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Central Asia Report: February 16, 2005

16 February 2005, Volume 5, Number 6

WEEK AT A GLANCE. Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry pronounced any travel by Russian State Duma Deputy Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovskii to Kazakhstan "undesirable." The statement came in response to an interview the Kazakhstan-born politician gave to radio station Ekho Moskvy in January, in which he denied the existence of the Kazakh language and cast doubts on the validity of Kazakh statehood. On 9 February, the lower chamber of parliament passed a draft law on combating extremism; the bill now awaits President Nursultan Nazarbaev's signature. Dangerously high water levels in Kazakhstan's Shardara Reservoir spurred Energy Minister Vladimir Shkolnik to travel to neighboring Kyrgyzstan for talks. Kyrgyzstan agreed to reduce outflow from its Toktogul Reservoir; in return, Kazakhstan agreed to consider supplying natural gas to Kyrgyzstan, which had upped outflow from the Toktogul Reservoir to boost power generation.

As Kyrgyzstan continued to prepare for 27 February parliamentary elections, Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov visited Moscow on 11 February, meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov noted that Russia does not take sides in foreign elections. But Moscow has made efforts recently to sound out Kyrgyzstan's opposition, hosting former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev, now head of the opposition People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, before Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev's January visit to Russia. Shadowing Aitmatov during his Moscow visit was Roza Otunbaeva, co-chairwoman of the opposition Ata-Jurt movement, who met with a number of Russian legislators.

In Tajikistan, which is also gearing up for parliamentary elections on 27 February, Peter, Eicher, head of the OSCE observer mission, noted that opposition parties are having a difficult time, with some of them unable to pay the deposit for registration and others facing legal hurdles. The U.S.-based NGO Freedom House tripped on a legal hurdle when the Justice Ministry denied it registration for submitting incomplete documentation; Freedom House hopes to gain registration on another try. On the foreign policy front, President Imomali Rakhmonov noted at a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Richard Hoagland that he advocates a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the standoff with Iran over its alleged nuclear ambitions. And Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov traveled to Uzbekistan, where he signed agreements on cargo transport, debt, and the use of water and energy resources.

Aleksei Miller, the head of state-controlled Russian gas company Gazprom, met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat on 10 February, as it emerged that Turkmenistan halted gas supplies to Russia in January in a price dispute. Under a long-term contract, Gazprom is supposed to buy Turkmen gas for $44 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2005, but Turkmenistan won a price concession from Ukraine in early January, hiking the price to $58 per 1,000 cubic meters, and would like to get the same from Russia. The talks between Miller and Niyazov ended inconclusively, and further negotiations loom. Also in Ashgabat was Laura Kennedy, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state and a former ambassador to Turkmenistan. She spiced up her meeting with President Niyazov and subsequent press conference by raising human rights and civil society issues, including the possible resumption of broadcasts by Russia's Mayak radio station, which went off the air in Turkmenistan in July 2004.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov addressed the first cabinet meeting after December parliamentary elections, defining the government's primary goals as democratization, the renewal of society, and the deepening of liberal reforms. He also rapped "serious deficiencies" in the Labor Ministry, Health Ministry, and Education Ministry, and said that law-enforcement organs must extirpate corruption, graft, nepotism, and cronyism. Human rights activists also had complaints about law enforcement after several unidentified woman attacked a small group of demonstrators on 9 February while police looked on. Activist Elena Urlaeva, a member of the Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Farmers) opposition party, was hospitalized with a concussion.


By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov's recent visit to Moscow resulted in two decisions. The first -- announced on 11 February -- was to send more Russian military equipment and weaponry to the Russian Kant air base near the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. The other decision was to deny the U.S. request to deploy the AWACS reconnaissance planes at the U.S. Ganci air base, which is also near Bishkek. "It has been decided that the deployment of planes of this type [AWACS] would not quite fit the mandate of the Ganci air base, which is to provide support to the operation in Afghanistan," Aitmatov said on 14 February. "We hope our Western partners and friends will accept Kyrgyzstan's position with understanding."

Aitmatov said the second decision was a result of negotiations with the United States and consultations with the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Russia is a member of both organizations, and Aitmatov made the statement denying the request to base the AWACS in Kyrgyzstan two days after his Moscow trip.

The United States opened the Ganci air base -- which is at Bishkek's Manas airport -- in late 2001 to conduct antiterrorism and humanitarian operations in Afghanistan. Russia's Kant military base, about 20 kilometers east of Bishkek, was opened in October 2003.

On 11 February, the head of the Russian Air Force, General Vladimir Mikhailov, told ITAR-TASS that the Kant runway will be extended to accommodate all types of aircraft. The report said the base has about 500 officers and servicemen with 20 Sukhoi jet fighters and bombers.

Do the decisions by the Kyrgyz government mean it is prepared to lessen its cooperation with Washington in order to please Moscow? Russia's "Kommersant-Daily" wrote on 12 February that the Kremlin asked Aitmatov to refuse the U.S. request to deploy the AWACS planes at Ganci. According to "Kommersant," in exchange for denying the request, the Kremlin promised to support Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev in the October presidential election and pro-presidential forces in this month's parliamentary elections.

"Obviously, President Akaev wants Russian support during this political period," David Lewis, director of the Central Asia project for the International Crisis Group, told RFE/RL, speaking from Bishkek. "And one of the irritants in the relationship between Kyrgyzstan and Russia is the [U.S.] air base. And while it's seen as just about acceptable as a base against terrorism, any additional moves could create a problem."

Based on recent comments, Akaev is concerned about the possibility of an Orange Revolution taking place in his country. He has repeatedly said Kyrgyzstan does not need "exported revolutions" and that any attempt to radically change the political situation could lead to civil war. In order to prevent any radical changes from taking place during the elections, Akaev is seeking Russia's support, Lewis said.

Kyrgyz officials have made several visits to Russia in the last few months, and Akaev visited Moscow in January. Official statements said the purpose of Akaev's visit was to participate in 250th anniversary celebrations for Moscow State University. Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 25 January that Akaev introduced his son, Aidar, who is running for a parliamentary seat, to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some observers think Akaev sought the Kremlin's support on that trip and requested that Putin visit Kyrgyzstan before the parliamentary elections. Putin is not due to visit Kyrgyzstan until July; Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov is slated to come in March.

At the same time, Kyrgyz authorities have welcomed a delegation from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) tasked with monitoring the parliamentary elections. The head of Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission, Sulaiman Imanbaev, said the CIS observers -- led by Russian Vladimir Rushailo -- have a better understanding of the Kyrgyz environment than observers from Western countries.

"It is particularly important for us, practically and politically, when international observers from CIS countries come here, and for one simple reason: We share the same historical background, we have a common mentality, a common culture," he remarked on 28 January in Bishkek. "And observers who come here without translators will watch, feel, assess [the elections] more objectively and more realistically."

The conclusions of CIS election observers usually differ from those of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and are seldom critical of election practices in the former Soviet republics. A previous CIS delegation that was also led by Rushailo assessed December's parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan as "free and fair," while the OSCE said those polls fell short of international standards. Likewise, a CIS delegation proclaimed the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election as proper, though the results were later overturned by the Ukrainian Supreme Court and a rerun was held that made Viktor Yushchenko the president.

The question is: Does Moscow even want to support Akaev? The Kremlin seems to be more cautious in supporting any post-Soviet leadership after its wholehearted yet unsuccessful backing for Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych.

"I think the Russians will be a lot more careful to not put all their eggs in one basket, as it was in Ukraine," said Lewis. "Certainly, for the Russians, what they want is a stable partner that they know well and they can work with and, I think, probably, President Akaev is easier for them to deal with than some of the other political forces."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week during a meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart in Moscow that "Russia does not take any sides in election campaigns in CIS countries," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 15 February. After perhaps learning their lesson in Ukraine, however, Russian officials seem to have changed their tactics. In Moscow on 10 February, they met with Kyrgyz opposition leaders, including Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) co-Chairwoman Roza Otunbaeva, who has thus far been barred by Kyrgyz authorities from running for parliament.


By Bruce Pannier

In the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, fierce campaigning has been under way for several weeks for the 27 February parliamentary vote. But to the south in Tajikistan -- which holds votes the same day -- the situation is considerably more subdued. Only six political parties are registered to participate in the Tajik ballot. And unlike Kyrgyzstan's simmering opposition movement, Tajik oppositionists are facing numerous difficulties -- while attracting little notice or interest. These groups seem likely to vanish from the political arena with little protest from the public.

The People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT) and the Communist Party -- the country's dominant political groups -- are expected to do well. In the country's last parliamentary elections, the two allied parties won 85 percent of the parliament seats between them, and took the majority of the local votes, as well. Their dominance presents a daunting challenge for Tajikistan's opposition -- the Islamic Renaissance Party, the Socialist Party, the Democratic Party of Tajikistan (not to be confused with the PDPT) and the Social Democratic Party.

And the parties say election authorities are determined to make their task even more difficult. The four opposition groups accuse electoral officials of dragging out their registration procedures. Islamic Renaissance, for example, complained in January that of 23 candidates the party has tried to register in single-mandate districts, only eight had been registered. Opposition supporters have also alleged that local officials are pressuring voters to back pro-government candidates from the two dominant parties.

All six parties at the start of February signed a so-called gentlemen's agreement, pledging to steer clear of mudslinging and ensure the vote is free and fair. An independent monitoring center was created shortly afterward to observe conduct before and during the vote.

Latif Hadyazoda, who works at the monitoring center, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 15 February that he has received complaints that some ruling party candidates have been given government vehicles for use in campaigning -- a huge advantage in a mountainous country like Tajikistan. "According to reports, candidates from the Communist Party in the Somoni district of Dushanbe, and candidates from the ruling [PDPT] party used government transportation when they meet voters," Hadyazoda said. "Officials have selected worthy candidates and allowed them to use state transportation during working hours to campaign." The head of the Somoni district election commission, Abdurahmon Abdumannonov, said he is aware of the complaint but said he has yet to receive any details about which candidates, and which cars, are involved.

Opposition party members say they are having a difficult time even finding venues at which they can meet to plan party strategy. "The party was suppose to have a meeting in [the northern city of] Khujand, at the Soghdsokhtmon factory," said Rahmatullo Zoirov, chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). "The two workers that rented us the hall got fired. The Central Election Commission said we didn't have the right to meet there." Zoirov added that in Ishtarafshan, another city in northern Tajikistan, Mayor Juma Zokirov refused to allow the party to meet and told its members they'd be better off leaving SDP and joining the ruling PDPT instead.

Even after SDP eventually met in Ishtarafshan, the meeting's conclusions were nullified for alleged violations of protocol. "At the conference of the Social-Democratic Party, the national anthem wasn't played," explained Mavlon Boitemirov, the chairman of the district election commission. "[The election commission] also asked to see the documents [they needed in order to hold a meeting]. We requested they hand over copies of the documents by February 3, but they didn't do it." The SDP has argued that neither election laws nor political party laws require a party to play the national anthem or receive proper documentation before meeting. SDP leader Zoirov also has claimed authorities and state media are attempting to link the current opposition parties with the Islamist political opposition during Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war -- despite the fact that, with the exception of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), all the opposition parties are secular. Ubaidullo Faizulloev, the head of the Sogd provincial branch of the IRP, has complained that authorities have taken unusually long to register his party's candidates, leaving several unregistered even as the campaign officially began. The Democratic Party of Tajikistan is fielding four candidates, but the party's leader has been barred from participating after criminal charges were filed against him in December.

(Mirzo Salimov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)