The U.S. has been promoting its "New Silk Road" strategy lately, billing it as a means to bring prosperity, and thus stability, to Central Asia once the U.S. starts to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. (EurasiaNet has a story on it today.) But there are also some intriguing geopolitical aspects to the strategy which lurk under the surface of what is presented as a win-win sort of global commerce.
The "New Silk Road," I think, has a common intellectual pedigree with other programs from the mid-oughts to unite South and Central Asia, like the effort to tie together the electrical grids of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to place the Central Asian countries in a new State Department bureau, taking them away from Europe and connecting them with South Asia. What these all have in common is that they attempt to weaken the economic (and as a result, political) monopoly that Russia, by dint of the centralized Soviet infrastructure, has on these countries.
As Marlene Laruelle writes in a new book, "Mapping Central Asia," which includes a great chapter on the revived metaphor of the New Silk Road (on which more later): "The underlying geo-economic rationales of these Roads is to exclude Moscow from new geopolitical configurations." (Laruelle, incidentally, is a fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, chaired by Fred Starr, Washington's biggest booster of the New Silk Road.)
Two mysterious explosions hit Kazakhstan's western oil hub of Atyrau on October 31 within the space of five minutes, one of which may have been a botched suicide bombing.
The first exploded in a trash can near the local government headquarters at 9:45 a.m., law enforcers said, and the second followed in a residential district outside the city center.
The second was a suicide bomb, Kazinform quoted law-enforcement sources as saying – but they offered no explanation about what the target might have been, raising the prospect that the device may have detonated by accident. The bomber was killed on the spot and an 18-month-old baby was injured by flying glass when the blast blew out windows in a nearby apartment block.
This is the latest in a spate of perplexing explosions in Kazakhstan – usually hailed as the most stable country in volatile Central Asia – which began with the country’s first-ever suicide bombing in another oil city, Aktobe, in May. Officials blamed that blast on the mafia. A baffling car explosion in Astana a week later, which officials have never satisfactorily explained, killed two men.
All these pyrotechnics have stirred fears that Islamic radicalism is on the rise in Kazakhstan, apprehensions that were stoked by a shootout between security forces and a group of suspects in western Kazakhstan in July that ended in a bloodbath.
Zeynallov may be facing serious charges of blackmail and bribery, but, given Azerbaijan’s record of jailing journalists/bloggers critical of the government, local observers are erring on the side of skepticism. Before his arrest, Zeynallov crossed the country’s ruling elite with a series of articles about corruption allegations.
If found guilty, he faces a punishment of up to 12 years in jail and the confiscation of personal property.
Zeynallov was remanded after Gular Ahmadova, a parliamentarian from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, claimed that he had demanded a bribe from her to hold off on publishing an article that covered corruption accusations against Ahmadova. Zeynallov’s attorney alleges the exact opposite -- that it was Ahmadova who offered to pay the editor for his silence.
Although the journalist's attorney says he has not yet seen any of the government's evidence against his client, police already have been busy searching away. The day of Zeynallov's arrest, they tackled the Khural newsroom and his apartment.
My television in Bishkek is old. The antenna often only provides a weak black and white signal. But these images from public broadcaster ELTR should give those outside the country an idea what Kyrgyzstan’s presidential race looked like from a local living room.
This week, as the campaign wound down and candidates tried to spend the remaining funds in their war chests, television aired their advertisements almost non-stop. Of 83 who originally expressed interest in running, only 16 appeared on the October 30 ballot.
Most of these spots ran in Kyrgyz with Russian subtitles.
Voters in Kyrgyzstan's ethnically divided southern city of Osh voted for a new president on October 30, turning out in large numbers despite fears of unrest.
Osh was the scene of ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks in June, 2010. Two nationalist politicians are popular with ethnic Kyrgyz in this southern region: Adahan Madumarov and Kamchybek Tashiev. But most Uzbeks told me they were voting for Almazbek Atambayev, a northerner, who they feel is more able to unify the country.
That is, Uzbeks who were voting. The day before the poll, in the Uzbek neighborhood of Cheremushki, which was largely destroyed during the “June Events,” many young men told me they wouldn’t vote at all, so afraid of reprisals from Kyrgyz supporters of Madumarov and Tashiev.
Overall, the day was calm, with everyone I met expressing hope for a peaceful and stable Kyrgyzstan.
Editor's Note: Nicolas Tanner is a freelance journalist based in Osh.
On October 9, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, in his capacity as the Supreme Commander of Turkmenistan's Armed Forces, took a televised helicopter ride to visit a naval base on the shore of the Caspian Sea, BBC Monitoring Central Asia reported, citing TV Altyn Asyr in Turkmenistan. The Turkmen leader was accompanied by Yaylym Berdiyev, his national security minister, and they were there to review some new military ships that had been added to Turkmenistan's budding navy. The purpose was clear, even for "neutral Turkmenistan", under its new naval doctrine and plan through 2015: “The naval forces are given the task of ensuring that our country's interests in the Caspian Sea are protected,” said the minister.
According to Viktoria Panfilova, writing for Russia'sNezavisimaya gazeta, Ashgabat is strengthening its position in the Caspian. Of course, the Russia media can be biased on Turkmenistan, given the Kremlin's interests and its own eroding position in the Turkmen gas market. Yet as Joshua Kucera of The Bug Pit reported earlier this year, there is indeed a growing militarization of the Caspian, despite the littoral states' vows to maintain peace -- and Turkmenistan is part of that.
Panfilova says Turkmenistan plans to buy more modern patrol boats and armaments (evidently not from Russia), claiming the purpose is to monitor its borders and counteract drug-smuggling and terrorism -- although "the experts" don't buy it:
But the experts believe that "combating smugglers' is [only] the official reason. In their opinion, Ashgabat's decision to build a military base indicates serious problems in the Caspian. All the more so since not only Turkmenistan is arming, but all the Caspian countries.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with four Uzbek civil society representatives, October 23, 2011
On her tour of Central Asia and the Middle East/Northern Africa last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a town hall meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan with several hundred people. The audience asked tough questions about Tajikistan -- and even asked Clinton why she was meeting with the dictator Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan. The State Department supplied a transcript of the meeting.
What a contrast with Clinton's meeting in Tashkent, where she met with only four NGO leaders and no transcript was made available. On the eve of her trip, Clinton received appeals to take up issues like forced child labor, and it was assumed that part of her itinerary would involve meeting with human rights activists as she had last year.
Instead, her carefully-choreographed meeting with the four seemed intended to evoke other parts of the US Administration's agenda related to promoting small business and women's empowerment and combatting trafficking, as the softer options by contrast with hard-core human rights issues like political imprisonment, religious freedom and torture.
The meeting with two leaders from registered groups and two from unregistered provincial groups may have been designed to avoid too much criticism and controversy, local Uzbek activists say. The four included: Istikboli Avlod, who leads an organization working on human trafficking issues, Abdusalom Ergashev and Shuhrat Ganiev, human rights defenders from Ferghana and Bukhara, respectively , and a fourth woman involved in promoting small business whom we were unable to identify.
On October 30, Turkmen Muslims departed for Saudi Arabia, where they will celebrate the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, the émigré opposition website gundogar.org reported, citing an official in the Turkmen Presidential Council for Religious Affairs.
The source would not indicate how many people had been granted permission to leave Turkmenistan for the hajj.
Meanwhile, the Oslo-based news service Forum 18 said that their sources indicated that only 180 people -- enough to fit on one plane -- had been granted permission to travel to Saudi Arabia, as in past years. In order to prevent overcrowding, Saudi Arabia assigns quotas to countries, and has given Turkmenistan a limit of 5,000, which is far from filled.
During months and months of rehearsing in the searing heat of this desert nation, people were so exhausted in their heavy, hot native costumes they sometimes fainted. Then on the day of show, the weather failed to cooperate -- or perhaps the heavens expressed their sentiment. Pouring rain and cold winds ruined the festivities in Ashgabat, the independent emigre web site chrono-tm.org reported
Soldiers in a military parade were soaked to the bone but had to keep marching. Thousands of citizens pressed into service to stand along the parade route were not allowed to bring umbrellas or raincoats. Then, shivering in their still-wet clothing, they were forced to head off to a concert near the Monument of the Constitution and watch some rather fizzled fireworks -- which only served to remind people of the tragic explosion in Abadan in July, which had begun with the sparking of some fireworks stored for the holiday and spread to a munitions depot, killing and injuring numerous people.
Living Legend by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov
In conjunction with Turkmenistan's 20th anniversary come more embarrassing excesses from President Gurbanguly Berymukhamedov, who has been awarding himself titles or arranging for others to give him various honorifics and honorary degrees.
A prolific author despite his busy life as the autocrat of the world's fourth largest gas-rich nation, now he's released two new books: Living Legend, on the artistry of Turkmen carpet-weaving and A Good Name is Imperishable, a work of "documentary fiction" about his father, Berdymukhamed Annaev, a soldier and teacher, with a foreward by his father, Myalikguly Berdymukhamedov, the State News Agency of Turkmenistan (TDH) reported.
The first book has chapters with titles like, "The Carpet is the Soul of the Turkmen" and the second, titles like "Waters Run Along the Old Riverbed" and "A Good Intention is Half of Welfare". Anna-aga, Berdymukhamedov's great grandfather, also appears as a hero-teacher in the book. The Turkmen leader contributed these works to a special display at the library, and introduced them at a cultural conference organized by the Academy of Sciences at the Mary Velayat Library about Turkmens' contribution to world culture.
The $36.4 million new regional library at Mary, the modern city located near the seat of the ancient Merv civilization, can hold 3 million books and 600 readers, turkmenistan.ru reported. It is equipped with Internet, rare book rooms, and even an observatory with a telescope.
Three world-renowned Russian scholars were on hand to praise the Turkmen leader's contribution to world culture: Viktor Sarianidi, a Russian archeologist of Greek descent who has specialized in research on the Bronze Age in the Karakum; anthropologist Nadejda Dubova and Dr. Viktor Piliko, a Russian historian.