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Qishloq Ovozi

There is an effort under way in Kyrgyzstan to place some regulations on marriages performed by mullahs to hold the religious figures responsible for marriages that should not have been allowed under the law.

It is a sensitive issue given that the line between mosque and state is being crossed and the ceremony in question has existed as long as Islam has been in the region.

The ceremony is called “nikah” (nike in Kyrgyz), and two members of Kyrgyzstan's parliament have introduced legislation that would give the local mullahs, or others (we’ll get to that soon), regulations to follow before they pronounce a couple man and wife.

Underage marriage is a problem in Central Asia despite legislation that sets a minimum age to be eligible for matrimony and requires the official registration of the union with the authorities. All the same, in the tight-knit communities of the region many marriages are still arranged by parents and performed by the local mullah. Often there is no documentation of such a marriage.

One of the parliamentarians raising the issue is Elmira Zhumalieva (from the Kyrgyzstan Party). She is a co-author of a bill that would require all marriages to be registered first with authorities. Any couple appearing before a mullah with a request for a religious wedding ceremony would have to have the appropriate forms documenting their civil union.

Zhumalieva spokes with RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk.

“There are instances when girls 15 or 16 years old are married off [by] going through the nikah ceremony. Girls at this age are not mature enough for marriage,” Zhumalieva explained, adding that "every now and again the girls cannot resist the will of parents and after getting married they commit suicide.”

Aida Salyanova, parliamentarian and former prosecutor-general
Aida Salyanova, parliamentarian and former prosecutor-general

Zhumalieva and her co-author, Aida Salyanova (from the Ata-Meken Party), propose that “The mullah who performs the nikah ceremony must be held accountable.” According to their draft bill, that means the mullah must first have proof the couple -- any couple regardless of age -- coming to him have already “registered their marriage at a state agency.” If not, the mullah faces three to five years in jail.

Azattyk interviewed a woman named Adalat from the southern Nookat region who has been married three times, never once registering the marriages with the authorities.

“The first time I was married I was 14. At that time the parents arranged it. Father ignored my arguments, that I was too young, and my husband was much older than me,” Adalat recalled. “After two years we got divorced.”

Her father died and Adalat married a second time “of my own desire, to a man with three children, a marriage that also was not officially registered.”

After Adalat gave birth to a daughter, her husband went back to his first wife. “The third time I married and had two children, after that my husband told me I was ‘ugly’ and left, despite my pleading not to leave me, that I had no way of feeding the children and my pensioner mother.”

Since none of Adalat’s marriages was ever officially registered she had no legal basis to claim anything from any of her three ex-husbands.

Azattyk contacted Chinara Yrysbaeva, the legal representative at the Nookat mayor’s office. Yrysbaeva said there were many cases like Adalat’s in the district. Yrysbaeva said when these divorced wives come to officials seeking alimony or child support there is nothing officials can do since their marriages were never officially registered.

These are problems that go beyond just the marriage of underage girls, as Adalat’s experience shows.

But Baktiyar Toktagaziev from the Spiritual Department of Kyrgyzstan’s Muslims told Azattyk the legislation Zhumalieva and Salyanova are proposing needs to be carefully reviewed and studied.

“What kind of responsibility can a mullah have in this matter?” Toktagaziev asked. “If young women ask for him to perform the nikah ceremony, how can [the mullah] be held responsible?”

Toktagaziev said: “A mullah performs nikah, fulfilling his duties, and with that his part ends.”

Toktagaziev said his department was not against the legislation and pointed out that mullahs are supposed to ask the ages of the people getting married and inquire if they consented to the marriage. He said in order to make mullahs responsible under the law, the status of a mullah would have to be raised to that of a state official.

Azattyk also spoke with Jamal Frontbek kyzy, the head of the Muslim women’s organization Mutakallim. Frontbek kyzy said she believes the proposed legislation is a good idea, though she questioned whether the authors of the bill understand the depths of the problem.

Frontbek kyzy did object to holding only the mullah responsible. She said one of the biggest problems with focusing on the mullah is that “any person can perform a nikah just by reading namaz and no one has the power to prevent this.”

According to Azattyk, this is true. Preferably someone reading the relevant holy passages for nikah has at least made the hajj, but this is not essential.

Nikah is actually becoming more popular in Kyrgyzstan and there are solid reasons for that.

The first is simply that young people in Kyrgyzstan are becoming more religious and wish to have a religious ceremony that formalizes their wedding.

For people far from the cities, where the marriage registration bureaus are located, the trips back-and-forth to complete all the paperwork needed for a marriage can be daunting. Many therefore choose to simply have the nikah ceremony performed in their town or village.

For people in the cities, the long process of registering the marriage, which involves much waiting in line, is also inconvenient.

And it goes without saying that those who marry a second, third, or even fourth wife can only get married through nikah.

But as Azattyk has reported, the consequences for women without official marriage documents can be devastating if one day their husband abandons them.

And obtaining official documents provides protection for underage girls.

It is a contest between state and religion and, as Frontbek kyzy noted, this idea of forcing responsibilities on mullahs has come up before but in the end not been instituted.

Azattyk’s Gulaiym Ashakeeva contributed to this report, which was based on material from Ashakeeva, Kanymgul Elkeeva, and Eleonora Beyshenbek kyzy
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov takes part in the opening ceremony of the East-West pipeline at the Belek compressor station, some 500 kilometers northwest of Ashgabat, on December 23.

Russia appears to be practicing a bit of "divide-and-conquer" politics in Central Asia, and state-owned Gazprom is spearheading the campaign.

On January 4, Russia's main news agencies quoted a "source" within Gazprom Export, the Gazprom wing charged with handling gas imports from other countries, saying Russia would not be importing any gas from Turkmenistan this year. Shortly after, those same Russian news agencies quoted what they said was the same source saying a new deal had been reached for gas supplies from Uzbekistan.

At the time, the "source" provided no further details. He or she did not need to; the reasons seem clear enough.

Turkmenistan has been a thorn in the Kremlin's side for many years now. Turkmenistan downgraded its participation in the CIS to "associate" status a decade ago and Ashgabat does not participate in any of the Russian-led intra-CIS groupings, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

More recently, Turkmenistan, which has the world's fourth-largest gas reserves, has been pushing to open new export routes, including one to Europe that would put Turkmen gas in direct competition with Russian gas.

And all this happened as Turkmenistan continued to sell gas to Russia. In fact, not so long ago Russia was Turkmenistan's primary gas customer, buying some 45 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas in 2008.

That amount has dwindled, and Gazprom announced at the start of 2015 it would purchase only 4 bcm of Turkmen gas, not the 10 bcm the Russian company bought in 2014. Ashgabat complained bitterly about the 2015 reduction and later accused Russia of failing to pay for gas it received.

Small wonder that Gazprom, already with more of its own gas than it can sell, has now canceled all purchases of Turkmen gas.

But at the Qishloq, we think there is more to this development than just gas purchases.

As mentioned, the Gazprom Export "source" said the company would continue to buy gas from Turkmenistan's neighbor Uzbekistan. In 2015, Gazprom also reduced the amount of gas it bought from Uzbekistan, from 4 bcm in 2014 to 1 bcm.

Gazprom chief Aleksei Miller confirmed a new agreement for gas purchases from Uzbekistan on January 5 and sources in his company said Gazprom would buy at least 3.1 bcm from Uzbekistan this year.

Uzbekistan's ties with Russia are not much better than Turkmenistan's ties with the former colonial master, and like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan is not a member of the CSTO or EEU.

Not surprisingly, the Turkmen and Uzbek leaders have seen in recent years they share much common ground and the relationship between the two countries is probably the best it's been since 1991 independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And not only has that left Russia with little influence in either country, it is an example of how some former Soviet republics in Central Asia can do without Moscow's help, the sort of example the Kremlin would rather not see.

By rejecting any more purchases of Turkmen gas while at the same increasing the amount of Uzbek gas, Gazprom is creating a rift between the two Central Asian countries.

Turkmenistan only has two other customers for its gas at the present -- China and Iran -- and the Turkmen economy is beginning to show strains from lower prices of gas on world markets. It is a symbolic slap in Ashgabat's face that Turkmenistan will not be selling even modest amounts of gas to Russia, and instead that revenue will be going to Turkmenistan's neighbor.

There is more subtext here. Although Uzbek-Russian ties have never been great since the fall of the Soviet Union, Tashkent has allowed Gazprom and Russian company LUKoil to explore and develop gas and oil fields in Uzbekistan. This makes it difficult for Gazprom to cut ties totally with Uzbekistan. In fact, the gas Gazprom said it will buy from Uzbekistan is probably coming from gas fields Gazprom is developing.

Ashgabat has never allowed Russian companies to develop the huge onshore fields in Turkmenistan. The only company that has such a contract is the China National Petroleum Corporation. That makes it easy for Gazprom to cut ties with Turkmenistan.

There is one more point worth considering when reviewing Russia's refusal to buy Turkmen gas, and it has nothing to do with hydrocarbons.

On January 3, the Russian news agency Interfax reported, Aleksandr Sternik, identified as the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Third CIS Department, announced Russia is ready to assist Turkmenistan with security problems along the Turkmen-Afghan border. Sternik said, "Russia, Turkmenistan's neighbors, its partners in the CIS have been monitoring with friendly attention the efforts of Turkmen friends to strengthen what actually is our common southern borders." (Qishloq Ovozi has reported on these security problems, for instance, here, here, and here.)

Ashgabat denies there is any security problem along the Turkmen border with Afghanistan.

Sternik also mentioned that along the Turkmen-Afghan border "more resources are needed for solid protection than, for instance, on the Uzbek-Afghan border." Again, Russia draws a distinction between the situations in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Gazprom's January 4 announcements were a low-cost move that could pay big political dividends for the Kremlin in its effort to restore some of the lost Russian influence in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

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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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