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Central Asia in Focus: The Difficult Russian Partner

In this week’s edition: Russia is on the minds of parliamentary leaders in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Tajik authorities published their updated list of groups that are banned in Tajikistan, and more.

Maulen Ashimbayev appears during his swearing-in as Chairman of the Senate of the Parliament of Kazakhstan on May 4, 2024.
KAZAKHSTAN – Maulen Ashimbayev appears during his swearing-in as Chairman of the Senate of the Parliament of Kazakhstan on May 4, 2024. Photo:

In the Region

The Difficult Russian Partner

Russia is on the minds of parliamentary leaders in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Kazakh Senate Chairman Maulen Ashimbaev found himself in an uncomfortable situation on May 30 when journalists asked about comments from Russian State Duma Deputy Speaker Petr Tolstoy.

Tolstoy gave a radio interview to Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda on May 24.

He said if Russia does not “close the topic” of Ukraine, there would be problems “with Kazakhstan, and with Armenia, and with other countries…”

Tolstoy explained, “Look at what is happening today in Kazakhstan, what kind of national mythology is blooming there regarding independence, regarding the transition to the Latin alphabet.”

The Duma deputy speaker continued, “They forgot Alma-Ata (Almaty) is the former city of Verny, our Russian Cossack fortress.”

Commenting to journalists on May 30, Ashimbaev asked them “not to aggravate” the situation, stating, “In my view, this is the opinion of a private person and does not express the official opinion of the State Duma.”

Two days earlier, in Uzbekistan, Deputy Speaker of the Oliy Majlis, the lower house of parliament, Alisher Qodirov explained earlier statements about Russia.

In January 2024, Qodirov called for suspending broadcasts of Russian TV channels in Uzbekistan due to repeated “chauvinist statements.”

Qodirov said at the time that Russian is disproportionately used in Uzbekistan where only about three percent of the population are ethnic Russians.”

Qodiov posted on his Telegram channel on May 28 clarifying he was a “Sovietophobe,” not a Russophobe.

The history of the USSR, Qodirov wrote, should remain in the “black pages of history” of Uzbekistan.

He said he never denied the benefits for Uzbekistan’s youth in learning Russian, “along with other languages.”

Qodirov called Russia a “big and powerful neighbor,” and commented on the “conflict” between Russia and Ukraine, saying any war ends with agreements.

He added that “sound governance does not lead to war.” 

Why It’s Important: Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Uzbekistan on May 26-28 and it was all smiles and talk of cooperation as he met with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev. 

However, comments from other Russian government officials, like Tolstoy, disparaging or threatening Central Asia are becoming more common. 

Ashimbaev dismissed Tolstoy’s comments as the views of one person, but Tolstoy is the Duma deputy speaker, and he was giving his views to a Russian media outlet on what Russian policy should be. 

Qodirov’s comments are probably more in line with the thinking of many people in Central Asia, but Uzbekistan doesn’t directly border Russia, while Kazakhstan shares a 4,720-mile frontier with Russia. 

Tajikistan Puts News Outlet on Terrorist List

Tajik authorities published their updated list of groups that are banned in Tajikistan on May 27.

There were 29 names on the list, including terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province, the Taliban, and the domestic Tajik group Jamaat Ansarullo.

Also on the list was the Pamir Daily News.

The Pamir Daily News, or simply Pamir News, posts on social networks about events related to Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO).

It is run by Pamiris, the indigenous people of GBAO, against whom the Tajik government has been waging a sweeping crackdown for more than two years now. (Listen to the most recent Majlis podcast to learn more.)

During this campaign, hundreds of Pamiris have been arrested, and dozens, including activists, journalists, artists, and lawyers, are now in prison. 

Some, but not all, of Pamir News content is about those Pamiris and often the information posted is articles from international rights groups and media outlets about the situation in GBAO.

The list of 29 organizations also included domestic political opposition groups like the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, Group 24, and the National Alliance of Tajikistan. 

Why It’s Important: Classifying a small news outlet as an extremist or terrorist organization is a slippery slope.

There are laws in Tajikistan that deal with slander and more recently, “fake” news.

The inclusion of Pamir News on this list opens the door for the Tajik government to declare any outlet on the internet reporting critically on Tajikistan to be an extremist group.

Also, this move is clearly aimed at discrediting a site dedicated to the Pamiris in GBAO and can easily be seen as part of the campaign against Pamiris.

Hundreds of Pamiris have been arrested and dozens imprisoned in the last two years and the campaign against them continues to this day. 

Majlis Podcast

The most recent Majlis podcast looks at the situation in eastern Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) two years after the government started a brutal crackdown there.

GBAO is inhabited by Pamiris, who are ethnically, religiously, and culturally distinct from Tajiks.

The guests on the podcast are:

What I’m Following

School Prank or Sign of Extremism in Southern Kyrgyzstan?

Authorities in Kyrgyzstan’s southern town of Bek-Abad have taken six people into custody after Kyrgyz state flags were burned and flags described as “white with Arab script” were raised.

The description roughly matches the flag used by the Taliban, though other jihadist groups have similar flags.

Officials have not commented on what was written in Arabic on the flags that were hung outside the three buildings.

The six taken into custody are allegedly members of Hezb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group banned in Kyrgyzstan since 2003. 

Hezb ut-Tahrir has never been accused of such an act before and police are not saying if those suspects are related to the flag episode.

The incidents happened at two schools and the town mayor’s office during the night of May 30, so authorities are not ruling out the possibility this was a prank by students. 

CASA-1000 Might Finally Start Operating

Kyrgyzstan’s Energy Ministry says the Central Asia-South Asia electricity transmission project, CASA-1000, will start operations in 2025.

CASA-1000 envisions Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan providing 1,300 megawatts (MW) of electricity from their hydropower plants to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The project was conceived more than a decade ago and has financial support from organizations such as the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Progress on the project was halted when the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, but the World Bank announced in February 2024 that work on CASA-1000 would resume.

Construction of CASA-1000 in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan was already nearly finished, leaving only the Afghan section to be built.  

Fact of the Week

The Chief of Staff of Kyrgyzstan’s Armed Forces Ruslan Mukambetov said at the end of May his country would soon receive an S-300 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia.

Thanks for Reading

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

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

Until next time,

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