Thursday 15 December 2011

Winds of change in Turkmenistan?

If Russia woke up from its lethargic political Putincracy for a series of unexpected protests this month, maybe this is a sign of good things to come in the political arena in Central Asia. And, indeed, some winds of change have recently been felt in the region. Can you guess in which country? Well, I couldn’t, until I saw the news. Turkmenistan.

The country is known for being the most isolated and averse to any sort of reform in the region. Especially political reform. Well, last July the president himself, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (above), announced that any Turkmen would be able to vie for the Presidency in the Elections set for February 12th, 2012 (read here an analysis about what’s at stake). Yes. He promised free and fair elections “according to the UN and OSCE electoral standards”. Ouch. Poor Saparmurat Niyazov. The good old Turkmenbashi, the former leader of all Turkmen who commanded a mammoth personality cult in the desert nation and died unexpectedly in 2006, certainly would be quite shocked with the possibility. Well, since president’s promise, nothing really happened (that we know of – Turkmenistan is still pretty closed to all eavesdropping). No legislation was passed to regulate political parties, for example. The only party in the country is still the official one, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. Maybe the government forgot about its promises...

But then, this week, something odd happened. A former member of the Turkmen cabinet, the former Culture and Tourism minister Geldimurat Nurmuhammedov, came out and criticised the lack of democracy there. And he gave his name, AND allowed the press to publish his remarks AND identify him as the source – read more about this here. This is very, very uncommon in Turkmenistan. What does this mean? Does it mean there are some cracks in the ruling elite? Maybe. If the former minister said something like this so boldly, sure he received the blessing of the President himself. If this is the case, the problem is explaining why he did that. I am not sure, but would guess that his criticism might be an excuse for the government to announce reforms that might hurt some members of the elite, maybe in time for the elections.

On the other hand… maybe not. The guys is just a former minister, for God’s sake (for now – he might be a presidential candidate, who knows?). And, for the elites in Turkmenistan, the skies are still blue and the Karakum desert is still hot. The so-much-expected changes after the departure of the Turkmenbashi are yet to be seen. Actually, there was a talk that the personality cult would cease to exist. But read this: apparently, now the press in the country has nicknamed Berdymukhammedov arkadag (“protector” in Turkmen). His departed boss also had that nice nickname that was so precious and made him levitate over all regular humans. Oh, and by the way, one of the most talked about signs that Berdymuhammedov was serious about getting rid of the bizarre legacy of Niyazov was the decision of dismantling a golden statue of the Turkmenbashi in the capital, Ashgabat, after his death. The famous statue, which rotates to follow the movement of the Sun in the sky, is up in display again in the city… probably because tourists began to complain. After all, the statue was one of the most important landmarks of the country…

PS. Happy New Year! See you in 2012.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

A new wave of Islamist terror in Central Asia?

Is there a new wave of terrorism afoot in Central Asia? There are some indications that it might be a possibility.

First: we already know that Kazakhstan (as seen here some weeks ago) is facing an unseen wave of explosions. At least one of those attacks, the one that took place in October 31st in the Western city of Atyrau, has been reclaimed by a new Islamist puritan group called “Soldiers of the Caliphate”. This group apparently is formed by Kazakh citizens who fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, but at this moment there are just not enough indications that it is the case. The Kazakh government announced a ban on the organisation in the end of last month, after another bombing in Taraz (south) left seven dead. Now, on the 4th of December, there was an obscure episode, with seven dead, near Almaty (the commercial capital of the country, in the South) that might have been terror related.

Second: Uzbekistan knows very well how troublesome an Islamist group can be with popular support in an authoritarian regime. The country has recently seen another, to say the least, obscure episode, but in its border with Afghanistan. In November 17th, an explosion destroyed part of the railway there, in the Surkhandarya Province. At first, the local media said that the attack was "terrorist". Then, absolute silence – it was as if nothing had happened. When it took place, some raised the possibility that the railway attacked was used by the US to transport military supplies to its troops in Talibanland. If that is true, it could mean the beginning of a nightmare for Uzbekistan – that has not seen an attack like this in a long time – and the US alike, as it would indicate that there are pro-Taliban operatives in Uzbekistan. But the most recent theory is that the Uzbeks themselves, and not any jihadist organization, is behind the explosion. It would be a way to punish Tajikistan, with whom Uzbekistan has, let’s say, a not so amicable relationship. Read more about this plausible conspiracy theory here. Interestingly, after the explosion, the Uzbek leader Islam Karimov changed the Governor of the province in which it took place.

Third: Uzbekistan already had a lot of trouble with Juma Namangani and his Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), regarded as one of the most violent and dangerous Islamist movements in the world. Between 1999 and 2001, the IMU conducted a series of incursions that affected Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. For a time, since them, the group was quiet (the death of its leader, Tahir Yuldashev, in 2009, sure played a part in this). Now, in the beginning of December, the authorities announced the arrest in the Moscow of four people supposedly linked to the movement. The four residents of Central Asia were accused of plotting terror attacks.

Fourth: The IMU has just released (interesting timing) a list commemorating 87 “martyrs” of the organisation that died since last year. Probably, the IMU leaders expect the list to have the effect of rallying its supporters to a bloody vendetta against the infidels. Most members of the IMU are supposed to operate now from the Afghan-Pakistan border or... from Northern Afghanistan, not far from Uzbek lands.

Fifth: On December 6th, Afghanistan had two unprecedented bomb attacks targeting specifically the local Shia minority, who was celebrating a religious holiday. One of the bombings was in the capital, Kabul; the other in Mazar-i-Sharif – a Northern city very close the border with Uzbekistan and that, over the last years, has remained relatively calm in spite of the chaos in other parts of the country. Nearly 60 people died. The Taliban denied any responsibility for these attacks, which echo the Sunni versus Shias bombings that have tormented Iraq for years now. The attacks in recent years in Afghanistan had a different and clear target – the foreign troops and government authorities. What does an unseen attack like this mean, at this moment, so near the Uzbek border?

It is necessary, of course, to take all of these facts and suppositions with a pinch of salt. There are many interests involved in an escalation of the Islamist threat in Central Asia. Russia is aggressively trying to reassert its dominance in the region and would love to have a stronger military presence there to counterbalance the US influence and also, of course, to avoid any further risks to its own borders after the Americans leave Afghanistan in 2014. Karimov and his Kazakh colleague Nursultan Nazarbayev could use the Islamic threat to show strength, announce new security measures and, of course, submit the local Muslims to even more repression. More terrorism would give a good excuse for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to demand more financial help, and so on. One thing, though, is for sure: the Islamist threat is alive in Central Asia, and the best way to deal with it is establish proper dialogue and an alliance with the Muslim world, tackle poverty in the region, offer good schools and allow the people to have a say in their own countries. Authoritarianism and more weapons have not solved the problem in the past, and sure won’t solve it in the future when it flares up again.