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Central Asia in Focus: Turkey Pushes Kyrgyz-Tajik Border Deal Forward 


Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan meeting with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon
Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan meeting with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon

In this week's edition: Turkey pushes the Kyrgyz-Tajik border deal forward. Plus Central Asian states are looking bad in the latest Human Rights Watch 2024 report, Kyrgyzstan reintroduces a draft law on media, and more.

In the Region

Turkey Pushes Kyrgyz-Tajik Border Deal Forward

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan appears to have engaged in some successful shuttle diplomacy in Central Asia.

Fidan visited Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and announced the two Central Asian countries would “hopefully resolve their border dispute in March."

The border dividing Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has been the most dangerous of any of the frontiers between the five Central Asian states for more than a decade.

Kyrgyz and Tajik troops battled each other using heavy machine guns, armored vehicles, and artillery in late April 2021 and mid-September 2022.

Recently, Kyrgyz and Tajik representatives have been making progress in demarcating unmarked areas of their common border.

Fidan’s comments indicated the two sides might be close to completing the process.

Fidan commented after his January 9 meeting with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Jeenbek Kulubaev that Turkey welcomed Kyrgyzstan’s recent border agreement with Uzbekistan.

The Turkish foreign minister added that there was information “that we will receive similar positive news with Tajikistan this year.”

After his meeting with Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin on January 10, Fidan echoed his comments in Kyrgyzstan about a resolution to the border dispute in March.

“This will be a significant step for the security and stability of the region,” Fidan said.

Resolving the Kyrgyz-Tajik border problem would be a significant step as the 2021 and 2022 conflicts along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border are the only time since 1991 that militaries of two Central Asian countries attacked each other.

It was troubling for the other Central Asian states, for China (which borders both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and has good ties with both) and for Russia, which has military bases in both Central Asian countries.

Why It’s Important: No one was anxious to step in and help Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan settle their differences and complete demarcation of their border, especially after the two major clashes.

Russia made some half-hearted gestures.

President Vladimir Putin met together with the Kyrgyz and Tajik presidents on the sidelines of meetings in Kazakhstan in October 2022 to discuss the border problem.

The militaries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had just been fighting in mid-September. No progress came from Putin’s meeting with his Kyrgyz and Tajik counterparts.

Turkey’s seeming success in helping Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan finally reach a deal is not only relief for the Central Asian region, but also a sign of growing Turkish influence in Central Asia.

Human Rights Watch 2024 World Report: Central Asian States Looking Bad

The section on Central Asian countries in the annual Human Rights Watch (HRW) global report on the state of human rights makes for depressing reading.

The reports are filled with instances of torture and ill-treatment in jails, restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, gender-based violence, and much more.

The opening sentences tell the stories of stagnation and decline.

Kazakhstan “did not meaningfully address persistent human rights violations in 2023 or ensure accountability for past abuses.”

In Tajikistan, “repression of independent and critical voices continued in 2023…"

Turkmenistan, a perennial rights abuser from its early days of independence in 1991, continues on its trajectory and “made no improvements to its dire human rights record in 2023.”

“Uzbekistan’s human rights record deteriorated in 2023, with a notable increase in the harassment and prosecutions of bloggers and journalists…,” according to HRW.

The report on Kyrgyzstan is perhaps the hardest to read.

Remember when Kyrgyzstan was called the “island of democracy” in Central Asia?

No one calls Kyrgyzstan that anymore.

HRW opened the report saying “Human rights protections and civil liberties in Kyrgyzstan continued to decline in 2023…"

Bloggers seem to have been a prime target in 2023.

This non-traditional form of media has filled spaces left open after state campaigns against independent media.

In Tajikistan, “scores of bloggers detained for their opinions on the government’s policies,” and in Kyrgyzstan “security services targeted bloggers for their social media posts…”

In Turkmenistan, the government is always on the lookout for anything that even remotely seems critical of authorities.

So, it was natural that “police interrogated and warned local bloggers to post only positive content about Turkmenistan or face arrest.”

Why It’s Important: The downward trend in respecting the rights of citizens comes as all five Central Asian countries are enjoying more international attention than ever before.

The reason for this unprecedented interest is the vacuum created by Russia as it wages its full-scale war in Ukraine.

Trade routes through Russia are under sanctions from European countries.

The money and material Russia is pouring into its war efforts has impacted Central Asia and other countries have rushed in to sign new deals for investment and security.

In the past, Western countries were moderately effective in pressuring the Central Asian governments to observe some basic rights.

Now, the Central Asian governments have a variety of international partners from which to choose.

Authorities in the Arab states, China, Iran, and other countries that are courting closer ties with Central Asia aren’t much concerned with the rights of Central Asia’s people.

That leaves the Central Asian states in a strong position to ignore criticism of their authoritarian forms of government and do whatever they feel necessary to strengthen their control over their citizens.

Majlis Podcast

The latest Majlis podcast looks at the controversy over Kyrgyzstan’s new national flag and what it says about the current government running the country.

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov favored altering the flag and later admitted changing the flag was his idea.

Japarov’s government pushed the plan through despite strong opposition from members of the public and some of those against the change were threatened or jailed.

The guests for this podcast are:

  • Leila Seiitbek, chairwoman of the NGO Freedom for Eurasia; and
  • Admir Kurman, who is from Kyrgyzstan, but currently works in London as an innovation strategist.

What I'm Following

Kyrgyzstan’s Draft Media Law Reintroduced

The draft law on media initiated by the presidential administration has again been introduced in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament.

The controversial law was first introduced to parliament in October 2022 but has been withdrawn several times for revisions in response to domestic and international criticism.

Critics of the draft bill say it resembles the media law passed in Russia that the government there used to shut down independent media outlets.

The Death of Karakalpak Diaspora Leader in Kazakhstan

Nietbay Urazbaev, a 54-year-old Karakalpak diaspora leader in Kazakhstan, died of a heart attack in an Almaty hospital on January 9.

Urazbaev lived in Kazakhstan for nearly 20 years, but he was originally from the Karakalpak Republic in western Uzbekistan.

Uzbek authorities accused Urazbaev of helping foment the deadly violence in Karakalpakstan in July 2022.

On May 23, 2023, Urazbaev was convicted in absentia by an Uzbek court and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Urazbaev has had Kazakh citizenship since 2007, but that was annulled late last year in what some felt was a step towards eventually deporting him back to Uzbekistan.

Fact of the Week

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were the biggest sellers of gold in the world in 2023. Kazakhstan sold 50 metric tons and Uzbekistan sold a bit more than 30 metric tons.

Thanks for Reading

NOTE: The Central Asia in Focus newsletter and Majlis podcast will now be published bi-weekly.

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.

Until next time,
Bruce

P.S. - If you enjoyed this newsletter and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here.

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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