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Central Asia in Focus: Elections in Kazakhstan

Russian Pressuring Turkmenistan on Pipeline, sexual violence in Central Asia, death toll in Karakalpakstan, and more.

Two men stand on a small stage and speak to an audience.
KAZAKHSTAN — The first rally of independent candidates for Majilis and Maslikhat election. Almaty, February 19, 2023.

What’s Happening in the Region

Kazakhstan’s Parliamentary Campaign Begins

Candidates for Kazakhstan’s Mazhilis, or lower house of parliament, and for local administrations started campaigning on February 18.

This campaign should be more interesting than previous campaigns in Kazakhstan.

For one thing, there are independent candidates running in the parliamentary elections for the first time since 2004.

About 100 independent candidates gathered at Gandhi Square in Almaty on February 19 to kick off their campaigns.

The elections would have been more interesting if Kazakhstan’s Justice Ministry had registered any of the half dozen or more opposition parties that tried to register and participate in the upcoming elections.

Apparently, Kazakh authorities are not yet prepared to make the jump and allow opposition parties to take part in elections.

Constitutional changes adopted in the national referendum of June 2022 changed the way deputies to the Mazhilis are elected.

Of the 98 Mazhilis seats available in the elections, 69 will be filled from party lists and 29 from voting in single-mandate districts.

There are 435 candidates registered to run in the single-mandate districts; 359 of them are running as independents.

This election is also being held on a notable anniversary for Kazakhstan, though that is coincidental.

March 19, election day, is the fourth anniversary of the day first President Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down from office and handed over power to current president Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev.

Seems like a long time ago.

Otherwise, it’s business as usual.

Seven pro-government parties are registered. The ruling Amanat, formerly Nur-Otan party, has the most candidates (90) for the seats available from party lists.

These are snap elections necessitated by the changes in the constitution. So, as has been the case in almost all parliamentary and presidential elections, Kazakhstan is not holding these parliamentary elections on schedule.

Why It’s Important: President Toqaev and other top officials have been repeating that the changes in the constitution created a “new” Kazakhstan.

The March 19 elections will show just how “new” Kazakhstan is.

Will any independent candidates win seats, and how many?

Opposition parties are already prevented from participating, as they have been for 20 years.

The snap presidential election last November was as predictable as previous presidential elections in Kazakhstan.

So this is the last chance for a demonstration of what new Kazakhstan looks like.

If the pro-government candidates take all or nearly all the seats, we’d have to say Kazakhstan today looks like Kazakhstan yesterday.

Russia Pressures Turkmenistan on Pipeline?

The head of Russia’s state company Gazprom was in Turkmenistan, apparently to remind Turkmen officials that Moscow would not be happy to see construction of a Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline.

Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller arrived in Turkmenistan on February 15.

Turkmen and Russian media did not reveal many details of Miller’s meetings with Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhammedov and his father, the head of the People’s Council Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

But the Telegram channel Vzglyad na Vostok (View to the East), which is believed to be run by Russian officials, said Miller emphasized “a (gas) pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan along the bottom of the Caspian Sea would be blocked” by Russia.

Turkey has been pushing for construction of a Trans-Caspian pipeline to supply Turkmen gas, via Turkey’s pipeline network, to Europe.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, known locally as Azatlyk, reported Miller proposed Turkmenistan join a natural gas organization Russia is trying the create modeled on OPEC that would include Iran, and possibly Qatar.

In a separate report, Azatlyk said Iran was proposing shipping Russian and Turkmen gas through its territory.

Why It’s Important: First, it’s clear Russia does not want Turkmenistan to supply gas to Europe.

That has been the Kremlin’s position for years.

Second, it shows how helpless Turkmenistan is now.

Turkmenistan’s closest ally is Russia, and the unpopular Turkmen regime seems to be counting on Moscow to help keep it in power, even if it means losing a chance to make billions of dollars selling gas to Europe.

That money could be used to provide enough food so that rationing of basic goods could be lifted after nearly five years.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at sexual violence in Central Asia, a topic just highlighted in a report from the organization Equality Now.

Efforts are being made to find solutions to the growing problem and laws are being passed in the Central Asian countries, but are they having any effect?

This week’s guests are Janette Akhilgova, Eurasia consultant at Equality Now; Dilfuza Kurolova, a human rights lawyer and activist for gender equality from Uzbekistan; and Subhiya Mastonshoeva, a researcher with thematic experience in human rights, gender, and justice issues including prevention and response to violence against women and girls in Tajikistan.

What I’m Following

Tajikistan Closes the Independent Human Rights Center

Tajikistan’s Justice Ministry ordered the closure of the Independent Center for Defending Human Rights that has worked for 13 years to combat the use of torture in Tajikistan.

Deputy Justice Minister Asadullo Hakimzoda said the organization was late handing in its financial statements and there were other violations, though Hakimzoda didn’t say what those violations were.

Domestic and international rights groups have been accusing Tajik authorities of using torture on suspects for years.

Tajik authorities deny this and usually move to silence those who bring attention to government abuses.

Rights Group Says at least 50 Died in Karakalpakstan Violence

Rights defender Galym Ageleuov from the international rights organization Liberty spoke at a press conference in Almaty on February 20. She said the death toll from the protests in western Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan Republic was far higher than official figures.

Ageleuov said her organization had identified 50 people who were killed on July 1-2, 2022.

Uzbek authorities say 21 people died after protests over proposed constitutional amendments to the sovereign status of Karakalpakstan sparked protests that turned violent when authorities tried to disperse the large crowd in the regional capital Nukus.

Fact of the Week

Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister Mukhtar Smailov said on February 18 that his country took in $22.1 billion in foreign investment in the first nine months of 2022, a 17.8 percent increase over the figure for the same period in 2021.

Thanks for Reading

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

Until next time,