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Central Asia In Focus: Central Asia Feels The Effects Of Turkey’s Earthquakes

Earthquakes, Kyrgyzstan’s Kempirabad case, RIP Oleg Panfilov, how Russia and Political insiders cash in on Uzbekistan’s gas sector, and more.

TURKEY — Rescue workers from Kazakhstan and Turkey pull out Hatice Akar from a collapsed building 180 hours after the earthquake in Kahramanmaras, southern Turkey, early Feb. 13, 2023. (AP Photo)

What’s Happening in the Region

Central Asia Feels the Effects of Turkey’s Earthquakes

The devastating earthquakes that recently hit Turkey have led to an outpouring of international sympathy and concerted efforts to help the victims.

The Central Asian countries are among the scores of countries that have sent aid and rescue teams to help search for survivors trapped beneath the ruins.

But Central Asia has a unique connection to Turkey as many Central Asian citizens are studying or working there and some are sadly among the dead and injured.

Uzbekistan’s consulate in Istanbul announced on February 13 that the body of a fourth Uzbek citizen had been recovered.

Some 45,000 Kazakh citizens live in Turkey and the bodies of two Kazakh citizens who died in the earthquakes have already arrived in Almaty.

Turkmen authorities have confirmed seven deaths among Turkmen citizens in Turkey, but have not provided any figures, but reported on February 10 that at least four Turkmen citizens had died.

Kyrgyzstan has reported one fatality among its citizens in Turkey so far.

The embassies and consulates of all the Central Asian countries are searching for information about the condition of their citizens in Turkey.

Why It’s Important: Turkey has been an attractive destination for many years for citizens of Central Asia’s Turkic states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

So while the world mourns the tragedy in Turkey, in Central Asia the losses are felt keenly, and sometimes personally.

Thin Evidence in Kyrgyzstan’s Kempirabad Case

More than two dozen people are being held for plotting to overthrow Kyrgyzstan’s government.

The group, made up of politicians, activists, journalists, bloggers, and others, was part of a committee that opposed a border deal that gave neighboring Uzbekistan the Kempirabad reservoir.

The Kempirabad reservoir is located in the densely-populated, agriculturally-rich Ferghana Valley and Kyrgyz villagers have been using water from it for decades.

The Kyrgyz villagers are now worried they will not receive adequate water for their crops though both the Uzbek and Kyrgyz governments have promised water flows on the Kyrgyz side of the border will not be affected.

Kyrgyz police and security forces detained Kempirabad committee members in raids in late October 2022. Authorities said they were planning to overthrow the government.

Among those detained was Klara Sooronkulova, a former Constitutional Court judge and more recently leader of the opposition Reforma party.

Sooronkulova asked in late December why there appeared to be no progress in the investigation of the alleged crimes she and the others were allegedly preparing.

Sooronkulova’s lawyer, Chinara Jakupbekova, confirmed on February 10 that her client is being charged with plotting to create mass unrest with the aim of seizing power.

Except the basis for that charge has nothing to do with the committee that allegedly was planning a coup.

Jakupbekova said Sooronkulova’s Facebook post from early 2022 is now the reason Sooronkulova is being accused of calling for the “violent seizure of power.” She said “Now [the authorities] decided to find fault with publications made a year ago, not finding anything on the Kempirabad case.”

Sooronkulova’s post was related to the detention of activist Mirlan Uraimov.

Uraimov had helped organize a protest in 2021 against transferring the Kempirabad reservoir and was detained in February 2022 for publicly calling for the violent overthrow of the government.

Uraimov was later released from custody under the condition he not leave the country.

But while he was in custody, Sooronkulova posted on Facebook to organize a flash mob in support of Uraimov and also criticized the government for detaining him.

Why It’s Important: Sooronkulova and 23 others have been in custody since late October and three others are under house arrest.

As Sooronkulova said in late December, the investigation into the Kempirabad case does not seem to be making any progress.

Another Kempirabad committee member, activist Atay Beyshenbek, also had new charges filed against him in January 2023. Those charges dated back to October 2020.

It seems the Kyrgyz authorities do not have a case against the Kempirabad committee members. The increasingly authoritarian government simply wants its critics locked away so they cannot air legitimate grievances.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at the trials of 22 defendants charged for the violence in western Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan Sovereign Republic in July 2022.

All 22 were found guilty, but the conduct of the investigation and the trials looked very much like the show trials under the previous Uzbek government of now deceased President Islam Karimov, not the “new” Uzbekistan that current President Shavkat Mirziyoev has been promising.

This week’s guests are Alisher Ilkhamov, director of Central Asia Due Diligence, and Steve Swerdlow, a rights lawyer who has spent many years focusing on Central Asia, currently teaching the Practice of Human Rights at the University of Southern California.

What I’m Following

RIP Oleg Panfilov “From Tajikistan”

The sad news broke on February 10 that Oleg Panfilov died in Georgia. Panfilov was a widely respected authority on Tajikistan, born in 1957 in Khujand (then called Leninabad).

Panfilov wrote the book “Tajikistan Journalists in the Civil War,” published in 2003.

Oleg worked at RFE/RL for a time, and I was fortunate to meet him. He was intrigued that an American was so interested in Central Asia (this was the late 1990s) so we talked often.

He was a fountain of knowledge about Tajikistan and Central Asia.

Tributes to Panfilov have been coming from all quarters of Tajik society.

He loved Tajikistan and once said though he was ethnic Russian and had lived for a while in Russia, “I am a Tajikistani and was born In Tajikistan.”

Ozodlik’s New Investigative Report

RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, known locally as Ozodlik, just published an investigative report How Russia and Political Insiders Cash In on Uzbekistan’s Lucrative Gas Sector.

The report shows how Uzbekistan’s natural gas and oil companies are controlled by Uzbek and Russian political insiders and how this prevents Uzbekistan from taking steps to provide adequate supplies to its citizens.

The report is available in English, in Russian, and in Uzbek.

Fact of the Week

The nomination period for Kazakhstan’s upcoming parliamentary and local administration elections ended on February 8. The country’s Central Election Commission said it received documents for 14,207 candidates, including “892 candidates for the Mazhilis and 13,315 candidates for deputies of the maslikhats.”

The process of verifying and confirming documents will continue until February 18.

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,