Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have in close succession come up with a new punishment for people suspected of involvement with terrorist organizations. If official accounts are anything to go by, however, the authoritarian governments are also trying their hand at less harsh measures to attack the intensely hyped specter of Islamic terror.
Uzbek news website Anons.uz has reported that President Islam Karimov on August 10 signed off on amendments to the law detailing when somebody can be stripped of their citizenship.
Under the revised law, the penalty will now apply if a given person “has caused substantial harm to the interests of society and the state by engaging in activities in the interests of a foreign state or by committing offenses against peace and security.” Crimes against peace and stability are interpreted in Uzbekistan as acts that include incitement to conflict and terrorism, or any other activity related to terrorism and mass murder.
The U.S. Department of Defense-funded regional military propaganda unit Central Asia Online, meanwhile, reports on the purported good cop part of Uzbekistan’s anti-terrorism campaign.
The National Security Council, a body affiliated to the presidential administration, is spearheading a program aimed at “debunking extremist ideology, supporting traditional Islam” and “promoting harmony among members of different faiths.”
That such a unabashedly approving report should appear in a service funded by the U.S. taxpayer is a stark illustration of the profoundly confused nature of Washington’s stance on Uzbekistan.
A row has erupted in northern Kazakhstan over the erection of a monument to Russian Tsar Nicholas II, who is reviled by many Kazakhs for his association with the bloody suppression of an uprising in 1916.
The bust to Tsar Nicholas II, who was murdered by the Bolsheviks following the 1917 Russian Revolution, was put up by local businessman Pyotr Vanger outside a church in the village of Arkhangelskoye, just south of the border with Russia.
On August 10, the statue was moved inside the village’s Russian Orthodox church following an outcry on social media about a monument revering somebody perceived as a Russian despot appearing in public.
“The monument has been taken inside, into the church,” Tengri News quoted local authorities as saying. “The decision to take it inside was made by the entrepreneur himself, to avoid questions.”
The statue has so far avoided the fate of a monument to Soviet leader Josef Stalin in southern Kazakhstan which was torn down earlier this year after generating a similar controversy.
That statue was removed from its pedestal in May, after villagers had re-erected it following its toppling in a hurricane last summer.
Village authorities ruled that they had acted without planning permission. But the case had wider political connotations as many were enraged at the reverential treatment of a Soviet leader whose policies caused the death of millions of people in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
Statues to Russian and Soviet despots are sensitive for Astana, which is eager to promote its own sovereignty without antagonizing its powerful neighbor and close ally Russia.
The choice of Yesimov to clean up the mess at EXPO-17 following embarrassing revelations that officials had been siphoning off millions from funds intended to organize the international fair suggests he still enjoys Nazarbayev’s confidence. That suggests the 64-year-old former mayor is still a frontrunner to succeed Nazarbayev when a transition of power eventually takes place.
Yesimov’s replacement as mayor of the country’s largest and richest city has been named as Baurzhan Baybek, a top official in the ruling Nur Otan party.
The president was full of praise for Yesimov as he introduced Baybek as his successor in Almaty on August 9. The hundreds of people whose homes were damaged in a mudslide that hit the city last month without early-warning procedures being activated might not be so effusive.
Baybek’s appointment marks him as an up-and-coming politician whose movements will be closely tracked as he climbs the political ladder.
When an Astana businessman dealt a savage beating on a young man he deemed a love rival, he may have thought his influential connections would grant him impunity.
He was wrong.
On August 7, Astana criminal court sentenced Kayrat Zhamaliyev to 13 years in jail, ending a trial that has revealed the power of social media to hold even Kazakhstan’s movers and shakers to account. Two accomplices received prison terms of 12 and eight years.
Zhamaliyev was found guilty of assaulting Alibi Zhumagulov, whom he reportedly suspected of having an affair with his girlfriend.
Adding spice to the high-profile case is the that fact that Zhamaliyev is married and that the woman in question, Aynur Isina, was reportedly his “tokal” — the Kazakh word for a second wife. That aspect of the affair has led wags in Kazakhstan to dub the case “Tokalgate.”
Polygamy is illegal in Kazakhstan, but the practice of taking a second wife – either under Islamic law or informally — is becoming widespread, as Bloomberg has reported.
Isina, who reportedly has a child by Zhamaliyev, stood by the businessman and denied that Alibi had been subjected to any violence. Both she and his wife, Alena Zhamaliyeva, appeared in court to support him.
Zhamaliyev — a well-known figure in Astana and owner of a hotel, two restaurants and a karaoke bar in the city – was accused of inflicting a serious beating on Zhumagulov and subjecting him to a sexual assault.
Scientists believe they have at long last solved the puzzle of what caused the catastrophic die-offs of endangered saiga antelopes on the steppes of Kazakhstan earlier this summer.
State-run Khabar TV reported on August 4 that the death of the roughly 134,000 saigas was caused by a disease that provokes high fevers, painful swellings and shortness of breath, and can lead to death within 24 hours.
“The cause of death of the saigas is hemorrhagic septicemia,” Steffen Zuther, a German researcher and the international coordinator of the Astana-based Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative, told the TV channel.
Hemorrhagic septicemia — which scientists believe was rapidly spread across the steppe by ticks in May — is a form of pasteurellosis, a disease that killed nearly 12,000 saigas in a 2010 epidemic.
Kazakhstan’s government has not yet confirmed the diagnosis. Bakytbek Duysekeyev, an Agriculture Ministry official, told Khabar that research is ongoing and that the results of that work will be collated in the fall.
The disease has wiped out almost half of Kazakhstan’s population of saigas, distinctive creatures with long, humped noses that allows them to filter air during the dusty, summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters.
Before the misfortune struck this year, the country’s population stood at around 300,000, according to government estimates. Astana’s figures are higher than the estimate of 265,000 produced last year by the international Saiga Conservation Alliance after an aerial study of roaming grounds in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan's glitzy new capital has been put on Europe's football map as FC Astana overcame Finland's HJK to book a place in the UEFA Champions League play-off round, leaving it two games away from a place in the group stage of Europe's elite club tournament.
The dramatic 4-3 victory over HJK — Astana scored in the third minute of injury time — guarantees the club at least a spot in the group stages of the UEFA Europa League, making the club only the second team from Kazakhstan, after Shakhter Karagandy, to reach this stage.
Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian country to play its soccer in Europe. It joined UEFA — the Union of European Football Associations — in 2002 after competing for 10 years in the Asian Football Confederation, where Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan play their international football.
FC Astana was formed in 2008 from the ashes of two defunct clubs from Kazakhstan's commercial hub, Almaty. It was originally known as Lokomotiv Astana and was bankrolled by Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, the national railroad company.
In 2011, it changed its name and was brought under the wing of Samruk-Kazyna, the national sovereign-wealth fund. The injection of cash has seen the club recently invest in young talent such as Ghanaian forward Patrick Twumasi, who scored Astana's opener against HJK, and Serbian midfielder Nemanja Maksimović.
The club's success is a boost for Kazakhstan's image after the blow of losing the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing last week. Sport plays a key role in Kazakhstan's project to promote itself on the international stage.
Turkmenistan’s leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has flown to Kyrgyzstan with promises of enduring friendship and, on a more practical note, supplies of cheap electricity.
As ever though, natural gas was being discussed as Turkmenistan presses forward in its program to create as many export routes for its fuel as possible.
Speaking after talks in Bishkek on August 5, Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev was fulsome in his gratitude for commitments that are still only notional.
“I want to thank you for your brotherly word about Turkmenistan’s readiness to deliver electricity at very low prices. I think that all the issues to do with its transportation will be settled,” he told his guest.
Easier said than done given the not inconsiderable issue of Uzbekistan, which lies between the two countries. Tashkent has historically proven an unreliable transit nation for power deliveries. In 2009, Uzbekistan interrupted electricity supplies from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan when it pulled out of the Soviet-engineered power grid that links Central Asian nations.
Ashgabat committed in 2013 to investing $5 billion over a seven year period into increasing its export capacity fivefold, so it should on paper have enough to go around. It is unclear, other than sheer brotherliness, why Turkmenistan would commit to subsidizing Kyrgyzstan’s notoriously inefficient electricity system.
Any Kyrgyz government unwilling to countenance political unrest will consider raising electricity tariffs at their own peril.
Skirmishes sparked by a territorial dispute between residents along the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border escalated on August 4, leaving several people injured and damaging multiple homes.
News website Asia-Plus cited Tajik officials as saying Kyrgyz border guards were actively engaged in the disturbances and deployed firearms. Kyrgyzstan promptly denied that accusation, but confirmed that shots were indeed fired, possibly from a shotgun.
The area at the focus of this and much previous unrest lies on the jagged frontier where the east of Tajikistan’s Sughd province and Kyrgyzstan’s Batken province meet.
Kyrgyzstan’s border service said the trouble began on August 3 after crowds on the Tajik side blocked a road passing through the village of Maiskoe, which is used by Kyrgyz residents from the village of Kok-Tash to reach a local cemetery.
“In protest, Kyrgyz citizens blocked the water in a canal that flows into the Tajik village of Chorku,” the border service said in a statement.
The account from Tajikistan, as told by a border service source to Asia-Plus, flips around the sequence. Tajik villagers barred the road to the cemetery because the flow of the river was stemmed, the source said.
Either way, given the value of the river in an otherwise highly barren region, it is likely that depriving a large village of water was what escalated the stakes.
When a senior Tajikistan government official declared in July that Uzbekistan had given up on objections to the Rogun hydropower project, it implausibly seemed like a monumental entente had been reached.
Those remarks, made by Tajik Energy and Water Resources Minister Usmonali Usmonzoda on July 27, have proven woefully misleading, however.
Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry on August 1 issued a statement reiterating its total opposition to the project. For clarity’s sake, it reproduced a speech by Deputy Prime Rustam Azimov from last year that concluded with this unambiguous sentence: “Uzbekistan will never and under no circumstances give its support to this project.”
This brewing standoff may come to a head sooner than expected if Tajikistan’s optimistic timetable comes to fruition.
In August, Usmonzoda said Tajikistan plans to commission the first two units of the Roghun plant in the next few years. Ozodagon news agency quoted Usmonzoda as putting that timeframe at three years.
The first units will have a combined generating capacity of 800 megawatts, enough to provide the entire country electricity around the clock, Usmonzoda said.
Tajikistan now has to cope with severe power shortages, particularly in the winter, when electricity is rationed to around 4-5 hours in the morning and the same amount in the evening.
Only days after the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar was announced, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan terrorist group has reportedly sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. In a video posted by the IMU-controlled Furqon TV on July 31, a figure identified as the group’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Muhammad Ali, stands in front of the black flag of IS and pledges loyalty to the organization.
The rest of the 16-minute video shows IMU militants carrying out attacks on Afghan army posts in Zabul province, which borders Pakistan. Usman Ghazi, the IMU’s leader since 2012, features in the clip.
This is the first time the IMU’s central leadership has formally sworn allegiance to ISIS. But it is not the first report of IMU-linked militants allying themselves with ISIS.
In September 2014, Ghazi pledged support to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, criticising Mullah Omar, who had not been seen in public since 2001. “On behalf of members of our Islamic Movement, I herewith announce to the world that we are siding with the Islamic Caliphate,” the statement read. Ghazi stopped short of pledging bay’a [the oath of allegiance] to ISIS. A few months later, in March 2015, a group of Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan claiming to be from the IMU, went a step further, pledging fealty to the Islamic State. Ghazi did not officially endorse the move.
The move comes during a tumultuous period for the movement.