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Central Asia in Focus: September 7, 2022

Azerbaijan – The meeting of the presidents of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Baku, August 24, 2022.

What’s Happening in the Region

Kazakhstan Seeks Safe Ports After Russian Storm

Kazakhstan has been having problems lately shipping its goods through Russia to Europe, so Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev ordered his government to find alternatives.

In comments posted on the Kazakh prime minister’s website on September 3, Minister of Industry and Infrastructure Kairbek Uskenbaev said Kazakhstan was looking into creating an “external terminal network at ports in Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey.”

Usekbaev’s comments were not a huge surprise. Kazakh officials have been in contact with counterparts in Azerbaijan and Turkey often in recent months, and President Toqaev was in Turkey in May, Iran in June, and Azerbaijan in August and shipping networks were one of the main topics.

Disruptions to traditional trade routes through Russia due to European sanctions on Russia for its war in Ukraine have led all the Central Asian countries to take a closer look at the possibilities of expanding the so-called Middle Corridor that connects Central Asia to Europe through the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus.

In Kazakhstan’s case, there has been added urgency due to problems shipping its oil through the normally reliable Caspian Pipeline Consortium to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.

Kazakh officials have said publicly they won’t recognize the independence of the Russian-occupied Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine and since late March the loading of Kazakhstan oil onto tankers at Novorossiysk has been temporarily, or partially suspended four times, twice due to equipment problems, once when a Russian court ordered operations suspended for ecological violations, and once when Novorossiysk officials said dozens of WWII mines had been detected in the water near the port.

Kazakh state company KazMunaiGaz (KMG) owns the oil terminal at Georgia’s Black Sea port at Batumi. KMG chairman Magzum Mirzagaliev visited the terminal on August 16 after meeting with Rovshan Najaf, the new president of the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR), the previous day.

Why It’s Important: KMG subsidiary KazTransOil purchased the Batumi oil terminal in 2008, but with the Novorossiysk port able to handle approximately 80 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil exports, there was no hurry to develop trans-Caucasian routes.

Now, there is a need for Kazakhstan to hurry.

No Sanctuary in Russia for GBAO Activists

Mamadek Atobekov, an activist from eastern Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), was detained in Moscow on September 1, becoming the latest person from GBAO to be detained in Russia.

RFE/RL’s Tajik service, known locally as Ozodi, spoke with people close to Atobekov who said two Tajik security officials were with Russian police when Atobekov was apprehended.

Ozodi cited the Pamir Daily News, an Internet site dedicated to events in GBAO, as saying at least 20 GBAO natives have been “abducted” in Russia and sent to Tajikistan in the last six months.

And on September 6 there was word that GBAO activist Komyor Mirzoev had been taken into custody in Moscow. Mirzoev is known for his work during the COVID pandemic when he worked with local officials and volunteers in GBAO to alleviate the situation.

GBAO natives in Russia started coming under pressure after unrest in GBAO in November 2021.

The pressure, and extraditions, increased after violence again broke out in GBAO in May 2022, and the Tajik government launched what it called an “antiterrorism” operation.

Tajik authorities have made it difficult for journalists to get to GBAO and have not allowed any independent group to investigate the violence in May.

Why It’s Important: I’ve written a lot about GBAO in this newsletter because of the Tajik government’s unbridled campaign of repression with help from Russian authorities in rounding up perceived opponents who are outside the reach of Tajik law enforcement agencies.

Mine is a very minor contribution but hopefully a reminder to those reading the newsletter that without outside pressure on Tajik authorities, the situation in GBAO and with natives of the region will only continue to worsen.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

On the latest Majlis Podcast, we look at Kyrgyzstan’s Kumtor gold mine. After years of controversy over environmental damages, corruption, and other problems, the Kyrgyz government took control of Kumtor from the Canadian company that was running the gold mine. That has not stopped the problems.

This week’s guests are:

What I’m Following

Female Genital Mutilation in Kyrgyzstan

A September 3 Facebook post from veteran Kyrgyz politician Feliks Kulov asked the Health Ministry and State Commission on Religious Affairs to investigate information that a young woman studying medicine at a university in Kyrgyzstan had her genitals mutilated.

Kulov said the mutilation was carried out against the young woman’s wishes and it is painful for the young woman involved to sit since the procedure.

Kulov questioned which clinic performed the mutilation and issued a reminder in his Facebook post that there are laws against causing bodily harm.

The incident is receiving a lot of attention in Kyrgyzstan, particularly as gender violence has been on the rise in the country.

Bring Back Astana, For Now At Least

A group of deputies from Kazakhstan’s lower house of parliament, the Mazhilis, are calling for changing the name of the country’s capital Nur-Sultan, back to its previous name, Astana.

I’m for it and I was among many who were cringing when longtime President Nursultan Nazarbaev stepped down on March 19, 2019, and his heir apparent, current President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev proposed naming Kazakhstan’s capital after Nazarbaev.

Putting a hyphen in his first name just made it worse for me.

My problem with Astana is it means “capital” in Kazakh, and it was clear when the city was given that name in 1998 it was a placeholder name until something else (Nazarbaev) replaced it.

Restoring “Astana” as the capital is just kicking the can down the road.

Time to call for suggestions from Kazakhstan’s people.

Event Alert

On Friday, September 9, the Central Asia Program at Georgia Washington University will host an event on “Karakalpakstan Two Months on: Karakalpak and Independent Voices Speak” with speakers Palsanem Karakalpakova, Steve Swerdlow, and myself.

You can learn more about the presentation here.

Fact of the Week

RFE/RL’s Tajik service reported more than 100 Afghan refugees sheltering in Tajikistan were sent back to Afghanistan since the end of August.

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.

Feel free to contact me on Twitter or by, especially if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or just want to connect with me about topics concerning Central Asia.

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