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Central Asia Report: November 4, 2004

4 November 2004, Volume 4, Number 40

THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev began his week with a visit to Sweden that produced no bombshell agreements. More action was in the offing at home. Khabar Agency, a state-run media company with presidential daughter Darigha Nazarbaeva at its helm, filed a defamation suit against former Information Minister Altynbek Sarsenbaev. Sarsenbaev, who left the government to protest irregularities in the 19 September parliamentary elections, had described Khabar as part of a media holding monopolizing the Kazakh market. The suit alleges that the former minister was lying, knew it, and should apologize and pay 1 billion tenges ($7.5 million) in damages. Opposition party Ak Zhol, still smarting from elections that left it with a primarily symbolic role in parliament, announced plans to collect signatures for a nationwide referendum to annul the results of what the opposition has described as profoundly flawed elections. The week ended with a visit to Astana by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage on 29 October to discuss bilateral relation and regional security with President Nazarbaev.

Kyrgyz officials were on the lookout for extremists. President Askar Akaev told the National Security Council that the threat comes not only from "ideological terrorism" in the form of such organizations as Hizb ut-Tahrir, but also from "ideological extremism" in the form of opposition newspapers that seek to destabilize the country. The president also blasted corruption, demanding that Interior Minister Bakirdin Subanbekov "take far-reaching measures to put his house in order." For his part, National Security Service head Kalyk Imankulov warned that extremists may try to disrupt parliamentary elections planned for February 2005 and the presidential election planned for October 2005. In the interim, President Akaev addressed a joint session of parliament on 26 October. Key themes were the need for media to strengthen statehood instead of provoking civil conflict, the importance of job creation, and the evils of radicalism that "takes the form of revolutions that transgress the bounds of law, whatever 'velvet' or 'rose' appearance they might have."

Tajikistan's enmeshment in the globalized economy was much in evidence. A German delegation arrived to sign a protocol on 2005-2007 economic cooperation, with Germany agreeing to provide 20 million euros ($25.5 million), 7 million as a grant and 13 million as a low-interest loan, for a new transmission grid from the Nurek hydropower station and 14 million euros in grants for social infrastructure. Delegation head Wolfgang Armbruster pointedly noted that he has his doubts about official statistics indicating robust GDP growth of 10 percent a year since 2001, given the low standard of living. The World Bank weighed in with an updated assessment of the fight against poverty, noting some success, much work to do, and corruption as a serious obstacle to the antipoverty effort. The World Bank said that labor migration has alleviated poverty somewhat in recent years. But movement across borders is about to get more difficult for Tajik citizens, who will need a valid foreign passport for travel within the Eurasian Economic Community (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan) as of 1 January 2005. The Interior Ministry announced that it will soon issue passports to Tajik citizens who reside abroad, and that more than 20 centers have been set up within Tajikistan to issue passports. In a further travel complication, Tajik citizens taking the train through Uzbekistan on their way home now need Uzbek visas.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov began the week with a plea to the People's Council to hold presidential elections in 2008-2009, but quickly backed down when a speaker begged him to remain in power for life and the 2,507-strong council sprang to its feet with chants of "Glory to the great leader!" Addressing the council, the leader told delegates that he will meet with Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Bukhara on 19 November to resolve a number of outstanding border and water-related issues. Turkmenistan celebrated Independence Day on 27-28 October with a military parade in Ashgabat and other festivities, as President Niyazov announced on national television that he and his Uzbek counterpart will soon sign an agreement guaranteeing "eternal peace" along the border. The mood darkened later in the week, however, as the president dismissed Enebai Ataeve from the posts of deputy prime minister and governor of Ahal Province against the backdrop of a poor cotton harvest, with a mere 700,000 tons of raw cotton collected instead of the planned 2.2 million tons.

Ruslan Sharipov, the independent Uzbek journalist whose imprisonment in 2003 sparked international outrage, resurfaced in the United States, where he has been granted political asylum. Sharipov plans to write about what he witnessed in prison in Uzbekistan. Martti Ahtisaari, the OSCE chairman in office's personal envoy to Central Asia, visited Uzbekistan to discuss the 26 December parliamentary elections. Ahtisaari met with President Islam Karimov and the head of the Central Election Commission. The former Finnish president praised Uzbekistan's technical preparations for the elections, but criticized the absence of opposition parties, which have been unable to gain registration, and the lack of a free press.

RELIGION, STATE, AND FEAR IN CENTRAL ASIA. Since Central Asia broke free of Soviet rule, Islam has undergone a revival. But as the imprisonment of two imams shows, all is not well.

Central Asia is a region known throughout history for its diversity of devotion. Settled populations produced some of the greatest scholars of the Muslim medieval period, nomads retained age-old shamanistic rituals beneath a veneer of Islamic piety, and the mystical currents of Sufi brotherhoods ebbed and flowed beneath the structures and strictures of orthodoxy. However, the true depth and breadth of belief is difficult to categorize.

The habits of officialdom are more uniform. Although they now profess variations on an Islamic identity, today's Central Asian leaders are still cards drawn from a Soviet deck, ever mindful of alternative sources of authority that might rival their own. They rule states that are top-heavy with mechanisms of control, and religion, with its frank recognition of a higher authority, can serve as the flashpoint for conflict. The cases of two very different religious figures who now find themselves behind bars show, however, that the road to confrontation always winds through local terrain.


At first glance, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah would seem to be an improbable candidate for the role of religious dissident. An ethnic Uzbek, Ibadullah rose to prominence in Turkmenistan, where he served as kazi, or judge, of the Turkmen SSR in the late Soviet period. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he became the newly independent country's chief mufti, or highest religious authority with the power to issue rulings on questions of Islamic law. Even as Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov constructed an increasingly idiosyncratic system of one-man rule throughout the 1990s, Ibadullah remained the nominal leader of Turkmenistan's Muslims. One can only guess at the qualities that allowed the chief mufti to survive for so long under a ruler who revived Stalin's cult of personality as a farce of renamed months and rotating gold statuary, but an independent streak is unlikely to have been among them.

As the 21st century began, Niyazov metamorphosed irreversibly into Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great, head of all the Turkmen and president for life. With the country's earthly affairs firmly under his sway, he turned his gaze inward, penning a spiritual guide for his subjects. In October 2001, the People's Council pronounced Turkmenbashi's "Rukhnama," or book of the spirit, "the holy book of the Turkmen people."

By early 2003, Ibadullah had fallen from grace. In January, he was removed as chief mufti; and in March 2004 he received a 22-year prison sentence. In the absence of an official clarification, observers have cast about for explanations, citing the former mufti's ethnicity, his resistance to the imposition of the "Rukhnama" as "the holy book of the Turkmen people," or the mundane missteps that can seal the fate of any courtier unlucky enough to anger his overlord.

Felix Corley is the editor of Forum 18 News Service, which focuses on religious freedom issues in the post-Soviet world and has provided extensive coverage of events in Central Asia. He told the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) on 18 March 2004 that "reports say that [Ibadullah] was removed as chief mufti because of his resistance to Niyazov's desire to see his book 'Rukhnama' have a prominent place in Muslim worship, something offensive -- if not blasphemous -- to Muslims." Forum 18 reported on 4 March 2004 that a copy of the "Rukhnama" is now displayed "at the entrance to every mosque and believers have to touch it as if it were a sacred object." Moreover, Forum 18's April 2004 survey of religious freedom in Turkmenistan noted that at least one mosque had been shut down after its imam "refused to put the 'Rukhnama' in a place of honor."

Peter Zalmayev, a representative of the New York-based International League for Human Rights (ILHR), told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on 19 March 2004 that Ibadullah may have fallen victim to a combination of factors. "Most analysts and regional specialists, including the ILHR, believe that Ibadullah was imprisoned both for his opposition to the forced use of President Niyazov's 'Rukhnama' as a holy book in the country's mosques, and for criticizing Niyazov's policies toward Muslims," he said. "Over the past few years, Niyazov has conducted a campaign of repression not only against ethnic Uzbeks, but also against representatives of other ethnic minorities. Ethnic Uzbeks suffered repression last year, and Ibadullah's imprisonment was the biggest event on this count."

Khudaiberdy Orazov, former president of the Central Bank and now a vocal exiled opponent of President Niyazov, told Forum 18 on 25 June 2004 that Ibadullah paved the way for his downfall with a 2002 booklet on prayer. "There was nothing political in the booklet," Orazov said, "but Niyazov was angry that someone else was giving orders to the people." According to Orazov, Niyazov told religious officials in August 2002 to remove copies of Ibadullah's booklet from mosques and start looking for a new chief mufti.

Accurate information about Turkmenistan under Turkmenbashi is so difficult to come by that we simply cannot say which of the explanations for Ibadullah's fall is closest to the truth. But the incident shows how the travails of a single religious figure open a window on the larger concerns of the state. In Turkmenistan, they include control over society down to the particulars of prayer; the unquestioned personal authority of President Niyazov to inculcate his spiritual ruminations as a sacred text on a par with the Koran; and the promotion of nationalism through the marginalization of ethnic minorities.


The concerns of state power are different in Uzbekistan, but religion is no less a flashpoint. Unlike the former chief imam, Alo Eshonkhujaev (spelled "Alokhon Ishankhojayev" in some reports) was a minor regional figure, yet he was also a product of his country's religious establishment. A graduate of a Tashkent religious school, the 28-year-old was to have become on 1 April 2004 the imam of the central mosque in Margelan, a town in Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley. The date proved inauspicious, and the National Security Service (SNB) arrested Eshonkhujaev on 31 March at his home against a backdrop of bombings and shoot-outs in Tashkent.

He went on trial in mid-June on charges of illegal weapons possession and sedition, Forum 18 reported on 29 June 2004. As described by Forum 18 and the Uzbek opposition site Erkinyurt, the trial was a rather bewildering spectacle. Witnesses recanted their earlier testimony. In a marked departure from the norm in Uzbek trials of alleged fundamentalists, the region's chief imam, Sobir hoja Eminov, testified that he had personally recommended Eshonkhujaev for the post of imam and that the young man had never held extremist views. For his part, Eshonkhujaev proclaimed his innocence, telling the court, "I obtained a religious education in accordance with the laws of Uzbekistan and have never done anything against the state." Nevertheless, the court found Eshonkhujaev guilty, and on 6 July the judge sentenced him to six years' imprisonment. Akhmajon Madmarov, a local human rights activist, told Forum 18 that bedlam ensued after the verdict was announced, as the defendant's mother fainted amid cries of outrage from onlookers.

Despite the unusual plea on Eshonkhujaev's behalf from a representative of the Muslim establishment, the would-be imam's case is in many ways similar to other trials that have taken place in Uzbekistan. The government charges extremism, usually buttressing its case with the discovery of weapons or propaganda materials. Human rights activists allege that a militantly secular and repressive government is merely targeting devout Muslims, framing them and often compelling them to confess under duress. When they are granted access to trials, Western observers have often found them flawed and suspect, as Human Rights Watch recently detailed in a 10 September statement about the Supreme Court trial of 15 defendants on charges stemming from March-April violence. For their part, Uzbek authorities have retorted that human rights activists ignore a genuine threat to the nation's stability and coddle potential terrorists by calling them "Muslim dissidents."

Although the cases of Nusrullah ibn Ibadullah and Alo Eshonkhujaev are hardly similar, they demonstrate that the treatment of religious figures can shine a light on the fears of the state. In Turkmenistan, the fear is that the presence of any leader in any area detracts from the golden aura of the supreme leader. Not surprisingly, Ibadullah's successor as chief mufti has already been replaced. In Uzbekistan, the fear is that religion can serve as a vehicle for sedition and antistate violence. For critically minded observers, the question in both cases is whether the state in fact compounds its fear even as it strives to eliminate its sources.


Migration in Eurasia is about more than workers traveling far, taking whatever jobs they can find, and risking dangers known and unknown and to provide for families back home. Movement across borders is a key element not only in the struggle for daily bread, but also in the emergence of security threats, the flourishing of the narcotics trade, and perhaps even the hope for a solution to demographic crises.

Mainly, of course, migration is about the struggle for daily bread. The bulk of labor migration from Central Asia draws workers to Russia, although not all of them end up in Moscow. Located in Russia's Tyumen Oblast, the Western Siberian city of Surgut is synonymous with Surgutneftegaz, one of the multi-billion-dollar oil companies that have been engines of economic growth in Russia in the 21st century. Tajikistan's "Varorud" reported on 27 October that this city of a quarter-million people is also home to around 10,000 Tajiks. Some are Russian citizens, but 3,000 of them are migrant workers "willing to endure and stomach anything just to bring home a few thousand Russian rubles to keep their families fed and clothed for a time."

The newspaper let one of them recount his story. Ali's tale may not be typical in the statistical sense, but it illustrates the typical pitfalls that await migrant workers who lack legal status:

"My problem is that I'm too trusting, like a lot of Tajiks. When we started working here for one of the local foremen, we were quick to believe the middleman, who was called Arsen. I think he was Armenian. Incidentally, here in Surgut the intermediaries are often from the Caucasus or even Tatars, who are numerous here. Our construction crew consisted of five men. We had to build a cottage. Of course, at the site, they had their own workmen and foremen, highly skilled workers. We were the unskilled ones.

"We agreed that we would work until we finished the job we were supposed to do. The agreement was that each of us would get $300 when construction was finished. They paid us an advance right away of 1,000 Russian rubles ($35). It never even occurred to us that the advance was a trick by the swindler Arsen, who planned in advance to cheat us. We worked for 14, and sometimes 16, hours [a day]. The owner thanked us for our work [when we were done]. When we asked to be paid, he said calmly, 'I gave the money to Arsen a long time ago. He'll settle up with you.' Then he asked us to get out of the trailer where we'd been living. When we asked him if we could stay there until we found Arsen and he settled up with us, the owner said no. Our indecisive protest was met with a threat to call the police. We had no choice but to leave the construction site. The whole problem was that our status was illegal. To avoid deportation, we had to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we'd been deceived. We never saw Arsen again at the market."

The main river of labor migration flows from south to north, but some streams meander between the countries of Central Asia. Tajik police recently deported 40 Uzbek migrant workers from Tajikistan's Sughd Province, "Varorud" reported on 26 October. The Uzbeks had arrived from their own country's impoverished Ferghana Province.

At the other end of the Ferghana Valley, Uzbeks also move across the border to Kyrgyzstan. In the Kyrgyz town of Karasuu, 30 kilometers from Osh, the existence of a comparatively functional market economy draws Uzbeks across the border to escape the doldrums of state-run central planning, Kazakhstan's "Kontinent" reported on 27 October (No. 20). At one time, Karasuu was home to a thriving cross-border market, but when the Uzbek authorities dismantled a bridge across the Shakhrin-Say River in 2003, trade withered. "Kontinent" described a peculiar scene in Karasuu today, with smugglers using a winch to move contraband goods across the river not far from what had once been the bridge.

According to "Kontinent," Karasuu has become a haven for Uzbek religious extremists, many of them affiliated with the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) movement, fleeing crackdowns at home. Moreover, official obstacles to migration and problems they create serve to increase support for HT. The author writes that HT "openly denounces the artificial division of the [Ferghana] valley and the corruption of the political elites that benefit from this system; this is a strong weapon in the propaganda of HT, which, not coincidentally, has its Kyrgyz stronghold in Karasuu."

Another reason supporters look to HT, which preaches the restoration of the caliphate throughout Central Asia and the implementation of Islamic law (albeit without ever quite explaining just how this is supposed to come about), is that it actively opposes another border-crossing blight in the region -- the drug trade. More than 100 people have died from drug overdoses in Osh in 2004, "Kontinent" reported, and evidence points to close ties between corrupt officials and drug smugglers.

Although they increasingly wreak havoc along the way in the form of addiction and disease, the drug routes lead primarily north. The bulk of the traffic runs from Afghanistan through Tajikistan to Russia, but rivulets split off along other paths. Police in the Russian city of Omsk, not far from the border with Kazakhstan, recently arrested an old woman from Uzbekistan with 150 grams of heroin, "Russkii kurer" reported on 28 October. According to police, she was part of a low-level drug-running operation led by a gym teacher who decided to supplement his meager wages in an Uzbek school. The article contains no information on the gym teacher's earnings, but $200 was apparently enough to convince the old women to work for him.

And even as some set out from Uzbekistan, others are forcibly returned. A correspondent on 27 October described the deportation of a group of Uzbeks through Moscow's Domodedovo airport. Muhammadkarim Ibragimov explained that he was from Andijon Province, where he has a wife, three children, and numerous relatives. He was returning from this second trip to Russia, where he worked as a welder on construction sites. His first stay, which lasted 6 months, brought him $800; this time he was bringing home even less. Meanwhile, Moscow Oblast Governor Boris Gromov recently announced that outside Moscow construction is underway on the first of four planned deportation centers to remove illegal migrants from the Russian capital and its surroundings.

Need, extremism, and drug trafficking are only part of an enormously complex story. Some find hope for the future as well. A 28 October article in the Kazakh internet newspaper "Navigator" examined the demographic future of Kazakhstan through the prism of Chinese immigration. The author, Rashid Sattarov, noted first that Kazakhstan's oil-driven economic expansion has created curious imbalances, sparking a shortage of skilled labor even as many Kazakh citizens fall through the cracks of the new economy. For example, Sattarov wrote that 40,000 foreigners work on production facilities in Atyrau Province, which also has the highest percentage of Kazakh citizens living in poverty.

Both global and local conditions seem ripe for Kazakhstan's resource-based economy to keep growing, a situation Sattarov compared to Soviet-era industrialization. That period brought with it a massive influx of population from elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Today, China is best situated to supply both skilled and unskilled labor to growing economies such as Kazakhstan's. Sattarov wrote that Kazakhstan has the largest territory and the smallest population of any country that borders on China, and protracted economic growth in Kazakhstan could soon act as the catalyst for far-reaching demographic changes.

Sattarov put the prospect of rising Chinese immigration in the context of two recent statements by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev. At a 31 August meeting with representatives of Kazakhstan's various ethnicities, Nazarbaev advanced the concept of a "Kazakhstani nation" to accommodate all of the peoples who inhabit the country. Later, according to Sattarov, the president noted in a speech that Kazakhstan may have to import as many as 50,000 workers a year in the future. Perhaps a "Kazakhstani identity" will offer a way to bind them together in a common project.

Migration intersects with issues of economic opportunity, security threats, crime, interethnic relations, and demographic change. Inequalities of fortune drive people to seek a better life, or at least a higher wage, elsewhere; frequent and massive movements across borders make it difficult for states to track and neutralize threats to national security; criminal enterprises are as susceptible to the pressures of globalization as more respectable forms of commerce; and all of this motion sets peoples, races, ethnicities and the myriad other subgroups of the human race jostling up against each other in new and unexpected ways. But migration is a phenomenon in its own right, larger and more diffuse than the economic factors that drive it, the threats and ills it exacerbates, and the tensions that accompany it. More importantly, migration is emerging as one of the most potent forces for change in Eurasia, and one with ramifications that are proving as difficult for analysts to predict as they are for governments to control.