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central asia in focus

Central Asia in Focus

Author: Bruce Pannier

Mar 15, 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.  Read here.


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! 


AFGHANISTAN -- People attend to a man injured in a blast in the Afghanistan's Balkh Province on March 11. AP Photo. 

Bombings South of Uzbekistan’s Border
The northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif is 47 miles from the border with Uzbekistan.
bombing in Mazar-e Sharif on March 9 killed the Taliban-appointed head of Balkh Province, where Mazar-e Sharif is located.
Another bombing there on March 11 at a ceremony honoring journalists killed one person and left eight others wounded, five of whom were journalists.
The Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) militant group claimed responsibility for both attacks.
ISK said a suicide bomber carried out the attack that killed Balkh provincial chief Mohammad Dawood Muzammil and two of his security guards.
Muzammil was the Taliban governor of the eastern Nangahar Province, an area where ISK has been active for several years.
Muzammil led the campaign against ISK in Nangahar before being transferred to Balkh in October 2022. He was one of the highest-ranking Taliban officials killed since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021.
Uzbek authorities have not commented publicly on the two bombings, but there must be concerns about the two attacks in Mazar-e Sharif.
In 2022, ISK tried twice to launch rockets from Afghanistan into Uzbekistan.
In the first attack in March, none of the rockets made it across the Amu-Darya, the river dividing Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
In the second attack in July, a couple of the rockets did land on Uzbek territory but failed to explode. They caused property damage but no casualties.
Why It’s Important: The fragile truce between the Uzbek government and the Taliban is based in part on the latter’s pledge not to allow Afghan territory to be used for plotting or carrying out attacks on neighboring countries.
But now, ISK has killed the governor of the province that borders Uzbekistan. ISK has also carried out other attacks in Balkh Province, including one on a Shi’a mosque in Mazar-e Sharif in March 2022 that killed at least 34 people.
ISK has also increased use of the Uzbek language in disseminating its propaganda material.
Government officials in Tashkent will no doubt be carefully watching developments in Balkh Province in the coming months. They must have questions about the Taliban’s ability to keep order in the province bordering Uzbekistan.
An Act of Defiance in Turkmenistan
Public displays of discontent with the government are rare in Turkmenistan because the authorities act quickly and often ruthlessly towards people with complaints.
This is why the actions of a group of 30 women in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat on March 6 are such a big surprise.
The Netherlands-based independent media outlet Turkmen.news reported the women came from various parts of Turkmenistan and gathered in front of the presidential palace.
They asked to see President Serdar Berdymukhammedov, saying their letters to the president complaining about problems and corrupt officials in their areas had not produced any results.
The palace security guards, who must have been stunned to see a group making such a request, said the president was busy at the moment, but the prosecutor general would meet with them.
The security guards asked the women to wait for a few minutes.
Instead of any official coming out of the presidential palace, a bus pulled up to the building with police who loaded the women onto the vehicle and brought them to a police station for questioning.
The Turkmen.news report included some of the complaints the women wanted to tell the president, all of which seem worth investigating.
One woman complained her daughter’s rape has gone uninvestigated for three years.
Another young woman who is confined to a wheelchair said she received an apartment from the state, but the previous owner has been trying to force her out, even beating her and pushing her and her wheelchair into the street.
After being questioned by police in Ashgabat, the women were turned over to police from their regions and were questioned again. The women had to sign statements describing what they did before they could be released. 
Why It’s Important: The Turkmen president never holds impromptu meetings with the country’s citizens. One can only wonder about the desperation that would drive these women to attempt to meet him in person.
Further, everyone in Turkmenistan knows that they are likely to be punished for complaining publicly about any official.
The fact that these women went to the presidential anyway shows how hopeless their situation has become.


This week’s Majlis podcast looks at Kazakhstan’s March 19 elections to the Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament.
These are the first Mazhilis elections since constitutional amendments in 2022 gave parliament more powers.
Once again, no genuine opposition parties registered to participate. However, for the first time since 2004, independent candidates will be running for seats.
This week’s guests are Paolo Sorbello, a journalist who has been living in Almaty for several years and the English-language editor at the Kazakh independent media outlet vlast.kz; and Darkhan Umirbekov, digital editor at the Astana bureau of RFE/RL’s Kazakh service, known locally as Azattyq.


UNHCHR Chief Visiting Central Asia

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk is visiting Uzbekistan on March 13-15 and Kazakhstan on March 16-17. While in Uzbekistan, Turk is due to visit the western Karakalpakstan Republic, where the worst violence in Uzbekistan in nearly 20 years broke out in early July 2022.
Uzbekistan’s Sets Date for Referendum on Constitution
On March 10, Uzbekistan’s Oliy Majlis, the lower house of parliament, set April 30 as the date for a referendum on amendments to the constitution.
The proposed amendments have not yet been published, but Uzbek media reported there would be changes to 65 percent of the current constitution. The key change is the amendment making a presidential term seven years, instead of the current five-year term.
Incumbent President Shavkat Mirziyoev is now serving his second, and constitutionally last term, but the proposed change of the presidential term from five to seven years would allow Mirziyoev to run for two more terms.


According to Kazakhstan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko, Kazakhstan’s trade turnover with the European Union in 2022 amounted to $40 billion, again making the EU the biggest trade partner for Kazakhstan.


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

Until next time, 

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