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Qishloq Ovozi

Turkmenistan is hosting the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in September, but it is not an event Turkmenistan's people are likely to remember fondly.

With the government reportedly scrambling to cover the expense of hosting an international sporting event and really nowhere else to turn for funds, the authorities are said to be putting the squeeze on citizens.

In the latest development, correspondents from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, report rising prices for basic foods, particularly dairy products.

There is no shortage of food at the moment in Turkmenistan, as was true at the end of 2016.

But Azatlyk correspondents report that the increases are affecting virtually all stores -- state and private -- domestic products and imports, and owners -- local or foreign. The price of a 200-gram container of sour cream, for example, went from 5 manats (3.5 manat = $1 at official rate) to 6 manats, and cheese products rose from 7-8 manats to 9-10 manats for about 200 grams.

In the capital, Ashgabat, prices for some essential foods have risen by as much as 50 percent since the start of the year.

One Ashgabat merchant, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that an "order came from above" to raise prices on certain goods by up to 20 percent. The same merchant said that state officials now visit his shop to check his sales records and extract that 20 percent markup as the state's share. Officially, the source said, the money hands over to officials is labeled a "voluntary donation." The merchant said he was told the funds were to be used in connection with the games.

Many workers in Turkmenistan, including state employees, are already familiar with "voluntary donations." For months now, the state has been taking money out of their monthly paychecks, declaring it also to be a "voluntary donation." In some cases, according to Azatlyk correspondents, up to 50 percent of teachers' and medical workers' monthly wages were being withheld.

A Turkmen opposition website recently alleged that some 15 to 20 percent of the salaries of workers in the gas and oil sector will be taken by the state from April until September to pay for the games.

The estimated cost of constructing the facilities and other infrastructure for the games -- including a monorail -- is some $5.5 billion. That does not include the cost of services or remuneration for employees and staff working at the events (though they might end up being conscripted, the way things are going). Add to that the expense of hiring a yet-to-be-announced special entertainer to perform at the opening ceremonies.

And there is also security. Turkmenistan's security service is active all the time. But this international sports event will bring the largest influx of foreigners the country has ever seen, and the Turkmen government is highly suspicious of foreigners. One expects that every member of every law enforcement and security agency will be on duty during the games, most of them in Ashgabat. That should be an extra expense.

Let's put this in perspective. Turkmenistan's leading trade partner is China, and China's ambassador to Turkmenistan, Sun Weidong, just said in an interview in January that bilateral trade for the first 11 months of 2016 was $5.4 billion.

In 2010, when Turkmenistan was named as host for these 2017 Games, the country's economic future looked very promising. Turkmenistan had just been exporting more than 40 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas to Russia in 2008; and despite pricing and other disputes with Gazprom in 2010, Ashgabat had good reason to believe those exports, at those volumes, would resume eventually. Turkmenistan exported somewhere between 6 and 8 bcm to Iran annually. And the first of four planned gas pipelines to China had just been launched at the end of 2009.

The situation is very different in 2017. Russia and Iran, at least for the moment, are no longer buying Turkmenistan's gas. It looks like China will buy only half the amount of gas planned a few years ago. And the price of gas is far less than Turkmen authorities predicted not so long ago.

The people of Turkmenistan never played a role in the decision to host the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games; the government campaigned for it as a prestige project.

If the economic situation were more favorable, the games would probably have very little influence on the lives of Turkmenistan's people. As it turns out, it is impossible for Turkmenistan's people to ignore the upcoming sporting event; they're helping pay for it.

And it isn't over yet for the Turkmen public. The official website for the games says there are 600,000 tickets on sale for the events, and authorities will no doubt wish for all those seats to be filled.

Azatlyk Director Farruh Yusupov contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
A screengrab from a video purportedly showing Uyghurs training somewhere in the Middle East and making threats against China.

Beijing's security cooperation with the Central Asian states is likely to grow significantly stronger in the coming months.

The militant group Islamic State (IS) recently released a video purportedly showing Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim group living for centuries in an area that is now the western part of China, training somewhere in the Middle East. One Uyghur speaks in the video, making threats against China.

It was not the first time Uyghurs fighting in Islamic extremist groups threatened China, but this recent video certainly got the attention of the Chinese government.

President Xi Jinping called on March 10 for a "great wall of iron" to protect Xinjiang.

On the western side of Xinjiang, beyond this "iron wall," is Central Asia.

A simplified view of China's and Russia's engagement in Central Asia would be that China is the banker, having spent, invested, or loaned governments in Central Asia tens of billions of dollars just in recent years; while Russia, with military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and still the major supplier of weapons to all five former Soviet republics, is the regional policeman.

There is a lot of overlap here, certainly.

Military Aid

For nearly 20 years now, China has been providing military assistance to the Central Asian states.

Already in November 1999, China gave Kyrgyzstan's army clothing for troops. In 2002, China gave Kazakhstan $3 million in military equipment. China has been supplying uniforms, vehicles, and military equipment to Tajikistan's armed forces since at least as far back as 2003.

Much more recently, Turkmenistan's state television aired brief footage on March 30, 2016, that showed Chinese-made air-defense systems as part of Ashgabat's growing array of weapons. Uzbekistan is rumored to have purchased the same system and also military drones from China.

China is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and has participated in military counterterrorism exercises with troops from other SCO countries, notably Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan (Uzbekistan usually does not send troops to such drills).

China has also conducted bilateral exercises with individual Central Asian countries; the first was with Kyrgyz forces in October 2002. Most recently, Chinese troops trained with Tajik troops along Tajikistan's eastern border with Afghanistan in October 2016.

Joint Operations

Chinese and Tajik forces have gone beyond exercises and conducted joint counternarcotics operations along the Tajik-Afghan border, in some cases up to 200 kilometers away from the Chinese border.

Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and China all meet in the high plateau of the Wakhan Corridor and there have been reports that China has troops, or at least police, in the Afghan section of this narrow strip of territory.

China admits that Chinese and Afghan police have conducted "law enforcement operations in border areas to fight terrorism" but denies the Chinese military is involved.

And then there is other recent news that China has contracted the services of the Frontier Services Group (FSG). FSG executive chairman Eric Prince told the Chinese newspaper Global Times that his firm would be helping China with security and operational tasks in the northwest and southeast corridors of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative.

Prince is the founder of the private security company Blackwater -- now called Academi -- which was involved in the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq that started in 2003. In the interview with the Global Times, Prince said FSG would establish an operations base in Xinjiang for the Northwest corridor. He said, "The Northwest corridor includes the countries of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, [and] Afghanistan…"

Of course, all this happened before the recent IS Uyghur video surfaced.

Uyghurs Under Pressure

Since the video appeared, Chinese authorities have increased their pressure on the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Large military parades were conducted in March in major cities in Xinjiang as a reminder of Chinese strength.

This comes after several years of increasing restrictions on Uyghurs that include bans on women dressing in burqas or other Islamic clothing or men having beards. This despite the fact that Uyghur resistance to Chinese rule arguably has more to do with nationalism and is based on fears Uyghur culture is being extinguished by Han Chinese policies.

Even the Chinese government has been reluctant to equate the Uyghur struggle with Islam. Beijing has preferred to refer to problems in Xinjiang as attempted "separatism" but increasingly the focus of Chinese efforts in Xinjiang has been on curtailing the Uyghurs' religious practices.

Which brings us back to Central Asia, because in the eyes of policy-makers in Beijing, Central Asia is the most likely place for Islamic extremists or their ideas to make their way into Xinjiang.

Ultimate Guarantor

Beijing is likely content to allow Russia to be Central Asia's ultimate guarantor of security, but, as has been seen, that does not mean Chinese authorities would withhold military assistance to Central Asian governments.

And while China won't replace Russia in the security equation in Central Asia, Beijing might replace Washington. The United States has provided nonlethal aid to Central Asian governments, such as all-terrain vehicles and in the case of Uzbekistan, even mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles.

China could provide similar equipment, and the negotiating process for Central Asian governments to obtain such military hardware from China is probably now very short. It would be difficult to imagine China would delay any help that would bolster Central Asia's efforts toward keeping vestiges of Islamic extremism at bay and thus off of China's western doorstep.

Since most, if not all, of the military aid that the United States provides Central Asia is simply given free, Central Asian governments are not likely to refuse any of it. But we wouldn't be surprised at the Qishloq if a far greater quantity of Chinese-made military vehicles, equipment, and maybe more starts appearing in the region soon.

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. 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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