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Central Asia in Focus: September 27, 2022

Tajik Courts Convicting GBAO Residents, Rest in Peace Robin Ord-Smith, Kazakhstan’s Presidential Election, and more.

TAJIKISTAN — Ulfathonim Mamadshoeva and Kholbash Kholbashov. Photo from social networks.

What’s Happening in the Region

Tajik Courts Convicting Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) Residents

Tajik courts are rendering guilty verdicts in court cases against dozens of people from the eastern GBAO.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s government has cracked down hard on GBAO, which is the home of the Pamiris, a distinct ethnic group in Tajikistan who are also Shi’ite Muslims rather than Sunnis as most Tajiks are.

Remote GBAO has never been fully under the control of the Tajik government, and it seems Tajik authorities are taking measures to change that situation.

Former border guard general and GBAO native Kholbash Kholbashov and his ex-wife Ulfathonim Mamadshoeva, also from GBAO, were detained on charges of organizing unrest in GBAO, and shortly after were shown on state television confessing to those charges.

At a closed-door trial on September 21, Kholbashov was convicted of murder and terrorism and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mamadshoeva’s trial continues and prosecutors are asking she be sentenced to 25 years in prison.

More than 70 other people, all residents of GBAO’s Rushan district, were convicted the same day as Kholbashov and received prison sentences ranging from 1.5 to 18 years.

Some Rushan residents attempted to block the road through the area and prevent government reinforcements from reaching the GBAO regional capital Khorugh, where protests broke out on May 16.

Those protests were peaceful until Tajik troops and security forces started firing tear gas and the Tajik government ordered a counter-terrorism operation be carried out in GBAO that lasted into the middle of June.

Tajik authorities have not produced any evidence to support the claim there was terrorism in GBAO during the protests, but arrests of GBAO residents have continued to this day.

Several of the most influential GBAO community leaders were killed by security forces in May and June, and more than a dozen others have already been convicted and sent to prison since the security operation ended.

Why It’s Important: The persecution of the Pamiris happens as many inside and outside Tajikistan are expecting President Rahmon, who turns 70 on October 5, to hand over power to his 34-year-old son Rustam.

Pundits speculate that the reason for the crackdown on GBAO is to eliminate any form of opposition in that region.

GBAO was the only area in Tajikistan where protests continued to happen.

If such policies are used to pave the way for Rustam’s succession, what sort of governance can one expect once Rustam is in power?

Rest in Peace Robin Ord-Smith

A good friend of Central Asia and people interested in Central Asia passed away recently.

Robin Ord-Smith was Britain’s ambassador to Tajikistan from 2012-2015 and ambassador to Kyrgyzstan from 2015-2018, then stayed in Kyrgyzstan, becoming the Business Ombudsman of the Kyrgyz Republic.

His unexpected death on September 20 at 56-years-old left many of us shocked and saddened.

The stories people posted on Twitter about their encounters with Robin aptly brought out the character of the man.

Eurasianet writer and editor Peter Leonard recalled riding through the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan when an overly concerned friend reported to the British Embassy Peter had not been heard from for several days.

Ord-Smith was the British Ambassador at the time.

“He got the police and heaven knows who else to put out an alert and send him details of every checkpoint I went through,” Leonard wrote.

Ord-Smith invited Leonard to Queen Elizabeth’s Birthday Party in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, “and raised a toast to me as the traveller who got lost in the Pamirs.”

Christian Bleuer, who spends a lot of time hiking in Tajikistan’s mountains, remembered being “in a room in Qurghonteppa with an assorted collection of dusty, low rent Europeans when this guy opened the door and says ‘Whisky, boys?’”

Bleuer continued, “He handed us a good bottle of whatever and then disappeared into the night with a couple of sheep dogs. The best.”

I never met Robin in person though we sent DMs back and forth to each over the years talking about events in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Ord-Smith was said to be a mixologist extraordinaire, and he extended an open invitation to give me a demonstration of these skills the next time I was in Bishkek.

I’m sorry I missed that opportunity.

Why It’s Important : Robin was a good person who was interested in Central Asia and in helping those who shared his passion for the region.

That he stayed in Kyrgyzstan with the goal of helping that country in his role as Business Ombudsman after finishing his ambassadorship speaks volumes about his love for Kyrgyzstan and more broadly Central Asia.

His death is a loss for all of us who wish well for Central Asia.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This latest Majlis podcast looks at how years of conflicts along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border have changed the lives of people living in the area.

This week’s guest is Madeleine Reeves, a Professor of Social Anthropology at Oxford University and author of the book “Border Work: Spatial Lines of the State in Rural Central Asia,” which is based on the years Reeves lived in the Kyrgyz-Tajik border area.

What I’m Following

Who Will Run in Kazakhstan’s Presidential Election

Last week I was waiting for an announcement about the date for Kazakhstan’s presidential election.

Now we know the election will be on November 20.

The question now is who will run against incumbent Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev?

The Russians Are Coming

There have been many reports in recent days about Russians fleeing their homeland after President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization to draft more troops for the war on Ukraine.

Looking at the Twitter posts of some of my Central Asian friends, I see prices for renting flats and hotel rooms in areas of Kazakhstan and in the capitals of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have shot up dramatically, and Russians are snatching up fruit at markets in Tashkent.

Economic times are not great in Central Asia. Many people in all the countries are having trouble making ends meet.

The arrival of tens of thousands of relatively wealthy Russian citizens could be a problem among the locals who are already hard pressed by shortages of basic food, such as sugar and flour, and for those looking for flats to rent in towns and cities where Russians are willing and able to spend more than locals can afford.

Fact of the Week

The official death toll from the brief war between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is now at 103 — 62 Kyrgyz citizens and 41 Tajik citizens.

Thanks for Reading

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