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Central Asia Report: May 31, 2004

31 May 2004, Volume 4, Number 21

THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. Kazakhstan was central to Central Asian diplomacy on 28 May, with two international gatherings in Astana -- the Eurasian Economic Community's Interparliamentary Assembly and the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO). The Interparliamentary Assembly brought together legislators from Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, who agreed to intensify their efforts to harmonize national legislation and further economic integration. The CACO meeting found the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan all in one place for a rare personal conclave. They decided to expand CACO to include Russia and to form a common market in Central Asia, an oft-stated goal of regional get-togethers that has stubbornly resisted any moves from the realm of rhetoric to that of reality. On a similar note earlier in the week, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev proposed that the four Single Economic Space member states -- Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine -- form a customs unit for entry en masse into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Kyrgyzstan's Legislative Assembly voted on 24 May to set up a commission to keep a watchful eye on the country's security services. The decision comes on the heels of a parliamentary investigation that condemned the National Security Service for bugging opposition legislators. President Askar Akaev dismissed Misir Ashyrkulov from his post as secretary of the Security Council only days after Ashyrkulov announced that he would chair the Union for Honest Elections. On 25 May, a Kyrgyz newspaper reported that alleged criminal kingpin Ryspek Akmatbaev, a possible suspect in the 5 May killing of top anticorruption official Chynybek Aliev, has successfully fled Kyrgyzstan to undergo plastic surgery in Russia. President Akaev traveled to Dushanbe on 26 May for a meeting with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov that produced mutual pleasantries and a number of minor cooperation agreements. Finally, a Drug Control Agency opened in Bishkek to much fanfare.

Conflicting statements about the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Tajik-Afghan border echoed through various media outlets. When the smoke cleared later in the week, the fuss appeared to be much ado about nothing -- Russian will cede control over the border to Tajikistan over the next year, but the actual handover has not yet begun. A Russian delegation is scheduled to arrive in Tajikistan shortly to hammer out final details and an actual schedule for the handover. Elsewhere, the wives and mothers of suspected Hizb ut-Tahrir members in custody held a news conference on 26 May to air concerns that their husbands and sons are being tortured. They plan to appeal to Tajik President Rakhmonov.

Turkmenistan welcomed two international delegations -- one from the United Nations and one from the OSCE -- amid reports that portraits of ubiquitous Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov have recently grown somewhat less ubiquitous, perhaps as part of an effort to improve the country's battered image abroad. Meanwhile, as the 1 June deadline to dismiss state employees with foreign diplomas neared, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Russia has proposed a diploma recognition agreement to Turkmenistan. No word yet on the Turkmen response.

A pathologist arrived in Uzbekistan from Washington, D.C., to observe the autopsy of a man alleged to have died under torture on 19 May. The death of Andrei Shelkovenko prompted a 21 May press release by Human Rights Watch and a subsequent statement of concern by the U.S. State Department. In an unusual concession, Uzbek authorities agreed to allow an observer into the autopsy.

BORDERLINE. On Russia's crowded calendar of professional holidays, border guards toast their trade on 28 May, after the chemists (25 May) and before the mysterious "military motorists" (29 May). This year, the revelry was overshadowed by the issue of control over the distant Tajik-Afghan border.

Under a 1993 agreement, a Russian-controlled force, currently under the command of the Federal Security Service (FSB), patrols Tajikistan's 1,344-kilometer border with Afghanistan. That arrangement is now coming to an end, and Tajikistan is to take control of the border in a handover that will last until May 2005. Several factors complicate the handover -- the apparent lack of a comprehensive agreement between the two countries on the nuts and bolts of the transfer, Russian unwillingness to give up a prominent symbol of its influence in Central Asia, and the border's sensitive location along a major drug-smuggling route.

Even as news services reported on 24 May that Russian troops were starting to withdraw from the Tajik-Afghan border, Russian officials were dismissing the reports as "nonsense." Major General Abdujabbor Hamidov, deputy chairman of the Tajik State Border Committee, clarified the situation -- after a fashion -- when he told Asia-Plus Blitz on 26 May that Tajik forces will begin assuming control over the border only after a Russian working group arrives in Tajikistan to hammer out the final details of the transfer. According to Hamidov, Aleksandr Manilov, deputy director of Russia's Federal Border Service, will head the delegation, which is scheduled to arrive "soon."

Meanwhile, other Russian officials were busy spinning the issue. In a 26 May interview with broadcaster Ekho Moskvy, Konstantin Kosachev, a State Duma deputy for the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia Party and the deputy chairman of the International Affairs Committee, outlined the two main sources of Russian displeasure with the border situation. First, Kosachev argued, "Tajikistan is now exerting heavy pressure on us so that our border guards from the 201st Division leave [the border] within a year." Second, Kosachev expressed grave doubts about the future efficacy of drug-interdiction efforts after Russia withdraws, forecasting a tidal wave of Afghan heroin that will surge through Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to crash up against Russia's southern border.

Vladimir Pronichev, deputy director of the FSB and director of the Border Service, put a slightly softer spin on the handover in a 26 May interview with "Komsomolskaya pravda." He explained: "Russian border guards are not leaving Tajikistan. It's just that the form of assistance they are providing their Tajik colleagues is changing." Noting that a "real war with the international narcotics mafia" is under way in Tajikistan, Pronichev stressed that "guarding the border remains our common cause with our Tajik partners."

Even though control is currently in Russian hands, the actual guarding of the border is primarily a Tajik affair. As Pronichev told "Komsomolskaya pravda," "Today, 80 percent of the border administration consists of local hires." A 27 May article in, broke down the figures even further. Within the 11,500-man "Russian" border group in Tajikistan, Tajik citizens make up 7 percent of officers, 17 percent of warrant officers, 71 percent of servicemen under contract, and 99 percent of draftee servicemen.

The border guards' main function is to stand as a bulwark against the Afghan heroin that flows through Tajikistan to Russian and European markets. And the flow shows no sign of abating. The International Narcotics Control Board's most recent annual report noted that guards along the Tajik-Afghan border seized nearly 6 tons of heroin in 2003, a staggering 1,000 times the amount they confiscated in 1996 yet still a fraction of the total volume.

While Russian officials grumble that Tajik border guards under Tajik command will be unable to stem the tide of drugs, Russian command has not deterred everyone thus far. An ethnic Tajik with Russian citizenship and a member of the border force was arrested on 5 May with 12 kilograms of heroin, RFE/RL reported. Niklas Swanstrom, who heads the program for contemporary Silk Road studies at Sweden's Uppsala University, told RFE/RL that the problem goes beyond isolated incidents and could even involve large-scale smuggling organized by senior officers who have the use of military aircraft. (Russian military spokesmen have consistently and vehemently denied such allegations.)

A series of investigative articles in December 2003 in Russia's "Novaya gazeta" suggested similar conclusions. Amid mountain crags along the Tajik-Afghan border, a local Tajik field commander told the author, "Even if we assume that they seize 10 percent of the flow, then 300-400 tons of heroin still gets through to Russia every year. That's 50 truckloads. Tajiks simply couldn't transport that much in their stomachs -- there wouldn't be enough Tajiks or trains. A single train travels to Astrakhan from Tajikistan once a week. There are no other overland passages. Passenger flights from [Dushanbe] are carefully checked. Do the math: the only channels left are military ones."

Tajik journalist Turko Dikaev, who served as a guide for the author of the December "Novaya gazeta" article, told the newspaper in a despairing aside: "Everyone's involved in drugs. Personally, I'm inclined to interpret all of this fuss over the border as nothing more than an attempt to squeeze competitors out of the narcotics market." Even if Dikaev is right, the squeezing out could take some time. The Russian delegation that is slated to arrive soon to put the final touches on the handover is only part of the equation. The two countries are also haggling over the future of Russia's 201st Motorized Infantry Division, the prospect of a permanent Russian military base in Tajikistan, and Tajikistan's sovereign debt to Russia. All of which comes with a price tag.

By the time Border Guard Day rolls around again in May 2005, Tajik and Russian guards should be able to raise a glass to celebrate Tajikistan's assumption of control over its border with Afghanistan. Between now and then, they should have ample time to decide who will pick up the tab.

LET'S MAKE A DEAL. Russia's biggest aluminum company is always looking for new sources of alumina, the crucial raw material it needs to produce its bread-and-butter metal. Kazakhstan has alumina, but no aluminum smelter of its own. A $3 billion deal between Russia's RusAl and Kazakhstan's Eurasian Financial-Industrial Company (EFPK) could make everybody happy.

RusAl announced in a 27 May press release that it has signed a memorandum with EFPK to build two facilities in Kazakhstan -- an aluminum smelter capable of producing 500,000 tons a year, and an alumina plant with a production capacity of 1.5 million tons a year. To finance and implement the project, the two companies will create the Eurasian Aluminum Company on a parity basis. Construction will require a total of 6 years and some $3 billion in investment.

Both participants are heavyweights. RusAl is the world's third-largest producer of primary aluminum, with annual revenues in excess of $4 billion. It accounts for more than 70 percent of Russia's primary aluminum production. Metals tycoon Oleg Deripaska owns 75 percent of RusAl; the remaining 25 percent belongs to Chukotka Governor Roman Abramovich, who spent the oligarchic 1990s earning billions in oil and metals before edging westward with his 2003 purchase of England's Chelsea football club. Deripaska has a checkered past, and Abramovich's current relations with the Kremlin are somewhat ambiguous, but neither is in open conflict with the powers-that-be. EFPK is one of Kazakhstan's largest holding companies, with interests in metals, energy, and the financial sector. Its public face is Aleksandr Mashkevich, who enjoys close ties with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

Mashkevich was quick to point out the deal's potential economic benefits to Kazakhstan. quoted him on 27 May as saying, "For Kazakhstan, the creation of such a company means not only the appearance of world-class facilities that will employ 9,000 people, but also an entrance to the international aluminum market." The aluminum smelter will be located in Kazakhstan's Pavlodar Oblast, currently home to the country's only alumina plant, reported on 27 May. EFPK spokesman Zharkynbek Alimbetov told "Vedomosti" the same day that when the joint venture reaches full production capacity, it will be one of the world's top 10 aluminum companies. Mashkevich's high-level ties and EFPK's energy interests should smooth the way by guaranteeing a steady supply of cheap electrical power, the lifeline of any aluminum production enterprise.

RusAl stands to benefit by acquiring an additional source of alumina. According to "Kommersant-Daily," RusAl is only able to satisfy 60 percent of its alumina requirements on its own; the remainder must be purchased on world markets. The search has led the Russian company as far afield as Guinea to acquire alumina and bauxite (itself used to make alumina) assets. RusAl is currently bidding to acquire a controlling stake in the Jamaica-based Alpart alumina refinery for approximately $300 million. Kazakhstan, of course, is much closer to home. An industry specialist told "Vedomosti" that the quality of Kazakhstan's bauxite leaves something to be desired, "but experts in the Soviet Union developed a unique processing technology that today belongs to Kazakhstan."

Market observers interpreted the deal as a trade-off that will give each party something it needs -- an additional source of alumina for RusAl and Kazakhstan's only aluminum production facility for EFPK. Financial Bridge analyst Stanislav Kleshchev and Olma investment company analyst Vladimir Detinich told that RusAl clearly benefits from the alumina plant, while the aluminum smelter is a concession to the Kazakh side in order to obtain ideal conditions for aluminum production in the form of "predictable prices for electrical energy." Analysts queried by "Kommersant-Daily" and "Vedomosti" voiced similar reactions.

The deal fits into a larger pattern of Russian business expansion in Central Asia. In April, Gazprom and LUKoil announced deals in Uzbekistan totaling $2.5 billion. RusAl and EFPK have now upped the collective ante to $5.5 billion. Not all of this is Russian investment, of course -- RusAl and EFPK will finance the project with a combination of their own funds and loans. Still, the total volume is impressive. And if present trends continue, this may not be the last multibillion-dollar Russian-Central Asian deal of 2004.

HEARD THE ONE ABOUT TURKMENBASHI? Charlie Chaplin had it figured out in 1940: Modern-day dictators can be a scream. Unchecked power, grotesque ambition, and mass-media cult of personality combine to produce a ludicrous spectacle. And lampooning the great dictator puts a sharp edge on laughter -- if we snigger within his reach, we demonstrate our courage by risking his wrath; if we chortle at a distance, we affirm our freedom to indulge in what his police would leap to prevent others from doing.

But not all jokes stand the test of time. Chaplin mocked Hitler to devastating effect, yet a subsequent half century of shabby dictators has reduced sublime humor to a sit-com punch line. Today, the tradition of "dictator as clown" persists in coverage of such countries as Turkmenistan, where the only events deemed newsworthy by mainstream media are the supreme leader's latest exploits. The show must go on even if the laughs are forced.

The serious question is whether dictators take notice of the guffaws they elicit outside their countries, and, if so, whether the international community can turn this to its advantage. Recent events in Turkmenistan provide a case in point.

On 21 May, dozens of portraits of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov began to disappear from Ashgabat, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 24 May. By 26 May, "Komsomolskaya pravda" was reporting the removal of "hundreds" of portraits, and even a statue of Niyazov in front of the Interior Ministry. Impetus for the move apparently came from the president himself. "Novye izvestiya" cited an anonymous source in the Turkmen diaspora in Moscow as saying that Niyazov had told high-ranking officials not long ago: "There's no need to compete by putting up my portraits everywhere. It's because of your toadying that they criticize me for encouraging a cult of personality."

A 25 May Deutsche Welle report suggested that more substantive action could be afoot. According to an anonymous source in Turkmen law enforcement, on 15 May prison authorities in the city of Turkmenbashi apparently dispatched the bodies of several recently deceased inmates to the city morgue without informing the relatives of the departed. Prisoners passed on the word through their own channels. When the relatives arrived at the morgue on 20 May, they found their loved ones' remains decomposing in the yard of the morgue. The relatives made their indignation known to the prison administration, which responded by calling in a special police brigade on 23 May to thrash some sense into the loose-lipped prisoners who had tipped off the relatives.

According to Deutsche Welle, the incident angered President Niyazov, who accused overzealous police of undermining his efforts to raise the country's prestige abroad. Moreover, Niyazov asked for a list of especially pugnacious policemen, a request that has in the past signaled the beginning of a purge.

Some observers saw the moves, and especially the decision to scale back the density of Turkmenbashi portraiture in Ashgabat, as a reaction to bad press. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported on 28 May that recent negative assessments of Niyazov's rule by the U.S. State Department and the Helsinki Federation might have spurred the Turkmen president to action.

Other observers pointed to the arrival of international delegations. A UN delegation headed by Brigita Schmognerova, executive director of the UN Economic Commission for Europe, and Kim Hak-Su, executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, came to Ashgabat on 27 May for a two-day visit to discuss Turkmenistan's participation in the Special Program for the Economies of Central Asia, reported on 28 May. And on 28 May, the ambassadors of Belgium, Canada, Norway, Portugal, and Slovenia to the OSCE arrived in Turkmenistan as part of a general tour of Central Asia, Turkmenistan's state news agency reported the same day.

The possibility that Niyazov might be sensitive to international perceptions, and perhaps even pressure, raises several questions. What is it exactly that spurs him to action? Would he be willing to do more than order the removal of a few unseemly portraits? More importantly, if Niyazov is not turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the world, it might be time for the media to retire the creaky kneeslappers about the "world's weirdest dictator" and begin writing in greater depth about a place that is, to be honest, no longer terribly funny.