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Central Asia in Focus: Taliban Mark Milestone in Controversial Canal Project

In this week’s edition: Taliban mark milestone in controversial canal project, the UN calls on Kyrgyzstan not to pass the “foreign representatives” law, Russia wants Kazakhstan to hand over a punk rocker, and more.

Taliban-led excavation works for the Qosh Tepa canal project in Afghanistan. (Video grab from Afghan Television/THINK).
Taliban-led excavation works for the Qosh Tepa canal project in Afghanistan. (Video grab from Afghan Television/THINK).

In the Region

Taliban Mark Milestone in Controversial Canal Project

Taliban officials gathered on October 11 in northern Afghanistan’s Balkh Province to mark the end of the first phase of construction of the Qosh Tepa canal that draws water from a river that borders Central Asia.

Taliban acting Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdul Ghani Baradar said the canal is proof his government “intends to pay serious attention to agriculture and managing water.”

Plans call for the 110-yard wide, 9.3-yard deep canal to extend 177 miles, watering 500,000 hectares of agricultural land in the Balkh, Jawzjan, and Faryab provinces.

The canal draws water from the Amu-Darya, the river that divides Uzbekistan and eastern Turkmenistan from Afghanistan.

Taliban officials say they are entitled to twenty percent of the water from the Amu-Darya, but they will not use that much.

Agricultural communities in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan also depend on the Amu-Darya and there are concerns about a drastic reduction in water supplies as Qosh Tepa progresses.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev said in September the opening of the canal “could fundamentally change the water balance in Central Asia.”

The privately-owned Uzbek media outlet interviewed Bakhtiyor Ergashev, the director of Uzbekistan’s Ma’po (Meaning) Center for Research Initiatives about the Afghan canal project.

Ergashev warned the canal “could cause tension between countries of Central Asia and Afghanistan.”

Ergashev also pointed out some of the complications in negotiating with the Taliban over the canal issue.

Afghanistan does not have a treaty with Central Asian countries on water use.

Ergashev noted that without a formal treaty, there is really no way to limit the amount of water the Taliban use.

The Taliban government is not recognized by any country, Ergashev added, so technically the Taliban cannot negotiate an official treaty.

Why It’s Important: The Taliban have already made it clear that they intend to complete the Qosh Tepa canal project whether the neighbors approve or not.

Taliban acting Minister of Hydropower Abdul Latif Mansur has already responded to President Mirziyoev’s September comments.

“We did not accept any obligations,” Mansur said. “There is no agreement. Therefore, we do what we consider necessary.”

Downstream communities in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan will be hit hard by the coming water reduction and it appears there is nothing Central Asian states can do to convince the Taliban to wait or postpone the project.

UN Calls on Kyrgyzstan Not to Pass ‘Foreign Representatives’ Law

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement on October 13 calling on Kyrgyzstan’s parliament to reject a draft law on so-called “foreign representatives”.

Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has been reviewing proposed legislation that would compel NGOs receiving foreign funding to register with authorities and regularly report on their finances.

The draft law has been compared with Russia’s “foreign agent” law that Russian authorities used to shut down independent media outlets and civil society groups that were critical of the Russian government.

The UN said Kyrgyzstan’s draft law allows “criminal liability and jail sentences of up to 10 years” for involvement with non-commercial organizations judged to “incite citizens to refuse to fulfill their civic duties or commit other unlawful acts.”

The UN statement noted, “This offense is ill-defined, broad and open to subjective interpretation.”

This recent UN statement comes after three UN special rapporteurs issued a statement on October 6 calling on the Kyrgyz government to “reconsider and withdraw” the draft law.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), the International Partnership for Human Rights, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and others have also urged Kyrgyzstan to scrap the draft law.

Despite these appeals, the draft law continues to make its way through parliament.

Two separate parliamentary committees approved the draft on October 3 and October 10, clearing the way for the bill to go to parliament, where it must pass three readings.

Parliament was due to have the first reading on October 17.

Lawmakers, NGOs, and members of the public can make their case for passing or not passing the law at the October 17 parliamentary session.

Why It’s Important: The “foreign representatives” draft law was introduced in parliament in May 2023.

At the time, 33 of parliament’s 90 deputies were listed as initiators of the bill. Since then, 13 have withdrawn their names from the draft law.

The proposal has faced fierce criticism domestically and internationally, and its progress through parliament has been delayed several times.

However, it continues to make its way closer to becoming law.

HRW wrote this is “a crucial moment for Kyrgyz authorities to demonstrate their commitment to respecting human rights in accordance with the country’s international legal obligations.”

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at Tajik authorities’ recent history of repression against perceived opponents.

Crude Accountability’s recent report titled Enforced Disappearances in Tajikistan was released just as the Tajik government was detaining relatives of Tajik opposition figures who have fled to Europe.

This week’s guests are:

What I’m Following

Russia Wants Kazakhstan to Hand Over Punk Rocker

Kazakh authorities detained activist and punk rock musician Aykhal Ammosov, real name Igor Ivanov, on October 9 based on a Russian warrant for his arrest on charges of “justifying terrorism”.

Ammosov is from Russia’s far northeastern region of Yakutia.

He spoke out publicly against Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine and was fined three times before Russian authorities charged him with “discrediting the army.”

In late 2022, Ammosov fled to Kazakhstan and has been waiting to see if his request for a humanitarian visa from Germany would be granted.

Tashkent Population Tops Three Million

The population of Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent is now 3.02 million, according to the country’s Statistics Agency.

The next largest Central Asia capital is Astana, Kazakhstan with just over one million inhabitants.

Tashkent authorities have encountered difficulties proving reliable heating and electricity to the capital’s residents during winter, and recent reporting indicates that the number of severe traffic jams is rising in the city.

Fact of the Week

In the first nine months of 2023, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan shipped a combined 3.82 million metric tons of oil across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, where it was loaded into the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.

It was a 6.7 percent increase compared the same period in 2022 and shows progress in efforts to export oil via non-Russian routes.

Thanks for Reading

Thanks for reading Central Asia in Focus! I appreciate you sharing it with other readers who may be interested.

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Until next time,