What is Life in the Aralkum Like?


A recommended read (and a pair of recommended listens) you don’t want to miss:

First the read: There have been a few great features lately on the Aral Sea. This week, Al Jazeera published another. The article by Mansur Mirovalev profiles the life of fishermen in the desert that the Aral Sea has become — the “Aralkum, or Aral Sands.” In the Aralkum the fishing companies are more like mafia, locals fishing illegally probably shouldn’t eat what they catch, and “what looks like snow…is actually salt laced with a cocktail of toxic chemicals.”

Now some things to listen to: Nate Schenkkan’s Central Asianist podcast has quickly become a must-listen for deeper looks into specific regional issues. In the seventh episode, released Monday, Schenkkan and  Christian Bleuer focus on Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Bleuer says that Central Asian governments often exaggerate threats emanating from Afghanistan and Afghan local officials often exaggerate the number of foreign fighters causing through in northern Afghanistan.

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“Central Asia and Afghanistan, they don’t have that much to do with each other in terms of say diplomacy, trade, economics. They heavily see things as a security relationship…The one strongest tie Central Asia has with Afghanistan is drug trafficking.”

The podcast was certainly relevant when they recorded it and seemed downright prescient by the end of the week after the New York Times published an op-ed by Ahmed Rashid that received harsh criticism from a number of Central Asia watchers (including myself–read my response in our Debate section).

The second podcast worth listening to this weekend is from RFE/RL, hosted by the director of their Turkmen service, Muhammad Tahir. Tahir’s guests included Johann Bihr, head of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk and Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Brune Pannier, in summarizing the conversation, writes that “the deterioration of rights in Central Asia runs across the spectrum: civil rights, media freedom, labor rights, religious freedom, respect for minorities, ability to participate in the political process, and on and on.”

This week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon traveled through the region. Human Rights Watch and others pressed him to bring up human rights but he has only done so lightly. This is a problem, Swerdlow argued, saying that officials need to be specific. “Don’t speak in abstract terms about worsening levels of freedom of expression,” but “make the call for releases of specific political prisoners, lay out the laws that are specifically discriminatory.”

Pannier mentioned that the OSCE has a center in Ashgabat stating “human rights, good governance, and rule of law issues; elections; and media freedom” at the tail end of its mission. Turkmenistan has been listed by RSF as an enemy of the internet since 2011 and earlier this year the government ratcheted up its campaign against satellite dishes, the only method to access information that is not tightly controlled by the government. Ironically, while RSF ranks Turkmenistan at 178th out of 180 countries in its Press Freedom Index, the Ashgabat OSCE center recently hosted a training focusing on online journalism.

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