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Central Asia Report: April 26, 2004

26 April 2004, Volume 4, Number 17

CENTRAL ASIA: THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev began a busy week with a working visit to Germany that focused on commerce. Nazarbaev attended the Hanover Messe trade fair, spoke with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder about ways to build up commercial ties between the two countries, and stopped briefly in Moscow on the way home for a chat with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a sign that Nazarbaev could face a public-relations crisis when the "Kazakhgate" corruption trial heats up in New York in May, several articles in the German press highlighted corruption allegations against the Kazakh president. Back in Kazakhstan, Nazarbaev decided to let stand a ruling by the country's Constitutional Council that a draft bill on the media violates the constitution, effectively killing a law that had drawn harsh criticism from free-speech advocates. Meanwhile, Kazakh parliamentarians continued to question the wisdom of leaving the country's 27 peacekeepers in Iraq amid a worsening security situation.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev signed an amnesty bill that will release 700 prisoners and reduce the sentences of approximately 1,000 inmates. Akaev also visited Japan, where he discussed the ongoing reconstruction of Afghanistan with Japanese Emperor Akihito and Prime Minister Koizumi. Akaev opened a new Kyrgyz Embassy in Tokyo as well.

Mercurial Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov sacked a raft of high-ranking officials. "Serious deficiencies" prompted the firing of the minister of economy and finance, the minister of education along with all his deputies, and the heads of two of the three nationwide state television networks. A serious purge seemed to be in the offing, as Prosecutor-General Kurbanbibi Atajanova announced an investigation into massive corruption at educational institutions. Things may be looking up for Turkmenistan's Russian minority, however, as Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yurii Fedotov explained on 19 April why Russia abstained from a 15 April UN Human Rights Commission vote to condemn human rights violations in Turkmenistan. According to Fedotov, "We received assurances that the appropriate steps will be taken to improve the position of our fellow countrymen in Turkmenistan."

Uzbekistan's Justice Ministry refused registration to George Soros's Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation (OSIAF), confirming suspicions that officials in Central Asia's most populous country are battening down the hatches in the wake of the 28 March-1 April violence there. The official story is that OSIAF supplied educational institutions with materials that "discredit government policy." Unofficial observers noted that Soros and his Open Society initiatives have grown increasingly unpopular with regional autocrats, who believe -- rightly or wrongly -- that Western NGOs and affiliated organizations acted as a conduit for the seditious ideas and practices that culminated in Georgia's recent "Rose Revolution."

Regional organizations were also in evidence last week. Kazakhstan's lower house of parliament ratified the Single Economic Space treaty, sending it on to the upper house for consideration. Russia and Ukraine have already ratified the treaty, although the fourth signatory, Belarus, has yet to affix its stamp of approval. Finally, foreign ministers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- met in Moscow on 23 April for talks on regional security and other issues. The ministers' main task will be to lay the groundwork for the SCO summit in Tashkent in June.

UZBEKISTAN'S SUICIDE BOMBERS. It is still not clear who was responsible for the violence that shook Uzbekistan on 28 March-1 April. An 8 April report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), however, presents a snapshot of at least one of the individuals involved -- 19-year-old Dilnoza Holmuradova, who is alleged to have blown herself up at the Chorsu market on 29 March, killing herself and two policemen. The report describes Dilnoza as a young woman from a well-to-do Tashkent family, a computer programmer who enrolled in the Tashkent Police Academy in 2001 and knew Russian, English, Arabic, and Turkish in addition to her native Uzbek.

Zahro Holmuradova, Dilnoza's mother, told IWPR that her daughters -- Dilnoza's 22-year-old sister, Shahnoza, is currently wanted in connection with a planned attack -- changed when they began studying Islam in 2002: "They stopped wearing modern clothes, listening to music, and watching television. We didn't like their passion for religion," she told IWPR, "but my husband and I couldn't influence them."

Two other young women involved in the violence and profiled by IWPR came from similar backgrounds. IWPR commented that the Holmuradova sisters "do not fit the profile of the average Islamic radical, who might be expected to come from the ranks of the marginalized, under-educated poor, so desperate that dying for the cause would be a realistic option."

The bulk of the research on suicide bombers and Islamic radicals utterly contradicts this widespread stereotype. Scott Atran, an anthropologist who has researched the psychology of suicide bombing, wrote in "The New York Times" on 3 May 2003, "As logical as the poverty-breeds-terrorism argument may seem, study after study shows that suicide attackers and their supporters are rarely ignorant or impoverished. Nor are they crazed, cowardly, apathetic or asocial." In a 16 January 2003 article in "The New York Review of Books" titled "The Suicide Bombers," Hebrew University professor Avishai Margalit wrote that "suicide bombers are not what psychologists call suicidal types -- they are not depressed, impulsive, lonely, and helpless. Nor do they seem driven by economic despair. A study conducted by the Israeli army that analyzed the background of eight bombers from the Gaza Strip showed that they were relatively well-off. I have never seen a public or private statement by a suicide bomber that mentions his own economic situation or that of the Palestinians generally as a reason for his action."

Perhaps the most extensive study of suicide bombers was conducted by Nasra Hassan, a Pakistani relief worker in the Palestinian territories who between 1996 and 1999 interviewed almost 250 people, including would-be bombers who failed to complete their suicide missions, the families of dead suicide bombers, and members of sponsoring organizations. The core of Hassan's conclusion bears quoting in full:

"None of the suicide bombers -- they ranged in age from 18 to 38 -- conformed to the typical profile of the suicidal personality. None of them were uneducated, desperately poor, simple-minded, or depressed. Many were middle class and, unless they were fugitives, held paying jobs. More than half of them were refugees from what is now Israel. Two were the sons of millionaires. They all seemed to be entirely normal members of their families. They were polite and serious, and in their communities they were considered to be model youths. Most were bearded. All were deeply religious. They used Islamic terminology to express their views, but they were well informed about politics in Israel and throughout the Arab world."

But if they are not desperate and impoverished, what it is that drives suicide bombers to do what they do? Avishai Margalit wrote, "Having talked to many Israelis and Palestinians who know something about the bombers, and having read and watched many of the bombers' statements, my distinct impression is that the main motive of the suicide bombers is revenge for acts committed by Israelis, a revenge that will be known and celebrated in the Islamic world."

Another view holds that the key is not the bombers themselves, but those who recruit and train them. Ariel Merari, a professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University, found "no illuminating socioeconomic or personality factors" in a study of 32 suicide bombers, "Psychology Today" reported in September-October 2002 (Vol. 35). Merari concluded that suicide bombing is an "organizational phenomenon." Independent research appears to offer confirmation. Nasra Hassan wrote that the "martyrdom cell," consisting of a leader and two or three young men, is the "basic building block of operations." In a June 2003 article in "The Atlantic Monthly" titled "The Logic of Suicide Terrorism," Bruce Hoffman quoted an Israeli police officer as saying: "We hardly ever find that the suicide bomber came by himself. There is always a handler."

One might argue that the preceding research, which derives its findings from a different conflict and culture, is of little use in explaining what happened in Uzbekistan. Indeed, the situation in Uzbekistan, however one evaluates it, is not that of the Palestinian territories; and the assumption of an "Islamic link" between the radicals presumed to have been involved in the violence in Uzbekistan and the religiously motivated Palestinian militants responsible for many -- but not all -- suicide bombings in Israel provides a slim basis for far-reaching conclusions. Moreover, as previous issues of "RFE/RL Central Asia Report" have covered in detail, the acts of violence in Uzbekistan do not fit the patterns of suicide terrorism associated either with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the attacks of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

Nonetheless, the existing research on suicide bombings provides several useful insights into the violence in Uzbekistan. First, it shows that the "conventional wisdom" about suicide bombings is almost certainly wrong -- they are not the crazed acts of desperate individuals with nothing left to live for. Second, it underscores the lines of inquiry likely to prove fruitful as these events continue to be examined: given that the suicide bombers targeted police, and not civilians, were they acting out of a desire for revenge? Were they voicing a protest? Or was their motivation more broadly ideological? If so, what ideology inspired them? And what was the extent of the organization behind the bombings? Third, the research shows how vitally important it is to obtain as much accurate information as possible about the individuals involved in the Uzbekistan bombings. And finally, it drives home the grim point that studies, however scrupulous and sound, can only accomplish so much -- in many of the places the research was conducted, the violence continues to this day.

PERCEPTIONS IN TRANSITION. Central Asia is in transition, but it's not the much-ballyhooed transition from Soviet communism to Western capitalism that pundits and advisers spun into a cottage industry in the 1990s. That transition has produced decidedly mixed results. The current transition is one of perception -- from Central Asia as a place where the great powers play out their ambitions to Central Asia as a region to be assessed on its own merits. Recent travels by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Uzbek President Islam Karimov served to underscore that while a shift is under way, it is not proceeding at the same pace in all places.

Nazarbaev's visit to Germany focused on traditional nuts and bolts -- euros and eurocents. On 19 April, Nazarbaev was present at the opening of Hanover Messe 2004, a major industrial and trade fair, which this year featured a German-Kazakh Economy Day to showcase investment opportunities in Kazakhstan and successful German-Kazakh joint ventures. Deutsche Welle summarized economic ties between the two countries in a report the same day, noting that while Kazakhstan is Germany's third-most-important trading partner in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), it occupies 54th place overall. German direct investments totaled a modest 157 million euros ($185 million) at the end of 2001, with an unsure legal environment the primary hindrance.

The official program followed a similar script. A brief report by the German news agency dpa on 19 April described the subject of talks between Nazarbaev and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as "the development of trade ties between the two countries." During a December 2003 visit to Kazakhstan, Schroeder set a goal of doubling the two countries' current 1.8 billion euros in trade volume over the next three years, a pledge which received respectful mention at the 19 April meeting.

Pecuniary pleasantries were somewhat less evident in the reception the German press accorded the Kazakh leader. "Der Spiegel" ran a short and unflattering piece on 19 April, describing Nazarbaev as an "authoritarian former Community Party leader" who faces "allegations of massive corruption." A longer article in "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" the same day provided further details of the corruption charges at the heart of the "Kazakhgate" trial that is about to start in earnest in New York. Finally, an 18 April article in "Die Welt" -- pointedly titled "The President with the Numbered Swiss Bank Account" -- questioned the wisdom of overly close ties with Nazarbaev. The article noted that Nazarbaev was invited for a working visit, not an official visit. It continued: "Billions and billions of dollars in oil revenues are to be handed out in Kazakhstan in coming years. The German economy will apparently profit from this as well. Still, Nazarbaev is not the sort of guest one wishes to shower with official honors -- his bearing is too little that of an enlightened democratic politician and too much that of an old-time oriental emir."

Concerns of a different order sprang to the fore when Nazarbaev arrived in Moscow on 20 April for quick chats with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov. The short visit received scant coverage in the Russian press, but the comments it did draw focused on the overriding concern of Russian relations with its former imperial subjects -- influence. "Kommersant-Daily" wrote on 21 April that Moscow is concerned at "Kazakhstan's increasingly pro-Western orientation." Kazakhgate reared its head here as well, but in a far different light. "Kommersant-Daily" argued that the corruption trial, which is fraught with unpleasant consequences for Nazarbaev, provides proof that Nazarbaev's "eloquent reverences to the West are caused by Astana's fears that the United States will try to repeat in Kazakhstan the 'Georgian scenario' of regime change that was successfully employed in Georgia last November." (Germany's "Der Spiegel" also mentioned Georgia's "Rose Revolution," but only to argue that Nazarbaev is considered too "Russia-friendly" and that "Republican hard-liners are betting that the ruler will fall in the manner of the Georgian 'Rose Revolution.'")

The Rose Revolution was in full bloom in a 21 April commentary by RBC, which quoted Kazakh political scientist Rustam Lebekov as saying that "Moscow and Astana are now troubled by the issue that faces Russia and the majority of post-Soviet states after the United States successfully implemented its 'Georgian' regime-change scenario." For his part, the author argued that Russia and Kazakhstan's "mutual interest in closer integration is linked to the accelerated expansion of the United States in Central Asia." Kazakhstan, he concludes, fears that Washington's increasing influence will force it to "give up its ambition of becoming one of the leading states in Eurasia." Russia, meanwhile, "is interested in speeding up military and political integration with Kazakhstan, which will allow it to stop the Americans' 'victorious progress' across Central Asia."

Discussions of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's 15 April visit to Moscow proceeded along similar lines. The requisite meeting with President Putin produced only two real quotes: Karimov professed to understand why leaders travel to Moscow to "set their watches"; and Putin offered Russia's "full and conditional support" in the fight against terrorism. The Moscow "commentariat" sprang into action to divine the direction of Uzbekistan's movement along the East-West axis. "Vremya novostei" wrote on 16 April, "For the first time in many years, Tashkent has for all practical purposes counted itself among the capitals ready to orient themselves toward Moscow." "Izvestiya" interpreted Karimov's comment about "unused reserves in relations between the two countries" as an indirect indication that "Karimov is ready to cooperate more actively with Moscow, and not with Washington." Finally, state-run "Rossiiskaya gazeta" wrote on 15 April that "Uzbekistan is fed up with the moralistic preaching of Western financiers and politicians." The newspaper went on to predict that Uzbekistan may seek refuge from meddling Western moralists in the Single Economic Space that is supposed to bring together Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine.

Reactions to Nazarbaev's and Karimov's travels reveal a disjunction in the perceptual transition of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Western perceptions are moving toward an evaluation along two axes -- the practical, in the form of trade volume and investment, and the contextual, in the form of concerns over human rights and corruption. At the same time, Russian perceptions are still floating in the metaphysical ether of empire, replete with obsessive analyses of each diplomatic twist, turn, and feint in order to determine whose sphere of influence extends farther and runs deeper amid fears that the United States unveiled in Georgia a new formula for regime change. These, then, are the policy considerations that Nazarbaev and Karimov must juggle as they shuttle between Moscow and Western capitals. They are also the considerations and categories that analysts must bear in mind as they watch Central Asia's leaders do their best to keep all of the balls in the air.