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Central Asia Report: June 22, 2005


22 June 2005, Volume 5, Number 23

WEEK AT A GLANCE (13-19 JUNE). A Kazakh court sentenced former Information Minister Altynbek Sarsenbaev to pay 1 million tenges ($7,500) in damages for defaming Khabar Agency. Sarsenbaev, who is co-chairman of the unregistered opposition party Naghyz Ak Zhol, blasted the ruling and vowed to appeal. Noting the defamation ruling against Sarsenbaev, and a similar ruling days earlier against another opposition figure, the opposition movement For a Just Kazakhstan condemned what it termed a "purge of the political and media environment" in the lead-up to the presidential election currently scheduled for December 2006. Billionaire philanthropist George Soros told an international business forum in Almaty that "the institutions of open society are not yet fully developed" in Kazakhstan and urged reforms and "sound economic policies" to ensure a "prosperous future for every citizen." For his part, President Nursultan Nazarbaev told the same forum that Kazakhstan is ready to listen to friendly advice, but he warned against the wholesale adoption of Western values.

Kyrgyzstan experienced an uneasy week. A shootout injured at least 12 people at the Alai Hotel in Osh when supporters and opponents of legislator Bayaman Erkinbaev clashed on 13 June. On 17 June, hundreds of supporters of presidential hopeful Urmat Baryktabasov, who was not registered as a candidate because officials said he held dual Kazakh-Kyrgyz citizenship, stormed and briefly held the main government building in Bishkek before riot police pushed them back. In the aftermath, acting President Kurmanbek Bakiev rebuked top law-enforcement officials. Bakiev and other officials blamed former President Askar Akaev and other "counterrevolutionary forces" for the unrest, charging that the rioters who seized the building received payments for their actions. Acting Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov said that police would seek Baryktabasov on coup charges. Bakiev announced that he will step down from the post of prime minister until the 10 July presidential election, and acting First Deputy Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, whom Bakiev has promised the premiership if he is elected president, did the same. A four-member team from the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights began a 10-day investigation of the 13 May violence in Uzbekistan; the team will operate in Kyrgyzstan because Uzbekistan has rejected calls for an international inquiry.

An explosion injured four people in Dushanbe outside the Emergency Situations Ministry, where a blast had killed one person in late January. The State Security Ministry opened a terrorism case, saying that someone had remote-detonated an explosive device on a cart. The Energy Ministry announced that Iran will contribute $180 million to the construction of the Sangtuda-2 hydropower plant, a project slated for completion in four years. President Imomali Rakhmonov announced that his government plans to lift all restrictions on the activities of foreign banks in Tajikistan. Rakhmonov joined with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to lay the cornerstone for a bridge across the Panj River; the United States has provided $28 million to build the bridge. The two presidents later held talks in Dushanbe, focusing on ways to expand bilateral relations.

European Union foreign ministers gave Uzbekistan until the end of June to agree to an independent inquiry into violence in Andijon on 13 May or face sanctions. The U.S. State Department announced that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote to Uzbek President Islam Karimov to call for an independent inquiry. The State Department also denied reports of a policy split with the Defense Department after "The Washington Post" reported that the Defense Department officials had kept a call for an independent investigation out of a 9 June NATO communique. For its part, the Defense Department announced that Uzbekistan has placed limitations on the United States' Karshi-Khanabad base in Uzbekistan, although it declined to link the move to U.S. calls for an independent investigation of bloodshed in Andijon. And Uzbekistan's foreign minister denied media reports of a link between restrictions on Karshi-Khanabad and the U.S. position on Andijon, saying that the decision to limit flights had been made months earlier. The ministry's statement added, "If one follows the logic of the American media, another conclusion suggests itself: the Andijon events were likely a consequence of Uzbekistan's decision to limit the flights of American aircraft, and not the reason [for it]."

TROUBLE AT THE TOP IN TURKMENISTAN?

By Najia Badykova

Recent events in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan clearly show that seething social unrest can be either fatal for a regime or extremely damaging. Protests in Kyrgyzstan in March led to the ouster of President Askar Akaev, while the crackdown in the Uzbek city of Andijon in May has had serious international and domestic consequences for the regime of President Islam Karimov. To one extent or another, political weakness is a hallmark of all the regimes of Central Asia.

Turkmenistan remains a special case, although it is certainly no exception to this pattern. Despite an aura of economic and social well-being projected by state-run media, the Turkmen population's general lack of interest in political processes, and the absence of an official opposition, President Saparmurat Niyazov's grip on power seems to be gradually slipping.

The disengagement of Turkmen society from political life can be explained by a deliberate, decades-long policy of repression against the opposition and the sustained political and cultural isolation of Turkmenistan from the rest of the world. In addition, the system of social safety nets that was successfully marketed to the public in the 1990s has played a major role in dulling the Turkmen people's sense of political identity, creating a perception of overall economic well-being and preventing widespread discontent with the lack of political and economic reform. This perception was in fact an illusion induced by Niyazov's propaganda machine, when in exchange and not as a result of economic prosperity people receive token economic social benefits and have essentially forfeited the basic rights enjoyed by democratic societies.

Moreover, the brutal crackdown in Uzbekistan cannot have inspired much optimism among would-be Turkmen revolutionaries and surely frightened the Turkmen population. Finally, the fact that the Turkmen opposition is disconnected from Turkmen society and exiled from the country makes it politically irrelevant, for all practical purposes.

Any real danger that confronts Niyazov, who is known as Turkmenbashi, lurks within his own government. To mitigate these threats, Niyazov regularly reshuffles officials and jails potential opponents.

Threats From Within

According to official information from Ashgabat reported by turkmenistan.ru, May saw numerous arrests of mid- and high-level government officials. The chief victim was one of the system's longtime survivors, Yolly Gurbanmuradov, who was dismissed on 20 May and subsequently arrested. He began his career as the chairman of the Foreign Economic Relations Bank in 1994. More recently, he had been deputy prime minister for the oil-and-gas sector. He stands accused of embezzling millions of dollars and conspiring with foreign intelligence services to sabotage the supply of oil products in Turkmenistan, turkmenistan.ru reported on 11 June.

Gurbanmuradov's arrest was followed by charges against Shekersoltan Mukhammedova, acting head of the Central Bank of Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan.ru reported on 31 May that she was involved in financial machinations with Gurbanmuradov.

Gurbanmuradov had been around Niyazov for more than 10 years and surely knew the rules of the game. He would have been perfectly aware that any action or decision made at such a high level without the president's blessing would have dire consequences. Consequently, it is unlikely that Gurbanmuradov embezzled more funds than was sanctioned by the Turkmen president himself.

Not Corruption, But Competition

The decisive factor in this tale was not the fact that Gurbanmuradov was allegedly a rich cattle owner, embezzler of millions, collector of countless kilograms of silver, the husband of numerous wives, or even a conspirator with foreign intelligence services to create artificial shortage of gasoline in 2004 for personal gain. The reason for Gurbanmuradov's arrest was not the corruption that is commonplace in Turkmenistan.

Gurbanmuradov had become a danger for the president. He was one of the few trusted individuals who knew the nuances of almost all major financial transactions and the inner workings of Turkmenbashi's beloved multibillion-dollar projects. For many years, Gurbanmuradov managed the oil-and-gas sector and chaired the Foreign Economic Relations Bank, which had sole control of all foreign credit lines. For more than a decade, Gurbanmuradov had been the keeper of these secrets, and the more he knew, the greater the perceived threat likely became. His hypothetical escape from the country and the possible uncovering of Niyazov's financial dealings would have caused far more damage to the regime than the amount he allegedly embezzled. His exposure of massive high-level corruption could have delivered a devastating, possibly fatal blow to Niyazov's regime.

In the period before his arrest, Gurbanmuradov continued to extend his influence over various economic sectors, indicating perhaps that he had more serious plans than fleeing the country. Over his long career, he had forged links to and alliances with groups active in both the lucrative financial and oil-and-gas sectors.

Gurbanmuradov's arrest coincides with rumors of Turkmenbashi's worsening health, which opens up the possibility of infighting among political opponents. The arrest may have been provoked by Gurbanmuradov's enemies in the government as a preventive measure. Former Deputy Prime Minister Rejep Saparov had also been a longtime favorite of Niyazov until he was demoted last year. Yet Saparov managed to stay a member of the president's team and remained Gurbanmuradov's political opponent.

By arresting Gurbanmuradov and his associates, Niyazov has ensured peace and quiet in his house for a time, but it may be inevitable that new alliances and groups emerge and such processes often outpace regular governmental purges. In both scale and frequency, the purges affect all levels of the government, creating an ever-widening pool of disgruntled former government officials across the country, from mid-level bureaucrats to high-powered law-enforcement officers from the Interior Ministry and National Security Ministry. For all his controlling qualities, Niyazov has not displayed a taste for the sort of ferociously lethal state terror that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin used to bludgeon the Soviet political class into docility. Gradually, a critical mass could emerge -- a third force that could decide to shake off Niyazov's regime.

(Najia Badykova is a research associate at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Originally published on 21 June)

UZBEKISTAN: NEW REPORTS SAY MEDIA HARASSED POST-ANDIJON

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Uzbek police have again detained independent journalist Tolqin Qoraev, just two days after his release from jail in the southern city of Qarshi. Qoraev was later released, but human rights activists say he is just one of several victims of a government crackdown on the independent media that has intensified since the unrest in Andijon in mid-May. The media harassment was outlined in reports released this week by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

Qoraev, who once freelanced for RFE/RL, was released on 14 June. Two days later, for reasons that remain unclear, he was again detained. And just as suddenly, he was released again the same day.

Qoraev later spoke to RFE/RL's Tajik Service, saying he still does not understand why he was detained a second time. "I don’t know, they didn’t give any explanation," he said. "I was on my way to Tashkent, where I wanted to get medical treatment; they forced me to return."

Local and international human rights advocates say his detention is a part of a government campaign against independent journalists who have covered, among other issues, the recent unrest in Andijon.

On 15 June, the OSCE released a report listing several examples of harassment of Russian and Western media by Uzbek authorities during and after the unrest, in which hundreds of civilians were believed to have been killed after Uzbek troops opened fire on demonstrators.

The OSCE report was prepared in collaboration with the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, which released a 30-page report on the Andijon events earlier in the week.

"First of all, we released this report to demonstrate the scale of violations of journalists' rights who worked in Andijon since 13 May," the center's director, Oleg Panfilov, told RFE/RL. "The second purpose of the report is to demonstrate how widely Uzbek laws are violated regarding dissemination of objective information; how Uzbekistan's constitution, which declares freedom of speech and citizens' rights to get independent information, is violated as well."

Panfilov said the center faced numerous problems while working on the report. "I should say, it was quite difficult to do it because, first of all, the telephone connection was very bad, especially during the first days [of the Andijon crisis] from 13 to 15 May," Panfilov said. "Secondly, many journalists, particularly Uzbeks, were afraid to talk to us as they were threatened [by Uzbek authorities]. They were told that they and their relatives would have a lot of problems. Uzbek journalists told us that Uzbek security service officers were collecting information about names of their children and other relatives."

Both reports focus on coverage of the Andijon events and Tashkent's handling of the media during the crisis. The Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations as well as the OSCE's top media representative concluded that the Uzbek government blocked news coverage and intensified harassment of journalists and of Internet and television outlets during and after the events in Andijon.

The findings included the following:

* On 13 May, local Internet providers blocked access to most Russian websites, including leading news sources such as ferghana.ru and lenta.ru. Local Internet cafes introduced a 10,000 Uzbek-sum ($10) fine for logging on to independent sites -- twice as much as the fine for accessing pornographic sites.

* International cable television channels were also blocked.

* Foreign correspondents were expelled from Andijon on 15 May. Some local journalists, like Qoraev, were later imprisoned.

* Meanwhile, state-run media launched a propaganda campaign featuring its own version of events and criticizing foreign media coverage. Uzbek journalists working for foreign media, including RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, have become a subject of a special campaign. They are labeled "traitors to their people and to their motherland" in the Uzbek press.

"As they [state-controlled media] say, foreign media correspondents equipped with advanced technology misinterpret information, edit all pieces as they wish and broadcast," said Alimardon Annaev, a Tashkent-based independent media analyst. "OK, let's assume they [foreign media] don't tell the truth and there is a lot of slandering of the Uzbek government. Then why don't the Uzbek media show pictures of 'terrorists' and 'Islamic extremists' who were in Andijon on 13 May, as they say?"

Annaev said the state-controlled media are losing the information battle with foreign media as they are unable to provide proof of their version of the Andijon events.

Panfilov agreed. He said the Uzbek authorities are used to using these methods despite being ineffective. "There's nothing unusual in this, as [Uzbek President] Islam Karimov came to power with the first wave of post-Soviet presidents after being the first secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party," Panfilov said. "He and his administration still have a Soviet type of thinking. They believe that publishing several articles in their press against foreign media helps improve the situation. [However], the reality has changed and despite all attempts by the Uzbek authorities to hide information, people learn the truth."

The OSCE report says that a lack of cooperation between government sources and independent human rights activists and journalists is making it impossible to establish facts about the Andijon unrest as well as the exact death toll.

"The gap between the government and press reports on the events, and the differing casualty figures, are telling signs of an information blockade; of a lack of mutually-agreed verification procedures; and of a lack of cooperation between the authorities and the press," the report says.

"Working with the press in times of crisis is a learning process, but it is also an important contribution to the peaceful solution of crises, as it is part of society's right to information," it adds.

The OSCE's Vienna-based media representative who contacted Uzbek authorities while preparing the report also offered to arrange training courses for Uzbek officials to ensure cooperation between the government and the press.

Panfilov said the government's tough approach to the media is unlikely to ease. He said Qoraev's case only proves it.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek and Tajik services contributed to this report. Originally published on 16 June)

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