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Central Asia Report: May 3, 2004


3 May 2004, Volume 4, Number 18

THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. Central Asia's complex interactions with dominant regional powers and the international community were much in evidence last week. Kazakhstan completed its ratification of the treaty to create a Single Economic Space, intended to boost trade ties between Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine. Belarus is now the only country that has yet to ratify the treaty. Jean Fournet, deputy secretary-general of NATO, said on 23 April that while Kazakhstan is increasing its cooperation with the alliance, these ties should not be seen as a stepping stone to membership. On the eastern front, Kazakh Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev and his Chinese counterpart signed a cooperation agreement in Peking under which China will provide the Kazakh Army with nearly $1 million in aid. And in Washington, U.S. Trade Secretary Donald Evans called the $6 billion that American companies have invested in Kazakhstan "impressive," adding that he expects the figure to rise.

A mud slide killed 33 people in Kyrgyzstan on 26 April, prompting Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev to ask international organizations two days later to assist Kyrgyzstan in dealing with the natural disasters that topography and climate conspire to inflict on the country. Millions of dollars are required for prevention and rescue efforts, and the national budget lacks sufficient resources. International assistance of a different sort was at issue when George Soros visited Kyrgyzstan and met with President Askar Akaev, who promised the financier turned philanthropist he would resolve a conflict with an independent television station. The Piramida television station had halted VHF broadcasting on 17 March -- officials said equipment problems were to blame; Piramida representatives claimed that the real problem lay in political disagreements with Kyrgyz authorities over the station's coverage. Whatever the case, Piramida resumed VHF broadcasts on 27 April, the day after Akaev pledged to remedy the situation.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmonov addressed parliament on 30 April, sounding the alarm at the "expansion of dangerous political movements within the CIS" and urging his listeners to be mindful of the "horror and catastrophe of policies of racism and fascism." Turning to domestic issues, Rahmonov said that reforms have failed to have a noticeable impact on living standards. He blamed bureaucracy and corruption, promising to fight both. Meanwhile, the Islamic Renaissance Party, Social-Democratic Party, and Socialist Party inked an agreement forming a coalition to fight for "free and transparent elections." The watchdog coalition is purely tactical, and involves no coordination of political programs.

Turkmenistan's famously irritable foreign policy tested Russia and Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov explained that Russia abstained from a recent United Nations vote condemning Ashgabat because Turkmenistan had promised to take steps to safeguard the rights of the country's Russian minority. The comments angered Turkmenistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which described itself as "baffled" at Lavrov's decision to raise the issue of the Russian minority. A Turkmen official source said that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's planned 4 May visit to Ashgabat will not take place as scheduled. Kuchma and Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov were to have signed a 25-year gas export accord; the postponement marks the fourth time the visit and signing have been delayed.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov spoke on a wide variety of issues in an address before parliament and a press conference, both on 29 April. He said that militants who share the radical ideology of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan arrived from Pakistan's southern Waziristan province to wreak havoc in Tashkent in late March-early April. The terror suspects will go on trial in late summer or early fall; Karimov promised an "open" trial. The Uzbek president underscored his country's "long-term strategic" relations with Russia, driving the point home with reference to a $1.4 billion joint project with Russia's Gazprom and a $966 million project with Russia's LUKoil. Karimov also lambasted Western human rights groups for inaccurate reporting and an ignorance of local history and culture.

RESETTING THE CLOCK IN TASHKENT. The evident bonhomie of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's mid-April meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly set tongues wagging about a thaw in the chilly relations between Tashkent and Moscow. Karimov's address before parliament and a press conference on 29 April appeared to confirm that a reorientation of Uzbek foreign policy could be in the offing.

At the news conference, Karimov told a RIA-Novosti correspondent that "a new level of trust is forming between Russia and Uzbekistan." He went on to discuss the possibility of an "energy bridge between Central Asia and Russia" amid billion-dollar deals with Russia's Kremlin-friendly LUKoil and state-run Gazprom. Noting that oil and gas deals are long-term involvements because they often require at least a decade to break even, Karimov concluded that it is time for Uzbekistan to move beyond the prejudices and resentments of the past and realize that "Russia does not pose a threat to us."

Sensitive to the likelihood that his comments would be read as a move toward Russia and away from the United States, Karimov stressed that he did not mean "that we are oriented toward Russia and against the interests of a third country, in particular, the United States." A moment later, he repeated, "We have good relations with the United States." Nevertheless, he specifically took the U.S. press to task for its constant assertions that Uzbek reforms are proceeding too slowly. Karimov added disdainfully, "On the slightest pretext they go on about human rights and so forth." Then Karimov proffered his own criticism of slow-moving reforms...in Afghanistan and Iraq. Calling U.S. military operations "brilliant," he painted a far less rosy picture of the postwar nation-building efforts, asking rhetorically, "What democratic elections can one speak about?" Karimov then warned, "One may win the war, but lose the peace."

Karimov's exasperation at persistent criticism of Uzbekistan's human rights record went beyond the U.S. press to encompass Western human rights organizations in general and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which decided on 6 April to scale back its engagement with Uzbekistan, in particular. The Uzbek president even provided an indirect explanation of his government's recent decision to evict George Soros's Open Society Foundation from Uzbekistan. Soros and the civil-society organizations he funds are widely viewed in the region as having played a key role in Georgia's rose revolution. But Karimov broke new ground, drawing a connection between events in Georgia and Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamist group that pursues the seemingly impossible goal of establishing a caliphate replete with Islamic law in Central Asia by peacefully removing existing regimes. The president said:

"By what means do they want to get rid of the constitution.... Just like what happened in Georgia, the rose revolution, like that? They will come with roses, and the president and the government will say the constitution should be abolished. Then we will suddenly become an Islamic state."

When he was in Moscow earlier this April, Karimov said that he could understand why various leaders traveled to the Russian capital to "set their watches." While the Uzbek leader's blunt remarks do not constitute a major policy shift in and of themselves, they come at a time when Tashkent is unnerved at the prospect of renewed violent opposition at home and increasingly at odds with the West over human-rights issues. Moreover, Russia is eager to reassert its influence in the CIS and perfectly willing to dismiss anything not business-related as none of its business, while the United States is preoccupied with an overfull plate of policy challenges. In this context, Karimov may well be wondering whether it's not high time to reset the clock.

ELEVEN QUESTIONS ABOUT UZBEKISTAN. The following is an interview with Janusz Bugajski, the director of East European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

RFE/RL: What were the circumstances of your most recent trip to Uzbekistan: how long were you there? Who did you talk to?

Janusz Bugajski: My four-day trip to Tashkent centered on a landmark conference organized by Freedom House to examine the links between human rights and national security. Participants included Uzbek government officials, U.S. Embassy representatives, foreign NGOs, and local human rights campaigners. I gave a presentation at the conference and chaired the first of two panels. The proceedings provided a useful opportunity to talk to senior officials, especially from the Uzbek Interior and Foreign ministries, about the threats faced by the country and the most effective ways to handle them.

RFE/RL: What is the "word on the street" about the violence: was it a form of protest? Revenge for imprisoned relatives? An attempt to spark an uprising? A provocation by the security forces?

Bugajski: There are several versions circulating on the causes of the recent violence and, as in much of the former communist world, conspiracy theories abound. A direct and organized provocation by the security forces seems least likely as there are few if any volunteers willing to commit suicide for the regime. Most probably, it was a case of radical Islamic cells operating across borders and preying on local frustrations among some desperate or susceptible citizens. Nonetheless, one should not completely discount the possibility of security-service involvement similar to the Russian scenario in which agents were either bribed or may have assisted the terrorists for propaganda purposes.

RFE/RL: How would you describe people's general attitude toward the attackers?

Bugajski: I did not have much opportunity to talk to many members of the general public. However, the pro-Western democrats I spent time with believe that although the group involved in the terrorist outrages was small it may be a warning signal to the regime that without liberalization and respect for human rights, the crackdown on moderate Islam will simply encourage radical Islam.

RFE/RL: Do people feel that Hizb ut-Tahrir or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan might have been involved? Are there any rumors of other groups?

Bugajski: The Islamic Movement may have provided the ideological fuel but it has been organizationally and logistically weakened since the war in Afghanistan and has lost much of its leadership. Clearly, a certain degree of planning and coordination was involved in the attacks and there must have been some local assistance. However, it would be futile to speculate as to the source of the attacks at this point without more detailed and credible intelligence.

RFE/RL: How are official media covering the events? How much information are they providing?

Bugajski: According to the state media, the bombings were organized by radical Islamic followers to destabilize Uzbekistan. Much of the material shown was propagandistic rather than factual or analytical. Most other information sources covering the events were banned and those that official agencies did not manage to block were labeled as destructive. The lack of information created a news vacuum and this spurred some panic and hysteria, as the general public did not know what was happening and how to react.

RFE/RL: What Russian media are available? Newspapers? Television stations?

Bugajski: Russian TV is available in cities and towns but less so in rural areas where about 60 percent of the population lives. Several major Russian newspapers are very popular in Uzbekistan, especially in the larger towns.

RFE/RL: Where are people getting information: Russian media? Internet?

Bugajski: Most of the population obtains its information through Uzbek TV and various printed outlets. At the same time, Russian TV plays an important role. Only 2 percent of the population has access to Internet and other electronic sources and there is no independent central media in the country. In addition, rumor is still one of the biggest sources of domestic "information."

RFE/RL: Is it possible to access such sites as fergana.ru and tribune.uz from within Uzbekistan? Do some or all providers block access?

Bugajski: Evidently, it was possible to access fergana.ru and tribune.uz, but some Internet providers blocked these sites.

RFE/RL: Are heightened security precautions in evidence? How many people have been arrested in the wake of the violence?

Bugajski: Security is evidently more stringent in Tashkent and other big cities than it was before the violence, especially in public locations such as airports, railway stations, and hotels, while spot checks of cars are commonplace. It is difficult to estimate or verify the number of arrests although human rights campaigners believe that several dozen people may have been taken into custody. However, despite expectations to the contrary the security services have not made mass arbitrary arrests and have not staged a comprehensive crackdown on dissidents and human rights campaigners. This may also indicate that the attacks were not stage-managed by the government.

RFE/RL: Is any additional information available about the suicide bombers and/or others?

Bugajski: I did not obtain concrete information about the identity of the suicide bombers and their "fellow travelers." Some information has emerged in the media and it seems the bombers were zealous "born-again" Muslims who probably received some foreign instruction, financing, and training.

RFE/RL: Is there a sense that there will be further incidents?

Bugajski: The sense is that Uzbekistan is not immune from further attacks regardless as to whether the regime is repressive or liberalizing. However, the limited opportunities for political and organizational pluralism and the restrictions on private enterprise are more likely to encourage radicalism and will provide a breeding ground for terrorism. If the government displayed a firm commitment to democratization and capitalism then its domestic and international legitimacy would likely increase and the pretexts for terrorism would diminish. Nevertheless, as the strategic center of postcommunist Central Asia and a key ally of the United States in the counterterrorism campaign, Uzbekistan will remain a prominent target for Muslim militants and other interested parties.

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