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Central Asia Report: August 24, 2004

24 August 2004, Volume 4, Number 32

WEEK AT A GLANCE. With over 600 candidates registered and ready to compete for 67 single-mandate-constituency seats in the Mazhilis (lower chamber) in the 19 September parliamentary elections, Kazakhstan's Central Election Commission put its Saylau electronic voting system through its paces last week, anticipating that up to 40 percent of voters may use it to cast ballots. The week ended with a televised debate that brought together all of the country's 12 officially registered political parties. The dominant theme was social justice, with numerous pitches for more equitable distribution of oil revenues and calls to fight corruption. Supporters of Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov held a news conference to highlight the restrictions that continue to affect the imprisoned leader of opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan even after his recent transfer to a form of house arrest. Information Minister Altynbek Sarsenbaev presented a new draft media law that he described as a democratic breakthrough. And 164 British troops took part in Steppe Eagle-2004 peacekeeping exercises in southeastern Kazakhstan.

Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev and Anatolii Chubais, head of Russia's Unified Energy Systems, inked a preliminary accord to work together to finish building two massive hydropower plants in Kyrgyzstan. The project sports a hefty $2 billion price tag, but Prime Minister Tanaev promised that when it begins to come on line in 2007, it will mark a serious step forward for the Kyrgyz economy. Also concerned with the Kyrgyz economy was the Asian Development Bank, which approved a new development strategy for Kyrgyzstan in 2005-06. It will provide up to $40 million in assistance annually to reduce poverty by encouraging economic growth, private-sector development, and human development.

Ghaffor Mirzoev, the former Tajik Drug Control Agency head who was arrested on 6 August, announced through his lawyers that he admits partial guilt on charges of corruption and weapons possession. Meanwhile, the preliminary investigation of former Interior Minister Yaqub Salimov's case ended, clearing the way for a move to the courts as soon as Salimov has time to study the state's evidence that he engaged in treason and tried to organize a coup. Independent newspaper "Nerui Sukhan" ran into trouble with the tax police for under-declaring its print run by 4,000 copies. And when the police shuttered the printing house, fellow independent papers "Ruzi Nav" and "Najot," the print organ of the Islamic Renaissance Party, were also left out in the cold. Looking to the big picture, watchdog groups warned that human trafficking and HIV/AIDS pose a mounting danger to Tajikistan.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov busied himself with broadcasting, replacing the directors of two of Turkmenistan's three official television networks. Looking to the rest of media, Niyazov ordered newspapers and magazines to cut staff and give remaining employees a 50 percent pay hike by 1 January 2005. He also promised to amnesty 9,000 prisoners at the close of Ramadan on 9 November.

The trial of 15 defendants charged with involvement in late March-early April terror attacks in Uzbekistan resumed on 17 August after a weeklong break. Uzbek prosecutors showed the court pictures of a Kazakh citizen they identified as Avaz Shoyusupov, alleging that he blew himself up in the lobby of the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office in Tashkent on 30 July. The defendants confirmed Shoyusupov's identity and said that they met him in Kazakhstan in early 2004, seemingly bolstering the prosecution's claim that the alleged masterminds of the March-April terror attacks trained in southern Kazakhstan. The week ended with Uzbek Deputy Prosecutor Murod Solihov asking the court to hand down sentences ranging from nine to 20 years. Citing the defendants' confessions and cooperation with the investigation, Solihov declined to request the death penalty.

U.S. REDEPLOYMENT PLAN SENDS RIPPLES THROUGH CENTRAL ASIA. In an address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Cincinnati, Ohio, on 16 August, U.S. President George W. Bush outlined a sweeping plan to redeploy 60,000-70,000 U.S. troops from erstwhile Cold War hot spots in Europe and Asia to locations more relevant to 21st-century threats. With new perils seen as emerging primarily from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and adjoining regions, the troop-redeployment plan sent ripples through Central Asia as well.

A 16 August background briefing with senior U.S. officials confirmed that the "global posture review," as the military styles the redeployment, could have implications for the U.S. presence in Central Asia, where the United States currently maintains bases at Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan and Manas, Kyrgyzstan. On the region in general, a "senior State Department official" said, "In Central Asia, it's clear that we find ourselves today in the global war on terrorism where stabilization of Afghanistan is very important, and so it's understandable that we would have a military component to our engagement there."

Asked specifically about "putting U.S. troops in Poland and Romania and Uzbekistan," a "senior defense official" confirmed the possibility of "rotational deployments" but noted, "we're not going to be looking to station in big numbers to the east of the kind of forces that are in Germany today." The official went on to stress that, in Uzbekistan and elsewhere in Central Asia, a great deal depends on case-by-case negotiations: "In the case of Uzbekistan, we have cooperation with them today on the war on terrorism. And we have believed that the war on terrorism will be with us for a period of time. And the kind of cooperation that develops further with Uzbekistan and others in Central Asia really depends on those countries to the extent that they want to work with us."

It may take some time for specifics to emerge, especially with U.S. presidential elections looming in the fall. In fact, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that the whole process could take up to six years, "The New York Times" reported on 17 August. When AP queried Uzbek officials and the U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan on 18 August about the redeployment, they declined comment. Uzbek Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilhom Zokirov told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that President Bush's statements did not contain specific details, rendering any discussion of a permanent U.S. base in Uzbekistan premature.

Still, the mere prospect of a reshuffling was enough to set tongues wagging. Speculation was especially intense about the future of the U.S. relationship with Uzbekistan, where a suicide bomber targeted the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent on 30 July. Moreover, a 13 August visit to Uzbekistan by General Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, brought to light that U.S. military assistance to Uzbekistan may soon increase by $21 million, EurasiaNet reported on 16 August. The funding increase would effectively negate a recent State Department decision to deny Uzbekistan up to $18 million in aid because of a failure to make progress on democratization and human rights.

Atonazar Arifov, a leader of Uzbekistan's outlawed Erk opposition party, told AP that a beefed-up U.S. military presence in Uzbekistan will inflame anti-American sentiment in a country that has seen only "a reverse effect" on democratic change since the two countries began to increase military cooperation. Arkadii Dubnov, a Russian journalist who writes frequently on Central Asia for Moscow-based "Vremya novostei," told AP that more U.S. troops in Uzbekistan could provoke a "fierce" reaction from Islamic radicals. Dubnov added nuance to his statement in a 19 August article in "Vremya novostei." He noted that the Russian political elite tends to react poorly to "any evidence of strengthening American influence in former Soviet republics." Dubnov continued, "One must give [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov his due for once again proving himself to be a supremely pragmatic politician and turning the problems Islamic radicals are creating for him to the advantage of his regime." Still, Dubnov warned that "the renaissance in U.S.-Uzbek relations could prove a boon to these very radicals, who will now have a chance to convince their supporters that they are on the right path, since terror against American allies is, for them, a sacred task."

Not everyone agreed with Dubnov's conclusion, however. Political analyst Farhod Tolibov told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on 18 August that a U.S. military presence in some countries has stimulated reforms, while in others it has only succeeded in sharpening the dissatisfaction of the local population. Political analyst Kamoliddin Rabbimov told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the current tenor of U.S.-Uzbek relations rendered a permanent U.S. base unlikely. Rabbimov said: "Uzbekistan's foreign policy appears to be increasingly following Moscow's line. Moreover, parliamentary elections are coming up [in Uzbekistan in December]. The United States and European countries are asking that these elections be democratic. Taking this into account, I don't think that it's in Uzbekistan's interest to have a [permanent] U.S. base within its borders."

Speculation was not limited to Uzbekistan. In Tajikistan, Defense Minister Sherali Khayrulloev saw fit to announce on 17 August, "We have not received requests to consider the possibility of assigning Tajik territory for the deployment of U.S. armed formations," Interfax reported. Khayrulloev went on to say that the presence of Russia's 201st Motor Rifle Division, which is slated to be transformed into a permanent Russian military base in Tajikistan, made the possibility of a concurrent U.S. contingent unlikely in his view.

The ripples even spread as far as Kazakhstan. On 20 August, the opposition newspaper "Assandi-Times" noted the possibility of a U.S. military presence in Kazakhstan, citing unnamed "Pentagon representatives." The article suggested that the move "could be the last straw, ushering in a landslide of strategic losses for Moscow." The article concluded: "Central Asian elites, who still remember well the times of the USSR, may stop treating Russia as the guarantor of stability for their own power. After that, nothing will keep them from an accelerating orientation toward Washington."

For now, an increased U.S. military presence in Central Asia remains a twinkle in the eye of Pentagon planners. But if it shows signs of becoming a reality, it could easily spark a contentious debate. The polemic will likely follow the lines suggested above, focusing on Russian reactions to what Moscow may perceive as further encroachment on a dwindling sphere of influence; and on the wisdom of U.S. military engagement with regimes whose critics, including the U.S. State Department, have pointed with increasing irritation to a pattern of human rights violations and unfulfilled promises of reform.

MIXED SIGNALS FOR TAJIKISTAN'S INDEPENDENT PRESS. The recent history of Tajikistan's independent press gives cause for both concern and celebration. The latest permutations in the zigzag trajectory of the unofficial media include an attack on a prominent editor, a groundbreaking anniversary, and a print stoppage occasioned by a squabble with the tax police.

Rajab Mirzo, the editor in chief of the independent newspaper "Ruzi Nav" (New Day), was attacked on 29 July by an unknown assailant in Dushanbe, the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported on 2 August. Mirzo required hospitalization after suffering several blows to the head from a blunt metal object. "Ruzi Nav" has at times been harshly critical of Tajikistan's government, and most observers saw the assault on Mirzo as signal to the country's independent press. The attack drew condemnation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the National Association of Independent Mass Media of Tajikistan, the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe, and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). RSF spokeswoman Colombe de Mercy told IRIN, "This can be [seen as] an indication of the deterioration in the status of press freedom in Tajikistan." In a 5 August article, "Ruzi Nav" linked the latest assault to a previous attack on Mirzo and a colleague on 18 January, calling them "links in a single chain." For its part, the Dushanbe Prosecutor's Office has said that it is investigating the case and will submit evidence by 30 August, Asia Plus reported on 19 August.

Ironically, the attack came just as Mirzo's newspaper was celebrating its first anniversary. The same edition of "Ruzi Nav" that contained an article about the assaults on Mirzo also featured laudatory comments by a number of prominent figures, some of them in the government, in response to the question, "Why do you read 'Ruzi Nav'?" Below are excerpts from the replies translated from Tajik:

Abdurahmon Abdumannonov, head of Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov's Information Office: "I read all of 'Ruzi Nav' because it contains materials that are necessary for society. At the same time, there are also a lot of scandal-mongering materials. I'm not really in favor of this kind of muckraking. I like the fact that 'Ruzi Nav' bravely delves into the issues and problems that afflict society. But it's less successful at proposing solutions."

Asliddin Sohibnazarov, deputy head of the Democratic Party: "I feel that 'Ruzi Nav'...represents a new phenomenon for the modern Tajik press. Only recently in Tajikistan, it would have been virtually impossible for the majority to accept a newspaper like this. But the fact that 'Ruzi Nav' has been established and is going about its business now provides additional proof that there are political forces, specific individuals, and groups that want society to prosper."

Mirhusayn Narziev, head of the Socialist Party: "I read every issue of 'Ruzi Nav.' To be honest, I try to analyze all of the articles. But since we work in the political arena, I read more of the articles that deal with political issues. I hope that in the future, the staff of 'Ruzi Nav' digs even deeper into the issues, since this is helping to raise the level of political literacy among our citizens."

Sayfullo Safarov, deputy director of President Rakhmonov's Center for Strategic Research: "'Ruzi Nav' is one of my favorite newspapers. I read it all the time. The newspaper definitely prints articles that are of great topical relevance to Tajikistan, even if it also contains pieces that I might not agree with.... For the creators of 'Ruzi Nav,' I would like to repeat the sentiment I voiced at the newspaper's opening ceremony: 'May your newspaper be the locomotive of free speech, the locomotive of realism and the search for truth, the newspaper of democracy. May it be a newspaper that serves the people of our country.'"

Bahrom Ghafur, singer: "I think everybody reads 'Ruzi Nav.' I mean that they can find something worth reading there, something useful, or something that eases their pain. To be honest, I have a lot of respect for the work that the guys at 'Ruzi Nav' do and I don't have any complaints. If there's a flaw, it's that the newspaper's writers are excitable, and this isn't such a serious flaw. I wish the staff success."

Marat Mamadshoev, the editor of the "Internews Media Review" bulletin, provided perhaps the most pointed tribute, explaining in a 20 August article published on that "Ruzi Nav" "broadened the horizon of Tajik glasnost. Previous publications avoided the sanctum sanctorum -- the inner workings of power. They observed certain taboos in their work...'Ruzi Nav' broke with that tradition...'Ruzi Nav' dared to criticize the highest figures in power...."

But even as the confetti from "Ruzi Nav's" first birthday party were still drifting to the ground, a new brouhaha broke out. On 18 August, the Tajik tax police confiscated the print run of "Nerui Sukhan" (Power of the Word), Tajikistan's other well-known independent newspaper, and closed down the printer, Asia Plus reported. A spokesman for the tax police told Tajik Television that a search of the Jiyankhon printing house turned up an actual print run of 7,097 copies, although the newspaper's declared circulation is 2,700. The tax police are investigating the possibility that the undeclared 4,397 additional copies represented an attempt to evade taxes.

"Nerui Sukhan" editor Mukhtor Saidburhon told Tajik Television that the discrepancy was the result of a technical error, and that the newspaper had decided to increase its print run to cope with rising demand now that students are returning from summer break. Bobokhon Nurullozoda, the director of the Jiyankhon printing press, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 19 August: "It's really unclear. A computer error occurred in the calculation of the print run.... We're discussing this now [with the tax police]."

"Nerui Sukhan" was not the only newspaper affected. The closure of the printer prevented "Ruzi Nav," Olamu Odam" (The World and People), and "Najot" (Salvation, the print organ of the Islamic Renaissance Party) from appearing. "Ruzi Nav" Editor in Chief Rajab Mirzo told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that existing legislation gives the police the right to impose a fine for failure to pay taxes, but not the right to shut down the presses and keep other publications from seeing the light of day. Moreover, Mirzo told Asia Plus that when he tried to print "Ruzi Nav" elsewhere, other printers refused, explaining, "The tax police warned us, and we can't take the risk of printing your newspaper."

An 18 August article by Rashid Abdullo in the weekly "Asia Plus" summed up the current contradictory state of the Tajik press, viewing it through the prism of "Ruzi Nav's" first anniversary. The author wrote that in Tajikistan, as in other post-Soviet states, the ruling elite exhibits a certain inertia that acts both as a positive stabilizing factor and a brake on the development of society. He concluded: "The disproportions and various collisions primarily affect such media outlets as 'Ruzi Nav' and 'Nerui Sukhan.' In other words, the problems that these media outlets experience are, in a sense, the price they pay for being on the front line of society's progress. In trying to stay up at the front, they must be ready to accept the uncomfortable moments that come with that position."