Crossroads Asia

Central Asia’s Sports Obsession: Leave the Beard Behind, Please

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Crossroads Asia

Central Asia’s Sports Obsession: Leave the Beard Behind, Please

More protests in Kazakhstan, sports in Turkmenistan, and Kumtor back in the news; recommended reads.

Central Asia’s Sports Obsession: Leave the Beard Behind, Please
Credit: soccer referee via

Links and weekend reads:

What’s That About Beards and Circuses? Sports are quite popular in Central Asia, both among the people and within the elite. And sports are decidedly more fun when your country is winning. Tajikistan gets to celebrate a 5-0 win over Bangladesh in a recent qualifying match for the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019.

In Turkmenistan, as EurasiaNet phrased it, “State media has been in raptures about the outcome of the 2016 Asian Sambo Championship, a martial arts contest that concluded in Ashgabat this week with Turkmenistan coming top of the medals table.” With the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games coming to Ashgabat in 2017, the country has been in a tizzy over sports and exercise of late (these pictures of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov working out in Avaza are priceless). Turkmenistan’s triumph in the sambo championship, however, seems a bit inflated, with 67 fighters out of the 68 on the Turkmen national team getting medals. While state media hyperventilates over the wins, international sports media wonder what sort of access they’ll get when Ashgabat flings open the doors next year. A CNN team visiting last year waited for hours to speak to government officials about sports, only to be left with no one to talk to.

In Uzbekistan, bearded football fans were reportedly turned away from a friendly match between Bukhara and Navbahor on May 29. According to RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, several men said that when they tried to enter the stadium plainclothes police told them, “Go and remove your beard and then you can enter.” One bearded fan said, “I had no choice but to run to a nearby barber shop.”

More Kazakh Protests: Kazakhstan–which has experienced a wave of protests since late April and cracked down on attempted protests on May 21–finally allowed an unsanctioned protest to proceed. Of course, it was a rally out front of the U.S. consulate in Almaty. As Aigerim Toleukhanova reported this week for EurasiaNet, the rally “was intended as a protest against marches that were held in two U.S. cities, New York and San Francisco, in a show of solidarity for those detained on May 21.” The consulate protesters were apparently some of the same people who organized rallies over the past few months to petition the government for relief from their burdensome (and ballooning due to the tenge’s devaluation) mortgage payments. Notably, one organizer told EurasiaNet, “According to the law … civil society groups do not need to ask for permission [to protest]. There was no need for that.” Surely that’s news to Land Code protesters facing charges of sowing discord and attempting to seize power.

For an explanation of what caused the protests take some time to listen to this podcast from the RFE/RL crew and their guests, Joanna Lillis and Aigerim Toleukhanova.

Kumtor Back in the News: On May 25, a Bishkek court ordered the Kumtor Operating Company–the Centerra Gold subsidiary operating the valuable and contentious Kumtor gold mine in Kyrgyzstan–to pay an almost $100 million environmental fine. Further fines of $225 million are possible. The company is appealing the fine and according to has applied to the Hague Court of Arbitration to settle the various disputes surrounding the mine.

European Union Comments on IRPT Sentencing: As I noted yesterday, the IRPT leaders who have been in trial since February in connection to what the Tajik government says was a coup attempt in September 2015 by the then-deputy defense minister were sentenced. The European Union issued a statement criticizing the sentences:

The court proceedings were not transparent and violated the rights of the accused to a fair trial, which is not in line with Tajikistan’s commitments under international law. Clear evidence must be presented justifying the criminal charges brought against the defendants in connection with all sentences issued. The Supreme Court’s judgements also risk having a damaging effect on the overall cohesion of Tajik society.

Even in the pursuit of security operations, the fundamental freedoms of all Tajik citizens must be guaranteed and the rule of law must be upheld.

The IRPT trial took place behind closed doors and while there has been news of the sentencing, news of the trial itself and their conviction (I assume they were convicted if they’re being sentenced) has not been made public. Meanwhile, five women–wives of jailed IRPT leaders–were fined 40 somoni (about $5) for neglecting to obey police orders. What were they doing? Trying to enter the UN’s offices in Dushanbe “in order to get [the] advice of specialists.”