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Central Asia Report: October 15, 2005

15 October 2005, Volume 5, Number 39

WEEK AT A GLANCE (3-9 October). Kazakh police raided the offices of the pro-democracy youth group Kahar (Hero) in Almaty. Kahar leader Bakhytzhan Toregozhina said that the authorities suspect the group of receiving "foreign financing" and conspiring to overthrow the government. She denied the charges and promised that the group will deploy observers to the country's 4 December presidential election. On the energy front, Energy Minister Vladimir Shkolnik said that the first stage of the planned 988-kilometer Atasu-Alashankou pipeline will be finished by December.

Prime Minister Feliks Kulov led the first meeting of Kyrgyzstan's new government, refuting rumors of disagreement between him and President Kurmanbek Bakiev and telling ministers they must get down to work without a settling-in period. For his part, Bakiev followed through on plans to downsize the government, dismissing three deputy prime ministers and two ministers. Former Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, currently under house arrest in Bishkek, will face criminal charges of corruption and abuse of office. And Robert Simmons, NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, announced that NATO will expand its use of the Ganci air base in the course of deepening its partnership program with Kyrgyzstan.

Tajikistan's Supreme Court sentenced Democratic Party leader Mahmadruzi Iskandarov to a 23-year prison term after convicting him of terrorism, embezzlement, and illegal weapons possession. In a separate trial, opposition activist Yoribek Ibrohimov and four supporters received prison terms ranging from 11 to 22 years for their role in an attack on the local branch of the Interior Ministry and Prosecutor-General's Office in the eastern Tojikobod District. Elsewhere, security forces announced the arrest of a seven-member "extremist group" led by Sayedmashkhud Ikromov, a television newscaster suspected of having close links to Murod Rustamov, a prominent activist of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. And outside the capital of Dushanbe, energy authorities introduced electricity rationing until April 2006, limiting the daily supply of electrical power to 10 hours a day.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov dismissed two regional governors for "abuse of power" and the slow pace of the cotton harvest. He also canned a slew of district heads for mismanagement and corruption. The same day, Niyazov announced an amnesty for prisoners, saying, "At present, there are 12,282 convicts serving their terms in our prisons and 8,145 of them, who have repented, will be freed."

The 25 foreign ministers of the European Union resolved to reduce aid, suspend a cooperation agreement, and impose an arms embargo on Uzbekistan in response to Uzbekistan's refusal to allow an international inquiry into charges that Uzbek security forces perpetrated a massacre in Andijon in May. The EU foreign ministers also intend to ban Uzbek officials responsible for "the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force" from traveling to Europe.

POST-SOVIET GROUPINGS UNITE. The Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO) -- a grouping of Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan -- will merge with the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec), a body seeking to establish a single economic zone comprising Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Belarus.

The CACO was born in 1994 as the Central Asian Economic Community. It adopted its current name in 2002 to stress that cooperation had extended to political and security matters.

The CACO, however, will soon become a thing of the past. It will be merged into the Eurasec, set up in 2000 to promote the economic integration of former Soviet republics into a single, free-trade, economic zone.

The decision was announced on 6 October by the five CACO leaders at a meeting in Russia's northern city of St. Petersburg.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told a news conference after the meeting that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who holds the Eurasec presidency, had formally approved the decision by telephone.

Putin, who turned 53 on 7 October, praised the agreement with marked enthusiasm. He went so far as to declare the decision his best birthday present. "We have just spoken to Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka; he support the CACO's decision to join the Eurasec. So all that remains is formality," Putin said. "I consider this decision from my colleagues and friends the best birthday present."

Speaking to reporters on 7 October, after a second day of talks with CACO leaders, Putin expressed hope the merger could soon be implemented. "I am happy the decision that took place yesterday and that we have announced was taken in our country," Putin said. "I hope the concrete steps we have planned toward the realization of the decisions will be implemented in the very near future."

CACO leaders admitted both organizations had increasingly similar goals and said they were therefore joining forces to save time and money.

Despite its central role in both groupings, Russia is actually a newcomer in the CACO. It joined the organization in 2004, in a move illustrating Moscow's growing strategic interest in the Central Asian region.

Sergei Ponarin, a Central Asia expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said he sees the CACO-Eurasec union as a sign of further rapprochement between Russia and Central Asian countries.

Russia, he said, has three good reasons to be interested in Central Asia. "Firstly, to maintain its status in Central Asia," Ponarin said. "Secondly, to improve cooperation in the security sector, this is certain. Thirdly, Russia is possibly hoping its capital will expand further in Central Asia. Our big industrial heritage can't just be thrown away, we have to find offers somewhere."

Many observers, however, have scoffed at both CACO and Eurasec. The groups, they say, have proved little more than a talk shop and have so far largely failed to produce results.

Will their merger be able to breathe new life into post-Soviet republics' unification project?

Ponarin said he thinks not. "No, it won't help. Because Russia's representatives in various unification organizations linked to Central Asia are as a rule what we describe, excuse me, as 'rubbish,'" Ponarin said. "All intelligent, interesting people seek to join structures linked to the West. Those who do not make it there, losers, end up here. It's sad, but it's a fact."

Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine had observer status in the CACO. (Claire Bigg. Originally published on 7 October.)

Q&A WITH U.S. ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE DANIEL FRIED. RFE/RL spoke with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried about U.S. policy toward Central Asia. Fried recently made a tour of Central Asia, during which he gave voice to increasing U.S. impatience with the refusal of Uzbek President Islam Karimov to permit an international investigation into the May violence in Andijon, and addressed other regional concerns. He spoke with RFE/RL on 5 October in Washington.

RFE/RL: There has been an unfolding series of high-level visits to the region. Is this a rediscovery of Central Asia or an especially important time in its transition?

Daniel Fried: A rediscovery suggests we lost it. We didn't have that kind of a moment. You're quite right to notice there's a lot of attention paid to the region. There are two factors at play here. One is the set of problems we've had in Uzbekistan that have been developing not just because of Andijon but over the last couple of years, which have been accumulating mainly as a result of Karimov's lack of economic and political reforms, which we thought we had his agreement to pursue back in 2002 when he visited the United States. The fact that he's not pursued the reforms, the fact that the country seems to have stagnated or gone backward on the reformist scale is one factor which is troubling, of course, because of Uzbekistan's importance.

The other factor is that Kyrgyzstan experienced what the people there call the March events. Some people call it the Tulip Revolution but nobody in Kyrgzystan called it that to me, but it was March events as a result of which an authoritarian president was overthrown because of widespread revulsion at perceived massive corruption and other factors. There followed elections which were just about the freest the region had seen and you have a reformist leadership trying to move the country ahead and trying to get it on its feet.

The third factor is the slow emergence of Kazakhstan as an increasingly important country because of not only the oil money coming in but the way President Nazarbaev has managed the money which has been to build up the economy beyond just the energy sector.

So you have all of these factors -- trouble in one place because of lack of reform, a newly reformist government and a sense throughout the region that this 10-year period of really minimal reform again with the partial exception of Kazakhstan is coming to an end, that things are accelerating again. That really was the basis for my trip and the secretary's trip [U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She is due to travel to Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan on 10-13 October). [U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security] Bob Joseph can speak for himself but a major, one of his major purposes is to discuss a non- and counter-proliferation agenda with these countries, something we share and to discuss what we can do in a practical way so he has a very particular agenda which has relevance for Central Asia, obviously, and the secretary [Rice] is going out there to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, just emerging from a civil war and Kazakhstan. She's not going to Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL: Nor Turkmenistan?

Fried: No, that's right.

RFE/RL: [U.S. State Department spokesman] Sean McCormack was talking yesterday in terms of an important time for all of these countries as well.

Fried: I wanted to give you some context as to the meaning of important time. Important time is a phrase, behind that is an actual thought -- one country is moving backward, one country moving ahead quickly but somewhat uncertainly and Kazakhstan moving quite steadily ahead on the economic side with a presidential election, which is a fascinating moment.

RFE/RL: Looking at Kazakhstan for a moment, taking one of the three, yesterday [there was] a sign of the difficulty political opposition may face. There was a police raid of a pro-democracy youth group. Analysts of the region have pointed to a chill that has gone through the country since the March events in Kyrgyzstan and in other countries in the region. Everybody refers to the colored revolutions, which have become sort of a metaphor for the overthrow of existing regimes and have become sort of a trouble spot. How does the U.S. counter that or try to deal with that issue?

Fried: There are real issues in Kazakhstan of democracy and elections, that's what I said when I was there. That was an issue of high importance for us. President Nazarbaev has said several times he wants good elections on 4 December, we take him at his word but we also tell him pretty clearly that we take this seriously, this is important. Elections and democratic reforms matter to us. If we wanted to have a one-dimensional security relationship without reference to political reform and steps to democracy we could have a very cozy relationship with Karimov but that's not the deal. I understand what you say about a chill after the March events through the region. The fact is that repression does not lead to stability. It is reform that leads to stability particularly when that reform is led by strong leaders who want to move their country forward. There's no contradiction between having a strong leader who's also a reformer. That can happen and it needs to happen in Central Asia whether Nazarbaev sees it that way, that's his issue but we are very clear about the importance of democracy and I'm aware of the issue of the raid and when I was in Kazakhstan I met with the opposition, I met with civil society [representatives], I raised the issue of free elections and space for the opposition. Free elections are not just counting the votes, free elections are the atmosphere, the access to the media, an atmosphere free of intimidation, we raised these issues and these are important to us.

RFE/RL: The group in Kazakhstan known as Kahar the government alleged accepted "foreign financing" for its efforts. This is something that comes up repeatedly as you know. How does this affect the way the U.S. tries to promote democracy in the region? Obviously, the U.S. is supportive of pro-democracy groups and NGOs and so on and yet there are these accusations that come out about foreign financing trying to undermine sovereign efforts to reach their own path to democracy.

Fried: I'm always a little suspicious of "one's own path to democracy" because one's own path turns out to be anything but a path to democracy. We don't get involved in partisanship and in partisan support. That's not our business. But we do support and I'm proud of our support for civil society groups in efforts to make elections free and fair. We've done that. We don't hide it. It's a good thing. And it's something that goes on around the world. We take this seriously. The argument that support for democracy is interference in internal affairs is an argument which was rather discredited at some point in the 1970s and 1980s. The Soviets used that argument and, well, history bears out they lost the debate about that one. At the same time, we have to be respectful of countries that are trying to reform and respect the fact that democracy can look different in different countries, but there are certain things common to every democracy -- freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to organize politically. Democracy has certain things in common even though cultural differences may give it a different look or a different feel depending on the country.

RFE/RL: On the Uzbek problem you cited, Russia has moved fairly quickly to support Karimov and said it did not support an international, independent investigation, seeming to undermine U.S. and EU efforts to press for that and they continue to press for that. Commentators in Moscow say it is responding directly to threats to its near abroad or what it sees as geopolitical threats to its near abroad. Can you comment on how recent Russian moves have complicated U.S. democracy efforts in the region?

Fried: I'm not going to comment about Russian motives. You can ask the Russians what their motives are. I would think that it would be in Russia's interests to have in Central Asia secure, reformist, and thus stable neighbors as opposed to authoritarian countries which do not reform and are therefore unstable. Stability ultimately is derived from legitimacy and legitimacy comes through democracy. It doesn't come through one-man rule, somebody who inherited rule over a country because of the Soviet period. Stability comes ultimately from the legitimacy which is derived from democracy. If the Russians want stability -- and it certainly would seem to be in their interest -- they ought to support reform but again I'm not going to speak of Russian priorities. They can do that themselves.

RFE/RL: They have, along with China, used the Shanghai Co-operation Organization seemingly as a vehicle to try to wind down the U.S. military presence in the region and [U.S. State Department spokesman] Sean McCormack yesterday mentioned the July communique [The Shanghai Cooperation Organization on 5 July said the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan should provide a final deadline for the use of facilities and deployment of military contingents in the region. The SCO groups all Central Asian republics except Turkmenistan with Russia and China]. Afghanistan was not part of that and part of the equation. Was this [issue] part of some of the talks you held as well as what Secretary Rice will be discussing, trying to shore up support for that effort?

Fried: The Uzbeks asked us to leave the base at Karshi-Khanabad and we are going to do that. Period. I didn't go there to try to talk them out of it and we're leaving. It is a curious and in fact unsupportable argument that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization made out that things in Afghanistan are fine. Therefore there's no need for the base, therefore we should get out. Some of the same countries who made that argument then turned around and criticized us in other fora for the lack of progress in Afghanistan and obviously the two arguments are completely inconsistent. They're both wrong. Both arguments are wrong. There is progress being made, A, and, B, the struggle is obviously not over. Therefore, C, there are good reasons to have these bases in the region which are supporting the efforts in Afghanistan, which surely serve the interests of the countries themselves and, if you think about it, serve Russian interests because the Russians also face a problem. But again, the Russians have to speak for themselves.

RFE/RL: On Uzbekistan, what next in terms of U.S. policy to try to improve the situation there? What other levers are left at this point?

Fried: We gave Karimov a very clear message: we have to see how he responds. There's a lot of concern in Europe, there's a lot of concern in the United States about the direction Karimov is leading Uzbekistan, leading his country. That is the Uzbeks need to think about this and we will see what they do. I don't want to speculate about what we will do in response to their actions because they haven't taken them yet. (Robert McMahon. Originally published on 6 October.)

U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE PREPARES TO VISIT CENTRAL ASIA, AFGHANISTAN. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to visit Afghanistan and three Central Asian states this week to try to boost economic and political reforms. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice will visit Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan to reinforce the administration's democratization aims for the region. She will also discuss efforts to stabilize Afghanistan amid calls in the region for a reduced U.S. military presence.

The visit by Rice (10-13 October) comes at a time of growing U.S. concern about the stability of the region.

Rice's visit closely follows a visit by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried. It comes as votes are still being counted for the Afghan parliamentary elections and preparations are under way for Kazakhstan's December presidential polls.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the talks would focus on economic development, security issues, and democracy building.

"[The] general message is one of support for the ongoing political change and economic reform that is ongoing in this important region and to underline our support for those who will undertake the necessary political and economic reforms, to have respect for human rights, to promote free speech, to promote good governance," McCormack said.

McCormack, in response to repeated questions, said the trip was not an effort to counter Russian and Chinese influence but to affirm Washington's support for reforms.

But he indicated Rice will seek to reaffirm support for the ongoing efforts in Afghanistan to stabilize the government and defeat Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces.

In July, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan joined China and Russia via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in calling for the United States to set a timetable for closing all its bases in Central Asia. They said the bases are no longer needed because the U.S. combat operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan are winding down.

But McCormack challenged this. "One important voice that was not heard from with respect to this communique was Afghanistan. They weren't participants in that conference or that communique," McCormack said. "And we -- I think subsequently, the Afghan government has said that it is important to have a continued -- continued assistance from the outside world as it moves down the pathway to consolidating its gains in -- security gains, as well as its gains in promoting democracy."

The United States uses an air base in Kyrgyzstan to support its efforts in Afghanistan but will vacate an Uzbek base within months at Tashkent's request.

Unlike Fried, Rice will not visit Uzbekistan, which has distanced itself increasingly from the United States following the events in Andijon in May.

Fried reiterated U.S. calls for an independent international investigation into the Andijon crackdown but McCormack said there has been no change in Tashkent's position.

"There are real concerns about some of the recent actions by the Uzbek government," McCormack said. "And I think that at this point, given Dan Fried's recent visit to Uzbekistan, that Uzbekistan -- the Uzbek government should reflect upon what sort of relationship it would want with the United -- not only the United States, but the rest of the world. And I think that there -- you know, we will -- we will see over time what kind of relationship the Uzbek government wants with the rest of the world. We stand ready to have a different kind of relationship."

McCormack said Rice might travel to other countries during her regional tour, but he declined to elaborate. (Robert McMahon. with contributions from Nathaniel Szep. Originally published 5 October.)

TOURISM WAITS FOR ITS MOMENT TO SHINE IN KYRGYZSTAN. Another tourist season in Kyrgyzstan has ended in disappointment. No statistics have yet been announced, but there is general agreement that political instability has once again resulted in less tourism. What needs to be done to boost tourism in this Central Asian nation which, though impoverished, is packed with natural wonders?

Sonya Umetalieva was not especially happy about the March revolution that brought down the government of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev.

She knew it would mean fewer visitors to the family yurt she has set up for the last three summers in the mountains north of Issyk-Kul, one of the world's largest Alpine lakes.

Umetalieva hopes Kurmanbek Bakiev, who was elected president in a July poll, will fulfill his promises of peace and prosperity. But even so, the 38-year-old mother of two said the government seems intent upon creating ever-more challenges to the country's budding tourist industry.

With the powerful Chon-Ak-Suu (Big White Water) River roaring in the background, Umetialieva sipped a cup of green tea in the yurt her grandfather built and gave a litany of entrepreneurial fees: "We have to pay the tax office, the ecological office. If someone from the epidemiological station comes, we have to pay them also."

Vladimir Vereshchagin agreed. Speaking in his mansion in a Bishkek suburb, Vereshchagin said he has become wealthy through a variety of tourism-related enterprises -- in spite of government hindrances.

He says the government could and should do more to help the Kyrgyz people take advantage of their country's natural attractions.

"First of all, the most important thing is to give to our tour operators more opportunities, because the Kyrgyz tourist market is currently dominated by Russian and Kazakh tour operators," he said. "Our tour operators are bound heavily by taxes and bureaucratic obstacles."

But foreign tourist businesses face challenges as well. Ian Claytor, a Briton who manages Bishkek's Silk Road Hotel, said it took 18 months alone to get permission to build the high-end hotel, and then only after investors significantly altered the design.

He said bureaucracy, high taxes, bad roads, and a cumbersome visa process are robbing Kyrgyzstan of its rightful place as a major international tourist destination.

"It's got everything here," he said. "You've got mountains, you've got plains, you've got nomadic lifestyle, you've got reasonable accommodation, you've got sea, sun, sand, and beach up on the lake -- Lake Issyk-Kul. It might not be Club Med, but here you've got such a land of contrasts."

Like everyone in the Kyrgyz tourist industry, Claytor said he has had enough of the country's political instability.

And it is not just the March revolution. Claytor talks woefully of the 1999 raids and kidnappings by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the southern Batken region. There was also the 2001 shooting by police of six protesters in Aksy.

Further afield, the 2003 SARS epidemic and the 11 September 2001 terror attacks in the United States have had a dampening effect on tourism as well.

But despite all this, Claytor sees nothing preventing Kyrgyzstan from becoming what he called "the Switzerland of Central Asia."

Enter the Swiss nongovernmental organization Helvetas, which is intent on helping Kyrgyzstan's tourism industry gain more than the reported 4 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

One of Helvetas' several Kyrgyz tourism plans is a tourism destination marketing program. Victoria Timonova says the program is working with small tourism vendors to help offer their customers more value for their money.

"The main things that they are doing is that they are setting up different guest houses, and whenever tourists or visitors are traveling to those destinations within the country, the visitors have been introduced to the local life of people," Timonova said. "Also, they are able to participate in making local rugs or being exposed to local cuisine, etc."

Gulnara Kydyrmysheva for the past three years has run a small guest house in Karakol, on the east side of Lake Issyk-Kul. She also has a souvenir shop where her employees develop her designs for rugs, pillows, and scarves.

Kydyrmysheva said the last years have not been easy, but Helvetas has helped her survive by supporting her efforts to go to international tourism fairs: "Helvetas helped me to go to Germany, because 1 square meter [of floor space at the fair] cost $150 for five days. Now it's 250 euros. So because of this, it's quite difficult for me to go there [without their help]."

Back at the Silk Road Hotel, Claytor has warm praise for Helvetas's efforts. But he is skeptical of the project's stated goal of self-sufficiency: "The thing that concerns me about [the Helvetas program] is that it's a bit short. At the end of the three years, if the Swiss project comes to a close, the project is supposed to be self-financing, and I find that hard to see at the moment. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I'm saying I see lots of problems."

Emil Umetaliev, president of Kyrgyz Concept, one of the country's largest tourist companies, is more optimistic.

He admits there was less business this year. But Umetaliev sees a positive element to the latest political instability, saying it has made Kyrgyzstan what he calls a "new brand."

"Originally, when we visited tourism fairs, everybody asked, 'Where is your Kyrgyzstan?'" he said. "One month ago I visited Hong Kong for an international tourism fair, and they said, 'Ah, Kyrgyzstan is somewhere where there was a revolution!' It's not bad. It's not bad. It's the first time Kyrgyzstan was promoted so often in the world, the first time in our history, and in general, I think it's not bad information."

One can only hope Umetaliev is correct. But it is hard to put a positive spin on the continued political instability, which on 21 September saw the assassination of parliamentary deputy Bayaman Erkinbaev outside his house. He was the second parliamentarian to be killed since June.

In the meantime, some enterprising Kyrgyz frustrated by the tourist trade will find other ways to make money -- even illegally. Authorities say it is no coincidence that there have been reports of a significant increase in this year's marijuana crop around tourist-dependent Lake Issyk-Kul. (Tim Jasek, with help from Larisa Balanovskaya. Originally published on 4 October.)