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Central Asia Report: November 30, 2005


30 November 2005, Volume 5, Number 45

NOTE TO READERS:
This issue of "RFE/RL Central Asia Report" was scheduled to be issued on 24 November. We apologize for the delay.

WEEK AT A GLANCE (14-20 November). Four of five Kazakh presidential candidates took part in a televised debate, with Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, from the opposition bloc For a Just Kazakhstan, charging that incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbaev's rule has abetted corruption and poverty. Nazarbaev missed the debate because of an official visit to Ukraine. Meanwhile, government officials charged that the opposition is planning to foment unrest around the 4 December presidential election -- charges the opposition denied. The Central Election Commission revoked the accreditation of the CIS Elections Monitoring Organization (CIS-EMO), noting that CIS-EMO is a foreign NGO registered in Russia, while Kazakh law permits only bona fide international organizations to monitor polls. Steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, president of Mittal Steel, announced that his company plans to invest $500 in projects in Kazakhstan over the next five years. A ceremony marked the completion of the 1,000-kilometer Atasu-Alashankou pipeline linking Kazakhstan and China. And the Foreign Ministry hinted at legal action against British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen, the creator of a "Kazakh journalist" named Borat whose vodka-soaked antics are a fixture in the comedian's spoof-based "Da Ali G Show."

A Kyrgyz court sent the murder case against Ryspek Akmatbaev and eight other defendants back to the Prosecutor-General's Office because participants needed for the trial were missing for the third straight session. The move marked the third postponement in the trial of Akmatbaev, whose brother, lawmaker Tynychbek Akmatbaev, was killed while visiting a prison during a recent uprising. Topchubek Turgunaliev, head of the Erkindik Party, said that his party has collected the 300,000 signatures needed to trigger a referendum on the dissolution of parliament. "The New York Times" and the "Financial Times" quoted Zamira Sydykova, Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States, as saying that Kyrgyzstan is having difficulty collecting $80 million in back rent from the United States for the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan. But Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry later denied the reports, saying that the envoy had not been authorized to make the statements. Demands by some political parties that the Russian language be stripped of its official status in the course of ongoing constitutional reforms sparked an appeal by an organization of Russian speakers to President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who pronounced himself in favor of retaining Russian's official status.

The head of the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) mission to Tajikistan said that the IMF will consider writing off Tajikistan's $97 million debt at a meeting in late December. Ghaffor Mirzoev, the former head of the Drug Control Agency who was jailed in August 2004, said that he denies all of the charges against him, which include attempting a coup d'etat and numerous acts of corruption. And Shokirjon Hakimov, deputy head of the opposition Social Democratic Party, said that two newly registered political parties, the Agrarian Party and the Economic Reform Party, are instruments of the authorities "to create a semblance of a multiparty system."

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov announced that Turkmenistan will raise the export price of its natural gas for all purchasers to $60 per 1,000 cubic meters starting on 1 January. Niyazov gave the country's business partners until 10 December to hold talks and draw up new contracts. Russian and Iran currently pay $44 per 1,000 cubic meters for Turkmen gas, while Ukraine pays $58, although the latter recently concluded a 2006 contract with Turkmenistan to buy gas for $44 per 1,000 cubic meters.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty that provides for mutual use of military facilities, marking a new high point in the ongoing rapprochement between the two countries. Back home, the Supreme Court sentenced 15 convicted organizers of the 12-13 May violence in Andijon to prison terms ranging from 14 to 20 years. The same day, the European Union announced a visa ban for 12 high-ranking Uzbek officials and an embargo on EU arms sales to Uzbekistan. The 12 are suspected of involvement in the government's suppression of unrest in Andijon. Reports in the German press that Uzbek Interior Minister Zokir Almatov, one of the banned officials, is being treated for cancer in Germany prompted a German Foreign Ministry spokesman to explain that humanitarian reasons, including medical treatment, constitute an exception to the ban. The United States announced that it has paid Uzbekistan $22.9 million for the use of the Karshi-Khanabad air base during the period from January 2003 to March 2005. Some U.S. lawmakers had attempted to halt the payment after Uzbekistan told the United States on 29 July to vacate the base. And Uzbek Defense Minister Qodir Ghulomov was removed and replaced by Ruslan Mirzaev. Ghulomov, a physicist by training, will become a presidential advisor. Mirazev has a background in the National Security Service (SNB) and is seen as a protege of SNB head Rustam Inoyatov.

UZBEKISTAN: BETWEEN EAST AND WEST. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has always pursued his alliances with a keen eye to threats. As he returned to Uzbekistan in March 2002 from Washington, D.C., where he had just concluded a strategic partnership with the United States, Karimov told journalists, "Let me warn some aggressive forces around us that look at us with an evil eye or with evil intentions: now you know we are not alone," according to Uzbek Television First Channel.

Even as he recalled the warm welcome he had received in the U.S. Senate, the Uzbek president kept his thoughts on lurking dangers. "We have friends and we have enemies," he said. "Let our enemies see that reception."

Friends And Foes

Karimov's terms are still the same, but not the friends and foes. In late July, he asked the United States to vacate the air base in Khanabad that was the tangible result of his 2002 visit to Washington. As he spoke to journalists before leaving for Moscow on 14 November, Karimov said "the resentful forces that have been told to leave the Khanabad airfield will not rest. They never tire of subversive activities. I would say their main goal is to discredit Uzbekistan's independent policy, disrupt peace and stability in the country, and make Uzbekistan obey."

Karimov leavened this dire pronouncement with news of an old friendship renewed. Addressing the treaty he was about to conclude with Russia, he said, "[W]hen this agreement comes into effect, any hostile actions directed against Uzbekistan, any attempts to attack or occupy Uzbekistan will mean an assault on Russia. From now on, anyone trying to sting us...will be doing it against Russia too."

Military Component

Signed in Moscow on 14 November in the course of a meeting between Karimov and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the new treaty establishes an alliance between Russia and Uzbekistan with a clearly expressed military component. As published on kremlin.ru, the treaty states in Article 2: "If an act of aggression is committed against one of the sides by any state or group of states, this will be viewed as an act of aggression against both sides."

"In the case of an act of aggression against one of the sides," the article continues, "the other side...provides necessary assistance, including military assistance, as well as giving aid through other means at its disposal." Article 4 covers the use of military facilities: "In order to ensure security and maintain peace and stability, the sides, when necessary and on the basis of separate treaties, grant each other the right to use military facilities on their territory."

The treaty's basing provisions are its most eye-catching feature, particularly in light of the impending U.S. departure from Khanabad. A number of reports noted, however, that Russia is not rushing to establish a base in Uzbekistan. A source at the Uzbek Embassy in Moscow told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 15 November that a Russian military presence in Uzbekistan -- which would, according to the treaty's terms, require a separate agreement -- was not part of Karimov and Putin's talks. And "Kommersant-Daily" cited a "highly placed Russian source" as saying that "the issue of creating a Russian military base in Uzbekistan is not on the agenda now."

Some reports, such as one in "Novaya politika" on 15 November, suggested that if a Russia base is in the cards, it may appear after Uzbekistan joins the Common Security Treaty Organization (CSTO, currently comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia) and under the CSTO's aegis.

Boosting Trade And Investment

While the Uzbek president hailed his country's new security guarantees, his Russian counterpart stressed trade ties and economic cooperation. UzA, Uzbekistan's official news agency, reported that bilateral trade volume has been on the upswing and may top $2 billion in 2005. UzA also noted that Russia's LUKoil and Gazprom are slated to invest as much as $2.5 billion in Uzbekistan.

There may be other goodies in store for Russia as well, "Kommersant-Daily" reported. Uzbekistan's sovereign debt to Russia is roughly $500 million, and Moscow may be looking to convert it into stakes in Uzbekistan'sChkalov Tashkent Aircraft Production Company and the Chirchik aircraft-repair plant. Another target for Russian investment could be uranium and gold production projects at the Almalyk (Olmaliq) refinery, the newspaper noted.

Another hint of a monetary foundation for the military alliance came in an UzA report that Karimov was to meet on 15 November with Kremlin-friendly Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska is no stranger to coordinating his business moves with the Kremlin's Central Asia initiatives. In October 2004, he accompanied Putin to Tajikistan, where the president inked an agreement with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov to establish a permanent Russian military base in Tajikistan, while Deripaska's company, Russian Aluminum (RusAl), pledged more than $1 billion in investments for aluminum production-facilities and hydropower generation.

As Russia's 18 month-long rapprochement with Uzbekistan crested in the treaty, Uzbekistan's relations with the West sank to new lows. On 14 November, the same day Uzbekistan's Supreme Court sentenced 15 men to prison terms ranging from 14 to 20 years for their involvement in unrest in Andijon on 12-13 May, the European Union officially adopted an embargo on arms sales to Uzbekistan and a visa ban for 12 high-ranking Uzbek officials, including three ministers. The EU measures came as an explicit response to what it described as the Uzbek government's "indiscriminate and disproportionate" use of force in Andijon.

Russian officials, including Putin, have accepted the Uzbek government's explanation of the violence in Andijon as the work of religious extremists and have praised Karimov for his handling of the situation.

Turning Away From The West

The latest movements around Uzbekistan, from the treaty with Russia to the EU sanctions, represent the formalization of a trend that has been gathering steam since late 2003, when tumult in Georgia brought down long-ruling President Eduard Shevardnadze. As Uzbekistan's president saw similar examples of unforeseen regime change play out in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in 2004-05, he turned away from the West, and particularly the United States, which he had come to view as advocates of destabilization. The violence in Andijon, which prompted Western countries to call for an international investigation of reports that the Uzbek government massacred civilians, did not cause the rift; it merely deepened an existing one.

The shifts in Uzbekistan's foreign relations over the last four years have resulted from changes in the world around Uzbekistan. The fallout from 11 September 2001 ushered in a strategic partnership with the United States. The fallout from political upheaval in the post-Soviet world undermined the Uzbek leadership's faith in that partnership and led it to an alliance with Russia.

Now that the results of four uneasy years abroad have assumed the tangible form of isolation from the West and an alliance with Russia, the stage is set for the impetus behind Uzbekistan's foreign policy to move to the domestic front, where Karimov has clung to the same policies he has pursued for over a decade. In the wake of Andijon, those policies face grave tests. Now, with the West almost entirely unable to influence them, and Russia seemingly convinced there is no need even to try, their outcome will likely determine the future of Uzbekistan's relations with both. (By Daniel Kimmage. Originally published on 17 November.)

KAZAKHSTAN: PRESIDENTIAL CHALLENGERS STRUGGLE TO MAKE THEIR POINT. Voters in Kazakhstan head to the polls on 4 December to elect a president. With some surveys suggesting that more than 65 percent of voters plan to cast their ballots for incumbent Nursultan Nazarbaev, he is clearly the front-runner. Many voters say they want stability and economic growth, things many Kazakhs identify as Nazarbaev's strengths -- or even his personal achievements. But four other men are competing in the presidential race, too, and have struggled to offset the incumbent's 16-year head start.

Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, registered as a united candidate from the country's For a Just Kazakhstan opposition movement, is seen as the major rival of current President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

The next strongest opposition candidate is Alikhan Baimenov, the leader of the opposition Ak Zhol (Bright Path) party.

Also running are MP Yerasyl Abylkasymov, who was nominated from the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan, and prominent environmentalist Mels Eleusizov, the leader of the Tabighat (Nature) movement.

Economics, Patriotism, Socialism, Environment

Zharmakhan Tuyakbai criticizes Nazarbaev's economic policies, saying the current growth is based on high oil prices and therefore is not sustainable.

He often says other economic sectors should also be developed.

"We should put an end to the economy based on one single sector -- production of raw materials," he told voters in Almaty on 25 October. "We should heal the economy, which otherwise has no future. We do make suggestions on how to develop other sectors of economy, those not based on raw materials, how to diversify economy."

By contrast, candidate Baimenov -- who is expected to come third in the election race after Nazarbaev and Tuyakbai -- appeals to patriotism to attract voters.

"Unfortunately, the government, which is temporary by nature, advances its short-term interests and sees our permanent traditional values as a secondary goals," he said during a recent campaign rally in Almaty.

Meanwhile, communist candidate Abylkasymov is running on a social-benefitst platform, attempting to secure the votes of pensioners, teachers, and doctors. At campaign rallies, his supporters have distributed T-shirts bearing the pictures of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Abylkasymov.

Eleusizov focuses on nature protection. He opposes developing oil fields in the Caspian Sea shelf and building a nuclear-power plant on Lake Balkhash.

Skipped The Debate

All Nazarbaev's rivals criticize the incumbent's government for corruption and speak of a widening gap between the rich and poor, a note often sounded during Kazakhstan's first-ever televised pre-election debate on 17 November. All four opposition candidates participated in that event, but Nazarbaev skipped it.

Tuyakbai sought to focus voters' attention on the so-called "Kazakhgate" scandal that involves money allegedly paid to Nazarbaev by US businessperson James Giffen for lucrative oil contracts. Tuyakbai said there was no hope of ever learning the truth in the matter as long as the current regime is in power.

Baimenov endorsed Tuyakbai's accusations and said the Kazakh government had "an ostrich policy" because it chose to ignore the scandal.

Erlan Karin, a prominent political analyst in Almaty, told RFE/RL that most voters do not care about candidates' programs.

"I think people pay little attention to programs, they think it's only a document reflecting a declaration of some goals," Karin said. "But they know that in real politics, politicians are unlikely to follow declarations, including those stated in election programs."

Karin says all four challengers' programs are weak and offer little change from the current policy of Nazarbaev.

Still, there are differences. One is in the positions of Nazarbaev and his major rival, Tuyakbai, toward neighboring countries.

Speaking to RFE/RL recently, Tuyakbai singled out Uzbekistan for criticism not often heard from the present Kazakh government.

"President [Islam] Karimov, ruling Uzbekistan, should understand that if he wants to lead the people to a bright future, he should give freedom to the people," Tuyakbai said.

Tuyakbai's position on recent changes in Kyrgyzstan's leadership also differs from that of Nazarbaev. Where Nazarbaev says instability has grown in Kyrgyzstan following the March revolution there, challenger Tuyakbai has welcomed the political changes in Kyrgyzstan and expressed his support of the country's new leadership.

Many surveys show Tuyakbai likely to come second in Kazakhstan's upcoming poll.

"What makes Tuyakbai attractive is that he is a personal rival of Nazarbaev," analyst Karin said. "People are happy with the fact that there is another -- alternative -- candidate. They don't necessarily like him, and I think this is exactly the case because for many people, he still remains unknown as a politician. But it's important that he represents the other pole of Kazakhstan's political establishment."

No First-Round Winner?

Oraz Zhandosov, deputy head of Tuyakbai's election team and a co-chairman of Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) opposition party, tells RFE/RL that surveys by his party show none of the candidates will get 50 percent in the first round if the election is fair and free. He says that means the 4 December election should lead to a run-off vote.

But Zhandosov does not predict that the election will happen that way. Instead, he predicts authorities will try to steal the vote, forcing the opposition to decide how to challenge the poll results.

"Will authorities attempt to [rig the election]?" Zhandosov said. "Of course, they will. A lot depends on whether we'll be able to confront this on the day of election. As for other actions, I think it's premature to discuss whether voters will organize mass protest demonstrations or not."

Political analyst Karin and many other experts also believe authorities will likely rig the election results.

"Post-election protest demonstrations are unavoidable," Karin says.

The government says it will conduct a free and fair poll and accept the voters' decision.

Stepped-Up Harassment

Will Kazakhstan see another "color" revolution?

The government has so far been clamping down on any signs of dissent. Reports of harassment and intimidation of opposition parties as well as media have been on rise since the election date was set last August.

Meanwhile, the European Union, the OSCE, and United States have all urged Kazakhstan's leaders to follow their pledges to hold transparent and fair presidential elections.

(By Gulnoza Saidazimova with contributions from Merkhat Sharipzhan, director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. Originally published on 21 November.)

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