad.

Some experts saw windows for transformation and adaptation closing, amid an international space reshaped by China’s rise and Russia’s war in Ukraine, and with a climate crisis seemingly moving even faster than in most other parts of the world.

Many agreed that the five Central Asian states had made various degrees of progress since gaining independence in 1991.

But they stressed that the achievements had been outpaced by problems besetting the region, which its twin trademarks of systemic corruption and authoritarianism have only compounded.

The August 28-29 Turning Points In Eurasia conference was hosted by the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, an organization that in marking its 30th anniversary is almost as old as the modern-day former Soviet states of the region -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The event was unprecedented, taking in both civic leaders and academics, and gathering more than 200 experts in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty.

But beyond celebrating the fact that an organization like the bureau has survived so long in a challenging environment, there was plenty for panelists to be glum about.

In his opening speech, the bureau’s long-serving director, Yevgeny Zhovtis, described the region’s populations as “hostages of domestic authoritarianism and geopolitical pressures.”

Still Undemocratic And Getting Worse

Zhovtis went on to provide a roundup of the grim assessments of international freedom monitors regarding the five countries -- assessments repeatedly backed up by the firsthand observations of panelists.

Yevgeny Zhovtis, the director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, at the Almaty conference on August 28.
Yevgeny Zhovtis, the director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, at the Almaty conference on August 28.

Under Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, the country in the region that has experienced some democratic freedoms seems to have abandoned the chase, going from “partly free” in the ratings of the rankings watchdog Freedom House to unfree, just like the others.

And, after shedding three presidents during independence, sometimes in bloody circumstances, it is the sight of these hard-won democratic credentials disappearing overnight that hurts many Kyrgyz.

“It is the speed and acceleration of it all. To lose all those things that we had fought for in the space of a couple of years. Of course, it really alarms you,” said Cholpon Djakupova, the head of the Legal Clinic Adilet nonprofit organization based in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek.

On the first day of the conference, Kyrgyz prosecutors announced that they had filed papers to shut down Kloop, an independent media outlet well known for its investigations of elite corruption.

At present, most of the two dozen activists arrested over their opposition to a border deal that involved Kyrgyzstan ceding a water reservoir to Uzbekistan last fall are still in jail and awaiting a trial that many activists believe is being strung out as a warning to would-be dissenters.

Uzbekistan has been another great disappointment in the rights stakes, after limited freedoms emerged following more than a quarter-century of hard-line rule under thelate dictator Islam Karimov.

But having overhauled a cotton industry blighted by systematic forced labor and encouraged criticism of authorities, second leader Shavkat Mirziyoev has been going back to the Karimov playbook.

This means allowing prosecutors and courts to jail dissenters, including the citizen journalists who were direct beneficiaries of the short opening.

Nadejda Ataeva, a France-based Uzbek exile who heads the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, said that any assessments of the country Mirziyoev calls “New Uzbekistan” should begin with the fact that Akzam Turgunov, a rights defender jailed and tortured under Karimov, has attempted and failed to register an NGO no fewer than 11 times since Mirziyoev took power in 2016.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (file photo)
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (file photo)

When Uzbek blogger Miraziz Bazarov spoke out in favor of LGBT rights -- and against Mirziyoev -- it triggered a campaign of state persecution that extended to threats to Bazarov’s mother and his lawyer, Ataeva recalled.

State repression in Uzbekistan has seemingly only increased since a bloody crackdown last year in its autonomous territory of Karakalpakstan, one of several egregious examples of state crackdowns and injustice toward ethnic minorities in Central Asia -- the topic of a separate panel.

In other countries, the fall into deeper degrees of authoritarianism came long ago.

Europe-based Tajik journalist Khumayro Bakhtier called on people to think of Tajikistan, rather than Turkmenistan, as Central Asia’s most repressive country as she detailed a long government campaign against any hint of political opposition, independent media, and civic vibrancy from about 2010 onwards.

But Turkmenistan still seems to be in a special category of its own.

Ruslan Myatiev, editor in chief of the Netherlands-based, told spectators of a panel on media freedom that the country had “declared war” on the Internet after starting work on a North Korea-style Intranet. Some three-quarters of all websites are blocked in Turkmenistan, Myatiev said.

The most lethal outbreak of political violence in the region in recent years came in the form of the unrest of January 2022 in Kazakhstan that left at least 238 people dead.

WATCH: RFE/RL reports on the protests that roiled Kazakhstan in January 2022

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Keynote speaker Erica Marat of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., said that the events had proved that the “formula of stability” promoted by Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, and other authoritarian leaders in the region, “was inherently unstable.”

“It was based on elite networks, not institutions,” Marat argued.

And with unaccountable governance being the norm in Central Asia, “protests are inevitable in the future,” Marat predicted, given a “growing capacity for self-organization” in the region.

Complex International Environment

With these rights abuses all belonging to their own specific contexts, it would seem strange to connect the region’s plight to its neighbors.

Then again, look at the neighbors.

As Kyrgyz political analyst Emil Juraev argued, “between Russia’s war and the increasing global influence of China right next to us, it cannot be good times for democracy-building in Central Asia."

Moscow’s invasion has exacerbated food inflation in Central Asia, while sending tens of thousands of conscription-age Russians scampering south, with Kazakhstan taking the brunt of the exodus.

Back in Russia, even greater numbers of Central Asian migrants are trapped between an economy reshaped by sanctions and a sunken ruble and Moscow’s drive to recruit them for its war in Ukraine.

But the war’s overall impact on the political atmosphere of the region is something of an evolving process, with Juraev noting that citizens in some countries were now “asking more daring questions in terms of their societies,” including about their imperial and Soviet past under Russia.

Adil Jalilov, the director of Medianet, a media-focused nonprofit in Kazakhstan, complained that the Ukraine war had critically deepened the already big disinformation problem in local media spaces.

Russian fakes had become so much of a problem in Kazakhstan, Jalilov said, that experts were afraid the government might use the issue as a pretext to tighten control over the online space.

Russia had played a key role in preserving Kazakhstan’s authoritarian regime in January 2022.

A monument to former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev lies toppled on the streets of the town of Taldyqorghan during the unrest of January 2022.
A monument to former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev lies toppled on the streets of the town of Taldyqorghan during the unrest of January 2022.

Moscow-led peacekeepers helped bolster the control of local military and police, who have largely escaped justice for their role in a crackdown that saw civilians killed by indiscriminate fire as well as the systematic torture of detainees arrested during the crisis, according to experts.

Economic powerhouse China is a much less obvious influence in the region, but no less toxic, according to some speakers.

From 2016 onwards, Beijing has overseen a giant state crackdown often likened by activists to a genocide in its western Xinjiang region, where ethnic Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and ethnic Kyrgyz have been incarcerated en masse.

Survivors of this epic rights crisis can be found in several Central Asian countries, especially Kazakhstan, but they often live without documents or rights since “there is not one country in this region that is prepared to endanger its relations with China,” according to Aina Shormonbaeva, the head of the Almaty-based International Legal Initiative.

Addressing the conference via video link, Steve Swerdlow, a rights lawyer and academic at the University of Southern California, mentioned the use of Chinese facial recognition technology to target activists inside Central Asia.

Rights lawyer Steve Swerdlow (file photo)
Rights lawyer Steve Swerdlow (file photo)

Swerdlow called the expected 5+1 meeting of Central Asian heads of state with U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in late September a “unique opportunity” to put human rights at the forefront of Washington’s relations with Central Asia.

But as Washington seeks to build consensus on war-related issues, such as the observance of its sanctions against Moscow, will it want to do that?

And to what extent are Western donors and international organizations -- supposed allies of civil society in the region -- fulfilling their duty to their partners in increasingly undemocratic settings?

Sebastien Peyrouse of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University addressed this question in detail, and his critique was echoed by Tajik rights activist Nigina Bakhrieva.

“Most often we see that many international organizations try to react and adapt to the situation rather than trying to defend positions connected to human rights,” Bakhrieva said of Tajikistan, where hundreds of civil society organizations have chosen to fold amid pressure from the state in recent years.

Real-Time Climate Crisis

Areas in which bad local management and a tough geopolitical environment intersect are manifold, but it is hard to think of one more pressing than climate change

The region is one of the most water-stressed on Earth, and Kazakhstan in particular has been showing the strain of late.

The world’s ninth-largest country by territory depends on rivers that rise in other countries for much of its water.

The water levels of rivers like the Ural, which flows from Russia, and the Irtysh, which is downstream of China, have been falling in recent years.

Reduced flows from Russia’s Volga and the Ural into the Caspian Sea, meanwhile, have seen the volume of the world’s largest inland body of water threaten a repeat of the Aral Sea disaster.

Expansion of industry and agriculture in these upstream countries are exacerbating weaker inflows at the sources of the rivers.

But Astana has little leverage over Beijing, and its relations with Russia have grown testy over the Kazakh government’s neutrality on Ukraine.

Instead, this month has shown how relations over water might deepen tensions inside the region, as a border traffic jam grew up on Kyrgyzstan’s side of the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border soon after Kyrgyzstan announced there was no water left in a reservoir feeding farmland in southern Kazakhstan.

Kyrgyzstan said that it has fulfilled its water-sharing agreement with Kazakhstan, although Kazakh authorities tried to negotiate for more until the very last as crops in the fertile Jambyl Province failed during a hot, dry summer.

Vadim Ni, the chairman of the board of the Social Ecological Fund, argued that governments of the region would have to make difficult choices and abandon the business-as-usual model in a warming world.

“Either there is no water or there is progressively less water, and officials are demanding to sow more land, and sow land with thirstier crops because they are more profitable. There is no understanding that there is not enough water both upstream and downstream,” Ni complained.

And in an authoritarian analogy for the region’s environmental woes, Ni argued that climate change will “discriminate against, persecute, and even torture” the people of Central Asia if governments and societies are unable to forge a common and sustainable response to the problem.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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