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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

An Old Refrain: Russian Lawmakers Question Kazakhstan's Territorial Integrity, Statehood

Kazakhstan continues to harbor a nagging worry about losing some of its territory, or even its sovereignty, to Russia

Dec 16 — “Many Kazakhs are likely upset and perhaps a bit worried by some of the comments and actions heard in Russia recently that have questioned Kazakhstan’s existence as a country. Since December 10, two deputies from the Russian State Duma, the lower house of parliament, have described Kazakhstan's current territory as being a “gift” from Russia, echoing remarks by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014 that “Kazakhs never had any statehood” before the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991.” READ MORE: https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-lawmakers-question-kazakhstan-territorial-integrity-statehood/31003732.html

Pension Savings in Kazakhstan: to Spend or to Leave Them

From 2021, the Kazakhstanis will be allowed to use a part of their pension savings to purchase residential accommodations, to pay for medical treatment, or to transfer for management to financial companies. However, not all will be able to use this option

Dec 16 — “According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of Kazakhstan, the required limit, i.e. the minimum balance to be available on the pension account, is available only in 6 per cent of depositors. In other words, only about 721 thousand depositors will be able to use their pension savings to improve their housing conditions or for investment. «Among them, there are about 530 thousand working citizens who have pension savings that exceed the minimum balance, over 178 thousand pensioners who have pension savings, and 13 thousand people who have entered into pension annuity contract with an insurance company,» said Birzhan Nurymbetov, minister of labour and social protection, at the briefing on October 9.” READ MORE: https://cabar.asia/en/pension-savings-in-kazakhstan-to-spend-or-to-leave-them

Business in Kazakhstan during the Pandemic: Slumping Sales and Illegal Work

Because of restrictions related to coronavirus, it is unprofitable for many boutique owners and public catering owners in Kazakhstan to work. The purchasing power sharply declined, while the rental payments were not cancelled

Dec 18 — “«A restaurant-keeper is not a criminal.» This is the slogan used by café and restaurant owners when they attacked the akimat of Almaty on November 13, 2020. According to businessmen, the revenues of the restaurant business halved during the pandemic. Moreover, entrepreneurs have to pay fines imposed on them by inspectors. «Three inspectors came to us one after another. They have a different method now: they send a couple of people to our bar. Then, they see that we violate the decree and start calling various instances. They do not pay their bills. This is a loss to us and a real racketeering,» restaurant-keeper Daniyar Ischanov said (quoted from astanatv.kz).” READ MORE: https://cabar.asia/en/business-in-kazakhstan-during-the-pandemic-slumping-sales-and-illegal-work

KYRGYZSTAN

“Parliamentarism Has Failed in Kyrgyzstan”. Interview with Zainidin Kurmanov

Zainidin Kurmanov, a political scientist from Kyrgyzstan, historian and ex-speaker of the parliament, shared his opinion on the development of parliamentarism in the country, constitutional reform and how to maintain a balance among the branches of government

Dec 14 — “CABAR.asia: According to the 2010 Constitution, Kyrgyzstan is considered a country with a parliamentary form of government. How much does it live up to its name? What are its main pros and cons? There were some signs of a parliamentary form of government, such as a coalition of the majority, factions proposed and approved the candidacy of the prime minister, ministers, etc. The president was deprived of many powers, the right to deliver messages to the people, except for control over the power bloc, etc. however, everything remained the same, no appointment could take place without the consent of the president, without his agreement. It was the same under previous presidents when we had Constitutions with a semi-presidential form of government. So, what is the matter if everything remains the same? How can this be called a parliamentary form of government? Therefore, the 2010 Constitution did not introduce any parliamentarism. Absolute power was in the hands of the president, who had interfered into all affairs, but was not responsible for anything.” READ MORE: https://cabar.asia/en/parliamentarism-has-failed-in-kyrgyzstan-interview-with-zainidin-kurmanov

Kyrgyzstan: Has this been a bad year for Matraimov? Or not?

Although he is getting considerable negative attention, he also enjoys strong political coverage

Dec 18 — “This has been an interesting year for Rayimbek Matraimov, the most notorious man in Kyrgyzstan. Last week, the former customs boss and political powerbroker, along with his high-rolling spouse Uulkan Turgunova, were added to a list of individuals sanctioned by the U.S. government. And earlier, he was placed under house arrest pending an ongoing criminal investigation into corruption. Officials occasionally provide updates on the 2 billion som ($24 million) that Matraimov is supposed to be paying the state as part of an apparent plea bargain.” READ MORE: https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-has-this-been-a-bad-year-for-matraimov-or-not

After Long Delays, Kyrgyzstan Announces New Biometric Passports

The move would help Kyrgyz citizens obtain entry visas to the US

Dec 18 — “Kyrgyzstan has announced the introduction of long-awaited biometric passports for its citizens -- passports embedded with a microchip containing information that can be read and authenticated electronically. The move comes after months of speculation that Kyrgyzstan's inclusion on a U.S. partial travel ban list may have been linked to delays in fully switching to a biometric system.” READ MORE: https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-biometric-passports/31007729.html

TAJIKISTAN

Digital vigilantism in Tajikistan: Smartphones, social media, and the culture of shame

It has become a common practice in Tajikistan to record violations and hooliganism using a smartphone camera. Ordinary citizens take on the role of vigilant guardians of the law, while the authorities, in turn, are forced to react

Dec 16 — “The global trends of digital vigilantism have reached Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and taken on a local form. Armed with smartphones, access to the Internet, and a distrust for law enforcement, many of the city’s residents are taking on the state’s dysfunctions. Recordings of incidents of traffic violations, disorderly conduct, and kidnappings of young men into military service are regularly posted on social media to galvanize civil society and force the state to respond – all amidst an environment of tight state control over the freedom of expression and high-priced low-quality Internet.” READ MORE: https://cabar.asia/en/smartphones-social-media-and-the-culture-of-shame-can-digital-vigilantism-take-on-the-state-s-dysfunctions-in-tajikistan

Dushanbe Reinforces Border After Tajik Militants Appear In Video Fighting In Afghanistan

The presence of Tajik militants in Afghanistan and the volatile tribal areas of Pakistan has been known for many years

Dec 17 — “Tajikistan has deployed additional troops along its southern border with Afghanistan after Afghan authorities claimed a group of militants from Tajikistan played a major role in the Taliban's capture of an Afghan district last month. Afghan officials said the majority of the militants who overran the Maymay district in the northeastern Badakhshan Province in November were foreign fighters, including militants from Tajikistan.” READ MORE: https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-reinforces-border-militants-afghanistan-video-islamic-state/31005499.html

Tajikistan: Even Russia feels pain as pandemic wreaks havoc on migration lifeline

Food prices have jumped this year and there are few jobs in Tajikistan, but out-of-work migrants can’t get to where they are desperately needed — Russia

Dec 17 — “The need to get to Russia for work drives some in Tajikistan to desperate measures. Same Khojayev, a young man from the southern town of Khovaling, came up with a convoluted way to circumvent travel restrictions imposed over the COVID-19 outbreak. He conned his way into acquiring a ticket for a charter flight from Dushanbe to Minsk intended for people studying in Belarus and Ukraine. He then snuck illegally across the border to the east, which is currently forbidden for Tajik nationals.” READ MORE: https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-even-russia-feels-pain-as-pandemic-wreaks-havoc-on-migration-lifeline

TURKMENISTAN

Turkmenistan’s Digital Education System and COVID-19: Still Waiting for Change

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the country’s government to embrace the immediate introduction of digital technology into education. In Turkmenistan, where the authorities still do not officially recognize cases of COVID-19, digitalization of education is slow

Dec 10 — “The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the wide digital divide across the globe, highlighting the negative implications of lagging behind in digital uptake. In the field of education, a large number of states struggled to offer adequate remote learning alternatives to disrupted conventional schooling, exacerbating further the pre-existing inadequacies and inequities of their education systems. As such, the coronavirus crisis offered an opportunity to reflect on current policies, identify gaps and reinvent mechanisms for delivering vital public services for all. This is of particular relevance for Turkmenistan; though digitization has been reportedly high on the top leadership’s political agenda in recent years, the country’s digital advancement has been modest to say the least.” READ MORE: https://cabar.asia/en/turkmenistan-s-digital-education-system-and-covid-19-still-waiting-for-change

25 Years Later, Turkmenistan Reaps Zero Benefits From 'Positive Neutrality'

The Turkmen government has used neutrality to avoid joining multilateral organizations, particularly security organizations, and at the same time has practically shut off Turkmenistan from the outside world

Dec 11 — “The 12th of December is a holiday in Turkmenistan known as Neutrality Day, with this year marking 25 years since the UN officially recognized the authoritarian Central Asian state as a neutral country. Turkmen officials -- particularly President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov -- prefer these days to use the term "positive neutrality," and it is a big deal in Turkmenistan.” READ MORE: https://www.rferl.org/a/turkmenistan-neutrality-25-years-no-benefits-qishloq-ovozi/30995903.html

Turkmenistan: Sick and tired

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

Dec 15 — “Turkmenistan is talking about hosting an international conference next year on ongoing research into the coronavirus pandemic. The government will have no useful insights to offer on tackling the infection itself, whose presence in the country it steadfastly denies, but it has honed expertise in other areas, such as repression, obfuscation and ineptitude.” READ MORE: https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistan-sick-and-tired

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

Can Uzbekistan Stay on Track in Improving its Human Rights Record?

Uzbekistan undoubtedly needs to continue implementing recent initiated reforms, but its progress is promising

Dec 17 — “The U.S. State Department’s decision to remove Uzbekistan from the Special Watch List for governments that engage or tolerate “severe violations of religious freedom” is a major achievement for Uzbekistan. Particularly significant in the context of the announcement was the State Department’s recommendation that other nations look to the “courageous reforms” of Uzbekistan and Sudan (which was also taken off the Special Watch List) as models to emulate. Such a high assessment undoubtedly testifies to the considerable progress achieved by Tashkent, but at the same time runs counter to the position of a number of human rights organizations.” READ MORE: https://thediplomat.com/2020/12/can-uzbekistan-stay-on-track-improving-its-human-rights-record/

Uzbekistan: The Koryo Saram’s tragic Soviet soccer superstar

A new documentary on a Soviet soccer star also tells the story of Central Asia’s ethnic Korean community, which was deported en masse to the region by Stalin

Dec 18 — “Footballer Mikhail An and his childhood sweetheart Klara’s wedding in 1975 was the first major event to be held in the Hotel Uzbekistan, one of Tashkent’s most famous landmarks. It was, by the standards of the time, a society wedding and attracted an extensive press pack. An’s FC Pakhtakor was playing some of the most exciting soccer in the Soviet Union.” READ MORE: https://eurasianet.org/uzbekistan-the-koryo-sarams-tragic-soviet-soccer-superstar

AFGHANISTAN

Can the Improved Pakistan-Afghanistan Relationship Save the Afghan Peace Process?

The rapprochement between Pakistan and Afghanistan could prove to be a game changer for the Afghan peace process

Dec 15 — “The visit of Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, to Pakistan in late September was considered a major shift in Kabul’s approach towards Islamabad. This was Abdullah’s first visit to Pakistan in his new role as the Afghan government’s top negotiator in the intra-Afghan peace talks. When serving in the previous administration as the Chief Executive Officer of the Unity Government, Abdullah declined several invitations to visit Pakistan. During the visit, Pakistan promised to push the Taliban to reduce violence and to support an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process” – which Abdullah has demanded for years. The ongoing push from both sides is intended to build trust and could prove to be a game changer for the Afghan peace process.” READ MORE: http://cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13655-can-the-improved-pakistan-afghanistan-relationship-save-the-afghan-peace-process?.html

Divided In Battle, United In Grief: Afghan Families Long For Peace

For the families on either side of the battlefield, life after losing their loved ones has more similarities than differences

Dec 17 — “Every day brings a new challenge of survival for Saima, an Afghan widow in her 30s. She struggles to keep her four children warm and fed in the bitter cold that has descended in eastern Afghanistan, where winter snows now blanket the mountains for weeks. Her dilapidated mud house in an impoverished neighborhood of Asababad, the capital of Kunar Province, provides little protection against the subzero temperatures. As her teenage son looks for some firewood in the nearby forest, her three other children huddle on a floormat inside the darkened room as their teeth rattle from the cold.” READ MORE: https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/taliban-conflict-peace-afghanistan/31005397.html

Between a Republic and an Emirate: The Future of Afghanistan

The Taliban remains staunchly committed to establishing an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, which the government, civil society, and large sections of the population strongly oppose

Dec 17 — “This special report was written before the 2020 United States presidential elections. Under the incoming Biden administration, the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan is likely to be more gradual and “responsible”, despite the President-elect being in favour of American troops exiting the war-weary country soon. In retrospect, Donald Trump’s insistence on pulling out all US troops from Afghanistan by Christmas 2020 was not misguided, since there is little that such military presence can achieve at this stage of the war. The situation is sealed by some neighbouring nations acting as spoilers in the peace process, impeding American efforts to help bring stability to Afghanistan." READ MORE: https://www.orfonline.org/research/between-republic-emirate-future-afghanistan-2/

WORLD

Perspectives | The BRI is not at the end of the road

The Belt and Road Initiative should not be separated from China’s grand strategy, a decades-long goal intended to restore China to its historical position as Asia’s only political, economic and military superpower

Dec 16 — “It is not unusual to read interpretations of China’s Belt and Road Initiative that measure its success in cash flow. Last week the Financial Times published such a take, raising a furor of comments and sub-controversies about data showing a massive fall in lending from the two major Chinese policy banks. The authors claimed that China was “pull[ing] back from the world.” Lost in the uproar, however, was a lesson for Central Asia: Even if Beijing reduces its lending – a big if – that does not signal retreat.” READ MORE: https://eurasianet.org/perspectives-the-bri-is-not-at-the-end-of-the-road

India-Iran-Uzbekistan Pursue Central Asian Connectivity

The Iranian port of Chabahar has the potential to shift some of the regional dynamics in India’s favor

Dec 18 — “India, Iran, and Uzbekistan have held their first trilateral meeting for possible joint use of Chabahar port. The meeting was chaired jointly by India’s Secretary of Shipping Sanjeev Ranjan, Uzbekistan’s Deputy Minister of Transport Davron Dehkanov, and Iran’s Deputy Transport Minister Shahram Adamnejad. Using Chabahar port for trade and transit purposes as well as strengthened regional connectivity were the key agenda items at the meeting. India’s keenness to explore this option comes from its desire to extend connectivity into Eurasia.” READ MORE: https://thediplomat.com/2020/12/india-iran-uzbekistan-pursue-central-asian-connectivity/

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