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Central Asia in Focus: Kazakh Authorities Send Mixed Signals on Using SpaceX’s Starlink

In this week’s edition: Kazakh authorities send mixed signals on using SpaceX’s Starlink, EU Anti-Drug Program warns of increase of Afghan methamphetamines in Uzbekistan, Turkmen authorities prevent journalist from collecting international award, and more.

Starlink is a satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX providing satellite Internet access to most of the Earth.
Starlink is a satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX providing satellite Internet access to most of the Earth.

In the Region

Kazakh Authorities Send Mixed Signals on Using SpaceX’s Starlink

On November 7, Kazakhstan’s government approved a national accessible internet project that includes testing the use of currently-banned SpaceX Starlink technology in 10 rural schools.

Kazakhstan is moving to introduce 5G technology across the country, but the government first wants to study how the privately-owned Starlink system would be used in Kazakhstan.

The Telecommunications Committee of Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Digital Development, Innovation, and Aerospace Industry on November 17 warned citizens that, for now, it is still illegal to use Starlink.

Starlink is a series of thousands of small satellites, launched into orbit by SpaceX, that can provide high-speed Internet access to most parts of the world.

The Director of the Ministry’s Telecommunications Committee Dias Tolegenov said use of the “current version” of Starlink “violates current (Kazakh) legislation, as it does not meet safety requirements.”

Tolegenov was responding to comments from journalists that many people in Kazakhstan were purchasing and installing Starlink on their computers for personal use.

Tolegenov said until technical studies on Starlink use at these schools are complete and new legislation is approved, “it will be illegal” for Kazakh citizens to use the system.

Those selling or using the system could face a fine of 34,500 tenge (some $75).

Tolegenov assured the wait would not be long and after amendments were passed regarding use of the system “Kazakhstanis will be able to legally use terminals.”

Why It’s Important: The Kazakh government is already preparing the project’s next step, to expand access to Starlink to 2,000 rural schools. This project was agreed between Minister of Digital Development, Innovation and Aerospace Industry Bagdat Musin and SpaceX executive Lauren Dreyer on October 12.

It is part of 2024-2027 state program that will cost some 1.5 trillion tenge (about $3.2 billion) to provide nationwide broadband Internet access at a speed of at least 100 megabits per second.

Tolegenov did not detail what the study of Starlink will entail, but almost certainly it will involve the state’s ability to block prohibited websites and interrupt service during a national crisis.

During the unrest in Kazakhstan in January 2022 that left at least 238 people dead, authorities cut Internet access in the country when violence broke out.

Kazakh authorities see the necessity of having reliable high-speed internet access that reaches even the most remote parts of the country – but they do not want it used to foment unrest.

EU Anti-Drug Program Warns of Increase of Afghan Methamphetamines in Uzbekistan

The head of the European Union’s Central Asia Drug Action Program (CADAP) warned that Uzbekistan is likely to see a rise in the amount of methamphetamines coming from neighboring Afghanistan.

CADAP director Ernest Robello said at a November 15 event in Uzbekistan that opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was down by 95 percent since April 2022.

Robello added that while there has been a decline in opium-based drugs coming out of Afghanistan, there has been a surge in other drugs coming from Afghanistan, notably methamphetamines.

In May, Uzbek border guards stopped a truck entering the country from Afghanistan that was hauling 18 metric tons of pomegranate juice in plastic bottles purchased by an Uzbek company.

Several of the boxes were marked with the letter “M” and border guards said the color of the liquid inside 48 bottles in those boxes differed from the rest of the shipment.

The juice in those bottles tested positive for containing methamphetamines.

Uzbek counter-narcotics officials determined the intended recipients planned to evaporate the juice in a laboratory and collect the remaining methamphetamine for sale.

Uzbek border guards estimated the value of the seized methamphetamines to be tens of millions of dollars.

The border guards also reported seizing more than 240 pounds of synthetic drugs in 2022, and 227 pounds during the first four months of 2023.

Why It’s Important: The UN Office on Drugs and Crime said in early September that Afghanistan is quickly becoming one the world’s leading producers of methamphetamines.

The data on confiscated drugs provided by Uzbek border guards already show a sharp increase in methamphetamine trafficking into Uzbekistan.

The situation is likely worse with the other Central Asian states neighboring Afghanistan that have much longer borders.

Uzbekistan’s border with Afghanistan is only about 100 miles long.

Turkmenistan’s border with Afghanistan is some 460 miles long and much of it is sparsely inhabited desert, and the border with Tajikistan is about 843 miles long, most of it running through remote and sparsely inhabited mountains.

Neither of those two Central Asian countries have commented on drug seizures involving synthetic drugs.

The Central Asian states have been on trafficking routes for Afghan opium and heroin headed toward Russia and Europe for more than three decades.

Now Central Asia can expect to be part of new Afghan amphetamine trafficking routes to pass through the region, targeting world markets.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at gender violence in Kazakhstan after three shocking cases there dominated the news in November.

In one case, police pressured a rape victim to drop her case. In another case, the rapist was the police chief.

The cases, and that of a woman beaten to death by her prominent husband, have sparked new calls for greater protection for women.

This week’s guests are:

What I’m Following

Finally, Gasification in Almaty

A natural gas distribution system at Almaty’s Thermal Power Plant Two (TPP-2) was just put into operation, as part of a project to convert the coal-burning power plant to use cleaner-burning natural gas.

Air pollution from coal-fired TPPs in big cities across Central Asia has been reaching dangerous levels for health.

Governments in the region have been promising to transition their thermal power plants from using coal to natural gas, but nearly all these projects have yet to be realized.

Almaty Deputy Mayor Askar Amrin said changing from coal to gas at (TPP-2) will cut pollutant emissions from the current 37,000 metric tons annually to 3,000 metric tons.

TPP-2 is the largest TPP in Almaty Province and provides Almaty city with 60 percent of its heat and 40 percent of the city’s electricity.

Turkmen Authorities Prevent Journalist from Collecting International Award

On November 17, Turkmen authorities prevented veteran Turkmen journalist Soltan Achilova, 74, from boarding a flight to Geneva to receive a prestigious international award.

Achilova is a photojournalist who has reported on social problems and government violations of human rights in Turkmenistan.

She was going to Geneva to accept the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders and speak at several public events.

Customs officials at the Ashgabat airport declared the passports of Achilova, and her daughter Maya who was accompanying Achilova to Geneva, were invalid.

Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia Rachel Denber posted on X (formerly Twitter) about Achilova’s situation: “(T)he Turkmen gov is doing more damage to its reputation than anything Achilova could have possibly said while abroad,” Denber wrote.

Fact of the Week

“Tajikistan ranks among the top 12 exporters of dried apricots worldwide. Approximately 10% of the global production of apricots is concentrated in (Tajikistan’s northern) Sughd province.”

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 (formerly Twitter) or by responding to this email, 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,