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Central Asia

Cult of Personality Creep – Turkmenistan’s Slide Back into Fantasyland

Dr. Matthew Crosston

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In 2006, when Turkmenbashi (“Father of all Turkmens”), President Saparmurat Niyazov, suddenly died and was replaced by former Health Minister and dentist Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, there was hope and open discussion that some of the more farcical eccentricities of the previous president would be removed.

Indeed, President Berdymukhamedov seem to give fuel to those hopes when some of his first moves in office were to rename the months of the calendar back to their original names (Niyazov had given them all new names based off of his own and mother’s), replacing the image of the former president from Turkmen currency except for the highest denomination, the 500 manat note (before that Niyazov’s image adorned EVERY single bank note issued by the Turkmen central bank), and even lessoning the ‘testing standards’ needed by students and teachers when it came to memorizing and knowing the Rukhnama (The Book of the Soul), which was basically a treatise supposedly written by Niyazov and meant to de facto replace all forms of holy books for the Turkmen people. Heady times indeed and cause for optimism for the Central Asian nation that is the world’s fourth-largest producer of natural gas and sometimes considered as having the potential for being a Central Asian UAE. Unfortunately, the progression of time and the lure of megalomania have proven to be too seductive a temptress. As a result, Turkmenistan may be headed back into the abyss of political dementia.

A country that once had pictures and posters of Niyazov adorning everything, from buildings to streets to books to bus stops, now seems to have a similar frequency of Berdymukhamedov posters. There is discussion that there ‘might be a need’ for the Turkmen central bank to issue a new higher denomination note, the 1000 manat, and I bet it won’t be a surprise to many readers as to whose visage is going to adorn it. While the current president repealed the rather odd ban on opera enacted by Niyazov, he has inexplicably enforced a new ban on ballet (no logical explanation seems to be offered for this thought process, humorously, although personally I would have favored the ban to be switched back). The renaming of streets and schools, especially in rural areas across the countryside, has begun in earnest, honoring either the president or members of his family. Vanity construction projects abound throughout the country, including the most recent park which contains a massive fountain holding a giant golden statue of Berdymukhamedov riding a fierce stallion (rumors persist that the statue is of course not gold-plated but solid gold). While the laundry list of ego-stroking could go on forever, perhaps the fact that the Turkmen President had the Council of Elders bestow the formal title of Arkadag (The Patron) on himself while fervently praising the new publication, Adamnama (Book for All Humanity), which he of course wrote, is the most telling: in these last two examples I would argue it is no longer about trying to replace one cult of personality for another or the attempt to erase from collective cultural memory his predecessor, but rather it is the embracing and institutionalization of such cults to a truly astounding level. The Father is now succeeded by The Patron. After having memorized and adopted your Book of the Soul, young Turkmen citizens can focus on understanding the profundities of the Book for All Humanity. The hope of a new dawn of global community normalcy and international economic engagement is dashed against the rocks of cult of personality creep.

Indeed, while it may be amusing and Willy Wonka fascinating for outside readers to learn of these strange goings-on in Turkmenistan, one should not underestimate the seriousness such creep has on the future of the country. For every street renaming or school rededication, for every statue unveiling and banknote pressing, regular everyday citizens feel essential freedoms limited and constrained. Some on the local scene would have you believe it is now more difficult as a citizen of Turkmenistan to leave the country, even for vacation, than it is for foreigners to get permission to come in to the country. While formal state statistics declare unemployment at a globally admirable 5%, most rational international agencies estimate it to be far closer to 50%. The US Peace Corps, hardly what anyone would consider a radical politically-motivated foreign agency, was banned from the country, while media and freedom of speech remains under tight state control. Security in general remains at a permanent high level. Unfortunately for the state, people no longer believe the government-propelled messages to remain a ‘stable island’ in a sea that has them surrounded by countries like Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In the frantic height of America’s Global War on Terror both Niyazov and Berdymukhamedov utilized that opportunity to maximum ‘domestic control’ effect. The popular support and belief in such heavy-handedness today, however, seems to be dramatically dissipating. Whether that actually translates into civil unrest or disobedience seems unlikely, however: breaking a cult of personality is sometimes more complicated and more difficult than transitioning from a more ‘simple’ autocratic regime.

This is not to say nothing done by the Arkadag has been good or successful. But these accomplishments, I think, need to be placed more firmly in their contextual relativism: when people praise improvements made in schools, hospitals, internet access, or domestic travel, it is not saying Turkmenistan has become a model of democratic liberalism for other Central Asian or Caspian countries to follow. Rather, it is simply saying it has taken a small step away from the abyss that once characterized those issues under Niyazov. Normally, jumping from a -3 to a +3 on a scale of 1 to 10 is indeed cause for careful optimism. As we know, consolidated institutionalized democratic principles are not built in a day. But the worry, it seems to me, is in getting to that +3 on the scale might now be deemed ‘good enough’ by those in power. Thus the ensuing emphasis on all of these vanity projects and side endeavors that really won’t result in the improvement of any normal citizen’s standard of living or quality of life.

Turkmenistan could indeed be a UAE for Central Asia, Ashgabat its Dubai. But it is not. Not today. Such is the constant and continuous burden for a Turkmen: you keep getting a Papa and a Patron, with a Rukhnama and an Adamnama, when all you really want and need is a President with a Constitution that truly measures up to the global standards and stops worrying about the cult of personality creep.

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Senior Doctoral Faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University and was just named the future Co-Editor of the seminal International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. His work is catalogued at: https://brown.academia.edu/ProfMatthewCrosston/Analytics

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Central Asia

Kazakh court case tests Chinese power

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Kazakh court is set to put to the test China’s ability to impose its will and strongarm Muslim nations into remaining silent about its brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the north-western province of Xinjiang.

The court will hear an appeal by a former worker in one of Xinjiang’s multiple re-education camps against the rejection of her request for asylum. The appeal illustrates the political quagmire faced by Central Asian nations and Turkey given their ethnic, cultural and linguistic ties to China’s estimated 11 million Turkic Muslims that include 1.5 million people of Kazakh descent.

It also highlights China’s risky bet on being able to leverage its economic power to ensure the Muslim world’s silence about what amounts to the most concerted effort in recent history to reshape Muslim religious practice.

Up to one million Turkic Muslims have, according to the United Nations, been detained in a network of re-education camps in which they are being forced to accept the superiority of Chinese Communist Party beliefs and the leadership of President Xi Jinping above the precepts of Islam.

Beyond the camps, Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, a strategic minerals-rich province bordering on eight Central and South Asian nations that China has turned into a 21st century Orwellian surveillance state, are forced to refrain from religious practice and custom in public.

After denying the existing of the camps for the longest period of time, China last month felt obliged to acknowledge them and give them legal cover.

Authorities in Xinjiang amended their anti-extremism regulations “to allow local governments to set up institutions to provide people affected by extremist thoughts with vocational skills training and psychological counselling.” China asserts that the crackdown is intended to counter extremism, separatism and terrorism.

China’s acknowledgement was designed to counter the UN report, threats of US sanctions against officials and companies involved in the Xinjiang crackdown, and revelations by 41-year-old Sayragul Sauytbay, a Chinese national of Kazakh descent.

Ms. Sauytbay testified in an open Kazakh court that she had been employed in a Chinese re-education camp for Kazakhs only that had 2,500 inmates. She said she was aware of two more such camps reserved for Kazakhs.

Ms. Sauytbay was standing trial for entering Kazakhstan illegally after having been detained at China’s request.

She told the court that she had escaped to Kazakhstan after being advised by Chinese authorities that she would never be allowed to join her family because of her knowledge of the camps. Ms. Sauytbay was given a six-month suspended sentence and released from prison to join her recently naturalized husband and children.

Since then, Ms. Sauytbay’s application for asylum has been rejected and she has until the end of October to leave Kazakhstan. She hopes that an appeal court will reverse the rejection.

Ms. Sauytbay’s case puts the Kazakh government between a rock and a hard place and is but one of a string of recent cracks in the Muslim wall of silence.

Kazakh authorities have to balance a desire to kowtow to Chinese demands with a growing anti-Chinese sentiment that demands that the government stand up for its nationals as well as Chinese nationals of Kazakh descent.

Ms. Sauytbay’s revelations that ethnic Kazakhs were also targeted in the Chinese crackdown sparked angry denunciations in Kazakhstan’s parliament.

“There should be talks taking place with the Chinese delegates. Every delegation that goes there should be bringing this topic up… The key issue is that of the human rights of ethnic Kazakhs in any country of the world being respected,” said Kunaysh Sultanov, a member of parliament and former deputy prime minister and ambassador to China.

In a further crack, Malaysia this week released 11 Uyghurs who were detained after having escaped detention in Thailand.

The Uyghurs were allowed to leave the country for Turkey. The move, coming in the wake of a decision by Germany and Sweden to suspend deportations of Uyghurs to China, puts on the spot countries like Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, where Uyghurs risk extradition.

Malaysia’s release of the Uyghurs occurred days before Anwar Ibrahim took the first hurdle in becoming the country’s next prime minister by this weekend winning a parliamentary by election.

Mr. Ibrahim last month became the Muslim world’s most prominent politician to speak out about the crackdown in Xinjiang.

Earlier, Rais Hussin, a supreme council member of Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) party and head of its Policy and Strategy Bureau, cautioned that “that geographical proximity cannot be taken advantage by China to ride roughshod over everything that Malaysia holds dear, such as Islam, democracy, freedom of worship and deep respect for every country’s sovereignty… On its mistreatment of Muslims in Xinjiang almost en masse, Malaysia must speak up, and defend the most basic human rights of all.”

Pakistan’s Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony minister, Noorul Haq Qadri, was forced to raise the issue of Turkic Muslims with Chinese ambassador Yao Xing under pressure from Pakistanis whose spouses and relatives had been detained in the Xinjiang crackdown.

Ms. Sauytbay’s appeal for asylum is likely to refocus public opinion in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian nations on the plight of their Turkic brethren.

She will not be deported, we will not allow it,” said Ms. Sauytbay’s lawyer, Abzal Kuspanov.

Mr. Kuspanov’s defense of Ms. Sauytbay is about far more than the fate of a former Chinese re-education camp employee. It will serve as a barometer of China’s ability to impose its will. If China succeeds, it will raise the question at what price. The answer to that is likely to only become apparent over time.

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Central Asia

Why the upcoming Congress of the Leaders of World is so vital for peace and prosperity

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev

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Religion has been, and remains, an immense spiritual force for good in our world. The shared values which underpin all world’s major faiths have positively moulded how we treat each other. Religious beliefs give direction, comfort and hope to billions of people.

Religious communities appear to have enormous potential for addressing today’s social problems. Faith groups across the globe are prominent in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and caring for the vulnerable.  Our world would be poorer without the impact of religion on our lives.

Throughout history, religion has also been exploited to sow divisions. Instead of bringing people together and encouraging them to behaving decently toward each other, it has been abused to fuel suspicions and hatred, spread confusion about the true essence of religion. We are facing the problem of ignoring what religions have in common and exaggerating and distorting the difference between, and at times within, faiths.

The abuse of religion continues and is undermining hopes for peace and progress. In recent years, many thousands have died and millions more had to flee their homes in conflicts, in which religion has been used to justify discrimination and violence. Countering these dangerous distortions is one of the challenges that religious leaders should address.

There is no single answer. Yet at the heart of the solution is dialogue between religions to foster understanding and respect. This is an overarching aim of the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions which is to be held for the sixth time in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana this month (October.)

The Congress was initiated by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev amid the growing religious tensions and extremism following the 9/11 terrorist attack in the United States. He believed it was critical that the opportunity be provided for religious leaders to work together to prevent religion being used to divide us.

His vision has struck a chord across the world. The Congress, which takes place every three years since 2003 has engaged prominent religious leaders and politicians from different countries around most pressing issues. By 2015, the number of delegations attending had increased from 23 to 80. High-profile attendees included then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, King Abdullah of Jordan and President of Finland Sauli Niinistö. Discussions centred on the role of religion in promoting development and measures to reduce appeal of violent extremism among young people.

The Sixth Congress, which takes place on October 10-11, will build on this efforts. Its focus is on how religious leaders can work together to play their full part in creating a secure world and prevent faith being abused to set people against each other.

Located at a crossroads of different civilizations, Kazakhstan has placed greater importance on promoting religious harmony and mutual respect. Our country’s history and geography have combined to create a society in which people of many different backgrounds and faiths live within single boundaries. Religious freedom has become a precious asset of our nation, which allows diverse beliefs to peacefully coexist and helps us to negotiate any concerns in a constructive spirit.

Such a mixture could have been, as it has been the case in other countries, a worrying source of tension and conflict. Despite negative expectations such diversity has been turned into a strength in our society where citizens are equally respected and are able to make their full contribution to the common welfare.

As a matter of fact, while Kazakhstan’s population may be largely Muslim, followers of all traditional faiths live in harmony with each other, are free to worship and enjoy equal rights guaranteed by the constitution. It is a source not only of national pride but has also been an indispensable platform for our stability and prosperity at home and growing influence abroad.

In this turbulent world, dialogue and mutual respect has never been more important. Nor has it been more critical to provide the forum where religious and political leaders can work together to prevent any distortion of faith for violent ends. The upcoming Congress is so vital for peace and prosperity.

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Central Asia

Reforms Can Accelerate Economic Diversification in Kazakhstan

MD Staff

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Kazakhstan’s future growth depends on reforms that provide a level playing field for the private sector and support economic diversification, according to a new Asian Development Bank (ADB) Country Diagnostic Study launched today.

The study, Kazakhstan: Accelerating Economic Diversification, identifies the most binding constraints to growth and provides in-depth analysis of structural reforms that will bring the country to its growth potential. The report finds that consistent and successful reform efforts can add an average of 1.2 percentage points per year to Kazakhstan’s gross domestic product.

“Kazakhstan needs to accelerate structural reforms to support the country’s economic diversification,” said ADB Country Director for Kazakhstan Mr. Giovanni Capannelli. “These reforms include improving the country’s business climate, enhancing competitiveness, and increasing private sector participation in the economy.”

Kazakhstan’s economy has transformed since its independence in 1991, mainly due to a surge in oil and gas exports. While the country achieved middle-income status in 2006, the downturn of oil and other commodity prices in 2014 exposed the country’s vulnerability to external shocks and constrained government revenues.

Future growth will depend on identifying sectors in which Kazakhstan has a strong growth potential, according to the study. These include food processing, basic metals, and chemicals. In agriculture, redirecting subsidies toward investment in infrastructure, improving access to finance, and promoting innovation can substantially boost productivity. Greater investment in infrastructure is essential to provide a link to unexploited markets, decrease transport costs, and support the production of tradable goods. Transit trade has a large growth potential, while increasing the efficiency of transport infrastructure can generate additional growth from other tradable sectors such as manufacturing, the report said.

ADB began supporting Kazakhstan in 1994 and has since approved over $5 billion in sovereign loans, nonsovereign loans, and guarantees. ADB operations in Kazakhstan are helping open up transport routes, foster private enterprise, address inequalities, promote inclusive growth, and deliver knowledge products and services. ADB also contributes to Kazakhstan’s participation in the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) program.

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