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Central Asia Report: February 24, 2006

24 February 2006, Volume 6, Number 7

WEEK AT A GLANCE (13-19 February). The assassination of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev set off a political firestorm in Kazakhstan. Sarsenbaev, a co-chairman of the opposition party Naghyz Ak Zhol, was found shot to death on the outskirts of Almaty alongside the bodies of his bodyguard and driver. All three were killed execution-style. Kazakh authorities promised a thorough investigation as opposition representatives charged that Sarsenbaev's killing was politically motivated. Elsewhere, the Justice Ministry denied the opposition party Alga registration, claiming that its application contained forged materials. And Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov told parliament that the government is finalizing a deal to acquire a 33 percent stake in the Canadian-registered, Chinese-owned oil company PetroKazakhstan.

General Vladimir Mikhailov, commander of Russia's air forces, announced in the course of a visit to Kyrgyzstan that Russia plans to boost its military presence in the country, tripling the number of aircraft at its base in Kant and boosting the number of servicemen by 150 percent from current levels of around 500. Russia also agreed to help train Kyrgyz pilots. President Kurmanbek Bakiev said that Kyrgyzstan has asked the United States to pay $207 million for the lease of its base at Manas, up from roughly $2 million in current annual payments. Bakiev denied that he is involved in a "standoff" with Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, but he criticized parliament as a "well-prepared show" and warned that he will dissolve the legislature if it chooses the "path of confrontation." The Supreme Court upheld a lower court's decision denying two jailed Uzbeks refugee status, clearing the way for their possible extradition to Uzbekistan. And security forces in Osh stopped a charter flight to the United Arab Emirates with 61 young women, most of them from Uzbekistan, suspected of traveling to engage in prostitution.

Seven Tajik officials face criminal charges over a January fire at a Dushanbe orphanage that killed 13 people. And Tajikistan's Supreme Court suspended the August 2005 sentence of Mukhtor Boqizoda, editor in chief of the opposition newspaper "Nerui Sukhan." Boqizoda had been convicted of stealing electricity and sentenced to two years of corrective labor, a verdict the Committee to Protect Journalists described as "politically motivated."

The ninth meeting of the steering committee for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan natural-gas pipeline took place in Ashgabat with ministerial-level delegations from all three countries. Dinsha J. Patel, India's minister of state for petroleum and natural gas, also attended as an observer. Gurbanmurat Ataev, Turkmenistan's oil and gas minister, announced that his country's Davlatabad gas field has reserves of 4.5 trillion cubic meters, data he attributed to an audit by U.S.-based firm DeGolyer and MacNaughton. Ataev also said that Turkmenistan's natural-gas export capacity now exceeds 100 billion cubic meters a year, an eye-catching increase in light of 2005 export totals of 45.5 billion cubic meters. President Saparmurat Niyazov met with a Ukrainian delegation headed by Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov. Niyazov later told Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko that Ukraine owes Turkmenistan $158.9 million for previous gas shipments and must pay up as soon as possible. The Turkmen president also held a cordial meeting with Aleksei Miller, head of Russia's Gazprom, to discuss future Russian purchases of Turkmen gas and a role for Gazprom in Turkmen gas production.

Nikolai Bordyuzha, secretary-general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO; comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia), announced that Uzbekistan has not applied to rejoin the CSTO, which it quit in 1999. But Bordyuzha, who recently visited Uzbekistan, noted, "If we arrive at a mutual understanding on addressing comprehensive security issues, this issue will be resolved in the future." Elsewhere, the prosecutor in the trial of Nodira Hidoyatova asked the court to sentence Hidoyatova, coordinator of the opposition Sunshine Coalition, to 12 years in prison. Hidoyatova, who stands accused of a variety of economic crimes, maintains her innocence.

KYRGYZSTAN: HARDBALL POLITICS WITH NO WINNERS. It has been almost a year since Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev abandoned the ship of state as a crowd seethed in Bishkek on 24 March 2005. The intervening months have passed in an atmosphere of tenuous calm punctuated by high-profile killings and flaring political tensions. In recent weeks the strains within the ruling elite have increased to a level suggestive of systemic crisis.

The latest upswing in political tension took the form of public statements by Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, President Kurmanbek Bakiev, and parliamentary speaker Omurbek Tekebaev. They articulated mutually opposed visions of what is now happening in Kyrgyzstan, with Kulov cautioning that organized crime is a cancerous growth on the body politic, Bakiev blasting parliament for obstructionism, and Tekebaev personally attacking the president and expressing disappointment in the results of Akaev's ouster.

Premier Says Corruption, Criminality Prevalent

On 25 January, Prime Minister Kulov issued a statement warning that corruption and criminality have penetrated law-enforcement bodies. Kulov singled out National Security Service (SNB) head Tashtemir Aitbaev for failing to fight organized crime, called the work of the judiciary and prosecutors "extremely unsatisfactory," and concluded that the creeping criminalization of society "directly affects the interests of business and exerts a negative influence on the economy" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2006). The same day, Interior Minister Murat Sutalinov told a parliamentary committee that Aldoyar Ismankulov, an SNB officer detained on 17 January on drug and weapons charges, was a member of an organized crime group. Sutalinov added, "It is a fact that members of organized crime groups work in the SNB."

Criminalization is a hot-button issue in post-Akaev Kyrgyzstan, where a number of prominent figures, including three members of parliament, have died in apparent contract killings. But Kulov's remarks may have had a more recent trigger. On 24 January, a court in Bishkek acquitted Ryspek Akmatbaev, routinely described in news reports as one of Kyrgyzstan's most feared mob bosses, of multiple murder charges, reported. The acquittal was a foregone conclusion, as prosecutors had already dropped charges against Akmatbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2006).

Akmatbaev and Kulov had already locked horns in October, when Akmatbaev's brother, Tynychbek Akmatbaev, was brutally killed by inmates during a visit to a prison in an effort to quell a riot. Akmatbaev accused Kulov of involvement in the killing and in late October staged a series of demonstrations in Bishkek calling for Kulov's dismissal. The protests sparked widespread fears that Kyrgyz politics were degenerating into a gangland melee. In his 25 January statement on the criminal menace, Kulov used Akmatbaev's acquittal as a specific example.

Kyrgyzstan's parliament endorsed Kulov's criticism of SNB head Tashtemir Aitbaev, passing a resolution on 26 January calling on President Bakiev to dismiss Aitbaev. Bakiev refused. His office issued a statement saying, "The president said that he has not been provided with evidence on the basis of which he would be able to dismiss the incumbent chief of the SNB." In a disapproving reference to Kulov's 25 January statement, Bakiev said that the "verbal duel" between Aitbaev and Kulov "is not a credit to either of them" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2006).

Bakiev Vs. Parliament

The president took on parliament directly in a 3 February address before the legislature, the official agency Kabar reported. Stressing that he had blocked plans to dissolve parliament after disputed elections in spring 2005, Bakiev described parliament's current relations with the executive as a "confrontation" and said that the legislature is "turning into a place for political squabbling, giving rise to an atmosphere of instability in the country." Charging that the parliament is going beyond its mandate, Bakiev asked deputies, "Are you trying to seize power?"

For those who might have had trouble reading between the lines, Bakiev underscored his message on 9 February, telling the Security Council in no uncertain terms that he supports a presidential system of government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2006). Driving the point home, Bakiev 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." The president also downplayed the prime minister's warnings on crime, calling criminalization a "myth" that is "nothing more than an attempt to create a sense of instability in the country, discredit the new authorities, and discredit -- once and for all -- the law-enforcement organs."

Meanwhile, parliamentary speaker Omurbek Tekebaev had raised the personal stakes in the aftermath of Bakiev's 3 February criticism of parliament. Tekebaev lashed out at Bakiev, saying, "He's become a disgrace, a dog; if he's a man, he should hang himself," reported. The comments caused an uproar and Tekebaev subsequently submitted his resignation, which parliament voted not to accept on 20 February. Tekebaev stopped short of an apology to Bakiev. Addressing parliament on 13 February, the speaker said that the form of his comments was "incorrect [and] unworthy," but he stood by their substance, "for virtually everyone agrees with the content" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2006). The speaker also defended the legislature, calling it the country's "most transparent branch of government," and expressed disappointment in both Bakiev and Kulov, who agreed in May 2005 to work as a tandem. Tekebaev said, "The participants of the tandem have forgotten about their promises."

Insulting The President

Tekebaev's disparagement of the president prompted a harsh response from Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev, who called Tekebaev's comments a violation of libel and defamation laws. Alluding to a "crisis caused by irreconcilable differences between parliament and the other branches of government," Kongantiev said that under the constitution, the situation could serve as justification for the dissolution of parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2006). President Bakiev made the warning explicit in a 15 February interview with the Russian daily "Kommersant," saying that if parliament chooses the "path of confrontation, I will use my constitutional right to dissolve it."

Three broad issues emerge from the fireworks. The first is a profound disagreement over the appropriate form of government for Kyrgyzstan -- presidential, parliamentary, or some mix of the two. Most of the nations that arose after the breakup of the Soviet Union opted for presidential systems, with constitutions that vested expansive powers in the chief executive. While intended to ensure stability in time of transition, presidential systems have also facilitated authoritarianism. In Kyrgyzstan, where the top-heavy presidential system was seen as a contributing factor in the abuses of the Akaev era, a constitutional-reform referendum is slated for 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2005). As the comments by Bakiev and Tekebaev indicate, the battle lines on this issue are already drawn.

The second issue is what Kulov referred to as "criminalization." But high-profile contract killings and public displays of muscle by organized crime groups are only the tip of the iceberg. The real problem runs deeper: an entire parallel, informal power structure of backroom deals, secret schemes, and outright scams that maintains the prosperity of a tiny, well-connected elite and diminishes the prospects of the impoverished majority. The anger at Akaev that was evident in March 2005 was above all anger at a corrupt status quo. When speaker Tekebaev told parliament on 13 February that he feels "bad that since the March [2005] revolution no changes have taken place in the mentality of officials," he meant that this status quo has endured.

The third issue involves the popular perception of the political class that is fated to play a crucial role in any attempt to reform Kyrgyzstan's system of government and remake its status quo. A political elite that goes beyond disagreement and plunges into discord runs the risk of undermining its own credibility. If the president accuses parliament of trying to seize power, if the speaker of parliament calls the president a "disgrace," and if the prime minister warns that criminals are taking over the state, ordinary Kyrgyz citizens anxious for positive change may well get tired of trying to figure out which of them is right, and decide that all of them are. (By Daniel Kimmage. Originally published on 20 February.)

KAZAKH AUTHORITIES SAY SUSPECTS CONFESS TO KILLING SARSENBAEV. Kazakh Interior Minister Bauyrzhan Mukhamedzhanov told journalists in Almaty on 20 February that the suspected killers of Kazakh opposition politician Altynbek Sarsenbaev have been found and have confessed to murder. He said five people confessed to carrying out the assassination of Sarsenbaev -- a former government official and co-chair of the opposition Naghyz Ak Zhol party -- who was found dead along with his driver and bodyguard on 13 February.

Interior Minister Mukhamedzhanov said the five people detained as suspects in Sarsenbaev's killing have been interrogated and confessed to the crime. He added that a sixth person was detained as a suspected organizer of the killing.

Alleged Confessions

"We can't disclose names of the detained," he said. "All of them were arrested and are being interrogated now. They have already confessed."

The official gave details of the confessions, saying that the killing was ordered. "The organizer ordered the perpetrators to arrange the abduction of a certain businessman and deliver him to an agreed location," he said. "For doing this job, he offered them a $25,000 reward after the job was completed."

Sarsenbaev, a former Kazakh minister of information and former Kazakh ambassador to Russia, was also a co-chair of the opposition Naghyz Ak Zhol Party (True Bright Path).

He had been missing since the afternoon of 11 February. On 13 February, Sarsenbaev, his bodyguard, and his driver were found shot dead in a mountain gorge near Almaty by local villagers on 13 February.

The interior minister said the suspects abducted Sarsenbaev late on 11 February from his car, took him to the Almaty suburbs, and assassinated him and the other two men there.

Second Opposition Figure Slain In Three Months

Sarsenbaev is the second opposition figure murdered in the last three months. In mid-November, prominent opposition member Zamanbek Nurkadilov's body was found in his Almaty apartment with three gunshot wounds.

An official investigation concluded that Nurkadilov had committed suicide. The opposition ruled out this conclusion, arguing that Nurkadilov would not be able to shoot himself twice in the chest and once in the head.

The opposition claimed that political reasons were behind the death of Sarsenbaev as well.

On 14 February, the opposition group For a Just Kazakhstan held a press conference in Almaty. The group's leader, 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 said. "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."

Colleagues Claim Political Assassination

Tuyakbai ruled out other reasons -- business and criminal -- behind his fellow oppositionist's murder.

The opposition announced that they have formed a public committee to conduct an independent probe and called on the authorities for a fair investigation.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev immediately ordered an investigation into the murder. He also expressed condolences to the family and friends of Sarsenbaev.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been assisting Kazakh authorities in investigating the murders. Mukhamedzhanov said today that an FBI agent had already arrived to Almaty. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova with contribution from RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. Originally published on 20 February.)

RUSSIAN, U.S. MILITARY BASES IN KYRGYZSTAN ON OPPOSITE TRACKS. The future of the two foreign military bases in Kyrgyzstan became clearer last week. During a visit by a Russian delegation, a military official said the Russian base at Kant will be there "forever." Meanwhile, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev was quoted by a Russian newspaper on 15 February as saying the U.S.-led coalition can remain at the Manas base as long as there are still security problems in Afghanistan, and as long as the United States agrees to pay 100 times more than it has been asked to previously.

The commander of the Russian air forces, General Vladimir Mikhailov, and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha met on 16 February with Kyrgyz President Bakiev and Defense Minister Ismail Isakov to discuss the future of the Kant base. Russian troops are stationed at Kant under a CSTO agreement. Upon his arrival for the talks, Mikhailov said, "Our base is here forever."

Russian Deputy Security Council Secretary Yury Zubakov spoke about the new agreement in Bishkek that same day.

"As of today, after the ratification of the agreement on [the air base in] Kant by the Russian Duma, the Russian Defense Ministry is beginning to upgrade this air base."

A Russian Presence

The base was established as part of CSTO antiterrorism efforts and officially opened in October 2003.

General Mikhailov also announced that troop strength at Kant would be boosted from the current 300 personnel to about 750, and he said more military equipment would be added.

Stephen Blank is a professor of national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. In Blank's opinion, the Kant base is not only important because it gives the Russian military a presence in Kyrgyzstan.

"It's very important for the Russian military and the Russian government because it is the main basis for Russian power projection into Central Asia and for the attempt by Russia to organize the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which is Russia's attempt to create a military bloc in Central Asia," Blank said. "So Kant is the centerpiece of Russian efforts to maintain a ground and air presence in and around Central Asia."

The situation at Kant contrasts with the fortunes of the Manas base, which the U.S.-led coalition uses for operations in Afghanistan. In an interview in the Russian newspaper "Kommersant," President Bakiev said he wanted to raise the annual rent for use of the base from the current $2 million to $207 million.

Manas became more important for the coalition after U.S. criticism of the Uzbek government's violent suppression of a demonstration in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May reportedly left hundreds of people dead. This criticism caused the Uzbek government to demand that coalition forces at a base in Uzbekistan leave the country before the end of last year.

Blank said the Kyrgyz government's demand for more money might just be an opening figure for future negotiations. "Well, I believe there's going to be a negotiation about this if not an actual agreement. There are some reports actually saying that there was an agreement."

Is Higher Rent Demand A Tactic?

The call for higher rent was not new. President Bakiev said in December that Kyrgyzstan would ask that it be increased a hundredfold. His comments in "Kommersant" were, therefore, not entirely unexpected.

Alex Vatanka is the Eurasia editor at "Jane's Country Risk." He said that the rent increase may simply be a tactic to slowly ease coalition forces out of the country.

"What I would be careful in monitoring is whether the increase is related to making it difficult for America to stay," he said. "Is this going to be the first step among many, many steps to come to terms of saying first, 'We're going to increase the actual cost of the base,' then, 'We're going to put other restrictions in terms of mobility, in terms of operational access'? Essentially, not asking the Americans to leave the way the Uzbeks did, but essentially making it so difficult for the American military to be there that they decide to leave. I think that's the thing that we should be looking out for."

The United States has not yet commented on the rent increase, but several high-level officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have visited Kyrgyzstan in the last six months. The rent for the Manas base was no doubt on the agenda of these visits. (By Bruce Pannier. Originally published on 18 February.)

TURKMENISTAN'S PRICE DEMANDS IMPERIL MOSCOW-KYIV GAS DEAL. Russian Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko was in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi this week when he commented on a decision by the Turkmen leadership to raise the price of natural gas. But his words may have had the greatest impact all the way back in Kyiv, where they came as a grim reminder Ukraine's gas woes are far from over.

To backtrack -- Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, otherwise known as Turkmenbashi, declared on 11 February that he intended to raise the price of natural gas from $65 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters this autumn.

On 16 February, Khristenko said that decision meant a necessary adjustment in the prices Kyiv will pay for its gas supplies under the terms of the deal struck in January by Russia and Ukraine, ending a pricing dispute that saw temporary shutoffs in supplies of Russian gas not only to Ukraine but to a livid Western Europe as well.

'Everything Is Changing'

Under the deal, Ukraine this year is to receive 34 billion cubic meters for $95 per 1,000 cubic meters from an intermediary, RosUkrEnergo, which in turn will purchase gas from Russia's Gazprom as well as from Turkmenistan, which accounts for nearly one-half of Ukraine's deliveries from Russia.

But "everything is changing," Interfax cited Khristenko as saying. "And even the fixed-price formula for RosUkrEnergo may fluctuate depending on the situation on the market."

"Niyazov's position is predictable," Khristenko said. If Turkmenistan raises the gas price, he continued, the gas price formula for Ukraine will necessarily change as well.

The developments prompted a Ukrainian delegation comprising Fuel and Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov and Naftohaz Ukrayiny head Oleksandr Ivchenko -- who negotiated the January accord with Russia's Gazprom and RosUkrEnergo -- to travel on 17 February to Turkmenistan in hopes of clarifying the situation.

A Questionable Delivery Chain

From Kiyv's point of view, the gas deal left a lot to be desired. The terms are set for only the first six months of 2006, and questions about RosUkrEnergo and its shadowy role as middleman in the gas delivery chain have lent even greater uncertainty to the fate of the highly criticized accord.

Speaking in Madrid on 7 February, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted that Ukraine, not Russia, insisted on keeping RosUkrEnergo in the deal. But subsequent statements by officials in Ukraine appear to indicate the opposite.

John Herbst, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, on 16 February criticized the inclusion of the middleman company. "RosUkrEnergo is a suspicious organization, and it is difficult to understand why it plays such a significant role in such an important agreement," Herbst said, according to UkrInform. Herbst's statement was the latest in a series of critical remarks made by U.S. officials about the company in recent weeks.

No Information

His remarks echoed those of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who said in a 14 February statement that he shared the concern of the European Union and other international organizations regarding the "scarcity of information" about RosUkrEnergo and its partial owner, Raffeisen Investments.

Interfax the same day cited the president as indicating that all attempts by Ukraine to receive necessary information about RosUkrEnergo had been "fruitless."

Appearing 16 February on Ukraine's Channel 5 television, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said Kyiv is ready to bypass RosUkrEnergo and sign gas contracts directly with Gazprom, but added it cannot do so without Moscow's consent.

Russia Thinks Middleman 'Sufficiently Transparent'

Yekhanurov added that he has sent a letter to Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov informing him of this. But Khristenko, in his remarks in Vietnam, described RosUkrEnergo as a "sufficiently transparent" company and said there was no need to drop it from the existing deal," Interfax reported.

"The situation has been regulated," Khristenko said. "The agreements that have been reached were based on the stipulation that RosUkrEnergo would be the trader working with the primary supplies of Central Asian gas, and a structure that could position itself on both the Ukrainian and Western markets."

"The structure," he added, "is sufficiently transparent." (By Roman Kupchinsky. Originally published on 17 February.)