Welcome to Central Asia in Focus, a newsletter that offers insight and analysis on the events shaping the region's political future.
I’m Bruce Pannier. I’ve been studying Central Asia for more than 35 years, went to summer school at Tashkent State in 1990 when Uzbekistan was still part of the Soviet Union, and then lived in villages in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in 1992-1993. And since 1995, I’ve been writing about the region I think of as my second homeland.
Turkmenistan: New President, Lower Bar
When Turkmenistan announced there would be a presidential election, everyone knew President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s son Serdar would win.
I was one of the people who thought some small good might come out of it, just to earn the new guy some popularity.
My expectations were suitably low -- maybe more food for the hungry citizens of Turkmenistan, or at the least an end to bread rationing.
When Serdar’s father was first elected in February 2007, he promised all sorts of things, most of which never came true, but at least for a while there was hope for a better future for Turkmenistan.
Bread rationing did not end. Instead, customers caught exiting stores with more than their ration (two to three loaves) now face up to 15 days in jail.
Authorities ordered more fruits and vegetables be grown for export to Russia. They've increased efforts to block the Internet, including a fresh crackdown on use of VPNs, leaving the country more isolated from outside information than ever before.
Turkmen Authorities Targeting Women and Children's Appearances
For some reason, women’s appearance is the target of Serdar’s government. Beauty parlors are being closed, women are being told to embrace “natural beauty,” which does not include wearing jeans, make-up, false fingernails, false eyelashes, lip augmentation, or Botox injections.
And authorities are checking.
Oh, and now women apparently aren’t supposed to sit in the front seat of cars either.
Next up, children. No clothes with Hollywood or Disney characters at school. Teachers are not supposed to allow children wearing such clothes to attend class, and markets are not supposed to sell them.
If you’re looking for a method to this madness, don’t. It’s Turkmenistan and under the old adage ‘’the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,’’ there’s not much to expect from the father-to-son transfer of power.
The Importance Of Kyrgyz Media, and Its Downfalls
May 3 is International Press Freedom Day, a good time to draw attention to media in Kyrgyzstan.
Some people call Kyrgyzstan the most democratic country in Central Asia, and I would agree with that, but one of the characteristics that earns Kyrgyzstan that title is a functioning independent media.
When something happens in Kyrgyzstan, anyone can quickly get details from dozens of independent Kyrgyz media outlets, as well as state media.
But once again, the government is going after media outlets that report information that is seemingly inconvenient to the authorities.
We’ve seen it before when presidents or other influential figures are the focus of reports on their alleged misdeeds and we’re seeing it again with the case of investigative YouTube journalist Bolot Temirov (see Majlis podcast below).
The current Kyrgyz government is also going after Next TV for the station publishing claims by a former chief of Kazakhstan’s intelligence agency that Kyrgyzstan was secretly giving military support for Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Kaktus.media was charged with “war propaganda” for reposting a report from the independent Tajik agency Asia-Plus about violence along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border at the end of January.
Kaktus.media founder Dina Maslova said it was one of many forms of repression the outlet has been facing.
The overall situation in Kyrgyzstan is not ideal, but would be worse without domestic media revealing abuses of power by officials and exposing some of the most corrupt people in the country.
Powerful people in other Central Asian countries are too often able to act with complete impunity, but they can’t in Kyrgyzstan.
THE LATEST MAJLIS PODCAST
The most recent Majlis podcast was dedicated to International Press Freedom Day. The biggest international story currently is Russia’s war in Ukraine, but it is not a story media in Central Asia media are free to cover.
In Kyrgyzstan, the legal problems of investigative journalist Bolot Temirov are piling up after he reported on alleged corruption involving the son Kyrgyzstan’s security chief.
And Big Brother is intensifying his monitoring of what is being posted on social media websites across Central Asia.
This week’s guests are Gulnoza Said of the Committee to Protect Journalists and Darkhan Umirbekov of RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, known locally as Azattyq.
WHAT I'M FOLLOWING
Change is coming to Kazakhstan. President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev announced on April 29 that there would be a national referendum on proposed amendments to the constitution. Toqaev said, “We are transitioning to a new state model” that “can be called a second republic.”
Toqaev did not elaborate on the proposed amendments or provide a date for the referendum, but according to the Astana Times, the proposals concerned 33 articles, “more than a third” of the constitution.
May 9 is Victory Day in many of the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), commemorating the end of World War II. In Uzbekistan, it is called the Day of Remembrance and Honor. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is causing some CIS countries to carefully consider how they observe the day. As May 9 approaches, it will be interesting to see how Central Asian governments handle events connected to Victory Day.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Check out Freedom House’s annual Nations In Transit report that reviews the media situation and more in all the Central Asian states. RFE/RL President Jamie Fly discussed the continued, concerning decline of democratic norms and practices in contemporary Europe and Eurasia at the report’s launch event on April 27.
FACT OF THE WEEK
In February 2022, Uzbekistan was the global leader in gold sales, selling 22 tons of gold. Qatar was second with six tons, and Kazakhstan third with five tons.
THANKS FOR READING
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See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.