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.
Thanks for joining us!
What's Happening in the Region
Rights Situation in Tajikistan Plummets Abruptly
Tajik authorities are orchestrating the biggest crackdown the country has seen since 2015. At the time, President Emomali Rahmon’s government banned the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the largest opposition party in the country, and imprisoned the party’s leaders as well as lawyers who tried to defend these leaders and court, and made it more difficult for journalists in the country to report.
The pattern is emerging again.
The government launched a brutal security operation in May against the Pamiri people in Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) who were protesting peacefully for changes in local leadership and the release of locals being held for protests in November 2021.
GBAO activists were rounded up. Some were detained in Russia and extradited, and once back in Tajikistan were quickly put on trial and convicted on dubious charges.
Journalists and bloggers who have been critical of government policies are now being detained.
RFE/RL’s Current Time program listed seven journalists and bloggers who have been detained since May 18.
Journalist Zavqibek Saidamini and Abdusattor Pirmukhammadov were the latest of these seven to be taken into custody – their detentions in July came after they criticized the arrests of the other five journalists and bloggers.
And now Tajikistan’s Defense Ministry is calling for those reporting the press-gang tactics Tajikistan’s military has been using ever since 1991 independence to fill the ranks of the military, to be punished for disseminating “fake news.”
Press gang tactics, or "Oblava" in Russian, are common and have been one of the biggest complaints against Tajik authorities for 30 years. Tajikistan's Defense Ministry saying that reporting on press-gang tactics is fake news and to stop any discussion of the topic is a crude attempt to sanitize the government's image.
Why It’s Important: The Tajik government’s harsh reaction to the slightest criticisms and sudden obsession with total control over the media and society portends unpopular changes.
The crackdown that started in 2015 preceded a referendum on constitutional amendments in May 2016 that removed term limits for Rahmon. If the IRPT had been allowed to continue functioning as a registered political party, they likely would have opposed these changes publicly. Banning the party cleared the way for what happened in 2016 and 2017, and now we see the Tajik government acting in a similar manner again.
In January 2017, Rahmon’s eldest son Rustam Emomali was named mayor of the capital Dushanbe and has since been positioned to become Tajikistan’s next president. Rahmon’s government seems again intent on clearing the field of opponents for some purpose, though it remains unclear what that goal is.
Who Will Investigate the Violence in Karakalpakstan?
Uzbek authorities vowed to investigate the causes of the violence that erupted in the western Karakalpakstan region at the start of July, leaving 18 people dead and more than 240 injured.
The catalyst for the protests was proposed amendments to the constitution that would have stripped Karakalpakstan of its nominal status as a “sovereign” republic and the right to conduct a referendum to secede from Uzbekistan.
The United States, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and Amnesty International are among many parties calling for a transparent, independent, and thorough investigation of the Karakalpakstan violence.
My colleague Navbahor Imamova at Voice of America has been posting information about the 14-member “independent commission” that Uzbek authorities formed to investigate what happened in Karakalpakstan.
Navbahor tweeted on July 15 that Uzbekistan’s parliament approved ombudsman Feruza Eshmatova to lead the commission and pointed out the Ezgulik Human Rights Society, which Navbahor called “the most credible and experienced” independent rights organization in Uzbekistan, was excluded from the commission.
Navbahor did say that Uzbek authorities had invited “two experts...affiliated with foreign-based organizations: U.S. State Department-funded Regional Dialogue in Slovenia and Sweden-based Central Asia Association” to take part in the investigation.
Azam Farmonov of the independent Huquqi Tayanch rights organization is also on the commission.
But nine of the 14 members are from Uzbekistan’s parliament, including Eshmatova and deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament Alisher Qodirov.
Why It’s Important: With nine members of the commission coming from parliament, this investigation does not appear as if it will be independent and that raises questions about the credibility of the commission’s findings.
Some scapegoats will surely be offered as proof that those responsible have been found and punished but there will always be doubts about whether the entire truth of what happened in Karakalpakstan on July 1-2 was revealed, especially as local officials do not order use of security forces without consulting first with top officials in the government.
The Latest Majlis Podcast
On the latest Majlis podcast, we discussed the growing problem of violence against women and girls in Kyrgyzstan.
The week’s guests are: Melissa Upreti, Chair of the UN Working Group on discrimination against women who was recently in Kyrgyzstan and Svetlana Dzardanova, a human rights and corruption researcher at Freedom for Eurasia, and a gender associate for the Central Asia Institute for Strategic Studies focusing on gender-based violence and gender related policies and their implementation.
What I'm Following
COVID Is Back
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are reporting surges in the number of COVID cases.
In Kazakhstan, where more than 1,100 new cases were registered on July 13 and then nearly 1,500 on July 17, the Health Ministry has already proposed reimposing some of the restrictions that were in place in 2020 and 2021 to prevent the spread of COVID and authorities in Almaty are considering mandatory mask-wearing in public places.
The Central Asia Summit
The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are scheduled to meet at the Kyrgyz resort area of Cholpon-Ata, on the north shore of Lake Issyk-Kul on July 20-21 for their fourth summit since 2018.
Since last year’s summit in Turkmenistan, the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, Russia launched a war on Ukraine, and there were violent protests in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
There will be plenty to talk about when the five leaders meet in Kyrgyzstan.
Fact of the Week
Uzbekistan’s organization for recruitment of laborers to work in Russia reports the number of citizens it found work for dropped in the first half of 2022 to 3,906 from 22,092 in the first half of 2021. Deputy Minister of Labor Erkin Mukhitdinov blamed the “complicated geopolitical situation for the reduction.”
Thanks for Reading
Feel free to contact me on Twitter or by emailing email@example.com, especially if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or just want to connect with me about topics concerning Central Asia.
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Next week we’re taking a short break, so I’ll see you again on August 2 for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.
Until next time,