Welcome back to Central Asia in Focus, an RFE/RL newsletter that looks at the events shaping Central Asia’s 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.
I’d like to welcome our new subscribers from the European Neighborhood Council, the International Trade Association, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Solidarity Center, and the University of Canberra. Thanks for joining us!
The Coming Hunger
I’m trying to remember if I ever ate a meal in Central Asia without bread at the table and I cannot think of that happening even once.
But as summer approaches this year, providing bread already looks to be difficult.
I noticed Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoev just warned provincial heads and prosecutors that “Reduction of flour production or unreasonable increases in the prices… will be considered sabotage.”
This is saying that there will problems with bread without actually saying there will be problems with bread.
The fact is that shortages of wheat – and hence flour and bread – seem unavoidable this year.
There was drought in Central Asia in 2021, so long before Russian and Ukrainian wheat went off the global market, it was obvious there would be trouble at least until the Central Asian wheat harvest of 2022 was gathered.
Kazakhstan is the ninth largest wheat exporter in the world and the major supplier of wheat and flour to the other Central Asian states, but Kazakhstan’s grain harvest in 2021 was 16.4 million tons, down from the 20.8 million tons gathered in 2020.
In mid-April, Kazakhstan introduced limits on exports of wheat,rye,and flour until June 15.
Kazakh authorities said these measures were necessary to ensure the people of Kazakhstan would have enough flour this year. On March 1, Kazakhstan’s National Statistics Bureau said the country had stores of 5.9 million tons of wheat.
Why it’s important: Lack of food is bound to cause protests in Central Asia.
Even in repressive Turkmenistan, and before that in the repressive days in Uzbekistan when Islam Karimov was president, shortages of flour and bread have sparked protests.
Central Asian governments do not enjoy widespread support among their people already. Bread is the bare minimum in Central Asia and people become upset when there is none.
Drones in the Skies of Central Asia
The next time you’re gazing at the sky in Central Asia there might be something up there staring back at you.
Military drones have been making the news in Central Asia in recent weeks.
All five countries have them, and three are manufacturing them.
Turkey is the supplier of choice globally and the four “Turkic” Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – have an edge in obtaining Turkish drones.
Most recently, on May 10-11, it was Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev visiting Turkey with defense and security agreements being a key part of talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
An agreement for Turkish Aerospace Industries and Kazakhstan Engineering to jointly produce Turkish Anka military drones at a factory in Kazakhstan was the eye-catcher of Toqaev’s visit.
On March 31, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov watched training exercises involving Bayraktar drones his country bought from Turkey in 2021 after the deadly conflict with Tajikistan just weeks earlier. But his country was worried it might have lost this advantage after reports at the end of April that neighboring Tajikistan had also purchased Bayraktar drones from Turkey.
Tajik officials didn’t comment, but apparently they don’t need Turkish drones since on May 17, Chief of General Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces Mohammad Hossein Bagheri was in Dushanbe to inaugurate a plant that will build Iranian 'Ababil 2' drones.
Tajikistan already has Russian-made military drones and on May 10, the U.S. Embassy handed over Puma reconnaissance drones worth some $20 million.
Turkmenistan showed off its Turkish Bayraktar drones at the country’s Independence Day parade in 2021.
Uzbekistan started making its own drones this year but has also purchased the same reconnaissance drones that the U.S. Embassy just gave Tajikistan.
Why it’s important: It’s understandable why the Central Asian states want drones. Afghanistan is their southern neighbor and there are militant groups with Central Asia citizens in their ranks.
But Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan fought a brief war in late April 2021 and border tensions have been a problem in Central Asia before. Drones might be the matches which spark conflict in future powder-keg border situations.
The Latest Majlis Podcast
Our most recent Majlis podcast looks at the Islamic State of Khorasan’s rocket attack on Tajikistan and fighting occurring in northeastern Afghanistan.
This week’s guests are Suzanne Levi-Sanchez, author of the book The Afghan-Central Asia Borderlands; Mojib Rahman Atal, originally from Kunduz, Afghanistan, and currently a doctoral candidate at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen Nürnberg, in Germany; and Tohir Safarov, senior editor at RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, locally known as Radio Ozodi.
What I’m Following
Tensions that were building in eastern Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) since last November when a young man was killed during a police operation erupted into violence on May 16.
Security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters in the regional capital Khorugh. At least one person was reported dead. The Tajik government has been trying unsuccessfully for years to get control over GBAO. This latest attempt will likely raise tensions even higher.
Four journalists from RFE/RL were attacked in Dushanbe by unknown assailants on May 17, one day after the deadly protests in Khorugh, after they interviewed a GBAO activist.
Mullorajab Yusufi and Barot Yusufi, from RFE/RL's Tajik Service, said their vehicle was blocked by another car, and several men in civilian clothes emerged from the car and then forced them out of their vehicle, and attacked them.
In addition to punching Mullorajab Yusufi, the men confiscated the journalists' equipment and phones. Mullorajab Yusufi said the attackers did not say who they were or what they wanted, “but they knew the journalists well and deliberately wanted cameras and telephones…One of them began to threaten me with the words ‘Mulloradjab, I swear to God, I will shoot you.’”
Soon after, Anushervon Orifov and Nasim Isamov of Current Time, the Russian-language channel run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, were attacked the same way, apparently by the same assailants.
Fact of the Week
Kyrgyzstan’s population is approximately 6.8 million people. According to the World Bank, the total 2021 workforce was 2,546,885. A recent report from RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service said that according to official figures from Kyrgyz authorities, there are 1.118 million Kyrgyz citizens working abroad, some 1 million of them in Russia.
THANKS FOR READING
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See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.