A Week of Central Asian Politics and Politicking

Another week in Central Asia:

Last Sunday, Kyrgyzstan held successful parliamentary elections. The Diplomat published a wonderful photo essay of election day in Bishkek, a real glimpse at polls in the capital.

Kyrgyzstan also reopened its embassy in Belarus after a 3-year hiatus. Long story short, Belarus has refused repeatedly to extradite the Kyrgyz president deposed in 2010–he’s living a fairly comfortable life as a Belarusian now.

In Turkmenistan, the US broke ground on a new embassy. The US is using the construction as a metaphor. “This is not just another building project in Ashgabat,” the US Ambassador said at the ceremony.

Wednesday was Vladimir Putin’s birthday and the celebrations were as ridiculous as you can imagine: a hockey game, a special rap song release, bombing Syria. But Putin also made time to meet this week with both the Tajik and Kyrgyz presidents.

Kazakhstan’s president met with the president of Ukraine this week as well. Nazarbayev, for all his autocratic faults, is an extremely deft politician. Nowhere is this more evident than in his balancing of relations between Ukraine and Russia.

Mutabar Tadjibayeva, a well-known Uzbek human rights activist who now lives in France–as a political refugee–says she was subject to torture, gang-rape and forced sterilization at the hands of Uzbek authorities. This week, Uzbekistan was essentially ordered by a UN body to investigate her allegations. I’m not terribly optimistic it will lead to any concrete investigation or improvement but I do think it’s important to keep putting these stories in the public space.

And for something different: I wrote about Megadeth’s first concert in China (they were a little censored, which is fairly common). I’m a closet metalhead. Never really thought that corner of knowledge would come in handy professionally.

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Poor Almaty

IMG_0247First, Issue 9 of the Magazine is out! It has an amazing cover story on the role of WWII in shaping modern Asia and the lingering effects of its ghosts by Paul French. Bill Hayton, who talks us through the “other claimants” to the South China Sea, Vietnam and Philippines, primarily. Yo-Jung Chen explains that Prime Minister Abe’s regional diplomacy has been dominated by Japan’s past and China’s future. And Melissa Lefkowitz discusses Africans living in China. There is also a particularly great piece on the Iran deal from Ankit Panda (which I’ll have up as a brief excerpt tomorrow on the website), an article on forward deployment by Robert Farley (editing my former professors will never cease to amuse me) and a neat piece from Poppy McPherson on Myanmar’s favorite weatherman.

Bottom line: get a subscription and get reading! We’re creeping up on my one year with The Diplomat and subsequently the Magazine’s first birthday. Unbelievable.

And on to last week in Central Asia (and, of course, nearby realms):

Kazakhstan lost the 2022 Olympic Winter Games to Beijing (and we were wondering how they’d pay for them anyway) but did get voted, officially, into the WTO. The details seem to say that the Eurasian Economic Union will have to play along as well (which isn’t that shocking considering Russia, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan are already in the WTO). Though it does make the EEU seem sort of… arbitrary…

In Russia, the Committee Against Torture is shutting its doors, forced into an untenable position by the state–unwilling to take the label as a ‘foreign agent’ and unable to bear the fines and pressure the group is closing. This is how Russia is silencing dissent. Meanwhile, Gazprom (Russia’s oil giant) is taking Turkmengaz to international arbitration in Sweden–over pricing of the gas Russia hasn’t bothered to pay for this year. This is how Russia is avoiding its debts. Then, in Tajikistan, Russian soldiers got into a drunken, half-naked brawl in the town near their base. Foreign troops abroad are not always great guests.

The US State Department upgraded Uzbekistan on the annual human trafficking report–which covers trafficking (in a stereotypical sense) and forced labor (“modern slavery”).

Across the region mudslides have destroyed hundreds of homes and resulted in at least a dozen deaths. While such things are common, especially in mountainous areas, the government’s response has reportedly been slow.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released its 28th quarterly report. If you’re into audits and inspections it’s pretty interesting, though depressing when the money starts adding up. There’s a special section on conditionality in aid worth reading.

That’s all for now. Onward to a new week and Issue 10 plots are already afoot.

Hooligans and the Quiet End of the NDN

Last week was hectic. Not only was it Hell Week (ie the week before the Magazine goes out), but Wednesday I confronted that demon that haunts all writers at one point or another–writers block. I stared at my computer, fingers twitching but no words coming out. At least I had a mound of editing to do for the Magazine to make me feel somewhat productive.

But, it was one bad day surrounded by some interesting developments in Central Asia.

Not (at all) surprising things: Kyrgyzstan (finally) joined the EEU. Casey Michel has an interesting article in the upcoming Magazine about the tough spot Kyrgyzstan was in and illuminates the reluctance in the country regarding joining the club. Also in Kyrgyzstan, and not entirely unrelated, the parliament is considering a law that would slap a very broad “foreign agents” label on most NGOs. I do a little false-analogy debunking–the Russian “foreign agents” law on which the Kyrgyz one is based, is nothing like the US’ foreign agents act. Hello whataboutism, my old comrade.

Things that seem, at first glance, surprising: It may sound impressive that Turkmenistan pardoned 1200 prisoners on occasion of its Constitution Day. But then you learn that this a semi-annual thing. Another periodic occurrence is the trade of prisoners among the region’s states–this time Tajikistan and China look set to trade.

Russia this week officially closed the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). It hasn’t been used much in recent months–but in a way it looks like the Ukraine crisis finally made it to Afghanistan, though thankfully too late to impact last year’s withdrawal. I’d never say Putin missed an opportunity, but a closure last year would have caused a lot of trouble. This year, hardly a blip on the radar.

Somewhat surprising: Kyrgyz authorities have charged the anti-gay nationalists who broke up an LGBT gathering on International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia last week. The charge? Hooliganism. This is unlikely to effect the worsening situation with regard to LGBT rights in the country, but the hooligans being charged rather than the party goers is somewhat surprising.

Mysteries unfolding: The Tajik OMON commander who disappeared was reported to have turned up in Turkey, was arrested trying to get into Syria and extradited. Trouble is, Tajikistan says such reports are baseless.

And in the mystery category I’ll include my weekly roundup of interesting links and tidbits. While the body count of dead Saiga antelope keeps climbing (from 100 to 1,000 to 20,000 and upward), the degradation of the Aral Sea is an old sin. NatGeo has a fantastic story worth your time and pageviews.

Next week: Magazine Issue 7!!! (Holy crap, how can it be 7 already?)

Brought to You By Кэти Патц

There’s a Tom Waits song called Big in Japan. It’s basically what I sang to myself all week.

Let’s start with Kazakhstan. The good news is 2015 should be the bottom of Kazakhstan’s dropping GDP growth numbers (from 7.5 percent in 2011 to projected 1.3 percent in 2015), but the World Bank says the recovery won’t be quick and depends on Russia & China.

Then the International Crisis Group released a tepid report on Kazakhstan’s stability. Their verdict: everything is well and good as long as Nazarbayev is around and Russian stay in Russia, but Nazarbayev turns 75 this summer and his passing could lead to the kind of political instability Putin could use an excuse to step in. It’s a lot of mongering, if you ask me. However, what happens after Nazarbayev is a very serious question and Russia definitely cares about the answer.Saiga antelope

Last thing on Kazakhstan this week was about the essentially annual die-off of a thousand strange-faced saiga antelopes on the steppe. There are a lot of factorsat play: a cosmodome nearby, a regular infection gone rampant, poachers. Scientific American wrote last year that this is getting a bit weird.”

Other things this week: trouble in an Uzbek exclave inside Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan’s president Berdy was in Austria.

Tajikistan sparked a few interesting pieces this week. For one, the commander of the OMON (a kind of special police force) has gone missing, maybe to join ISIS, maybe not (see my piece on skepticism further on). The country also closed its eastern region–Gorno-Badakhshan–to tourists. Badakhshan province in Afghanistan has been the site of increased Taliban attacks, but it’s also where the opposition in the civil war called home and the site of semi-regular trouble. My bet is on the situation in Afghanistan prompting this.

A random Turkish news site decided that copying an entire paragraph wholesale without attribution is fine. It’s not really. So just read mine. Hilariously, the website that stole my words has a legal notice on the bottom of the page saying “Copyright, trade marks and other intellectual property rights in this website can not be reproduced without the prior permission.” That’s ironic.

In better news, a Tajik news site wrote (in Russian) about the opinion piece I posted this week–in which I outline my skepticism regarding numbers of Central Asians fighting with ISIS. I likened it to a game of telephone. The bottom line is that numbers matter and estimates have varied from 70 to 4,000. My issue is not so much that articles state a number, but that they are not always clear where the number comes from.

Last but certainly not least, the piece I wrote on the 10th anniversary of the Andijan massacre. I outline how “Uzbekistan’s most orderly protests” turned into a massacre and talked to Steve Swerdlow, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, about what’s changed in the past decade. TLDR: not much. But really, read it.

There were a number of great piece on Andijan this week I’d recommend you read: Sarah Kendzior in the NYT, Bruce Pannier at RFE/RL, and Dean C. K. Cox at Eurasianet.

Next week is Hell Week so there will be fewer web pieces from me. Magazine Issue 7 here we come!

Sometimes a Beard is Just a Beard

This week was a touch slow in Central Asia, it was the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II (or the Great Patriotic War, if you’re of a Soviet mind) and that seemed to dominate. Friday, I wrote about how Central Asia was celebrating. With parades, obviously, and visits to Moscow.

Back to the beginning of the week. Are the recent threats posted on buildings in a city outside the Uzbek capital from ISIS as some have begun to claim? Probably not. And will Turkmenistan be supplying Europe with gas by 2020? Maybe, but only if the Caspian sea dispute is settled. This is part of the diversification schemes for both Turkmenistan AND Europe. Diversifying away from dependence on Russia (and for Turkmenistan China as well). So Russia doesn’t have much incentive to help settle the decades-old dispute over who owns what part of the world’s largest lake.

Kyrgyzstan has more than one troublesome gold mine. Meet Jerooy. A Russian company just won the rights to exploit the mine, but they also won its legal defense fees. Which are considerable. The mine’s last patron is suing for $549 million.

SIGAR (the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction), my favorite government-created, ruthlessly independent watchdog, gave a speech at the Weill Cornell Medical College this week. It has some great lines:

Obviously, the thought was that with your expertise in treating intractable diseases, you would also be interested in Afghanistan reconstruction.

He also has some extremely astute observations regarding the danger of basing assessments off strict numbers also, without context. Sometimes data doesn’t actually say what people say it says. Lies, damned lies, and statistics after all.

Four men were sentenced to death for the March murder by mob of Farkhunda in Afghanistan. The trial was only four days long and no one seems convinced justice has been served. For one, there are countless videos of the crime and only a fraction of the men in the videos have even been brought up on charges. Also due process usually takes more than four days, and the defendants should probably all have lawyers. Even if they’re guilty.

Kazakhstan is trying to brand itself as a great mediator. Some of the Syrian opposition is scheduled to be in Astana at the end of May for talks. Who else is coming hasn’t been announced. Kazakhstan is more interested in burnishing its diplomatic image than preoccupied by any delusion that the Syrian conflict (or the Iran nukes, or Ukraine) will be settled around a table in Astana.

And last but not least, Tajikistan is considering a law to ban Arabic-style names. That’s problematic since their president’s name, Emomali, is derived from that of the fourth caliph, Imam Ali. Whoops. Worked that development in with a good essay by a GW prof on Central Asia’s mismanagement of religion.

Sometimes a beard is just a beard.