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Central Asia in Focus: Poisonous Air in Kazakhstan

Call for sanctions on Tajik Officials, criminalizing domestic violence in Uzbekistan, UN to visit Tajikistan, Kazakh oil workers detained, and more.

The city of Atyrau covered with acrid smoke from above.
KAZAKHSTAN — The city of Atyrau was covered with acrid smoke. Video from atyrauoil.official public on Instagram.

What’s Happening in the Region

The Poisonous Air of Atyrau, Kazakhstan

Air pollution has become a serious problem in many cities and towns in Central Asia, but Kazakhstan’s western city of Atyrau has been experiencing an alarming concentration of toxic chemicals in the air recently.

On April 8, officials in the Caspian port city of Atyrau, population approximately 370,000, announced excessive amounts of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur in the air.

In the residential neighborhood of Shagala, the level of hydrogen sulfide in the air was 20 times more than normal.

Hydrogen sulfide has a foul smell, is highly toxic, and can damage the respiratory system and skin.

Residents have been reporting thick smog covering Atyrau since late March.

Officials initially blamed a fire that broke out in a large field of reeds outside the city as the cause of the smog.

But many residents of Atyrau suspect the nearby oil refinery is the source of the air pollution.

Some 500 Atyrau residents gathered outside a city stadium on April 9.

They demanded the government and large enterprises operating in the area carry out an investigation on the effects of the oil and natural gas sector on the health of the people living in Atyrau.

There was no word on whether the government or any of the oil and gas companies in the Atyrau area responded to the demands of the Atyrau residents.

Why It’s Important: Air pollution has become one of Central Asia’s biggest problems as the countries expand their industries, many of which are based on extraction and processing of raw materials.

The governments’ desire for more revenue has often made environmental concerns secondary considerations at best.

The Atyrau refinery was fined in 2022 for ecological damages.

The fine was equivalent to $11,000 — hardly enough to force management to invest millions of dollars in more efficient technologies that create less pollution.

Kazakhstan is a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement and is receiving financial assistance to fulfill commitments on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A Call for Targeted Sanctions on Tajik Officials

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee’s (NHC) representative is calling for international sanctions targeting Tajik officials who are making “a mockery of justice and rule of law.”

NHC’s regional representative in Central Asia, Marius Fossum, was responding in a tweet to news about independent Tajik journalist Khurshed Fozilov facing charges of cooperation with a banned organization.

Fozilov was detained on March 6 in Tajikistan’s western city of Penjikent. Shortly after that he was charged, originally, with making public calls for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order in Tajikistan.

NHC released a statement in late March noting Tajik authorities “have not provided any further public information about [Fozilov’s] alleged wrongdoing.”

The NHC statement said Fozilov “mostly wrote on the issues faced by the people in the Zarafshan Valley, frequently criticizing local government.” The organization also brought attention to five other Tajik journalists who have been arrested and imprisoned since September 2022, four of them convicted on the same charge Fozilov now faces.

Fossum suggested the Tajik government officials responsible for the crackdown on journalists should be subjected to Magnitsky sanctions.

Such sanctions would allow individual governments to freeze assets of Tajik officials and ban them from entering the territories of countries supporting the sanctions.

Since May 2022, when Tajik security forces carried out a brutal operation in eastern Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, dozens of journalists, bloggers, rights activists, and others have been detained.

In closed trials, most were convicted of extremism, or ties to extremist groups, or of making public calls for the overthrow of the government.

Why It’s Important: For many months, Tajik authorities have been shrugging off calls and appeals from governments and international organizations to stop the ongoing and widespread campaign of repression in Tajikistan.

The Tajik government has paid no attention to these calls and appeals.

Clearly, new tactics are needed to convince Tajik authorities to rein in their abuses.

Singling out those responsible by going after their money and limiting their ability to travel might prove more effective in persuading them to correct their policies.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at the Uzbek Senate’s approval of a landmark law criminalizing domestic violence and strengthening legal protections for women and children.

It was a long process to get the bill this far, and the Uzbek president signed it into law on April 11.

This week’s guests are Nozima Davletova, chairperson of Uzbekistan’s Mass Media Foundation; Dilfuza Kurolova, a human rights lawyer and activist for gender equality; and Irina Matvienko, feminist activist and founder of, an organization dedicated to ending gender violence and promoting equality.

They are three people whose work was key to guiding the bill through parliament, all the way to the president’s desk.

What I’m Following

UN to Assess Freedom of Religion in Tajikistan

UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Nazila Ghanea is making an official visit to Tajikistan from April 11-21.

Ghanea will meet with government officials, representatives of religious communities in Tajikistan, and civil society organizations.

Ghanea has requested visits to Khujand and Khorugh during her stay in Tajikistan.

At a press conference scheduled on the last day of the visit, Ghanea will share preliminary observations from her trip.

Kazakh Oil Workers Bring Protest to Capital

At least 82 unemployed oil workers from the western Kazakh city of Zhanaozen traveled to the capital Astana and protested outside the Energy Ministry on April 10.

The group was demanding that authorities find them work.

Such demands have been made by other oil workers in Kazakhstan recently (see last week’s newsletter).

Police clashed with the oil workers on April 11 and detained them.

There were demonstrations of support for the oil workers in Zhanaozen and in the Caspian coastal city of Aqtau on April 11.

Five of the demonstrators in Astana remain in detention. The others were put on a train back to Zhanaozen.

Tensions are rising and Kazakh authorities should expect more protests from oil workers in western Kazakhstan in the coming weeks.

Fact of the Week

The 0.75-mile bridge across the Amu-Darya (river) connecting what is today Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan was completed in 1901 by Tsarist occupying forces in Central Asia.

Turkmen authorities recently announced the bridge will be demolished since another bridge to replace it was finished in 2017.

Thanks for Reading

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See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.

Until next time,