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Central Asia in Focus: Attacks on RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service

Attacks on RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, Kazakhstan oil exports, human rights in Turkmenistan, Kyrgyz-Tajik ties, elections in Turkmenistan, and more.

KYRGYZSTAN – RFE/RL journalist Toktosun Shambetov reports for Azattyk from Bishkek.

What’s Happening in the Region

Rights Groups Call on Kyrgyz Authorities to Stop Attacks on RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service
The Civic Solidarity Platform condemns the Kyrgyz government’s actions against RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, known locally as Azattyk.

Kyrgyz authorities have blocked Azattyk’s Kyrgyz and Russian websites since late October.

On October 31, Kyrgyzstan’s Demirbank froze Azattyk’s bank account.

Kyrgyz authorities said the reason for blocking Azattyk’s websites was RFE/RL’s refusal to remove a video from RFE/RL’s Russian-language TV channel Current Time about the September fighting along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

Demirbank said the decision to freeze Azattyk’s bank account was done at the request of the State Committee for National Security (UKMK).

UKMK said the move was part of an investigation into financing of terrorist activities and laundering of criminal proceeds.

The Civic Solidarity Platform wrote, “In a Kafkaesque twist, however, the actual materials of the criminal case are cited as classified,” so it is not clear what the evidence is for this investigation.

The Civic Solidarity Platform, a coalition of rights groups that includes the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, the Belgian-based International Partnership for Human Rights, and Kyrgyzstan’s Bir Duino, called on Kyrgyz authorites to unblock Azattyk’s websites and unfreeze its bank accounts.

The group’s statement noted that Azattyk will mark its 70th anniversary on March 18.

“It would be a sad testament to current realities in Kyrgyzstan and a blow to its reputation as a striving, independent democracy,” the Civic Solidarity Platform said, “if Azattyk’s website is still blocked and its bank accounts still frozen on that day.”

Why It’s Important: The statement from the Civic Solidarity Platform is only the latest example of criticism from international rights and media freedom organizations leveled at Kyrgyzstan.

The Kyrgyz government has been rounding up opposition politicians, activists, journalists, and any other perceived critics in recent months.

Kyrgyzstan was once considered the most democratic of the Central Asian states, although the bar for democracy in the region is pretty low.

Much of the aid and good will Kyrgyzstan has received over the years from Western countries was based on that image, but the current Kyrgyz government is looking more and more like its Central Asian neighbors.

Kazakhstan to Export Oil to Germany Using Russian Pipelines

Kazakhstan will start exporting oil to Germany using the same Russian pipelines that recently carried Russian oil to Germany.

On January 13, Kazakhstan’s national oil pipeline operator KazTransOil reported it received clearance from Russia’s Energy Ministry to transport 300,000 metric tons of oil to Germany in the first quarter of 2023.

Kazakh Energy Minister Bolat Akchulakov said Kazakhstan is looking at shipping some 1.5 million metric tons of oil this year through Russian pipelines to Germany.

The oil will be loaded into the pipeline running from Atyrau, Kazakhstan to Samar, Russia, and then into the Soviet-era Druzhba pipeline network to Germany.

The Druzhba pipeline was bringing some 20 million metric tons of oil to Germany until the latter country halted imports as part of sanctions on Russia for the war in Ukraine.

It might be a small fraction of what Russia was sending through the pipeline, but Akchulakov said Kazakhstan has the potential to ship six to seven million metric tons of oil annually to Germany through Russian pipelines.

The Russian Energy Ministry’s decision to allow Kazakhstan to export oil via the Druzhba pipeline comes at a tense time in Kazakh-Russian relations.

The Kazakh government has not openly criticized Russia’s war on Ukraine, but Kazakh officials have repeatedly voiced support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and called for an end to the war.

The Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, through which 80 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil exports pass, Russia suspended operations four times between March and August 2022.

Prior to Russia’s suspensions, there were never any problems since Kazakhstan started exporting oil through the port in 2002. Most of that Kazakh oil goes to European countries.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev called on his government to find alternative export routes after the activities at Novorossiysk were halted in March.

Why It’s Important: The Kazakh-Russian border is 4,750 miles long.

Kazakhstan is exploring other export routes, but in the near-term, Russia will remain a major transit route for Kazakh oil and other goods headed to Europe.

Kazakhstan needs an amicable relationship with its northern neighbor to facilitate exports westward.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at the deplorable human rights situation in Turkmenistan.

Two activists were recently freed, but scores of others have remained imprisoned for decades, often with no word as to their condition.

This week’s guests are Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division; Ivar Dale, senior policy adviser at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee; and Farruh Yusupov, director of RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, known locally as Azatlyk.

What I’m Following

An Encouraging Sign in Kyrgyz-Tajik Ties

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon spoke by phone on January 14.

They exchanged congratulations on the 30th anniversary of official diplomatic ties between the two countries, but they also talked about their countries’ common border.

More than 100 people were killed in fighting between the armed forces of the two countries in mid-September 2022. Since then, Japarov and Rahmon had only spoken to each other briefly when they attended meetings of multilateral organizations.

Turkmenistan Prepares for Parliamentary Elections

Turkmen state news reports there will be elections to Mejlis, the lower house of parliament, on March 26.

Turkmenistan’s parliament has no power.

Just before the announcement of the election date, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the chairman of the Halk Maslahaty, the upper house of parliament, proposed changing the legislative branch back to a unicameral body.

Berdymukhammedov said the Halk Maslahaty should be recreated as a separate body with, as of now, unspecified broader powers.

Fact of the Week

Kazakhstan’s Labor Minister Tamara Duisenova said on January 13 that the number of low-income citizens in the country increased from 4.9 percent at the start of 2022 to 5.1 percent at the start of 2023.

Thanks for Reading

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See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.

Until next time,