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Qishloq Ovozi

An Almaty resident protests in an effort to convince Kazakh authorities to help relatives detained in China’s western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. (file photo)

2019 was a momentous year of events and change in Central Asia. Here's a look at four of the most important issues reverberating in the region: the five countries and their relations with China, the perennial threat of Islamic terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, how governments can impede the flow of information by controlling the Internet, and the invasion of facial recognition technology into the region.

China-Central Asian Relations Reversing Course?

A crowd of supporters gathered outside a district courthouse in Kazakhstan’s southeastern Almaty Province on December 25 to happily greet five men who had just been freed from custody after being sentenced to probation.

The Kazakhs were accused of hooliganism for their part in a fight with Chinese road-construction workers in early October that left several Chinese workers injured.

Chinese General Liu Yazhou was widely quoted as saying that 'Central Asia is the thickest piece of cake given to modern China by the heavens.'"


The five Kazakhs faced up to three years in prison, and just a few years ago they might have been handed such sentences. But not this time.

As 2019 showed, Central Asian views toward China seem to be "a-changin'."

For most of the past 20 years, many people in Central Asia have equated China with jobs and money. China signed its first big contract with Kazakhstan in 1997 to build a pipeline to bring oil from western Kazakhstan to China. Many contracts followed -- not just between China and Kazakhstan, but also with the other four Central Asian countries.

When the global economic crisis hit in 2008, China -- the neighboring giant -- was still flush with cash and anxious to invest, particularly in the region's abundant energy resources that could continue to fuel China’s unbridled economic expansion.

James Nixey of Chatham House told RFE/RL in 2010 that China viewed Central Asia as “a quarry [from which] to extract hydrocarbons."

In January 2011, Chinese General Liu Yazhou echoed that comment when he was widely quoted saying that "Central Asia is the thickest piece of cake given to modern China by the heavens."

Getting this thick slice of cake back to China has required substantial Chinese investment in Central Asia, much of it loans that some of those governments will be hard-pressed to repay.

Additionally, there is the matter of Chinese workers in Central Asia.

Central Asia’s people have a long historical experience with the Chinese, but for most of the 20th century -- when Central Asia was part of the Soviet Union -- there was no contact due to the sealed border. So the thousands of Chinese workers employed throughout Central Asia must seem like an invasion to many.

And combined with earlier memories in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- where China renegotiated the post-Soviet borders and all three Central Asian states ceded land to China -- the presence of so many Chinese in Central Asia fuels speculation that Beijing may be looking to further expand China’s borders.

Protests in Kazakhstan in April and May 2016 over planned land privatization were sparked by rumors that the Chinese would buy up Kazakh land.

The fight among road-construction workers in Kazakhstan in October was not the biggest clash between locals and Chinese workers in Central Asia during 2019.

In early August, a group of several hundred residents of Kyrgyzstan’s northern Naryn Province attacked Chinese workers from the Zhong Ji Mining Company. At least 47 Chinese workers were injured.

And Central Asian debt to China is a problem people are increasingly aware of, particularly in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Nearly half of Kyrgyzstan’s external debt and more than 35 percent of Tajikistan’s is owed to China.

In Kyrgyzstan’s case, the issue has received added attention due to the fiasco over the repair and upgrade of the thermal power plant that powers the capital, Bishkek.

China provided some $386 million for the work, but in January 2018 the plant broke down just months after operations resumed. A subsequent investigation determined nearly $100 million of the invested money had been siphoned off. And Kyrgyzstan may have to eventually pay China some $493 million to cover their debt.

In Tajikistan’s case, the $331 million China’s Eximbank loaned to build a thermal power plant in Dushanbe is being paid off, according to a November report, by granting Chinese companies mining rights to two gold deposits that some estimate contain 64 tons of gold.

Anti-Chinese sentiment is further stoked in Central Asia by Beijing’s policies toward Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) -- but has been especially noticeable in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The reported internment of some 1 million Muslims in XUAR puts the Kazakh and Kyrgyz governments in a difficult position.

When the Chinese began detaining and incarcerating ethnic Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim group related to Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, the Kazakh and Kyrgyz governments avoided commenting.

WATCH: Chinese 'Deradicalization' Camps: Education Or Persecution?​ (originally published January 2019)

Chinese 'Deradicalization' Camps: Education Or Persecution?
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But when ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz who had moved from Xinjiang to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and become citizens were detained and put in the so-called “reeducation camps” during visits to Xinjiang, stories of the horrific actions by the Chinese spread.

Despite the growing resentment against China in Kyrgyzstan, President Sooronbai Jeenbekov warned several times during 2019 that he would not allow anyone in the country to spoil relations with China over the issue.

In Kazakhstan, when President Nursultan Nazarbaev stepped down from office in March 2019 after more than 27 years as the country’s only president, opposition arose swiftly against his handpicked successor, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev.

Youth groups and more established opposition organizations criticized the transfer of power and, in the months that followed, their list of complaints included scaling back ties with China and ceasing to kowtow to Beijing over the Xinjiang issue.

The number of ethnic Kazakhs fleeing from Xinjiang to Kazakhstan is still low but increasing, with many telling of the horrors they or relatives have experienced at the reeducation camps. Beijing has demanded such people be extradited, and it is a dilemma that Central Asia countries -- particularly Kazakhstan -- are struggling with.

Kazakhstan’s government most keenly feels the growing hostility of its population toward China, but it is spreading through Central Asia as many see their government officials getting rich off of Chinese money while the people prepare to pay off billions of dollars that will be owed for decades to a country that is trying to extinguish the culture of its Muslims.

The Perennial Threat Of Terrorism In Central Asia

The threat of terrorism has hung over Central Asia since the days of independence in the early 1990s. Central Asia’s border with Afghanistan spans more than 2,000 kilometers and, as long as Afghanistan is at war, there will be concern inside Central Asia -- and warnings from outside the region -- about the threat of terrorism.

There were no terrorist attacks in Central Asia in 2019, unless one accepts the Tajik government’s widely discredited account of a November 6, 2019, attack on its southwestern Ishkobod border post near Afghanistan.

Tajik officials say militants from the extremist Islamic State (IS) terrorist group crossed from Afghanistan’s Kunduz Province into Tajikistan specifically to carry out acts of terror. IS later claimed responsibility for the attack that left at least one Tajik policeman and border guard dead (though later reports claimed at least five more border guards were killed) as well as 15 of the 20 attackers.

Information that subsequently emerged, such as the fact that women and children had participated in the attack, cast much doubt on an IS link.

But for the many parties who see militants behind practically every rock on the Afghan side of the border, the Tajik government’s version of events just proved what they have been warning about. And in the case of Russia and China, this meant offering or forcing their help on Central Asia wherever possible.

China captured the security news in Central Asia in February 2019 when it was revealed that Beijing had established a military facility in the remote, high mountains of far eastern Tajikistan, not far from the Chinese and Afghan borders. Since the start of this decade there have been reports about Chinese personnel from anti-narcotics and other state agencies cooperating with Tajik border guards -- sometimes including raids into Afghan territory -- but The Washington Post report was the first confirmation that China had a base in Tajikistan, which the report said had been operational for three or four years.

Neither the Chinese nor Tajik governments have confirmed the presence of the base. But the report of it being in Tajikistan came after sightings of troops from China’s People's Armed Police in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, just south of the base in Tajikistan.

China is worried that Uyghurs who fled to Middle Eastern conflict zones to join extremist groups might attempt to return to XUAR via the remote mountain passes where Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and China meet.

This concern led China to form a new security group with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan in 2016, and Beijing has been eager to help all Central Asian states with counterterrorism measures, seeing the region as the bulwark against terrorism reaching its borders.

Russia sees Central Asia in similar terms.

The Russian government and military officials continued to remind the Central Asian states throughout 2019 of the dangers they face from militants in Afghanistan.

Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Aleksandr Mantysky said in February 2019, “[IS] is trying to increase the number of its militants operating in the country's north, including on the borders with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, in order to use the north as a foothold for crossing into Central Asian states.” He added that there were anywhere from 3,500 to 10,000 IS fighters in Afghanistan. In December 2019, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said IS was preparing to use northern Afghanistan as a staging area for operations in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

There were at least a dozen similar warnings from Russian officials between Mantysky and Petrushev’s comments during 2019, as well as many promises of support for further strengthening Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan from Russian officials, especially those in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In addition to the fact that Russia’s 201st Division remains deployed in Tajikistan.

Kyrgyzstan, also a CSTO member that hosts a Russian military base, received similar Russian warnings and pledges of support during 2019.

With the United States and other foreign forces in Afghanistan currently seeking a way to end their military presence there, the Central Asian states are likely to continue to gravitate closer to Russia and China to ensure their own security against the real -- or imagined -- threat of Islamic terrorism coming from Afghanistan.

Kyrgyz Police Embrace Chinese Face-Recognition Technology
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Smile, You’re On Candid Camera!

In October 2019, residents of Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan, were given an opportunity to pay for their rides on public buses using a new technology that unnerved many people.

Passengers boarding buses in Nur-Sultan were given the opportunity to register with a company called FacePay and use the company’s facial-recognition system to pay their fare rather than using cash or public transport cards.

FacePay advertised the advantages of registering with its system -- no need for cash and an easy way to pay -- but some saw it as a first step by the government to monitor the movement and activities of its citizens.

Facial-recognition cameras are causing controversy around the globe, all the more so since China developed such systems to monitor the activities of its people, particularly in Xinjiang.

Chinese Facial Recognition Tech Rolls Out On Kazakh Buses
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The system in use in Nur-Sultan is the product of the Chinese company HikVision, which the U.S. government has blacklisted for its role in the repression of Muslims in Xinjiang.

Kazakhstan is developing its own facial-recognition technology.

The Sergek video-surveillance system has been in operation in Nur-Sultan since 2018 with the stated purpose of monitoring road traffic.

But Sergek reportedly uses equipment that came from Dahua Technology, another Chinese company the U.S. government has blacklisted.

But facial recognition and video-monitoring systems are not only a concern in Kazakhstan.

An article in Foreign Policy in November noted that "Kyrgyzstan opened a new police command center in its capital, Bishkek, putting its new facial-recognition cameras to work." The report said the technology "was supplied free of charge by the China National Electronics Import and Export Corporation, a company currently sanctioned by the United States."

Reports note that projects for so-called "smart cities" in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan also have facial recognition and video surveillance as a central feature.

Although Turkmenistan is not mentioned in the reports, it would be fair to guess the government in Ashgabat -- which has long been obsessed with internal security -- has reached out to China for this technology, as it has for weapons and military equipment.

A September article in PONARS Eurasia summed up the dilemma, noting that "the systems are part of the 'smart city' and 'safe city' concepts that have been gaining popularity around the world as a response to rapid urbanization," relying on "digital technologies to improve urban life, but the tools also offer a structure to potentially expand authoritarian control over people and public places."

The Internet: How Much Is Enough?

Control of the Internet remained a major topic for governments in Central Asia in 2019.

There was the Turkmen way of dealing with potentially damaging articles or information, which remains to simply block almost everything. Tajikistan is not far behind Turkmenistan in this regard.

But in 2019, it was the policies of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that took the spotlight, for very different reasons.

As mentioned earlier, the formal change of presidents in Kazakhstan inspired some people to demonstrate for change.

An activist holds a placard reading "Internet Freedom--Freedom in Kazakhstan' against what she called the government’s attempt to restrict the freedom of Internet users, in Nur-Sultan in July.
An activist holds a placard reading "Internet Freedom--Freedom in Kazakhstan' against what she called the government’s attempt to restrict the freedom of Internet users, in Nur-Sultan in July.

The change provided the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) leader, fugitive former banker Mukhtar Ablyazov, to again take to social networks to call for protests against the government. The DVK was not the only group trying to use social networks to organize demonstrations.

Faced with this challenge to the succession plan, Kazakh authorities fought back, often detaining leaders of planned rallies ahead of time, blocking some websites, and severely slowing the Internet before and during demonstrations.

Rallies were planned on the May 9 holiday marking the end of World War II, but on that day the websites of RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service and local websites Vlast.kz, Holanews.kz, Informburo.kz, Exclusive.kz, Time.kz, and others were blocked.

The Internet freedom website NetBlocks.org reported Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Telegram, and several independent and petition sites were also blocked across Kazakhstan that day.

Kazakh Information Minister Dauren Abaev denied his ministry had anything to do with the Internet problem.

But NetBlocks.org reported "blocked access to online streaming services as well as totally cutting the Internet access for most users" on June 9, the day of the Kazakh presidential election, and said the blocks occurred during "reported detentions of journalists and political activists at demonstrations in Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent."

The situation was repeated several times after that, always during planned demonstrations. It was therefore hardly surprising that a renewed offer in July from state-controlled Qaznet Trust Network to register for a program that promised cybersecurity for users was met with skepticism.

Since Shavkat Mirziyoev took over as Uzbek president in late 2016, the government has been promoting the changes in the country that are, according to Uzbek authorities, making Uzbekistan an attractive place for investment and tourism.

In May, shortly after Kazakhstan blocked websites on the May 9 holiday, Uzbekistan announced it was unblocking access to dozens of what Reporters Without Borders called "long-censored news websites."

As 2019 drew to a close, many previously blocked websites were still accessible in Uzbekistan, though RFE/RL’s website remained blocked.

A shopper in Tashkent walks past a campaign poster for Uzbekistan's upcoming parliamentary elections on December 22.

Anyone expecting Uzbekistan's upcoming parliamentary elections to establish President Shavkat Mirziyoev's credentials as a reformer will probably be disappointed.

Uzbekistan's previous parliamentary elections were heavily staged events with predictable outcomes. The only competition between the parties registered for the vote was the battle to see which pro-government party could heap the most praise on the president and his policies during the campaign.

Though effusive praise for Mirziyoev has not been as obvious in public as it was for his predecessor -- the authoritarian Islam Karimov -- in previous parliamentary election campaigns when Mirziyoev served as Karimov's prime minister, the main fundamental flaw remains: all parties are pro-president and their candidates are running for seats in a parliament that is a rubber-stamping body.

But that doesn't mean there is no significance to these elections.

High Expectations

If some people yawned at the August 26 announcement from Uzbekistan's Central Election Commission that set December 22 as the date for parliamentary elections, it would be difficult to blame them.

Arguably, the most memorable moment from Uzbekistan's elections was also illustrative of any election the country has held since it gained independence in 1991.

In the January 2000 presidential election, Karimov, the country's first president, was running for a second term in office. He had won the December 1991 presidential election, then pushed through a national referendum in March 1995 that extended his term and kept him in power until 2000.

His opponent in 2000 was Abdul Hafiz Jalolov, chairman of the People's Democratic Party (HDP), formerly the Communist Party during the Soviet era and, until mere months before the election, Karimov's party as well.

All five of the political parties registered at that time voiced public support for Karimov, but he accepted a nomination to be the candidate of the Fidokorlar (Self-Sacrificers) Party, which was founded in 1998.

On election day, Jalolov emerged from the polling station and announced: "I make no secret of the fact that I voted for Karimov."

Wielding The Rubber Stamp

The country's previous parliamentary elections have all been practically nonevents.

In the December 1994 parliamentary elections, when a 250-seat unicameral parliament replaced the communist-era Supreme Soviet, the HDP took 69 seats, the new Adolat (Justice) Social Democratic party garnered 47 seats, Watan Taraqqiyoti (Progress of the Homeland) received 14 seats, and the Milli Tiklanish (National Revival) party, formed earlier in 1994, won seven seats.

The remainder of the mandates went to "local council nominees."

Uzbek deputies tend to just always agree with the president. (file photo)
Uzbek deputies tend to just always agree with the president. (file photo)

The HDP fell to just 49 seats in the 1999 elections and Karimov's new favorite, Fidokorlar, followed with 34 seats. Watan Taraqqiyoti, Adolat, and Milli Tiklanish split the remaining 41 seats.

Local council nominees took the most seats, 110, and independent candidates won 16 seats.

Watan Taraqqiyoti merged with Fidokorlar in April 2000, but this meant nothing as far as the work of parliament was concerned.

It was President Karimov who pointed out the obvious in a speech to parliament in April 2004. "[The political parties] do not have a solid, independent platform to the point where they differ little from one another."

Karimov took that opportunity to single out the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (LDPU) -- created in November 2003 -- and told them "not to compliment" other political parties, but rather criticize them.

The LDPU won the most seats in the parliamentary elections at the end of 2004: 41 of the seats available in a parliament that had been trimmed down to 120 members. Although local council candidates no longer appeared on the list of new deputies, independent candidates won 12 seats.

Late Uzbek President Islam Karimov (1938-2016)
Late Uzbek President Islam Karimov (1938-2016)

But there was no "criticism" of government policies from the LDPU or any of the other parties. Karimov had again extended his term in office in a January 2002 national referendum, and when his term limit came and passed in January 2007, no one in parliament or any of the registered political parties said anything. When Karimov finally announced he would run for a third term, no one in parliament or within the political parties pointed out that the constitution limits a president to two terms in office.

After a genuine opposition candidate for president emerged in 2007 (Sanjar Umarov of the Sunshine Coalition) and was subsequently hit with criminal charges that eventually forced him to flee the country, parliament adopted an amendment in 2008 that stated only candidates from registered parties could participate in the elections.

Senate member Mavjuda Rajabova appeared on state television in October 2009, saying there was no longer any need for independent candidates since "the majority of the population has been involved in the parties' activities."

There was not much initiative from the representatives of the four parties who sat in parliament (Fidokorlar merged with Milli Tiklanish in June 2008), something Karimov drew attention to in December 2008 when he spoke before parliament.

"After the merger of two political parties, Uzbekistan has four parties now," Karimov said. "I have a question for those who are sitting in this hall: Are you members of the political parties just for the sake of membership or for the sake of being their leaders? Why don't you demand on behalf of the parties to dismiss a governor? Don't you know that last year we passed a bill to give more power and rights to political parties?!"

That rebuke did nothing to convince parliament to become more active. The executive branch of government continued to propose all significant legislation and parliament simply served to adopt it.

But the parties did seem to finally heed Karimov's criticism about their similarity to one another and made some half-hearted attempts to try to show there were differences.

One example was a January 2011 article in the newspaper Golos Naroda (Voice of the People), which is run by the HDP. The article criticized the LDPU as "intensively using...methods of black PR rather than getting engaged in impartial and practical discussions" and "making statements based on assumptions, spreading groundless information, and trying to slander one's opponents." The article gave no specific examples of these things.

Change For The Sake Of Change

After the 2004 parliamentary elections, changes were passed that would change the unicameral parliament into a bicameral parliament starting with the 2009 vote. A popular vote would be conducted for 150 seats to the Oliy Majlis, the lower house of parliament.

Uzbekistan's Oliy Majlis building (file photo)
Uzbekistan's Oliy Majlis building (file photo)

Meanwhile, an electoral college made up of representatives from local councils in provinces across the country, the Karakalpak Autonomous Region, and the city of Tashkent, would select 84 members of the Senate with the president naming the final 16 seats.

Fifteen seats in the Oliy Majlis were reserved for members of the Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan that was created in August 2008 with the purpose of publicly opposing plans by neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to build massive hydropower plants on rivers that flowed into Uzbekistan.

Despite these changes and Karimov's criticism, there is little evidence the parties have convinced voters to switch to another party. The results of the 2009 and 2014 parliamentary elections are almost identical. The LDPU topped both elections, winning 53 seats in the 2009 poll and 52 seats in 2014. Milli Tiklanish took 31 seats in 2009 and improved to 36 seats in 2014, Adolat got 19 seats in 2009 and received 20 seats in the 2014 elections, whereas the fortunes of the HDP continued to dwindle as it won 32 seats in 2009 but dropped to 27 seats in 2014.

In March 2015, the LDPU and Milli Tiklanish formed a Bloc of Democratic Forces in parliament and the Adolat and HDP parties declared they were part of the parliamentary opposition. More than four years later, as this parliament's term comes to a close, it is still unclear what difference, if any, this made.

Looking ahead to the December 22 elections, one would suspect the LDPU will maintain its majority in parliament since Mirziyoev ran as a candidate from the LDPU in the December 2016 presidential election. In case anyone missed it, the LDPU is under new leadership as Bakhtiyor Yakubov, who had been deputy chairman of the LDPU's executive committee since 2005, took over the reins when Solijon Turliev stepped down in August 2017.

An Old New World

In many ways, Uzbekistan's upcoming parliamentary elections look like they will be very similar to the previous elections.

It remains quite difficult to distinguish one party from another. And, once again, no genuine opposition parties are registered to compete.

There are again five parties running after the Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan (OEH) attained party status in January 2019.

The new environmental party has already caused some controversy.

In May, several "members" in Ferghana Province claimed they were forced to join the OEH.

And on November 23, during a "debate" of the five political parties that looked more like a lovefest, a member of the OEH came out in favor of plans to build a nuclear power plant in Uzbekistan. (President Mirziyoev has been actively promoting construction of the plant.) According to some, that made Uzbekistan's Ecological Movement of Uzbekistan the only "green" party in the world to support nuclear power.

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

So it looks to be business as usual on December 22 -- except for one thing.

These are the first parliamentary elections since Mirziyoev came to power nearly three years ago.

Mirziyoev has already removed several key figures in the government who had long been important in Karimov's administration.

Now he has an opportunity to turn the Karimov-era parliament into a Mirziyoev-parliament.

That likely means there will be some new and younger faces in parliament, though they will probably continue to function much as their predecessors have for the past 28 years.

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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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