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Central Asia Report: February 16, 2006

16 February 2006, Volume 6, Number 6

WEEK AT A GLANCE (6-12 February). Kazakhstan maintained robust economic growth in 2005, with gross domestic product (GDP) rising 9.4 percent, the same rate as in 2004. Economy Minister Kairat Kelimbetov told the cabinet that the average growth forecast for 2006-08 is 8.5 percent. But industrial production rose only 4.6 percent in 2005, as compared to 10.4 percent in 2004. The National Fund, created to set aside surplus energy-sector revenues, rose from $5.1 billion to $8 billion in 2005. Industry and Commerce Minister Vladimir Shkolnik said that Kazakhstan could join the World Trade Organization in 2007 if it finishes the negotiating process in 2006. Shkolnik noted that Kazakhstan is coordinating its WTO accession efforts with Russia.

Omurbek Tekebaev, the speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, set off a political furor when he referred to President Kurmanbek Bakiev as a "disgrace" and a "dog." The remarks came in the midst of rising tension between the president and parliament. Tekebaev, whose comments drew broad censure, subsequently submitted his resignation. Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev warned that Tekebaev's words were in violation of the law, and said that the current political crisis could lead to the dissolution of parliament. Elsewhere, Prime Minister Feliks Kulov said in an open letter to the president that he has "repeatedly" informed Bakiev that organized criminal elements have high-level government sponsors. But when Bakiev later addressed a meeting of the Security Council, he said that allegations of the criminalization of Kyrgyz society in the wake of the 24 March 2005 fall of President Askar Akaev are a "myth." Bakiev also said, "Recent events with parliament have further convinced me that we need to move in the direction of a system of government with an executive head of state." On the social front, the government set up a commission to get to the bottom of an apparent clash between Dungans and ethnic Kyrgyz in the village of Iskra.

Tajikistan's Democratic Party, Socialist Party, and Social Democratic Party issued a statement charging that Russian Ambassador Ramazan Abdulatipov interfered in Tajik internal affairs and calling on the Foreign Ministry to clarify its position on recent comments by Abdulatipov. The Russian envoy had said in an interview that there are no real opponents to Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov in the country's upcoming November presidential election.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov announced that his country plans to raise the export price of natural gas from $65 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters in the fall. If it happens, the price hike could affect a recently announced deal between Ukraine and Russia on 2006 gas shipments, since the agreement depends on cheap Turkmen gas to allow Ukraine to pay an average price of $95 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2006. Elsewhere on the energy front, Jan Kubis, EU special representative for Central Asia, met with Niyazov to discuss possible shipments of Turkmen energy resources to Europe, and Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler has confirmed that Turkey and Turkmenistan are holding talks on the construction of a trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline.

An Uzbek court rejected U.S.-based NGO Freedom House's appeal of an 11 January ruling suspending the organization's activities in Uzbekistan for six months. Nikolai Bordyuzha, secretary-general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan) visited Tashkent and met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov. And Uzbekistan's cabinet announced that GDP growth stood at 7 percent in 2005, a slight falloff from 2004 official GDP growth of 7.7 percent in 2004.

NEW CLOUT, OLD UNCERTAINTIES IN TURKMENISTAN. Turkmenistan's importance as a source of gas was underlined in the New Year when Russia and Ukraine ended their highly controversial dispute with a deal that depends on supplies of Turkmen gas. In recent weeks, Turkmenistan has reinforced its new prominence by trying to promote a range of new pipelines that would make it central to a new web of energy-based relationships. Turkmenistan's bid to increase its clout on the global energy market is again on show now, with Afghan, Pakistani, and Indian diplomats currently meeting in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, to discuss a new pipeline.

And, with oil and gas prices stable in the stratosphere, energy clout is rapidly becoming the watchword of the 21st century. Russia's status as a crucial supplier of natural gas to Europe, for example, is a major source of the onetime military superpower's current geopolitical significance. Two Central Asian countries -- Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan -- are also potential major energy players, but so far the region's isolation from international markets and dependence on Russian export routes have kept it on the periphery of global energy politics. Now, though, the unpredictable ruler of Central Asia's most isolated nation, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, appears committed to a serious campaign to move Turkmenistan from the wings to center-stage.

That aim was demonstrated again on 10 February, when Niyazov announced on national television that Turkmenistan intends this autumn to raise the export price of its natural gas from $65 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters. This gambit comes at a time when Turkmen gas is increasingly tied into a complex international equation, as a deal recently brokered between Ukraine and Russia depends on cheap Turkmen gas. Under the deal, Ukraine would pay an average price of $95 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2006.

The Impact Of Turkmenistan's Clout

Such a price hike would pinch Ukraine's economy painfully. Ukraine is slated to import 17 billion cubic meters of Russian gas and 39 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas in 2006, according to the news website A 53 percent increase in the price of Turkmen gas would raise the average price Ukraine pays for its total imports from Russia and Turkmenistan by 20-25 percent, from $95 to $114-119 per 1,000 cubic meters. Other estimates run higher. An unidentified source in Gazprom, the state-run Russian company that handles gas exports, told the Russian business newspaper "Vedomosti" that if Turkmenistan charges $100, Ukraine would have to pay $130 for imports.

The problem for Ukraine is that crucial sectors of Ukrainian industry are no longer profitable once the price of imported natural gas rises above $100. Arif Zeinalov, an analyst with the Russian financial group Interfin Trade, told that such a price increase could undo the Russian-Ukrainian deal that emerged from politically fraught talks after Gazprom briefly cut off supplies to Ukraine in the New Year. Zeinalov believes that "if prices rise to this level, there will be a new round of very complicated talks. There will be a chain-reaction review of all the other conditions of the contract. Kyiv's first condition will be to raise the transit rate."

Mikhail Bakulev, an analyst with Moscow-based AVK Group, also feels a Turkmen price hike would impact Russian-Ukrainian relations. "Niyazov's decision is beneficial to Russia, since Moscow gets an additional mechanism to pressure Ukraine," he told

Not everyone agrees. Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov, for one, reportedly reacted calmly. Interfax-Ukraine said that Yekhanurov called the Turkmen price hike "unofficial" and said "this has no bearing whatsoever on our relations regarding supplies of natural gas." Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksandr Hudyma, a member of the Ukrainian parliament's energy committee, told "Vedomosti" that Niyazov's price hike statement represented an attempt to pressure Russia. Hudyma said Russia, which is currently an irreplaceable export route for Turkmen gas, could and should resist Turkmenistan's pressure, especially since an increase in the price of Turkmen gas could trigger price rises across the board, affecting Russian relations with the European Union. The New Year clash between Ukraine and Russia had already left Europeans feeling jittery about the security of oil and gas supplies from former Soviet states.

While Niyazov's desire to boost the price of Turkmen gas from double- to triple-digit levels hardly requires an explanation, his latest public statement may be intended to influence more private negotiations, "Vremya Novostei" suggested on 13 February. The newspaper wrote that when Niyazov traveled to Russia in January and met with President Vladimir Putin, he asked for a share in the export profits from the resale of Turkmen gas. Gazprom's head, Aleksei Miller, is due in Ashgabat for a new round of negotiations on 18 February, and Niyazov's public threat of a price hike could be seen as a curtain-raiser to their talks.

Ambitions Abroad, Uncertainties At Home

Moreover, recent reports from Turkmenistan indicate that Niyazov may be experiencing a cash crunch. Niyazov's latest domestic initiative involved unprecedented pension reductions, with 200,000 retirees now receiving smaller monthly payments, 100,000 getting nothing at all, and some unlucky souls even facing the prospect of reimbursing the state for pensions suddenly deemed to have been overly generous.

And Niyazov continues to explore alternate export routes for Turkmenistan's natural gas. Recent talks have touched on the possibility of a trans-Caspian pipeline and a pipeline to China. On 14-15 February, the steering committee of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) pipeline is set to meet in Ashgabat, with an Indian delegation for the first time joining ministerial-level delegations from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and, of course, Turkmenistan.

TAP has a checkered past and unclear prospects, with critics pointing to questions about Turkmenistan's reserves and security concerns in Afghanistan. The latest round of talks is unlikely to resolve those issues. However, in bringing together Indian and Pakistani ministers for a project with peaceable ramifications for the two countries and for a project of undeniable significance for Afghanistan's economic future, Turkmenistan is underlining its growing importance as an energy supplier. Russia's deal with Ukraine, brokered with the help of Turkmen gas, made much the same point.

But the point comes with a catch. Even as Turkmenistan beings to flex its muscles as an energy supplier, it remains the region's quintessential black box -- ruled by a president-for-life who is his own political system, shut off from the outside world behind a dense thicket of state-controlled media that extol a new golden age, and described in independent reports as a land of harsh repression, decaying health care, dysfunctional education, rising drug abuse, and careering corruption. In short, at the very moment when Turkmenistan's energy reserves have thrust it onto the international stage, no one has any idea where the country is really headed. (By Daniel Kimmage. Originally published on 14 February.)

TURKMEN PIPELINE LONG IN THE PIPELINE. Officials from Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan are holding talks in Turkmenistan on 14 February about the prospects of starting a long-delayed pipeline project that would export Turkmen natural gas to the energy-hungry markets of South Asia.

The project has been in the works for many years and its strategic significance for Turkmenistan is undoubted, as the pipeline would be able to export gas to new, important markets without crossing the Russian border, freeing it from potential political interference from Moscow.

In 2002, when they signed off on the $3.5 billion pipeline, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf called the project "vital" to their countries. Though not one of the original partners in the project, India too is interested and its oil and gas minister, Dinsha Patel, is leading a large delegation of observers at the Ashgabat gathering. Reports from New Delhi suggest Patel will be seeking to gain a clearer picture of the technical, commercial, and legal frameworks for the project, which would deliver gas to India through an extension of the main pipeline to Pakistan.

A Long-Blocked Pipeline

Yet, for all the interest, the project has yet to get off the ground.

"This project is written on paper," says the Pakistani political and defense consultant Hasan-Askari Rizvi, but "there's nothing beyond that." The stumbling block is the security situation in Afghanistan, Rizvi says.

The idea of a pipeline was shelved in the 1990s, when the radical Taliban militia gained power in Afghanistan, and security has remained poor since their fall in 2001, with the Karzai government failing to gain effective control over large swathes of the country. "Had Afghanistan been stable, this project would have started, because it was discussed years ago, but [instead] it has remained on the table," Rizvi says.

Despite such obstacles, Turkmenistan's oil and gas minister, Gurbanmurat Ataev, reiterated on 14 February that his country considers the pipeline a priority export route. He cited the proximity and rapid growth of the South Asian market as key attractions.

Huge Reserves Have Not Brought Wealth

Two possible routes are on the table. A southern route would pass through territory still contested by Taliban remnants and the insurgents, then through Baluchistan in Pakistan, and on to India. The second, northern route would have a shorter Afghan leg.

India has tended to favor a different project, one that would deliver Iranian natural gas directly to Pakistan without passing through Afghanistan.

The United States favors the Turkmen pipeline over the Iran pipeline, as it does not want to see the region relying on Iran for some of its energy needs.

The Ashgabat meeting continues into 15 February. Officials were taken on 13 February on a sightseeing tour of the gas field at Dauletabad, whose vast reserves should ensure that Turkmenistan will remain the biggest natural gas producer in the former Soviet Union, after Russia.

The landlocked Central Asian state has the fourth-largest gas reserves of any country in the world. However, large hydrocarbon revenues have not brought to Turkmenistan the prosperity that one might expect, and it remains one of the world's poorest countries. (By Breffni O'Rourke. Originally published on 14 February.)

KAZAKH OPPOSITION BLAMES REGIME FOR SARSENBAEV'S DEATH. The bodies of Altynbek Sarsenbaev -- a co-chairman of the Naghyz Ak Zhol opposition party -- his bodyguard, and his driver were found in the Almaty outskirts early on 13 February. The three were shot dead. A former information minister and also the former ambassador to Russia, Sarsenbaev was an outspoken critic of Kazakhstan's current regime.

The leader of For a Just Kazakhstan, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, declared that Sarsenbaev's killing was politically motivated.

"Altynbek Sarsenbaev and his two young aides, Baurzhan Baibosyn and Vasily Zhuravliov, died tragically at the hands of murderers," Tuyakbai declared. "They were killed like sheep, like cattle, with their hands tied behind their back. They were shot in the back and then in the back of their heads. That is proof that it was a political murder."

A Result Of Regime's Policy

Sarsenbaev had been missing since late on 11 February. The bodies were found in a mountain gorge near Almaty by local villagers on 13 February.

Tuyakbai ruled out other -- nonpolitical -- reasons behind Sarsenbaev's death, saying that his ally was not involved in business and did not have enemies either in business or criminal circles.

Tuyakbai said Sarsenbaev's political activity with the country's opposition was the only possible explanation for his death.

"This [killing] reflects the current state of the society, of the current regime headed by Mr. [Nursultan] Nazarbaev, and it causes our fear. Because what we see today is a result of the regime's policy."

Sarsenbaev, 43, was one of the strongest members in Kazakhstan's political opposition to President Nazarbaev.

A Resignation In Protest

Sarsenbaev, who was a government official and served as Kazakh ambassador to Russia, joined the opposition in 2003, when he also declared his intention to run for president.

Soon after that he accepted the post of information minister. But he resigned three months later -- after the September 2004 parliamentary polls -- as a way of protesting what he called unfair elections.

He was a member of the Ak Zhol (Bright Path) opposition party until its split in early 2005.

Sarsenbaev and fellow opposition members Bulat Abilov and Oraz Zhandosov formed Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) in April 2005.

Sarsenbaev was subject to government pressure ahead of the presidential elections on 4 December when the incumbent, Nazarbaev, got an overwhelming 91 percent of the vote.

Similar Slaying In December 2005

In summer 2005, Sarsenbaev publicized alleged violations of the law by Nazarbaev's daughter, Darigha, in the building of Khabar -- her media empire -- which is the country's most powerful. A court fined him for slandering Khabar.

In November 2005, the opposition alleged that police had beaten two of Sarsenbaev's nephews. The allegation came days after Sarsenbaev was injured in a meeting between the opposition and some citizens at a campaign rally.

Sarsenbaev's alleged murder came exactly three months after the death of Zamanbek Nurkadilov, another whistleblower on Nazarbaev's regime who publicly accused the incumbent president of corruption. He also had threatened to disclose materials proving presidential corruption. Nurkadilov was found dead on 12 November in his Almaty apartment. He had three wound gunshot wounds -- two in the heart and one in the head. The police ruled the incident a suicide.

Bulat Abilov, a cochairman of Naghyz Ak Zhol who identified Sarsenbaev's body at the place where it was found, spoke at a 14 February press conference. He accused the country's security services of being behind the two murders. "We want to state that the authorities are responsible for these murders," he said. "None of them was investigated to its conclusion. It is the country's president, Mr. Nazarbaev, who has a personal responsibility for this."

Abilov's fellow party member from Naghyz Ak Zhol, Tulegen Zhukeev, said it was Sarsenbaev's political activity that bothered government officials. And he ruled out the suggestion that Sarsenbaev was planning to reveal some incriminating information regarding the current regime.

"You can't say Altynbek was murdered because he possessed information that some people feared would be disclosed," Zhukeev said. "What was threatening [for authorities] were Altynbek's position, his intellect, and political talent. He was neutralized because he might cause discomfort for the authorities. This is what I believe. There is no other reason. It is a political issue."

Nazarbaev Orders Investigation

Opposition leaders demanded the government conduct a fair investigation into Sarsenbaev's death. They said they have formed a public committee that will conduct an independent investigation into the killing.

President Nazarbaev, who is currently on vacation, expressed condolences to Sarsenbaev's family and ordered a thorough investigation on 13 February.

Authorities said on 13 February that the investigation is being overseen by Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedjanov.

An Almaty city police department officer, who spoke to RFE/RL on the condition of anonymity, said that an investigation has been launched, though he refused to give details.

Speaking to RFE/RL from Washington on 14 February, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Amanda Rogers-Harper called for a fair investigation of Sarsenbaev's killing.

"We call upon Kazakhstan to conduct an immediate and thorough investigation into the circumstances of [Sarsenbaev's] death, as well as the deaths of the two professional associates whose bodies were found with his," she said.

Nazarbaev's press service announced that a press conference on the opposition figure's death would be held in Astana on 14 February. But the event was later cancelled. No reason for its cancellation was given. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova, with contribution from RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. Originally published on 14 February.)

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT SPEAKER COMES UNDER FIRE. It was a tense political day in Kyrgyzstan on 9 February as the country's Security Council met and discussed security issues amid calls for the resignation of parliament speaker Omurbek Tekebaev. It is a decision only the parliament can make and was also a topic at the day's parliamentary session. Some deputies are calling for an emergency session of parliament on 10 February or 13 February to discuss Tekebaev's resignation. Meanwhile, President Kurmanbek Bakiev, after attending the Security Council session, announced plans to reform the country's law-enforcement agencies.

Omurbek Tekebaev, the speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, may be the next high-level official to resign from his post. Reports on 8 February claim Tekebaev was planning to hand in his resignation, a fact not yet confirmed by the speaker himself.

Tekebaev tried to attend the 9 February Security Council session, where his reported resignation was among the topics on the agenda. But the head of the presidential administration, Usen Sydykov, said that President Kurmanbek Bakiev would not attend the session if Tekebaev was present. Sydykov said Tekebaev had insulted the president in comments broadcast by an independent television station on 7 February. Tekebaev then left the room.

Debate Over His Fate

On 9 February Tekebaev was the subject of debate in parliament as well. Prosecutor-General Kambaraaly Kongantiev spoke about Tekebaev's recent comments on television.

"As a former deputy and as a chief prosecutor now, I have to emphasize that the speaker Omurbek Tekebaev's destructive activity is raising confrontation between parliament and the president of Kyrgyzstan, and between parliament and government," he said. "Such a situation confirms a crisis, provoked by confrontation between the parliament and other government institutions. These circumstances, according to our constitution, can become a reason for the dissolution of parliament by the Kyrgyz president."

Some leaders of nongovernmental organizations were urging Tekebaev not to resign. There were rallies on 9 February both for and against the speaker held in Tekebaev's home region of Jalal-Abad.

These latest events follow the 8 February decision by President Bakiev to accept the resignation of Security Council Deputy Secretary Vyacheslav Khan and dismissing the first deputy chief of the National Security Service, Abdijalil Jamalov. Parliament previously approved both moves.

Bakiev said more changes will soon be coming to the country's law-enforcement agencies. "I think that the time has come for a cardinal recovery and reorganization of all the branches of law enforcement, from the militia to the courts," he said.

Bakiev appointed parliament member Kubatbek Baibolov to head a new commission overseeing the reform of law-enforcement agencies.

Reforming Security Services

The move comes amid an overhaul of Kyrgyzstan's security agencies, which started after Kyrgyz Prime Minister Feliks Kulov accused police and other security forces on 25 January of total failure in combating organized crime and corruption.

Baibolov said he would prepare a reform plan and present it to the president soon. "I have agreed with President [Kurmanbek Bakiev]. I told him my condition that I will form a structure of the commission myself," he said. "Then we will work on [the concept of the reforms of the law-enforcement system] and we will propose it [to the Kyrgyz president]."

But Edil Baisalov, the president of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a grouping of NGOs, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that such commissions have been formed in the past without any noticeable effect.

"You know, there were a lot of such commissions in the past. All were left in the papers. There will not be any result [from establishing another commission]. There is a necessity for the political will in order to fight organized crime and corruption and to resolve other issues," Baisalov said.

Bakiev gave Baibolov one month to come up with a reform plan for law enforcement. Tekebaev has until 13 February before his fate as speaker is decided. (By Bruce Pannier, with contribution from Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. Originally published on 9 February.)