Following on from my post at the beginning of January 2016, Central Asia: what lies ahead?, I’m going to dedicate the rest of this month to thinking about the situation in the region in the coming year. I plan to do this at both a macro (state, regional) level as well as considering the implications at a meso (institutional) level, focussing where possible on higher education. This plan is facilitated by reports and news stories that have already been coming my way.
I open the series with an article from Kazakhstan-based Astana Times of 18 January that does a wonderful job of setting the global picture for the region. In the article,
journalist Aiman Turebekova reports on the findings of the state-sponsored Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Kazakhstan (which I wish used the English acronym KISS rather than its actual abbreviation, KazISS!), which an organization has the aim of providing analytical support to the President.
The KazISS report focusses on global events that could have important implications for the political and economic development, stability and security of Central Asian countries. This is beautifully presented through an infographic which I have copied below, and is (c) KazISS. The infographic offers an immediate visual interpretation of the extent to which the world interacts/intersects with Central Asia, and thus the importance of what is happening globally to what happens in Central Asia. An English translation of these headlines and the full Astana Times story [en] can be accessed on the Astana Times website or downloaded as a pdf here: Top Kazakh Think Tank Anticipates 10 Most Important Events in Central Asia in 2016 18.01.16.
The ten headlines, using the same numerical order as in the infographic, are:
- The deterioration of conditions in world markets and the slowdown in economic growth in Central Asian countries
- Finding new means of economic cooperation in Eurasia
- Expanding Chinese investment presence in Central Asia
- Continuing instability in Afghanistan and implications for the regional security agenda
- The increased terrorist threat arising from the Syrian conflict
- Increased efforts by Central Asian countries in the field of regional security
- Next election cycle in Central Asian countries
- A new stage in the development of regional transport and energy projects
- Iran’s return to regional processes
- A decision on Kazakhstan’s bid for non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council for 2017-2018
Breaking these points down, we can identify three overarching themes that relate to the regional, global and national levels:
- Regional: The importance of regional cooperation, both at the level of the Central Asian countries and in partnership with other regional players such as Russia, China and Iran. The Central Asian countries have varying degrees of influence in the direction of regional processes (2, 3, 6, 8, 9);
- Global: The impact of transnational activities and processes, where the Central Asian countries may have limited ability to effect or control change (1, 10);
- National: Political and security concerns arising both from external factors such as terrorism and Syria and ongoing instability in Afghanistan, as well as internal factors such as forthcoming elections (4, 5, 7).
The analysis draws extensively on the Kazakh experience (the other Central Asian countries, for example, have little direct involvement in Kazakhstan’s bid to join the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member) and this serves as a reminder that whilst we frequently think about the five Central Asian countries in their regional form, that they are all at different stages from one another, with different contexts and varying priorities. It’s a bit like describing France and Poland or Spain and Sweden in the same breath simply because they are all members of the European Union. This should not undermine the importance of analysis at the regional level, but help us recognize that we must also understand what is happening at the individual country level.
Happy new year! This is my fifth year of blogging on Central Asia, focussing on issues relating to higher education and social change. I open the year with an interesting analytical think piece from global intelligence agency Stratfor that attempts to surmise what the future might hold for the region. It’s available on their website at https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/central-asia-different-kind-threat and copied below, (c) Stratfor 2016.
*UPDATE* 7 January 2016: Hot on the heels of Stratfor’s piece, I read another similar ‘future gazing’ article from Middle Eastern site Al-Monitor. This one is authored by Turkish journalist Zülfikar Doğan. It is written in the same realist vein as the Stratfor article, i.e. using states as the main actors of analysis. Though focussing more on Turkey’s role, I’d argue that the piece comes to somewhat similar conclusions. This article is copied below underneath the Stratfor article, is (c) Al-Monitor/Zülfikar Doğan and is also available at http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/01/turkey-losing-its-standing-in-central-asia-after-middle-east.html.
The Stratfor article generated some interesting discussions (see the Comments section at the end of the piece) and I’d love to know your thoughts on the Al-Monitor story too.
Central Asia: A Different Kind of Threat
Editor’s Note: This is the last installment of a five-part series that explores the past, present and future of the confrontation between Russia and the West on the Eurasian landmass. Part one explored the origins of the conflict, part two examined Ukraine, part three looked at Eastern Europe, and part four considered the Caucasus.
Much like the Caucasus, Central Asia serves as a relatively new but no less important staging ground for the ongoing competition between Russia and the West. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the region has been somewhat of a melange of indecision and opportunism: Kazakhstan has stayed close with Russia, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have stayed relatively neutral. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, on the other hand, have had difficulty settling on which foreign patron to support as violent upheavals have swung their foreign policies back and forth.
Over the coming decades, instability and internal conflict will continue to pose the greatest threats to the region as the influence of Russia and the West in Central Asia fades. But in their place, two new powers will rise that will shape the future of the region: Turkey and China.
Throughout history, powerful empires, including Persian, Mongol and Turkish empires, have fought to control Central Asia. Russia did not join the fray until the late 18th century. When it did, its expansion into the region was gradual, starting in the area that is now Kazakhstan. From there, it slowly penetrated southward into modern-day Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The Russian Empire’s initial forays into Central Asia coincided with the British Empire’s expansion into the Indian subcontinent, giving rise to what would be known as the Great Game, a long-running battle for regional control. Imperial Russia wanted an outlet to the sea and a buffer between potentially hostile powers in Asia, be they indigenous peoples or imperial armies. Afghanistan would later become just that, separating the Russian and British empires and eventually playing an important role in subsequent conflicts between Russia and the West in Central Asia.
Though the Russian Empire’s collapse in 1917 led to a brief and unstable period of independence in Central Asia, its Soviet successor would once again pull the region into its orbit in the following decade. Soviet rule dramatically changed the politics of Central Asia. Peoples from other parts of the Soviet bloc were forced to resettle throughout the region, while Russification programs emphasized the adoption of Russian language and customs. Central Asia became closed off to the West and to the Muslim states surrounding it, including Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.
However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 accelerated the bloc’s undoing and gave the West the upper hand in the Cold War. Substantial support from the West, especially the United States, enabled the Afghan mujahideen to counter the Soviet military’s efforts to prop up the communist government in Kabul. This exposed the Soviet Union’s military weakness and drained its economic and political resources, reducing Moscow’s ability to continue contending with the West on a global scale.
The Past 25 Years: The Afghan Conflict Creates Volatility
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, each of the five Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — gained their independence. With the exception of Tajikistan, which descended into a chaotic civil war almost immediately, all installed their former Communist Party secretaries as their new presidents.
In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s two largest states, these presidents have remained in power at the head of highly centralized political systems ever since. Under President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan has maintained a close relationship with Russia by joining the Moscow-led Customs Union (now the Eurasian Union) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance. Though it has relied on the West to develop its large oil and natural gas resources, Kazakhstan has remained tied to Russia strategically. Uzbekistan, however, has remained neutralunder President Islam Karimov’s rule, eschewing alliances with both Russia and the West. While it did host U.S. and NATO military bases for a time during the West’s war in Afghanistan, it later closed them after the West raised concerns over human rights abuses. Uzbekistan has also retained close economic ties with Russia but has avoided participating in Moscow-led integration projects.
Like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan has attempted to keep its distance from both Russia and the West. President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov has maintained his predecessor’s isolationist policies, keeping power highly centralized under his office. Though Turkmenistan initially sent most of its considerable natural gas output to Russia, in recent years it has rerouted much of its supplies to China amid a steep drop in Russian imports. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan continues to explore other export options, including the Trans-Caspian and TAPI pipelines to Europe and South Asia. In the wake of the crisis in Ukraine, Europe has been particularly interested in courting Turkmenistan as an alternative natural gas supplier to Russia, though the Kremlin has so far been successful in halting projects that would send Turkmen natural gas to the Continent. Now approached by the West, Russia and China, Turkmenistan continues to seek a balance between all three without formally aligning with any of them.
Unlike their other Central Asian neighbors, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been politically unstable since the fall of the Soviet Union. In Kyrgyzstan, revolutions took place in 2005 and 2010; the first brought to power an administration friendly with the West and the second replaced that government with one that favors Russia. Since then, Kyrgyzstan has strengthened its ties to the Kremlin, joining the Eurasian Union and allowing Russia to expand its military presence in the country while expelling the United States from the Manas air base in 2014. In Tajikistan, civil war raged from 1992 to 1997, when the pro-Russia faction led by President Emomali Rakhmon emerged victorious. Rakhmon has ruled the country ever since, pulling it closer to Russia, particularly in terms of security and military cooperation.
Along with each country’s unique circumstances, the evolution of Russia’s relationship with the West inAfghanistan has shaped the rivalry in Central Asia. At the start of the U.S. invasion and during NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan in the early 2000s, both sides cooperated extensively. In fact, Russia brokered access to strategic military bases and lines of supply in Central Asia on behalf of U.S. and Western forces. But as the war dragged on, Moscow grew fearful of the West’s intention to maintain a long-term military presence in the region, potentially challenging Russia’s role as a regional heavyweight. Central Asian states then evicted Western forces from their bases and severed their supply routes. Now, with the Taliban and the Islamic State gaining strength in Afghanistan, Russia and the United States are lobbying for competing border security initiatives with the countries of Central Asia.
The Next 25 Years: Other Powers Overtake Russia and the West
As in the rest of the former Soviet periphery, the competition between Russia and the West will be heavily influenced by the demographic changes set to take place in Central Asia in the next 25 years. But unlike Eastern Europe and the Orthodox countries in the Caucasus, Central Asia is on the verge of a tremendous population increase. By 2050, Kazakhstan’s population will rise by 27 percent (from 17.6 million people to 22.4 million), Uzbekistan’s by 24 percent (from 29.9 million people to 37.1 million) and Turkmenistan’s by 22 percent (from 5.4 million people to 6.6 million). At the same time, Kyrgyzstan’s population will grow by 39 percent (from 5.9 million people to 8.2 million) while Tajikistan’s will rise by an astonishing 70 percent (from 8.4 million people to 14.3 million).
While such population growth is normally conducive to economic growth and military strength, it will occur in Central Asia at a time when the region’s resources, including water and food, are already strained. The population explosion will hit hardest in the Fergana Valley, which is the region’s demographic core and is shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There, the Soviets designed convoluted borders to intentionally create divisions between the Central Asian states. The area has already been the site of several ethnic conflicts. With the number of people expected to rise dramatically in the next 25-35 years, the Fergana Valley will likely become a hotbed of tension and conflict in the region.
Meanwhile, Central Asia’s cultural makeup will undoubtedly change. The widespread use of Russian as a lingua franca, which is rooted in the Soviet period, will probably decline as new generations with no memory of their countries’ Soviet past grow up. Russia will see its influence over the region decline as such cultural bonds — as well as its own capabilities to project economic and military power — weaken. The transition from Soviet-era leaders like Nazarbayev and Rakhmon, who have favored Russia over the West, to new rulers from the post-Soviet generation will make Central Asia a more unpredictable place that is open to contestation — a change that is unlikely to favor Russia.
However, the West will also see its ability to influence Central Asia decline as the regionalization of Europe forces the Continent to focus on matters closer to home. Still, countries in Central and Eastern Europe may seek to import Central Asian energy supplies through the Caspian corridor to diversify away from Russia. Meanwhile, the United States will remain an important player in the region. As in the Caucasus, it will be selective in how it engages in Central Asia, preferring to step in from time to time to keep any single external power from gaining too much influence.
While the reach of Russia and the West recedes over the coming decades, two other powers will rise in their place: Turkey and China. Four of the five states in Central Asia are ethnically Turkic, and as Russia’s cultural bonds in the region fade, Turkey’s will strengthen. Because Turkey’s population is predicted to grow by more than 20 percent, reaching 96 million people, it will have greater economic and military power to match its rising soft power. China, for its part, has already made economic inroads into the region over the past decade, and its economic influence will likely continue to grow. Such growth will be aided by the fact that Russia will not continue to be able to financially support many Central Asian states. That said, China will still have to contend with Turkey, which will be more active in the region. But this contest is unlikely to take on a military dimension; China and Turkey will have more immediate security concerns in East Asia and the Middle East.
Afghanistan will continue to have a significant impact in Central Asia, not as a regional power with influence but as a weak state with the potential to destabilize the region. Cross-border ties between ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens on either side of the boundary between Afghanistan and Central Asia will grow. This could increase the likelihood of Islamist and militant elements spilling over into the region. Although they will continue to compete at a strategic level, Russia, Turkey, China and the United States will cooperate at a tactical level to prevent the rise of powerful radical Islamist groups in Central Asia. For the foreseeable future, instability and conflict within and between Central Asian states will continue to pose the largest threat to the region, one that will be far more difficult to contain.
Lead Analyst: Eugene Chausovsky
First the Middle East, now Central Asia slipping away from Turkey
The sanctions Moscow imposed after the Nov. 24 downing of a Russian plane are spreading to Russian spheres of influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, as Central Asian countries that had established close ties with Ankara after the collapse of the Soviet Union appear to be preparing to distance themselves from Turkey. At the December 2015 Moscow summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) — which includes the Turkic states of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan in addition to Russia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Belarus and Armenia — calls were made for Turkey to apologize to Russia.
Armenia holds the term presidency of the CIS-Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of former Soviet republics. The military chiefs of member states met before the gathering of heads of state to hear their term chairman, Gen. Yuri Khachaturov, Armenian chief of the General Staff, harshly criticize Turkey. Khachaturov noted, “Chiefs of staff of all member states of the organization supported the Russian actions and denounced Turkey’s attack against the Su-24 plane that was seen as an incendiary, shameless aggression. As Russia said immediately after the attack, we also saw it as a stab in the back.”
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, term chairman of CIS, also asked the summit to express its support for Russia and denounce Turkey. He said, “As member states, we declared our support for the Russian position and decided to urgently declare unity to combat terror. Turkey’s attitude and its shooting down of the Russian plane have been a setback to the struggle against terror.”
The real shock for Ankara was not Sargsyan’s words, but those of the Kyrgyzstan head of state, President Almazbek Atambayev, who in the past had addressed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “my older brother.” After the August 2014 presidential elections, Atambayev had appeared with Erdogan, who was delivering his victory speech, andlavishly praised him. At the CIS summit, Atambayev expressed support for Moscow and President Vladimir Putin and suggested Erdogan and Turkey apologize to Russia.
The support for Russia among the Central Asian Turkic republics, which have received billions of dollars of credit and financing support from Turkey, and Atambayev’s call for an apology shocked Turkey, disillusioning Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party government. In 2014, the Cooperation and Coordination Agency of Turkey had provided the republics more than $3.5 billion. When asked about Atambayev’s comment, Erdogan spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said, “If nothing else, it was an unfortunate statement.”
Russia’s freeze on issuing transit permits to Turkish truckers in October has severely disrupted Turkish exports to the Central Asian republics. Concerned with the prospect of losing the Central Asian market, where Turkey has sizable construction contracts and investments, Ankara began using the Caspian Sea for its exports thanks to Azerbaijan opening its gates.
Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, ordered that Caspian port capacity be increased and transit documents waived for Turkish trucks. Even if Turkish truck traffic through the Caspian reaches 50,000 a year, it would still fall far short of sustaining exports to the Central Asian market.
With the sharp decline in oil and natural gas prices, Azerbaijan had to devalue its currency 47% against the dollar and euro. Given the economic bottlenecks it faces, no one can be sure that the country can indefinitely be a contributor in regard to Turkey’s commercial and energy needs.
Moreover, an Aliyev-Sargsyan meeting in Switzerland Dec. 19 did not yield a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. Instead, both countries announced that their cease-fire had ended. This development greatly concerns Turkey, because it could negatively affect its use of the Azerbaijani route for its exports. Meanwhile, Russia and Armenia, which have been boosting political and economic links, in late December decided to also expand their military cooperation.
In mid-December, Putin announced that visa requirements for Georgian nationals would be eased and soon thereafter abolished. It has become clear that the Russian-Armenian air defense agreement, normalization of Russian-Georgian relations and resumption of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia will impede Turkey’s access to the Caucasus. There are also fears that Russia, which has been firing cruise missiles from its navy based in the Caspian, could block passage through that sea, severely restricting Turkey’s access to Central Asia via that route.
Russia also made use of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) to move against Turkey’s relations with the Turkic republics. Turkey-EEU negotiations to establish a free trade zone were suspended, and instead, Putin announced, the EEU would enter into talks with Iran. Thus, Russia is helping advance Iranian economic interests in Central Asia by closing the doors on Turkey advocating a customs union and regional free trade. No doubt, this brought Turkey one step closer to losing Central Asia in the wake of its isolation in the Middle East.
First, greetings from Canada and a note on the silence on the blog for the past few weeks. After a whirlwind summer taking in three continents and cramming in temporary farewells to family and friends, I have now moved to Toronto, Canada and have started my PhD in Higher Education and Comparative, International & Development Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. Those of you who have seen where I’ve worked before at universities in London and Oxford will be unsurprised to find me in yet another brutalist 1960s building!
The good news is that what happens inside OISE more than makes up for yet another dose of concrete and odd internal building layouts. After the first week of classes (PhD students in North America take taught courses for at least a year before moving on to start writing their theses), my brain is buzzing from the ideas I’m learning and the people I’m meeting. I have been keen to beef up my knowledge of educational theories and undertake methodological training and this is just the place for it. Many of the writers and thinkers we are examining are in my vocabulary already, but many aren’t, and I look forward immensely to making new connections and using this time to frame my research topic more explicitly.
So that’s where I’m at right now: not just a new direction in terms of making a full shift towards academic research, but a new country too. A lot to take in, but a great challenge to take on.
My blog post today concerns inter-regional relations, specifically, the relationship between Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Nursultan Nazarbayev, President of Kazakhstan, was recently in Tajikistan on a state visit, presenting an opportunity for the two countries to develop projects and areas for cooperation. In their current identities as independent post-Soviet nations, the two countries first signed an agreement creating relations between them in 1993 [ru]. This sets out the basic principles of a neighbourly relationship, promising for example not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs and to develop economic cooperation.
In 2000, the countries signed an agreement specifically on educational cooperation [ru]. This includes undertakings to:
- share information, for example on educational structures and reform
- agree quotas for student and academic exchanges
- create institutional partnerships
In their meetings this month, the two presidents – both of whom have been in power long enough to remember having signed the original 1990 agreement – updated the agreement on education as well as another memorandum concerning youth, sport and tourism. Nazarbayev invited Tajik youth to study in Kazakhstan, noting the opportunities at his eponymous Astana-based university. He also pointed out that there are a number of Tajiks studying at military institutions in Kazakhstan. [Source: Khovar.tj – ru].
What to make of these overtures by the Kazakh president? In his speech he also remarked that Kazakhs have been living in Tajikistan and Tajiks in Kazakhstan for centuries, and that it is important that they are able to live well and to remember their culture and language. Because of this, it remains important to develop relations between the two countries. Perhaps it the rather odd wording of the statement, but it is hard to see on the surface whether there is a deeper message that has been left unsaid. There has been no major conflict between the two countries – unlike between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over water/electricity and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan over borders in the Ferghana valley – but might it be possible that there is an air of irritation from the Kazakh side in taking on the lion’s share of what was intended to be an equal partnership?
The agreement on education suggests that educational exchange should be equal i.e. with similar numbers of students and teachers traversing both directions, but the reality is that the flow is almost completely one-sided towards Kazakhstan. Educational reform in Tajikistan has been slow and driven more by international organisations than by state capacity; as such, it could be argued that there is more information to share from the Kazakh side.
Does Nazarbayev genuinely want Tajik students studying at the university he intends to be world class, and therefore is this speech a skilful deployment of the soft diplomacy that Kazakhstan’s neighbour China has become so good at in recent years?
Discussions over cooperation in education make up just one part of the two countries’ diplomatic and neighbourly relations, but could just be offering us a glimpse into a more inequitable relationship than was intended in the heady days of the first memorandum in the 1990s.
Postscript added 18 September: I have just read this report on Kazakhstan’s foreign policy [en], published on the website World Bulletin. This is useful for adding context to the points I have made above, although I have some reservations as there is no author or source either on the website or document. I suspect it is a government produced document.
The Kazakh government has decided to take a big step towards greater independence for Kazakh universities by reforming the top layer of institutional governance. ‘Oversight councils’, also commonly known as Councils or Senates, will be responsible for hiring and firing Rectors (Vice Chancellors/CEOs) and have monitoring oversight for university finance and strategy. (How those councils are selected is not yet clear but could have important implications for the success of this plan)
The government is quick to point out that this shouldn’t be interpreted as a mass privatisation movement. I don’t have details but it appears that the state will still continue providing a significant proportion of funding for the country’s universities (unless they are already operating as private institutions). What also won’t change is that the national government will still issue degrees: universities do not (yet?) have autonomy to accredit their own degrees and there is no parallel accreditation and quality assurance process.
However, the government hopes that this will encourage greater competitiveness between institutions and make them more responsible for their own organisation. I believe that the move to place university governance more directly into the hands of universities is a positive step towards allowing and even encouraging diversity in higher education. This diversity may become evident through, for example, differential strategic plans or choosing to raise income from non-state sources. There is a definite drive towards improving the quality and reputation of Kazakh higher education, but it will only be successful if the government really commits to allowing universities to take control of their own management and strategy, and underpins this with a robust and fair system of quality assurance for all institutional types.
This article was inspired by a piece in Central Asia Online called Collegiate management coming to Kazakhstani universities, source http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/features/main/2013/12/09/feature-01.
My previous post High heels for higher learning seems to have captured the imagination of news agencies around the world. I’ve had pingbacks from France, China and Poland and the story was picked up by the Huffington Post, Global Voices Online as well as a number of syndicate agencies.
Today, Spanish national newspaper El Pais has featured my post in its S Moda fashion section under the heading ‘Tacones por obligacion‘ [sp]. This roughly translates as ‘[high] heels by order’. I was interviewed last week by journalist Noelia Ramirez, who wanted to know whether I thought there was a growing trend in Asia for some kind of “modesty code”. I don’t think this is the case at all and rather the incident I reported on is much more about the individual Rector’s view of how to control the student body.
I once again have to thank Asia-Plus News Agency [ru] for breaking the story. It might not sound like a big thing to people living in countries where the media is genuinely free to write what it wants, but it takes a lot of guts to do that in Tajikistan, where the government – and in this case the university leadership – is all about control and suppression of the right to think and speak freely.
A slightly delayed reposting of this press release from international organisation Human Rights Watch. The content is very measured but clear and has had good coverage (though still, the whole situation last week in Khorog has had no coverage in any of the main UK newspapers. I can understand why with the Olympics on our doorstep and atrocities in Syria, but that doesn’t stop the recent military operation in Khorog being any less shocking or upsetting). I was also pleased to play a very small part in the publication of the press release after liaising with the author and putting him in touch with others.
Keep Communication Lines Open
(New York) – Tajik authorities should respect human rights during a security operation in Gorno Badakhshan, a semi-autonomous region of easternTajikistan, Human Rights Watch said today.
Dozens of deaths and numerous injuries have been reported in the provincial capital, Khorog, after the Tajik government sent troops to the region to arrest those responsible for the fatal stabbing of the local state security chief on July 21, 2012.
“The situation in Gorno Badakhshan raises grave concerns,”said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, “Both sides need to take measures to prevent further harm to the general population.”
On July 24, it was widely reported that Tajik authorities dispatched hundreds of troops, along with helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, to Khorog to apprehend Tolib Ayombekov, a deputy commander of a Tajik-Afghan border unit and an opposition leader during the 1992-1997 Tajikistan civil war, and several of his associates. They were suspected of killing Maj. Gen. Abdullo Nazarov, local head of the State Committee for National Security. The agency had long accused Ayombekov’s associates of smuggling drugs, tobacco, and precious stones.
Ayombekov denies involvement in Nazarov’s death. Armed groups associated with Ayombekov engaged in violent clashes with government forces and demanded that they withdraw from the region.
Tajik officials declared a unilateral ceasefire and amnesty for certain fighters on July 25, but violence resumed within a day after Ayombekov refused to surrender to government troops. Various witness accounts reported gunfights across various parts of Khorog last week.
While Ayombekov’s whereabouts are unknown, officials say gunmen associated with Ayombekov have started handing over their weapons as part of the amnesty deal offered by the government. The Internal Affairs Ministry reported on July 30 that more than 60 weapons had been surrendered. In exchange, the government has promised that they will not face charges in connection with the recent fighting.
As of July 28, official sources reported that the violence had killed 17 government soldiers, 30 gunmen, and 20 civilians. Independent sources reported greater numbers of casualties among the general population. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify the casualty reports. Officials also reported that 40 gunmen had been detained, including eight nationals from Afghanistan, which shares a border with the region.
In conducting arrests and other policing operations, government authorities, including soldiers, should abide by international legal standards on the use of force, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, to apply non-violent means as far as possible before resorting to the use of force and firearms. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is necessary, law enforcement officials are required to use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The UN principles allow lethal force only when it is “strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
“Whatever serious crimes were committed in Gorno Badakhshan, the government needs to respond in accordance with international law,” Swerdlow said. “That means respecting the basic rights of those accused, as well as of the people in Khorog.
Tajik authorities have periodically blocked Internet, mobile, and landline connections to Gorno Badakhshan province since July 24, although communications were re-established on July 29. Asia Plus, the most widely read independent news source in the country, was blocked for several days. YouTube has been blocked in Tajikistan since July 26, after videos surfaced of small demonstrations in Khorog. There are reports that other Internet news sites remain blocked as well.
The head of the state communications service, Beg Zukhurov, claimed that a stray bullet had severed telephone, mobile, and Internet connections to the region.
Blocking communications to the region isolates families who may already be at great risk and prevents their relatives from obtaining information about their whereabouts and safety, Human Rights Watch said.
There were also reports that the authorities had blocked roads leading in and out of Khorog, in addition to closing the border with Afghanistan, although as of July 30 the roads were again open. Khorog residents with intermittent contacts with the capital, Dushanbe, said that blocking roads made it difficult for residents trying to flee the violence to leave the area. All sides should allow safe passage to those wishing to evacuate the region.
The Tajik government should also ease access to the region for Tajik civil society groups, the media, and international nongovernmental organizations, Human Rights Watch said.
The government may reasonably restrict the movements of certain people or groups in conducting its operations in Gorno Badakhshan, Human Rights Watch said. But these restrictions should be proportionate and should not result in a total closure that puts people at greater risk.
(c) Steve Swerdlow, Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/07/30/tajikistan-respect-rights-security-operations
This is the text of a press release I have put together based on other excellent notes written by Tajik colleagues around the world. Please, please help us raise awareness in the international community about events taking place RIGHT NOW in Khorog, south-east Tajikistan. We are all absolutely clear that we want PEACE and we want the world to help us achieve that. Thank you.
PRESS RELEASE – FOR IMMEDIATE AND URGENT CIRCULATION
Date: July 27 2012
Civilians killed in military conflict, potential humanitarian crisis in Tajikistan, Central Asia
Armed conflict in the town of Khorog, south-east Tajikistan, on the border with Afghanistan, has been continuing since the early morning of 24 July 2012. Tajik security and military forces has started an operation involving reportedly over 3,000 personnel with automatic arms, armed personnel carrying vehicles and helicopters in the densely populated areas of the town, with no prior notice to or evacuation of the population. According to the Guardian newspaper, ‘the fighting marked one of the worst outbursts of violence in the impoverished ex-Soviet nation since a 2010 government campaign to wipe out Islamist militants’. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting calls the clashes ‘unprecedented’
All lines of communication have been terminated and all roads to Khorog are also reportedly closed. More than 30,000 residents of the Khorog area, including women, children and elderly, are trapped in this conflict. The communications blackout has left many hundreds of Tajiks living outside the Khorog region without any knowledge of whether their families and loved ones are safe or have been victims of the conflict.
Reports by the BBC have suggested over 200 casualties. The Economist has reports of ‘dozens of civilian casualties’. Video footage from the region is slowly emerging, and providing evidence of heavy gunfire.
Apart from the human dimension element of the situation, it poses a risk of escalation and deterioration of the situation in the Central Asian region. There are reports of armed groups gathering on the Afghan side of the border in the area of Khorog, so there is a high potential for a cross-border conflict. Even if there are militants in the area, the lives of innocent people must not be put in danger.
Independent local news agency Asia Plus reports that as at 09.33 BST Friday 27 July, the government has called an end to a temporary ceasefire. This raises the serious possibility that fighting will resume and yet more civilians will be killed or injured in a battle that has nothing to do with them.
With no way to import food or for people to travel safely around, and with unconfirmed reports of corpses in the streets of Khorog, an international humanitarian crisis is brewing. It is not clear whether those who have been wounded received adequate medical care. The surrounding Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Region is the poorest in Tajikistan.
The actions by the Tajik authorities represent violations of the commitments and obligations of the Republic of Tajikistan under the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other UN human rights instruments, the OSCE Human Dimension Commitments and the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The European Union, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and American Embassy in Tajikistan have expressed their concern over the violent clashes and called for lines of communication to be opened.
CNN has reported on a peaceful demonstration in Washington, D.C. by Tajik-Americans. Peaceful demonstrations have also been held in Moscow and St Petersburg in Russia and London, UK. Social media networks such as the newly created Peace in Khorog group on Facebook, with nearly 1,000 members, are acting as informal support networks to the many Tajiks from the region dispersed around the world.
Citizens of Tajikistan around the world call for peace, for the immediate and permanent withdrawal of troops from Khorog and for lines of communication and humanitarian aid.
This is a plea to the international media to raise awareness of the conflict and human rights violations taking place in Tajikistan.
 The principle of proportionality (article 51(5)(b) IAP) is a basic principle that states that even if there is a clear military target it is not possible to attack it if the harm to civilians or civilian property is excessive to the expected military advantage.