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Central Asia Report: July 14, 2005


14 July 2005, Volume 5, Number 26

Week At A Glance (4-10 July 2005). Kazakhstan saw a busy week of international engagements. Chinese President Hu Jintao visited, and he and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed a statement on the establishment of a strategic partnership. Nazarbaev noted that the 988-kilometer Atasu-Alashankou pipeline linking Kazakhstan and China will be finished on 16 December 2005. Later in the week, the heads of member states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO; China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) gathered in Astana, where they approved a counterterrorism plan and granted India, Iran, and Pakistan official observer status in the SCO. Noting that active combat operations are over in Afghanistan, the summit's final declaration asked forces in the U.S.-led coalition to provide a timeframe for withdrawal from U.S. bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. On the margins of the summit, Russia and Kazakhstan signed a 55-year production sharing agreement to develop the Kurmangazy oil field, a project that is expected to involve $23 billion in investments. On another front, Kazakh police arrested Uzbek rights activist Lutfullo Shamsiddinov, who had witnessed unrest in Andijon on 13 May, attempted to conduct his own investigation, and then fled Uzbekistan with his family in late May. Uzbek authorities wanted Shamsiddinov's extradition, while international humanitarian officials urged Kazakhstan not to deport him and said that they were working on resettling Shamsiddinov to a third country.

Kyrgyzstan elected a new president. Acting president and pre-election favorite Kurmanbek Bakiev swept to an easy victory, beating five opponents and garnering 90 percent of the vote amid official turnout of 75 percent. OSCE observers saw "tangible progress" in the ballot and CIS observers failed to find any serious irregularities. Earlier in the week, Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov confirmed that Uzbekistan has requested the extradition of 231 Uzbek asylum seekers from Kyrgyzstan. Beknazarov noted that 426 asylum seekers are currently housed at a camp in Kyrgyzstan, with an additional 29 detained in Osh. Beknazarov said that the Kyrgyz government would check the information it has received from Uzbekistan while at the same time honoring its international obligations (which militate against extraditing the asylum seekers). Finally, Beknazarov urged acting President Bakiev to veto an amnesty bill recently passed by parliament, warning that the amnesty could torpedo ongoing corruption investigations of key figures from the regime of former President Askar Akaev.

In Tajikistan, prosecutors completed their investigation of Democratic Party head Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, handing his case over to the Supreme Court. Iskandarov, who was transported from Russia to Tajikistan under mysterious circumstances in April, faces charges ranging from terrorism to corruption.

U.S.-registered Barash Communications Technologies, Inc. (BCTI), Turkmenistan's largest cellular operator, regained its license to operate in Turkmenistan. BCTI had lost its license after Russia's Mobil TeleSystems purchased a majority stake in BCTI for $28 million. MTS head Vasilii Sidorov promptly flew to Ashgabat, where he agreed to an unspecified higher tax on profits for BCTI, thus convincing Turkmen regulators to restore the operator's license.

In the wake of the SCO summit declaration, Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry issued its own statement on the U.S. base at Karshi-Khanabad, stressing that Uzbekistan made the facility available to the United States for the sole purpose of supporting military operations in Afghanistan. In addition to hinting that the U.S. base has overstayed its welcome, the statement emphasized that the United States has made "virtually no payments" to compensate the Uzbek side for expenses associated with operations at the base. Elsewhere, the U.S.-based media organization Internews reported that local staff in Uzbekistan have been charged with "conspiracy to engage in productions of videos and publications of informational materials without the necessary licenses." An Internews spokesman said that the move appeared to be Uzbek retaliation for U.S. insistence on the need for an independent inquiry into events in Andijon in May.

KYRGYZSTAN: BAKIEV WINS ELECTION BY LANDSLIDE

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Kyrgyzstan's acting President Kurmanbek Bakiev has won a landslide victory in the country's presidential poll. Kyrgyz election officials declared Bakiev the winner as they announced that preliminary results show he won 88.9 percent of the vote with 95 percent of all ballots counted. The election officials put turnout at 74.6 percent.

Kokumbai Turusbekov, a member of the Central Election Commission, told RFE/RL that acting President Bakiev won the support of just under 90 percent of the voters.

"At the moment, the winner is Kurmanbek Salievich Bakiev," Turusbekov said. "[He got] 88 percent of all voters who participated in the polls. The turnout was 74 percent. Basically, we can say the elections are valid."

Bakiev has headed Kyrgyzstan's interim government since former President Askar Akaev fled into exile in the face of massive demonstrations in March.

Much of Bakiev's support came from the country's south, his home region. He got some 95 percent of the votes in the southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad. Turnout in those cities was also the highest in the poll at just under 90 percent.

His support in Kyrgyzstan's northern regions was lower, some 75 percent. But analysts say that percentage is still very high for a country where the south-north political divide is often a major factor in voting.

Bakiev had sought to appeal to both north and south by creating a joint ticket with prominent politician Feliks Kulov, who hails from the north. Kulov had been considered Bakiev's main rival following the ouster of Akaev. But the two men made a pre-election alliance to pool their forces. They agreed that if Bakiev won the presidency, Kulov would become prime minister.

Observers said the alliance almost certainly helped Bakiev win the support of the northern regions. However, turnout was lower in northern regions -- between 60 and 70 percent in different regions -- despite the fact that northern voters have been most active in previous polls.

Edil Baisalov, the head of Kyrgyzstan's largest civic group, the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, said Bakiev's win is a victory of the March revolution in Kyrgyzstan.

Speaking to journalists in Bishkek on 11 July, he said the vote results should be seen a protest against the old regime rather than purely as support for Bakiev.

"Those 88 percent Bakiev got legitimize and prove the 24 March events," Baisalov said. "But [voters trusted] Bakiev and his team in advance. In fact, it wasn't a vote for Bakiev, it was a vote against the previous regime. The people thus expressed what they didn't like and refused to have. They refused to have corruption, authoritarianism, and follow old rules of the game."

The Central Election Commission reported that another presidential candidate, the country's ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir uulu came second in the race. He got some 3.8 percent of votes, mainly in his native south where he is popular and enjoys wide support.

There was little doubt ahead of the 11 July poll about its outcome, since Bakiev was widely seen as the clear front-runner. But there had been some questions about turnout. A high turnout was considered necessary to give the new government a strong popular mandate to stabilize the country following political unrest seen since Akaev's ouster.

The Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, which had the largest group of local monitors, reported minor violations and errors by electoral officials at polling stations.

Another monitoring group, the Mission of the European Network of Election Monitoring Organizations (ENEMO), also reported some violations despite a general improvement in election processes in Kyrgyzstan. The ENEMO is a group of 17 civic organizations from 16 countries of the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe.

Peter Novotny, head of the ENEMO Mission in Kyrgyzstan, told reporters in Bishkek on 11 July that elections went peacefully in most areas of Kyrgyzstan.

"Compared to previous parliamentary elections we noticed improvements in the election process," Novotny said. "We haven't observed an environment with a large scale of vote buying or intimidation of journalists or voters. But on election day, we observed some serious violations. There were some isolated cases of ballot stuffing or illegal campaigning or not following the procedures for checking the inking of voters."

In its preliminary report, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the election "marked tangible progress toward meeting OSCE and other international commitments for democratic elections, although the vote count proved to be problematic."

The OSCE's ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Lubomir Kopaj, said in Bishkek today that basic electoral freedoms were respected in yesterday’s vote. "Freedom of assembly and freedom of expression were respected throughout the election process," he said. "The use of administrative resources to favor the incumbent [Bakiev] was largely absent or unsolicited after strong warnings were announced."

The country's electoral officials say elections were free and transparent. Turusbekov of the Central Election Commission told RFE/RL that reported violations were not significant.

"There are some complaints about minor violations," he said. "We will check those complaints. However, they are not going to change the general outcome of elections."

Under the current legislation, the Central Election Commission is to pass its official conclusion on the election results to Kyrgyzstan's Constitutional Court. The court, in turn, must examine their validity.

If the Constitutional Court confirms the results validity, Bakiev will be proclaimed the country's new president. Central Election Commission officials told RFE/RL that Bakiev is likely to be inaugurated in August (Originally published on 11 July 2005.)

CENTRAL ASIA: SCO -- SHORING UP THE POST-SOVIET STATUS QUO

By Daniel Kimmage

The Shanghai Cooperation Agreement (SCO) is the latest in a long line of organizations pretending to unify Central Asia. But with the active participation of China and Russia and general philosophy of propping up current elites in the region, the SCO seems to have the best chance of becoming a viable organization.

Central Asian summitry has provided many fine examples of just how mightily powerful men can try not to rock the boat. But the 5-6 July Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Kazakhstan made some unusual waves, thanks in part to a final declaration rife with great-power ramifications. But despite the appearance of change, the cardinal rule remains what it has always been -- don't rock the boat.

The creation of various organizations to unify, integrate, and otherwise empower Central Asia and surrounding environs has provided regional elites with one of their more enduring post-Soviet pastimes. Of late, the SCO -- which brings together China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- has drawn notice as the regional grouping with perhaps the best chance to emerge from acronym obscurity and become a viable multilateral forum.

The summit of SCO heads of state in Astana on 5 July saw the organization approve a counterterrorism conception and grant observer status to India, Iran, and Pakistan. But the main event came in the final declaration, which asked the forces in the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan to clarify a timeframe for withdrawal from U.S. bases in Central Asia. As quoted by Russia's "Kommersant-Daily," the declaration noted that several SCO countries have "provided their above-ground infrastructure for the temporary deployment of the military contingents of coalition member states." It continued, "Taking into account the conclusion of the active military phase of the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan, the member states of the SCO consider it essential for the appropriate participants in the antiterrorist coalition to decide on the final timeframes for the temporary use of the above-mentioned infrastructure objects and the maintenance of military contingents on the territory of SCO member states." One can almost hear the finger tapping on the face of the watch.

The best-known coalition facilities in Central Asia are, of course, the U.S. air bases in Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan, and Manas, Kyrgyzstan, although NATO facilities are also located in Termez, Uzbekistan, and Kulob, Tajikistan. While the SCO declaration did not specifically mention the United States, virtually all observers took the request for greater clarity on a timeframe for withdrawal as a pointed message that U.S. forces in Central Asia are no longer as welcome as they were in the early days of the military operation that removed the Taliban regime.

Several Russian reports indicated that the call for a withdrawal deadline entered the text of the final declaration at the initiative of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, whose relations with the West, and the United States in particular, have been increasingly strained since the Uzbek government's violent suppression of unrest in Andijon on 13 May. Underscoring the seriousness of the matter, Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry followed up with a press release on 7 July that went considerably farther than the SCO declaration. The harshly worded statement urged a reevaluation of the U.S. base in Uzbekistan now that its original (and, the statement stressed, only) purpose -- the ouster of the Taliban regime -- is no longer relevant. It also grumbled that the United States has made "virtually no payments" to compensate the Uzbek side for the various expenses associated with the base's operations.

The difficulties in U.S.-Uzbek relations come amid an ongoing thaw in Uzbek-Russian relations, giving the whole issue of the SCO summit and its base-based declaration the whiff of the "great game" -- with its presumed battle among great powers for control of Eurasia -- that many observers of Central Asia find so addictive. But the real significance of the SCO summit has less to do with any longstanding struggles for control of Eurasia than it does with a consensus among like-minded elites in the face of what they increasingly perceive as a common threat.

Andrei Grozin, director of the Central Asia and Kazakhstan section of the CIS Institute, put his finger on this mood in a 4 July interview with Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta." Allowing that the SCO might become an "informal, but quite influential" bloc, Grozin stressed that its primary motivation is currently "a desire to create a working, functioning structure to support stability, to preserve those political systems that have taken shape in the post-Soviet Asiatic states."

The crucial point is that whether the SCO eventually becomes a "working, functioning structure," it currently brings together a group of ruling elites who have a shared understanding of stability as the status quo, see their self-interest in the maintenance of that status quo, and feel that it is threatened from without.

The core group consists of Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. For the ruling elites clustered around the respective leaders of Kazakhstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, maintaining stability means securing predictable results in upcoming presidential elections. The threat runs a by-now familiar gamut from Georgia to Ukraine to Kyrgyzstan, and whichever form it might take, the Kazakh, Russian, and Tajik elites want none of it. In Uzbekistan, where the stakes are higher after Andijon, the maintenance of stability for Karimov and his allies is premised on the effective and unencumbered deployment of force to meet a presumed threat of force.

In this view, the Western focus on democratization and human rights is at best an intrusion, and at worst an outright menace. For the above-mentioned elites, a paradigm preferable to the meddlesome concept of universal standards might run: "In the sphere of human rights it is necessary to strictly and consistently respect historical traditions and the national customs of every people, as well as the sovereign equality of all states." The quotation comes from the SCO's 5 July declaration (as cited by Interfax-AVN), and it might well sum up the core group's vision for the SCO: a hands-off alternative and institutionalized counterweight to the strong-arm schoolmarms of the international community.

The vision's appeal extends beyond Russia and Central Asia. China's domestic political considerations are its own, but the preference for a "laissez-faire" policy on political and human rights in the SCO region fits in naturally with the Chinese-proclaimed struggle against the "three evils" of extremism, terrorism, and separatism, allowing them to be defined flexibly and fought vigorously. And if Kyrgyzstan and its new leadership seem the odd man out in this cozy consensus, it would surely be even odder for a small country in the midst of a political transition to try at the same time to swim against a regional political current.

Though the SCO consensus is not in essence anti-Western or anti-American, the negative impetus -- against the idea of universal values, against changes that might imperil the status quo, and against the concrete agents of change -- is likely to remain strong because so many obstacles lie elsewhere. Russian suspicions of an expansionist China and Central Asia's own decade-long experience with "integration" bode ill for an activist SCO. But a defensive SCO might dig in its heels against what Karimov described at the summit, with clear disapproval, as "the goal...to create controlled destabilization, to impose a system of behavior from without." In the wake of Georgia and Ukraine (and, to a lesser extent, Kyrgyzstan), the country that is most firmly associated in the minds of SCO elites with this sort of mischief is, of course, the United States.

The SCO is, in the end, only the tip of the iceberg, the visible expression of a conservative -- perhaps "conservationist" would be a better term -- endeavor that now stretches from Moscow to the east and the south. The post-Soviet status quo has begun to show obvious signs of strain over the last two years. The increased commitment to the SCO is a natural reaction, a huddling of harried elites who have seen the waters around them rise and are intent, now more than ever, on not rocking the boat. (Originally published on 8 July 2005.)

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