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BISHKEK (TCA) — The Publisher’s note: Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Central Asia was the scene of intense geopolitical struggle and the Great Game between the British and Russian Empires, and later between the Soviet Union and the West, over Afghanistan and neighboring territories. Into the 21st century, Central Asia has become the area of a renewed geopolitical interest, dubbed the New Great Game, largely based on the region’s hydrocarbon and mineral wealth. On top of that, the region now is perhaps the most important node in the implementation of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative through which Beijing aims to get direct access to Western markets. Every week thousands of news appears in the world’s printed and online media and many of them may escape the attention of busy readers. At The Times of Central Asia, we strongly believe that more information can better contribute to peaceful development and better knowledge of this unique region. So we are presenting this Weekly Digest which compiles what other media have reported on Central Asia over the past week.

KAZAKHSTAN

Kazakhstan government is intercepting HTTPS traffic in its capital

This marks the third time since 2015 that the Kazakh government is mandating the installation of a root certificate on its citizens' devices

Dec 6 — “Under the guise of a "cybersecurity exercise," the Kazakhstan government is forcing citizens in its capital of Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) to install a digital certificate on their devices if they want to access foreign internet services. Once installed, the certificate would allow the government to intercept all HTTPS traffic made from users' devices via a technique called MitM (Man-in-the-Middle).” READ MORE: https://www.zdnet.com/article/kazakhstan-government-is-intercepting-https-traffic-in-its-capital/

Kazakhstan Steps up Pressure on Human Rights and Independent Organisations

Over a dozen of independent civil society and human rights organisations in Kazakhstan issued a statement on being under pressure from the authorities. International organisations are concerned about the fact that it happens before the upcoming parliamentary election to be held on January 10, 2021

Dec 8 — “In late November 2020, a range of human rights and independent organisations across Kazakhstan received notices of alleged violations made by them in tax reports concerning the times of notice on receiving funds from foreign sources and their spending. The applicable Code of administrative offences of Kazakhstan provides for strict administrative penalties for any discrepancies in tax reports. If unreliable information is found, a non-commercial organisation must pay over 500,000 tenge (1.19 thousand dollars) and its activities will be suspended for up to 3 months (article 460-1, Code of administrative offences of Kazakhstan).” READ MORE: https://cabar.asia/en/kazakhstan-steps-up-pressure-on-human-rights-and-independent-organisations

End of Feast Business in Kazakhstan

Almost half of restaurants and cafes of Kazakhstan went bankrupt due to lockdown measures since early 2020, according to professional market players

Dec 10 — “According to them, these facilities cannot exist anymore because restaurant owners who invested much money could not make profit. Because of closure of restaurants, their owners cannot even pay off their loans. Catering entrepreneurs from southern regions of Kazakhstan, where banquet halls were the foundation of the feast business, were affected the most. From mid-March 2020, the country introduced the emergency regime and banned all public events, conferences, workshops and exhibitions.” READ MORE: https://cabar.asia/en/end-of-feast-business-in-kazakhstan

KYRGYZSTAN

Kyrgyzstan pleads for more Chinese help in building key infrastructure

Bishkek is also angling for yet more room to ease its debt burden

Dec 9 — “Even as Kyrgyzstan appears uncertain how to cope with the massive weight of its dues to China, it has embarked on a fresh charm offensive to remind Beijing of the role it plays in developing vital infrastructure. In an interview to China’s state Xinhua news agency published this past weekend, Transport Minister Bakyt Berdaliyev hailed his nation’s eastern neighbor for the work it has done developing roads linking remote parts of the country.” READ MORE: https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-pleads-for-more-chinese-help-in-building-key-infrastructure

U.S. Places Former Kyrgyz Customs Official Matraimov Under Magnitsky Sanctions

The new Kyrgyz authorities had earlier detained Matraimov, an ally of former President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, as part of a new corruption investigation

Dec 9 — “The United States has imposed sanctions against former Kyrgyz customs official Raimbek Matraimov, a wealthy and influential political player who is currently under house arrest in Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. Treasury Department announced on December 9 that it had slapped sanctions on Matraimov for his role in a vast corruption and money laundering scheme in the Central Asian nation.” READ MORE: https://www.rferl.org/a/us-places-former-kyrgyz-customs-official-matraimov-under-magnitsky-sanctions/30992348.html

Kyrgyzstan: MPs rush through approval for constitution referendum

There are fears of an inexorable slide into a new season of authoritarianism

Dec 10 — “After a little more than an hour of debating, lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan backed a planned referendum that could see the scrapping of decade-old reforms that handed more powers to the legislature. Sixty of the MPs present voted on December 10 to approve putting an overhaul of the constitution to a public plebiscite next month, while only four voted against. Dozens of other MPs simply didn’t turn up. Parliament has adopted this decision with remarkable haste. A first reading was adopted on December 9, and the two readings followed the day after.” READ MORE: https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-mps-rush-through-approval-for-constitution-referendum

TAJIKISTAN

Tajikistan's last opposition party targeted for prosecution

The opposition party’s figure had called for a demonstration to protest against price rises

Dec 7 — “The deputy head of Tajikistan’s only legally permitted opposition party has been detained by the police on hooliganism charges, just weeks after he called for demonstrations to complain about the soaring price for basic food staples. Khovar state news agency has reported that the detention of Mahmurod Odinayev of the Social Democratic Party, or SDPT, occurred on December 5 following a police sweep in the Sino district, which is located on the edge of the capital, Dushanbe.” READ MORE: https://eurasianet.org/tajikistans-last-opposition-party-targeted-for-prosecution

In Tajikistan, Ban on Worshipping in Mosques Causes Believers’ Discontent

Worshippers in Tajikistan are dissatisfied with the ban on visiting mosques and accuse the authorities of bias. At the same time, doctors and some clergy members believe that these measures taken to prevent COVID-19 spread are justified

Dec 8 — “In Tajikistan, the mosques were the first among public places to fall under the bans related to preventing the coronavirus pandemic spread. It happened on April 18, even before the authorities officially recognized the presence of COVID-19 in the country – on April 30. Even then, some of the worshippers declared on social media the authorities’ bias and drew attention to the fact that schools, universities and shopping centers continued to work.” READ MORE: https://cabar.asia/en/in-tajikistan-ban-on-worshipping-in-mosques-causes-believers-discontent

Tajikistan Accused of Intimidating Activists Abroad by Targeting Relatives Back Home

The Tajik government’s campaign, particularly against media activists abroad, hopes “to silence critical voices under the pretext of fighting extremism”

Dec 9 — “Sharofiddin Gadoev, 35, a Tajik political activist from the Netherlands, was arrested in February 2019 during a visit to Moscow and forcibly deported to his native Tajikistan. About two weeks later, the Tajik government, under pressure from human rights organizations and European countries, released him from prison in the capital, Dushanbe, and allowed him to return to Europe. But his ordeal is not over. Although he is now free in his adopted Netherlands, he said his relatives in Tajikistan had been subjected to beatings by Tajik authorities, had been threatened and had their movements restricted.” READ MORE: https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/tajikistan-accused-intimidating-activists-abroad-targeting-relatives-back-home

TURKMENISTAN

Turkmenistan: The drugs don’t work

In its ‘Akhal-Teke: A Turkmenistan Bulletin’, Eurasianet reviews the main news and events in the Central Asian country for the previous week

Dec 8 — “Turkmenistan and the internet are not friends. Censorship is ubiquitous. Access to social media websites is particularly closely monitored, when and if it is allowed. As RFE/RL’s Bruce Pannier wrote earlier this year, the war against unwanted information has latterly taken a new turn, with the authorities trying to clamp down on VPNs – the pieces of software that enable users to circumvent blockages.” READ MORE: https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistan-the-drugs-dont-work

In Ashgabat foreign nationals are moved from the rental apartments into hotels

The move looks like an attempt by the government to find any opportunity to supplement the budget because of the severe economic situation in the country

Dec 9 — “Correspondents of “Chronicles of Turkmenistan” report that foreign nationals in Ashgabat are forced to move from the rental apartments into hotels. Room rates in the empty Ashgabat hotels range from $70 to $150 per night depending on the hotel and the type of room. A monthly rental fee in apartments leased by foreign nationals in residential districts of Gaudan B, Parakhat-4 and elite apartment blocks located along Independence avenue (formerly Sovetskaya street) is approximately $550 to $650.” READ MORE: https://en.hronikatm.com/2020/12/in-ashgabat-foreign-nationals-are-moved-from-the-rental-apartments-into-hotels/

Coronavirus in Turkmenistan: Politics on the Verge of Crime

The high-ranking officials of Turkmenistan confirm that the Covid-19 pandemic is a hypothetical risk for the country, which is tackled successfully by the government. However, the socioeconomic situation in the republic proves otherwise

Dec 11 — “From the very beginning of Covid-19 pandemic, the authorities of Turkmenistan took a position of silence and then denial of the virus presence in the country and of new cases. From the beginning of the pandemic, officials at various levels of political representation, often harshly, said, «There is no coronavirus in Turkmenistan due to the measures taken in advance!» On November 13, 2020, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov at the session of the government said, «…As a result of preventive measures, the country has registered no coronavirus cases so far, which is a positive indicator and our great achievement.» READ MORE: https://cabar.asia/en/coronavirus-in-turkmenistan-politics-on-the-verge-of-crime

UZBEKISTAN

A Delicate Balance of Language Conflict in Uzbekistan

An Uzbek researcher Eldar Asanov discusses identity, nationalism, and historical memory in the realm of a rather vexed language issue in today’s Uzbekistan

Dec 8 — “On April 25, 2020, Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Justice had released for public review a draft bill[1], which, among other things, “stipulates to fine the country’s officials from 2 to 5 reference calculation value (from 446 thousand to 1.115 million UZS or 44-110 USD)[2] for violating the law on State Language. In other words, the bill obliges government agencies to use the state language. A casual observer unfamiliar with the background of the issue would not be interested in the controversial bill. After all, there is a good reason it’s called ‘the state’ language – it caters the state affairs.” READ MORE: https://cabar.asia/en/a-delicate-balance-of-language-conflict-in-uzbekistan

The EU must leverage closer trade ties with Uzbekistan to ensure progress on human rights ǀ View

As Brussels considers whether to allow Tashkent into its elite club of developing states deserving of extraordinary trade preferences, it must not compromise on the values and principles behind admission, says Umida Niyazova, founder and director, Uzbek Forum for Human Rights

Dec 9 — “Since coming to power four years ago, Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been eager to improve relations with the EU. Under the long-serving authoritarian former president Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan was an international pariah - criticised for its atrocious rights record and kept out of international bodies. Through savvy public relations campaigns and some nominal changes, Mirziyoyev has been at pains to shift that perception. If he succeeds, his prize will come in the next couple of months in the form of specialised European trade preferences that could bring in millions of euros.” READ MORE: https://www.euronews.com/2020/12/09/the-eu-must-leverage-closer-trade-ties-with-uzbekistan-to-ensure-progress-on-human-rights-

Afghanistan and Desire for Closer Relations Top Agenda of US-Uzbekistan Meeting

Washington’s strategic and Tashkent’s economic interests converge in Afghanistan

Dec 10 — “The Eighth Annual Bilateral Consultations between Uzbekistan and the United States were held in Washington on November 15–22 (The Tashkent Times, November 22). Tashkent had two main goals for these high-level talks. First, it sought to reconfirm Uzbekistan’s foreign policy of maintaining equally favorable relations with all powers that have interests in the Central Asia region. Second, Tashkent wanted to secure the support of the militarily and financially strong United States for Uzbekistan’s ongoing efforts to work with neighboring Afghanistan.” READ MORE: https://jamestown.org/program/afghanistan-and-desire-for-closer-relations-top-agenda-of-us-uzbekistan-meeting/

AFGHANISTAN

Preparing for the day after peace in Afghanistan

A core objective of a peace agreement is to provide the grounds for post-peace building stability

Dec 9 — “Despite increasing levels of violence and slow progress, marred by some setbacks in the ongoing negotiations, Afghanistan has come closer to reaching a peace settlement than at any time since the war began. While a political settlement may end the conflict, sustaining peace will depend on a common definition of what peace will look like and delivering on the promise of a better future for the Afghan people. Planning for what comes next is to some extent already underway. Afghanistan’s major donors recently pledged $3.3 billion for 2021 to the Afghanistan Partnership Framework (APF), which outlines commitments from 2021 to 2024. These commitments signal to future government leaders in Afghanistan the key values upon which international support is contingent, in an attempt to incentivize protection of human rights and pursuit of economic development reforms, no matter the outcome of the negotiation process.” READ MORE: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/preparing-for-the-day-after-peace-in-afghanistan/

‘No Life Without Peace’: Slain Female Afghan Journalist Hoped For Better Times

Her killing appears to be part of an assassination campaign aimed at silencing journalists and civil society activists at a crucial moment in Afghanistan’s troubled history

Dec 10 — “Months before her killing, Malala Maiwand, 24, a female Afghan journalist and women’s rights campaigner, was clear about how central peace was to an emancipated future in her war-torn country. “There is no life without peace,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan in February. “All of our needs can only be met in peace.” “In contrast to war, peace means that you don’t have to live in constant fear of being killed,” she added. “The right to education, shelter, healthcare, work, and free speech can only be protected when there is peace in a society and the country.” READ MORE: https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/journalist-murder-maiwand-afghanistan/30994447.html

All Aboard! Afghanistan, Iran Open First Rail Link

Iran is Afghanistan’s second-largest trading partner after neighboring Pakistan

Dec 10 — “Afghanistan and Iran Thursday inaugurated the first railway link between them, expressing hope the landmark move will boost trade and travel links across the region. The 225-kilometer line connects the eastern Iranian city of Khaf to the western Afghan city of Herat, providing a crucial transport link to landlocked Afghanistan, which is ravaged by several decades of war.” READ MORE: https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/all-aboard-afghanistan-iran-open-first-rail-link

WORLD

Why can’t Central Asia “reunite” with the Muslim world?

The region's ruling elites fear Islamisation of public life, so they have adopted draconian measures to even suppress the revival of Muslim traditions

Dec 10 — ““They beat us to a pulp for just attempting to pray, for just saying ‘Allahu Akbar’ [God is great] or ‘Amen,’” Shukrat says, recalling the daily prison routine that still convulses him with chronic pains and nightmares. Shukhrat, a wiry, small-framed 41 year-old, attended an informal prayer group in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, that studied the basics of Islam. He was arrested, tortured and sentenced to eight years in jail in 2010 for “religious extremism.” READ MORE: https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/why-can-t-central-asia-reunite-with-the-muslim-world-42210

China’s Policy Banks Are Lending Differently, Not Less

How Chinese policy and commercial banks are behaving operationally in their foreign lending activities is shifting, but not necessarily diminishing

Dec 12 — “China’s policy lending in Eurasian Belt and Road economies is facing a raft of debt relief requests and a slowdown in bilateral government-to-government loans. However data analytics that focus solely on policy bank lending through bilateral agreements miss the wider geoeconomic picture. China’s policy banking environment in Central Asia is shifting, but the loan books of the future will be more heavily weighted to Chinese enterprises operating in host economies and host economy state-owned enterprises (SOEs).” READ MORE: https://thediplomat.com/2020/12/chinas-policy-banks-are-lending-differently-not-less/

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