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Central Asia Report: February 25, 2004


25 February 2004, Volume 4, Number 8

THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. The power of nature was much in evidence in Central Asia last week. Excess water in the Syr Darya River continued to fuel flood worries and spark regional tension, as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan squabbled over solutions. Hydroelectric power generation in Kyrgyzstan has swelled the Syr Darya, increasing the danger of flooding in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; regional cooperation on the issue has been halting (see RFE/RL's "Central Asia Report," 16 February 2003). Meanwhile, a series of avalanches killed four on Kyrgyzstan's Bishkek-Osh highway on 17 February.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov celebrated his 64th birthday on 19 February to paeans of domestic adulation, catcalls from the international human-rights community, and pleasantries from St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko, who led a delegation of Russian businessmen to Ashgabat for the occasion.

Terrorism-related issues surfaced in several countries. Uzbekistan meted out a death sentence on 16 February to an alleged member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Uzbek authorities are also seeking the extradition of an alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir leader detained by Russian security services in Moscow on 13 February. Reports emerged in Tajikistan on 19 February that a group of between 14 and 22 suspected Hizb ut-Tahrir activists were arrested in Khujand on 9 February. Finally, a Kyrgyz military court sentenced two Uzbek citizens, both alleged to be members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, to death for their role in the 2002 bombing of a Bishkek market that claimed seven lives. (Daniel Kimmage)

MOSCOW ARREST HIGHLIGHTS TERROR ANGLES. Though the war on terror has rapidly established itself as a leitmotif of the early 21st century, it has been accompanied, and sometimes even drowned out, by a cacophonous debate over how the war should be waged. The recent arrest of an alleged Uzbek extremist in Moscow, and the likelihood of his subsequent extradition to Uzbekistan, underscores the ambiguities that dog the war's murky Central Asian battleground.

Russian security forces arrested Yusup Kasimakhunov in Moscow on 13 February, RBK reported on 16 February. According to Uzbekistan's National Security Service (SNB), Kasimakhunov is one of the leaders of the banned Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. Uzbekistan put out an international warrant for Kasimakhunov's arrest on terrorism charges in February 2000. An SNB spokesman told RIA Novosti, "We have reason to believe that...Kasimakhunov, who has been a member of 'at-Tahrir' since 1993 and is active internationally, has become one of the leaders of this extremist religious organization." According to the press service of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), Kasimakhunov was born in 1966 and holds Uzbek citizenship.

Taqi al-Din al-Nabhani, a Palestinian refugee who received an education in Islamic law at Egypt's prestigious Al-Azhar University, founded Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (the Islamic Liberation Party, transliterated on the group's site -- http://www.hizb-ut-tahrir.org/english/ -- as Hizb ut-Tahrir) in Amman, Jordan in 1953. The group aims to restore the caliphate, implement Islamic law, and lead the worldwide Muslim community in a struggle against the "unbelievers." Though it does not advocate the use of violence, the group's radical goals and penchant for secrecy have earned it official ire, and governments have banned it in most of the Middle East and Central Asia.

Hizb ut-Tahrir is believed to have an extensive organizational network in Western Europe, and especially London. Yet it is the group's apparent growth in Central Asia's Ferghana Valley, a densely populated area split among Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, that has caused concern and sparked debate. As a 17 October 2003 report by RFE/RL (http://www.rferl.org, "Central Asia: A Visit To Ferghana Valley") illustrated, the concerns focus on the growth potential of Islamic extremism in an unstable region wracked by poverty and bad government, while the debates swirl around the wisdom of the sometimes draconian means used to suppress Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Uzbekistan has taken the harshest measures against the group. According to a 16 February 2004 report by Forum 18, an Oslo, Norway-based organization dedicated to the defense of religious freedom, some 5,000 political prisoners in Uzbekistan may be Hizb ut-Tahrir members and the possession of Hizb ut-Tahrir literature in Uzbekistan can lead to a 10-year jail sentence.

In a recent high-profile case, a court in Tashkent sentenced 63-year-old Fatima Mukhadirova on 12 February to six years in prison for extremist activities (after protests from international human-rights organizations she was freed on 24 February, allegedly because of her age). Human-rights groups charge that the government is trying to silence Mukhadirova, who has asked for an international investigation into the death of her son, Muzafar Avazov, in August 2002. Human Rights Watch reported on 10 August 2002 that doctors who viewed Avazov's body said that his injuries "could only have been caused by immersing Avazov in boiling water." To complicate matters, Mikhail Ardzinov, head of the Independent Human Rights Organization of Uzbekistan, told IRIN on 12 February that Mukhadirova had, in fact, "been adhering to the principles and ideas of Hizb ut-Tahrir." Through Ardzinov provided no further detail, the information, if accurate, suggests that Mukhadirova's sentence may well have been valid under Uzbek law. Clearly, the Mukhadirova and Avazov cases raise stark questions about Uzbekistan's approach to the battle against extremism.

The arrest of Yusup Kasimakhunov poses its own questions. Muslim Uzbekistan, a website sympathetic to Uzbek Islamic movements and bitterly critical of the Uzbek government, derided the arrest on 17 February as a Russian sop to an Uzbek "political" request. The site recalls the June 2003 arrest of 55 alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir militants from Central Asia at an Uzbek food-service facility in Moscow. As "Moskovskie novosti" reported on 1 July 2003, the much-ballyhooed case fizzled, and all but two of the detainees were soon released.

The Kasimakhunov arrest brings observers face to face with by-now familiar conundrums of the war on terror, leaving them to ponder the quality of the evidence that underpins the charges against Kasimakhunov and the qualities of the judicial system that awaits him in Uzbekistan in the event of his extradition. (Daniel Kimmage)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TURKMENBASHI! Tormented by paranoia and disdained by the civilized world, dictators are usually doomed to solitary celebrations, with only their captive subjects to enliven the party. But not always. St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko helped Saparmurat Niyazov to ward off worries of international isolation as the two of them marked the Turkmen president-for-life's 64th birthday on 19 February.

In fact, the occasion of Turkmenbashi's birthday was only one reason among two for nationwide festivities on 19 February (the other was Turkmenistan's Flag Day). Even so, it was all about the birthday boy. A 30,000-strong choir belted out "Happy birthday, dear president" (in English) to a packed stadium, AP reported. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan.ru recounted the gifts that Niyazov "continues to receive" from his grateful subjects -- from "a heart-shaped amulet and hand-knitted socks" to an unspecified quantity of "large pitchers."

Though Niyazov shunned the stadium show, he found time for an extended press conference with his guest of honor, St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko. We excerpt the remarks cited on Turkmenistan.ru:

Matvienko: You've managed to do so much in such a short amount of time, it's simply fantastic.

Niyazov: We've only finished part of it.

Matvienko: Yes, and the architecture is very good. It's all been thought through. The city is entirely different. And it's clean. You know, I drove through and, as the governor [of St. Petersburg], my heart was filled with envy -- the city is so clean, so well maintained. I was overjoyed.

Niyazov: That's what Leningrad was like in the 1960s and 1970s -- clean and green. It was such a quiet city. You could stroll all night long along the embankment and through the entire city.

Matvienko: You've preserved your love for the city of Leningrad, Petersburg.

Niyazov: I took a great deal from there. I walked along Nevskii and looked at how the buildings have been constructed since the time of Peter [the Great]...

As cited by "Kommersant-Daily" on 20 February, Matvienko's praise was even more extravagant: "...we're stunned by what we've seen. It's as though we've arrived in a magical, fairy-tale city. I think that the main architect of Ashgabat is the president himself..."

Not everyone finds Niyazov's urban planning exploits so inspiring. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported on 13 February that 200 families have been forced out of their homes in Ashgabat since November 2003 with no compensation because Niyazov wants the land in order to set up a Disneyland-style theme park. According to the IWPR, another 600 homes are slated for demolition in the near future.

Nor was everyone pleased to see a high-ranking Russian guest granting Niyazov some semblance of international credibility. In a 16 February open letter, The Union of Democratic Forces of Turkmenistan, an umbrella organization created by various Turkmen opposition groups in 2003, asked Matvienko to reconsider her attendance at Niyazov's birthday. The appeal cited not only the by-now familiar grotesqueries of Niyazov's dictatorship, but also the difficult circumstances of Turkmenistan's 300,000 ethnic Russians, 105,000 of whom still hold Russian passports. As subsequent events make clear, however, the request fell on deaf ears.

What scant news emanates from Turkmenistan usually focuses on the twin themes of Niyazov's cult of personality and his regime's human-rights abuses. His birthday might have been little more than a convenient occasion for revisiting this familiar territory, but for the unusually high-ranking Russian presence. Niyazov may be widely seen as having gone considerably too far in his metamorphosis into Turkmenbashi, but he is, in some circles at least, far from forgotten. (Daniel Kimmage)

KYRGYZ LANGUAGE LAW PASSES, WAR OF WORDS CONTINUES. With the passage of its controversial language law last week in the legislature, the Kyrgyz government won the battle but the war goes on as critics have continued to attack it on political, moral, and legal grounds. While the government insists that the status of the Russian language will not be affected, there are parliamentarians and activists (of both ethnicities) who fear that a law promoting the Kyrgyz language could lead to discrimination of the country's Russian-speakers and violate many citizens' rights.

The law, titled "On the State Language of the Kyrgyz Republic," was Akaev's initiative. The first draft, which passed the Legislative Assembly (lower house of the parliament) in November, caused commotion because it made fluency in Kyrgyz a prerequisite to getting government jobs. This seemed an extrapolation of the existing requirement that candidates for the presidency command Kyrgyz -- and immediately suggested the potential for political discrimination, since President Askar Akaev's main rival for the presidency in 2000, Russian-speaking Feliks Kulov, had to drop out of the race rather than face the mandatory language examination. The draft law also included provisions that encouraged more use of the language in education, envisaged more computer programs in Kyrgyz, and required one-third of all media and advertising, from television air time to column-inches in newspapers, to be in Kyrgyz.

Meeting on 5 February for another vote, the Legislative Assembly passed two clauses of the draft law. One of them (Article 9) stipulated that senior government officials such as the president, prime minister, speaker of the parliament, and chairmen of the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court had to speak Kyrgyz. Furthermore, all official documents must originally be written in Kyrgyz, which is the country's state language, but must also be immediately translated in Russian, the official language. UNESCO -- the UN's Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization -- defines a state language as having more of a symbolic value, while an official language is used in government, administration, legislation, and the courts. The new law's effect would be to elevate Kyrgyz to more closely match UNESCO's definition of an official language (see "Kyrgyzstan: Parliament Debating Controversial New Language Law," rferl.org, 5 February 2004). Kyrgyz was also given the status of a language of interethnic communication, a status previously reserved only for Russian.

The most contentious part of the law proved to be Article 10, stipulating that not only top officials but all public servants needed to know Kyrgyz. The parliament did not adopt the clause and sent it back to be revised. Deputies were disturbed by a number of points about it. First, there was no list of the government posts that demanded knowledge of the state language. Second, there were no definitions about what level of proficiency was expected.

Although neither of these shortcomings had been fully rectified when the Legislative Assembly reconvened on 12 February to vote on the bill, the deputies adopted it anyway. The government promised it would meet deputies' objections by compiling the list of civil servants required to know Kyrgyz, Kabar news agency reported. As for their level of linguistic competence, the draft only specified "to a level necessary for fulfilling official duties," the agency said. Such vagueness led some deputies to warn that the law opened the door to abuse, bureaucratic mischief, and "political games," akipress.org commented on 13 February. Under the guise of promoting the Kyrgyz language, it would become a tool for redistributing political power, argued parliamentarian Kubatbek Baybolov, as cited by Kabar. Meanwhile, Zainiddin Kurmanov, the faction leader of the parliament's right-wing coalition, (whose Kyrgyz, incidentally, is poor), called the law "a gift to corrupt officials," as quoted by Interfax on 12 February. Together with Oksana Malevanaya, chairwoman of the parliamentary Human Rights Committee, he promised to appeal to the Constitutional Court if Akaev signed the newly-adopted bill into law, which he must do within two weeks of its passage. Kabai Karabekov, a former presidential spokesman who currently chairs the parliamentary committee on information policy and has traditionally been pro-government, also said he will challenge the law on constitutional grounds and for violating civil rights, saying it had a clearly discriminatory character since it divided citizens into those who may rule and those who may not (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2004). Members of the Communist Party also said that they planned to write to the court to have it declare the law unconstitutional, Interfax reported.

But State Secretary Osmanakun Ibraimov, who submitted the bill to the legislature on behalf of the executive, defended the provisions of Article 10. "The bill is not perfect," he acknowledged to Interfax, but once the loose ends had been tied up it would become clear that the requirements were reasonable for a bilingual country and not excessively arduous. The required knowledge of Kyrgyz would be "the amount necessary for communicating with the people. If government workers must know 500-1,000 words to communicate with the people, this will not give any reason to criticize the initiators of the state language law," Ibraimov said. One cannot help wondering how much the government expects to talk down to its citizens using 500 words.

Within days Ibraimov was defending the law again on Pyramid TV as it was attacked both by local Russian-speakers and in a media onslaught from Moscow. "Does the adoption of this law, the law on the state language, mean a restricting or narrowing of the sphere of use of the Russian language [in Kyrgyzstan]? I want to answer unambiguously and absolutely clearly: Under no circumstances," Ibraimov told the TV station on 16 February, noting that Russian was protected as the official language into which all government documents would be translated. At the same time he said the Russian minority could not begrudge Kyrgyz their desire to rectify a balance by promoting their own language and culture. On 19 February the head of the Slavic Foundation of Kyrgyzstan, Valerii Vishnievskii, told journalists he was fully sympathetic to the need to strengthen Kyrgyz as the state language, but the threat of political discrimination for nonspeakers was not the way to go about it. "The Slavic Foundation knows many ways of supporting Russian without violating anyone's rights," he said. Developing the state language "should be done through publishing books and educational materials to stimulate study of the Kyrgyz language," Vishnievskii concluded, as quoted by Interfax. An article by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) on 11 February similarly suggested that ethnic Russians were generally not hostile to the wishes of Kyrgyz to boost their national identity, but resented the feelings of exclusion, discrimination, and humiliation that went with it.

Meanwhile, on 18 February the newspaper "Argumenty i fakty Kyrgyzstan" warned that the language law might jeopardize relations with Russia. Bishkek needed Moscow more than Moscow needed Bishkek, the newspaper said, and the perception of the Russian language, thus Russian speakers, as having an honored status in Kyrgyzstan was an important component in the special relationship. The new language law assaulted this notion: "Why do [our politicians] want to destroy so hastily the social and moral equality and harmony in our society, established with so much effort? Ordinary people -- ethnic Russians resident in Kyrgyzstan, Russian-speaking Kyrgyz, and Kyrgyz migrant laborers [in Russia] -- will be the ones to suffer the consequences," the newspaper argued.

A more bizarre protest came in the form of leaflets, first reported on 16 February by RFE/RL, that started appearing in apartment blocks in Bishkek. They called for a rally in front of the parliament building on 22 February which would set up a council for the protection of Russian-speakers and collect signatures for a petition to create an autonomous, Russian-speaking republic on the territory of Chuy and Issyk-Kul oblasts. The National Security Service promptly launched an investigation. The leaflets were taken seriously enough for the Asaba (Flag) National Revival Party to issue a statement the next day condemning such attempts to undermine national stability. Simultaneously, the new parliamentary opposition bloc For People Power (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 26 January 2004), of which Asaba is a member, held an extraordinary session where it promised to oppose any rally aimed at discrediting the language law, azattyk.org reported on 17 February. Asaba leader Azimbek Beknazarov told RFE/RL that, if the demonstration took place, his party would link up with the nongovernmental Movement for the Kyrgyz Language and "we are going to organize a nationwide antigathering and antipicket." In the event, no such demonstration materialized, azattyk.org reported on 22 February.

In the meantime, Beknazarov had shown his colors as a strong proponent of the language law. He dramatized his support for elevating the status of Kyrgyz when he walked out of a parliamentary session on 16 February, with several deputies following him, to protest what they called discrimination against the state language after the government submitted a draft law in Russian only. Beknazarov made a motion that all debate on the bill should cease until a Kyrgyz version was produced. His motion was put to a vote and, perhaps tellingly, the majority of deputies opposed him, prompting his walkout, Interfax reported. Beknazarov claimed he would not return to the chamber until the government provided its draft bills in both languages (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004).

On 17 February, Interfax reported that the language law might have to be submitted to a committee of lawyers to establish whether it is constitutional after all. According to an unnamed government source, the law has received a lot of criticism by legislative experts and may need revision. The source blamed this on changes introduced by parliamentarians from the original draft submitted by the government. "The president's bill is based on the principle of creating equal conditions for the Kyrgyz and Russian languages," the source said. "The law passed by parliament differs from the president's bill and it may have to be checked by the appropriate experts." (Adam Albion)

KYRGYZ GAS TIES. Fate has not blessed Kyrgyzstan with nearly enough oil and gas for any illusions of hydrocarbon-fueled wealth. Recent movement toward an agreement with Russia's Gazprom shows, however, that the country's leadership would like to derive as many benefits as it can -- both domestically and internationally -- from the oil and gas reserves that Kyrgyzstan does have.

Gazprom Deputy Director Aleksandr Ryazanov announced on 19 February that the state-controlled Russian gas giant plans to receive in trust a majority stake in Kyrgyzstan's main oil and gas company, Kyrgyzneftegaz. The deal, which Ryazanov discussed last week with Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, would involve the transfer of an 85.16 percent stake in Kyrgyzneftegaz currently held by the state. In return, Gazprom will provide financing and technical expertise to boost oil and gas production in Kyrgyzstan, AKIpress reported on 19 February.

Kyrgyzstan has approximately 6 billion cubic meters of proven natural-gas reserves, according to information provided by Rosbalt. But with gas production limited to 30 million cubic meters a year by troublesome terrain and an underdeveloped infrastructure, the country is forced to import the remainder of the 700 million cubic meters it requires annually from neighboring Uzbekistan.

Though the nascent agreement with Gazprom could take years to bear fruit, its domestic utility is obvious -- Kyrgyzstan chafes at its current dependence on a neighbor it views with some distrust. Internationally, increased cooperation with state-controlled Gazprom not only serves to strengthen ties with Russia, but also furthers the balancing act symbolized by the dual -- or, as some might see it, dueling -- presence of Russian and U.S. military bases in Kyrgyzstan. Finally, the move illustrates a general Russian tendency in relations with CIS states to eschew heavy-handed policy initiatives in favor of business-cooperation initiatives that exploit Russia's relative macroeconomic prosperity and suggest mutual financial benefit rather than some resurrection of Soviet-era "fraternal ties." (Daniel Kimmage)

TAJIK, RUSSIAN DELEGATIONS REVIEW BORDER-GUARD TREATY. A Russian military delegation led by Lieutenant-General Aleksandr Manilov, deputy chief of Russian border troops, arrived in the Tajik capital Dushanbe on the evening of 16 February for four days of talks to review the 11-year-old agreement on the legal status of the Russian forces in Tajikistan. The Tajik-Afghan border officially has been protected by Russia under a bilateral security treaty signed in 1993 although, in reality, Russia's 201st Motor Rifle Division, based in Tajikistan, had simply remained in place after the USSR's collapse two years earlier. Negotiations about updating the status of the Russian troops, the possibility of establishing a Russian base in Tajikistan, and the transfer of border responsibilities to Tajik troops have been going on since the security agreement, originally valid for 10 years, expired in May 2003 (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 10 October 2003).

Manilov's main interlocutors were Major-General Nuralisho Nazarov, first deputy chairman of the Tajik Border Protection Committee, and Lieutenant-General Abdurrahmon Azimov, the chairman of the Tajik government's Border Protection Committee. On 17 February, Nazarov noted to journalists that the 1993 treaty provided for the gradual handover of border duties to Dushanbe and said Tajik guards were ready to take over the entire Pamir section of the Tajik-Afghan frontier by the end of 2004, ITAR-TASS reported. On 18 February, Nazarov said the two sides were examining new strategies of cooperation between frontier posts and troop detachments to make for a more seamless border protection system, the news agency reported. Nazarov stressed again that the Pamir area could be under Tajik control by the end of the year.

On 18 February, Azimov surprised journalists by going even further, saying -- or appearing to say -- that, after letting Russians do the job since 1991, his government considered it high time to assume watch over the whole border with Afghanistan, RFE/RL reported. Yet only the previous day, Russia's ambassador to Tajikistan, Maksim Peshkov, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that his country was not prepared to abandon the guard posts along Afghanistan: "We don�t intend to suspend the agreement with Tajikistan on border protection. Talks about the forms and methods of this cooperation are underway," he said.

Azimov quickly changed his tune. Russian forces will not be withdrawn, he told Interfax on 20 February. "Russian border guards have always been and will remain on the Tajik-Afghan border," he told reporters. Moreover, he categorically denied that his government had ever expressed anything to the contrary, leaving journalists to scratch their heads over his own remarks two days earlier. Azimov said such rumors "were being exaggerated by enemies of Russia and Tajikistan in order to drive a wedge between our friendly countries and strategic partners," ITAR-TASS reported. To top that, Azimov stated, "the issue of transferring any new sections of the Afghan border to the protection of Tajik border troops was not discussed in any form," leaving journalists to puzzle over Nazarov's repeated references to a handover of the Pamir area. Evidently certain forms of strong pressure from the Russian side were at work behind closed doors.

Talks on the establishment of a Russian military base in Tajikistan seem to have gone much more smoothly. Even before Manilov's arrival, working groups from the Tajik and Russian Defense Ministries met on 10-12 February in Dushanbe, ostensibly to discuss bilateral military and military-technical cooperation. However, the talks' importance was signaled by the seniority of the delegations, led by Tajik First Deputy Defense Minister Major-General Ramil Nadyrov and Lieutenant General Albert Druzhinin, head office chief of the Russian Defense Ministry. A source from the Tajik side told Asia-Plus on 16 February that the focus of negotiations was actually the creation of a Russian base. Three days later a Tajik defense ministry spokesman, Zarobbin Sirojev, declared that practically all questions about a Russian base had already been resolved. "There can be no doubt that the base will be established in Tajikistan because both Tajikistan and Russian have an interest in it," he stated, adding, "In our opinion, the establishment of the base is in the interest of the whole region," Asia-Plus reported on 19 February. All remaining differences would be hammered out at the follow-up talks, Sirojev assured journalists, without saying when they were scheduled. Among the outstanding issues to be resolved, Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Khayrulloev told RFE/RL, was where the facility would be located.

One further outcome of last week's talks was agreement by Russia to continue training Tajik servicemen in its military academies. Forty-eight are currently studying in Russia, and over 200 have been trained in the course of the last 10 years, ITAR-TASS reported on 20 February. (Adam Albion)

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