Last week in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Afghan forces ramped up their offensives with the support of United States (US) forces amid increased Taliban attacks during the previous weeks. Meanwhile, a large riot in Herat’s prison brought attention to dire prison conditions. Fighting continued between the military forces of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the de facto Artsakh Republic on the southern and eastern parts of the Artsakh-Azerbaijan-Armenia Line of Contact, as the war continues to take its toll on civilians. Meanwhile, the opposition in Georgia did not accept the results of the parliamentary elections conducted on 31 October. Instead, they announced the start of permanent protests in the country demanding new elections. A rare sanctioned protest was organized in Kazakhstan demanding political reforms. Finally, in Kyrgyzstan, a series of protests was organized in several cities, demanding the resignation of newly appointed local governors.
In Afghanistan, the Afghan military, with the support of the US air force, continued its airstrikes on Taliban militants across the country. Afghan forces have launched a second offensive to push the Taliban out of Helmand’s province capital, Lashkargah city, and Nad Ali district. The Afghan Ministry of Defense said it deployed a large number of special forces along the highway in Helmand (Afghan Ministry of Defense, 26 October 2020). The Taliban uses highways to collect millions of dollars a month from drivers (New York Times, 1 November 2020). Helmand’s governor claimed Al Qaeda fighters have been fighting along with the Taliban in its recent push over the past few weeks in the province (Sky News, 2 November 2020). These claims echo a statement from the UN’s Islamic State, Al Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team coordinator last week that Al Qaeda fighters are “heavily embedded” with the Taliban in Afghanistan (BBC, 28 October 2020). Separately, Afghan forces claimed they had regained control over 25 villages in Khost Wa Fereng district of Baghlan province from the Taliban. Additionally, three suicide bombers and seven attackers launched an attack on a police special forces base in Khost city (AP, 27 October 2020). The attackers, whose affiliation is unknown, as well as five policemen, were killed during the attack. At least nine civilians and 25 other servicemen of Afghan forces were wounded.
Meanwhile, at least eight prisoners were killed during a riot in Herat’s central prison (AP, 29 October 2020). Clashes between guards and prisoners started as guards conducted a search in some cell blocks and cleared some partitions (Pajhwok Afghan News, 29 October 2020). While many media outlets reported gunfire, the nature of the deaths is unclear as at least one source reported prisoners died after they swallowed pills stolen from the prison’s clinic during the riot (France 24, 29 October 2020). As with other prisons in Afghanistan, it is overly crowded and prisoners occasionally riot to protest the dire conditions (TOLO News, 2 September 2020).
Fighting continued along the Artsakh-Azerbaijan-Armenia Line of Contact (LoC) as it has been for over a month since fighting reignited on 27 September. From 25 to 31 October, ACLED records over 140 events, including shelling, airstrikes, and armed clashes. This is slightly fewer events than the week prior. Last week, most clashes took place on the eastern, southeastern and southwestern parts of the frontline, in the direction of Martuni, Martakert, and Kashatagh regions of the de facto Artsakh Republic. This marks a shift from the trends of the week prior, where armed engagements intensified along the southern and northern parts of the Artsakh-Azerbaijan frontline․ Moreover, intense fighting between Artsakh and Azerbaijani forces reached villages in the vicinity of the city of Shushi, a strategic location in a mountainous area, overlooking the de facto capital, Stepanakert. In 1992, the city’s capture by Armenian forces was one of the turning points of the first Nagorno-Karabakh war (Eurasianet, 30 October 2020). Armenian officials also reported Azerbaijani shelling and drone attacks in the Syunik region of Armenia, which Azerbaijani authorities denied. Syunik is the only Armenian region bordering Iran. Economically important highways, gas pipelines, and other infrastructure are located in the region, and possible damage to them would significantly impact the economy of Armenia.
Civilian settlements are still heavily affected by the fighting and are occasionally targeted. This has increased the toll of the conflict on the population of Artsakh and Azerbaijan. The Artsakh authorities have reported shelling and missile attacks on civilian facilities in Stepanakert, Shushi, Berdzor, Martakert, Martuni, and Askeran cities, as well as bordering villages, resulting in five civilian deaths. Meanwhile, a missile attack on the Azerbaijani Barda city resulted in 21 killed and more than 70 wounded civilians. Azerbaijani authorities claim that the attack was conducted by Armenian military forces, but Armenia denies the claim. Azerbaijan also reported shelling of the bordering Terter, Aghdam, Barda and Goranboy regions.
At the end of last week, on 30 October, the Armenian and Azerbaijani ministers of foreign affairs — with the mediation of OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs — met in Geneva. The two sides agreed to stop targeting civilian populations or non-military objects, to exchange the bodies of dead soldiers, and to provide lists of detained prisoners of war to the other party. However the agreement did not affect the situation on the ground, as on the next day, the Azerbaijani and Artsakh sides reported shelling and missile attacks on civilian buildings in Stepanakert, Shushi, Martakert, Terter cities, as well as on bordering villages in nearby regions.
In Georgia, parliamentary elections took place on 31 October. The six weeks of election campaigning was marked by over 20 cases of mob violence and attacks on civilians involving the opposition and ruling Georgian Dream party supporters. According to preliminary results, the ruling Georgian Dream party won the minimum number of seats required to form a single-party government, receiving over 48% of votes; meanwhile, the biggest opposition alliance got over 27%. However, the opposition alliance — formed by the United National Movement, European Georgia, Labour Party, and New Georgia — reject the results of the elections. On 1 November, thousands of their supporters gathered in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi demanding new elections (Jam News, 1 November 2020). The opposition also announced the start of permanent protests in the country, with the first one scheduled for 8 November.
Ahead of parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan, scheduled for 10 January 2020, hundreds of people gathered in Almaty city on 31 October, condemning the oppression and imprisonment of opposition activists and demanding political reforms. According to organizers, there are 14 political prisoners in the country. More than 200 people are detained on politically motivated charges, the punishment for which varies from fines to bans on protest participation․ However, this protest was granted official permission and state forces did not intervene. This is surprising considering Kazakh authorities often refrain from allowing such protests, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. This may be a signal of Kazakh authorities’ worries that frequent protests can transform into nationwide mass demonstrations, similar to those in Kyrgyzstan or Belarus. Still, some organizers reported that on the eve of the rally, police detained several activists involved in organizing the demonstration (Azattyq, 31 October 2020).
Lastly, in Kyrgyzstan, as a result of nationwide demonstrations, which began after parliamentary elections were conducted on 4 October, a number of mayors and heads of local administrations resigned. Last week, the acting president, Sadyr Japarov, finally appointed interim local governors. Many of these appointments triggered a series of protests in Bishkek, Uzgen, and Talas cities, where dozens of people opposed the appointments. The demonstrators claim that the new governors are not solving problems in the communities and express concern that they have strong ties with former high-ranking politicians.
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