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Central Asia's 2014: Lots of Alarms but only a Few Surprises

For all the international news that came out of Central Asia this year Global Voices' most read article from the region was about Sabina Altynbekova, a youth volleyball player from Kazakhstan. Image from freeartwallpapers.com.

For all the international news that came out of Central Asia this year Global Voices’ most read article from the region was about Sabina Altynbekova, a youth volleyball player from Kazakhstan. Image from freeartwallpapers.com.

In the Fund for Peace's Fragile States Index this year Afghanistan ranked 7th (high alert) Uzbekistan 48th, Tajikistan 55th, Kyrgyzstan 58th (very high warning), Turkmenistan 74th (high warning) and Kazakhstan 111th (warning).

Yet while the region produced a sufficient number of troubling stories to justify those placings it didn't blow up as some analysts continue to predict it will, and remains a place where ordinary people live out ordinary lives, albeit in circumstances that are not always that ideal.

Moreover, even in extreme situations, such as a dictator arresting his own daughter, the region's keenest observers — Central Asians themselves — always find an explanation for the seemingly unexplainable.

The following are the highlights of Global Voices Central Asia coverage for 2014. All links are to articles written by GV authors unless stated otherwise. 

Afghanistan

Afghanistan is not always considered a part of the Central Asian region geographically, but the country holds the key to the region's future in important ways. This year was billed as a particularly significant one for the war-weary state as the bulk of Washington-led coalition forces stationed in the country since the 2001 invasion departed, and citizens elected a new president to replace the wily, charismatic politico Hamid Karzai. 

Global Voices covered the pre-election hype — stretching back to 2013 — as well as the post-election fallout. In September, after Ashraf Ghani was “miraculously” declared winner of the vote ahead of bitter rival Abdullah Abdullah, Afghans used the 2014 ice bucket challenge to ask the hotheaded pair to “be cool” as they negotiated a political settlement. Once tensions subsided somewhat and Abdullah and Ghani reached a deal to accommodate the former in the latter's government, Afghans were left waving goodbye to Karzai, the man that had dominated their domestic politics for thirteen years. It was emotional.

The Afghan meme of 2014 was surely Afghan voters showing their inked middle fingers to the Taliban, who opposed the ballot and used their presence in large swathes of the country to intimidate the electorate. As Ghani and his government look to pin back the extremist group, they could probably use more people like Rezagul, a woman from the country's western Farah province, who became a hero by firing on a group of Taliban militants that had killed her son. Rezagul's story was the most shared Afghanistan story for Global Voices in 2014.

Kazakhstan

Oil-rich Kazakhstan's approach to independent media and the Internet has attracted it much criticism in recent years, and that trend continued in 2014. Global Voices’ coverage of Kazakhstan this year began with an event in which the Mayor of the country's largest city Almaty invited a carefully selected group of bloggers to lunch. More independent-minded bloggers tried to gatecrash the event and were sent to jail on ‘minor hooliganism’ charges.

Towards the end of the year, the government's fear of the Internet was on display again after footage of Kazakh children purportedly training in camps in the Middle East was released by the radical group ISIS. While Kazakh outlets were mostly silent on the footage, neighbouring Kyrgyzstan's Kloop.kg covered the video and almost instantly came under pressure from Kazakh authorities who demanded the website delete the reposted footage. 

The biggest news of 2014 for most Kazakhs was probably the shock currency devaluation, wherein the government ordered a 20% plunge in the value of the Tenge without public consultation. Protests are rare in the authoritarian country, so the modest anti-devaluation demonstrations on February 15 and 16 were a big deal. In a bizarre coincidence, the devaluation was unveiled at around the same time the Russia-backed Customs Union, of which Kazakhstan is a member, placed a ban on lacy underwear import. Several protesters were arrested after they donned knickers on their heads and tried to foist them on a national monument at one of the demos. 

For all its well-documented rights abuses, the Kazakh government remains extremely image conscious. So much so that it doles out millions of dollars annually to Western PR firms to massage its international reputation and actively debated dropping the -stan suffix in its name earlier in the year in order to rid itself of a bad brand. But perhaps the best publicity for the country this year came from an unintended source. Sabina Altynbekova, a beautiful, lanky 17-year-old female volleyball player became an online sensation in South East Asia during her performances at a youth tournament in Tapei, Taiwan in July. Although the Tenge devaluation had much bigger implications for ordinary Kazakhstanis, Sabina was the most read Global Voices story for the Central Asian region this year.

Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan remains perhaps the most politically open society in the region but one full of problems. Gender-related conflict has been a key theme of Global Voices’ reporting on the country this year, beginning with coverage of what might be the first case of bride-kidnapping recounted on Twitter. The most read Global Voices story to emerge from Kyrgyzstan this year described a mob attack on women's rights activists in the country's capital Bishkek. A story reposted from Global Voices’ partner Eurasianet highlighted the harassment female journalists in the republic sometimes face from their male sources.

Kyrgyzstan's claims to being a democracy have also suffered this year. The parliament will likely pass an anti-gay bill that it has debated all year long in 2015. The Kyrgyz government also caved to pressure from its Kazakh counterpart by briefly blocking Kloop.kg, the website that reposted material of Kazakh children training with ISIS. In his End of the Year speech December 27 President Almazbek Atambayev told journalists they should learn to “love their country a little bit” — a bad sign for a country that has traditionally enjoyed greater media freedoms than its neighbours.

Tajikistan

Global Voices’ Tajikistan coverage this year was unusual only insofar as much of it was devoted to the wrongful arrest of our former Central Asia editor Alexander Sodiqov. Sodiqov was conducting academic research in the Tajik town of Khorog on June 16 when local security services detained him and held him on espionage charges. The absurdity of the case made it the biggest story to come out of Tajikistan in 2014 as international media and the global academic community shone a spotlight on the little-known country. In September, Alex was able to leave Tajikistan for Toronto, Canada, where he teaches and studies.

Elsewhere it was business as usual in Tajikistan. Halloween is still being celebrated in trepidation, as it was in 2013, while public debates rage about the Tajik-ness of the holiday and police school fancy dress ghouls, witches and vampires in public morals. Kidnappings to enforce military conscription statutesoblava — is also a controversial topic, especially with the significant number of hazing-related deaths that conscripts suffer.

The most read Global Voices Tajikistan article this year that wasn't about Alex was Alex's own piece about the Russian commentator that confused Tajikistan for Uzbekistan at the Sochi Olympics, highlighting the country's unfortunate status as the stan people sometimes forget. Arresting academics is one way to become better known, but probably not the best. 

Turkmenistan

Squeezing crowdsourced conversation out of totalitarian Turkmenistan is a challenge. Domestically registered forums and social media tend not to host newsworthy discussions  and there are few places where Turkmen expatriates with any connection to the country can feel comfortable discussing politics and social issues in the country. This year Global Voices looked at the country's failure to send athletes to the Sochi Olympics, the mysterious death of three Turkmen border guards at the frontier with Afghanistan and traditional Turkmen weddings. Also, nobody knows what Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov's wife looks like. That should not be a shock.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is only marginally easier to get information out of than Turkmenistan, but it does help that the president's oldest daughter is (or was) on Twitter. The embarrassingly loud fall from grace of 42-year-old Gulnara Karimova, singer, perfume designer and daughter of 76-year-old President Islam Karimov — told partly in tweets — began at the tail end of 2013 and continued throughout this year, ensuring that the country got a fair amount of international attention during that period.

A powerful and allegedly very corrupt ‘princess‘, Gulnara was regularly in the public eye, jetting between the Uzbek capital Tashkent, international fashion shows and Geneva, where she has a multi-million dollar residence. Even if Karimova's sputtering pop career wasn't giving Lady Gaga sleepless nights, she had no obvious problems at home, and was seen by many as a likely successor to her father.

But Gulnara is now seemingly mired in trouble; under house arrest on vague fraud charges at home and in Europe, subject to a joint Swiss and Dutch criminal investigation concerning her alleged receipt of a bribe from a Swedish telecommunications company. Going on her past tweets she is on bad terms with both her mother, Tatiana, and her younger sister, Lola, and will almost certainly not be competing in Uzbekistan's presidential elections, scheduled for March next year. It might have been the succession moment Central Asia watchers were awaiting. 

While the palace drama kept foreign observers of Uzbek politics entertained, life for most of the country's 30 million plus citizens is still an unrelenting grind. More than any other country in this cotton-producing region, Uzbekistan uses children, teachers, doctors and other public servants as free labor in the harvest of ‘white gold’. Medical patients in the country's hospitals, meanwhile, “have nobody to rely on except God”.

Since regional tradition dictates that you shouldn't badmouth the old year as you begin a new one, it makes sense to end on this round up on a positive note. Uzbekistan's most widely-shared article on Global Voices this year was about the country breaking a record to be proud of: Ravshan Irmatov, an Uzbek citizen and a representative of Uzbekistan Football Federation became the first referee in history to referee nine World Cup matches on July 5, 2014. 

This wrap is for the family and friends of Alex Peterson, who spent time in all six countries mentioned here. Alex died in a Taliban attack on a restaurant in downtown Kabul on January 17, 2014.

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