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Central Asia: An Unlikely Source of Extremism

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The New Year’s attack on the upscale Reina nightclub in central Istanbul that killed 39 and injured some 70 people is still under intense investigation. The gunman took advantage of the confusion and managed to escape with the fleeing crowd. As the world awoke to news of yet another terror attack in Turkey, speculation began to grip the media about the possible identity and motive of the gunman.

The so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility the following day describing the attacker as “a heroic soldier of the caliphate [who] struck one of the most famous nightclubs where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday.” The Turkish Hurriyet Daily News first reported that the perpetrator of the terror attack arrived in Turkey via Syria and that the Turkish police was detaining Uzbek and Kyrgyz citizens living in the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul, providing an indication to the attacker’s national origin.

Conflicting reports have emerged since then regarding the nationality of the attacker, but the possibility that he was of Central Asian descent raises questions about the region’s contribution to filling the so-called Islamic State’s ranks. Figures indicate that at least a thousand fighters from the former Soviet Central Asian Republics have joined the terrorist organization in recent years.

Central Asia does not have a history of being a hotbed for Islamic Radicalism. Despite sharing a border with Afghanistan, the Central Asian republics, at least at the state level, do not promote Islamist agendas and remain secular. Their state bodies are stable and fairly effective, if not heavily restrained by corruption. This region has seen relatively few longstanding armed conflicts and respectable HDI (Human Development Index) scores for emerging economies. Statistically, from 2001-2013, there have been three terror attacks in the entire region which claimed a total of 11 lives. These characteristics ultimately beg the question: why has ISIS been so successful at recruiting fighters from this part of the world?

A Brief History

Radical Islamism in Central Asia first grew into a movement which loosely resembles modern extremism during the Soviet era. Naturally, the state religion of the Soviet Union was Atheism; a policy which was not received well in the majority Sunni Muslim people of what was then called Russian Turkestan. Islam, being well ingrained in the region’s fabric of daily life, began to be summarily repressed by Soviet authorities. While the often brutal religious repression was not unique to followers of Islam, it did have unintended consequences for the future of the region.

With mosques being either shut or destroyed throughout the region, worship had to be adapted to a system where that physical act was prohibited. Figures show that the number of functioning mosques in the region declined from approximately 26,000 in 1912 to about 1,000 by 1941. While these places were being shuttered, well established moderate Muslim leaders were also first to be silenced by being barred from holding political office or any position of power. Particularly influential leaders were also jailed by the security forces. This created a unique dynamic where the most radical Imams and preachers continued to spread their beliefs through makeshift underground mosques, while moderate voices were suppressed.

The end of Soviet rule in the region did not necessarily bring an end to this system. Although Islam was finally allowed to be practiced in the open, the respective governments of Central Asia continued to operate with Soviet style secularism. Many of the new presidents held leadership posts in their respective nations’ communist parties. Instead of using atheism as a reason to suppress dissent, it became common to label any legitimate political opposition as Islamic radicals and terrorists, particularly after the global war on terror commenced in the early 2000s. This was best demonstrated during the events in Andijan, Uzbekistan, where hundreds of protesters were indiscriminately shot at and killed by Uzbek security forces. The protests started in part due to the Government’s arrest of 23 local businessmen on trumped up charges of extremism. The government also blamed the tragedy itself on a nefarious network of extremists known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Ultimately, the threat of extremism is currently being used as justification to keep repressive regimes in power.

Recruiting Terror

As far as actual extremism in the region is concerned, there has been little evidence of extensive well-coordinated terror cells capable of large attacks within Central Asia. However, the widespread availability and use of the internet coupled with the proclamation of the so-called Islamic State as a caliphate by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in 2014 created an outlet for Central Asian extremists to achieve abroad what they could not at home. The terror group’s strong online presence made it possible for loosely coordinated groups and even individuals with jihadi ambitions to coordinate and fall in line under a single banner of extremism.

Another possible avenue for the radicalization of Central Asians by extremists is through the targeting of migrant workers. Twenty percent of the Uzbek population works abroad, mostly in Russia, sending remittances to their families back home. While not uniform across all of Central Asia, it is safe to say that the numbers of migrant workers are proportionally similar across the region. Russia has experienced Islamic extremism in many forms. It fought two wars in Chechnya as well as faced an extremist insurgency in several regions of the Caucasus. Russia has seen about 2,700 fighters leave to fight with ISIS, arguably the largest contributor in Europe. There is clearly a well-developed extremist network operating in Russia. It is not inconceivable to see Central Asian extremists taking advantage of these networks. There have not been many studies looking into this potential dynamic, but it could serve as an important source of additional fighters for the caliphate.

ISIS has even started to crack the surface of government bodies in the region. Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, the Tajikistan Interior Ministry’s head of police special forces defected to ISIS in 2015. Mr. Khalimov’s radicalization came as a shock to Tajik authorities who ordered an immediate investigation into his department. This event perhaps came as a bigger shock to the United States State Department, which sponsored Mr. Khalimov in five combat training courses in the US and in Tajikistan, all the while passing the State Department’s vetting procedures. Appearing in an ISIS propaganda video, Khalimov addressed the Tajik authorities, speaking in Russian: “Listen, you dogs, the president and ministers, if only you knew how many boys, our brothers are here, waiting and yearning to return to reestablish sharia law there.”

Beyond the Caliphate

Despite a sophisticated recruitment network, ISIS is currently fighting an increasingly defensive war. The terrorist group is losing territory on all fronts to Turkish backed Syrian rebels, to Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah backed Syrian government forces, and to coalition backed Iraqi government forces and militias. Its once plentiful source of oil wealth has recently started to dry up and thus, the appeal to join arms with the terror organization from extremists worldwide has decreased. Should the situation on the ground continue to deteriorate for ISIS, the world should prepare for what may come after the group’s likely defeat.

The group’s strategy is already changing and adapting. Like the abovementioned attack on Istanbul and attacks on European cities like Paris, Nice, and Berlin, it seems that the group appears to be encouraging attacks against softer targets. These attacks are usually either done by naturalized extremists in their respective countries or by taking advantage of mass refugee migration to send fighters across borders. Not only does this present a challenge to European security forces, but it also points to what may happen should defeated fighters return home.

Despite the propaganda nature of Gulmurod Khalimov’s video, his threats are not empty. Central Asia must prepare for a reality where thousands of battle hardened extremists return home radicalized with a violent version of Islam. The region must decide how to treat returning extremists. Should they treat them with typical Soviet style heavy-handedness or find a way to reintegrate them into society? Should Central Asian nations cooperate with each other to attempt to prevent their return altogether? Either way, decisions have to be made because it is clear that the region’s current attitude towards radicalism is not adequate considering what may be on the horizon.

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Central Asia

ILO Reports Important Progress on Child Labour and Forced Labour in Uzbek Cotton Fields

MD Staff

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A new International Labour Organization report to the World Bank finds that the systematic use of child labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest has come to an end, and that concrete measures to stop the use of forced labour have been taken.

The report Third-party monitoring of measures against child labour and forced labour during the 2017 cotton harvest in Uzbekistan is based on more than 3,000 unaccompanied and unannounced interviews with a representative sample of the country’s 2.6 million cotton pickers. It shows that the country is making significant reforms on fundamental labour rights in the cotton fields.

“The 2017 cotton harvest took place in the context of increased transparency and dialogue. This has encompassed all groups of civil society, including critical voices of individual activists. This is an encouraging sign for the future. However, there is still a lag between the sheer amount of new decrees and reforms being issued by the central government and the capacity to absorb and implement these changes at provincial and district levels,” says Beate Andrees, Chief of the ILO’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch.

The ILO has been monitoring the cotton harvest for child labour since 2013. In 2015, it began monitoring the harvest for forced labour and child labour as part of an agreement with the World Bank.

Interviews carried out by the monitors took place in all provinces of the country and included cotton pickers and other groups which are directly or indirectly involved in the harvest such as local authorities, education and medical personnel. In addition, a telephone poll of 1,000 randomly selected persons was conducted. Before the harvest, the ILO experts organized training for some 6,300 people directly involved with the recruitment of cotton pickers.

The results confirm that the large majority of the 2.6 million cotton pickers engaged voluntarily in the annual harvest in 2017 and that there is a high level of awareness in the country about the unacceptability of both child and forced labour. The report confirms earlier findings that the systematic use of child labour in the cotton harvest has ended though continued vigilance is required to ensure that children are in school.

Instructions have been given by the Uzbek national authorities to local administrations to ensure that all recruitment of cotton pickers is on a voluntary basis. In September 2017, an order was given withdrawing certain risk groups (students, education and medical personnel) from the harvest at its early stage.

Moreover, cotton pickers’ wages have been increased in line with recommendations by the ILO and the World Bank. The ILO recommends that the government continues to increase wages and also addresses working conditions more broadly to further attract voluntary pickers.

Last September, Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev spoke before the United Nations General Assembly in New York where he pledged to end forced labour in his country and underscored his government’s engagement with the ILO. In November 2017, at the Global Conference on the Sustained Eradication of Child Labour in Argentina, Uzbekistan also pledged to engage with independent civil society groups on the issue.

The ILO Third-Party Monitoring (TPM) project in Uzbekistan will now focus on the remaining challenges, particularly the need for further awareness raising and capacity building, which varies between provinces and districts. It will ensure that all those involved in recruitment will have the information and tools needed to ensure that cotton pickers are engaged in conformity with international labour standards.

The monitoring and results from a pilot project in the area of South Karkalpakstan also show that cotton picking economically empowers women in rural areas. The cotton harvest provides many women with a unique opportunity to earn an extra cash income which they control and can use to improve the situation of their families.

The ILO TPM Project is funded by a multi-donor trust fund with major contributions by the European Union, United States and Switzerland.

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Kazakhstan Launches Online Platform for Monitoring and Reporting Greenhouse Gases

MD Staff

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An online platform for monitoring, reporting and verifying emission sources and greenhouse gases (GHG) was officially launched today by the Ministry of Energy of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the World Bank.

The platform is an essential element of the National Emissions Trading System of Kazakhstan, which was launched in 2013 as the country’s main instrument to regulate domestic CO2 emissions and to drive the development of low-carbon technologies. Today, the National Emissions Trading System of Kazakhstan covers all major companies in the energy, oil and gas sectors, mining, metallurgical, chemical and processing industries.

Since 2014, the World Bank Trust Fund Partnership for Market Readiness has provided technical assistance to Kazakhstan in supporting the implementation of the National Emissions Trading System of Kazakhstan and related climate change mitigation policies.

“Kazakhstan’s emissions trading system is the first of its kind in the Central Asia region,” said Ato Brown, World Bank Country Manager for Kazakhstan. “With support from the Partnership for Market Readiness, the country has made a great effort to develop policy options for mid- and long-term emissions pathways and to develop an action plan on GHG emissions reductions by 2030. The World Bank will continue to support the Government during the crucial stages of policy implementation.”

The platform enables Kazakhstan’s major emitters to transmit and record data on GHGs emissions, as well as trade online. The National Allocation Plan, adopted in January 2018, sets an emission cap for 129 companies for the period 2018-2020. Per the national allocation plan, quotas have been allocated until 2020.

“The electronic platform undoubtedly proves the evolution of the Kazakhstan emission control system, which will allow the monitoring, reporting and verification system to be upgraded to a much higher level,” said Sergei Tsoy, Deputy General Director of JSC Zhasyl Damu.

GHG data is confirmed by accredited bodies for verification and validation and transferred to the Cadastre using an electronic digital signature. To date, there are seven verification companies accredited in Kazakhstan, with five more in the process of accreditation.

The platform was developed by JSC Zhasyl Damu with the support of France’s Technical Center on Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases. The system is administered by JSC Zhasyl-Damu, while the beneficiaries are the Climate Change Department and the Committee for Environmental Regulation and Control of the Ministry of Energy of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Background

Kazakhstan is one of the largest emitters of GHG in Europe and Central Asia with total annual national emissions of 300.9 MtCO2e in 2015. The energy sector accounts for 82% of total GHG emissions, followed by agriculture (9.6%) and industrial processes (6.4%). More than 80% of produced electricity in Kazakhstan is coal-fired, followed by natural gas (7%) and hydro power (8%).

Kazakhstan proposed as its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) an economy-wide reduction of GHG emissions of 15% from 1990 emissions levels by 2030. Kazakhstan ratified the Paris Agreement in November 2016 and committed itself to the fulfilment of the proposed target as its first INDC. The objective will contribute to sustainable economic development as well as to the achievement of the long-term global goal of keeping global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius. 

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Religious buildings in Kazakhstan to be labeled 16+

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New restrictions on religious activities are emerging in Kazakhstan. Will they help to fight extremism?

According to the Government bill introducing amendments to the laws on religious activities and associations, adolescents should be forbidden from attending mosques, churches and synagogues if they are not accompanied by one of the parents and don’t have written consent of another parent.

Schools and the media are going to be forbidden from talking about the belief systems of various religions as well.

By implementing these and other measures, Astana intends to combat religious extremism. However, the crackdown on religion has already set the country four years back: in 2017 the Republic of Kazakhstan returned on the list of countries where the religious situation arouses concern of the US State Department Commission on International Religious Freedom. Kazakhstan last appeared on the list along with Afghanistan, India, Indonesia and Laos in 2013.

Is the proposed bill really going to help to contain the spread of radical Islam, and to what extent does it conform with international human rights standards?

The Concept of State Policy towards Religion, adopted in 2017, shows that the authorities strive to expel religion from public space altogether and promote an ideology of “secularism”. Their thinking is understandable: with no contact between members of differentreligions, there will be no inter-religious conflicts.

However, according to the European experience, prohibitive policy does not bring the expected results. In a multicultural society, the lack of information about the beliefs of other religions only increases tensions. Silencing the matter of religion and obstructing religious education reduces the ability to critically evaluate the extremist ideologies,while increasing the opportunityto spread false information aimed to promote inter-religious discord.

In addition, various summer camps, excursion and pilgrimage activities organized by religious communities are going to be banned if the bill is adopted. It includes those traditional religious confessions that the Government routinely thanks for promoting the inter-civilizational dialogue, youth development and the maintenance of stability, peace and prosperity in the society. A large number of children and teenagers will be deprived of their usual social circles and leisure activities.

As a result of such unconstitutional state interference and bureaucratic obstacles, children and teenagers will be denied the right to practice the religion of their family even when outside educational, medical and other state institutions. Not to mention that parents will be entitledby law to restrict the right of their children under the age of 16 to choose their faith.

Moreover, according to the proposed legislation, if a minor is found in a prayer room“illegally”, the responsibility will fall on the religious organization in question. Consequently, the clergy will need to alienate and discourage the younger generations from attending their own churches, so as not to get fined and fall within the scope of the restrictions on the religious activities!

At the same time, actual extremist organizations will go underground and get more freedom than their peaceful competitors. Obviously, the unruly youth will turn not to those imams, priests or rabbis unable to go beyond the restrictive framework of formal prohibitions. They will go to the “real” preachers who offer communion, new religious experience, something to devote yourself to, a sense of self-worth (even if as suicide bombers).

It is in the interests of all religious leaders, and indeed the whole world, to prevent such a terrible scenario from happening and to return Kazakhstan on the path of civilizational dialogue and inter-confessional cooperation. Otherwise, any participation in the VI Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in the Astana Palace of Peace and Reconciliation can be seen as not only dishonorable and hypocritical, but also unsafe.

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