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Central Asia in Focus: Russia Continues Sending Central Asians to Ukraine

In this week’s edition: Russia continues to send Central Asians to fight in its full-scale war on Ukraine, the Kazakh government faces criticism over its new media law, and more.

RUSSIA – The Head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin. Photo: Social Media.

In the Region

Russia Continues Sending Central Asians to Ukraine

The head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin, said on June 27 that 10,000 migrants who recently received Russian citizenship have been sent to fight in Ukraine.

Bastrykin said in total, Russian authorities “caught” more than 30,000 people who received Russian citizenship, but who “did not want to register for military service.”

He said all were forced to register as being eligible for military service, but only 10,000 were sent to the “special military operation,” Russian officials’ favored term for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine they launched in February 2022.

Bastrykin added that those sent to Ukraine are serving in “rear units that build fortifications.”

He did not provide any details about the nationality of these migrants, but Central Asians are the largest group of migrant laborers in Russia.

Russian law enforcement personnel have been raiding areas where Central Asian migrants are known to work or reside since the March terrorist attack on Moscow’s Crocus City Hall that killed more than 140 people.

The suspects that Russia’s security service detained for that attack are Tajik nationals.

The raids officially targeted other potential terrorists or migrants working illegally in Russia. 

Why It’s Important: Bastrykin also said that Russian authorities are aware that “migrants are starting to gradually leave Russia.”

Identifying migrants with Russian citizenship who are eligible to serve in the military seems to be part of the reason for the expanded raids.

Bastrykin said the more than 30,000 migrants who were caught were made to register as eligible for military service.

Russia’s military is taking heavy losses in Ukraine and needs to replenish its forces.

Since Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine, Russian authorities have been working to recruit Central Asian migrant laborers or force naturalized Russian citizens into the military.

The number of Central Asian migrants has been decreasing because of this and it appears Russian authorities are racing to draft them into military service before they can leave Russia. 

Criticism and Concerns over Kazakhstan’s New Media Law

After Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev signed the country’s new media law on June 19, human rights and media freedom organizations quickly expressed their concerns.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement on June 22 saying the new law “threatens freedom of speech (and) information in Kazakhstan.”

The new law requires online publications and mass media to have a physical presence in Kazakhstan, register with authorities, and obtain a permit.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called the requirements “contrary to the principle of press freedom.”

HRW and RSF drew attention to the amendment on foreign journalists and foreign media.

HRW said the amendment gives the government the right to “interfere with and suspend the work of foreign journalists (and deny) foreign media registration” for materials with “propaganda of extremism.”

RSF said “this new measure means reporters working for media critical of the authorities are more likely to be banned arbitrarily.”

HRW pointed out that “Kazakhstan maintains a vague and overbroad definition of ‘extremism,’ which is used abusively to punish legitimate, protected speech.”

HRW noted some changes represented improvements, such as lowering “from three years to one… the limitation period for claims to be made against media for inaccurate information.”

The new law also introduces the concept of a “special status of a journalist.”

Kazakh authorities say that provides “additional legal guarantees and protections for journalists,” and “expanded rights when searching, requesting, receiving, and distributing information.”

HRW said this special status for journalists “could… prove positive.” 

Why It’s Important: Any time a Central Asian government makes amendments to media laws, it is bad news.

Changes are made to prevent the media from reporting critically or on topics the government would prefer do not receive attention.

The judgment of what constitutes “extremism” is made by the authorities and could be applied arbitrarily.

There are opposition groups such as the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan or Koshe (Street) party that are secular and have never called for violence but are banned as extremist organizations.

Jeanne Cavalier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said, “Far from improving the working environment and protection for journalists,” the new law “can in fact be used to censor them.” 

Majlis Podcast

The latest Majlis podcast looks at the increasing threat the terrorist group Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) poses to Central Asian states and other countries.

So far in 2024, ISKP is blamed for attacks in Iran, Russia, and Afghanistan.

ISKP propaganda on social networks regularly targets the Tajik and Uzbek governments and Kyrgyz officials arrested 15 suspected ISKP members in June 2024.

The guests on this podcast are:

What I’m Following

Kazakhstan to Have Referendum on Nuclear Power Plant in Autumn

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev announced on June 27 that his country will conduct a referendum this autumn on whether to build a nuclear power plant (NPP).

Kazakhstan has suffered severe power shortages in recent winters, in part due to aging Soviet-era power plants that break down when electricity and heating demands soar.

While the addition of an NPP would help alleviate the winter power shortages, public sentiment against nuclear power is strong in Kazakhstan.

Between 1949-1989, the Soviet Union used the northeastern Semipalatinsk area of Kazakhstan as a nuclear testing area.

During those 40 years, there were 456 nuclear tests conducted, exposing more than one million people to radioactive fallout. 

Foreign Ministers from Countries Neighboring Afghanistan to Meet in Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry announced on June 28 it will host a meeting of foreign ministers from the countries bordering Afghanistan this year.

The announcement was made after discussions between Turkmen Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmed Gurbanov and China’s special representative for Afghanistan Yue Xiaoyong in Ashgabat to discuss the meeting.

There was no mention of the exact date.

It will be the fifth time the foreign ministers of China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are meeting to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.

The last meeting was in Samarkand, Uzbekistan in April 2023.   

Fact of the Week

This year, Kazakhstan has experienced the worst flooding in 80 years, but Kazgidromet, the country’s state meteorological agency, is forecasting drought conditions in July for 10 of Kazakhstan’s 17 provinces.

Thanks for Reading

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Until next time,

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