What Will the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan Mean For Central Asia?
First Published in Chinese News Outlet (Mandarin) and IndraStra Global (English), July 2021
With the United States and NATO forces withdrawal from Afghanistan accelerating, the nations of Central Asia face many troubling questions. Factionalism within the Afghan Government and the increasing strength of the Taliban threaten to upset the fragile regional balance, whilst external players continue to jockey for geopolitical and economic influence. This article looks at case studies on security (Kazakhstan), smuggling (Tajikistan), the possible relocation of a US military base (Kyrgyzstan/Uzbekistan), corruption, 'Great Power' politics and the Chinese influence on Central Asia.
Gold Digging and Vodka Chugging on Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan
First Published in Perceptive Travel, 01/04, 2021
The suspected birthplace of the black plague, which fleeing Genoese traders carried all the way to Europe, wiping out sixty percent of the population, these days Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan serves as a tourist destination where Russians and Kazakhs enjoy a spot of standing sunbathing, gyrating like kebabs on a grill in search of an even tan. The riviera of Central Asia, the lake is ringed by the 4,000 meters-plus Tian Shan range, the "Celestial Mountains." In 1998, courtesy of the Canadian-owned Kumtor gold mine, two tons of sodium cyanide found its way into the Barskoon River, which feeds Issyk-Kul. Bleaching powder was dumped in as the solution. The deal for a Canadian company to run Kumtor had been brokered in a shady chain of events which saw the prime minister killed and 87.5 percent of the Kyrgyz’ gold reserves “go missing.” Deeming the agreement ‘not in the nation's interests,’ the Kyrgyz Parliament has been fighting to annul it ever since.
Georgia: Looking Towards the West
First Published in OCA Magazine, Winter 2020
Georgia is a land of contradictions, of plenty and of poverty, looking to propel itself into the future by delving into the past. Lingering spectres of the Soviet-era continue to clash against the pressures of modernity as this unique place attempts to shape its identity in the 21st century.
Mosques, Memorials and Marijuana in Quba of Northern Azerbaijan
First Published in Perceptive Travel, 01/12/2020
The city of Quba in Azerbaijan has a history of holiness and acts of evil, with layered stories behind its walls and underground. Founded in the eleventh century, Quba blossomed in the mid-1800s as a walled city under the stewardship of Hussain Ali Khan and his son Fatali, when their dominion stretched as far as Derbent in Russia to the north, and south to Talysh in Iran. At the western edge of the city, a stark white tetrahedron set in a bucolic garden, the Quba 1918 Genocide Memorial Complex was erected in 2009 after renovation work on a football stadium unearthed a mass grave. A moving epitaph and a striking piece of revisionist history rolled into one. Azerbaijani historians claim 4,000 Azerbaijanis, Lezghis, Jews and Griz were slaughtered in Quba on the direct orders of Bolshevik revolutionary, Armenian Baku Commissar, Stepan Shahumyan.
Tensions Beneath the Bling in Ingushetia and Chechnya
First Published in Perceptive Travel, 01/06/2020
In the shiny capitals of downtown Magas and Grozny, the amount of money poured in by the Russian state in the aftermath of the Ingush Uprising of 2007-2015 and the Second Chechen War of 1999-2009 is immediately apparent. Despite this effort to circumvent extremism through investment, however, old animosities are never far from the surface. As my Ossetian friend, Slava told me when we visited the region: 'I won't sugar-coat it; it's dangerous, but we'll stick to the main roads. At checkpoints, don't smile, don't speak and don't look at me; just stare straight ahead with dead eyes.'
A Gun for Bears and Russians on Georgia's Ossetian Military Road
First Published in Perceptive Travel, 01/11/2019
Set on the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti is the most sparsely populated region in Georgia. When I visited for the ten-year anniversary of the war over South Ossetia, passions were running high in the village of Oni, which was bombarded by Russia during the conflict.
Criminals, Kleptocrats, and the NGO
First Published in E-International Relations, EU Today and IndraStra Global, 07/2019
A two-part exposé looking into allegations and counterclaims about an opaquely funded NGO who have lobbied on behalf of oligarchs accused of crimes ranging from fraud to murder.
Abkhazia: Party Amidst the Ruins
First Published in Perceptive Travel, 01/04/2019
Once billed as the "Soviet Florida," the largely unrecognised nation of Abkhazia sits nestled on the Black Sea coast. Like a window into the final days of the Soviet Union, this is the land of Lenin murals and sculptures of muscular superwomen. Beautiful, bizarre and broken, in the aftermath of the war with Georgia of 1992-1993, in towns like Ochamchira, 60% of the buildings remain derelict. This doesn't, however, deter die-hard Russian holidaymakers from partying amidst the ruins.
Thirty Years On, Armenian Earthquake Survivors Still Waiting to Be Rehoused
First Published in IndraStra Global, 21/02/2019
On December 7th, 1988, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.8 struck near the Armenian town of Spitak, destroying every building in the municipality. Much of Gyumri, the ancient second city of Armenia was levelled. Up to 55,000 perished, whilst over half a million were made homeless. With temperatures plummeting to -12C, many sought refuge in shipping containers. As of 2018, according to Vahan Toumasyan, President of the Shirak Centre NGO, there were still 1,800 inhabited containers in Gyumri alone, with no access to power or running water. This is their stories.
Residents in Armenia’s Debed Canyon Face Stark Choice between Poison and Destitution
First published in IndraStra Global, 06/12/2018
In February 2018, with its Danish state-sponsored backers having pulled out citing health and safety violations, the Vallex Group open-pit mine at Teghut in Armenia’s Debed Canyon laid-off over a thousand workers. Families have been ripped apart as husbands and sons emigrate to look for work, whilst local farmer’s lands have been rendered infertile by the tailing dam from this and other mines pouring straight into the Debed River. Combined with the Vallex-operated copper smelting factory in the region’s main town of Alaverdi, the project at Teghut had accounted for 80% of employment opportunities in the region, leaving residents facing a stark choice between poison and destitution.
Protests at Amulsar Test the New Regime in Armenia
First published in IndraStra Global, 30/11/2018
There are two significant industries in the remote spa town of Jermuk, Armenia: water and tourism, both of which are under threat. With developers Lydian International proposing the use of cyanide as part of the Amulsar Gold Mine Project, an extractor chute is already funnelling dust and sludge into the largest freshwater body in the Caucasus. It is against this backdrop that the region has become the unlikely heartland of protests which are proving a significant test to the populist credentials of the new government. Emboldened by the Velvet Revolution in May, locals in Vayots Dzor have been blocking access to the site since mid-June 2018. With investors in the murky multinational behind the project getting twitchy, reports suggest that Lydian is threatening to sue the Armenian Government.
The Case of the Khrapunovs
International institutions Fail to Measure Up to the Task of Tackling Globalized Financial Crime
First Published in The Diplomat, 18/07/2018
The subject of lawsuits in the U.K. and the U.S., former Mayor of Almaty, Viktor Khrapunov, his TV-anchorwoman wife, Leila and their son, Ilyas stand accused of embezzlement schemes amounting to at least $300 million. Resident in Switzerland since August 2008, when they fled their native Kazakhstan to join their son - loading up a chartered plane with an alleged eighteen tonnes of art, antiquities and assorted booty - the family are now the subject of ongoing proceedings by the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Geneva. With a network of connections that span the globe, though, is the Khrapunov house of cards about to come crashing down, or will their friends in high places save them?
Kazakh Nuclear Fallout in North America: The Case of Mukhtar Dzhakishev
First Published in IndraStra Global, 11/07/2018
In a story that won’t go away or never was, depending on your side of the political divide in the United States, on the 22nd May 2018, eleven Republicans in the House of Representatives introduced a motion demanding a special prosecutor be appointed to look into Hilary Clinton, in particular, the sale of Uranium One to Rosatom, the State Atomic Energy Corporation of Russia during her tenure as Secretary of State. This article investigates this saga through the figure of Mukhtar Dzhakishev, the former head of Kazatomprom, the national operator of Kazakhstan for the import and export of uranium and nuclear fuel components, so far the only major player to take the fall for his part.
Sulphur Clouds and Sacred Sites: A Journey through the Debed Canyon
First Published in Perceptive Travel, 01/05/2018
Alaverdi is a town on the banks of the Debed Canyon in Northern Armenia. A region rich in history, it has changed hands many times over the centuries, from the Kingdom of Van to the Sassanids, Arab invaders to the Kingdom of Georgia. In the center of town, a humpbacked stone bridge built in 1195 by Queen Tamar of Georgia attests to this illustrious past. At the corners of the bridge lie four stone lions. Legend holds that when a real man finally crosses the bridge, the lions will come to life.
According to a census from 2011, the population of the town was 13,343, down from 26,300 in 1989. You can’t blame those that have chosen to leave. With unemployment rife, virtually the only jobs available offer residents a stark choice: poison or destitution.
Welcome to Turkmenistan
Konye-Urgench: The Ruins of Khorezm
First Published in IndraStra Global, 29/03/2017
Once the centre of the Islamic world, the Aral Sea Basin remnants of Konye-Urgench are now largely forgotten. Besieged for six months by Jenghiz Khan’s forces in 1221, defenders fought pitched battles in the burning streets after the Mongols broke through the city walls.
Reborn once more, Konye-Urgench became a vibrant trading hub, described by fourteenth-century traveller Ibn Battuta as the ‘largest, grandest, most beautiful and most important city of the Turks.’ After being sacked by Timur, when the Amu-Darya changed its course in the sixteenth century, its residents admitted defeat, abandoning the settlement to the Kara-Kum Desert. Today, scattered traces peek from the sands of this neglected town.
The Shadow of History – The Last Emir of Bukhara
First Published in Open Central Asia Magazine, Autumn 2016 Edition
Putting his lot in with the reformers, then switching sides in the face of the mullah’s strength, in his final years, the last Emir of Bukhara was a leaf in the wind. These were dark times of mass executions, book burnings and an intellectual exodus from the Khanate. Escaping the conflict between reformers and imams, ever more dependent upon the Russian overlords who would inevitably bring about his downfall, Amir Khan spent his closing days as ruler cocooned in the Summer Palace, sating his gluttonous appetite from a glass fronted refrigerator.
Tajikistan's Rappers Are Forced to Suck Up to Politicians If They Want to Have Their Music Heard
First Published in Vice, 14/09/2016
Tajikistan's rap scene has had a turbulent couple of years. Since 2014, hip-hop has been banned from buses, minicabs, public spaces and state TV and radio, and the country's few private stations refuse to play it for fear of losing their licenses. Performers whose music is "alien to national and universal human values", as the Mayor of the Tajik capital Dushanbe put it, are also barred from holding concerts, with authorities refusing to issue the necessary permits.
While many have fled the country, complaining of persecution, others have found a way around the media blackout: just praise the president! Parading in front of the capital city Dushanbe's phallic flagpole, stars such as Boron now rap about how President Rahmon is "God's shadow [in] paradise on Earth."
Ashgabat – The Marble City of Love
First Published in Caravanistan, 21/08/2016
Demarcating the border with Iran, the Kopet Dag Mountains glimmered in the distance as we sped along a six-lane superhighway lined with parched earth coloured tanks. Entering the outskirts of Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, conurbations were soon consumed by the otherworldly megalopolis. As we approached the city centre, a giant billboard of current President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow offered his welcome, endless white marble towers spreading out before us. Welcome to the retro-futurist capital of one of the most closed-off countries on Earth.
The Museum City of Khiva
First Published in IndraStra, 20/08/2016
We set out for Ichon-Qala - the walled inner city of Khiva, Uzbekistan - at five AM. Standing sentry by its entrance, covered in a fine green patina, a statue of Al-Khorezm looked stern and unforgiving. The ninth century Khivan mathematician, whose name Westerners morphed into the word algorithm, his al-jabr (algebra) still forms the basis of schoolchildren’s nightmares.
According to legend, Khiva was founded by Shem, son of Noah. Coming to prominence after the Amu Darya River changed its course away from Konye-Urgench. Khiva became a state capital under the Uzbek Shaybanids in the late sixteenth century. Prospering as a slave town on the old Silk Road, it’s bazaars sold those souls unfortunate enough to be captured on the Kara-Kum (Black Sand) Desert or the Kazakh Steppe.
Case of Ablyazovs’ Highlights ‘Lack of Political Will’ to Tackle Kleptocracy in the UK
First Published in IndraStra Global, 22/03/2018
The biggest fraud case in British history, almost nine years since the case of BTA Bank v Mukhtar Ablyazov first appeared in the UK courts, a new round of litigation has been set into motion, whilst lawsuits are also ongoing in France, Kazakhstan and the United States. From a British perspective, cases involving Ablyazov, his family and entourage have served to emphasise how through a mixture of oversight and institutional failures, the UK has become a bolthole for politically exposed persons and a haven for money laundering. In London alone, £4.2 billion of properties are owned by individuals with ‘suspicious wealth.’ However, NGOs and former ministers alike point to a ‘lack of political will’ to tackle these issues.
The Ablyazov Affair: ‘Fraud on an Epic Scale’
New rounds of litigation add to the opaque case of fugitive ex-Kazakh minister Mukhtar Ablyazov
First Published in The Diplomat, 23/02/2018
With the ninth anniversary of his flight from the authorities in his homeland of Kazakhstan fast approaching, the raft of transnational court cases involving fugitive embezzler Mukhtar Ablyazov show no sign of abating. In a saga which stretches from an institutional aversion to tackling kleptocracy in the United Kingdom, to U.S President Donald Trump’s shady business partners, the murky world of Mukhtar Ablyazov even led his family to make a pit stop in the Central African Republic to pick-up diplomatic passports. Yet despite having judgements against him totaling $4.9 billion in the British courts alone, almost six years since he fled from the UK to avoid three concurrent 22-month sentences for contempt of court, Ablyazov remains a free man, living the high life in France whilst bemoaning his plight to be a simple case of “political persecution.”
Trade and Transgression -
From Almaty to the Khorgos Free Trade Zone
First Published in Eurasian Perspective, 19/02/2018
With its pyramids of fruit and hall of butchers, Zelyony is fast becoming Almaty’s largest bazaar, in part because its chief rival, Barakholka keeps going up in flames. Hugely profitable and completely unregulated, at its peak 180,000 people worked in the Barakholka complex, but a power struggle in the grey area between the government and organised crime has seen traders fall on hard times. As Barakholka falters, meanwhile, in December 2011 a 5.3 square kilometre free trade zone officially opened in the barrens of Khorgos on the border with China. By 2020, Khorgos is set to become the largest dry port on Earth, but this tax haven offers little in the way of benefits to the region.
Back in the USSR: The Spirit of Beatlemania in Kazakhstan
First Published in Open Central Asia Magazine American Edition, Winter 2017 Edition
At the western end of the main drag in the former Kazakh capital, Almaty, a cable car ascends the 1,100-meter Kok-Tobe (Green Hill) above the city, a welcome respite from the sweltering summer heat where a cast bronze of the Beatles takes pride of place. Erected in 1997, it once claimed to be the only statue in the world of the ‘fab four’ together. Kissing their metallic likenesses, laughing babushkas hung from their necks. It all felt a bit incongruous until I spoke to Gabit Sagatov from the Kazakh Beatles.
Karabakh: De-mining Continues Amid Rising Tension
First Published in EurasiaNet, 31/08/2017
For almost thirty years now, there has never been a lasting peace in the mountainous Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, a would-be nation unrecognised by any UN member states. When conflict broke out in 1988, few would have predicted that it would prove to be the first domino that would lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, the fighting has left tens of thousands dead and over a million people displaced.
When I travelled to Karabakh in July 2017, tensions were high following recent fatalities – including a two-year-old girl on the Azerbaijani side on the line of control - and intensive shelling had resumed. With the Halo Trust, I visited minefields in territories beyond the Soviet-era border and talked with staff about the difficulty of operating in such an unstable environment.
Uzbekistan's Dictator Is Dead – What Happens Next?
First Published in Vice, 02/09/2016
Late last night, rumours began to emerge from Uzbek sources that President Karimov – the man who's ruled the country since the fall of the Soviet Union – has died. Western news outlets have now confirmed the dictator's passing. As with all the Central Asian dictators, no succession plans have been put in place. Gods don't foresee their own demise. So who are the would-be successors waiting to step into the void and what would happen if they came to power?
Dreaming of the Sea: A Journey to Moynaq, Uzbekistan
First Published in Open Central Asia Magazine, Summer 2016 Edition
At its peak, Moynaq was home to 60,000 people, mostly fishermen and their extended families, the Aral Sea producing up to thirty percent of the Soviet catch and saving Russia from widespread famine in the 1920s. The town served as a popular beach resort for bureaucrats, its airport hosting 50 flights a day. With the Aral Sea’s trunks siphoned off for cotton cultivation, though, by the eighties, tourism had dried up. Digging channels through the sand in pursuit of the diminishing sea, Moynaq’s fishermen discarded their ships where they became grounded. By 2007, the Aral was one-tenth the size it had been in 1960.
The Man Trying to Save the Philippine Tarsier from the Black Market
First Published in Motherboard, 25/03/2016
Within the Philippines, the transformation story of the Tarsier Man is well known: Carlito Pizarras, once a local hunter, is now a champion for the conservation of one of the world’s smallest primates—so much so that the Philippine tarsier's original Latin name, Tarsius syrichta, was changed to Carlito syrichta to honor his work. I traveled to the island of Bohol to interview Pizarras, who is now field supervisor of the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary, and find out what precipitated his change of heart.
Earth's Deepest Lake is 'Seriously Ill'
First Published in Motherboard, 07/12/2015
Stretching for 395 miles, thirty-million-year-old Baikal is the world’s deepest lake, its volume roughly equivalent to the five Great Lakes of North America combined. AUNESCO World Heritage Site, Baikal contains one-fifth of the unfrozen freshwater on the planet. Its unique closed ecosystem is home to over 3,500 species and subspecies of animals and plants, roughly sixty percent of which are not to be found anywhere else on Earth. The lake is now facing a range of environmental issues: phosphate run-off from unplanned tourist developments and poor sewage treatment, the rampant growth of algae mats, a sponge die-off and low inflow that saw water levels hit critical marks this year, down 40cm since 2013.
Meet the Laotians Clearing Their Country of America's Unexploded Bombs
First Published in Vice, 01/06/2015
The nation of Laos has been shaped by war. The country was dragged into the US-Vietnam conflict in 1953 when the Vietnamese-backed communist forces, the Pathet Lao began fighting for leadership, aiming to oust the Royal Lao Government. America responded by training around 30,000 Laotians, mostly from the Hmong tribe, to go to war against the communists. As both the US and Vietnam had signed a treaty guaranteeing Laos' neutrality, official details about America's involvement were vague, leading the press to dub the conflict the "Secret War".
Kazakhstan: Measuring the Northern Aral’s Comeback
First published in EurasiaNet 27/01/2015
When Soviet central planners decided to tap into Central Asia’s two major rivers, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, to provide water needed to grow cotton in arid Uzbekistan, they created the worst manmade environmental disaster in recorded history. Once the world’s fourth largest lake, over the past fifty years, the Aral Sea has shrunk to less than a tenth of its original size. Thanks to the Kokaral Dam, however, a small section of the sea in the north is reviving – and fish are returning. I went to take a look.
A Letter from Stepanakert: A Weary Calm amid War-Footing
First Published in EurasiaNet, 07/10/2014
In Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh, time marches on, even as the locals seem stuck in place. Try as they might to lead normal lives, there is no escaping the conflict with Azerbaijan, now in its 26th year. Men in military uniforms are omnipresent and the physical reminders of war are inescapable. Stepanakert was pummelled by Azerbaijani shellfire during the hot phase of the conflict in the early 1990s, and although much of the city has been rebuilt, plenty of buildings still bear the scars of those bombardments.
Road of Sorrow - Trafficking and Ethnicity on the Pamir Highway
First published in Registan, 04/09/2014
An ancient Silk Road route in use for millennia, the Pamirsky Trakt begins in Kyrgyzstan, running the length of Tajikistan and down through Uzbekistan before terminating in Afghanistan. Ninety tonnes of heroin is trafficked through Tajikistan each year, much of it passing through the poverty stricken, self-governing Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) along this desolate route.
The Uzbek Museum of Banned Soviet Art
First published in Vice, 22/04/2014
One of the sickest places on Earth, typhoid, hepatitis and tuberculosis are rife in the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, birth defect and infant mortality rates amongst the highest in the world. Toxic dust-storms so vast they are visible from space ravage a half a million kilometre square area, spreading salt, nitrates and carcinogens. Yet in this shutdown ecosystem, a remarkable collection of art smuggled out of the Soviet Union has survived precisely because of its inhospitable location.
Bishkek’s Independence Day Celebrations: Ulak Tartysh, the Art of Dead Goat Grabbing
First Published in Caravanistan 02/05/2014
Independence Day festivities take place in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan on August 31st, traditional dancers and Russian hustlers performing as fountains dance in time to the pounding beat. With people fleeing for their lives, in the Hippodrome a game of Buzkashi – equestrian rugby with a goat’s carcass for a ball - degenerates into a stampede. A goose stepping military parade closes the official festivities, at which point, with people exhibiting their prize pigeons and rabbits, the vodka terrorism truly begins.
Turkmenistan Has Its Very Own 'Gate to Hell'
First Published in Vice 08/04/2014
Travelling through Turkmenistan, the second most closed-offf country in the world, I paid a visit to the ramshackle village of Darvaza, located in the middle of the Karakum Desert. Meaning 'The Gate' in Turkmen, Darvaza is the closest settlement to a Russian gas rig which collapsed in 1971, the entire drilling station disappearing into the cavernous crater beneath it. Despite numerous Presidential decrees that the settlement should be demolished and the flames extinguished, the fire continues to burn.
I Took a Trip Down Tajikistan's Heroin Highway
First Published in Vice 18/06/2014
Beginning in the Kyrgyz second city of Osh, the Pamir Highway – the second highest international road in the world - runs the length of Tajikistan and down through Uzbekistan before terminating in Afghanistan. Ninety tonnes of heroin is trafficked through Tajikistan each year, much of it passing through the poverty stricken, self-governing Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) along this desolate route. I travelled the Pamir Highway to Khorog, capital of the GBAO, where in July 2012, fighting broke after a regional security chief was dragged from his car and stabbed. Helicopter gunships whizzing overhead, over a hundred died in the ensuing battle between drug-runners, locals and government forces. Seeing how the town was recovering in the wake of the conflict, I found an alpine town full of bullet holes where opium oases hugged the hillsides and the villages of Afghanistan were just metres away across a river filled with burnt out vehicles.