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Central Asia in Focus: U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Visits Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan

Lukpan Akhmedyarov detained, Kazakh oil shipped through BTC, UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom makes recommendations, and more.

US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu. Bektur Stamkulov
US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu. Bektur Stamkulov (RFE/RL).

What’s Happening in the Region

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Visits Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan

Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu travels to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan from April 22-27.

Though Assistant Secretary Lu’s trip was likely planned well in advance, the timing could not be better thanks to a recent move by Russia and a recent comment by China’s ambassador to France.

Assistant Secretary Lu will go to Kyrgyzstan first. He was the U.S. ambassador there from 2018-2021.

On April 20, Russia’s agriculture control agency Rosselkhoznadzor announced it was banning imports of dairy products from Kyrgyzstan as of April 21.

Kyrgyz officials said they had not been informed until the day of Rosselkhoznadzor’s announcement.

Kyrgyzstan is in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). EAEU members Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia are supposed to enjoy mutual trade advantages.

Russia has suddenly and unilaterally imposed import bans on EAEU members before.

It’s a reminder to other EAEU members that they are not in an equal partnership with Russia in this organization.

Then there is the April 21 comment from Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to France.

Appearing on French television, Ambassador Lu was asked about whether Crimea is Russian or Ukrainian territory.

As part of his response, Ambassador Lu said, [T]hese ex-Soviet Union countries do not have effective status… under international law,” and added, “there’s no international accord to legitimate their status as a sovereign country.”

That’s a lot to think about for all the countries that were former Soviet republics, the five Central Asian countries among them.

Why It’s Important: U.S. officials’ trips to Central Asia are meant in part to assure the Central Asian states of Washington’s continued support for their territorial integrity and sovereignty.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in February with that message.

A State Department press release says Assistant Secretary of State Lu “will emphasize the United States’ enduring commitment to the… sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence” of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Assistant Secretary Lu’s words of support will probably be most welcome in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

A Frequent Target of Kazakh Authorities

Kazakh journalist and political activist Lukpan Akhmedyarov might be headed to court, again.

Police detained Akhmedyarov on April 12 for organizing an unsanctioned protest three days earlier in the western Kazakh city of Uralsk, also known as Oral, Akhmedyarov’s hometown.

Akhmedyarov applied in advance with the local authorities for permission for the demonstration.

The aim of his protest, according to his post on Facebook, was to “express disagreement with the political regime of (Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart) Toqaev.”

Such a public meeting was never likely to receive official approval.

It is difficult to imagine anything Akhmedyarov requested would be granted by Kazakh authorities.

Akhmedyarov is a veteran journalist and government critic.

He worked at the Uralsk Weekly (Uralskaya Nedelya) newspaper since it was founded in 2001, most of that time as chief editor.

The newspaper covers local events in the Uralsk area, located near the Russian border and some 1,250 miles west of the Kazakh capital Astana.

Akhmedyarov often reported about corruption in Kazakhstan, including corruption among government officials.

Unsurprisingly, the newspaper and Akhmedyarov have faced problems.

In July 2012, a court found Uralsk Weekly guilty of defamation and ordered the newspaper pay a fine of some $36,000, an amount Reporters Without Borders said at the time was ”exorbitant” and “disproportionate.”

At that time, Akjmedyarov was still recovering from being beaten and stabbed.

Four attackers were apprehended, convicted, and given prison sentences ranging from 11 to 15 years, but those responsible for ordering the attack were never found.

Why It’s Important: Akhmedyarov was jailed for 15 days for the April 9 protest, but on April 21 he was moved to another holding facility used for people facing criminal charges.

Akhmedyarov ran in Kazakhstan’s March parliamentary elections and was one of many opposition figures, activists, and government critics who failed to win a seat.

Many people in Kazakhstan are disillusioned with the elections’ results, despite promises from officials that people will have more say in governing the country.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at some of the important proposed changes to Uzbekistan’s new constitution.

A national referendum to approve those amendments is scheduled for April 30.

No one doubts it will pass since one change paves the way for incumbent President Shavkat Mirziyoev to stay in power for 14 additional years.

This week’s guests are Navbahor Imamova, correspondent for the Uzbek service at Voice of America; Alisher Ilkhamov, Director of Central Asia Due Diligence; and Steve Swerdlow, a rights lawyer with many years of experience in Central Asia who is currently an Associate Professor at the University of Southern California.

What I’m Following

First Kazakh Oil Shipped through BTC Pipeline

Kazakh state oil and gas company KazMunaiGaz (KMG) chief Magzum Mirzagaliev said the first shipment of Kazakh oil has been pumped into the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline on its way to Romania.

The shipment was 80,000 metric tons.

Under a five-year deal signed between KMG and the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic last year, Kazakhstan will export some 1.5 million metric tons of oil annually through the BTC to customers in Europe.

More than 80 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil exports go through Russia’s Black Sea port at Novorossiysk.

Operations at Novorossiysk were suspended four times in 2022. Some people felt this was punishment for Kazakhstan’s failure to support Russia in its full-scale war on Ukraine.

UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom Makes Recommendations for Tajikistan

UN Special Rapporteur for freedom of religion Nazila Ghanea visited Tajikistan from April 11-21, and at the end of her trip issued a statement.

Tajikistan’s government keeps tight control over religious activities in the country.

Some Islamic groups and non-Islamic groups have complained about discrimination.

Ghanea urged Tajik authorities to “look beyond their singular concern with extremism, terrorism, and incitement,” and consider “the positive contributions of religion or belief to a harmonious and rich public life.”

Fact of the Week

Uzbekistan’s Statistics Agency said on April 22 that the country’s natural gas imports for March cost $151.2 million.

Uzbekistan’s gas imports for all of 2022 cost $281.9 million.

Thanks for Reading

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

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

Until next time,