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Central Asia in Focus: Kyrgyzstan Cracks Down on Independent Media, Civil Society

President Sadyr Japarov (right) awarding Kamchybek Tashiev the title of “Kyrgyz Republic Synnyn Baatyr” with the presentation of a special badge on September 2, 2022.

What’s Happening in the Region

Kyrgyzstan Looking More Like Its Central Asian Neighbors
Kyrgyzstan has always been considered more democratic than its Central Asian neighbors. Three of Kyrgyzstan’s main distinctions are: media freedom, a vibrant civil society, and genuine political opposition figures and parties.

The government of current President Sadyr Japarov has put all three in jeopardy.

Journalist Bolot Temirov Arrested, Forcibly Sent to Russia
On November 23, a Bishkek court upheld a previous court ruling that journalist Bolot Temirov, who was born in Kyrgyzstan, had a forged Kyrgyz passport.

Temirov was arrested in the courtroom, had his Kyrgyz passport seized, and was taken to the airport and put on a plane to Russia. Temirov’s lawyer told RFE/RL that they plan to appeal the politically-motivated decision.

The Temirov Live program on YouTube focuses on alleged government corruption. In January 2022, Temirov Live aired a program about alleged connections of family members of the head of the State Committee for National Security (UKMK) Kamchybek Tashiyev to the oil industry.

TashiYev (pictured above, left) is a close friend of President Japarov (pictured above, right). They were both in jail in 2013 after being convicted of trying to overthrow the government in 2012.

Free Press, Radio Azattyk Under Attack
After the raid on Temirov’s offices, the UKMK raided the offices of the privately-owned broadcaster Next TV in early March. The raid occurred after the outlet reported on claims by a former head of Kazakhstan’s intelligence service that Kyrgyzstan was secretly providing military support for Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Next TV often aired criticisms of government policies. After the raid, Next TV’s operations were suspended, and its director, Taalaibek Duishenbiev, was detained on charges of inciting interethnic hatred.

The Committee to Protect Journalists released a statement shortly after Duishenbiev was detained that said “… Kyrgyz authorities appear to be resorting to any legal means, however spurious, to clamp down on critical outlets.”

Duishenbiev was convicted in September and given a five-year suspended sentence with three years’ probation.

The Kyrgyz government’s latest crackdown against independent media involves Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk.

On October 26, Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Culture blocked Azattyk’s websites for two months. The Ministry claims that the Service refused to remove a report on the recent Kyrgyz-Tajik conflict.

Independent Kyrgyz media outlets showed solidarity with Azattyk by posting black screens on their websites for three hours.

Without warning, on October 31, Azattyk’s bank accounts were frozen under UKMK orders.

RFE/RL responded on November 3 by filing an administrative complaint arguing the decision to block Azattyk’s websites was without legal merit. The complaint was rejected by the Kyrgyz government.

Two Kyrgyz channels stopped broadcasting Azattyk’s TV and radio programs. One channel cited technical reasons, while the other said it would not resume broadcasts “until issues with the authorities are resolved.”

Kyrgyzstan’s parliament — where the majority of deputies are from pro-government parties — revoked the accreditation of 11 Azattyk and Current Time journalists on November 16, meaning they can no longer report from or enter the parliament building.

The cancellation of accreditation happened the day before parliament debated a controversial border agreement with Uzbekistan.

On November 25, hundreds of people rallied for free press in Kyrgyzstan, holding signs supporting Azattyk.

Civil Society Leaders Detained
Some of Kyrgyzstan’s leading civil society figures and politicians were detained during October 23 raids on people involved with the Committee to Protect the Kempir-Abad Reservoir.

Under the terms of a secretly negotiated border deal, Kyrgyzstan handed over ownership of the reservoir to Uzbekistan.

When the agreement became public there was opposition and on October 2, the committee was formed by politicians, activists, journalists, and bloggers.

Many are now in jail until at least December 20. Among them are some well-known figures in Kyrgyzstan, including rights defender Rita Karasartova, activists Asiya Sasykbaeva and Gulnara Jurabaeva, leader of the opposition Reforma party Klara Sooronkulova, and opposition politicians Ravshan Jeenbekov and Bektur Asanov.

In a rare case of transnational repression involving Kyrgyzstan, former MP Orozaiym Narmatova and activist Ilgiz Shamenov, who are also Kempir-Abad committee members, were detained in Moscow in late October, extradited to Kyrgyzstan, and also put in jail.

President Japarov and UKMK chief Tashiev have called the group “provocateurs.”

Public meetings or demonstrations have been prohibited in Bishkek through the end of 2022.

Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament passed the border agreement with Uzbekistan on November 17 with 64 of the 90 deputies voting in favor of the agreement and 19 against (seven MPs were absent).

MP Adakhan Madumarov, the leader of the Butun (United) Kyrgyzstan party, said security forces called deputies before the vote and threatened them to vote in favor of the agreement.

Why It’s Important: When Kyrgyzstan adopted a new constitution in April 2021, some people were referring to it as the “khanstitutsiya” since the executive branch was so strengthened that it in effect made the president a khan.

We’re seeing the results of this now.

President Japarov and his government are sweeping away anyone who challenges their decisions and Kyrgyzstan is looking more like its authoritarian neighbors every day.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at the Tajik government’s relentless crackdown on the Pamiri people in eastern Tajikistan.

More than 100 Pamiris have been imprisoned. At least 15 Pamiris were jailed in November, and five of the people convicted in November were given life sentences.

This week’s guests are Suzanne Levi-Sanchez, author of the book Bridging State and Civil Society: Informal Organizations In Tajik/Afghan Badakhshan and Bakhtiyor Safarov, originally from Gorno-Badakhshan and founder of Central Asia Consulting in the United States.

What I’m Following

The Trial of the Karakalpaks

Twenty-two people who were charged with organizing unrest in Karakalpakstan last July went on trial on November 28.

During the first three days, one defendant after another admitted to being guilty or partially guilty.

There were concerns from Karakalpak diaspora groups about confessions being made under duress, but none mentioned having been tortured, something Uzbek officials drew attention to.

On day four, Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov, whom authorities have portrayed as one of the main instigators, was allowed to testify. Tazhimuratov said he was beaten as soon as he was brought to the police station and police “were standing on my head with their foot… and I lost consciousness.”

I’ll be watching as the trial continues this week.

Putin Returns to Central Asia

Russian President Vladimir Putin is due in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for a December 9 summit of the Eurasian Economic Union.

Putin was in Uzbekistan in September for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organizatio. He was in Kazakhstan in October for several conferences, including a meeting with Central Asian leaders.

Russia’s increasing international isolation due to the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine has caused many of Russia’s allies, including the Central Asian states, to seek strengthened relationships with other countries.

Fact of the Week

The fact of the week comes from Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov, who tweeted on November 4 that the first freight train making the Turkey-Iran-Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan route had arrived in Tashkent carrying 40 wagons of household appliances.

Norov said the 2,800-mile journey took 25 days and a train would make the run once-a-month.

It is the latest trade route to open as Central Asia seeks to diversify transit of goods away from Russia.

Thanks for Reading

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

Until next time,