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Central Asia Report: January 5, 2004

5 January 2004, Volume 4, Number 1

PRESIDENTIAL SPEECHES USHER IN NEW YEAR. New Year's Eve -- ringing out 2003, the Year of the Ram and ushering in 2004, the Year of the Monkey according to the Chinese lunar calendar, which is also popularly used throughout Central Asia -- is a time when Central Asia's presidents take to the airwaves with national addresses that reflect on the outgoing year and sketch plans for the upcoming one. While their relentlessly upbeat speeches can hardly be taken as trustworthy assessments of their countries' development, they provide an instructive way to compare the trajectories of five different countries as presented by their five different leaders. As suggested by that casual portmanteau term "the Stans," many people tend to view Central Asia as a regional bloc, but the image is becoming too simplistic. One of the things that the events of 2003 illustrated was that countries making up Central Asia are traveling along increasingly divergent paths (see "Five Different Futures Await Five Central Asian States,", 26 December 2003). The variety of New Year's speeches delivered from the region's capitals provides a perspective on those divergences.

Tajik Leader Asserts 'Moral Right' To Assistance.

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, addressing the nation on Tajik TV on 31 December 2003, began by describing 2003 as "on the whole, a happy and successful year." Production had increased over the previous year, all key economic indicators were up, and thanks to market reforms the economy had became more efficient, Rakhmonov alleged. Most importantly, according to the president, political and social stability had now been consolidated in Tajikistan to a point where it was secure from the shocks and strains to national integrity that were part of the modern globalization process.

Despite this upbeat opening, however, Rakhmonov tempered his rhetoric later in the speech: "We have not achieved our major goals. Our economy still cannot guarantee immediate development. We have to admit we still have a lot of problems." He went on to define those major goals as reducing unemployment and raising living standards by boosting salaries, pensions, and other welfare benefits, which he acknowledged were inadequate for present needs. To this end, the president said that the government's priority task for the next three years would be the drafting, adoption, and implementation of a poverty alleviation program. Resources must be targeted more directly and accurately to the most vulnerable members of society, Rakhmonov said, since an analysis had established that many welfare payments were going to people who were not truly needy.

Turning to international affairs, Rakhmonov maintained that Tajikistan was a first-line state in the battle against global terrorism since it neighbored Afghanistan, the world's main heroin producer, and terrorists' prime source of financing was drug trafficking. "For many years Tajikistan has been a buffer zone against the expansion of terrorism, extremism, and the illicit drugs trade, not just for Central Asia but for the European countries as well," he said. Over $1 billion worth of narcotics had been seized in Tajikistan during the last three years, which translated into "9 million people saved from drug addiction," Rakhmonov said. He did not explain how he made this calculation. But the qualitative conclusion that he drew from it was unambiguous: "Tajikistan has a moral right to support, development assistance, and comprehensive cooperation" from the international community. Furthermore, the scale of Central Asia's drug problem urgently required the creation of an international counternarcotics coalition, Rakhmonov said, mentioning a pet project that he aired at several multilateral forums in 2003.

Two Tongues, Two Messages In Uzbekistan.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov did not deliver his New Year's message personally, but rather two versions of its text (in Uzbek and Russian) were read out separately by announcers on Uzbek television on 31 December 2003. It is worth noting that the message in Uzbek, which the majority of the population would have tuned in to, was longer and differed in subtle ways from the message in Russian, which was more likely to be understood by ethnically non-Uzbek citizens and international observers.

Karimov began with what he called an open admission that "the outgoing year was not an easy one for our country." In particular he mentioned shortcomings in agriculture and alluded to difficulties with the harvest, which he blamed on unfavorable weather conditions in 2003. (In fact Uzbekistan experienced one of its worst cotton harvests in a decade, attributed by most analysts to government failures to reform the agricultural sector rather than to heavy spring rains.) But in other areas requiring reform and modernization Karimov saw significant progress, although he acknowledged to Russian speakers (and not Uzbek speakers) that the positive changes were not necessarily quantifiable in figures but rather came across as qualitative improvements in daily life. The only economic data offered by the president was that inflation in 2003 was allegedly under 4 percent, as against 21 percent (according to official statistics) in 2002. Otherwise the president restricted himself to vague references to accelerating "tempos of economic and social growth," increased foreign investment, the importance of introducing currency convertibility, and Uzbekistan's allegedly growing prestige in the international arena. However, Russian speakers were informed, "our main wealth is peace, stability, and harmony in our common home," and the fact that citizens felt engaged and confident about their country's future.

Meanwhile, Karimov was much less diffident toward his Uzbek-speaking compatriots. They were told forthrightly, "the results achieved in all spheres of our economy in 2003 have definitely contributed to increasing Uzbekistan's power and potential, building a free and democratic society, and improving the living standards of our people." He also told Uzbek speakers (but for some reason omitted to notify Russian speakers) that the government's priorities for 2004 would be to deepen liberalizing reforms especially in the economic sphere, with a focus on supporting the expansion of small and medium-sized businesses. The decision to dub 2004 the Year of Love and Humaneness also signaled a renewed commitment on the government's part to social welfare and human rights, Karimov said. Yet his message in Uzbek was much more expansive about the part ordinary citizens could play than his message in Russian. Russian speakers were merely informed (with a sniff of superiority, perhaps) that providing the needy with love and care corresponded to ancient Uzbek traditions that fully conformed to modern democratic values. Meanwhile the message in Uzbek seemed more tailored to Muslims accustomed to living among extended families: "I am sure that the centuries-old values granted by God to our generous people, such as helping the disabled, orphans, widows, the poor, lonely elderly people, and disadvantaged families, will be more evident in the coming year," Karimov said.

The Akaev Doctrine And The 'And-And Principle.'

In a relatively brief address, broadcast by Kyrgyz television on 31 December 2003, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev observed that 2003 had been declared the 2,200th anniversary of Kyrgyz statehood and had been recognized as such by a UN resolution -- a fact that led Akaev to suggest that 2003 was the brightest and most important year "in the whole history of Kyrgyzstan" as the country was now allegedly well-known across the globe.

As for more tangible accomplishments, the president said Kyrgyzstan had made great strides in democratic development and strengthening stable economic growth, without elaborating on those claims. Nevertheless he tacitly admitted that living standards were low and poverty was rampant when he described the government's priorities for the upcoming year as raising the former and reducing the latter. He promised that all state resources would be devoted to these goals, as implied by the unwieldy moniker for 2004, the Year of Social Mobilization, Fair Management, and Seeking and Using All Existing Resources. On the international front, Akaev said Kyrgyzstan had managed strengthened cooperation with regional and international partners and formed "a reliable and comprehensive system of foreign security."

Akaev also offered some insight into what he regarded as his foreign policy achievements in 2003 during a two-hour call-in show on 30 December 2003, broadcast by Kyrgyz television and radio. The president said the opening of the Russian air base at Kant, housing the air component of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) rapid reaction forces, was "the most significant event of the year, and maybe even of the last decade.... It guarantees stability and security for our country." While acknowledging that the security contribution of the U.S.-led international antiterrorism coalition deployed at Manas air base, Akaev was explicit that Russia was his country's main ally and chief strategic partner, "given to us by God and history...2003 was a breakthrough year in our relations with Russia."

Akaev denied that there was any contradiction in simultaneously cultivating Washington and Moscow. On the contrary, he elevated the notion to an Akaev doctrine, which he formulated during the broadcast as, "Small states need big friends but should not stick to only one big friend." He went on to apply it to Kyrgyz foreign policy. In the process he explicated something he called Kyrgyzstan's "and-and principle." That is, "To establish good relations and keep strategic alliances going with Russia and China and the United States. This is in our national interests.... The 'either-or principle,' meaning either Russia or the United States, belongs to the Cold War period." As the most obvious example of the folly of applying the "either-or principle" nowadays -- injudiciously throwing one's lot in with only one of the superpower orientations -- Akaev cited the case of Georgia. Georgia, he said, "pursued a policy with a predominantly pro-Western bent throughout the 1990s. Everyone in the world and in the former Soviet Union knows where this policy led."

Kazakhstan's 'Laudable Achievements.'

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev transmitted a bilingual New Year's message on Khabar Television on 31 December, speaking Kazakh followed by Russian. In his wishes for 2004 he noted that the Year of the Monkey is traditionally supposed to be a good year with a plentiful harvest. Yet his review of the year past was equally positive, as he spoke of his country's "remarkable developments" and "laudable achievements." Most of them related to macroeconomic indicators, production volumes, and accumulating financial resources, but Nazarbaev also reported "significant" success in raising pensions and salaries and curbing unemployment. With one of the higher GDPs per capita among the CIS states, Kazakhstan's economic growth was beginning to be felt as a force in everyday life and social development thanks to improvements in ordinary citizens' standard of living, the president averred.

While Nazarbaev praised the program launched in 2003 to encourage industrial innovation, he stressed that Kazakhstan must turn more attention to its agricultural sector. He said 2004 was dubbed the Year of the Village to symbolize that priority and boost the country's rural areas. But the most immediate concerns of the upcoming year were identified as parliamentary elections and the adoption of new political and legal reforms to reflect "the needs of the time."

In the Russian-language portion of his remarks, he praised Kazakhstan's ever-closer ties with Russia and looked forward to further "integration." Meanwhile, in an interview with Interfax on 29 December, Nazarbaev said Russia's influence was steadily growing in the international arena and global problems could not be solved without Moscow's involvement. At the same time he strongly intimated that no alliance or association that encompassed Central Asia could meaningfully endure without including Russia.

The Turkmen Numbers Game.

In contrast to all his Central Asian counterparts, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov did not shy away from detailed statistics to carry his point that 2003 had been an excellent year for his country, "successful in every sense." His New Year's address, shown on Turkmen television on 31 December 2003, was thick with facts and figures. Salaries, he said, were doubled in February 2003, and incomes will double every five years according to an economic plan adopted in 2003. National GDP increased by 23 percent (and will rise another 22 percent in 2004). The country extracted 60 billion cubic meters of natural gas (and will extract 78 billion in 2004). Turkmen wells produced 10 million tons of oil (and will produce 15 million in 2004). Foreign trade turnover was around $6 billion (and will reach $8 billion in 2004). Since Turkmenistan's official statistics are regularly thought to be doctored to the point of meaninglessness, and are not subject to outside audit, it is impossible to know to what extent Niyazov's numbers are to be believed or discarded. At the same time he named numerous large-scale construction plans that would be going ahead in the upcoming year, ranging from cement and fertilizer plants to power stations, roads, railways, housing projects, and electricity lines.

The area where Niyazov seemed most plugged into reality was agriculture. In the agrarian sector, he cautioned, "we have to be very careful about making big promises, because we set such targets every year and so far some remain unachieved." In recent years, Turkmenistan's cotton farmers, working for the most part without adequate tools, machinery, or incentives, have repeatedly failed to fulfill over-ambitious government plans. Niyazov promised in his televised speech that a session of the People's Council, scheduled for October 2004, would discuss rural reforms necessary "to make our land productive and our farmers rich." The timetable, displaying no sense of urgency, suggests that Niyazov will be similarly disappointed by the 2004 cotton harvest, which he said would be targeted at 2.2 million tons. According to official statistics, the country harvested a mere 713,200 tons in 2003.

Supplementing his address to the nation on New Year's Eve was a televised speech Niyazov gave on 29 December 2003 to a government meeting that reviewed the results of 2003. Recalling the alleged coup attempt against him, he called for continued vigilance on the part of the power ministries to prevent terrorist incidents and strengthen the state. Meanwhile, he expressed satisfaction at the decreasing number of serious crimes in the country, and revealed that he received a daily report at 7:30 in the morning about all crimes that had occurred over the past 24 hours. The president also celebrated 2003 as the year that Turkmenistan's population rose above 6 million. He said that 96 percent of its 6.3 million people were ethnically Turkmen, and denied that ethnic minorities, including 70,000 remaining Russians, suffered any discrimination.