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Central Asia Report: December 30, 2005


30 December 2005, Volume 5, Number 49

WEEK AT A GLANCE (19-28 December 2005). Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev told journalists that Kyrgyzstan has asked Russia for assistance in the extradition of Aidar Akaev, son of ousted President Askar Akaev. The younger Akaev, who currently resides in Russia, faces corruption charges at home. Kongantiev also said that Kyrgyzstan will seek the extradition of Adil Togonbaev, the president's son-in-law and a Kazakh national. The prosecutor-general admitted that Togonbaev's extradition is unlikely. Meanwhile, the extradition of Kazakh youth activist Makhambet Abzhan, who advocates the revolutionary overthrow of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, caused a stir in Kyrgyzstan. Abzhan was arrested in Bishkek and subsequently handed over to Kazakh authorities, who charge that he misappropriated money earmarked for elections. Kyrgyz rights activists charged that Abzhan was a victim of political persecution. Elsewhere, a bomb blast in Osh damaged a government administrative building but caused no casualties. And President Kurmanbek Bakiev backed the idea of holding a referendum to determine Kyrgyzstan's future form of government.

Russia and Ukraine negotiated down to the wire for 2006 shipments of Turkmen natural gas. Ukrainian Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov claimed to have signed a contract with Turkmenistan, but no official confirmation was forthcoming from Ashgabad. Meanwhile, Russia's Gazprom inked an agreement to buy 30 billion cubic meters from Turkmenistan in 2006 at $65 per 1,000 cubic meters. Analysts noted that with Turkmenistan's gas production flat, the Gazprom deal eats up most of the Turkmen gas available for export, further complicating Ukraine's position in its ongoing negotiations with Russia over 2006 gas shipments.

Uzbek Interior Minister Zokir Almatov quit Germany, where he had been undergoing medical treatment, amid calls from Uzbek refugees and rights groups to try him in Germany for crimes against humanity. Upon returning home, he resigned for health reasons. His replacement, Anvar Solihboev, hails from the National Security Service (SNB). With Uzbekistan's new defense minister a prot�g� of SNB head Rustam Inoyatov, observers noted the rising influence of the SNB in post-Andijon Uzbekistan. Individuals accused of involvement in the violence in Andijon, as well as officials accused of negligence, continued to go on trial, admit their guilt, and receive prison terms. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour warned, "These trials risk having produced unjust and unfounded convictions while the real perpetrators of atrocities remain unpunished." The Uzbek Prosecutor-General's office responded with a rhetorical shrug, insisting it has adhered to "international standards."

2005 IN REVIEW: THE GEOPOLITICAL GAME IN CENTRAL ASIA. The outside world has viewed Central Asia primarily through the prism of geopolitics at least since the 19th-century struggle between the British and Russian empires for dominance in Eurasia, when the phenomenon of great powers clashing against an exotic backdrop came to be known as the Great Game. The appellation, with its connotations of a swashbuckling duel in which local actors are reduced to supporting roles, has endured and even undergone a renaissance with the Soviet Union's collapse and the emergence of Central Asia's independent states. 2005 confirmed established patterns, with revolution in Kyrgyzstan, unrest in Uzbekistan, and the rising prominence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) all providing grist for the geopolitical mill.

But if the events of 2005 included significant geopolitical shifts -- most notably in Uzbekistan's foreign policy -- they also demonstrated that this shopworn view of the region may no longer be the best guide to understanding what is actually taking place in Central Asia. Central Asia is increasingly losing its coherence as a geopolitical entity, with individual countries embarking on courses of development sufficiently disparate to render a "regional" perspective deeply problematic. Moreover, the domestic imperatives of these five courses of development are now the driving force, if not the only force, in relations with the outside world and its great powers.

Kazakhstan

The reelection of President Nursultan Nazarbaev in December underscored not only Kazakhstan's geopolitical status as a state that grounds its relations with the outside world in its significance as an energy supplier, but also the likely continuation of Nazarbaev's policy of using this status as the continuing basis for his so-called "multivector" foreign policy.

Nazarbaev's reelection with over 90 percent of the vote showcased a political system that has all the earmarks of post-Soviet "managed democracy," as indicated by the OSCE's initial assessment that, "[d]espite some improvements in the administration of this election in the pre-election period, the presidential election did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections." Nevertheless, official Western criticism of the election was muted, and with Nazarbaev safely ensconced for another seven-year term, a number of European political figures expressed cautious support for Kazakhstan's bid to chair the OSCE in 2009.

Kazakhstan's multivector foreign policy manifested itself in an ongoing drive to diversify the country's oil export routes, thus reducing dependence on Russia, and to accommodate Chinese investment in the country's energy sector. On the eve of the 25 May opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) export pipeline, Nazarbaev met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and affirmed his commitment not only to export Kazakh oil through the BTC pipeline, but also to build an underwater pipeline linking the Kazakh port of Aktau to Baku. On 15 December, the Atasu-Alashankou pipeline linking Kazakhstan and China went into operation, with the first deliveries of Kazakh oil to China planned for mid-2006. In October, the China National Petroleum Corporation paid $4.2 billion PetroKazakhstan, a Canadian-registered company that conducts all of its production operations in Kazakhstan.

These moves took place against a steady drumbeat of high-level declarations that the maintenance of friendly Kazakh-Russian relations is a priority task for Kazakhstan's foreign policy. At the same time, Kazakhstan maintained its symbolically important contingent of roughly 30 mine-clearing experts in Iraq.

Regionally, Kazakhstan took a pragmatic approach to cooperation with immediate neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The relative vigor of the Kazakh economy in 2005 continued to draw hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from both countries, allowing Astana to navigate ties with its neighbors from a position of strength. Here also, multivector components -- in this case, pushes and pulls in relations with a single country -- were in evidence. For example, in July Kazakhstan declined to extradite Uzbek rights activist Lutfullo Shamsiddinov, a witness to violence in Andijon, to Uzbekistan; but in November, Kazakh authorities apparently acquiesced in the abduction of a number of Uzbeks from southern Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan, as Human Rights Watch charged in a 3 December press release on the organization's website.

Relations with Kyrgyzstan revealed a similar dynamic of pushes and pulls. Even as government-controlled Kazakh media portrayed Kyrgyzstan's 24 March revolution as an exercise in chaos and some former members of the Kyrgyz elite from the era of deposed President Askar Akaev fled to Kazakhstan, the Kazakh leadership cultivated cordial ties with its new interlocutors in Bishkek. Kazakhstan pledged to help plug a gap in Kyrgyzstan's natural-gas supplies when difficulties arose with Uzbekistan in August, and took a nonconfrontational approach in December to Kyrgyzstan's $18 million in arrears for gas payments.

Kyrgyzstan

The fall of the long-ruling Akaev amid street protests on 24 March and the ascent to power of the "tandem" of President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov had surprisingly little effect on Kyrgyzstan's foreign relations. With the exception of a conflict with Uzbekistan over refugees from Andijon, the primary concerns of Kyrgyzstan's new leadership were domestic.

Tensions flared with Uzbekistan when hundreds of refugees crossed into Kyrgyzstan after violence in Andijon on 12-13 May (see RFE/RL's special site Aftermath Of Andijon). Uzbekistan claimed that the refugees included terrorists and demanded their extradition, while Western countries urged their evacuation to a third country. In late July, 439 Uzbek refugees were airlifted to Romania. Uzbekistan reacted with predictable anger, but no significant escalation resulted.

The new leadership tried its hand at the multivector diplomacy that its northern neighbor has practiced with such skill. Kyrgyzstan continued to host two foreign military bases -- one American and one Russian. After Uzbekistan asked the United States to vacate its air base in Khanabad in late July, and as Russian officials showed interest in boosting funding and troop strength at their base in Kant, Bakiev indicated that he would like to see the United States make higher lease payments on its base outside Bishkek. On several occasions in 2005, Kyrgyz officials made a point of denying "reports" that China might open its own military base in Kyrgyzstan.

Tajikistan

Unlike "oil-rich" Kazakhstan, "revolutionary" Kyrgyzstan, "isolated" Turkmenistan, and "volatile" Uzbekistan, Tajikistan's progress since its civil war ended in 1997 has not proven amenable to simple descriptions, and the country's relative obscurity was reflected in its low-profile foreign ties in 2005.

The main geopolitical trend in Tajikistan in 2005 was the continuing implementation of agreements reached between Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2004. Under those accords, Russia transformed its long-deployed 201st Motorized Infantry Division in Tajikistan into a permanent military base and Russian Aluminum (RusAl) agreed to invest more than $1 billion in the construction of aluminum-production and power-generation facilities in Tajikistan. Along the Tajik-Afghan border, Russia completed the process of handing over control of the frontier to Tajik border troops in 2005.

Close cooperation with Russia was evident in other venues as well. Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, the head of Tajikistan's opposition Democratic Party, vanished in Moscow in April, mysteriously reappearing in Tajik custody in Dushanbe later that month. He was subsequently put on trial on terrorism and corruption charges, one of a number of former Rakhmonov allies now sidelined from politics by legal difficulties.

Concerning relations with the West, Rakhmonov explicitly ruled out the possibility of any U.S. base in Tajikistan. France reduced its already small military deployment in Tajikistan. Cash-strapped Tajikistan's main interactions with the West, in fact, were with international financial institutions. In late December, the International Monetary Fund, which lists Tajikistan as holding $93 million in IMF loans, included Tajikistan on a list of 19 countries selected for "100 percent debt relief."

Turkmenistan

Virtually all of Turkmenistan's limited interactions with the outside world involved the country's exports of natural gas. The keynote was an effort to obtain higher payments from Russia and Ukraine amid continuing uncertainty over Turkmenistan's reserves and production capacity in 2006.

In September, an analyst with the Asian Development Bank stated that production forecasts for Turkmenistan's Daulatabad gas field may not be sufficient to justify the construction of a pipeline through Afghanistan to Pakistan. In June, Gazprom voiced concerns about Turkmenistan's reserves, noting that Ashgabat has been slow to provide a promised audit. The issue is particularly important to Gazprom, which is slated to boost imports from Turkmenistan to 60 billion-70 billion cubic meters a year by 2007, while Russian reports have suggested that current production levels are actually closer to 45 billion.

Meanwhile, Turkmenistan attempted in December to impose a price hike -- from $44 per 1,000 cubic meters to $60 -- on Ukraine and Russia for 2006 gas shipments, although it remains unclear whether Turkmenistan will be able to meet its planned contractual obligations to both countries. Negotiations with Russia have not yet produced an agreement, and Ukrainian claims that a deal with Ashgabat has been reached still lack Turkmen confirmation.

On the margins, Turkmenistan explored expanded energy cooperation with China. Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister Atamurat Berdiev visited China in early December, reporting back that China is interested in gas imports from Turkmenistan. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, who spent much of 2005 shuffling and reshuffling the management of the country's energy sector, is scheduled to take a rare trip abroad to visit China in April 2006.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan was the only Central Asian country that significantly altered its geopolitical orientation in 2005. But Tashkent's reasons for turning away from the West -- specifically the United States -- and toward Russia and China were firmly rooted in Uzbekistan's increasingly unstable domestic environment.

After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Uzbekistan positioned itself as a strategic partner of Washington in the freshly declared global war on terror, agreeing to allow U.S. forces the use of an air base in Karshi-Khanabad. The partnership was an uneasy one, with Uzbek President Islam Karimov clearly pleased to be recognized as an international player, but just as clearly unwilling to alter his hard-line domestic policies to accommodate Western criticism of human rights abuses and calls for a more open political system.

As long-ruling leaders fell against a backdrop of large-scale demonstrations in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in 2003-05, Karimov soured on close cooperation with the West, adopting the status-quo view among authoritarian post-Soviet elites that the "color" revolutions were merely foreign-sponsored regime changes. This simmering sentiment came to a head in the wake of Andijon, where Uzbek security forces used massive force on 13 May to disperse a demonstration that followed an armed uprising in the city. The West called for an independent international investigation of eyewitness accounts that security forces perpetrated a massacre; Karimov refused, blaming the violence on religious extremists as government-run media depicted the Andijon uprising as an externally supported stab at regime change.

The fallout was stark. In late July, Uzbekistan gave the United States six months to vacate its air base in Karshi-Khanabad. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan drew closer to Russia and China, two countries that voiced unequivocal support for the official Uzbek version of events in Andijon. Karimov visited China in the immediate aftermath of Andijon, and Uzbekistan and China inked a $600 million oil joint venture. In September, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov visited Uzbekistan to observe the first-ever Russian-Uzbek joint military exercises. And in November, Karimov and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty providing for direct Russian military assistance in the event of "aggression" against Uzbekistan. Further bolstering Russian-Uzbek relations, Russia's Gazprom and LUKoil are planning to invest as much as $2 billion in Uzbekistan's energy sector, albeit over an extended period of time.

Conclusions

The overall thrust of geopolitics in Central Asia in 2005 is most clearly illustrated by the evolution of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which now includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan as members and India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan as observers. The SCO was increasingly active in 2005, leading some analysts to see the emergence of a potentially powerful regional grouping serving the interests of its heavyweight members, China and Russia. A summit of SCO leaders in Kazakhstan in early July appeared to confirm this, issuing a declaration with a call for the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition to provide a timeframe for withdrawal from military facilities on SCO territory, a thinly veiled reference to the U.S. bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Subsequent events showed that the SCO remains more of a forum than a force, however. Uzbekistan soon went beyond the declaration, evicting its U.S. base less than a month after the summit. As detailed above, the move fit in with Uzbek President Karimov's mounting suspicions that the West in general, and the United States in particular, had become a destabilizing presence that his regime could no longer tolerate. Kyrgyzstan's leadership simply set about negotiating more advantageous terms to host its U.S. base, with no mention of a specific timeframe for withdrawal.

The SCO's significance as a forum lies in its expression of a sentiment much cherished in both Moscow and Beijing -- and not only Moscow and Beijing -- that the region's regimes should be left alone to conduct business as they see fit at home. This forms a marked contrast to Western interactions with the post-Soviet world, which have been premised -- at least rhetorically -- on the idea of a transition not only to market economies, but also democratic political systems and greater respect for human rights. Yet as the cases of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan show, each country's leadership signed off on the SCO's status quo declaration and then proceeded to make decisions dictated by purely domestic concerns. Tashkent, feeling threatened, turned away from the West; Bishkek, still getting its sea legs, played for leverage within a multivector framework.

The lesson is that Central Asia is not home to client states, but rather to national ruling elites -- some weaker, some stronger; some more united, some less united -- that are able to reap certain benefits by accommodating the wishes of outside powers but are less beholden to external actors than they are to the imperative of maintaining their own continuity in power. In the case of Uzbekistan, for example, the lesson of Tashkent's turn from Washington to Moscow is not so much that "Russian has restored its influence in Uzbekistan," but rather that if Karimov was willing to risk a confrontation with the West because he felt, rightly or wrongly, that domestic considerations warranted it, he will be just as willing to move in the opposite direction if his reading of the all-important domestic tea leaves suggests to him that his fortunes are best served elsewhere. To varying extents, the same holds true for ruling elites throughout the region.

Finally, 2005 demonstrated that it is increasingly difficult to discuss Central Asia as a cohesive geopolitical entity. With regional integration initiatives making roughly as much headway in 2005 as they have in years past, the overriding impression was one of disparate developments. The president of Kazakhstan, a country now firmly established as the regional economic powerhouse, successfully picked up another seven-year term in office. The leader of impoverished Tajikistan is likely to attempt a similar feat under very different social and economic conditions in his country's 2006 presidential election. Kyrgyzstan, unsettled by a breakdown of managed democracy that toppled its president, faces a trying consolidation period with no clear outcome in sight. After violently suppressing the most serious outbreak of unrest he has yet faced, Uzbekistan's president, who had traditionally balanced his Interior Ministry against his National Security Service (SNB), now appears to be increasingly reliant on the SNB and proteges of SNB head Rustam Inoyatov. And Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov maintained his country's profound isolation from the outside world even as he engineered a wide-ranging purge that eliminated longtime allies, rendering speculation about the future of his maddeningly opaque regime more difficult than ever.

Yet Central Asia remains a single geopolitical entity, if only by virtue of geography. As the world discovered when a few hundred refugees fled from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan, crises do not always respect the borders that delimit political systems. Central Asia's five countries will continue down their various paths in 2006, with domestic factors playing the primary role in each case. But if any of those paths should prove to be a dead end, the consequences could move rapidly from the domestic level to the regional, and from there to the full-blown geopolitical. (By Daniel Kimmage. Originally published on 29 December.)

2005 IN REVIEW: CENTRAL ASIA WITNESSES REVOLUTION, CONTINUED CRACKDOWN. It was a tumultuous year in Central Asia. A largely bloodless revolution in Kyrgyzstan was followed by the bloody suppression of dissent in Uzbekistan. With the region�s leaders on edge at events in Kyrgyzstan, the year produced further restrictions on political and media freedoms in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. But for Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev at least, the year ended on a positive note, with a landslide victory in presidential elections in December.

Early in 2005, commentaries on Kyrgyzstan often focused on how far a country considered in the 1990s to be an island of democracy in Central Asia had become like other, authoritarian regimes in Central Asia. Over the course of a decade, the country with the largest number of opposition parties and the freest media in the region had seen the media�s freedom gradually restricted and pressure on the opposition mounting. The country�s transformation was symbolized by the jailing in 2001 of the opposition leader Feliks Kulov on charges of embezzlement and abuse of office, a case that human rights groups saw as politically motivated.

Within months, though, Kyrygzstan had reasserted its credentials as the most democratic and open country in the region. Parliamentary votes in February and March that produced a legislature overwhelmingly supportive of President Askar Akaev legislature (and including two of his children), was widely criticized as rigged, prompting protestors to come out onto the streets first in the south of the country, the hotbed of unrest, and then in the capital.

Freest Vote Ever In Central Asia

Within hours of the first protests in Bishkek, on 24 March, the Kyrgyz government had collapsed and Akaev was seeking refuge in Russia. The uprising brought opposition leader Kurmanbek Bakiev into power and in July he was elected president in a vote considered to be the freest and most transparent in Central Asia's history. Though still plagued by poverty and corruption, Kyrgyzstan is once again being viewed as an island of democracy in the region. Other leaders in the region feared it could also be a beacon of democracy, and that other �colored revolutions� -- after Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan -- might continue. They hastened to ensure Kyrgyzstan remained an island and to extinguish any potential spark of revolution.

Paranoia

"After the Kyrgyz revolution, you did have much more paranoia,� David Lewis, a London-based Central Asia, told RFE/RL. �Central Asian leaders studied very carefully not just what happened in Kyrgyzstan, but what happened in Ukraine, what happened in Georgia. And the main conclusion they took from it was not that it was a bad idea to falsify elections, or that the leadership should be less corrupt. The main lesson they took from it was that you shouldn't allow an independent media to operate. You shouldn't allow the opposition to get too strong."

That lesson was demonstrated most brutally by Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, when, in May, his troops quelled antigovernment demonstrations by opening fire on peaceful protesters: Officials claimed they had put down an Islamist uprising.

But the voices of ordinary demonstrators told a different story, a tale of brutality unprecedented in the region. "They fired. They were shooting at us like at sheep,� one woman told RFE/RL shortly after the crackdown. �You know how hunters shoot wolves or foxes? That's how they were shooting at us."

Human rights groups say hundreds were killed in the violence, and many more were forced to flee the country in fear for their safety. Officials put the number of dead at 178.

Silencing The Media, Opposition

The Uzbek authorities then turned their attention to the media and to prevent the opposition gaining strength from anger at the killings. The Uzbek government increased its harassment and persecution of opposition members and human rights activists. Dozens have been detained since the Andijon uprising. Among them are Sanjar Umarov, a secular opposition leader, and Mo'tabar Tojiboyeva / Mutabar Tojiboeva, a prominent human rights campaigner. They have both been in detention since October, despite deteriorating health. Dozens of Uzbeks accused of organizing the uprising have also been tried and sentenced to jail terms.

The international media were also silenced. On 12 December, Uzbek authorities refused to prolong the accreditation of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's bureau in Tashkent. A number of other prominent media organizations, including the BBC and the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, had already been forced to pull their correspondents out of the country.

For Karimov, such repressive policies were aimed at "building a just and fair society."

Not Too Rich, Not Too Poor

"Our model, our future, is a just society," he said on the eve of Constitution Day, on 8 December. "Justice depends on many issues, but I should repeat once again what I have said thousands of times before: in our [society], no one should be too rich and no one too poor. This is the kind of society we wish to build.�

In Kazakhstan, a society less troubled by poverty, the trend was similar, though less violent. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev also clamped down on opposition groups, nongovernmental organizations, and freedom of the press. As presidential elections approached, the crackdown grew stronger. On 4 December, Nazarbaev won an overwhelming 91 percent of the vote. However, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticized the elections as falling short of international standards.

Tajik Oppositionists Jailed

In Tajikistan too, the government became less tolerant of dissent, with several members of Tajik opposition parties were jailed. But opponents of President Imomali Rakhmonov seemed uncertain how far to push the government. After parliamentary elections in February produced a majority for the president�s supporters, several opposition parties called for the vote to be declared invalid. But when those demands were dismissed, the opposition did not take its discontent onto the streets. Analysts say the specter of the country's 1992-97 civil war may have prompted them to hold back. In Tajikistan, both the government and the opposition have, it seems, an interest in rocking the status quo.

In Turkmenistan, the most authoritarian state in the region, political stability seems assured. For Turkmen officials, life remained predictably unpredictable, with President Saparmurat Niyazov continuing to purge top officials on corruption charges. But for ordinary Turkmen, life worsened with a further deterioration in the health and education sectors. Media freedom had long ceased to exist; religious freedom remained severely restricted.

Stability Or Liberty

If tight control is viewed as a mark of stability, rulers in Central Asia -- with the exception of Kyrgyzstan -- could feel their rule was more stable at the end of a year of turmoil than at the beginning. But David Lewis disagrees. �In many cases�the situation has become more unstable. The results of the Kyrgyz revolution are still to be seen. It still could go in any direction, I think. And, of course, you had the Andijon massacre, which has put back Uzbekistan a long way on its path of political development."

Growing discontent at economic problems and at the quality of their lives, combined with the continued suppression of dissent, make further upheaval in the region possible, Lewis believes. And the country most vulnerable to such turmoil may be the country that in 2005 made most effort to suppress unrest, Uzbekistan. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova. Originally published on 22 December 2005.)

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