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Central Asia in Focus: Water Clashes

Afghan-Iran clashes over water, Kyrgyz “Foreign Representatives” law, Uzbek Opposition Leader attacked, and more.

The Taliban maintains that low water levels on Afghanistan's Helmand River –– which feeds lakes and wetlands in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province –– preclude releasing more water. (AFP).
The Taliban maintains that low water levels on Afghanistan’s Helmand River — which feeds lakes and wetlands in Iran’s southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province — preclude releasing more water. (AFP).

What’s Happening in the Region

Central Asia Has Reason to Worry About Afghan-Iran Clashes

The shooting between Taliban and Iranian forces on May 27 is a distressing development for the region. It’s especially concerning for Central Asian governments because the cause of dispute was water and Central Asia has a similar dispute with Afghanistan.

The Taliban have told their immediate neighbors that Afghanistan is not a threat to them. However, at least two Iranian border guards and one Taliban fighter were killed when Iranian and Taliban forces exchanged mortar and machinegun fire where Afghanistan’s Nimroz Province borders Iran.

The cause of the fighting was a dispute between Iran and Afghanistan over water use. It should be alarming for Afghanistan’s neighbors how quickly the Taliban raised tensions with Iran.

Iran complains the Taliban are not allowing sufficient water from Afghan dams into the Helmand River that flows into southeastern Iran.

On May 18, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Iran’s parched southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province.

Raisi warned the “rulers of Afghanistan…should immediately give water rights” to Iran.

The Taliban responded that “Iranian officials should first complete their knowledge about water in Helmand” and in the future, “present their requests with appropriate language.”

On May 26, the Taliban released a music video threatening to attack Iran.

On May 27, the two sides exchanged fire. Each blames the other for starting the shooting, but the situation was quickly defused.

Why It’s Important: There have already been small clashes between Taliban fighters and Turkmen troops in early 2022 and between Taliban and Uzbek troops in August 2022.

The matters were quickly swept under the carpet by all parties involved.

The Taliban are digging the Qosh Tepa canal in northern Afghanistan that will take up to 15 percent of the water from a river Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also use for agriculture.

Central Asia faces complications using trade routes to the West that pass through Russian territory.

The Central Asian governments, particularly Uzbekistan, were hoping to compensate — at least partially — by opening up routes through to the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean through Iran and Afghanistan.

That could be complicated by the hostility between Iran and the Taliban.

The speed with which the Taliban fomented hostility among its fighters towards Iran should also be concerning to the Central Asian governments.

This time Iran was the target, but if Central Asia’s relations with the Taliban sour, there could be Taliban music videos threatening one or more of the Central Asian states.

Kyrgyzstan Moves Closer to Passing “Foreign Representatives” Law

A draft law on “nonprofit organizations” was introduced in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament on May 25.

The law is similar to the “foreign agents” law adopted in Russia to shut down civil society and media organizations.

Member of Parliament Nodira Narmatova has been pushing the bill.

Narmatova was accused by fellow MP Dastan Bekeshev last October of being behind a campaign to close down independent media outlets including Azattyk, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service; Kloop; and Kaktus.Media, an accusation Narmatova denied.

She and 32 other parliamentary deputies co-authored the current bill that avoids using the term “foreign agents,” as the Russian law does, and instead refers to “foreign representatives.”

The proposed law would place significant restrictions on foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and organizations receiving funds from foreign sources.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) said such organizations would be obligated “to provide the state with information about their activities and management (and) explain the purpose of all their expenses…”

Authorities would have the power to fine or sentence individuals for up to 10 years if the NGOs they work for incite citizens “to refuse to perform civil duties” or engage in “unlawful acts.”

Kloop Chief editor Anna Kapushenko told the OCCRP “The wording of the law is so vague that it can be interpreted in any way you want,” and it could affect media as well as NGOs.

Why It’s Important: Similar draft laws have been introduced in parliament several times since 2016 but eventually were sent back for further review.

This time more than one-third of the 90 deputies in parliament are co-authors of the bill.

The government of Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov has shrugged off all criticism of their crackdown on political opposition, civil society, and independent media.

This time, the bill seems likely to pass. If so, a series of closures of NGOs and media outlets that have been working in Kyrgyzstan for many years will follow.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at militant groups in northern Afghanistan that have Central Asian governments in their crosshairs.

International attention is on Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but a more immediate problem for the Central Asian governments is the militant groups in Afghanistan vowing to topple them.

This week’s guests are:

What I’m Following

Uzbek Opposition Leader Attacked

The leader of Uzbekistan’s Truth Progress and Unity party Hidirnazar Allaqulov was attacked on May 21 in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon while collecting signatures to register his party.

Allaqulov says a group of men and women approached him and started taunting him, saying his party had no ideas to solve any of the country’s problems, then they started a scuffle.

Uzbekistan is having a snap presidential election on July 9.

Allaqulov tried unsuccessfully to register his party ahead of the 2021 presidential election.

He faced similar problems from groups of people who suddenly appeared and disrupted party gatherings.

Another Tajik Journalist Sentenced

On May 26, Tajik journalist Khurshed Fozilov was convicted of involvement with a banned group and sentenced to seven years and six months in prison.

Fozilov said he was forced to testify against himself.

In 2022, seven journalists or bloggers in Tajikistan were sentenced to prison terms ranging from seven to 21 years.

Fact of the Week

The unique-looking saiga antelope has made a spectacular come-back in Kazakhstan.

Disease had reduced their numbers to less than 40,000 by 2005 and the saiga was listed as a critically endangered species. However, as of spring 2023, their number had climbed to 1.9 million.

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,