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Central Asia Report: June 15, 2006

June 15, 2006, Volume 6, Number 18

WEEK AT A GLANCE (June 5-11, 2006). Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev said his country will sign an agreement with Azerbaijan providing Kazakhstan with access to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. The signing is to take place during a meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia in Almaty on June 17. The Mazhilis (lower chamber of parliament) began to examine controversial proposed changes to the country's media law, with a task force to study the changes and prepare a report by October 20. Journalists' associations have called on parliament to reject the amendments, which they say will hamper press freedom. The Supreme Court upheld a lower-court decision denying official registration to the opposition party Alga (Onward). And Nazarbaev told the state democratization commission that it should prepare draft changes to the constitution by the end of the year, setting as the main task for the commission the issue of whether Kazakhstan's form of government should give more power to the president or parliament.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev met with representatives of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government to discuss the political situation in the country, although lawmakers from the opposition movement For Reforms boycotted the meeting. Nurlan Motuev, who gained fame by seizing a coal mine after the fall of President Askar Akaev in 2005, will face charges of causing approximately $1 million in damages to various coal-mining facilities. The former "coal king" remains in jail while the investigation of his case continues. Parliament voted to transform state-run television, the only channel that broadcasts to the entire country, into a public-television station. And President Bakiev visited China in the lead-up to the June 15 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) summit, signing 13 new bilateral agreements on political, trade, and economic cooperation and pledging to promote cooperation and facilitate Chinese investment into Kyrgyzstan.

Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry issued a statement protesting an assault on several Tajik students in Moscow's State Management University, the latest in a series of apparently racially motivated assaults targeting people from Central Asia and the Caucasus. Shavkat Shoimov, the deputy head of the Tojikgaz state gas concern, announced that supplies of natural gas from Uzbekistan will resume by August after Tajikistan pays "at least 50 percent" of the $3.5 million in arrears for earlier shipments. Tajikistan plans to increase its imports of Uzbek gas to an estimated 750 million cubic meters this year, despite a price hike from last year's level of $42 to $55 per 1,000 cubic meters. And Ramazan Abdulatipov, Russia's ambassador to Tajikistan, said that agreements reached in recent talks between Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and Russian President Vladimir Putin will ensure that Russian advisors continue to play a role on the Tajik-Afghan border.

The U.S. State Department's 2006 "Trafficking in Persons" report downgraded Uzbekistan from Tier 2 to Tier 3 -- the report's lowest designation -- for failing to fulfill its commitments to combat human trafficking in 2006. Elsewhere, a Tashkent court shut down the Uzbek office of the U.S.-based NGO Global Involvement through Education for engaging in missionary activity.

CENTRAL ASIA: DOES THE ROAD TO SHANGHAI GO THROUGH TEHRAN? New variables are entering the geopolitical calculus of Central Asia. An ongoing Russian-Uzbek rapprochement is only the most visible sign of resurgent Russian influence in the region, which is an important source of natural gas to feed Moscow's ambitions of becoming a 21st-century energy superpower. Chinese interest in Central Asian energy resources is also growing. And the United States continues to maintain close, energy-inflected ties with Kazakhstan and a military base in Kyrgyzstan. But the newest variable is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which brings together China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in an ambiguous alliance that many in the West are beginning to view with trepidation.

The SCO will soon celebrate its fifth anniversary with a summit of member states' leaders in Shanghai on June 15. Last year's summit, in Kazakhstan, was notable for a declaration asking members of the "antiterrorist coalition" to provide a time frame for the withdrawal of military forces from SCO territory. It was a pointed reference to U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Only two weeks later, Uzbekistan evicted the United States from its Karshi-Khanabad air base.

This year, the summit will open against a backdrop of reports that Iran, which currently holds observer status in the SCO (along with India, Mongolia, and Pakistan), is looking to become a full-fledged member.

'OPEC With Bombs'?

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mohammadi set the speculation rippling in April, when he said that Iran hopes to join the SCO in the summer. The foreign ministers of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan subsequently downplayed the possibility, citing a lack of formal mechanisms to accommodate new members. But the gambit, coming in the context of Iran's strained relations with the West over Tehran's nuclear program, drew notice. "The Washington Times" quoted David Wall, professor at the University of Cambridge's East Asia Institute, as saying that "an expanded SCO would control a large part of the world's oil and gas reserves and nuclear arsenal. It would essentially be an OPEC with bombs."

As it emerged that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad would attend the SCO summit in Shanghai, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also addressed the issue of Iran's potential membership of the organization, "The New York Times" reported on June 4. Singling out Iran, Rumsfeld remarked that it was "passing strange that one would want to bring into an organization that says it is against terrorism one of the leading terrorist nations in the world."

SCO Secretary-General Zhang Deguang quickly retorted, AP reported on June 7, firing back: "We cannot abide by other countries calling our observer nations sponsors of terror. We would not have invited them if we believed they sponsored terror."

Mutual Support

Three points follow from the reactions to the SCO's Iranian gambit. First, the SCO represents an approach to multilateral relations and an understanding of terrorism that do not, in fact, define Iran as a sponsor of terror and would permit Iran's accession. Second, it is unlikely that Iran will join the SCO in the near future. And third, even if Iran joined, the SCO would have a long way to go before becoming a genuine "OPEC with bombs."

The SCO's charter helps to explain why SCO states -- primarily China and Russia -- do not consider Iran a sponsor of terrorism. While the charter's "aims and objections" list "joint opposition to terrorism, separatism, and extremism in all their manifestations," its first principle is "mutual respect for states' sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity and the sanctity of borders, nonaggression, noninterference in internal affairs, the non-use of force or the threat of force in international relations, and renunciation of unilateral military superiority in contiguous areas."

The crux of the matter is that, for SCO member states, "terrorism, separatism, and extremism" are viewed not as distinct abstract phenomena with global relevance to be dealt with globally, but rather as a single phenomenon that is locally defined by the ruling elite and left to sovereign states to combat by any means they see fit. For Russia, it is Chechen separatism; for China, Uighur "splittism"; for Uzbekistan, religious extremism. The task of SCO member-states is to support each other as they combat perceived threats to existing power relations, as Russia and China did when Uzbekistan labeled May 2005 unrest in Andijon "terrorism" and crushed it with maximum force.

It is the locally bounded definition of terrorism that leads SCO member states to reject the labeling of Iran as a sponsor of terror, and the globally defined emphasis on sovereignty and non-interference that makes them amenable to granting Iran membership. Iran does not support Chechen separatists, Uighur "splittists," or Uzbek "religious extremists." The SCO's understanding of terrorism is not based on globally applied principles -- hence the inclusion of the fight against "terrorism, extremism, and separatism" in the charter's aims and objectives. So if Iran chooses to support individuals and groups it defines as "legitimate resistance" in a theater outside the SCO region, that is Iran's business. But absolute sovereignty and non-interference are global principles to the SCO (hence their inclusion in the charter's principles), which is thus sympathetic to Tehran's plight as, in their view, a sovereign state that is the target of outside interference.

Tehran Overreaching

That said, Iran remains an unlikely candidate for full membership in the SCO. The possibility of Iranian membership has raised the organization's profile on the international arena. But actual Iranian membership could significantly reduce the leeway that leading members China and Russia have until now enjoyed in the diplomatic jockeying over Iran's nuclear program. As Yevgeny Morozov put it in a June 8 commentary on TCSDaily, Moscow and Beijing don't want to be responsible for "Iran's loony statements about Israel or its nuclear program." RIA-Novosti political commentator Dmitry Kosyrev made a similar point in an Outside View op-ed for UPI on June 8. Kosyrev argued that Iran "will not join in the foreseeable future" because the SCO is having trouble coping with a flood of new initiatives and needs to put its current house in order before expanding.

Yet even if Iran were to join the SCO, would it strengthen or weaken the organization? Today, the solid common ground in the SCO is its emphasis on non-interference -- a not-so-subtle expression of unhappiness with Western cajoling on rights and reforms. Beyond that, individual members have their own concerns. For Central Asian governments, any forum that allows them to balance Chinese and Russian interests holds obvious attraction. For Beijing, the primary significance of the SCO appears to be as a vehicle for managing China's growing commercial and energy interests in Central Asia. For Moscow, it is an eastward-looking body that goes beyond the borders of formerly Soviet space.

Furthermore, the SCO's four Central Asian members share numerous unsettled scores of their own. And specific Russian and Chinese interests in the region have the potential to diverge significantly, especially if China starts pushing for expanded access to Central Asian energy resources currently exported through Russia. On the military front, while Russia and China held war games in August under the SCO aegis and the organization plans counterterrorism exercises in Russia in 2007, Russia still handles the bulk of its military involvement in Central Asia through the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Iran surely shares the SCO's particular understanding of non-interference. But beyond this common ground, it has a host of its own concerns -- most of them bound up with the politics of the Middle East, not Central Asia. It is difficult to see how the addition of those concerns to the SCO's already disparate mix of Chinese, Russian, and Central Asian interests would lend the organization greater cohesion or clout.

Nevertheless, the SCO represents two tendencies that are likely to become increasingly pronounced in international affairs. The first is the natural resistance of entrenched domestic elites to outside pressures that they perceive as a threat to their hold on power. The second is a desire to turn that common ground into a platform for greater global influence in the face of what the secondary and tertiary powers see as the primary power in the current world order. As an expression of these rising tendencies, the SCO is noteworthy whether it expands or contracts. (By Daniel Kimmage. Originally published on June 12, 2006.)

EURASIA: OBSERVER IRAN GRABS LIMELIGHT AHEAD OF SHANGHAI ALLIANCE SUMMIT. The Shanghai Five was launched 10 years ago as an intergovernmental alliance dedicated to building mutual trust and demilitarizing borders. Members and guests of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- as the group is now known -- will gather in China's largest city on June 15 to celebrate the anniversary. They will be joined by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- whose country recently said it wants to upgrade its current observer status to become the SCO's seventh full member. Iran's aspiration has spawned considerable debate about the Shanghai group's mission. It has also left current members scrambling to find a cohesive stance on Tehran's chances.

The presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan will convene this week in Shanghai, on the banks of the Yangtze River Delta. Leaders from the four SCO observer countries and guest Afghanistan will be there, too.

But it is the attendance of Iranian President Ahmadinejad that arguably has attracted the most attention. Iran -- which along with India, Mongolia, and Pakistan has observer status -- expressed its desire to become a full member in May.

Mohammad Reza Djalili is a professor of international politics at the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies. He tells RFE/RL that he sees two major reasons for Tehran's interest in SCO membership.

"The first [reason] is ending the isolation of Iran on the international scene," Djalili says. "The other reason is to try to build a real Asian policy. 'Look [to] the east,' as they say in Tehran. And through these, they can become a more active actor in the international [politics] through the Shanghai group, and through the Asian policy that Iran [has wanted] to develop for many years."

The SCO's two heavyweights -- Russia and China -- have strong economic links to Iran. Djalili also notes that Tehran and Beijing share a common interest in countering Western clout in Asia.

Beijing Retort

China was first to dismiss U.S. concerns over the prospect of Iran's membership of the SCO, and Beijing and Moscow have consistently opposed sanctions against Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

On the sidelines of a security conference in Singapore on June 3, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld questioned the prospect of SCO membership for a country that Washington accuses of terrorism.

"Here we have Iran, by everyone's testimony is the leading terrorist nation in the world," Rumsfeld charged. "It's supporting Hamas. It's supporting Hizbollah. It has a long record of being engaged in terrorist activities. To think they should be brought into an organization with the hope that it would contribute to an antiterrorist activity, strikes me as unusual."

SCO Secretary-General and Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Deguang came to the defense of Iran and of the SCO on June 6. He said the Shanghai group would not tolerate such accusations about its members, and that the organization would never have given observer status to any country that sponsors terrorism.

Pas De Deux

Chinese President Hu Jintao will hold bilateral talks with Iranian President Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of this week's Shanghai summit. Many observers suggest China is unlikely to endorse full membership for Iran at this juncture because of the delicate balance of power between Russia and China within the SCO.

Colonel Christopher Langton, head of defense analysis at the Washington-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that Russia and China are unwilling to grant Iran SCO membership.

"It would be extremely difficult for Iran to be accepted as a full member of the SCO -- I mean, Iran already has observer status, of course -- while there is a disagreement between Iran and the two main powers in the SCO, namely China and Russia, who have aligned themselves with the EU-3 -- and the United States, and the United Nations Security Council are against Iranian nuclear ambitions," Langton says.

Central Asians Wary?

Uzbekistan has refrained from official comment on the topic of Iran's SCO accession. Kamoliddin Rabbimov, an independent Tashkent-based analyst, tells RFE/RL that the Uzbek government might be keen to see the SCO become more anti-Western.

"I believe Iran's accession to the organization will be in Uzbekistan's interests at the moment, because if anti-American sentiments grow within the organization and its potential to confront the U.S. and the West grows, the Uzbek government is likely to feel safer," Rabbimov says.

Uzbekistan's ties with the West have been strained since a bloody crackdown in the eastern city of Andijon in May 2005. President Islam Karimov evicted U.S. troops from Uzbek territory just months after the SCO demanded a timetable for U.S. base closures in the region.

But the three other Central Asian states in the SCO appear more wary of early Iranian membership.

Kazakhstan's foreign minister, Kasymzhomart Tokaev, on June 8 cited procedural obstacles to accepting new members and hinted there won't be any early solution.

Analysts note that Kazakh oil is now flowing to China. They also say the legal dispute over the Caspian Sea basin means Kazakh officials are not eager to see greater Iranian influence within the SCO.

In Kyrgyzstan, officials said last month that it is too early to talk about SCO expansion. They argued that the group must first focus on cementing ties among current member states.

Officials in Tajikistan were more oblique, hinting at possible future support for Iranian membership. But Tajik Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov also warned that the SCO "cannot extend its membership indefinitely."

Shodmon Saadiev is with the Tajik Center for Strategic Studies, which operates under the aegis of the Tajik presidential administration. He tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that economic incentives will play a major role in current members' decision-making on Iran.

"I think the economic cooperation between Iran and SCO members is a crucial point for admitting Iran into the SCO, because Iran has huge natural resources that others need -- even some Central Asian countries," Saadiev says. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova. Originally published on June 13, 2006.)

KAZAKHSTAN: TRIAL IN CASE OF OPPOSITION LEADER'S KILLING BEGINS. A district court outside the capital of Kazakhstan began hearing a case on June 14 in which 10 defendants have been charged with involvement in the murder of a Kazakh opposition leader. Figures from the country's security service and its upper legislature have been implicated in the February slaying of Altynbek Sarsenbaev, along with his driver and a bodyguard. A judge opened the proceedings briefly before adjourning for one day to allow defense lawyers to appear. The case is unusual in a country more accustomed to seeing opposition members in the role of defendants.

The most senior official accused among defendants is Yerzhan Utembaev, who was the head of the Senate administration in February when Sarsenbaev and the others were shot dead.

Utembaev and the nine other defendants have reportedly confessed to roles in the killings. Some media have speculated that Utembaev wanted Sarsenbaev dead over unflattering comments he made about the Senate official in interviews.

The court in Taldy-Qorgan is expected to determine whether the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbaev and the other two men was a political assassination or the result of a personal grudge.

Official Involvement?

According to state investigators' version of events, Utembaev ordered the murders and members of the National Security Service's (KNB) elite Aristan unit carried them out.

But opposition groups suggest that the conspiracy reaches further up into the highest echelons of state power. They claim Utembaev didn't have the authority to order the killing of Sarsenbaev, a leading opposition figure and a former minister of information and ambassador to Russia.

Tolen Tokhtasynov, of the opposition For A Just Kazakhstan movement, says investigators should have pursued such suspicions.

"Our society has a specific question: Were the members of the [presidential] family involved in the murder?" Tokhtasynov tells RFE/RL. "The investigation did nothing to answer that question. Lawyers for the relatives of the deceased recommended that investigators question [President Nursultan Nazarbaev's eldest daughter] Darigha Nazarbaeva, [Nazarbaeva's husband] Rakhat Aliev, [then National Security Service chief] Nartay Dutbaev, and the president himself -- in order to get clear answers to out society's questions. But investigators did not do that."

President Nazarbaev has remained silent about the killings. But his son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev, successfully sued a former intelligence officer who hinted in interviews that Aliev was behind the killings.

Remote Courtroom

The venue of the trial has become an issue, too. Taldy-Qorgan is more than 200 kilometers north of the commercial capital, Almaty, where Sarsenbaev and the others were abducted. Members of Sarsenbaev's family have petitioned to have the trial moved to Almaty. But authorities counter that, since the bodies were found in the Taldy-Qorgan district, jurisdiction lies with a district court there.

The slain Sarsenbaev's older brother, Rysbek, tells RFE/RL that the distance from Almaty effectively prevents family members from attending the trial, although they would like to do so.

"The [victims'] parents, brothers, sisters, their spouses and children -- their relatives are [all] deprived of their rights," Rysbek Sarsenbaev says. "They deprive us of our right to be present at the trial. That is not good. We want to look into the eyes of those who ordered the killings, into the eyes of those carried out the killings. We want to hear what they say. Is it really they who committed the crime, or different people who did that. It's not yet clear. Why do they deprive us of our right to attend the trial?"

While the Sarsenbaevs and the other victims' families were unable to attend the trial as it began today, representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), foreign embassies, and international media are in the courtroom to watch the proceedings.

The trial marks a rare prosecution of officials suspected of wrongdoing in a country more accustomed to trials in which members of the opposition are the defendants.

(By Bruce Pannier with contributions by Merhat Sharipzhan and Edige Magauin of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. Originally published on June 14, 2006.)

CENTRAL ASIA: LABOR MIGRATION SEEN AS BENEFICIAL TO REGION, RUSSIA. A Tajik goes to Russia to work; a Kyrgyz earns money in Kazakhstan and sends it home to Bishkek. Despite the negative images often associated with laborers seeking employment abroad, experts increasingly see positive aspects, as well. RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash spoke with Claus Folden of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Vienna about migration patterns in the former Soviet Union.

RFE/RL: Overall, how would you characterize the state of migration today in the countries of the former Soviet Union?

Claus Folden: What is happening by movement nowadays [is that] a lot of labor migration takes place. And, of course, the strong and growing economy of, for instance, Russia, is attracting a lot of labor migrants from these other states. I mean, one example is that we have counted that up to approximately 700,000 Tajiks are working in Russia, legally or irregularly. So there is also a discussion on how to address the issue of regulating these people.

RFE/RL: And what of work migration within Central Asia itself? What are the trends there?

Folden: There is the example of Kazakhstan. Close to a million [people] were leaving, but because the economy in Kazakhstan is growing because of the oil there, it's also then attracting people. Where they were used to people leaving, they are now attracting a lot of labor migrants from the neighboring states.

RFE/RL: Experts on migration often speak of the so-called "brain drain," in which a society is depleted of its educated or skilled members when they migrate to other nations. Is this also an issue that concerns the Eurasian region?

Folden: It's a concern that this happens, but at the same time, the discussion is evolving on the so-called "brain circulation" -- that you go abroad and you thereby achieve some skills and then eventually, at some point, you return.

RFE/RL: The term "remittances" refers to the money that migrants earn while working abroad that is then sent back to their country of origin. How important are remittances to the economies and societies of Central Asia?

Folden: Well, for Tajikstan [the remittances are] estimated to even be higher than the state budget. But what we then are trying to do is to pair the remittances that flow back, for instance, with micro-credit, small-business development, so that it's not only spent on consumption but [so] that it also has a positive effect in the societies that are having brain drain, so at least to sort of compensate for the fact that workers are abroad.

RFE/RL: This leads to the question of migration's positive side. A study recently released by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan stresses that while migration's negative impact on societies is usually emphasized, it can also have very positive effects on all parties involved. Is this the case in Central Asia?

Folden: What we see now is that the countries are realizing that it's beneficial for their citizens, and thereby also for the state. So you [could one day] see Kyrgyzstan and Russia negotiating a labor-migration agreement for the benefit of both states. I mean, Kyrgyzstan has a surplus of people who could work and they would send back remittances, and Russia needs these workers. They have started realizing that migration is not only a negative phenomenon. And you see that in Russia, where there has been very much, from [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's side, for quite a while there was always this talk about controlling it. It was a control issue. Now it's much more like, "we need them; we have to regulate them; it's good for Russia that we have migrants workers here; they are helping our economy," and so on.

RFE/RL: And how high on the political agenda is the issue of migration in these countries?

Folden: It's high on the agenda in most countries. Of course, for different reasons. I mean, some countries would rather want their, for political reasons, would want their citizens to stay. Armenia is a good example. Armenia is doing a lot to have people stay and also come back. The Armenian diaspora plays a significant role in the political picture in Armenia.

RFE/RL: Any final guesses on the future of migration in this region of the world?

Folden: Slowly, but surely, everybody is realizing that it's a phenomenon that -- it's going to stay and you better deal with it. One day you might find yourself in a situation where you would compete over labor migrants where you before tried to keep people out. (Originally published on June 13, 2006.)