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Central Asia Report: May 4, 2005


4 May 2005, Volume 5, Number 16

WEEK AT A GLANCE (25 April-1 May). Kazakhstan witnessed a flurry of activity among opposition forces. The opposition party Ak Zhol expelled former Chairmen Bulat Abilov, Altynbek Sarsenbaev, and Oraz Zhandosov, whose newly formed True Ak Zhol party subsequently held its first congress. At the congress, Abilov told Interfax that True Ak Zhol will support Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, the single candidate recently put forward by a bloc of opposition forces, in upcoming presidential elections. The opposition bloc For a Just Kazakhstan applied for registration with the Justice Ministry. And a court in Almaty ordered the arrest of Zamanbek Nurkadilov, a onetime supporter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev who joined the opposition in 2004, in order to compel his appearance at a trial where he faces defamation charges. On the diplomatic front, acting Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva visited, as her Kazakh counterpart, Qasymzhomart Toqaev reiterated Kazakhstan's pledge to send Kyrgyzstan 1,000 tons of wheat and 10,000 tons of fuel in humanitarian aid.

In Kyrgyzstan, protesters stormed and occupied the Supreme Court, threatening to set fire to the building unless the court resigned. Chairman Kurmanbek Osmonov had submitted his resignation, although acting President Kurmanbek Bakiev did not accept it. A standoff ensued, as protesters remained in the court. Bakiev dismissed Environment and Emergencies Minister Temirbek Akmataliev and border-guards commander Kalmurat Sadiev, as acting Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov announced that both men are subjects in a criminal investigation into the shooting deaths of six protesters in 2002. The constitutional council charged with proposing changes to the basic law held its first session on 28 April. And Bayaman Erkinbaev, a deputy in Kyrgyzstan's parliament, told a press conference that a gunman tried to kill him, although the would-be assassin only managed to injure the legislator's nose before fleeing.

Tajik Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov announced at a press conference that police arrested Muhammadruzi Iskandarov, the head of the Democratic Party, on 22 April. Iskandarov had been released in Russia in early April, and then disappeared outside Moscow on 15 April. After Muhammadruzi's lawyers met with him in custody in Dushanbe later in the week, they told reporters that Muhammadruzi had been abducted by unknown individuals and then transferred from Russia to Tajikistan. Russian and Tajik authorities held their silence on the matter. Prosecutor-General Bobokhonov also announced that former Interior Minister Yakub Salimov, who had been extradited from Russia to Tajikistan in February 2004, received a 15-year prison term for treason in a closed trial.

In Uzbekistan, more than 400 workers went on a hunger strike at the Shorsuv Metal Works in Ferghana to protest the actions of managers who, they alleged, defrauded them of shares in the enterprise. Elsewhere, acting Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Otunbaeva visited, signing a Kyrgyz-Uzbek energy agreement that calls for the bilateral exchange of natural gas and electricity supplies.

FOLLOW THE MONEY -- THE AKAEV INVESTIGATION

By Daniel Kimmage

Back in the 1970s, two young American journalists got a bit of simple advice from an inside source in the administration of President Richard Nixon: "Follow the money." They did, and the resulting scandal toppled a president. Thirty years later and a world away, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev fled as a throng of enraged demonstrators ransacked his office. Now, the resulting scandal is throwing light on some of the financial dealings that contributed to the protesters' rage. But even as the postrevolutionary furor in Kyrgyzstan proves that nowhere is the dictum "follow the money" more relevant than in postcommunist kleptocracies, it is also highlighting the immense difficulties that beset the would-be cleansers of corruption's Aegean stables.

Since former President Akaev deserted his post on 24 March, the bulk of attention has focused on the sprawling business interests allegedly controlled by Akaev, his family, and their associates. In mid-April, acting President Kurmanbek Bakiev created a commission to investigate these alleged assets, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 19 April. Headed by Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov, the commission soon announced a "tentative" list of 42 businesses to be checked for ties to the Akaev clan, akipress.org reported. Usenov said, "The commission will also investigate money transfer schemes through offshore zones, schemes for skimming from the budget, and from such enterprises as Kumtor [gold mine]," Interfax reported.

But the commission quickly discovered that its work would be tough going. At a 27 April press conference to discuss the commission's initial efforts, Usenov stressed that it was difficult to determine just who controlled many of the companies on the list, akipress.org reported. Citing the examples of the Kant Cement and Slate Factory and Kumtor Gold Mine, Usenov noted that the companies' founding documents did not contain any telltale names. At the same time, the list was growing. Usenov told journalists that the commission had added 31 companies to the original list of 42 businesses. He also said that "around 20 criminal cases" had been opened, lenta.ru reported.

Meanwhile, the owners of some businesses on the list began to push back. Vladimir Shtainart, the owner of the Interglass factory, told a meeting of the International Business Council in Bishkek on 26 April that the inclusion of his business in the inventory of firms with suspected Akaev links was a mistake, Kabar reported. Usenov agreed, saying, "[an] investigation showed that the factory was not part of the former president's family business."

Other businesses responded more aggressively. Valerii Polyakov, the director of Manas International Service, an aircraft fuel supplier included on the list and allegedly linked to presidential son Aydar Akaev, told a press conference on 28 April that the investigation into the company could imperil fuel shipments to airlines and the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan, fergana.ru reported. Insisting that the company had no links to the Akaev family, Polyakov complained that the investigation, which froze Manas International Service's accounts, had paralyzed the company. Polyakov warned that fuel for outgoing flights would last only until the end of May.

For his part, Usenov accused Manas International Service and Aalam Service, another fuel supplier on the list, of sabotage. He told Interfax on 28 April: "As far as I am aware, these two companies, which hold a monopoly, have 8,000 tons of fuel at present. But these structures are telling the embassies of Russia and the United States that they won't refuel Aeroflot plans and the [U.S.] military base because of the investigations into their activities." Usenov charged that a controlling stake in Manas International Service belonged to Aydar Akaev, while Adil Toigonbaev, the ousted president's son-in-law, owned a controlling stake in Aalam Service. Usenov also suggested that Manas International Service was evading taxes, posting sales of $30 million a year and profits of "only a few thousand dollars."

On another front, one of the most significant assets on the original list of 42 businesses with suspected Akaev ties is currently embroiled in a dispute that pits a group of Kazakh investors against one of Russia's largest financial-industrial groups. BiTel is Kyrgyzstan's largest cellular operator, worth approximately $250 million according to Russian business daily "Vedomosti." At a 27 April news conference, Usenov detailed its formidably complex ownership structure, akipress.org reported. He explained to journalists: "The founders of the Kyrgyz company BiTel were three offshore companies registered on the Isle of Man. The founders of those companies are two companies registered in the Seychelles. The founders of those companies are two Liberian companies. According to our information, the founders of those companies are, in turn, the Akaev family on the one hand, and [BiTel's] management headed by Mr. Turdukulov on the other."

As "RFE/RL Central Asia Report" detailed on 19 April, Kazakhstan's Seimar Investment Group announced its acquisition of BiTel on 13 April even as Russia's Alfa Group claimed to hold an option to buy BiTel. But Alfa soon seized the upper hand, announcing in a 28 April press release that a Bishkek court had ruled on 15 April to turn over 100 percent of BiTel to the Kazakh company Fellowes, which is owned by Alfa Group. Alliance Capital, a Kazakh investment group affiliated with Seimar Investment Group, issued its own press release on 28 April, blasting the court decision and threatening to pursue its case with the London Court of International Arbitration.

As events continue to unfold, we are likely to learn more about the financial underbelly of Akaev's Kyrgyzstan. In the course of its investigations, Usenov's commission has sent requests to Interpol and the U.S. and British embassies for help in locating Akaev's accounts, lenta.ru reported. But many top figures in the current leadership were also prominent members of the country's elite under Akaev, often as high-ranking officials. A no-holds-barred investigation could have unpredictable consequences, and some are likely to prefer predictable consequences.

In a 27 April interview in "Delo No," Usenov touched on the perils of an overzealous inquiry into corruption, at the same time underscoring the core conundrum his commission will face as it proceeds with its investigations. As Usenov outlined the various tax-evasion schemes businessmen used under Akaev, he stressed that the focus should be on future compliance rather than past wrongdoing. "We're not asking about what happened yesterday. Otherwise, we'll have to put half the country in jail," he said. While this may be true for the lower-level corruption that plagues the country, if the commission's probe into high-level rot is to have any hope of ensuring a better tomorrow for Kyrgyzstan, it has no choice but to dig deeper into "what happened yesterday."

TAJIK OPPOSITION LEADER BROUGHT HOME TO FACE CHARGES, EX-INTERIOR MINISTER IMPRISONED FOR 15 YEARS

By Bruce Pannier

After nearly two weeks, the mystery of the whereabouts of the leader of the Tajikistan Democratic Party, Mahmudruzi Iskandarov, was solved on 26 April as Dushanbe announced he has been brought back to Tajikistan under arrest. The future location of another well-known figure in Tajikistan, former Interior Minister Yakub Salimov, also became clear on 26 April: He will likely be in a Tajik prison for the next 15 years.

The mystery of Iskandarov's whereabouts began in early April when he was freed from jail in Moscow. He had been in prison since December, when he was arrested on charges of committing terrorist acts and illegal possession of weapons. Those charges were filed by the Tajik prosecutor's office and Russian authorities acted on the Tajik government's warrant in detaining him.

But next, to some observers' surprise, the Russian authorities refused to extradite Iskandarov to Tajikistan. Instead, they freed him on 3 April. And then, a little over a week later, Iskandarov disappeared.

The first sounds of alarm over his fate came from his political supporters in Tajikistan. The Tajikistan Democratic Party released a statement late last week saying that he had disappeared in mysterious circumstances in Moscow late on 15 April.

Until yesterday, no one seemed to know where he was. But then, Tajik Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov told a press conference in Dushanbe where the missing man was. "Mahmudruzi Iskandarov has been detained," Bobokhonov said. "He is at a pretrial detention facility of the Ministry of National Security in Dushanbe. The investigation is under way."

Just how Iskandarov came to be in Tajikistan late last week remains unclear. Bobokhonov said only that Iskandarov was officially placed under arrest on 22 April.

The mysterious way in which Iskandarov's case has proceeded has struck some legal experts as irregular. Abdukayum Yusufov, the head of Tajikistan's Association of Attorneys, says there seems to be some breeches of due process surrounding Iskandarov's detention and extradition. "The way they arrested him, according to existing norms [of the law] could be considered kidnapping, because no one identified themselves officially [as a law enforcement agent] and they did not produce any documents explaining why he should be arrested," Yusufov said.

Iskandarov has long been a controversial subject in Tajik politics. He was a leader in the United Tajik Opposition, a coalition that fought against Tajik government forces during the country's 1992-97 civil war. But he was amnestied at the end of the conflict and served in the government until he was sacked as head of the state electricity company in late 2003. The charges of committing terrorist acts surfaced late last year as he campaigned for a seat in parliament.

At the start of April, in one of his last interviews while free, Iskandarov denied the charges against him and gave his version of why the Tajik authorities wanted him in jail. "It is ridiculous that they [Tajik authorities] are accusing me of terrorism," Iskandarov said. "I have never been involved in any terror [activities] during the whole civil war. How could I be involved in it in times of peace? I had bodyguards by order of the president. When I changed my political ambition [Ed. In May 2004 he announced his intention to run in the 2006 presidential election], they piled all the charges on me."

No trial date has been set for Iskandarov yet.

Another former government official, and former ally of Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, learned of his fate yesterday. Yakub Salimov was once Tajikistan's interior minister, ambassador to Turkey, and chairman of the state customs committee. He was also a commander in the group called the Popular Front, a paramilitary group that fought on the government side during the civil war.

Salimov has claimed in interviews that it was he and other Popular Front commanders who brought Rakhmonov to power. Salimov has also said he saved Rakhmonov's life when someone tried to kill the Tajik president in April 1997.

But after a five-month trial, Tajikistan's Supreme Court yesterday found Salimov guilty of treason, banditry, and abuse of office.

Salimov, like Iskandarov, was detained in Moscow and eventually handed over to Tajik authorities. (RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report. Originally published on 27 April)

KYRGYZSTAN: BANNED HIZB UT-TAHRIR FACES DWINDLING APPEAL, INTERNAL DIVISIONS

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Many observers are concerned the recent revolution in Kyrgyzstan has created instability that could be used by Islamic extremists to gain influence. Russian media say radicalization of Islamic groups is inevitable in Kyrgyzstan. Western journalists have focused specifically on the country's south, where the banned organization Hizb ut-Tahrir has traditionally been most active. Many Kyrgyz experts, however, see the situation differently.

Before the parliamentary elections that triggered Kyrgyzstan's March revolution, Hizb ut-Tahrir had called on voters to boycott the ballot. The group has also rejected the new interim government, for the same reason it rejected that of ousted leader Askar Akaev: Neither is Islamic.

"Our position has always been the same. No matter who it is, a peasant or a head of state, our appeal remains unchanged -- we urge them to do good and to avoid evil; we call on them to follow Shari'a [Islamic law]," Dilyor Jumaboev, a Hizb ut-Tahrir member, told RFE/RL from the southern Kyrgyz town of Kara-suu. "[The Kyrgyz revolution] was a democratic process based on a democratic ideology. Muslims didn't play any role in it. It wasn't a victory of Muslims or of Islam."

But it is precisely that democratic process that some say might have weakened the appeal of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Until recently, Hizb ut-Tahrir's popularity was partly based on its role as an outpost of dissent in the authoritarian countries of Central Asia.

But the revolution gave many Kyrgyz an alternative channel for voicing their discontent. It also gave them a rare opportunity for legitimate political participation.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, or the Party of Liberation, has openly sought to create a regionwide Islamic state, or caliphate. It disavows the current political regimes in Central Asia, as well as Western capitalism, as "kufr," or systems devised by nonbelievers.

Hizb ut-Tahrir has traditionally claimed to endorse no violence in pursuing its goal, and it has never been officially linked to any terrorist act. But the group is outlawed in Russia and most Central Asian countries, including Kyrgyzstan.

Analysts say Kyrgyzstan's March revolution, in addition to dampening Hizb ut-Tahrir's appeal, has also deepened an already existing internal split in the group.

There have been suggestions that Hizb ut-Tahrir is no longer united in the goal of nonviolent methods to achieve its ends. One branch still advocates a peaceful, global Islamic revolution. But another is pressing for a shift to more forceful means and focusing on revolution in a single country rather than regionwide.

"Experts say this split started 1 1/2 to two years before the revolution, when opinions changed within Hizb ut-Tahrir," said Alisher Saipov, an independent journalist from the southern Kyrgyz town of Osh. "These groups emerged after internal squabbling. At present, some Hizb ut-Tahrir members say the debate over the method of fighting is ongoing -- as are the splits."

Is Hizb ut-Tahrir likely to become a jihadist group?

In a 21 April commentary, Stratfor, a leading intelligence consultancy, focused on the issue of Islamism in Kyrgyzstan. It noted that one of Hizb ut-Tahrir's founders, Asad Bayoud Tamimi, went on to establish the group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, thus setting a precedent for the radicalization of Hizb ut-Tahrir.

The West has expressed concern about potential radicalization of Islam in Central Asia.

"If Kyrgyzstan becomes very unstable, it could become a territory that would allow existing Islamist-related groups in the region to thrive," Tanya Malcolm, a Central Asia analyst with the Eurasia Group, told RFE/RL. "I don't want to exaggerate the problem of Islamist extremist activity, but there have been some antigovernment violent attacks possibly in Uzbekistan, although we are not quite sure who was behind them, and various movements in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere. I think there's a genuine international concern that another weak spot in Central Asia would allow those types of movements to thrive. And the reason that they might thrive is because other governments in Central Asia, most importantly in Uzbekistan, are becoming more and more authoritarian, which is in itself fueling this problem of extremist activity and anti-government violent activity."

Russian media are also discussing a possible rise in Islamic radicalism in Kyrgyzstan. The prevailing opinion in Moscow appears to be that Kyrgyzstan is on the brink of a civil war bred by Islamic extremism. There are also worries that such instability in Kyrgyzstan could easily spill over into other Central Asian countries.

But Ganijon Kholmatov, an Osh-based independent political analyst, dismissed such speculation. He told RFE/RL the views of the Russian media are politically motivated. "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin's policy failed in Ukraine and Georgia. [In Kyrgyzstan], now, they use the same old reasoning, like Islamic extremism, and say that Central Asia is going to be embraced by Islamic extremism," Kholmatov said. "They continue the old propaganda. However, it is an indication of nothing more than the fact Russia sustained another shock after the Kyrgyz events. I think it's a sign that Russia's policy has failed once again -- this time in Kyrgyzstan."

Both Kholmatov and Saipov said most people in southern Kyrgyzstan remain secular. Those who are devout Muslims typically follow conventional and more moderate Islamic practice, rather than the radical Hizb ut-Tahrir ideology.

Kholmatov said the revolution has made it easier for Muslims in Kyrgyzstan to gather at state-controlled mosques to discuss political and economic problems -- something that was restricted during Akaev's rule and impossible in neighboring Uzbekistan.

With a loosening of such religious restrictions, he said, the appeal of an underground outlaw group like Hizb ut-Tahrir is bound to fade.

But Hizb ut-Tahrir member Jumaboev denied the rumors of an internal split within the group, and said the group hasn't changed its methods. "Hizb ut-Tahrir's activity is very well planned; it cannot be based on any methods that go against Shari'a and are determined to fail," Jumaboev said. "Hizb ut-Tahrir's activity is based on a fight using only ideas and political methods. Using military or financial force is 'haraam' [unlawful and prohibited by Islam]. As for the opinion of the Russian journalists, it reminds me of the Russian saying: 'Whoever wants to get rid of his dog, declares it rabid.' Maybe they are following this rule now."

Journalist Saipov said problems like poverty, overpopulation, and unemployment have peaked in recent years in the Ferghana Valley, where Hizb ut-Tahrir is most active. As long as governments continue to ignore these problems, he said, it is possible that any opposition force, including Islamists, might eventually radicalize. (Originally published on 27 April)

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