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Central Asia in Focus: Kazakhstan Imprisons Citizen Who Fought in Ukraine


RUSSIA - Pavel Kontorbaev receives his Russian passport in the city of Berdsk, Russia.
RUSSIA - Pavel Kontorbaev receives his Russian passport in the city of Berdsk, Russia.

In this week’s edition: Kazakhstan imprisons a citizen who fought in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan join the Global Methane Pledge, Rosatom is moving on its Uzbek Contract, and more. Thanks for joining us!

In the Region

Kazakhstan Imprisons Citizen Who Fought in Ukraine

A Kazakh appellate court upheld an earlier verdict finding 34-year-old Kazakh citizen Aleksei Shompolov guilty of fighting for a pro-Russian force in Ukraine and sentencing him to six years and eight months in prison.

Shompolov admitted joining the Russian private military contractor Wagner Group and going to Ukraine.

The investigation of Shompolov determined that in March 2023 he saw an advertisement online for a high-paying job in Russia with the Wagner Group.

Shompolov’s recruiters told him the work involved going to Ukraine, and said service there entitled Shompolov to a salary of 240,000 Russian rubles ($2,630 at the current rate) monthly.

Shompolov traveled to Russia in April 2023, and signed a contract with Wagner.

A Wagner Group lawyer told Shompolov he was not violating the law of any country because “it’s not a war in Ukraine, it is a special operation for liberating the civilian population.”

Russian officials have typically used the term “special operation” to refer to the full-scale war Russia launched against Ukraine in February 2022.

After receiving about 20 days of military training, Shompolov was sent to the Bakhmut district of Ukraine, scene of some of the fiercest fighting.

Shompolov was wounded in combat his first day in Bakhmut and hospitalized. After leaving the hospital, he was discharged from service due to his injuries.

He returned to Kazakhstan in late May and was arrested for mercenary activities in a foreign conflict.

Shompolov admitted guilt at his original trial in August and testified he was unemployed when he saw the recruitment advertisement and decided to join Wagner Group for the money.

Shompolov is not the only citizen of Kazakhstan to join Russian forces to fight in Ukraine.

RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities project reported on November 21 about a Kazakh citizen named Pavel Kontorbayev who has been working in Russia.

Kontorbayev said he signed a contract to join the Russian military and go to Ukraine in exchange for a Russian passport.

Governor of Kazakhstan’s northern Kostanay Province, Kumar Aksakalov, said at a November 24 press briefing that there were at least two cases of attempted recruitment of Kazakh citizens in his province.

In May, a Ukrainian court sentenced Kazakh citizen Shyngys Seypiev to nine years in prison for serving in the Wagner Group.

Why It’s Important: There are several million migrant laborers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan working in Russia and they have been primary targets of Russian military recruitment.

The number of citizens of Kazakhstan joining the Russian military has been relatively small, but judging from Shompolov’s case and those mentioned by the Kostanay governor, Russian recruiting efforts targeting citizens of Kazakhstan seem to be increasing in 2023.

These recently publicized cases of Kazakh citizens joining Russian or pro-Russian military forces point to a growing willingness on their part to fight in Ukraine on Russia’s behalf.

Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan Join Global Methane Pledge

Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan both attended the COP28 United Nations Climate Change Conference currently underway in Dubai and joined The Global Methane Pledge (GMP).

The announcement was promising, as both the Central Asian countries are major emitters of methane.

Launched at COP26 by the European Union and the United States, GMP is part of international efforts aimed at combating climate change.

GMP notes on its webpage that methane pollution “accounts for a third of net warming since the Industrial Revolution.”

In October, satellite imagery indicated that methane continued to leak at high levels from southwestern Kazakhstan’s Karaturun-South oil and gas field, after a fire broke out there in June.

Kazakh authorities promised on November 27 that the fire at Karaturun-South would be extinguished before the end of the year.

Turkmenistan has long been known as a super-emitter of methane.

On December 1, BNE Intellinews reported that out of 1,005 methane super-emitter events worldwide in 2022, “Turkmenistan had the highest number… - some 184.”

Why It’s Important: Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov were both in Dubai and addressed the conference.

Both presidents promised to meet the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

Success by Kazakhstan in putting out the fire at Karaturun-South will already be a good start.

Turkmenistan’s cooperation in meeting the pledge is less certain.

Turkmen authorities have always denied anything bad happens in their country.

They continue to claim there have never been any cases of COVID in Turkmenistan.

The Turkmen government has never commented on reports in international media about Turkmenistan’s methane super-emitter status—or even acknowledged there is a problem.

Satellite imagery will show if Turkmenistan meets its obligations to the Global Methane Pledge, but it is unclear what would happen if Turkmenistan fails to curb its methane emissions.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at how Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan are implementing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for persons with disabilities.

December 3 was the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and this episode of the podcast focuses on whether a quality education and decent employment are available for persons with disabilities in Central Asia.

This week’s guests are:

  • Dilmurad Yusupov, co-founder of the NGO Sharoit Plus, an organization which aims to promote a barrier-free and inclusive society for all disabled people in Uzbekistan;
  • Seinep Dyikanbayeva, lawyer and program manager at the Kyrgyz NGO Parents of Children with Disabilities;
  • Mirsaid Mukhtorov, an international law student at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy in Uzbekistan and independent researcher of the rights of people with disabilities; and
  • Madina Karsakpaeyava, currently working for the UN Development Program to help make all of Kazakhstan accessible for the disabled.

What I'm Following

Rosatom Moving on Uzbek Contract

Russia’s state nuclear energy company Rosatom says a general contract for construction of a nuclear power plant in Uzbekistan is ready for signing.

Rosatom chief Aleksei Likhachev said he expected the agreement would be signed “in the nearest future.”

The deal calls for Russia to construct the plant, consisting of two VVER 1200 nuclear reactors, near Lake Tuzkan in Jizzakh province.

According to Uzbekistan’s Energy Ministry, once it comes online, the plant will be able to cover 15-18 percent of Uzbekistan’s domestic electricity demand in 2030.

Kazakh Political Activist Imprisoned for Seven Years

Marat Zhylanbaev, the leader of the unregistered opposition party Alga (Forward) Kazakhstan, was sentenced to seven years in prison on November 29.

An Astana court found Zhylanbaev guilty of extremism for supposed ties to the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement.

Zhylanbaev has tried unsuccessfully to register the Alga Kazakhstan party with Kazakhstan’s Justice Ministry at least sixteen times and was denied registration as an independent candidate in the March 2023 parliamentary elections.

Fact of the Week

Kazakh authorities have been receiving a wave of criticism about their failure to curb violence against women after a young woman was beaten to death in a restaurant in early November.

The chairman of Kazakhstan’s lower house of parliament, Yerlan Koshanov, announced on December 4 that a unit of policewomen will be created in every city to handle complaints of gender violence.

Thanks for Reading

Thanks for reading Central Asia in Focus! I appreciate you sharing it with other readers who may be interested.

Feel free to contact me on X, especially if you have any questions, comments, or just want to connect about topics concerning Central Asia. See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.

Until next time,
Bruce

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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier authors RFE/RL's "Central Asia in Focus" newsletter and appears regularly on the RFE/RL's Majlis podcast.

About Central Asia in Focus

An authoritarian tide is sweeping through Central Asia, resulting in political repression and a stark retreat in civil liberties. Central Asia in Focus, a bi-weekly newsletter, focuses on key events shaping the course of the region. Author Bruce Pannier shares personal insights informed by his three decades of experience covering Central Asia, and tells his readers what may come next.

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