As news trickled out of Taijkistan on July 22 that the government was releasing, albeit with some restrictions, international scholar Alexander Sodiqov after five weeks in jail, a group of scholars and activists gathered at New York University to discuss the long-term effects of his detention. The case, panelists cautioned, could signal on-going trouble for academic freedom for scholars focusing on Tajikistan.
Sodiqov, a political science doctoral student at the University of Toronto and a Tajik national, first traveled to his home country in June as part of a University of Exeter (UK) research project on conflict management strategies. He was detained in Khorog on June 16, before being brought to the intelligence agency headquarters in Dushanbe, where he remained until July 22 on charges of espionage.
“Tajikistan was never a no-go area for academic research,” commented John Heathershaw, a lecturer at the University of Exeter who was working with Sodiqov at the time of his arrest. “Alex’s detention is unprecedented…, and it sent a message that research is under threat in Tajikistan.”
Sodiqov and others have vehemently denied any connection to espionage, which Heathershaw called “simply untrue.” Disseminating his story and his denials, however, has proved a challenge in Tajikistan, where pro-government media dominate.
“The region thrives on conspiracy theories. Having knowledge – having data – is extremely threatening to these governments,” Alexander Cooley, a political science professor focusing on Central Asia at New York’s Barnard College, affirmed. “Alexander’s detention has had an effect: it’s going to deter research. It’s making this muddled environment even worse.”
Islamic militancy is high on the agenda in Central Asia. This week, authorities have handed lengthy prison terms at two unrelated trials in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Six people were jailed for between nine and 15 years on terrorism charges at a mass trial involving 66 suspects in southwestern Uzbekistan. A court in central Kazakhstan jailed four citizens for between six and 12 years for recruiting militants to wage holy war in Syria.
At the mass trial in the city of Qashqadaryo in Uzbekistan, three men and three women were jailed on July 22 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government of the strongman president, Islam Karimov, and propagating terrorism, RFE/RL reported, citing the Tashkent-based Ezgulik (Compassion) human rights center.
In Kazakhstan, the conviction of the four over the Syria recruitment campaign in and around the city of Zhezkazgan, reported by Tengri News on July 22, came as media reports emerged of a new propaganda video showing 16 people believed to be from Kazakhstan (since some are speaking Kazakh) who have headed off to fight in the Middle East.
Authorities in Central Asia have frequently cited Syria-linked threats this year amid a growing number of reports that militants from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are waging holy war in Syria.
Naval vessels participate in the 2011 BlackSeaFor exercises. (photo: Russian MoD)
A Black Sea-wide naval cooperation program in operation since 2001 is "frozen" due to the war in Ukraine, Russian media has reported. Given that the participants in the program, BlackSeaFor, include Russia, its post-Soviet foes Ukraine and Georgia, and NATO members Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania, it's probably more noteworthy that the program hasn't been canceled altogether. But anyway, Russian military sources have told ITAR-TASS that they managed to thwart Ukraine's efforts to kick Russia out of the organization:
"The Kiev authorities' attempts to garner the BlackSeaFor member-countries' support for its anti-Russian initiative failed. No BlackSeaFor state has upheld this initiative," the source told ITAR-TASS on Friday.
“From May to June the Ukrainian authorities were sending their envoys to Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Georgia for holding talks with their military and political leaders. Ukraine’s staff in Sofia, Bucharest, Ankara and Tbilisi were running around government offices. However, the attempts were vain,” it said. “The BlackSeaFor countries’ position was to preserve status quo, i.e. the existing format with Russia’s participation.
Ukraine was informed about the BlackSeaFor member-states’ view to freeze the organisation’s activity until the situation in Ukraine normalises,” the source said.
A graduate student detained by Tajikistan’s security services over five weeks ago and accused of treason has been released on his own recognizance. Alexander Sodiqov confirmed to the BBC’s Russian Service late on July 22, "I'm home. I'm happy. I'm with my family. I'm doing well. I've been treated well.” He is reportedly not allowed to leave the country.
Sodiqov, 31, was arrested on June 16 while interviewing an opposition leader in Badakhshan province, scene of fighting between militants and government troops in 2012 and renewed upheaval in May. A political science PhD student at the University of Toronto, Sodiqov was home in his native Tajikistan carrying out research for the University of Exeter when he was detained.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) accused Sodiqov of carrying out “subversion and espionage” for an unnamed foreign country. As EurasiaNet reported:
Friends and colleagues are growing increasingly concerned that Tajikistan’s heavy-handed authorities may be trying to make an example out of Sodiqov to discourage others from examining tensions between Tajikistan’s authoritarian government and minorities in the restive eastern province of Badakhshan. […]
Tajik authorities are notoriously thin-skinned about anyone prying into their fraught relations with ethnic minorities in Badakhshan, which happens to be a key weigh station on the drug trafficking route between Afghanistan and Russia.
A Kazakhstani citizen, convicted of conspiracy and obstruction of justice in connection with the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, faces up to 20 years in a federal prison.
Azamat Tazhayakov, 20, was convicted on July 21 by a jury in US District Court in Boston. He is scheduled to have sentencing hearing on October 16. His defense team intends to appeal the conviction in the meantime.
According to US prosecutors, Tazhayakov, along with another Kazakhstani national, Dias Kadyrbayev, were friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of carrying out the attacks that claimed three lives and wounded more than 260 people near the marathon finish line on April 15, 2013. All three were students at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth at the time. Tsarnaev’s brother, Tamerlan, believed to be the driving force behind the bombings, was killed during a shootout with police on April 19, 2013.
Days after the bombings, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev allegedly sent a text message requesting that Tazhayakov and Kadyrbayev remove items from the accused bomber’s dormitory room, including a backpack, which they subsequently threw in a dumpster.
Tazhayakov was the first of four individuals indicted on charges of conspiracy and obstruction in connection with the marathon bombings to stand trial. Kadyrbayev’s trial is scheduled to begin in September. Tsarnaev’s trial is slated to start in November.
The government of Kyrgyzstan is complaining that the United States is reducing its military cooperation in the wake of the eviction of the air base that the Americans operated there until last month.
In an interview with Interfax, Deputy Defense Minister Zamir Suerkulov said that "recently, the intensity of contacts between our sides in the sphere of military cooperation is decreasing." Suerkulov added that Kyrgyzstan would like to maintain the level of cooperation "but the Americans do it their own way. For the continuation of contacts the Americans proposed creating a legal base similar to the one which was implemented during the time of the [Manas] Transit Center, but we didn't want that."
According to most recent data on U.S. security assistance to Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan's has decreased, but not any more than in any of the other countries of the region. I asked the State Department to clarify what happened, and they provided this statement:
Our security cooperation has historically included bilateral work on key, mutually-beneficial areas of counterterrorism, counter-narcotics,border security, and building peacekeeping capability. The termination of the 2009 Agreement for Cooperation in July 2014 severely inhibits the ability of the United States to continue its military assistance and cooperation with the defense and security ministries of the Kyrgyz Republic.
A popular Russian social networking site appears to have become the latest target of Tajikistan’s Internet sentinels.
Odnoklassniki.ru became inaccessible in Tajikistan this weekend, users say.
Tajik officials often block websites that carry material critical of the government. As usual, the communications agency has said little, today even denying it knows of the problem. But a representative of one leading Internet Service Provider (ISP) said he had received an oral order to block the site.
Odnoklassniki is popular among the million-plus Tajik migrant workers abroad who use it to communicate with their families back home.
Some users told Radio Ozodi that the site may have been blocked because some Tajiks fighting alongside jihadists in Syria have used it to post extremist content. Others point out that, like Facebook – which also has been blocked at times – Odnoklassniki is frequently used to spread material critical of the government and its strongman president.
YouTube also has been unavailable for a few weeks though authorities deny they are responsible. In June, when YouTube was also blocked, all other Google products were unavailable as well for a few days, though that appeared to be a technical side effect of the YouTube block (Google owns YouTube).
As such obstructions have become common in recent years, many Internet users have turned to proxy services. But the authorities are catching up and appear to be hindering access to those, too.
Oh, that awkward moment when the head of state shows up uninvited at a milestone-event in a country’s history. Georgia had just that moment on July 18, when its parliament endorsed the Association Agreement with the European Union. Just about everyone — foreign ambassadors, civil society figures and government ministers – was invited to parliament to give a big hand to Georgia’s European future. But President Giorgi Margvelashvili was not.
The tension between Margvelashvili, Georgia’s directly elected head of state, and its appointed head of government, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, has been on everyone’s lips for quite some time now. This time, it played out in public.
Throughout the day on July 18, reporters had wondered why the president was not on the guest list for Georgia’s official European début. “Not everyone can fit in this building,” responded Eka Beselia, a senior lawmaker from the ruling Georgia Dream coalition, chaired by Prime Minister Gharibashvili.
Margvelashvili put paid to that when he walked in as the parliamentary session was about to kick off and plopped down in a chair with a contented smile. “See, I have fit, haven't I?” he quipped to Beselia, Tabula.ge reported. It was left to Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili to fill the awkward pause with bows and greetings for all guests of the legislature.
Parliament unanimously approved the Association Agreement, and Margvelashvili and Beselia walked out from the hall together, both wearing happy smiles for the TV cameras.
Tourists associate Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul with beaches, children hawking boiled corn, and a welcome reprieve from the sweltering summers that plague most of Central Asia. But for the residents of Kadji Sai on the lake’s southern shore, the summer tourist influx is only a distraction from the trouble looming, literally, right over them: a derelict Soviet-era uranium mine.
Just uphill, the mine and uranium-processing mill were the original rationale for the settlement. But they closed when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. In recent years, the site has become a source of radiation-related concerns. When heavy rains hit the area, the uranium tailings – buried between two creek beds – are frequently covered in water; the overflow drains through the village and into Issyk-Kul.
On a recent visit, one resident expressed the frustration that many of his neighbors share: “Everything was just left here. People that could leave, did. But for those of us who stay here and who have families here, what can we do? It seems like everyone wants to come to Kyrgyzstan and make mines but how do we live with [the mines] once they’re finished?”
As foreign donors, government agencies and NGOs spend time and money discussing the cleanup, local officials are often reduced to hand wringing, begging someone to do something. In the case of Kadji Sai, local authorities say they are unable even to afford guards to keep scavengers from looting the little valuable equipment and infrastructure that remains.
Georgia on July 18 legislatively cemented its European aspirations, while Armenia set a new date for a trip in the opposite direction— integration with the Russian-centric Eurasian Economic Union. The last but not least in the South Caucasus trio, Azerbaijan, remains content with its status as the region’s geopolitical maverick, but wants more appreciation from the European Union.
With EU officials on hand in Tbilisi, the Georgian parliament unanimously ratified the signed association and free-trade agreements with the European Union, and Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili declared, in case there was any doubt, that the country’s European path is "irreversible."
For one thing, they’ve drunk on it. “The ratification of this agreement will not be valid if we don’t chase it with a glass of wine,” observed Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, inviting all to move on to the reception.
The session opened with the Georgian national anthem and closed with the EU anthem
Moldova, a fellow EU-enthusiast (and serious wine-producer), ratified the agreements earlier this month, while Ukraine is expected to do the same shortly.
But, as often happens in the South Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan had their own tales to tell as well.
After missing a few earlier targets, Armenia set October as its date for entering the Eurasian Economic Union, Moscow’s response to the European Union. Speculation runs rife about the reasons for the repeated delays, but Yerevan says the deadline's for real this time, and the necessary