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Qishloq Ovozi

Tuesday 17 July 2018

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Long lines of people wait in front of a grocery store in Ashgabat to buy vegetable oil, sugar, and flour in late May.

Might there be a little friction in Turkmen-Uzbek ties?

Uzbek state television recently reported on food shortages in Turkmenistan. The thing is, Turkmen state media have not only avoided mentioning those shortages for many months, they even attempted to mask them just one day before the Uzbek reports by suggesting there was great availability of food in Turkmenistan.

Strange to think it would be possible to convince hungry people there is actually a cornucopia of food out there just by showing a few Potemkin markets on TV.

But on June 20, Turkmen state television aired a report that claimed, “Full shelves [at shop locations] bear witness to the creation in the country of food abundance."

Someone in Uzbekistan must have missed an e-mail from Turkmen authorities. On June 21, three of Uzbekistan’s state channels, including Yoshlar TV, reported on shortages of bread in Turkmenistan’s Dashoguz and Mary provinces and said there were long lines to purchase bread when it was available.

"The Turkmen people are experiencing severe economic hardships," the report said.

Yoshlar can be watched in northern areas of Turkmenistan.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, has been reporting about the growing scarcity of basic goods in Turkmenistan for almost two years. While it seems to be true that there is food available, it is prohibitively expensive for many people in Turkmenistan.

The state previously subsidized basic goods like flour, sugar, and cooking oil, but Turkmenistan is suffering through the hardest economic times in its nearly 27 years of independence.

Azatlyk just reported that a 45-kilogram sack of flour was selling in Mary Province for 200 manats (which is $57 at the official rate of 3.5 manats to the $1). Unemployment is estimated to be well over 50 percent in Turkmenistan.

Azatlyk and many other media outlets have been covering Turkmenistan’s woes.

Why Uzbek state TV chose to do so is unclear. The two governments have had fairly good relations since Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov became Turkmen president in late 2006. In fact, until Shavkat Mirziyoev took over as Uzbekistan’s president in September 2016, Turkmenistan was really the only Central Asian neighbor with which Uzbekistan enjoyed good ties.

Turkmenistan may have another Uzbek concern besides the state-TV reports.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, received a message from an ethnic Uzbek in Charjou (now officially called Turkmenabat) before the Uzbek TV broadcasts. We cannot reveal the sender's name because what he wrote would almost surely land him in a Turkmen prison.

This writer mentioned the “severe economic crisis in Turkmenistan that has enveloped all areas of the livelihood of the people of the country.” But he claimed that minorities, and he specifically named Uzbeks, were falling victim to a “nationalist ideological struggle of official (titular) clans with non-Turkmen peoples."

He went on to say that previously “they permitted us to decide which language to study in, what dresses and braids our girls could wear, and which tyubeteyki (traditional caps of the region) our men could wear..."

But, he continued, “Now they decide for us how much money we should send to our children studying abroad [and]...which TV [channel] to watch."

He said Uzbeks in Turkmenistan hoped the Berdymukhammedov visit to Uzbekistan and to regions bordering Turkmenistan in April would have helped resolve some of these problems.

"Nothing was done. We don’t know how to reach official Tashkent so they will finally see their brothers, us, the Uzbeks of Turkmenistan," the writer said.

This is a nightmare scenario for Uzbekistan’s Central Asian neighbors.

Uzbekistan’s government has never shown much interest in the ethnic Uzbek diaspora in neighboring Central Asian countries, but ethnic Uzbeks are the largest minority group in all of the Central Asian states except Kazakhstan, where ethnic Uzbeks are a distant second behind Russians. There are no reliable official figures on Uzbeks in Turkmenistan, but the percentage of ethnic Uzbeks among Turkmenistan’s population is probably a bit less than 10 percent. (It is about 15 percent in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.)

But since the five Central Asian republics became independent in 1991, there has been a fear that Uzbekistan, with by far the largest population, might forge stronger bonds and side with their ethnic cousins in neighboring countries.

There are still unsettled sections of Central Asian borders, and the ethnic Uzbek populations tend to live near borders with Uzbekistan.

Uzbek state TV has not yet reported on any crisis situation for ethnic Uzbeks in Turkmenistan. But Uzbek TV's report about Turkmenistan’s economic plight was unexpected.

Mirziyoev is still riding a wave of popularity, at home in Uzbekistan and internationally, related to his apparent efforts to bring his country out of the semi-isolation it had sunk into under his predecessor. If sometime in the future he is faced with hard times and fading popular support, the plight of Uzbeks in neighboring countries could provide a distraction and a rallying point for Uzbeks in Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service contributed to this report.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Kazakh police officers detain an opposition supporter attempting to stage a protest rally in Almaty on June 23.

Any Kazakh official with a microphone in front of them would say President Nursultan Nazarbaev enjoys widespread popularity.

They are not wrong. Most Kazakhs appear to support the first and only president the country has known since independence, upon whom parliament bestowed the title of "Leader of the Nation" in 2010.

But some officials in Kazakhstan seem to believe Nazarbaev's popularity is insufficient to fend off challenges from a declared opponent of his regime, and law enforcement bodies there are working diligently, and visibly, to stamp out any hint of protest before it begins.

On June 23, police and security forces in major cities around Kazakhstan were busy watching main squares, and at 2 p.m. they started loading people standing around or walking by onto buses and took the latter to police stations.

Dozens Detained In Kazakhstan Ahead Of Banned Rally
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At least that's what it looked like.

In reality, police and security forces were responding to an announced protest called for that day. The person who made the call was Mukhtar Ablyazov, the leader of the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement, who is currently in exile in France.

Ablyazov urged people to come out and demonstrate for free education in Kazakhstan. He dissuaded people from bringing banners, signs, placards, or any material expressions of dissatisfaction. Just come out in regular clothes without any paraphernalia, he suggested.

Preemptive Measures

Kazakh authorities noticed the Democratic Choice's posts on social networks and took preemptive measures, detaining some potential participants ahead of the planned demonstration.

Journalists were included in these round-ups. Sanat Urnaliev, the Uralsk correspondent of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, was among those briefly detained hours before the June 23 public action.

The scenes of elite police picking up people and tossing them onto buses do not look like images from a country with a leader who enjoys widespread popularity.

Which is precisely the intention.

Exiled Kazakh opposition leader Mukhtar Ablyazov (file photo)
Exiled Kazakh opposition leader Mukhtar Ablyazov (file photo)

Ablyazov and his Democratic Choice have chosen to call for public demonstrations that, at a glance, seem to have nothing to do with Ablyazov or his party -- perhaps unsurprising as Ablyazov is accused of embezzling billions of dollars from Kazakhstan's Bank TuranAlem (BTA Bank) a decade ago, and in March a Kazakh court declared Democratic Choice an extremist group.

Ablyazov called for demonstrations on May 10. Some people did carry signs during those rallies, but those signs called for freeing political prisoners and an end to torture.

The same images of civilians being loaded onto buses were captured on film. In both the May 10 and June 23 detentions, there were people who said they were passersby and were unfairly taken in custody.

Dozens Detained In Kazakhstan After Calling For Release Of Political Prisoners
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Democratic Choice was formed in November 2001, but by March 2002 Ablyazov was already detained and eventually imprisoned for a short time. He expressed regret for his actions and requested, and was granted, forgiveness. His repentance seemed genuine enough and by 2005 he was chairman of BTA Bank. In early 2009, however, the government nationalized BTA, but Ablyazov and possibly billions of dollars were gone.

Zero Tolerance Of Discontent

Democratic Choice remains a small party, and Ablyazov has not been in Kazakhstan since he fled the country in 2009. The actual challenge to Nazarbaev and the Kazakh government appears to be more of an annoyance than a threat, at this point.

But judging by the reactions to the May and June demonstrations called for by Ablyazov, authorities in Kazakhstan are unwilling to allow even small manifestations of discontent. The government was taken by surprise in spring 2016, when grumbling about a proposed land-privatization law proved the catalyst for building social tensions and led to the biggest protests the country had seen since the late 1990s.

Kazakh authorities seem to be taking a cue from Tajikistan. When a small organization called Group 24 called for peaceful protests in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, in October 2014, Tajik authorities responded by blocking dozens of websites, suspending SMS operations, and deploying a large police presence to prevent any protests from starting.

A Tajik court quickly moved to declare Group 24 an extremist organization. Its leader, Umarali Kuvvatov, had fled the country and made his call for protests from Moscow. He was eventually killed in Turkey in March 2015.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report
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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