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Central Asia Report: March 8, 2005


8 March 2005, Volume 5, Number 9

WEEK AT A GLANCE (28 FEBRUARY-6 MARCH). The fallout from Kyrgyzstan's 27 February parliamentary elections dominated news in Central Asia. First-round voting for the 75-seat unicameral parliament produced 31 winners, with voting postponed in one district because of protests and voters casting ballots "against all" in another. All in all, 44 races will be run on 13 March, 42 of them runoffs and two of them effectively first-round races. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observer mission noted some improvements on past elections in its assessment but highlighted numerous violations and failures to meet democratic standards; the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) observer mission pronounced a generally positive verdict. Pro-government candidates did well in the first round, but protests broke out in a number of cities on 4-6 March, with demonstrators condemning fraud, calling for the resignation of President Askar Akaev, and even seizing an administrative center in Jalal-Abad.

On 6 March, Kurmanbek Bakiev, leader of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, called for an emergency session of parliament and preterm presidential elections within three months. Presidential elections are currently set for October, but Bakiev, who has announced his intention to seek the presidency, warned that Akaev might use the current unrest to declare a state of emergency and cancel presidential elections. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev and other officials dismissed the protests as sour grapes and disputed the OSCE's criticisms. A grenade exploded at the Bishkek apartment of opposition leader Roza Otunbaeva, damaging the residence but causing no injuries. Otunbaeva, co-chairwoman of the Ata-Jurt movement, called the blast a scare tactic by the authorities, who suggested in turn that it was a "provocation" intended to draw attention to the opposition. Finally, Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry released a statement confirming that the U.S. Embassy had indeed requested permission to deploy AWACS surveillance aircraft to the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan. Some confusion has attended the issue after Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov announced in mid-February that the request had been denied, while U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Stephen Young stated days later that the question had never been raised.

Calmer conditions prevailed in Tajikistan, where the ruling party scored an overwhelming victory in 27 February parliamentary elections. The OSCE assessed the elections critically, while the CIS offered a cautious endorsement. Four Tajik parties -- the Communist Party, Democratic Party, Social Democratic Party, and Islamic Renaissance Party -- alleged fraud in Dushanbe and insisted that elections be repeated in the capital. The parties' threat that they will refuse to recognize election results throughout the country unless their claims are addressed elicited a statement of concern from Vladimir Sotirov, head of the UN Tajikistan Office of Peace Building. Meanwhile, President Imomali Rakhmonov replaced the heads of the Transport Ministry, Education Ministry, and State Statistics Committee, as well as a number of deputy ministers and district heads. The president also issued a decree obligating ministers and other top officials to give quarterly press conferences.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev spoke by telephone with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, with the two agreeing to set up a working group to pave the way to an eventual free-trade zone. Coming only days after Nazarbaev met with Rustam Inoyatov, the head of Uzbekistan's National Security Service, the move pointed to an apparent thaw in occasionally chilly Kazakh-Uzbek relations. In an interview with a Kazakh newspaper, presidential adviser Ermukhamet Ertysbaev said that presidential elections will take place in December 2006. In answering one question, Ertysbaev raised another, however, since Nazarbaev's seven-year term ends in January 2006. In southern Kazakhstan, spring thaws and the overflowing Shardara Reservoir forced the evacuation of 28,000 people and raised the prospect that over 100,000 residents may have to be moved.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed in a telephone conversation to speed up their efforts to build a natural-gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India. They also raised the prospect of a "personal meeting in the near future," according to Turkmen Television. And in a sign that Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov may be losing favor with Niyazov, the president removed Meredov as director of the National Institute of Democracy and Human Rights.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf visited Uzbekistan on 6 March, pledging to set up an extradition agreement with Uzbekistan and promising Uzbek President Islam Karimov that Pakistan will not allow any terrorist groups to operate on its territory. Musharraf also expressed a desire for Pakistan to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan). British Foreign Office official Bill Rammell found himself an unwelcome guest, as Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry cancelled his scheduled visit after Rammell made it clear that he intended to press the Uzbek government on human rights issues.

UNEASY WAIT FOR SECOND ROUND OF KYRGYZ ELECTIONS. Before Kyrgyzstan held parliamentary elections on 27 February, observers wondered whether Bishkek would join Tbilisi and Kyiv as the latest post-Soviet capital to host a revolution, President Askar Akaev and his government warned that no amount of outside meddling would suffice to introduce such a contagion to the body politic, and the country's fissiparous opposition did its best to close ranks and prepare for what it perceived as a crucial test.

Pro-government candidates did well in the first round of voting, but with a majority of seats in the 75-member unicameral parliament still up for grabs in 13 March runoffs, alleged improprieties in first-round voting have sparked protests. The government is dismissing the demonstrations as the last gasp of a discredited opposition, while the opposition charges that a discredited regime is losing its grip. But while the situation remains fluid, the terms of the struggle are finally coming into clear focus.

First-round elections on 27 February produced outright winners in only 31 of 75 constituencies, with many of the victors either members of the pro-Akaev Alga, Kyrgyzstan! party or otherwise affiliated with pro-government forces. Voting in Tong district was postponed because of protests, and in Kochkor district a majority of voters cast ballots "against all"; as a result, both districts will effectively hold first-round elections on 13 March. In 42 other districts on that date, runoffs will take place, many of them involving prominent members of Kyrgyzstan's opposition, such as Kurmanbek Bakiev, the leader of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan. Not all "government" candidates scored first-round knockouts, however -- Bermet Akaeva, daughter of President Askar Akaev, also faces a runoff on 13 March.

OSCE vs. CIS

In keeping with recent tradition, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) produced sharply different assessments of the voting. The OSCE noted some improvements on past efforts but concluded that the election "fell short of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections in a number of important areas," with the "competitive dynamic...undermined throughout the country by widespread vote buying, de-registration of candidates, interference with independent media, and a low level of confidence in electoral and judicial institutions on the part of candidates and voters."

By contrast, the CIS observer mission noted minor flaws but on the whole pronounced the ballot free and fair, in harmony with the findings of CIS observer missions in such countries as Belarus and Uzbekistan. Predictably, the assessments of Kyrgyzstan's authorities and opposition split along similar lines, with the former hailing progress and the latter alleging malfeasance.

Temperatures Rise

The political temperature began to rise as soon as first-round voting ended. By 4 March, protests had broken out in a number of cities, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. In Jalal-Abad, crowds numbering up to 3,000 demonstrated, condemning election fraud by the authorities and voicing their support for second-round parliamentary candidate Jusupbek Bakiev, the brother of People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan leader Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Protesters in Jalal-Abad occupied the provincial administrative center, an event that was repeated in the Uzgen district of Osh Oblast on 7 March, where 1,000 protesters condemned fraud and took over the district administrative center. Demonstrations broke out in Naryn Oblast after a local election commission removed candidate Ishenbai Kadyrbekov from the race on 5 March. Other protests took place in Issyk-Kul Oblast and elsewhere in Osh Oblast. In Jalal-Abad, a number of pro-government demonstrators marched as well, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported.

Although many of the protests began over local issues like the removal of a particular candidate, slogans and demands quickly grew in scope. RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 7 March that protesters in Jalal-Abad carried placards reading "Down with the regime of Askar Akaev" and "The people are sick of Askar Akaev!" When demonstrators in the Uzgen district of Osh Oblast took over local administrative offices, they not only condemned election violations, but also demanded the resignation of President Akaev, RFE/RL reported.

Official Disdain

National authorities brushed off the protests as the actions of provocateurs and malcontents. Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev told a news conference on 5 March that the organizers would be "brought to account," and Bolot Januzakov, deputy head of the presidential administration, charged that demonstrators received money to participate in protests, ITAR-TASS and RFE/RL reported. Presidential spokesman Abdil Segizbaev explained that the protest organizers were candidates who had either already lost or who lacked confidence in their second-round chances.

On the ground, police appear to have conducted themselves with restraint among protesters, and the only clashes reported thus far involved scuffles in Jalal-Abad on 5-6 March between antigovernment protesters and pro-government demonstrators.

For its part, the opposition has begun to advance a unified series of demands. On 6 March, Kurmanbek Bakiev addressed demonstrators in Jalal-Abad, calling for an emergency session of parliament and preterm presidential elections. Roza Otunbaeva, co-chairwoman of the Ata-Jurt opposition bloc, and Ishengul Boljurova, a leader in the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, repeated the demand for an emergency session of parliament at a news conference on 7 March. They proposed extending the current, pre-election parliament's powers, holding presidential elections -- currently scheduled for October -- within three months, and then setting about elections to a new parliament. An opposition deputy said that 20 of 70 members of the outgoing Jogorku Kenesh (lower chamber of parliament; the switch to a unicameral parliament is slated to take place after the present elections) have already signed on to the idea, although two-thirds are needed for an emergency session.

'Who Comes After?'

Bakiev, a former prime minister who has announced that he intends to seek the presidency, said on 6 March that President Akaev is attempting to provoke a crisis over the elections so that he can declare a state of emergency and cancel the October elections. Akaev, who is constitutionally barred from seeking another term, has said repeatedly that he will not try to stay in office. But the opposition is suspicious. Fueling their unease are comments like the ones Kyrgyz Ambassador to Turkey Amanbek Karipkulov made to Turkey's "Zaman" on 6 March: "Kyrgyzstan is the leading country in Central Asia in terms of democracy. Its annual growth rate is 7 percent. The [International Monetary Fund] program is functioning well. Our public sees this. They want the president to stay. They have collected 200,000 signatures, which are sufficient for the constitutional amendment. Revolutions like those in Georgia and Ukraine will not take place in Kyrgyzstan. What would happen if a bad man comes after the president?"

With no evident successor, Akaev's long-term plans to prevent a bad man from replacing him remain cloaked. But the short-term goals of the president and his supporters are clearly to contain the recent expressions of discontent and ensure as favorable a parliament as possible.

The opposition's mounting calls for an emergency session of parliament and preterm presidential elections raise the question of selecting a single candidate to carry the opposition's flag. They also raise the prospect of a direct confrontation with the authorities, especially if the initiative is blocked and mass protests emerge as the opposition's only recourse. What is increasingly clear is that even as Kyrgyzstan prepares for parliamentary runoffs on 13 March, the real struggle is, as Ambassador Karipkulov suggested, over the man who comes after the president. (Daniel Kimmage)

KAZAKH OPPOSITION BATTLES FOR OPPORTUNITY TO CHALLENGE PRESIDENT

By Bruce Pannier

An aide to President Nursultan Nazarbaev told the Kazakh newspaper "Ekspress K" early this week that the next presidential election will come as scheduled, in December 2006. The aide, Ermukhamet Ertysbaev, added that the opposition is "preparing with this date in mind."

But instead of settling the matter, the comments appear to have emboldened the opposition -- and even pointed to a possible rift within the ruling Otan party. That party was formed immediately after Nazarbaev's election victory six years ago -- in January 1999 -- with the express aim of securing Nazarbaev's reelection. But earlier this week, the acting chairman of Otan, Amangeldy Ermegiyaev, hinted that the presidential vote could come as early as this year.

"The law doesn't clearly state when elections should be held. The constitution says [it should be] in December, but it also specifies a seven-year [presidential] term. This issue should be resolved by the president through the constitutional council and that is why, in our [Otan's] opinion, it is proper to hold elections this year. Everything points to this being the best solution," Ermegiyaev said.

For his part, Nazarbaev has already announced his intention to run for another term.

At least one opposition group appears to think there might be a chance for early elections, adding that it will soon be offering up a candidate to challenge the incumbent. Altynbek Sarsenbaev is a leader of the Ak Zhol (Bright Path) Party. Among Kazakhstan's opposition parties, only Ak Zhol managed to win a seat in September's parliamentary elections. No one is occupying that seat, however, to protest what Ak Zhol calls a rigged vote.

Sarsenbaev said the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces, a coalition of opposition groups formed in the wake of their overwhelming defeat in those elections, will soon name its presidential candidate. "There is no doubt the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces will produce a single candidate, and in one month we will announce this candidate to the people," he said. The timing suggests the opposition believes an early election is a genuine possibility.

Some of Kazakhstan's most prominent opposition leaders have been jailed on criminal charges. One remains behind bars, while another has been in self-imposed exile for years, having been convicted in absentia and given a lengthy prison sentence.

Sarsenbaev is himself a possible candidate, but the name on most lips these days is that of Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, a former speaker of the lower house of parliament. A longtime friend of Nazarbaev, Tuyakbai stunned many when he criticized last fall's parliamentary elections as a "farce" soon after the polls closed. A weakened opposition instantly welcomed Tuyakbai as one of its own.

Tuyakbai appeared to temper Sarsenbaev's assurances about the early choice of an opposition candidate. But he also appeared to suggest that he has been approached about the possibility of mounting his own challenge for the presidency. "I didn't come to any final conclusion," he said. "We haven't discussed the issue at the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces."

Kazakh precedent might suggest an early vote. The last presidential election was held well in advance of its scheduled date of December 2000. The vote was announced in October 1998 and the balloting conducted in January 1999. Serikbolsyn Abdildin of the Communist Party told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the Kazakh Constitution stipulates that elections be called in August and held in December. Kenzhageldy Sagadiev, a member of the Otan faction of parliament, said recently that he simply can't say when the election will be held -- only that his party is ready to fulfill its role in helping reelect Nazarbaev whenever that time comes.

(Originally published on 4 March. Edige Magauin of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report)

IS TURKMEN PRESIDENT TRYING TO EUTHANIZE HEALTH CARE?

By Bruce Pannier

Just days after German doctors were flown in to perform eye surgery on President Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkmen leader announced he wants all regional hospitals closed and all citizens requiring hospitalization care to come to Ashgabat. The president suggested through a spokesman on 28 February that the scheme is aimed at assuring quality health care amid a shortage of good doctors.

Niyazov had hinted at the proposal several weeks ago in comments broadcast on state television. "In the health-care system, all the hospitals should be in Ashgabat, and more are being built there now," Niyazov said. "In the provincial centers, they have opened diagnostic centers. Let people go there, pay -- and without payment you can't expect anything -- and someone will write you a prescription and you go and get it. But here in the capital, you can be treated by doctors. These regional hospitals are not needed."

Such a diagnosis might provide little comfort to those living hundreds of kilometers from Ashgabat -- people who might be involved in accidents, be struck by acute appendicitis, or suffer heart attacks. Turkmenistan is nearly 500,000 square kilometers -- considerably larger than Germany -- and transportation can be difficult.

The director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, Erika Dailey, called the proposal one of Niyazov's most shocking statements to date. Speaking from the project's headquarters in Budapest, Dailey pointed out that the trip to Ashgabat is not necessarily an easy one to make for the sick or elderly. "Turkmenistan is a large country and the capital is extremely difficult to get to both geographically and financially for a lot of people who work in the country, certainly the majority of people," Dailey said. "If this verbal order is actually implemented it will literally mean a death sentence to people with very serious diseases."

Dailey said that health care in Turkmenistan has already been "almost nonfunctional" in recent years. And while she acknowledged that medical care is a problem all over Central Asia, she said the situation is especially bad in Turkmenistan. The government, she said, has actually "pursued a policy of dismantling" the health-care system.

"You can blame a lot of the problems of the health-care system in neighboring countries on poverty and sort of rational factors but in Turkmenistan there seems to be a very consistent pattern," Dailey said. "The government has actually been actively laying off health workers, preventing people from receiving medical education, privatizing the health-care system so that it's financially inaccessible to most Turkmenistanis."

The World Health Organization ranks Turkmenistan 168th among nearly 200 countries in terms of physicians per capita, and 133rd in terms of total physicians, according to the latest available figures. It also places Turkmenistan last among 52 countries studied in terms of "healthy life expectancy at age 60," and puts the country near the bottom in terms of total expenditure on health as a portion of gross domestic product.

The implementation of the hospital-closure plan is still a question -- in terms of both timing and rigor. But that it will have some effect is all but inevitable in Turkmenistan, where bureaucrats can be eager to implement the ideas of a president who fosters a cult-like image and demands strict obedience. "In a dictatorship like Niyazov's, the country is largely ruled by presidential fiat," Dailey said. "And in this case as well, the concern by many is that this statement, which was fairly casual, may indeed be implemented by overly zealous bureaucrats."

The last five years have already seen two major cuts in the number of health-care workers under Niyazov's stewardship. To fill the jobs left by the dismissed workers, soldiers have been ordered to perform the duties of nurses and orderlies. Polyclinics across the country have already been closed, and people told to seek treatment in regional hospitals -- the same facilities that Niyazov now proposes to shut.

(Originally published on 3 March. Rozinar Khoudaiberdiev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)

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