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Central Asia Report: March 15, 2004

15 March 2004, Volume 4, Number 11

CENTRAL ASIA: THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. Political maneuvering in Kazakhstan provided the bulk of the week's excitement. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev played out a three-move combination: Nurtay Abiqaev, former head of the presidential administration, became the speaker of the Senate; Oralbay Abdikarimov, former speaker of the Senate, became Kazakhstan's state secretary; and Imanghali Tasmaghambetov, former state secretary, became the head of the presidential administration. Most observers saw the move as an attempt to tighten the ranks of the president's supporters in the run-up to October's parliamentary elections, although some were inclined to downplay the importance of the reshuffling.

The excitement continued on 11 March, as Emergency Situations Agency Chairman Zamanbek Nurqadilov told a news conference in Almaty that he had written a letter urging Nazarbaev to resign. Nurqadilov himself was sacked two days later. Finally, Nazarbaev and his daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva, indicated in their remarks to the sixth congress of the pro-presidential Otan (Homeland) Party that Nazarbaeva's newly created Asar (Mutual Help) Party will cooperate with Otan when parliamentary elections roll around in October.

Political intrigue was not limited to Kazakhstan. Kyrgyz opposition party Ar-Namys (Dignity) suggested that a U.S. State Department official told Kyrgyz opposition figures at a 3 March meeting in Washington that power should change hands in upcoming Kyrgyz parliamentary and presidential elections. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek later issued a statement explaining that the official had merely expressed support for orderly transfers of power within the framework of the Kyrgyz electoral system. In Tajikistan, four members of the as-yet unregistered opposition party Taraqqiyot (Progress) began a hunger strike on 12 March to protest the Justice Ministry's failure to register their party.

International contacts occupied their share of the agenda. Zhang Deguang, executive secretary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), spent 9-11 March in Tashkent, where he told reporters that the SCO would not metamorphose into a "military alliance." Representatives of the United Nations Development Program met with Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev on 9 March. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhny, the president's special representative on the status of the Caspian Sea, met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, later telling reporters that the two countries have no differences on Caspian-related legal issues. Top-ranking security officials from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan met in Shymkent, Kazakhstan on 11 March to discuss increased cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking and extremist organizations. Finally, joint exercises with Russia's 201st Motorized Infantry Division, Tajikistan's 3rd Motorized Brigade, and Russian border guards from the Panj border detachment took place from 9-13 March outside Dushanbe and along the Tajik-Afghan border.

BUYING LEVERAGE: UZBEKISTAN AND THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY. An 11 March report on "the failure of reform in Uzbekistan" by the International Crisis Group (ICG) calls attention to a familiar problem. The report's conclusions and policy recommendations are refreshingly clear, yet their seeming clarity may actually serve to deflect attention from a more pressing issue -- the international community's ability to influence what happens inside a country like Uzbekistan.

If individually authored works benefit from nuance and complexity, team-written reports are most useful when they are at their least ambiguous. "The Failure of Reform in Uzbekistan: ways forward for the international community" is such a report. It focuses immediately on the benchmarks for political and economic reform the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) set for Uzbekistan in March 2003. And its judgment is harsh: with "no significant progress on either front in 2003, it is time for the U.S., the EU and international financial institutions to begin to shift policies."

The body of the report consists of a blow-by-blow assessment of developments in Uzbekistan over the past year, examining in turn political openness, the media, civil society groups, and torture; then currency convertibility, trade liberalization, banking reform, privatization, and the overall business environment. The assessments are based on recent publications, information collected and disseminated by international organizations, and interviews ICG conducted in situ. The report closes with policy recommendations for the EBRD, the United States, and other donors.

In virtually every area, the ICG chronicles stagnation at best, backsliding at worst. Even on currency convertibility, where "Uzbekistan achieved formal compliance with the IMF's Article 8 [governing free convertibility] in October 2003, in practice there has been only limited improvement in access to foreign exchange." The report goes on to note, "More important than its technical adherence, the present policy of propping up an artificial exchange rate through administrative controls is hugely damaging to the economy overall."

The authors face a more difficult task when they turn to policy recommendations. Glumly, they note that a literal interpretation of EBRD bylaws "would lead to immediate closure of the Bank's Tashkent office and suspension of all lending." After carefully sifting through possible adjustments to EBRD policy in Uzbekistan, ICG finally falls back on a classic "carrot and a stick" approach, urging an immediate halt to most new financing in order to get the Uzbek government's attention -- "credibility" is the word the authors use -- and then a promise of renewed investment "if and when serious economic reforms are implemented."

While acknowledging that "the U.S. in many ways faces a more difficult choice than the EBRD," the study's cautious recommendations to the United States also imply a "carrot and stick" approach -- roll back cooperation unless Tashkent demonstrates a serious commitment to substantial reforms. A similar spirit pervades advice to the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the UN, NATO, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

"The Failure of Reform in Uzbekistan" convincingly documents one country's continuing slide into the mire of a "neo-feudalist political system." It also states with bracing clarity that "international policy-makers need to be unashamedly on the side of modernization." Where the study falters, albeit through no fault of its own, is in a precise and thorough enumeration of the mechanisms that international policymakers are to use to enforce the desired victory of modernization over neo-feudalism, and whether or not we can expect those mechanisms to be effective. The sad truth is that such mechanisms are limited in number. In the specific case at hand, the proposed means of exerting pressure is, though phrased somewhat more delicately, financial -- withholding and promising money. A new question arises: what price reform in Uzbekistan?

As noted above, this is hardly a flaw in a timely and well-researched study. The problem, duly noted by the study's authors, is that the international community -- which here really refers to industrialized democracies, the broadly conceived West -- faces an unpalatable question with countries to which it has comparatively few financial ties and many grievances. What if financial ties do not buy enough leverage to force real action on the grievances? An attempt to answer that question, however, would require going far beyond the failure of reform in Uzbekistan alone.

I, SHIKHMURADOV BORIS ORAZOVICH... If he is still alive, Boris Shikhmuradov is to spend the rest of his life in a Turkmen prison. A book published recently in Ashgabat bearing his name and the unambiguous title, "I myself and my coconspirators are terrorists," details Shikhmuradov's alleged role as the mastermind of a failed coup attempt on 25 November 2002. The 62-page text, made available in electronic form on 9 March on the Turkmen opposition site Gundogar, represents a fresh contribution to an old genre -- the Stalinist confession.

The confession was the lynchpin of Stalinist jurisprudence. Evidence, interrogation methods, the rights of the accused, and other legal niceties were not merely secondary -- they had no place in the system at all. What mattered was that the party determined the enemies of the people who best suited its needs and that those enemies then went willingly to their deaths, or whatever other fate the party decreed for them. With their own words, the enemies of the people accepted and confirmed the party's wisdom and omniscience. Their confessions were, in every sense, the party's writ. Their deaths were simply physical proof of the party's power over all.

Under Stalin, the party and the leader were indissoluble and indivisible. Stalin led, and the party was the instrument of his will. Though he remains faithful to the spirit of the Stalinist legacy, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has permitted himself some deviations from the letter. Freed from the Bolshevik inheritance of a vanguard party, Turkmenbashi has dispensed with intermediary structures and instead merged himself with the very state he rules.

The confession by the most vilified enemy of Turkmenbashi's state begins, "I, Shikhmuradov Boris Orazovich..." Yet the book is more than a mere confession. In fact, it speaks in three voices. The first is that of confession, fanatically eager and boundlessly self-abasing. The second is the cold voice of the investigator. The third sings the praises of Serdar Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great.

Written in occasionally shaky Russian, the book's style owes much to the peculiar intermingling of the leaden and the florid so dear to totalitarian discourse. (One can find innumerable examples in Stalinist tracts of the 1930s; a reliable present-day source is North Korea's Central News Agency: More often than not, the combination is gruesomely funny. Here is how the author -- and we will soon come to the question of authorship -- describes his return to Turkmenistan on the eve of the planned coup: "A terrorist, thief, traitor to the Homeland, enemy of the people, spy, and criminal, I set foot on Turkmen soil, literally crawling off the motorcycle."

Though the book's three voices are jumbled together, they remain identifiable and distinct. The quote above belongs to the overzealous penitent. The investigator describes what happens when the police arrive at the scene of the failed attempt on Turkmenbashi's life (a scene, incidentally, that Shikhmuradov could not have witnessed; by his own account in the book, he was elsewhere at the time): "Within minutes the heads of all law enforcement organs arrived on the scene and began to conduct their initial forensics and investigative activities. A criminal case was opened in connection with the terrorist act consisting of the attempted murder of the lawful lifelong President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great, violent seizure of power in the country, and alteration of its constitutional government." The sycophant quotes from Turkmenbashi's "sacred 'Ruhnama'" and marvels at its genius. Sometimes, the penitent and the sycophant vie with each other in a single sentence: "During our meetings in Istanbul we decided to destroy all of the nation's achievements since independence -- the stuff of the people's songs, their poems, and Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great's immortal work, the sacred 'Ruhnama.'"

Shikhmuradov is unlikely to have authored the book. Turkmen authorities have refused to allow any observers to see him, and some reports indicate that he died under torture. Arkadii Dubnov, a journalist who has written critically about Niyazov and is depicted in Shikhmuradov's purported confession as a money-mad hack, suggested in "Vremya novostei" on 4 March that the book was a collective effort led by Turkmen Prosecutor-General Kurbanbibi Atajanova. The suggestion makes sense. As RFE/RL reported on 24 January 2003, Niyazov at one point ordered Atajanova to write a book called "Traitors to the Homeland" chronicling the investigation of the attempt on his life and featuring the confessions of the participants. Moreover, Dubnov claims that Atajanova, currently out of favor for involvement in drug trafficking, hopes that the work will catapult her into a new position as the head of a "women's" ministry to be named after Niyazov's mother.

In point of fact, the book's various voices suggest an amalgam of three component parts: Shikhmuradov's actual confession, either written by him under duress or written for him by investigators; the criminal case against him compiled, or composed, by investigators; and a generous dollop of plaudits for Turkmenbashi, widely available from any number of sources. We have heard the plaudits before. As recounted in the book, the intricate workings of the terrorist plot falter as fiction and lack corroborating evidence to support them as fact. Only the personal confession is compelling, and even then only as an approved portrayal of an enemy of the state.

The enemy of the state is, of course, a scoundrel. But the enemy of the Turkmen state is a particular type of scoundrel. As depicted in his confession, Shikhmuradov is greedy, drunken, drug-addled, power-crazed, and generally demented. He dreams of stealing millions, guzzles vodka, mainlines heroin, worships power, and nearly goes on a homicidal rampage when he learns that his plot has failed. He does not, however, have any ideas -- time and time again, he stresses that his only motivation was a lust for money and power.

As befits a Stalinist villain, the Shikhmuradov of the confession is also a marionette. A former KGB agent himself, he conspires with shadowy representatives of the CIA, Russian intelligence, and even a country "X." Always, they offer him help in return for a cut of Turkmenistan's natural wealth. Always, he is willing to cede them whatever they want as long as they help him in his mad grab for power. Only in his conversation with a Russian agent does a wisp of ideology -- neo-imperialist, and thus of no danger within Turkmenistan -- enter the picture, as the Russian reminds him of the new Turkmenistan's obligations the day after the coup: "Turkmenistan returns to the CIS visa-free zone, proclaims Russian the second state language, returns to a Cyrillic-based Turkmen alphabet, creates a single energy system with Russia, and gives up its independent policies for the production and transport of oil and gas."

The paranoia may have proved a bit much. The Turkmen opposition site Gundogar reported on 9 March that the book was being removed from stores, officially because of an unacceptable number of typographical errors. The site suggests that a more likely explanation is that influential circles in Russia, the United States, and Uzbekistan informed Niyazov of their displeasure with the text's reckless accusations.

"I myself and my coconspirators are terrorists" would be the very essence of black comedy, were its message not so dire. Through the misprints, hobbled style, and absurdities, it eloquently demonstrates that when Stalinism triumphs, it reduces political discourse to three elemental horrors: boundless praise for the great leader, the secret policeman's crime report, and the confession of the helpless victim.

MANAGED MYSTERIES. Managed democracy is a system of politicians and voters. But instead of fighting publicly for the electorate's sympathies, politicians spend the bulk of their time and energy fighting privately for access to proven means of influencing electoral outcomes. Managed democracy isn't necessarily dull. But even when it produces intriguing episodes, as it did in Kazakhstan last week, it can leave observers wondering whether the gyrations of individual politicians in the presidential orbit have any real political meaning, or whether the shufflings and reshufflings are simply sound and fury signifying shifts in purely personal fortunes.

Three discrete political events occurred recently in Kazakhstan. First, President Nursultan Nazarbaev initiated a brief round of musical chairs that saw 1) his chief of staff, Nurtay Abiqaev, become the speaker of the Senate, and 2) Imanghali Tasmaghambetov, the state secretary, replace Abiqaev as the head of the presidential administration. Second, Zamanbek Nurqadilov, chairman of the Agency of Emergency Situations, gave a press conference on 11 March taking President Nazarbaev to task for Kazakhstan's malaise and urging him to resign. Two days later, Nurqadilov himself received his walking papers. Third, the pro-presidential Otan Party held a party congress, featuring addresses by both the president and his daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva, who pledged that her fledgling Asar Party will cooperate with Otan as the father-and-daughter parties prepare for parliamentary elections in October.

As one might expect, a flurry of speculation ensued. Political analyst Nurbolat Masanov told "Respublika Assandi Times" on 12 March that Nurqadilov's outspoken criticism of the president betokened a "serious split within the elite." Meanwhile, Ermukhamet Ertisbaev, a political advisor to President Nazarbaev, told Deutsche Welle on 12 March that Nurqadilov may be collaborating with opposition parties bent on discrediting the current regime. Senate deputy Ualikhan Qaysar told Deutsche Welle that Nurqadilov's sudden foray into public opposition was likely connected with the fallout from the replacement of the Senate speaker and president's chief of staff, moves that Qaysar saw as weakening the position of Darigha Nazarbaeva and her Asar Party. Meanwhile, long-time Nazarbaev foe and opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov took the opportunity to write a 2,300-word tirade for "Respublika Assandi Times" titled "Unforgiven Irresponsibility, or Why HE Must Go."

The peculiarity of managed democracy is that it is sufficiently chaotic and pluralistic to produce scenes like the above, with a varied cast of characters and outbursts of lively commentary, but insufficiently transparent to produce much real insight into actual motives. The trappings are the familiar ones of parliaments and parties, but with tighter control over media coverage, more restricted access to accurate information, and lower standards of political accountability. So the only people who know the real score of last week's happenings in Kazakhstan -- what was lost, what was gained, and whether it really mattered -- are the actual participants. But with the messier aspects of democracy managed, why should they talk?