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Central Asia in Focus

Author: Bruce Pannier

Mar 1, 2023

Image source: CPC

Copyright (c)2022 RFE/RL, Inc. Used with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036. 


Welcome to Central Asia in Focus, a newsletter that offers insight and analysis on the events shaping the region's political future. 

I’m Bruce Pannier. I’ve been studying Central Asia for more than 35 years, went to summer school at Tashkent State in 1990 when Uzbekistan was still part of the Soviet Union, and then lived in villages in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in 1992-1993. And since 1995, I’ve been writing about the region I think of as my second homeland. Thanks for joining us! 


KAZAKHSTAN -- Activists protest, demanding authorities allow peaceful demonstration on International Women's Day. Almaty, Feb. 5, 2023.

Almaty Authorities Okay Women’s Day Meeting, Reject March 

The city council of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city, gave women’s and feminist organizations some of what they wanted, but not all they were asking. 

After having three times denied these organizations permission to conduct a march and a public meeting on March 8, International Women’s Day, Almaty authorities approved the meeting, but again rejected the march. 

The reason the city council offered for withholding permission was unconvincing. 

The city council said all three of the designated areas for public meetings had already been reserved on March 8 by a little-known group called the League of Volunteers, and that same group had also already obtained approval for a march. 

On February 5, 150 activists and rights defenders gathered in Almaty’s Gandhi Park to call on city authorities to allow the march and meeting. 

The women’s groups trying to organize a march and meeting complained to the city council. On February 21, activists from Kazfem told a press conference they had filed a court case to force Almaty officials to grant permission. 

That evening, the Almaty city council again rejected the march, but said the meeting could take place at Gandhi Park, not at the more centrally located square outside the Academy of Sciences as requested by the organizers. 

This was unacceptable to some people and on February 23, two women – Zhamilya Kasymkhan and Moldir Zhumabaeva -- held one-person pickets demanding the march be allowed. 

Kasymkhan and Zhumabaeva wanted to conduct their one-person protests at the same time, standing well apart from one another, but city officials refused to permit that. 

Instead, the two women were each allowed to demonstrate for 45 minutes, first one, then the other.  

Why It’s Important: As many of the organizers of the march and meeting pointed out, their right to hold public gatherings is guaranteed by the constitution.  

Yet when organizers tried to obtain official permission in accordance with the law, they were denied their right to gather because of limited designated areas for public meetings. 

It could also be pointed out that women’s groups in Almaty always apply to meet on International Women’s Day. Almaty authorities have a history of denying permission to hold women's rights events on March 8. 

Authorities should have taken this into consideration before allocating all designated meeting areas to a single group on March 8. 

Tajik Authorities Ban Home Prayer Meetings for Ismaili Muslims  

The Tajik authorities’ campaign of repression against the Ismaili Muslim communities in eastern Tajikistan continues. Now those hosting prayer meetings at their homes are subject to fines. 

International religious freedom organization Forum 18 reported on February 21 that freedom to practice their religion and support the Ismaili spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, is being curtailed. 

The Ismaili Muslims of eastern Tajikistan’s remote Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) have been targeted since late 2021 when there was a protest after the killing of a local man.  

In May 2022, when locals tried to demonstrate peacefully for the release of those arrested during the November 2021 protest, government forces responded using deadly force.  

Tajik authorities are arguing about how many people were killed, but people in the region claim the number was in the dozens. 

In the months after the violence, many influential GBAO residents were arrested. More than a dozen GBAO natives in Russia who posted support on social networks were forcibly returned to Tajikistan, where they were imprisoned. 

Forum 18 reported in mid-January 2023 that local government officials told elders to spread the word that home prayer meetings were prohibited. 

Group prayers are only allowed at official Ismaili center in the GBAO capital Khorugh. 

Forum 18 said that two people have already been fined the equivalent of one-month’s salary after being caught hosting prayer meetings. 

Other new prohibitions include banning educational or cultural activities in the country’s two Ismaili centers (one in Khorugh, the other in the Tajik capital Dushanbe). 

Young Ismailis will no longer be allowed to travel to the UK to study at the Institute of Ismaili Studies. 

Authorities also said people must remove portraits of the Aga Khan that hang in nearly every Ismaili home in GBAO.  

Why It’s Important: People have called what has been happening in GBAO cultural genocide and it difficult to argue with that. 

Hundreds of the best, brightest, and most influential GBAO natives have been arrested, and dozens are already serving lengthy prison sentences. 

Everything connected with the Ismaili culture is gradually being banned.  



This week’s Majlis podcast looks at how Central Asian-Russian relations have been affected in the year since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

What has Russia’s war in Ukraine done to the Kremlin’s ties with the Central Asian states? And how has the war changed the Central Asia’s people toward their former colonizer? 

This week’s guests are Erica Marat, a professor of political science at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., and Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek. 


Kyrgyzstan sending humanitarian mission to ethnic Kyrgyz in Afghanistan 

Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry announced the country will send a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan to visit Kyrgyz communities in the Pamir Mountains, though the date of the visit is not yet clear.  

The visit comes after a group of ethnic Kyrgyz in the village of Andemin in Afghanistan’s northeastern Badakhshan Province posted a video in January asking to move to Kyrgyzstan. 

U.S. Secretary of State Visits Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to visit Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on his way to India for the G20 foreign ministers meeting. 

Blinken is due to meet with the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian states in Kazakhstan. 

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin said on February 24 that the Central Asian states should exercise “maximum caution” in their dealings with the United States. 


Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister Mukhtar Smailov said on February 18 that his country took in $22.1 billion in foreign investment in the first nine months of 2022, a 17.8 percent increase over the figure for the same period in 2021.


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 responding to this email, especially if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or just want to connect with me about topics concerning Central Asia. 
Please consider filling out this brief survey so that I can better understand how this newsletter can be useful for you. 

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

Until next time, 

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