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.
Thanks for joining us!
The Hunt For The Enemy Within
Tashkent police said on June 8 that some 250 members of extremist groups had been identified in Uzbekistan since the start of 2022.
After the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in mid-August 2021, I figured reports of surveillance and detentions of suspect Muslims in Central Asia would soon appear.
When the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) tried to fire rockets into Uzbekistan in March and did fire rockets into Tajikistan in May, intensified hunts for suspected militants in Central Asia were inevitable.
There are more than a dozen extremist groups in Afghanistan and some have Central Asian citizens in their ranks.
The priority for the Central Asian governments is to prevent them and their ideology from crossing the border and to ensure that a fifth column doesn’t exist in Central Asia.
Central Asian governments had the same concerns 25 years ago when the Taliban first showed up within Central Asia’s borders and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan appeared in summer 1999.
Now Tashkent police say that, among these 250 suspects, some were connected to the Islamic State militant group and Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ). Both groups were active in Syria, but some members went to Afghanistan after losing territory in the Middle East.
KTJ is made up mainly of Uzbeks from Uzbekistan, but a recent report said the Taliban killed eight IS-K militants led by “Yousef Uzbekistani” in the northern Afghan city of Taloqan, a reminder Uzbeks are present in IS-K also.
Many of the suspects Tashkent police mentioned are allegedly involved in recruitment, spreading propaganda, or were planning to travel to Syria.
Tashkent police reported seizing bomb-making material and said they detained people who were planning to carry out attacks near administration buildings.
Why It’s Important: Central Asian governments, especially Uzbekistan, tend to overreact to potential terrorist threats.
After the February 1999 Tashkent bombings, thousands of people were arrested. Many were nothing more than pious Muslims.
Tashkent police are the first to report detentions, but the other Central Asian governments are surely scrutinizing their populations as well.
Competition to Build Kazakhstan’s Nuclear Power Plant
Kazakhstan is closer to building its first nuclear power plant (NPP) and U.S. company General Electric (GE) has signaled it wants the contract.
Kazakh authorities have been talking about construction of an NPP for more than a decade, but it has been difficult to sell the idea to the country’s population.
Between 1949 and 1989, the Soviet Union conducted 456 nuclear tests in northern Kazakhstan’s Semipalatinsk testing site.
The effects of those tests are still felt by people who live in that area. Cancer rates and deformities are higher than normal.
Increasing problems with energy supplies have kept the plan on the table and now it appears the Kazakh government is prepared to start work on the plant.
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev told a meeting of foreign investors on June 9 that a site on the shores of Lake Balkhash has been selected for the NPP.
Russian state company Rosatom has been the odds-on favorite to receive the contract for the NPP, but Bela Ferenczi, the GE president in charge of operations in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States, was among the foreign investors at the June 9 meeting, and he made a pitch for GE.
Ferenczi said GE’s module reactors can reduce operating costs by 40 percent and have the “highest level of operational safety.”
Kazakhstan is the world’s largest producer of uranium and, after working with foreign partners over the past two decades, is now able to process raw uranium into nuclear fuel.
The NPP would also help Kazakhstan cut pollution. Currently, some 70 percent of the country’s electricity comes from coal-burning thermal power plants.
Why it’s important: Kazakhstan is not the only Central Asian country that has been considering constructing an NPP.
Uzbekistan has also been discussing plans for building an NPP with Rosatom, and following GE’s bid in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan has now raised concerns about Rosatom’s price tag for building an NPP, so it appears there will be competition for the contracts in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
THE LATEST MAJLIS PODCAST
Tajikistan’s government cut-off communications to the eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) shortly after starting a security operation there.
People connected to region are posting information suggesting extrajudicial killings and looting is taking place.
Discussing that topic in this week’s Majlis podcast are Zamira Dilodorbekova, who studies the Tajik Pamiri community of GBAO; Suzanne Levi-Sanchez, author of the book “Bridging State and Civil Society: Informal Organizations in Tajik/Afghan Badakhshan”; and Bakhtiyor Safarov, the director of Virginia-based organization Central Asia Consulting.
WHAT I'M FOLLOWING
Central Asia has experienced power problems the last two winters. NPP ambitions aside, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are increasing their electricity output.
Uzbekistan announced two small-hydropower plants will be built, one in the Kashkadarya Province, the other in Tashkent Province.
New thermal power plants (TPP) started operation in Bukhara and Khorezm provinces and three new TPPs were recently launched in Tashkent Province and one solar power plant in Samarkand Province.
Kazakhstan just approved construction of a wind farm in the southern Zhambyl Province.
The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project has been around for 25 years.
Kyrgyzstan has always been the most enthusiastic about the project, so it was easy to dismiss Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov’s May 31 comments that work on the railway would begin in 2023.
But this time China’s Global Times chimed in, reporting, “The railway will be the shortest route to transport goods from China to Europe and the Middle East, cutting the journey by 900 kilometers… saving seven to eight days of travel time,” which makes it sound like China is interested.
FACT OF THE WEEK
June 12 was World Day Against Child Labor. Many children in Central Asia continue to work bazaars and the agricultural fields. The Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting just highlighted the problem of child labor in Tajikistan, but the tales told in the report are the same in all the Central Asian countries.
THANKS FOR READING
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Every week we like to ask our audience a question and hear your thoughts about issues we cover in the newsletter. This week: Do you believe that construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway will really start next year?
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See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.