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Central Asia in Focus: Wake Up, Kazakhstan Activists Jailed

Competition for nuclear power plants, Karakalpaks appeal, snap presidential election in Uzbekistan, and more.

Activists of the Oyan, Qazaqstan! At a rally on Republic Square in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Nov. 20, 2022.
Activists of the Oyan, Qazaqstan! At a rally on Republic Square in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Nov. 20, 2022. Assautayeva Manshuk (RFE/RL).

What’s Happening in the Region

Oyan, Qazaqstan Activists Jailed

Oyan, Qazaqstan (Wake Up, Kazakhstan) movement activists Darkhan Sharipov and Vlada Yermolcheva were picked up by police in Almaty during the evening of May 6 and sentenced to 15 days in jail.

Activists in Kazakhstan are regularly detained when they attend unsanctioned meetings, or sometimes before the meetings even happen, if authorities get wind of it prior to the event.

In this case, the two activists were taken into custody for incidents that happened weeks and months ago.

Yermolcheva and Sharipov were charged with violating the law on organizing and conducting public meetings.

In Yermolcheva’s case, it was for a March 26 demonstration against the results of the Kazakh parliamentary elections one week earlier.

In Sharipov’s case, it was for an Oyan, Qazaqstan rally on November 20 against the Kazakh presidential election being held that day.

Yermolcheva also attended that rally; she and Sharipov were among 10 people detained.

Sharipov said he was detained on May 6 as he left his home and Yermolcheva as she was having dinner at a restaurant.

Why It’s Important: Kazakh authorities regularly detain people preemptively when it becomes known that there are public meetings planned at which criticism of government policies will be voiced.

Detaining people days ahead of such unsanctioned rallies sends a message to everyone thinking of attending the event – you go to the demonstration, you go to jail.

Kazakh authorities are undoubtedly sending a message by jailing Yermolcheva and Sharipov, but it’s not clear yet what the message is.

Oyan, Qazaqstan presents a different sort of challenge for the Kazakh government.

Its members are politically savvy and active young people. They’re going to be around for a long time.

Oyan, Qazaqstan activists come from a variety of backgrounds and ethnic groups, and there is no single leader.

Jailing Yermolcheva and Sharipov shows the Kazakh government is worried about Oyan, Qazaqstan, but the big question is what exactly worries Kazakh authorities.

The French Connection for Nuclear Reactors

The competition to build the first nuclear power plants (NPP) in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is heating up.

Both Central Asian countries have been having difficulties keeping the power on during the last three winters.

Outages of electricity and heating have grown worse with each passing year.

NPPs are not cheap.

The average cost for a NPP with one reactor can be around $10 billion.

Russian state nuclear company Rosatom was seen as the favorite to win the NPP contracts in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

That’s less certain now as the sanctions being imposed on Russia for its full-scale war in Ukraine make doing business with Rosatom complicated.

Why am I bringing this up now?

Because French Foreign Trade Minister Olivier Becht visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan at the start of May, making a pitch for Electricite de France (EDF) to build their NPPs.

EDF is already short-listed for the NPP project in Kazakhstan, alongside Rosatom, the China National Nuclear Corporation, and South Korea’s Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. Ltd.

The French are looking to boost their chances for the Uzbek contract also.

Becht announced during his visit to Tashkent that French President Emmanuel Macron would visit Uzbekistan before the end of 2023.

Nuclear power is a contentious issue in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but public resistance is far stronger in Kazakhstan.

That’s understandable since Soviet authorities conducted 456 nuclear tests between 1949-1989 in northern Kazakhstan’s Semipalatinsk region.

However, the energy source Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have resorted to during power shortages in the last three years is coal.

Air pollution levels have been noticeably increasing and people are still living in dark cold rooms.

Why It’s Important: If they are settled on nuclear power, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan should be concerned about obtaining the best and cleanest NPP possible.

No one wants another Chernobyl or Three Mile Island and Central Asia experiences frequent earthquakes.

But with Russian and Chinese companies competing for the NPP contracts, the choice to construct the NPPs is also political.

Both those countries have huge influence in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

It’s discomforting to think the choice of NPP builder could be the result of a political compromise.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at the situation in eastern Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO).

The Tajik government has been cracking down on the region since May 16, 2022, when security forces were sent to GBAO to suppress a peaceful protest.

Dozens of people have been killed, hundreds arrested, and there has been a systematic destruction of the unique culture in GBAO.

This week’s guests are:

What I’m Following

Karakalpaks Appeal

The appeals trials of 16 Karakalpaks is set to begin on May 10.

The trials were supposed to start on May 5, but the court postponed the hearings.

The Karakalpaks were convicted at trials earlier this year for their alleged roles in violence that broke out in Karakalpakstan in July 2022.

The unrest started over changes to the constitution that would have stripped Karakalpakstan of its nominal sovereignty. Twenty-one people died.

Snap Presidential Election in Uzbekistan

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev announced May 8 there will be a snap presidential election in Uzbekistan on July 9.

The move comes after a national referendum on April 30 approved amendments to Uzbekistan’s constitution, among them changing the president’s term in office from five to seven years.

That allows Mirziyoev to run for two more terms.

The snap election was predicted by Voice of America’s Navbahor Imamova in the April 23 Majlis podcast.

Fact of the Week

Kazakhstan’s National Statistics Bureau released demographic figures for the country’s population that show 70.65 percent of the population are ethnic Kazakhs (70.65%), followed by ethnic Russians (15.18%), and Uzbeks (3.25%).

When Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, less than half the population was ethnic Kazakhs.

Get in Touch

Thanks for reading this week’s newsletter.

Feel free to contact me on Twitter @BrucePannier or click reply if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or just want to connect with me about topics concerning Central Asia.

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

Until next time,