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Qishloq Ovozi

Independence Day approaching in Uzbekistan can mean only one thing -- police sweeps!

Uzbekistan is celebrating Independence Day on September 1. There is always much to do ahead of this occasion, including a perennial ingredient in Uzbekistan's preparations: security sweeps across the country.

This year authorities in Samarkand, President Islam Karimov's native region, set a new standard. According to the Samarkandsky Vestnik website, provincial Interior Ministry forces, with quite a bit of unofficial help, have ensured Independence Day celebrations will take place without incident.

The article by Asliddin Ergashev, senior inspector at the Samarkand regional interior directorate's department for protection of human rights and legal support, says that as of August 20 inspections had taken place in "more than 700,000 various facilities, including 3,014 multistory residential buildings, 586,035 courtyards, 13,108 firms and organizations, 85 hotels, 1,851 educational facilities, 1,036 cafes and restaurants, 15,799 trade and other units, over 17,000 other facilities, 110 dormitories, [and] more than 15 very important facilities."

A Herculean task considering only some 1,500 police officers were reportedly involved.

But they did have help, the article says, from "nearly 4,000 representatives of public organizations, such as the public charity Mahalla and the public youth movement Kamolot."

These two organizations are foundations of the Uzbek government's ability to keep control over the country.

Mahalla, which simply means "neighborhood" or "community" in Uzbek, is the government's watchdog organization in villages, towns, and cities throughout the country. The government selects locals to keep an eye on events in their communities and inform officials of suspicious activities.

Kamolot is indeed a "youth movement" but these young people are also supporters of the government, ultrapatriots even, forming an organization not unlike the Komsomol organization of the Soviet era. Kamolot has undertaken civic work, bringing aid to citizens hit by natural disasters, spreading the word about inoculation campaigns, and providing extra eyes to help border guards keep watch on Uzbekistan's frontiers.

All voluntarily, of course.

The Samarkandsky Vestnik report mentions, "As part of operational preventive measures, more than 4,000 meetings were also held at neighborhoods, organizations, and firms of the region to raise vigilance."

The efforts paid off, according to the article. "More than 20,000 violations were uncovered and administrative sanctions were imposed on those responsible for the shortcomings," it said, adding that "more than 3,000 cases of violation of the passport regime" were revealed.

The police and their helpers did not stop there. "During the raids, more than 400 cases of drinking alcohol in public places were prevented. More than 100 people who had been on the wanted list were detained and six citizens who had been previously missing were found."

Unfortunately, the local official did not elaborate on the six "previously missing" citizens, so I have no idea what that was all about.

What seems clear is that Independence Day celebrations will be orderly but perhaps not much fun for the people in the Samarkand region.

Kazakh officials are now talking about a period of "austerity," when just a few weeks back they were bidding to host the Winter Olympics.

When the price of oil started falling and Russia's economy began to weaken in 2014, it was clear the five Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- would face economic difficulties.

The economies of the five sputtered along as the effects slowly set in across the region. But Kazakhstan's recent decision to devalue its national currency, coupled with the sudden downturn in China's economy, herald the start of the bad economic times the region has been dreading.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel to review the situation now and consider how bad, and how long, the situation might become and what that might mean to the Central Asian regimes.

Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the discussion. Participating were Dr. Luca Anceschi, professor of Central Asian studies at Glasgow University; Paolo Sorbello, deputy editor and analyst at the Conway Bulletin; and I chimed in with a few comments.

Anceschi summed up the situation aptly: "I think this is probably the worst possible scenario for Central Asia because last year we had the crisis of the ruble, which of course impacted Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan but more so Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, who actually have a big number of migrants in Russia. So financial crisis in Russia, monetary crisis in Russia in turn hit the real economy back home because those migrants were not sending home the same amount of remittances that they used to, whereas this year the crisis hit the big producers of commodities, so now the other side of Central Asia."

So no one in Central Asia is escaping this.

The panelists noted the turn of events in August seemed to indicate the governments in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan were not prepared for the new realities.

Sorbello said in Kazakhstan's case it appeared the authorities "were not expecting a crisis after all the projects [that] were planned," as part of the ambitious Nurly Zhol economic program President Nursultan Nazarbaev unveiled in November 2014.

Turkmenistan also was forging ahead with huge projects that will cost billions of dollars -- major overhauls and renovation of Caspian port facilities in Turkmenbashi City and billions more on construction of facilities for the Fifth Asian Indoor Games Turkmenistan is hosting in 2017. But with the price of Turkmenistan's main and almost only export, natural gas, likely to be a mere 30 percent of its value less than two years ago, it's unclear how the country can afford these projects at the moment.

The economic situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. In terms of hydrocarbon exports, Iran's expected reentry into the world oil and gas market should keep prices for both these fossil fuels low for at least a decade. There is also shale oil to consider, since estimates put the break-even production mark for this new energy source at $60 per barrel. Once oil rises above that mark production of shale oil will be ramped up again, and to understand what that would mean look up "Venezuela" and "Orinoco oil."

China has become the "central banker" of Central Asia in recent years, investing billions into pipelines and transportation infrastructure improvements. And China has become a major customer for Kazakhstan's oil and Turkmenistan's gas. The Central Asian states have become heavily dependent on, and heavily in debt to China. But China's days of big spending in Central Asia appear to be numbered for the near future.

The remittance-dependent countries also have little reason to believe the economies of Russia or Kazakhstan will improve much in the coming years, which presents a double problem since besides the reduction in money coming from abroad, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan also face the return of migrant laborers who will small prospect of finding employment back home.

Cracks Start To Show

That thought brought the panelists to another matter, possibly the most important: the damage this economic crisis will do the Central Asian regimes. As Sorbello noted, officials in Kazakhstan are now talking about a period of "austerity" when just a few weeks back they were bidding to host the Winter Olympic Games and promising they had the money to build all the facilities needed. Plans to host EXPO-2017 are moving forward but new housing and other social programs have been suspended.

Anceschi said Turkmenistan's dreams of becoming a second Kuwait "are simply vanishing" and pointed out that earlier this year the government cut subsidies for gas and electricity that have existed since independence and oil workers in Lebap had even gone on strike, something unheard of in Turkmenistan.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has already had to break a promise to increase wages and pensions.

Expressions of discontent are far more probable now than they were just a year ago and it is unclear how much worse the situation will get and how long it will last.

These topics and others were discussed in greater depth by the panel. You can listen to the recording here:

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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. Content will draw 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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