Over the last month, key developments in Central Asia and the Caucasus include progress in Afghanistan’s upcoming peace talks, alongside ongoing violence, an IS resurgence, and clashes with Pakistan. In Kazakhstan, protests took place due to the economic and social impact of the ongoing coronavirus crisis. The worsening economy also sparked rare protests in Turkmenistan. As the violence on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border continued, upcoming elections in Kyrgyzstan have led to political competition and demonstrations. Additionally, torture claims increased public discontent in Georgia’s breakaway region South Ossetia. Environmental protests were held in Armenia, and a shift was observed in ceasefire violations in the Armenia-Azerbaijan-Artsakh Lines of Contact.
In Afghanistan, August was marked by advancements in the long-stalled peace process, as Loya Jirga, the assembly of elders who had been called on to decide on the fate of criminal Taliban prisoners, approved their release on 9 August. At the same time, both the Taliban and Afghan government set up negotiating teams for peace talks, expected to take place in the upcoming days (TOLO News, 8 September 2020). The process had some setbacks throughout August, however, as Australia and France objected to the release of some Taliban members who were involved in the killing of their citizens in Afghanistan (Al Jazeera, 3 September 2020). On the other hand, many released Taliban insurgents were reportedly sent back to the frontlines again, increasing doubts about the Taliban’s commitment to a reduction in violence (Foreign Policy, 3 September 2020).
Meanwhile, following a steep decrease in violence due to the Eid Al Adha ceasefire on 31 July, violence again increased in August. Although the number of clashes are low when compared to this time last year, the Taliban has intensified its attacks on Afghan forces, as Afghan forces continue to conduct lethal offensives. Imam Sahib and Khan Abad districts of Kunduz were the scene of intense clashes as the Taliban briefly overtook Imam Sahib before Afghan forces regained control on 28 August. The highway between Kunduz-Takhar was closed for several days as the clashes displaced over 6,000 families in the province (TOLO News, 25 August 2020). The Taliban also seized Andarab and Baghlani Jadid districts of Baghlan province and conducted suicide attacks against Afghan forces across the country, which were especially lethal in Farah and Ghazni, Kandahar. In Balkh district as well, a Taliban suicide bomber killed two commandos and eight civilians, wounding 65. Afghan Security Forces claimed to kill over 100 Taliban members in Kunduz during August, while aerial attacks on Faryab province reportedly killed dozens more. Violence between the Taliban and Afghan security forces declined last week as the approaching peace talks have been the focus of both parties. Still, clashes took place in Qurghan district of Faryab for several days as Afghan forces took control of the district.
Clashes also continued to affect civilians. From 2 August to 5 September, over 100 civilian fatalities were killed by shelling by Afghan forces or in Taliban attacks. Civilians were also targeted by unidentified attacks. Especially in Kabul, the attacks targeted government workers, including a woman member of the negotiation team, officers of the Ministry of Education and of Defense, former police officers, and a former senator. IS is also responsible for civilian casualties following a rocket attack in Kabul city during the celebrations of Afghanistan’s Independence Day celebrations on 18 August, and IEDs killing Shiite civilians. IS also continues to clash with the Taliban, with one clash reported in Nangarhar.
Tensions also remained high at the Afghan border with Pakistan. In August, Pakistani forces shelled tribal areas in Dangam district of Kunar and in Barmal, Paktika, killing eight civilians. The incident sparked protests in Helmand, Kandahar, and in Barmal, where hundreds of protesters gathered to condemn the attacks (Pajhwok Afghan News, 15 August 2020). Last week, the two sides also engaged in direct clashes when one Afghan border officer was killed in Mohmand Dara district, Nangarhar, and some nearby civilians were injured.
In Kazakhstan, the strict measures related to the coronavirus pandemic remained in place. Throughout August, business owners protested the closure of their shops in many cities, including in Nur-Sultan and Aktobe. Women continued to demand higher subsidies from the government, especially now that they need to provide computers to their children studying remotely. Anti-government demonstrations in solidarity with those taking place in Belarus also took place in Nur Sultan, Almaty, Zhanaozen, Shymkent, and Semey cities, expressing not only their solidarity with Belarusian people, but also condemning political persecutions in Kazakhstan.
Inter-ethnic conflicts also took place in two towns in Kazakhstan. On 10 August, in Kaskabulak town of Zhambyl region, populated predominantly by ethnic Kurdish minority, a group of people attacked Kurdish residents and stoned their houses and cars. Police arrested and charged 14 people with hooliganism, but the oppositional media mentioned an ethnically-charged conflict (Tengrinews, 10 August 2020). On 16 August, a dispute between Kazakh and ethnic Chechen residents in Baydibek Bi town of Almaty region resulted in intervention by police forces that closed access to the town. Although local authorities ruled out the possibility of ethnic clashes, a group of people protested outside the local administration two days later, referring to inter-ethnic problems.
In Tajikistan, the dispute along the Kyrgyz border continued. On 6 August, gunfire from both the Tajik and Kyrgyz sides resulted in the killing of a Tajik national and wounded a Kyrgyz border guard and a villager. Clashes in the region continue at a similar rate to this time last year.
In Kyrgyzstan, where parliamentary elections are scheduled for 4 October, the Central Electoral Committee excluded the Kyrgyzstan Party from the polls, citing procedural faults as a reason. The move remains highly surprising as the Kyrgyzstan Party has been a part of the majority coalition since 2015, and sparked protests in Bishkek and Tokmok cities, involving multiple political parties calling for political plurality while opponents of the party called for counter-protests (Eurasianet, 25 August 2020). As the Kyrgyzstan Party plans to appeal the decision, the elections in the “island of democracy in Central Asia” will potentially be more unpredictable in the coming days as corruption and vote-buying have also been reported (RFE/RL, 3 September 2020).
In Turkmenistan, the government insists that no coronavirus cases have been reported in the country, though the economic and social toll of the pandemic manifests itself all over the country in the form of protests against banking restrictions and access to schools (Eurasianet, 1 September 2020).
In Georgia, besides ongoing protests regarding infrastructural problems in various small villages of the country, demonstrations in solidarity with those in Belarus also took place in Batumi and Tbilisi. Meanwhile, in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, the car of the Interior Minister was targeted with gunfire on 17 August, while the minister was inside, though there were no reports of casualties. One of the suspects of the attack died under detention, and was revealed to show signs of torture. The incident triggered anti-government protests as thousands of people rallied in Tskhinvali last week, asking the president to resign (Caucasian Knot, 1 September 2020).
In Armenia, a wave of environmental demonstrations took place over the operation of the Amulsar gold mine in Vayots Dzor province, with supporting protests in Yerevan weekly. The mine has been highly contested by locals due to its potential environmental damage. Protests and blockades by environmentalist activists have occurred since May 2018, often during the summer months. Last month was marked by similar protests as the mine is expected to operate soon. Police intervened in protests nearly every time by detaining activists.
Meanwhile, following the flare-up in July that resulted in a high number of fatalities, ceasefire violations continued along the Armenia-Azerbaijan-Artsakh Lines of Contact (LoC) in August. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) reported 125 armed engagements along the Armenia-Azerbaijan LoC and 250 armed engagements along the Artsakh-Azerbaijan LoC. These numbers were respectively 88 and 390 in July, showing that the armed conflict is shifting towards the Armenia-Azerbaijan frontline. Moreover, the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released its reports for July 2020, documenting 181 armed engagements along the Azerbaijan-Armenia LoC and 58 along the Azerbaijan-Artsakh LoC, marking an increase from June. Again, this is mostly observed along the Armenia-Azerbaijan frontline. However, the MoD of Azerbaijan reported a higher number of armed engagements along the Azerbaijan-Artsakh LoC last week, as 26 armed engagements were documented along the Armenia-Azerbaijan LoC and 44 along the Azerbaijan-Artsakh LoC.
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