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Table of contents

P. 3

“There’s simply no excuse for the EU’s deafening silence on the tenth anniversary of Andijan”, interview with Steve Swerdlow

P. 9

“Offshore Central Asia: Switzerland as a Site for Political Struggles between Kazakh Elites” by Edward Lemon and Damian Rosset

P. 14 “The status of the Caspian Sea and its legal implications: a basic understanding” by Stylianos A. Sotiriou P. 19 “Seven Secrets of Istaravshan” by Edward Schipke P. 32 “ ‘Uncertain Light’, A Novel that Explores the ‘Floating World’ of Development Workers”, interview with Marion Molteno

Eurasian Dialogue is delighted to introduce the seventh issue of Perspectives on Central Asia . In this issue, we have included interviews and articles on topics ranging from Caspian geopolitics to literature and Uzbek human rights. Uzbekistan has one of the worst human rights records on the planet. Ten years ago this month, soldiers fired on unarmed protestors in the town of Andijan killing over 500 civilians. Eurasian Dialogue spoke with Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, about the anniversary and the current situation in Uzbekistan. The European Union enforced sanctions against Tashkent after Andijan, but has subsequently softened its stance, Swerdlow argues. A tougher stance towards the Uzbek government, Swerdlow says, can help stimulate positive change in the Central Asian republic. According to Swerdlow, external actors need to put pressure on Tashkent to change its policy. But this process works in reverse as well. In our second article, Edward Lem on and D am ian Rosset, examine how Central Asian regimes project their power abroad. Rather than using force, Central Asian governments use a range of PR firms and lobbyists to play out political struggles offshore. Rosset and Lemon examine how Switzerland has become a key site for Kazakh offshore politics. Kazakh actors are attempting to use Swiss institutions to pursue their critics abroad. Such offshore developments should be taken more !! seriously by policymakers, the public and academics, they argue. In his article, Stylianos Sotiriou examines a different political struggle: the Caspian sea dispute.

Despite many attempts by the littoral states to reach an agreement over how to classify the water basin, no multilateral agreement has been signed. The self-interested policies of these states are to blame for this indeterminacy, according to Sotiriou. Stronger actors such as Russia, Sotiriou argues, actually benefit from this ongoing dispute. It gives Russia a chance to pursue its goals unilaterally and capitalise on its position as regional hegemon. From geopolitics to local politics, Edward Schipke transports the reader to the dusty streets of Istaravshan in his article. Despite being Tajikistan’s fifth largest city, it is frequently overlooked by passers-by. Schipke traces the city’s history from the time of Alexander the Great, through the Russian conquest, Soviet era and independence. Its Timurid splendours and sleepy appearance mask a darker side; a brutally repressive regime tries to stamp out the signs of religiosity in its own War on Terror. M arion M olteno also explores fear and insecurity in her novel Uncertain Light, which is set in the last months of the Tajik civil war. Marion spoke with Eurasian Dialogue about her experiences as an international development worker, visiting Tajikistan in 1997 and why she decided that Central Asia would be an interesting place to set a novel. We hope you enjoy reading this issue!



INTERVIEW WITH STEVE SWERDLOW 13 May 2015 saw the tenth anniversary of the Andijan massacre, in which Uzbek soldiers killed over 500 unarmed protestors. Despite limited efforts by external actors to put pressure on the regime, Uzbekistan continues to have one of the worst human rights records in the world. In the following interview, Human Rights Watch Central Asia researcher, Steve Swerdlow, tells Eurasian Dialogue about the dire situation in Uzbekistan.! Eurasian Dialogue: The human rights records of all five Central Asian states are poor. But why is Uzbekistan’s record particularly bad? Steve Swerdlow: Despite appearing only rarely in global headlines, Uzbekistan’s atrocious human rights record requires an urgent and coordinated international response. Its authoritarian government severely limits freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion; has imprisoned thousands on politically “U ZBEKISTAN ’ S ATROCIOUS motivated charges; and continues to wage an unrelenting HUMAN RIGHTS RECORD crackdown on human rights work, independent REQUIRES AN URGENT AND journalism, peaceful opposition, and civic activity. COORDINATED Torture in Uzbekistan is widespread and systematic. INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE ” Individuals who attempt to assert rights, or act in ways deemed contrary to state interests, face arbitrary detention, harassment, ill-treatment, and torture. The government also uses systematic forced labor in the cotton sector, forcibly mobilizing millions of people to pick cotton in abusive conditions for little or no pay, violating international labor laws. The Uzbek government also stands out for its lack of cooperation with United Nations (UN) human rights mechanisms, particularly the special procedures that report to the UN Human Rights Council (Council). Tashkent has for years persistently refused to implement crucial recommendations and decisions by UN human rights bodies regarding violations of the prohibition against torture, freedom of expression, assembly, association, religion, and other core human rights norms. “ THE U ZBEK GOVERNMENT STANDS OUT FOR ITS LACK OF COOPERATION WITH U NITED N ATIONS (UN) HUMAN RIGHTS MECHANISMS ” Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


Steve Swerdlow

credit: Steve Swerdlow

May 13, 2015 saw the ten year anniversary of the Andijan massacre. What happened on that day in 2005? On May 13, 2005, government forces shot indiscriminately and without warning into a crowd of mostly unarmed protestors in the eastern city of Andijan, killing hundreds. The government has blocked numerous calls for an independent investigation into the killings. The violence drove hundreds of people across the border into Kyrgyzstan. The government continues to persecute anyone suspected of having witnessed the atrocities or attempting to speak about them publicly. Authorities charged and sentenced hundreds of individuals to lengthy prison terms on suspicion of having participated in the events in flawed trials often conducted on the basis of forced confessions obtained through torture. In the 10 years since the massacre, the government has closed Uzbekistan to outside scrutiny of any kind — banning or interfering with the work of domestic and international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, and independent media, including Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, and the BBC, and academics.

“I N







During its Universal Periodic Review in 2013, the Uzbek government delegation declared that “the issue of Andijan is closed for us!” and categorically rejected recommendations by numerous governments to allow an independent, international inquiry to investigate the killings. Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


In many ways, what happened in Andijan and in its wake continue to define modern Uzbekistan, its human rights record and its government’s stance toward the outside world. The Andijan massacre and the crackdown on civil society unleashed in the aftermath revealed a willingness on the part of the government to use violence “ THE GOVERNMENT ’ S to suppress the overwhelmingly peaceful exercise of REFUSAL TO ACCEDE TO citizens’ fundamental rights. And the government’s refusal THE NUMEROUS CALLS to accede to the numerous calls by the US, EU, UN High FOR A MEANINGFUL Commissioner for Human Rights, NATO Council, and INVESTIGATION INTO OSCE’s calls for a meaningful investigation into what WHAT HAPPENED SHOWS happened similarly shows its refusal to play by the most ITS REFUSAL TO PLAY BY basic of international rules. Until these legacies of Andijan THE MOST BASIC OF are addressed, they will continue to define and shape INTERNATIONAL RULES ” Uzbekistan, keeping it on a terrible trajectory.

Following the twelfth meeting of the Cooperation Council between the European Union and the Republic of Uzbekistan on May 18, the EU published a press release in which it “welcomed Uzbekistan's readiness to discuss human rights.” The statement did not mention political prisoners, Andjian or other abuses. What did you think of this latest statement? Coming at the time it did, almost exactly ten years to the day of the Andijan killings, and at a time when severe and egregious abuses on the ground continue unabated, the European Union’s May 18 statement, which was entirely silent on the “ THE E UROPEAN massacre and other human rights issues, was both deeply U NION ’ S M AY 18 inappropriate and even reckless in its praise for a government STATEMENT WAS BOTH that has made a mockery of the EU’s key human rights criteria DEEPLY INAPPROPRIATE for Uzbekistan. It is honestly hard to understand how such a AND RECKLESS ” statement was even possible when across from the External Action Service in Brussels the European Parliament has for months called on the European Commission to soberly examine the lack of progress in Uzbekistan’s human rights record since Andijan and asked the Commission to urgently place abuses at the top of its agenda. There’s simply no excuse for the EU’s deafening silence on the tenth anniversary of Andijan – especially when various bodies of the UG government, OSCE/ODIHR, and even the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights came out on the anniversary with statements of concern underlining the need for accountability. The May 18 statement left one with the impression that the EU policy on Uzbekistan was on a sort “ THERE ’ S SIMPLY NO of automatic pilot function or that those writing the EXCUSE FOR THE EU’ S statement are literally living in a parallel universe where DEAFENING SILENCE ON Uzbekistan is not one of the leading abusers of human THE TENTH OF A NDIJAN ” rights. Worse still, the EU’s praise for the Uzbek ! Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


government’s supposed “readiness to discuss human rights” is wholly inaccurate. Literally at the time of the Cooperation Council summit Uzbek authorities were busy arbitrarily extending the prison term of a leading human rights defender, Azam Farmonov, who had already served a 9 year sentence in Uzbekistan’s notorious Jaslyk prison colony and has suffered horrific torture. European Commission President Jose Manual Barroso personally called for his release along with other political prisoners “ THE EXTENSION OF AN when he met President Islam Karimov at a summit in 2011 UNJUST SENTENCE FOR A and instead of heeding his call Uzbek authorities extended HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDER , his sentence for another 5 years. The extension of an NOT U ZBEK OFFICIALS ’ unjust sentence for a human rights defender, not Uzbek HOLLOW RHETORIC , IS THE officials’ hollow rhetoric, is the real test of whether the REAL TEST OF WHETHER THE government is ‘ready’ to improve human rights. This GOVERNMENT IS ‘ READY ’ TO deeply unjust action should prompt an appropriate, IMPROVE HUMAN RIGHTS ” robust response by the EU and other actors. Uzbekistan just recently completed a deeply flawed presidential election which failed to meet OSCE standards. Two years ago ICRC was forced to suspend its monitoring of prison facilities due to government interference. The authorities have continued to crackdown on the ever dwindling numbers of civil society activists left in the country, and continues to employ systematic torture and imprison thousands of persons on politically motivated charges. Government authorities also defiantly rejected the key recommendations made by statements during its Universal Periodic Review. If this is what “readiness to discuss human rights” looks like, it is not something the EU should be praising.

What role does the Termez base play in dictating Germany’s policy? Germany was a leading voice in favour of lifting the EU’s post-Andijan sanctions, despite a worsening crackdown and a wave of arrests of human rights defenders in 2006. This probably shouldn’t surprise us given that in documents inadvertently released by the German Ministry of Defense in 2011, it was revealed that at this time Germany was paying upwards of !25 million each year to lease the military base in Termez. And this has really left many people scratching their heads, as with the United States, there seems to be a consistent willingness on the part of Berlin to underestimate the leverage it has “ THERE SEEMS TO BE A on Uzbekistan’s human rights record and exaggerate CONSISTENT WILLINGNESS the position of Tashkent in these negotiations. ON THE PART OF B ERLIN TO Germany’s public position against the sanctions, its UNDERESTIMATE THE private payments, and its failure to prevent Interior LEVERAGE IT HAS ON Minister Zokirjon Almatov – who was allowed to travel U ZBEKISTAN ’ S HUMAN for medical treatment to Germany in 2006 whilst being RIGHTS RECORD ” on the list of Uzbek officials banned from the EU— sent the wrong message to Tashkent. ! Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


Germany’s at times very quiet approach to post-Soviet governments on human rights abuses has served to strengthen those voices in the Uzbek government who want to maintain the status quo. This has really divided the EU between those states who believe that there should be some connection between trade privileges and other benefits that the EU has to offer and Uzbekistan’s actual performance on human rights, and the more “G ERMANY ’ S APPROACH realpolitik actors led by Germany. The European Commission HAS SERVED TO itself has directed EU taxpayer money to the Rule of Law STRENGTHEN THOSE Initiative, which over the course of four years totalled over !10 VOICES IN THE U ZBEK million, and brought extremely non-transparent benefits for the GOVERNMENT WHO security services, whilst not insisting on the participation of WANT TO MAINTAIN independent civil society actors. Essentially, the rule of law THE STATUS QUO ” program with its training seminars and unclear objectives was a missed opportunity. What really should be done, and this can be done relatively modestly, is for the EU to call out Uzbek officials on specific human rights abuses by strategically using its public statements while also consistently raising these issues in its bilateral negotiations, tying them to meaningful policy consequences. That alone would tie benefits to actual progress and result in an improvement in the situation. The evidence I have for this claim is that it was only during the EU sanctions period [2006-9] that we actually saw Uzbekistan releasing persons imprisoned on politically motivated charges on a somewhat regular, periodic basis. This is also the period when we saw the ICRC able to work inside Uzbekistan’s prisons, when Human Rights Watch was able to operate an office inside Uzbekistan, when Uzbekistan signed ILO conventions, and when it abolished the death penalty. So as much as there is no appetite to consider sanctions in “ A PRAGMATIC LOOK AT Berlin, a pragmatic look at recent history shows that a more RECENT HISTORY robust approach, a more conditional approach actually reaps SHOWS THAT A MORE results. The best example is cotton. We ask ourselves: why has ROBUST APPROACH , A the Uzbek government made some progress in reducing child MORE CONDITIONAL labor in the past two years? Is it because of the EU’s quiet APPROACH ACTUALLY diplomacy? There is no doubt that the US and EU raised this REAPS RESULTS ” issue for years. But it was only after a sustained international campaign involving over 170 apparel companies who boycotted Uzbek cotton, that the government agreed to finally allow the International Labor Organization to finally visit the country and monitor the cotton harvest. This agreement to allow in the ILO monitoring mission also came about one month after the US Department of State placed Uzbekistan on a public list of the worst abusers among states on the issue of forced and child labor. So what we see is that international public advocacy, tied to actual consequences, is what has moved the Uzbek government to make some moves in the right direction. Therefore, the human rights community is simply advocating for more pragmatism from the EU. We strongly hope the EU will also support the establishment of a UN special rapporteur for Uzbekistan’s human rights situation, something which many activists and even the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour have recently endorsed. Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


We see rare good news coming out of Uzbekistan. The release of jailed religious leader Khayrullo Hamidov in Febraury 2015 was one such instance. How do you see the human rights situation developing the future? We welcomed the news of Hamidov’s release. But it does not signify a broader application of the amnesty law in the country or an actual softening of the policy of politically-motivated imprisonment that is used so widely. Hamidov was forced to write letters of apology and he was only released after publicly affirming his guilt. This was a very useful propaganda tool for the government and a sad development for Hamidov’s religious followers. Also, he was released four years into a five year sentence. So the bar is set incredibly low when someone serves 80% of a sentence and his release is seen as a very positive development. What we see more broadly in terms of political prisoners is that the regime is systematically extending sentences. Just yesterday, I SYSTEMATICALLY spoke with a family in which three men had been imprisoned on EXTENDING charges of religious extremism and have all had their sentences SENTENCES OF extended by five years. So we see on the whole a continuation of POLITICAL PRISONERS ” abuses. The world’s longest imprisoned journalist, Muhammad Bekjanov, is inside an Uzbek jail and had his sentence extended by 5 years on the eve of his release in 2013. And this pattern means that external actors need to put more pressure on Tashkent than they have been willing to in the recent past. A UN special rapporteur would signal to the entire Central Asian region—which as a whole has been marked by a decline in the state of human rights—that there will be accountability for abuses and prominent attention given by the international community. “ THE







At the same time, I also see a number of positives in Uzbekistan’s human rights picture. Civil society, embattled as it is, remains resilient. One sees young activists taking to social media to voice their concerns, including about human rights. These dynamics give us some hope for the future. There are even some officials in the government who do want to do the right thing. And this is all the more reason for international actors to speak very clearly with Tashkent on their specific expectations for rights improvements, and the specific policy consequences that will follow if progress is not made. This will incentivize the more moderate voices inside the Uzbek government to take on a more prominent role. Steve Swerdlow is Central Asia Researcher at Human Rights Watch and is based in Bishkek. He has more than ten years experience working on human rights issues in the former Soviet Union. ! Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015





Central Asian politics increasingly takes place offshore. Kazakhstan’s recent encroachments into Swiss politics exemplify this trend. Regime-linked individuals have hired lobbyists put pressure on Swiss lawmakers to extradite exiled critics. In the following article, Damian Rosset and Edward Lemon examine Kazakh offshore politics and argue that such attempts to distort the course of justice matter.! ! Observers are increasingly challenging the commonly-held view that Central Asia is an “isolated” region in the world’s political and economic systems. Far from being cut off from the global economy, Central Asia remains interconnected with it through transnational offshore linkages involving Western judicial and financial institutions.1 Similarly, the absence of space for political competition in the Central Asian republics does not imply that political struggles do not exist. Rather, as Heathershaw and Cooley put it: “If politics is not taking place onshore it moves offshore.“2 In this article, we examine the projection of Central Asian politics abroad through the case of Kazakh political interventions in Switzerland. Kazakh politicians have managed – via lobbyists – to have their interests put on the agenda of the Swiss parliament. Over the years, Swiss political and judicial institutions have been lobbied and “ OVER THE YEARS , S WISS ultimately instrumentalised by Kazakhstan’s elites. This case INSTITUTIONS HAVE illustrates the potential for Kazakhstan’s “public relations BEEN LOBBIED AND diplomacy” to shape the contours of political relations and the INSTRUMENTALISED BY need to envision Central Asian politics beyond its K AZAKHSTAN ’ S ELITES ” geographical limits. !

The latest scandal to rock Swiss politics exemplifies this trend. In May 2015, former speaker of the Swiss House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee Christa Markwalder from the Free Democratic Party was forced to apologize publicly for filing parliamentary questions in 20133 that were prepared by a lobbyist from the PR company Burson-Marsteller. The text had been edited by Azat Peruashev, leader of Kazakhstan's pro-business, government-friendly Ak Zhol party, on behalf of whom the lobbyist was working. Markwalder also provided the lobbyist with confidential Parliamentary Committee documents that ended up in Peruashev’s hands.4 Neither Peruashev nor the Kazakh government received any direct benefits or other tangible outcomes from the June 2013 interpellation. Yet, the Markwalder story has made the headlines Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


Geneva hosts the politics that don’t take place in Astana

credit: Siqbal / Ken and Nyetta (Wikimedia Commons)

of major daily newspapers in Switzerland for several weeks. Three factors explain the media’s strong interest. First, Christa Markwalder was generally considered to be a talented politician with good chances to be elected chairwoman of the lower chamber of the parliament after the October 2015 elections. Second, the role of lobbies in Swiss politics has traditionally been the source of heated debate. Third, the Markwalder case is only the last of a series of news stories on the dubious activities of Kazakhstan in Switzerland. Earlier this year, opposition website Kazaword revealed other instances of Kazakh politics being played out in Switzerland. In January 2015, Thomas Borer, a former Swiss ambassador in Berlin, was exposed for lobbying for the Kazakh regime. He admitted working as a consultant for Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Justice, supporting the ministry in tax fraud cases related to Switzerland. His main task is to lobby for the “T HOMAS B ORER , A extradition of Viktor Khrapunov, a former mayor of Almaty and FORMER S WISS minister of emergency measures who fell into disgrace with the AMBASSADOR IN regime and fled to Switzerland in 2008. 5 B ERLIN , WAS In June 2014, the Federal Office of Justice refused to extradite EXPOSED FOR Khrapunov on the basis that Astana had failed to fulfil the LOBBYING FOR THE K AZAKH REGIME ” necessary guarantees in terms of human rights.6 In his emails to his Kazakh employers, Borer reportedly proposed that they lobby ! the Office of the Federal General Attorney and a Deputy Director of the Office of Justice to secure the extradition. He also prepared a parliamentary interpellation submitted by Swiss People’s Party’s MP Christian Miesch in September 2014.7 In his request, Miesch called Khrapunov “a clan leader suspected of having made off with hundreds of millions of francs of public funds in Kazakhstan and have them transferred abroad.” 8 But trying to win over public opinion and lobby for political influence may not be the only type of activity Kazakhstan has used in Switzerland. Other files made public by Kazaword revealed a failed attempt to abduct Viktor Khrapunov and bring him back to Kazakhstan in 2013.9 Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


Khrapunov himself is no stranger to the power of public opinion. It turned out that his spokesperson, Marc Comina, was instrumental in publicising the Markwalder scandal and ensuring extenstive media coverage. Comina claimed that he had helped the journalists of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung process the relevant documents.10 To complicate matters further, Khrapunov’s lawyer Christian Lüscher is not only a member of the same political party as Christa Markwalder but also a fellow member of parliament.11 “K AZAKH DISSIDENTS HAVE BEEN LOOKING FOR SAFETY IN NUMBERS ”

Kazakh dissidents have also been looking for safety in numbers. Viktor Khrapunov and his wife Leila have managed to create an alliance with another former Kazakh minister-turned-opponent, Mukhtar Ablyazov. Their son Ilyas married Ablyazov’s daughter. Ablyazov is currently detained in France waiting to be extradited to Kazakhstan.12

! In 2012, Ablyazov told Swiss newspaper Le Temps that he had provided the Office of the Federal General Attorney with the documents that led to open an investigation on Timur Kulibayev – President Nazarbayev’s son-in-law – for alleged money laundering in 2010.13 Indeed, not only disgraced members of Kazakhstan political elites have chosen to live on the shores of Lake Geneva: the daughter of the president herself has resided in Geneva since 2010. Her arrival caused a stir as local media were captivated by the new owner of a 74 millions Swiss frank ($65 million in 2010) villa.14

Just miles away from the president’s daughter lives Lira Baiseitova, a journalist and political dissident. Baiseitova fled after her family faced deadly retaliation for an article exposing the offshore accounts held by members of the Nazarbayev family in Switzerland.15 Swiss media regularly rely on Baiseitova to judge the players of the Kazakh political game; we thus come full circle with a Kazakh commented on fellow Kazakh. Switzerland has become a field for political struggles and judicial battles between Kazakh elites; Swiss institutions are merely tools in this fight. The presence of many important Kazakh political actors on Swiss territory makes it a prominent stage for Central Asian offshore politics. A range of local lobbyists, advisors, and lawyers are complicit in this misuse of Swiss institutions.




S WISS INSTITUTIONS . ! Switzerland represents a small wing of Kazakhstan’s lobbying efforts. Astana retains lobbyists in Washington, Brussels, London and elsewhere. In 2009, Kazakhstan's government hired a Washington lobbying firm, Policy Impact Communications, for a one-year, $1.5 million contract. PIC was tasked with trying to prevent a change to the U.S. law that requires countries to make progress on human rights in order to receive aid.16 In Brussels, Kazakhstan pushes for closer ties to the EU through the Eurasian Council on Foreign Affairs, described in a recent report as a “front for the Kazakh foreign ministry which finances it.”17 MISUSE OF

Kazakhstan has also engaged in a branding campaign, hiring PR specialists to present the country to the world. The Kazakh ‘brand’ centers on being a bridge between east and west, !

Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015



multi-ethnic harmony, economic growth and peaceful relations. CNN adverts tell people to invest in Kazakhstan and glossy inserts in USA Today extoll the achievements of the country. These campaigns have achieved some success in its ambition in gaining greater prestige for the country. In 2010 it became the first Central Asian country to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. One year later it hosted the Asian Winter Games, and it is one of two candidates to host the 2022 winter olympics.


The most publicised hired-hand is former British prime minister Tony Blair. The Kazakh government pays his consultancy firm, Tony Blair Associates, a reported £7 million per year for advice. Following the massacre of 14 unarmed protestors at Zhanaozen in December 2011, Blair wrote a speech for president Nazarbayev to deliver in Cambridge a few months following the shooting in which he downplayed the regime’s complicity in the atrocity.18 Kazakhstan has also employed American experts to out a positive spin on developments. In 2008 Kazakhstan's Washington DC lobbying firm APCO Worldwide paid $52,300 for Johns Hopkins University to produce three positive reports on the country.19 In presenting the country as democratic, developed and peaceful, Kazakhstan benefits from most Europeans’ lack of knowledge about the Central Asian state. Through this “PR diplomacy,” Astana tries to boost its legitimacy abroad and advance the regime’s agenda by countering potential critics.20 Kazakhstan’s encroachment into Swiss politics matters for a number of reasons. For the Swiss public, it is concerning that Kazakh lobbyists are allowed to push their agenda, and exert influence on the country’s foreign policy and its stance towards political refugees. However, instead of keeping a distance from Kazakhstan’s authoritarian regime, lawmakers appear quite naïve, if not complacent, with Astana’s demands. Yet, the Kazakh public is arguably a greater victim of Switzerland’s offshore status. When Kazakhstan’s elites leave the country, they take millions in their baggage while public spending remains stymied. Money transfers to Switzerland – legal or not – amount hundreds of millions dollars. Much needed taxable income is shipped abroad, whilst the regime explains away dwindling spending with the falling price of oil. In January, the government slashed the budget by 25% linking the move to crude prices.



For students of Central Asia, the Swiss case illustrates those looking to understand regional politics can only do so by taking the offshore dimension into account. Rather than being pawns in a ‘New Great Game,’ Central Asian regimes are becoming adept players in the global system. If Western politicians and institutions underestimate their abilities, they may become pawns in the struggles of Central Asian elites. Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


R EFERENCES 1. Heathershaw, John and Alexander Cooley (2015). “Offshore Central Asia: an introduction“, Central Asian Survey 34:1, 1-10. 2. Heathershaw, John and Alexander Cooley “Dictators without borders”, openDemocracy 30.04.2014, link 3. Curia Vista, Interpellation 13.3594 “Développement des relations avec le Kazakhstan“, link 4. Von Burg, Denis und Adrian Schulthess, “Markwalder droht Anzeige wegen Spionage “ Sonntags Zeitung 17.05.2015, link 5. Häfliger, Markus and Thomas Preusse, "Thomas Borer im Sold einer fremden Macht" Neue Zürcher Zeitung 21.01.2015, link 6. Favre, Alexis, “Lobbyisme kazakh en Suisse: des méthodes qui inquiètent” Le Temps 22.01.2015, link. However, the money-laundering proceedings against Khrapunov, are still pending. 7. Christian Miesch (SVP) also participated in a trip to Kazakhstan with fellow Member of Parliament Walter Müller (FDP) with all expenses covered by a PR agency. 8. Curia Vista, Interpellation 14.3957 “Détournement présumé de fonds publics de la République du Kazakhstan. Que fait la Suisse?“, link 9. Duparc, Agathe, “Opposants kazakhs: la piste de l’enlèvement qui passait par Vevey“, Le Temps 18.04.2015, link 10. Städler, Iwan, "Ex-Freisinniger war an Enthüllung im Fall Markwalder beteiligt", Tages Anzeiger 15.05.2015, link

! 11. Pilet, François, "L'embarrassant profil de Christian Lüscher" L'Hebdo online 14.04.2015, link 12. Labbé, Chine, "French court approves Kazakh tycoon Ablyazov's extradition", Reuters 04.03.2015, link 13. Favre, Alexis, “La contre-attaque de l’oligarque en fuite“, Le Temps 26.11.2012, link. The investigation on Kulibayev was dropped in 2013. 14. Canal, Luigino, "Elle paie 74,7 millions pour une villa à Genève", Tribune de Genève 16.01.2010, link 15. Hamel, Ian, "Le martyr de la journaliste kazakhe Lira Baiseitova", Rue89 22.12.2007, link 16. Kucera, Joshua, "Kazakhstan: Astana Hires DC Lobbyists to Work on Softening Aid Requirements" Eurasianet 12.11.2009, link 17 Corporate Europe Observatory, “Spin doctors to the autocrats: how European PR firms whitewash repressive regimes“, 01.2015, link 18. Mendick, Robert, "Tony Blair gives Kazakhstan’s autocratic president tips on how to defend a massacre ", The Telegraph 24.08.2014, link 19. SourceWatch, “APCO Worldwide“, n.d., link 20. For an in-depth discussion of Kazakhstan’s efforts at nation branding for both international and external self-legitimitation, see Fauve, Adrien (2015). “Global Astana: nation branding as a legitmization tool for authoritarian regimes“, Central Asian Survey 34:1, 110-124.


Edward Lemon is Eurasian Dialogue's Research Director. He is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Exeter. In his research, he examines the links between migration, religion and security within Central Asian communities in Russia. Currently based in Moscow, he has spent over two years living and working in Central Asia.! Damian Rosset is Eurasian Dialogue's Development Director. He is a PhD candidate in the social sciences at the Centre for Migration Law of the University of Neuchatel (Switzerland) where he researches the production and use of country expertise in asylum procedures in Europe. He travelled throughout Central Asia for the first time in 2006 and has been fascinated with the region since then.!

Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015



The Caspian sea dispute has simmered for decades. After countless negotiations, the littoral states have failed to agree on how to classify the water basin and thus how to divide its riches. In the following article, expert on Caspian geopolitics, Stylianos Sotiriou, gives us a history of the dispute, arguing that the self-interest driven policies of the littoral states has prevented a resolution from being reached.! As far as inland bodies of water are concerned, the Caspian Sea constitutes a sui generis case; while surpassing the overall size of the next five largest lakes in the world, it contains salt water, a fact that blurs the distinction between a lake and a sea, and subsequently the applicable legal regime1. Having acquired its current name no sooner than the 16th century, it lays at the centre of the “heartland”, a term coined in the late 19th early 20th century by the British geographer, academic, and founding father of geopolitics, Sir Halford J. Mackinder, to signify the The Caspian Sea region credit: Petr Dlouhy (Wikimedia Commons) geopolitical importance of the northern and inner part of Eurasia. In this regard, the Caspian Sea has served as a critical link in a diachronic chain of intercultural and inter-civilisational interaction. Today, five littoral states share the coastline of the sea, namely Iran (900 km), Turkmenistan (1700 km), Kazakhstan (2000 km), Azerbaijan (800 km), and Russia (1100 km) (Raczka 2000:189). “ THE C ASPIAN CONSTITUTES THE LEFTOVER OF WHAT ONCE USED TO BE THE HUGE


Elaborating on the unparalleled nature of the sea, a paleogeographical account is of particular interest; the Caspian constitutes the leftover of what once used to be the huge Tethys Ocean, stretching throughout western Eurasia2 (Raczka 2000: 189). As a result, at an earlier stage, the Caspian was connected

Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


to the world’s oceans via the seas of Azov, the Black and the Mediterranean (Raczka 2000:189). A wave of tectonic movements however, in the fall of the Tertiary period, left the Caspian without any exit to the world’s interconnected water mass, thus landlocked. Ever since, its status, i.e. whether it should be classified as a sea (salinity) or a lake (landlocked), would be determined by geopolitical considerations. “ HISTORICALLY , WHEN Historically, when a water basin fell under the geopolitical NO SINGLE POWER WAS influence of a single power which determined the legal-political DOMINANT OVER A regime of all the maritime activities, i.e. navigation and trade, WATER BASIN , IT WAS then, it was considered a ‘lake’. Vice versa, when no single power CONSIDERED A ‘ SEA ’” was dominant, it was considered a ‘sea’3 (Raczka 2000: 197). !he Caspian, however, for the biggest part of the 20th century, had been perceived and divided, given its unique nature, as a ‘not-a-lake-not-a-sea’ water basin between the Soviet Union (USSR) and Iran. Two treaties, the 1935 “Treaty of Establishment, Commerce and Navigation” and the 1940 “Treaty of Commerce and Navigation”, had been successively regulating the maritime affairs during the Soviet period4 (Janusz 2005: 2). Yet, the collapse of the USSR gave rise to an altered geopolitical situation, where the newly independent states, primarily Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, would push for a different and unambiguous status and subsequently legal regime that would allow them to exploit the sea’s hydrocarbon wealth independently for their economic-political development. In particular, with regard to crude oil production, the Caspian’s percentage in total production constitutes 100% for Azerbaijan, 92% for Kazakhstan, 100% for Turkmenistan, just 1% for Russia and 0% for Iran. As far as natural gas production is concerned, the percentage reaches again the 100% for Azerbaijan, the 74% for Kazakhstan, the 12% for Turkmenistan, the 2% for Russia, and again constitutes nothing for Iran (EIA 2013). In this frame of reference, all five littoral states have been manoeuvring according to their national interest as far as the status of the Caspian water basin is concerned Once agreed, the regime would become law (providing also for the division of the sea). “ WITH TOTAL



Parade of the Russian “Caspian Flotilla” Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015

credit: Vissarion (Wikimedia Commons) 15

! Drilling platform "Iran Khazar" (Turkmenistan)

credit: (Wikimedia Commons)

Russia, has insisted on the status of a ‘not-a-lake-not-a-sea’ water basin, stressing the primacy of the Soviet-Iranian treaties (1935-1940) (Mehdiyoun 2000). This position, however, came in stark opposition not only with that of most of the USSR successor Caspian states who called for the status of a sea and thus for a respective division (i.e. into clear-cut national sectors with successive, coastline-adjusted, maritime zones), but also “R USSIA ' S POSITION CAME with the energy business lobby inside the Russian political system, as officially represented by the Ministry of Fuel and Energy (Lee 2004). The latter, having started joint ventures with the national energy companies of the region, was pushing for a more compromising position. Consequently, the Russian authorities engaged in diplomatic manoeuvres, reformulating their position on the status to that of a “unique inland body of water” and aiming for ad hoc collaboration among all five littoral states (Raczka 2000).











Kazakhstan, while outspoken from the mid 1990s on the status of a sea, has concurrently been compelled to moderate this position by the need to start exploitation of its (offshore) hydrocarbon resources. For this to happen, however, some basic understanding on dividing the water basin needed to be achieved. Within this context, Kazakhstan and Russia found middle ground in 1998, when they clinched a bilateral agreement stipulating the division of Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


only the seabed of the northern part of the water basin, “ THIS WAS A LANDMARK UPON leaving the superjacent waters under common use (UN WHICH SIMILAR AGREEMENTS A/52/983). This was a landmark agreement upon which WOULD ESTABLISH THE similar agreements would establish the tactic of TACTIC OF BILATERALISM AS bilateralism as the sole principle, as of the time of writing, THE SOLE PRINCIPLE ” for demarcating the Caspian water basin. Indeed, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan signed a similar bilateral agreement, in 2001with Azerbaijan, just like Kazakhstan, recognizing the Caspian as a sea and qualifying a division in accordance. Moreover, Azerbaijan, being under the same economic pressure as Kazakhstan, repeated this bilateral agreement with Russia in 2002. This set an overall bilateral demarcating precedence in the northwestern part of the Caspian water basin but left questions over the status of the water basin (Feifer 2002). In the southern part of the water basin, the developments have been following a parallel course. Turkmenistan and Iran, qualifying a status identical, more or less, to that of Russia’s, i.e. a “body of water with a unique character”, have been insisting either on the legal validity of the erstwhile Soviet-Iranian treaties (1935, 1940), or in case this is not sustainable, on the division into equal national sectors. This position contravenes dominant international and the regional practices (UN A/52/324:2). All things considered, the unique nature of the Caspian as an inland body of salt water has provided the littoral states with THE C ASPIAN AS AN ample manoeuvrability, both in the Soviet and the post-Soviet INLAND BODY OF SALT era. During the Soviet period, the Caspian had been mostly WATER HAS PROVIDED perceived as a ‘not-a-lake-not-a-sea’ water basin and thus had THE LITTORAL STATES been divided accordingly between the USSR and Iran. Since WITH AMPLE independence, however, a number of possible statuses have MANOEUVRABILITY ” emerged ranging from a “unique inland body of water” (Russia) and a “body of water with a unique character” (Turkmenistan and Iran) to that of a sea (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan). All of these suggestions do not differ greatly from one another. Indeed, the littoral states seem to have taken advantage of the hybrid nature of the water basin in order to foster for a situation of status indeterminacy which can be used to their advantage. On these grounds, the states are prioritizing the national interest at the expense of achieving a workable solution based on collective and consociational action, and on the premises of international law on maritime affairs. ! “ THE





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1. The next five largest lakes in the world are: Superior, Victoria, Aral, Huron and Michigan.

‘Ottoman lake’, with the Ottoman empire having politically subdued the surrounding regions (See Raczka 2000: 198).

2. The same holds for the Aral Sea, today a landlocked water basin shared between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan 3. History provides ample examples of such treatment of semi-enclosed water basins; from 1th century BC to 4th century AD, the Mediterranean (Mare Internum) was considered a ‘Roman lake’, since aside from its semi-enclosed formation, the Roman Empire was in political control across the coastline. Likewise, from 11th to 16th century AD, the Adriatic Sea had become a ‘Venetian lake’, with the Venetian republic politically controlling the lands across the coastline. Finally, from 16th-18th century AD, the Black sea was considered an

4. Elaborating on the provisions of the aforementioned treaties, navigation and fishing rights had been reserved only for Soviet and Iranian vessels (or other flying their flag), with a 10-mile zone off the Soviet and Iranian coastlines awarding exclusive fishing rights to the respective littoral states. Moreover, the right of innocent passage of ships of third states had been seriously restricted, whereas the nationals of third states could neither be crew members nor port personnel. Finally, as far as issues pertaining to oil and gas exploration are concerned, only a vague reference was made in the 1940 Treaty (See Janusz 2005: 2).

I NDICATIVE B IBLIOGRAPHY EIA (2013) ‘Caspian Sea Region’ U.S. Energy Information Administration, 26 August 2013, Link Feifer, G. (2002) ‘Caspian: Russia, Azerbaijan sign Agreement on Sea boundaries’, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), 24 September 2002, Link Janusz, B. (2005) ‘The Caspian Sea: Legal status and Regime problems’, Chatham House, August 2005, Link Lee, Y. (2004) ‘Policies of five Caspian coastal States: Do concerns about relative gains play any role?’, Global Economic Review: Perspectives on East Asian Economies and Industries, 33, 3, 97-111. Mackinder, Halford J. (2006), ‘Dimokratika ideodi kai pragmatikota’, Ioannis Th. Mazis (Epimeleia), Dimokratika ideodi kai pragmatikotita kai alles treis eisigiseis, (Athens: Ekdoseis Papazisi). Mackinder, Halford J. (1943), “The round world and the winning of peace”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 21, Is. 4, pp. 595-605.

Mehdiyoun, K. (2000) ‘Ownership of Oil and Gas resources in the Caspian Sea’, The American Journal of International Law, 94, 1, 179-189. Raczka, W. (2000) ‘A sea or a lake? The Caspian’s long odyssey’, Central Asian Survey, 19, 2, 189-221. Sotiriou, S.A. (2014) Russian Energy Strategy in the European Union, the Former Soviet Union Region, and China (Maryland: Lexington Books.) UN A/52/983 Letter dated 13 July 1998 from the Permanent Representatives of Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General. United Nations General Assembly, Link UN A/52/324 Letter dated 3 September 1997 from the Chargé d’affaires a.i. of the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General. United Nations General Assembly, Link

Stylianos A. Sotiriou is Post-doctoral researcher at the University of Macedonia, and Adjunct Lecturer at the International Hellenic University. He is author of the Russian Energy Strategy in the European Union, the Former Soviet Union Region, and China (Lexington, 2014). This paper was first presented at the conference “Comparing the Caspian and Black Seas: Interdisciplinary Perspectives” at the International Hellenic University on 25-26 February 2015. The event was organized by Eurasian Dialogue with financial support from the Hollings Center.! Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015



Despite being Tajikistan’s fifth largest city and having a history stretching back to Alexander the Great, Istaravshan is seldom written about in English. Tourists frequently speed through the city bound for Khujand and the Silk Road cities Uzbekistan. Few take the time to explore the city and its hidden depths. In the following article, Edward Schipke pays tribute to this fascinating city. Its sleepy beauty hides seven secrets, some of which are rather dark.! Birds in cages watch over Istaravshan. Stationed on branches, signs, and thatched-mud walls, they flutter from perch to perch, eyeing passersby. A street ad displays bright-colored specimens backdropped by verdant field and woods, a subtle gray arrow tacked onto the frame pointing toward the shop. Istaravshan’s birds are one secret of this city, Tajikistan’s fifth most populous but a place poorly known beyond “ WITH AN ANCIENT HERITAGE , Central Asia. With an ancient heritage, and now square AND NOW SQUARE IN THE in the sights of a war against extremism, it deserves SIGHTS OF A WAR AGAINST more attention from outsiders. EXTREMISM , I STARAVSHAN The birds’ keepers are the ten thousand or so families of DESERVES MORE ATTENTION Istaravshan: the teachers, pear vendors, bureaucrats, FROM OUTSIDERS ” grape cultivators, schoolkids, knifesmiths, labor migrant remittance dependents, wood carvers, homemakers, handicraft college enrollees, mineral water bottlers, pensioners, police officers, mosque builders, leatherworkers, and shop clerks. They can be found thronging the central bazaar, a partly covered multi-block area with massive gates overseen by posters: of a Tajik girl in traditional dress, or of her austere President amid roses and the proclamation “We are building our Motherland with love!” In streets radiating from the bazaar, every dozen meters or so, are children in pairs or groups, self-supervised, wearing clothes of Chinese mass-production vintage, with phrases such as “Suprer Neakers” or “Coke: Your Music.” Girls consort while boys play football on a dirt-androck field, and representatives of both show off skills with shuttlecocks home-made from black plastic shreddings tied to a weight. Pranks and passions appear stenciled on surfaces: “HOOLIGAN,” or “Ya !tebya.” Older boys, if they haven’t left for Russia, might hang out at the karate-do, while girls preparing for marriage can visit a shop advertised by a slender blonde in a Santa hat. Beyond the vibrant humanity, though, are signs the city once saw better days. The fort-like “Red Flower” hotel, whose balustraded rooftop might once have served as a memorable spot for conversations over tea, threatens collapse with the slightest shake ! Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015






Three of Istaravshon’s many caged birds.

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credit: author


of earth or strong winter wind off the Ferghana plain. In Central Park, a grimy stone Lenin occupies a neglected field of plants, not far from a bronze, ideal Soviet family—father, mother, child, and infant—with faces toward the future. A young stone boy gazes at a cracked concrete basin, the mouths of his two fishes no longer filling the pool. A rusty Ferris wheel and defunct swing ride complete the picture. “ SIGNS






Signs of the Soviet era extend along the main avenue, where another Lenin stands flanked by incongruous government slogans, and stark male and female figurines exulting in Labor are frozen in a wall, obscured by pines. A hammer and sickle adorns a doorway, perhaps once leading to some apparatchik’s office, but now sporting a cheap plastic ad for a barbershop. Below the fading Cyrillic “Telephone–Telegraph” of the post office is the English “BEAUTY,” accompanied by two salons.

Behind the traces of Soviet civilization, however, lies the true glory of Istaravshan. A few steps west takes you to the old city, where a medieval visitor would feel at home. The neighborhood is a kaleidoscope of curves and sharp corners, among which appear doors and windows painted precisely in soft hues of lime and lavender, emerald and peach, sky blue and blood red. A thatched-mud corridor turns into a facade painstakingly constructed in rings of polygonal tiles around nested cupola-shaped layers set with green, black, yellow, and white square tiles. Around the corner, a home shines with three carved stars, each with four points: two long and two short. Lining the lower meter of a wall above the road, as though the art is nothing but a surface to collect mud splashes, is a long mosaic of seemingly haphazard tiles with dark and light hues of blue and red mixed in with black and white, creating a serpentine and violent effect. The old city’s decorations are a second secret of Istaravshan. The neighborhood’s apex is the Blue Dome (Kök “ THE B LUE D OME (K ÖK Gumbaz), topping a 15th-century mosque and madrassa, G UMBAZ ), TOPPING A 15 TH one of Istaravshan’s handful of exquisite Islamic CENTURY MOSQUE AND complexes. On an autumn visit in 2014 the gate was MADRASSA , IS ONE OF unlocked and no caretaker was present. Local kids had I STARAVSHAN ’ S HANDFUL assumed the role, guiding visitors on a spiraling staircase OF EXQUISITE I SLAMIC to the dome, around which brown and yellow weeds have COMPLEXES ” gone airborne and taken root. Leaves blotted the central path, thin black lampposts unlit, the small gardens behind them overgrown. Classroom windows swung open, and dustless squares on the desks marked where books had lain. In the mosque, tools and banners lay strewn about, dust coating the floor’s hexagonal bricks, wall paint peeling or chipped away, water stains warping decorative tiles. This most well-known of Istaravshan’s landmarks nonetheless is a secret — third on our tour — given its current neglect, and relative to the famed Islamic structures of Uzbekistan to the west.

! Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


A decorated building in Istaravshon’s old city

credit: author

Dusty desks in the old city’s shuttered madrassa

credit: author

Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


Offering escape from the old city’s warren, and carrying us still further back in time, is the hill Mugh Teppa, where a fortress gate replica faces the hazy, snow-capped mountains that divide Ferghana from Tajikistan’s bulk. Behind lies a plateau with detritus from construction of unclear purpose, and then, in a lonely windswept corner, a true historic artifact: ruined foundations and walls. Nothing protects them, no signs speculate as to what they might be. No guide or guard administers them. No one is present, other than a gang of boys vexing a dog lying in the grass preparing to give birth. *






The ruins are Istaravshan’s fourth secret, a spot to pause and sketch how this city has traversed history’s margins. Five centuries before the Common Era, as Persia’s Darius I ruled much of the Middle East and North Africa, warring with the Greeks in the first of several conflicts pivotal to Western history, a city known as Cyropolis (for Cyrus the Great) lay on or near modern Istaravshan, in the empire’s northeastern fringe. Two centuries later, Alexander “Makedonski” would cross the Oxus/Amu, defeat the Soghdians, and establish Alexandria “Eschate” (the Farthest) where Khujand now lies. First though he had to besiege and conquer the site we’re now standing on, his soldiers stealing in via a water duct that flowed in the vicinity of a modern canal just below Mugh Teppa’s ruins. In the ensuing millennia, as dozens of empires contested Asia’s heartland, Istaravshan changed hands many times. A Silk Road EMPIRES CONTESTED stop, it enjoyed a measure of prosperity, but its fortunes A SIA ’ S HEARTLAND , periodically waned, particularly when Genghis Khan sacked the I STARAVSHAN city in the 13th century. Uzbek clans later fought over Ferghana, a CHANGED HANDS conflict that, along with the transcontinental caravan trade’s MANY TIMES ” decline, resulted in economic devastation. In the first part of the 19th century, Istaravshan — now “Uroteppa” — suffered some 50 attacks, lost two-thirds of its population, and turned into “one of the most devastated areas of Central Asia.” Control over the city shifted back and forth among rulers seated in Bukhara and Kokand.1 “ AS


In 1864, amid a surging demand for resources spurred by both industrialization and the American Civil War (i.e., cut-off cotton supply), Russia announced its intention to colonize Central Asia. Uroteppa was reduced by siege and shells. In 1867 the Bukharan emirate ceded it, and other cities, to Russia’s new “General-Governorship of Turkestan.” In the ensuing decades, Uroteppa’s citizens often resisted their new overlords, rioting in 1875 and 1907. During the Russian and then early Soviet period, unlike most areas of northern Tajikistan, Uroteppa and its surrounding district did not become a cotton-monoculture agro-industrial area, retaining instead an agriculture based on rainfed cereals, fruits, and vegetables (transported throughout the Union), and acquiring some industry, including a textile Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


combine. Soviet education brought opportunities. Uroteppa’s notables — a fifth secret — included several historians, a philosopher and educator, a compiler of folklore, a satirical author, a female politician, several physicists and chemists, a seismologist, an economist, a poet who had fought the basmachi (rebels against Soviet power), a painter and woodcarver, and a ballerina who was one of the first Tajiks in the Russian ballet.2 At the same time though, thousands of Uroteppans were forcibly resettled during the 1920s and 1930s as part of a plan to develop sparsely populated lands in the Vakhsh valley with migrants from the republic’s overpopulated parts. With the Soviet Union’s fall, competition over power and resources among Tajikistan’s kinship and solidarity networks (including one centered on Uroteppa) sparked civil war. Northerners were spared the violence raging in the south, but their alliance with the conflict’s eventual victors — the Kulobis — soon soured, as men with guns dominated the government at the expense of the traditional northern ruling elite.3 By 1996, northern factions were near rebellion against the Kulobi-dominated regime. In May, following the murder of a local businessman, thousands took to the streets, including in Uroteppa. The protests lasted more than a week and remained peaceful, other than an incident in Uroteppa when police allegedly fired into a crowd, killing at least one person and wounding up to five others.4 “ DURING


Protestors and the government reached an agreement, but President Rahmonov (now Rahmon) later allegedly directed the regional police chief to bring demonstration organizers to justice. Police searched houses, including those of Ikrom Ashurov (brother of the murdered businessman) and his family. Arrested for “banditry,” Ashurov was temporarily held in Uroteppa and “constantly beaten,” relatives said. He was transferred to Khujand’s overcrowded prison, where in April 1997 inmates rioted. Government personnel, including snipers and spetsnaz [special forces], responded with what Human Rights Watch called a massacre, citing reports of between 100 and 150 killed (including Ashurov), with 200 wounded. A failed assassination attempt on Rahmonov soon afterward prompted another wave of arrests and unexplained killings. In 1998, the brief occupation of Khujand by “renegade” colonel Mahmoud Khudoyberdiev proved to be the last spark of rebellion in the north. For Uroteppans, and all northerners, the divvying of spoils “ AN ASSASSINATION among participants in the 1997 peace accords (i.e., the regime ATTEMPT ON R AHMONOV and the United Tajik Opposition, without northern-faction PROMPTED ANOTHER representatives), along with the more proximate nuisance of WAVE OF ARRESTS AND Kulobi officials deployed as administrators and law enforcers, UNEXPLAINED KILLINGS ” became a reality to be survived rather than reversed. Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


Despite the north’s fall from power, the civil war’s conclusion “ DESPITE THE began a sustained economic recovery from which all regions NORTH ’ S FALL FROM benefited. In 2002, Istaravshan (its name restored in 2000) POWER , THE CIVIL celebrated its 2,500th anniversary, reportedly fueled by a WAR ’ S CONCLUSION generous expenditure from presidential brother-in-law Hasan BEGAN A SUSTAINED 5 Asadulloev’s Oriyon companies. Still, a few hold-outs bore the ECONOMIC RECOVERY ” flame of resistance. An Istaravshani who served as deputy chair of the Taraqqiyot (Development) party, which unsuccessfully sought registration from the justice ministry for three years, led a short-lived hunger strike in 2004 and was later arrested by the State Committee on National Security (an intelligence and police agency known by the acronym GKNB, successor to the Soviet KGB).6 A Democratic Party branch remained active in Istaravshan (though the three-year saga of exile, abduction, and sentencing of the party’s leader, Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, and a subsequent splitting into factions, sidelined the party in Tajik politics). By 2005, discontent crested. According to a local quoted in a Wikileaked cable, Istaravshanis were ready to “rise up against” Rahmonov, and regional leaders hoped to unseat him in the upcoming election.7 Mainstream political activity wilted, however, as Rahmonov’s regime cracked down on media, NGOs, and political parties in the wake of the 2003-2005 “color revolutions.” By the 2006 election, which Rahmonov easily won, it was clear that his consolidation of power in the post1997 unstable period was not merely a temporary measure in the “ IN I STARAVSHAN AND national interest but a long-term, enduring agenda. In ELSEWHERE , ANY Istaravshan and elsewhere, any remaining expressions of REMAINING discontent went underground. Around the same time, signs EXPRESSIONS OF emerged of an Islamic revival in Tajikistan, particularly in the DISCONTENT WENT north. These two developments may have sowed the seeds for UNDERGROUND ” the conflict that lay ahead. One Wikileaked cable, from 2009, describes an Istaravshan mosque whose Friday worshippers exceeded the space’s capacity for 4,000 and flowed into the street. Government restrictions on Islam, encoded in legislation or practiced informally by police, grated on residents. Imams declared that strict enforcement of government dictates would provoke resistance.8 The government eventually removed recalcitrant imams from their mosques, while other Islamic leaders fell afoul of the law.9 When the government required mosques to re-register, a third of Istaravshan’s had their applications returned due to “errors.”10 In July 2010, law enforcement raided unregistered madrassas in Sughd (Tajikistan’s northern oblast), including in Istaravshan, arresting mullahs in the process.11 *



The fuel was dry and thick, conflagration only a spark away. In late summer of 2010 it arrived. Tajikistan observers remember 23 August, whose fifth anniversary is approaching, as the day a Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


few dozen prisoners escaped from a GKNB detention facility, prompting a man hunt and a major security operation in the Rasht Valley. In Sughd, however, the key date is 3 September, when a car exploded in the courtyard of the police ministry’s regional counter–organized crime department (RUBOP), killing three and injuring several dozen. The resulting anti-terrorism wave of arrests and trials continues to this day and has received far less international attention than the Rasht “mini-war.” Istaravshan’s role in the saga is its sixth secret. In the months after the bombing, dozens (mostly young men in their twenties) were arrested, including relatives of Akmal Karimov, an Istaravshani. Authorities had used blood-type analysis to establish that Karimov was the car’s driver—and thus Tajikistan’s first suicide bomber. His father challenged the claim, noting that many “ THE GOVERNMENT human remains were present at the scene. He demanded a LUMPED 53 DETAINEES ’ DNA test, to no avail. The government lumped 53 detainees’ CASES INTO A SINGLE cases into a single trial. As the men were mostly from TRIAL . A S THE MEN WERE Istaravshan city or district, they became known as the MOSTLY FROM “Istaravshan 53.” Violations of criminal procedure and human I STARAVSHAN , THEY rights during the nine-month investigation, documented by BECAME KNOWN AS THE civil society, indicate the brutal fury with which Tajikistan’s ‘I STARAVSHAN 53’ ” security apparatus sallied into its northern war on terror.12 The 53 were held incommunicado for days, weeks, or months, while their families sought information and their lawyers struggled to gain access. Many detainees, reportedly under duress, waived their right to legal representation. Others saw their lawyers only infrequently (and always in the presence of state representatives) or, in some cases, only once the trial began. Court-assigned lawyers were of dubious value; some, for example, asked that clients sign documents without reading them. Police and GKNB officers pressured detainees to sign confessions that would serve as the primary evidence in court. “Duress” and “pressure” took the form of physical and psychological torture, allegations of which appeared in complaints lodged by all but four of the 53. As though security personnel were experimenting to improve their repertoire, the methods described run the gamut of horrors that humans inflict on one another. A selection: • • • • • • • •


removal of fingernails and beards beatings of hands, feet, heels, and kidneys application of electric shock13 rape outdoor cold-water dousings during winter burning with cigarettes threats to rape or otherwise harm spouses and relatives forced viewing of the torture or humiliation of others

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The trial was classed “secret” and held behind closed doors. Neither the judge nor the prosecutor’s office gave credence to the complaints of torture, concluding they were “unconfirmed.”14 Without warning, on December 23, 2011, the judge read the verdict and began the sentencing. Lawyers who learned of the proceeding were denied entry to the courthouse. Ten defendants were convicted in connection with the September 2010 bombing, the rest of membership in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or other illegal organizations. Five received life sentences, the others eight to 30 years each.15 The “Istaravshan 53” case was the largest trial in the bombing’s wake, and the most well documented, but only one of several dozen conducted in Sughd in the last five years. This past January, an official revealed that 270 alleged extremists had been arrested in Sughd since the bombing.16 In most cases, little is publicly known about the defendants — the trials are closeddoor, locals are afraid to talk, and media, civil society, and lawyers are wary to get involved. International attention on Tajikistan focuses on the Afghanistan border and the drug trade.






Istaravshan, a bullseye for the crackdown, languishes in obscurity. Imagine if scores of antiextremism arrests occurred in the fifth-largest urban areas of various Western countries: the Bay Area, Nice, Bristol, or Frankfurt. The clamor for more information — and transparent justice — would deafen. In Tajikistan, by contrast, most arrests garner cursory mentions in the press (which must tread cautiously when pursuing truth outside official sources), with group sizes or personal initials often in lieu of names. Fuller stories sometimes survive in civil society’s brave reports, but these gain little notice overseas.17 This past year, as concern grew over the recruitment of Central Asians for the war in Syria, particularly with the Islamic State’s emergence, the anti-extremism campaign in Sughd escalated. In January, RUBOP arrested six Istaravshani alleged members of Jamaat Ansarullah (JA), a Tajik terrorist group.18 A lawyer claimed RUBOP questioned the men without counsel present and forced them to confess. One man reportedly had in fact tried to travel to Syria, but his father persuaded him to return “ AS CONCERN GREW OVER home. Two defendants claimed they merely collected THE RECRUITMENT OF donations to help families of men imprisoned as C ENTRAL A SIANS FOR THE extremists. In April the six got prison terms of nearly a WAR IN S YRIA , THE ANTI decade each, while a seventh received a year for knowing EXTREMISM CAMPAIGN IN of the group’s crimes but not telling authorities. S UGHD ESCALATED ” From late September — when a UN Security Council resolution addressed the foreign terrorist fighter trend — till the end of 2014, Sughd law enforcement detained nearly 50 people for belonging to terrorist organizations and/or for “the Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


desire to participate” in the Syrian war.19 In November, RUBOP arrested twelve men, including an Istaravshani “emir,” on charges of involvement in JA and recruiting for the Syria conflict. (A thirteenth was arrested in Kyrgyzstan and transferred to Tajik custody.) This February, the group received sentences of 9 to 12 years each. The campaign maintained its momentum into 2015. Just this month, 23 alleged JA members, including some Istaravshanis, received long prison terms.20 *



Tajikistan’s security apparatus has racked up a superficially impressive record in its postSeptember 2010 war on terror. But is it uprooting a genuine threat, or merely lashing out at phantoms? How many of the hundreds now imprisoned had any “ HOW MANY ARE connection with the car bomb, or with any plots (of which none PAYING FOR THE have resulted in attacks) since? How many are instead paying for CRIME OF NON the crime of non-sanctioned religious belief? Or for being unable SANCTIONED to afford a bribe when some security official needed to show RELIGIOUS BELIEF ?” results or fill a quota?

Dome frames near an unfinished madrassa

Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015

credit: author

Apart from the haze surrounding the crackdown, the issue of radicalization remains. If it is occurring, to what extent is it the offspring of years of government repression?21 In Istaravshan, where Islamic revival clashed with government repression early on, symbols of the conflict appear in the old city. The Blue Dome’s state of neglect—the scattered leaves, missing books, the dust— stems from a July 2013 government directive “temporarily” suspending the madrassa’s operation, pending an education ministry permit.22 Nearby, on the same dirt-and-rock field where boys play football, derelict iron hulks intended as skeletal support for domes lie beneath a large brick building. The kids explain this was to be a madrassa, but officials stopped the project. 28

Most poignant, however, is another object that watches over Istaravshan. Adorning government buildings—police headquarters, the fire hall, the GKNB, neighborhood cop stations—are posters displaying a checkerboard of snapshots of nearly 100 wanted terrorists and extremists. Most are young men, their images captured in black and white, or in fuzzy color, nearly every face serious and smooth-shaven, often above a collared shirt and tie, the pictures evidently taken before their subjects transformed into bearded, anti-social radicals. Below each is biographical data in print too fine to be read by casual passersby. The poster’s implicit message is clear, though: Enemies surround you — but we know who they are. The wanted posters are an ominous seventh secret of Istaravshan, a shadow colliding with the brightness of the birds peering into the same corridors where such supposed danger lurks. * “ THE







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Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015







R EFERENCES 1. Discussion of Uroteppa in the 19th century and Soviet period draws on Nourzhanov, K. and Bleuer, C. (2013). Tajikistan: A Political and Social History. Canberra: Australian National University Press: 16–18, 24, 71, 97, link

beard out of the passport picture. Wikileaks, ‘Three Faces of Tajikistan’s Sunni Leadership,’ link; Wikileaks, ‘The Sughd Region: House-to-House Searches for Islamists and Incandescent Lighbulbs [sic],’ link

2. See biographies in Bashiri, I. (2002) Prominent Tajik Figures of the Twentieth Century. University of Minnesota Press.

9. Addressing religious leaders in July 2013, President Rahmon recited a long line of offenses ascribed to unregistered imams, including two in Istaravshon who allegedly committed “lewd acts” toward ill women seeking help. Khovar, ‘Vistupleniye E. Rahmona na vstreche s predstavitelyami obschestvennosti strani,’ 4 July 2013, link

3. A prominent Uroteppan in this period was Sayfiddin Turaev, a candidate in the 1991 presidential election who chaired the Congress of National Unity in 1995 and later failed to secure a spot on the 1999 presidential election ballot. His story parallels the better-known tale of Abdumalik Abdullojanov, the powerful Leninobodi who served as prime minister till his removal in 1994. From exile, Abdullojanov organized the National Revival Movement and unsuccessfully demanded a role for northerners in the peace process. 4. Discussion of events in 1996–97 draws on Human Rights Watch, ‘Leninabad: Crackdown in the North,’ April 1998, link 5. Throughout the city are sites with crumbling mosaic facades of apparent ancient vintage but with the telltale signs of “2500 COL,” “Shirkati Oriyon,” or “Orien Bank.” 6. Hall, M. (2005) ‘Tajikistan at the Crossroads of Democracy and Authoritarianism.’ In: Schlyter. B, ed., Prospects for Democracy in Central Asia. Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, Transactions, Vol. 15 : 31–32. 7. Wikileaks, ‘Tajikistan’s Northern Region Wants To Be Independent of Dushanbe’s Clutches,’ link 8. One imam, denied a passport due to his beard, told officials they could shave his beard “if you cut off my head.” Officials had to PhotoShop his

Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015

10. Bayram, M. ‘Tajikistan: More than half of religious communities to be ‘illegal’?’ Forum 18 News Service, 10 December 2009, link 11. Najibullah, M. ‘Tajik Officials Keep Sharp Eye on Islamic Teaching,’ Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 2 August 2010, link. Some madrassas had failed re-registration due to “deficiencies discovered discovered in their activities.” Radio Ozodi, ‘Ucheba 300 studentov sogdiiskikh medresye priostanovlena,’ 12 July 2013, link. Prosecutors opened cases against parents who hindered their children from attending secondary schools, with charges that could lead to large fines or two years’ imprisonment. Bayram, M. ‘Tajikistan: ‘Your children will become extremists and terrorists,’ Forum 18 News Service, 2 September 2010, link 12. Discussion of the alleged bomber and the “Istaravshon 53” case (including details of torture) draws on NGO Coalition against Torture and Impunity, ‘NGO Report on Tajikistan’s Implementation of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,’ 12 October 2012; pp. 9, 11, 20, 54–58, link. Mystery still shrouds the bombing’s motivation, with theories including Islamic terrorism (the official explanation), organized crime attempting to thwart a murder 30

investigation, an Uzbekistan-sponsored plot, and a local vendetta against RUBOP after Ismonboy Boboev’s death in custody. 13. Torturers nicknamed their electric-shock instruments “Sangtuda” and “Roghun” after Tajik hydropower plants, the latter a decades-long controversial project the government has invested enormous resources in promoting. 14. A medical examination of defendants alleging torture was perfunctory (around 10 minutes) and conducted in the presence of prosecutor’s office staff, without defense lawyers present. The examiners were untrained in how to detect evidence of torture. Defendants had identified specific torturers from the GKNB and interior ministry, but none were held to account. 15. Nearly a year later Tajikistan’s Supreme Court ruled on an appeal, changing five sentences from life to 30 years and slightly reducing other sentences. The court paid scant attention to the torture allegations. 16. Rafieva, M. ‘V Sogdye sotrudnikami militsii zaderzhani 95 chlenov ekstremistskikh partii i dvizhenii,’ Asia-Plus, 12 January 2015, link 17. An Istaravshoni was arrested in November 2012 for allegedly sheltering an IMU member. The following January two men (one or both from Istaravshon) were arrested in a Matcha district operation, while an explosion in a house on Istaravshon’s outskirts killed a man named Umed, said to be the son of an alleged terrorist killed in a separate shoot-out. Authorities said Umed had blown himself up to avoid arrest, and a local official “invited to the scene” by police told media he witnessed the suicide. Indicative of the pall of silence hanging over Istaravshon, details of the event became public only a week later,

despite residents having heard gunshots and the explosion. Masumi Muhammadradzhab, ‘Obvinyaemi v terrorisme sovershil samopodriv,’ Radio Ozodi, 26 January 2013, link 18. JA, which emerged when an online video announced the group’s responsibility for the 2010 bombing, remains poorly understood, despite Tajikistan’s many trials of alleged members. It may have had a small presence in Pakistan’s tribal areas, later expanding to northern Afghanistan. 19. Radio Ozodi, ‘Chto tolkaet Sogdiiskuyu molodyozh v obyatiya ekstremistskikh partii i dvizhenii?’ 31 December 2014, link 20. Radio Ozodi, ‘184 goda tyurmi dlya 23 chlenov ‘Ansorullo’ v Sogdye,’ 5 May 2015, link 21. Such linkage remains speculation in the absence of hard data, but some evidence comes from an Istaravshon focus group interviewed by OSCEsponsored surveyors in November 2010, amid the Rasht operation and Sughd arrests. The group claimed government policies toward Islam, along with corruption and abuse of power, were a primary cause of radicalization. They insisted, though, that extremism would find little support in Istaravshon, given local culture and religious practices. Taarnby, M. (2012). ‘Islamist Radicalization in Tajikistan: An Assessment of Current Trends,” Center for Socio-Political Studies Korshinos: 44, 61. Link to press release 22. Rafieva, M, ‘Deyatelnost vsekh medresye v Sogdye vremenno priostanovlena,’ Asia-Plus, 12 July 13.8:09, link. In recent years the school reportedly had 100 students, who studied not only theology but subjects such as English and computer skills. Robert Middleton and Huw Thomas, Tajikistan and the High Pamirs, Odyssey Illustrated Guides, 2nd ed., 2011, p. 170.

! Edward Schipke is an observer of Tajikistan

Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


‘U NCERTAIN L IGHT ’, A N OVEL THAT E XPLORES THE ‘F LOATING W ORLD ’ OF D EVELOPMENT W ORKERS INTERVIEW WITH MARION MOLTENO AUTHOR OF ‘UNCERTAIN LIGHT’ English-language fiction about Central Asia remains rare. This month author Marion Molteno published her latest novel Uncertain Light, which is set in the last months of the civil war in Tajikistan. Inspired by real events, the novel tells the story of the abduction of an international aid worker and how the crisis affects his colleagues. Marion took the time to speak to Eurasian Dialogue about her book.!

Eurasian Dialogue: Tell us about Uncertain Light Marion Molteno: It’s a story in which someone is abducted in Tajikistan, and the effect that has on the people close to him. It is set in late 1996 – 1997, when the civil war was dragging to an end but things were still insecure. A group of Tajiks and UN military observers are in the mountains beyond Gharm monitoring the cease fire, and are taken hostage. One of them is a UN peace negotiator, Rahul Khan; when eventually most of the hostages are released, he and one other are kept back and disappear in mysterious circumstances. The story follows those closest to Rahul, scattered across the world, as they try to come to terms with what happened to him. Tessa is Irish, in her thirties, now married with two children, but Rahul was her first love and she has never stopped loving him. Her devastation at his disappearance sparks a crisis in her marriage. Hugo is Swiss; as Rahul’s UN mentor and supervisor he feels responsible for the abduction and is driven to try to uncover the truth of

Marion Molteno

Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015

credit: author 32

what happened. Rahul’s long-standing friend, Lance is a Canadian aid worker; he realises now that he had used Rahul's reliable companionship to avoid facing up to the gaps in his own life. When the organisation he works for sends him to Kyrgyzstan, near the border with Tajikistan, he gets to know a Tajik woman Nargis, who owes Rahul a “ EACH OF THE personal debt but has secrets she cannot share. Each of these four – at FOUR HAVE HAD first unknown to each other – have had to find a way to start again, and TO FIND A WAY gradually as their paths cross they piece together the full story of what TO START AGAIN ” Rahul was doing in Central Asia. It’s a story of personal relationships, but because they’re all people who are engaged with the society they’re living in, the places and the political context are essential parts of the story. We move with them in each of the countries they are based in; but the critical parts are set in Central Asia in the immediate post-Soviet period, and I did as much research as I could to convey accurately what it was like to be there at the time.











When did you first visit Tajikistan? In 1997, about the time the peace accords were being signed after four years of civil war. I was working for Save the Children in a senior policy position, based in London but with short stints in many countries in Africa and Asia. In each I was working alongside people of that country who were trying to find sustainable ways to support some of the most vulnerable children. The point of my role was to bring useful experience from one country to the attention of people working in others, so we didn’t keep reinventing the wheel or fall into the same traps. It was in that capacity that I was invited to work with colleagues in Tajikistan, and the experience was mind-opening. Like many people in the West, I had grown up knowing very little about it; it was simply that large red part of the map called the Soviet Union and we knew nothing about its constituent parts. Being there was stimulating, moving, delightful and humbling, all at the same time. It was everywhere obvious what huge transformations people were facing – changes since the end of the Soviet system, the “ IT WAS EVERYWHERE terrible legacy of the civil war, the economic collapse. I was OBVIOUS WHAT HUGE working in the area around Qurgon Teppe, which was one of TRANSFORMATIONS the worst affected in the civil war. Save the Children’s PEOPLE WERE FACING ” programme was staffed almost entirely by women who had lost Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015


husbands in the war – women from both sides of the conflict, now working together to prevent other widows and their children becoming destitute. They were exceptional people – warm, compassionate, competent; and they defied stereotypes. They had been educated by the Soviet system, but they wore traditional highly coloured Tajik dress. And they loved poetry. I had not realised until then that Tajik is in fact Persian, that some of the greatest Persian poets came from here. Here were stories, asking to be told.

What inspired you to set the story among development workers? It was the perspective through which I had been introduced to Central Asia, so it was the one I could most authentically use. But also I wanted to give a sense of what the world of development workers is like; most people who will read this novel will have little concept of it. It’s a floating community of people from many different countries and backgrounds – what they share is an engagement with the people, the issues, the places where they work. Development Aid often gets a poor press, but the reality for “ THE WORLD OF people who work in it is as complex as in any other area of life. DEVELOPMENT The central characters in the novel are at different points on a WORKERS IS A spectrum - Rahul, the one who is abducted is Indian, started FLOATING COMMUNITY out as a political journalist and social activist in India, then OF PEOPLE FROM MANY joined an international organization, then the UN’s refugee DIFFERENT COUNTRIES agency, ending up in a warzone. His friend Lance is Canadian, AND BACKGROUNDS ” a late 1960s drop-out who wanted to do something useful with his life and found his way into working for a small development agency, moving from country to country every few years. It’s a lifestyle that creates its own difficulties - he has never managed to make a partnership that lasted. Hugo, Rahul’s UN supervisor, has spent his life responding to humanitarian crises – earthquakes, wars, floods – and the resultant crises for people who are forced to flee. He takes his job very seriously – and it costs him his family life. Like many people in these roles, he and Lance are principled, “ EACH OF THEM conscientious, critical of the structures they have to work through, and HAS THEIR OWN suffer from self-doubt about what they are doing and whether it is STORY OF HOW useful. Tessa is an ‘international’ in another way - when she was a child THEY GOT TO BE her family moved from country to country in South East Asia, WHERE THEY following her father’s work as a road building engineer. Nargis has ARE NOW ” never lived elsewhere than in Kyrgyzstan but she has been uprooted in another way by the economic collapse: she was a university-based scientist until her job disappeared. As the sole earner for her family, she had no choice but to take whatever work she could, and became an interpreter for UNICEF. So each of them has their own story of how they got to be where they are now, and how they became involved with Rahul. And we see events through each of their different perspectives. !

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Is the novel based on historical events? Definitely. The whole political context is real. The starting point – the hostage-taking in the mountains beyond Gharm - actually happened. The media reported that 23 people were taken hostage, but in all subsequent reports I could only find references to 21 of them being released. My fictional story grew out of the mystery of what happened to the other two. There repeated hostage-taking episodes by the same group, until their leader, Rizwan Sadirov, and most of his group were killed in an armed encounter with government forces in December 1997. And well beyond Central Asia there were many incidents of aid workers being kidnapped and sometimes killed; with the usual terrible dilemmas over whether to give in to demands, knowing that everyone becomes more insecure if you do. For me the date is also important – it’s pre 9/11, before the western powers got involved in Afghanistan. Islamic fundamentalism was on the rise but that isn’t what the civil war was about, or the hostage-taking. There were – and still are – other forces making such things happen: the collapse of the economy, of security – the demands were often political or financial, but antagonism towards international agencies came into it. “ ANTAGONISM It’s dangerous being an aid worker in a war-zone, it takes a special TOWARDS kind of courage. Just a few months ago five Save the Children INTERNATIONAL workers were abducted in Afghanistan, and when the kidnappers’ AGENCIES CAME demands weren’t met, all five were killed. They were Afghans; they’d INTO IT ” been helping people in remote villages get access to clean water.

Cover of ‘Uncertain Light

credit: Andrew Corbett

What about the poetry in the novel? In the first section, the protagonist Tessa repeatedly hears the lines "the wind blows hard, the night is dark, the stormy waves are rising" when Rahul is kidnapped. What is the significance of this poem? !! You won’t have discovered it yet in the bit you’ve read, but there’s a strand of Urdu/Persian poetry that runs like a leitmotif through the novel. That verse is the first indication of it. Long before I went to Tajikistan I had studied Urdu poetry, which derives from Farsi poetry; and I Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015



knew that in societies influenced by Persian cultural history, poetry has a special place. Among Tajiks, despite 70 years SOCIETIES INFLUENCED of Soviet rule and the banning of the Persian script, that BY P ERSIAN CULTURAL tradition lives on. One of my Tajik friends told me that in HISTORY , POETRY HAS A their family when a child was born they placed the divan SPECIAL PLACE ” [collected poems] of Hafiz on its forehead, even though the poems were written in the Persian script, which they couldn’t read. They did it so that the child would absorb the spirit of the sufi poetry to which he or she was heir. “I


In the story Rahul is an Urdu speaker who has grown up with Urdu poetry around him, who then learns Farsi out of an interest in the poetry. When he subsequently goes to work in northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan, he is moving through “R AHUL IS AN U RDU areas where Farsi/Persian is spoken (though it is called Dari in SPEAKER WHO Afghanistan and Tajik in Tajikistan). There’s also a story LEARNS F ARSI OUT around a Tajik poet and what happened during the Soviet OF AN INTEREST IN period, which I won’t go into as I’d like not to spoil it before you THE POETRY ” read it!

Do you plan to translate the novel into Tajik? I’d love to have the book translated! But neither the UK nor the Indian publisher would have the resources to pay for that, so it could only happen as an act of love on someone’s part. If anyone competent did offer, perhaps we could find a grant to finance it. But there’s also the question of how to make the novel as it stands available in Tajikistan to people who do read English, or known among people with an interest in the region. The publishers don’t have distribution mechanisms in Central Asia. I’d love it to reach such people, whether Central Asians or people from outside who have lived and worked there, and hear from them what they think of it.

Marion Molteno is an author and international development professional. She won the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the best book in the Africa region for If You Can Walk, You Can Dance. From 1993 to 2007 she was a policy advisor to the international development charity Save the Children, where she supported staff who work with disadvantaged children in over 50 countries.!

Perspectives on Central Asia 7, M ay 2015