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Central Asia in Focus: Bombings South of Uzbekistan

An Act of Defiance in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan’s Mazhilis elections, UNHCHR Chief Visiting Central Asia, and more.

AFGHANISTAN — People attend to a man injured in a blast in the Afghanistan’s Balkh Province on March 11. AP Photo.

What’s Happening in the Region

Bombings South of Uzbekistan’s Border

The northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif is 47 miles from the border with Uzbekistan.

bombing in Mazar-e Sharif on March 9 killed the Taliban-appointed head of Balkh Province, where Mazar-e Sharif is located.

Another bombing there on March 11 at a ceremony honoring journalists killed one person and left eight others wounded, five of whom were journalists.

The Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) militant group claimed responsibility for both attacks.

ISK said a suicide bomber carried out the attack that killed Balkh provincial chief Mohammad Dawood Muzammil and two of his security guards.

Muzammil was the Taliban governor of the eastern Nangahar Province, an area where ISK has been active for several years.

Muzammil led the campaign against ISK in Nangahar before being transferred to Balkh in October 2022. He was one of the highest-ranking Taliban officials killed since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021.

Uzbek authorities have not commented publicly on the two bombings, but there must be concerns about the two attacks in Mazar-e Sharif.

In 2022, ISK tried twice to launch rockets from Afghanistan into Uzbekistan.

In the first attack in March, none of the rockets made it across the Amu-Darya, the river dividing Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

In the second attack in July, a couple of the rockets did land on Uzbek territory but failed to explode. They caused property damage but no casualties.

Why It’s Important: The fragile truce between the Uzbek government and the Taliban is based in part on the latter’s pledge not to allow Afghan territory to be used for plotting or carrying out attacks on neighboring countries.

But now, ISK has killed the governor of the province that borders Uzbekistan. ISK has also carried out other attacks in Balkh Province, including one on a Shi’a mosque in Mazar-e Sharif in March 2022 that killed at least 34 people.

ISK has also increased use of the Uzbek language in disseminating its propaganda material.

Government officials in Tashkent will no doubt be carefully watching developments in Balkh Province in the coming months. They must have questions about the Taliban’s ability to keep order in the province bordering Uzbekistan.

An Act of Defiance in Turkmenistan

Public displays of discontent with the government are rare in Turkmenistan because the authorities act quickly and often ruthlessly towards people with complaints.

This is why the actions of a group of 30 women in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat on March 6 are such a big surprise.

The Netherlands-based independent media outlet reported the women came from various parts of Turkmenistan and gathered in front of the presidential palace.

They asked to see President Serdar Berdymukhammedov, saying their letters to the president complaining about problems and corrupt officials in their areas had not produced any results.

The palace security guards, who must have been stunned to see a group making such a request, said the president was busy at the moment, but the prosecutor general would meet with them.

The security guards asked the women to wait for a few minutes.

Instead of any official coming out of the presidential palace, a bus pulled up to the building with police who loaded the women onto the vehicle and brought them to a police station for questioning.

The report included some of the complaints the women wanted to tell the president, all of which seem worth investigating.

One woman complained her daughter’s rape has gone uninvestigated for three years.

Another young woman who is confined to a wheelchair said she received an apartment from the state, but the previous owner has been trying to force her out, even beating her and pushing her and her wheelchair into the street.

After being questioned by police in Ashgabat, the women were turned over to police from their regions and were questioned again. The women had to sign statements describing what they did before they could be released.

Why It’s Important: The Turkmen president never holds impromptu meetings with the country’s citizens. One can only wonder about the desperation that would drive these women to attempt to meet him in person.

Further, everyone in Turkmenistan knows that they are likely to be punished for complaining publicly about any official.

The fact that these women went to the presidential anyway shows how hopeless their situation has become.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at Kazakhstan’s March 19 elections to the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament.

These are the first Mazhilis elections since constitutional amendments in 2022 gave parliament more powers.

Once again, no genuine opposition parties registered to participate. However, for the first time since 2004, independent candidates will be running for seats.

This week’s guests are Paolo Sorbello, a journalist who has been living in Almaty for several years and the English-language editor at the Kazakh independent media outlet; and Darkhan Umirbekov, digital editor at the Astana bureau of RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, known locally as Azattyq.

What I’m Following

UNHCHR Chief Visiting Central Asia

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk is visiting Uzbekistan on March 13-15 and Kazakhstan on March 16-17. While in Uzbekistan, Turk is due to visit the western Karakalpakstan Republic, where the worst violence in Uzbekistan in nearly 20 years broke out in early July 2022.

Uzbekistan’s Sets Date for Referendum on Constitution

On March 10, Uzbekistan’s Oliy Majlis, the lower house of parliament, set April 30 as the date for a referendum on amendments to the constitution.

The proposed amendments have not yet been published, but Uzbek media reported there would be changes to 65 percent of the current constitution. The key change is the amendment making a presidential term seven years, instead of the current five-year term.

Incumbent President Shavkat Mirziyoev is now serving his second, and constitutionally last term, but the proposed change of the presidential term from five to seven years would allow Mirziyoev to run for two more terms.

Fact of the Week

According to Kazakhstan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko, Kazakhstan’s trade turnover with the European Union in 2022 amounted to $40 billion, again making the EU the biggest trade partner for Kazakhstan.

Thanks for Reading

Thanks for reading our Central Asia in Focus newsletter! I appreciate you sharing it with other readers who you think may be interested.

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

Until next time,