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Central Asia Report: October 24, 2006


October 24, 2006, Volume 6, Number 27

WEEK AT A GLANCE (October 16-22, 2006). Rakhat Aliev, deputy foreign minister and son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, invited British comic Sasha Baron Cohen to Kazakhstan to see for himself that "our women not only ride inside of buses, but even drive them, that we make wine from grapes, that Jews can freely attend synagogue, and so on." Meanwhile, Aliev's wife, Darigha Nazarbaeva, accused Indian-born steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal of responsibility for the deaths of more than 80 Kazakh coal miners of the past three years through failing to ensure adequate safety conditions. And a massive brawl between Kazakh and Turkish workers in the port city of Atyrau left nearly 140 people injured, 115 seriously.

A planned meeting between Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev and members of the country's opposition was cancelled after some opposition leaders objected to the size of the presidential delegation. At the same time, opposition lawmaker and former Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov said that he and two other opposition leaders -- former Trade Minister Almazbek Atambaev and former speaker of parliament Omurbek Tekebaev -- had turned down offers of state jobs from Bakiev. Parliamentary deputy Bolot Maripov charged that Kyrgyzstan "will not get $150 million in rent for the [U.S.] air base at Manas," estimating the total benefit to the state budget from the U.S. presence at $60 million-$70 million. Lawmakers voted down amendments to the country's media law that would have mandated prison terms of 5-10 years for journalists who distribute extremist materials. A court in Osh handed down death sentences for three purported Islamic militants found guilty of carrying out armed raids along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Evan Feigenbaum, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, met with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov in Bishkek to discuss bilateral relations. And Oibek Olimjonov, a businessman and head of the Uzbek cultural center in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, was shot dead in a cafe in the southern city.

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov said that all candidates in the country's November 6 presidential election should enjoy equal conditions for campaigning and that members of the executive branch should not interfere in the work of election commissions. Meanwhile, Deputy Interior Minister Abdurahim Qahhorov told a news conference that the banned extremist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have stepped up their activities in the lead-up to the election. Communications Minister Said Zubaydov told a news conference in Dushanbe on October 16 that the recent blocking of five Internet sites, which raised fears of a pre-election press crackdown, resulted from the testing of new equipment. And the State Statistics Committee announced that the country's gross domestic product (GDP) rose 7.6 percent in the first three quarters of 2006 to 6.52 billion somonis ($1.93 billion), with industrial output growing 6.2 percent to 3.215 billion somonis, consumer goods 7.2 percent to 874.4 million somonis, and agricultural output 8.5 percent to 2.41 billion somonis.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov admitted first the first time that he suffers from a heart condition, explaining that he is unable to fast during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan because he has to take medication for an unspecified "heart ailment." Niyazov also announced that eight people sentenced to prison terms in connection with a 2002 attempt on his life will be released in the course of an upcoming amnesty.

Islam Karimov dismissed Ferghana Governor Shermat Nurmatov, noting that poor leadership has led to falling industrial production, lagging foreign investment, and poor cotton harvests. The move came shortly after Karimov sacked the governor of Andijon province, charging in an address that the governor's failure to resolve socio-economic problems in the province had contributed to May 2005 unrest.

UZBEKISTAN: KARIMOV REAPPRAISES ANDIJON. Uzbek President Islam Karimov's removal of Andijon Governor Saydullo Begaliev on October 13 was not an unusual event. Karimov has frequently swept into Uzbekistan's provinces to sack governors for sins ranging from corruption to nepotism to incompetence.

But this is Andijon, where unrest and bloodshed in May 2005 -- when Begaliev was governor -- shocked the world. More importantly, Karimov's reasons for removing Begaliev pointed to the first significant adjustment in Uzbekistan's official position on Andijon since the events occurred.

In the full text of Karimov's remarks -- which appeared on the UzA official news agency website on October 14 -- the president reiterated the familiar official position that the unrest in Andijon was organized by international extremist groups supported and financed from outside the country with the aim of destabilizing constitutional rule and creating a caliphate.

Moving The Blame

But for the first time since the Andijon events, the Uzbek president also acknowledged in the address -- which was given in Andijon to regional officials and community leaders on October 13 -- that poor economic conditions in the region and popular resentment played a role.

Karimov accused local authorities -- first and foremost Andijon Governor Saydullo Begaliev -- of neglecting the population's grievances and failing to resolve mounting socioeconomic problems.

"Who is responsible for taking into account resentments stemming from daily hardships, for solving problems and, if not capable of doing so, for reporting these problems to the central government?" Karimov asked.

The president charged that Begaliev's cronies in the local government mishandled social and economic policy and misused finances allocated from the federal budget to enrich themselves, thus "giving a tool to the enemies" of the Uzbek government's policies. Karimov noted, "Begaliev demonstrated an inability to improve the current situation, promote entrepreneurship, and protect business people from various forms of harassment."

Karimov also acknowledged that young people in the region lack opportunities to develop and succeed, concluding that this has negatively affected their morale and pushed some of them to join various groups such as Akramiya and Hizb ut-Tahrir. "An analysis of the Andijon events demonstrates that the majority of those who took part in the criminal acts are inexperienced, confused young people," Karimov said.

Weak Social Conditions

Karimov's statement indicated a significant shift in the official interpretation of the Andijon events, which were dubbed a massacre in reports by such rights organizations as Human Rights Watch, which claim that hundreds of people -- most of them unarmed protesters -- were slaughtered by government troops. The government says that less than 200 people died and that they were all armed insurgents or security forces.

But in his speech, Karimov indirectly acknowledged for the first time what outside observers had long ago pinpointed as the main causes of the unrest; namely, poor socioeconomic conditions in the region.

Karimov's address suggested that local authorities in Andijon could face consequences if the official version begins to stress rampant corruption and high unemployment as the causes. Interestingly, a report by ferghana.ru on October 10 -- only days before the removal of the current Andijon governor -- indicated that Qobiljon Obidov, the province's former governor, now faces charges of organizing the Andijon violence.

Obidov was removed a year before the violence in Andijon. The events of May 13, 2005 were triggered by the trial of a group of local businessmen whom the Uzbek government had charged with membership in an "extremist" religious organization called Akramiya. The entrepreneurs rejected the charges and said that their only goal was to do business in accordance with Islamic law.

Some accounts suggested that the businessmen fell afoul of the authorities after the province came under new leadership that failed to respect old business arrangements. If the report about the charges against Obidov is confirmed, it could provide further evidence of official Uzbek attention to the socioeconomic component in the Andijon unrest.

The timing of Karimov's speech does not appear to have been random: this month the EU will consider the issue of sanctions against the Tashkent government. In October 2005 the EU levied sanctions against the Uzbek government, including an arms embargo and travel ban for 12 high-ranking Uzbek officials.

Enough To Resume Ties?

Western nations and international organizations have demanded that Tashkent allow an international investigation of the Andijon events. Thus far, the Uzbek government has shrugged off those requests. By acknowledging the socioeconomic causes of the Andijon unrest and naming officials allegedly responsible for them, Karimov may have demonstrated some willingness to launch an investigation that would focus on official wrongdoing at the local level.

A number of events in recent months suggest that Karimov is willing to mend some fences with the West, a desire that appears to be mutual.

In August, high-ranking U.S., Japanese, and EU delegations visited Tashkent and held talks with the Uzbek government.

On August 9, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher met with Karimov and newly appointed Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov. Speaking to journalists in Tashkent, Boucher acknowledged differences over the Andijon events but emphasized the common interests that the United States and Uzbekistan share in promoting security in the region. Boucher noted that the U.S. government is considering options aimed at developing new foundations for cooperation with Uzbekistan.

Boucher's visit was followed by then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's talks in Tashkent in late August. Koizumi stated that Japan could assist the Uzbek government in improving ties with the United States and the EU. Koizumi's trip to Tashkent coincided with a visit by an EU delegation led by Finnish Foreign Ministry official Antti Turunen. An unnamed EU diplomat told ferghana.ru on September 2 that the visit was a response to signals from Tashkent that it is willing to try and restore relations with the European Union.

With a Western renewal of full-fledged relations with Tashkent premised on an independent investigation of the Andijon events, Karimov's latest statements may indicate a softening of Tashkent's stance on the issue.

And Karimov may even be willing to sacrifice some officials at the local level -- such as the Andijon governor and regional law enforcement authorities -- by holding them responsible for mishandling the situation in Andijon. Nevertheless, the root causes of the unrest are unlikely to change in the absence of political and economic reforms that go deeper than the removal and replacement of officials. (By Adolat Najimova and Daniel Kimmage. Originally published on October 19, 2006.)

TURKMENISTAN: INFORMED OBSERVERS SPOT SOVIET LEGACIES IN ASHGABAT. RFE/RL sponsored a roundtable on Turkmenistan on the sidelines of the OSCE's annual Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in early October. The OSCE event is touted as Europe's largest human rights conference, bringing together representatives from government, civil society, and international organization. Some of the leading authorities on Turkmenistan were in Warsaw, although local NGO representatives were reportedly prevented from leaving Turkmenistan to attend an event where criticism of President Saparmurat Niyazov and his administration was bound to figure prominently.

Many participants in the RFE/RL roundtable conceded that Turkmenistan's geostrategic importance has swelled along with its reputation for rights violations.

Critics complain that Turkmenistan retains some of the worst traits of the Soviet Union -- a heavy security-service presence, and a huge propaganda machine devoted to supporting the government and vilifying enemies.

Akhmukhammet Velsapar is a journalist who has long covered events in Turkmenistan. He said the roots of Central Asia's sorriest administration can be found in Turkmenistan's days as a Soviet republic:

"All that there is in Turkmenistan today, the worst situation if we compare all the former Soviet republics, has developed in Turkmenistan. And this didn't just happen in one day," Velsapar said. "This was all going on for many years, and the roots of many current problems go back to the days of the Soviet Union."

There is more than just fawning official coverage to the carefully cultivated public image of President Niyazov -- or Turkmenbashi, as he prefers to be known. Attempts to portray the country as anything less than an oasis of prosperity and calm frequently meet with harassment -- or worse, according to rights campaigners.

RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova reported on deteriorating social conditions. The 58-year-old mother of three was soon arrested for allegedly possessing banned weapons, sentenced to years in jail at a summary trial, and reported dead in custody within a month. Turkmen authorities said Muradova died of natural causes. But family members reported seeing numerous injuries after viewing her body.

In A Strange Land

Tajigul Begmedova chairs the Bulgaria-based Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. She told the RFE/RL roundtable that Turkmen authorities frequently employ another form of Soviet punishment to perceived opponents: internal exile.

"They are sent to other provinces, to the north, or sent out of the capital," Begmedova said. "This is another mechanism they use against dissidents."

Critics often cite gaps between the law and official practice in Turkmenistan. For instance, religious freedom is guaranteed by Turkmenistan's constitution. But in reality, only Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox are tolerated.

John Kinahan of the Norway-based rights group Forum 18 was in Warsaw. His group monitors religious freedom in many countries. He cited a cautionary case in which a Protestant told him of an attempt to assert his religious rights.

"One Turkmen Protestant who wrote anonymously for us a commentary on what he called the 'fictitious state of religious freedom' commented actually that when he demanded that officials obey the law and the constitution, they were, in his words, in shock,'" Kinahan said.

'Real Life'

Inculcation was an important tool in the hands of Soviet authorities. Detractors claim that it remains so in today's Turkmenistan. "Rukhname" is one of the main subjects in Turkmenistan's schools, at all levels.

The Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation's Begmedova provided an idea of the results of this truncated curriculum: "You can see to what degree young people [are affected] -- and there are currently some 3 million of them, of the new generation, who do not know [chemist Dmitry] Mendeleyev, who do not know Nobel laureates, who do not know the classic literature of the world, but know only work of dubious substance of the so-called great Niyazov."

Begmedova said international isolation has left many people in Turkmenistan with a simple desire.

"It is the wish of many people [in Turkmenistan] to have even 30 minutes of a television channel to watch the real life that is happening in the world," Begmedova said.

No Official Presence In Warsaw

Critics in Warsaw were unopposed at any official level, since Turkmen authorities stayed away from the OSCE event on human rights.

Begmedova explained that Ashgabat does not appear to have found criticism at the event in 2005 very constructive.

"Last year, the ambassador of Turkmenistan came," Begmedova said. "He participated here with us. And after one week, when he returned to Turkmenistan, they fired him."

Western pressure has so far failed to significantly influence the Turkmen government. The country's wealth of oil and natural gas, and its proximity to Iran, Afghanistan, and the Caspian Sea, make it an attractive partner for many businesses and governments.

Immune To Criticism?

But Forum 18's John Kinahan told the roundtable audience that the situation is not hopeless. He argued that President Niyazov is not immune to international opinion, and has proven willing to listen to some parties.

"We do know that Niyazov is concerned about his image, and we do know that he is responsive to people raising questions with him," Kinahan said.

So while pressure at home is slight or nonexistent, the international community could step up its efforts to force reforms in Turkmenistan. The International Trade Committee of the European Parliament voted recently against a trade pact with Turkmenistan because of the country's poor record on human rights.

But oil and gas reserves are likely to temper even the most hawkish of Turkmenistan's critics, who concede that pressuring the current administration is a difficult feat. (By Bruce Pannier. Originally published on October 16, 2006.)

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