A group of scientists and academics from Kazakhstan have set off in the footsteps of a renowned 19th-century Kazakhstani explorer to highlight the tourism potential of the ancient trade routes linking Central Asia and western China.
The expedition follows the path Shokan Valikhanov took in the 1850s in what was then a part of the world relatively unknown to Europeans. Led by Professor Ordenbek Mazbaev of Astana's L. N. Gulimyov Eurasian National University, the team includes scientists from Astana's Nazarbayev University, along with tourism officials and journalists from Kazakhstan, Tengri News reports.
The 12-day jaunt, which began July 24, aims to open up a route for travelers to explore some of the major sights of the Silk Road. It started in Urumchi, capital of China’s restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and is scheduled to arrive in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on August 4. Along the way the expedition will pass through the fabled oasis towns of Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand on the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert before entering Kyrgyzstan through the Torugart Pass.
Valikhanov is a legendary figure in the world of Central Asian anthropology. He was born in 1835 near Kostanay, in northern Kazakhstan, and at age 11 enrolled in the Omsk Cadet Corps. After graduating from the academy, the Russian military sent him to the recently established Fort Verny – now Almaty, Kazakhstan – from where he undertook his expeditions to the neighboring regions.
The modern Kazakh explorers will retrace Valikhanov's journeys of 1855-56 and 1858-59, when he travelled through what is now Kyrgyzstan and into China in a camel convoy.
Sign reading "Don't Say Everything You Know, But Know Everything You Say," at a submarine base in Balaclava, just outside Sevastopol. (photo: The Bug Pit)
The city government of Sevastopol has proposed that Russia make it a Soviet-style "closed" city, which foreigners and even Russians living even in other parts of the country would not be able to visit.
On July 22, members of the Sevastopol legislative assembly formally appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials asking them to impose "restrictions on the stay of people not permanently residing in and not registered in Sevastopol." The annexation of Crimea to Russia earlier this year was accompanied by a remarkable degree of Soviet nostalgia, but the return of closed cities takes that nostalgia to an unexpected extreme.
According to the website sevastopol.su (yes, ".su" as in "Soviet Union"): "The initiators of the appeal are motivated by the fact that Sevastopol is the main base of the Black Sea Fleet of Russia and a factor of stability in the entire region, and so requires a special regime of secrecy and ensuring its security. The deputies believe that the unstable circumstances in the world and the fundamentally aggressive attitude of the Western community towards Russia can attract a host of provocative acts in Crimea and Sevastopol."
The idea of linking Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan by rail appears to have wheels once more, following reports earlier this year that the project was running short of steam.
Back in January, Turkmenistan went cold on the estimated $2 billion link, slated to be part financed by the Asian Development Bank. Ashgabat faulted Afghanistan and Tajikistan for not keeping the Turkmen leadership in the loop with regard to the route the railroad would follow. As EurasiaNet.org reported:
On January 29, the head of state-owned Tajik Railways, Amonullo Khukumatullo, announced that Dushanbe and Kabul had themselves decided on the route for the Afghan section of the rail. The announcement apparently caught Ashgabat by surprise because on January 31, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry protested that Khukumatullo’s declaration was "tendentious and absolutely unacceptable" and "counterproductive."
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, accused 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.