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Central Asia Report: November 10, 2004

10 November 2004, Volume 4, Number 41

WEEK AT A GLANCE. Kazakhstan continued to sift through the fallout from the 19 September parliamentary elections, as President Nursultan Nazarbaev unexpectedly convened the newly elected parliament, dominated by pro-presidential delegates, on 3 November instead of 1 December. Addressing legislators at the first session, the president lashed out at the "oligarchs," stating that "about 10 megaholdings control almost 80 percent of Kazakhstan's total [gross domestic product]." Nazarbaev said, "We should work to transfer the secondary functions of megaholdings to medium and small businesses." Outgoing speaker Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, who raised a furor with his recent decision to give up his seat in parliament to protest violations in the September elections, criticized the president's decision to sweep out the old legislature ahead of schedule. Tuyakbai also said that with the rule of law absent and the country's leaders often violating laws, democracy is not taking hold in Kazakhstan. In a further note of protest, Alikhan Baimenov, co-chairman of the opposition party Ak Zhol, announced that the party is giving up its single party-list seat in the Mazhilis (lower chamber of parliament). On a more cooperative note, Kazakh and Uzbek security forces are working together on counterterrorism, with Uzbek authorities handing over two Uzbek citizens to Kazakhstan for questioning and Kazakh authorities reciprocating with three Kazakh citizens. All of the individuals will return to their countries of origin when the respective investigations are complete.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev began the week with a brief visit to Greece. He returned home to address a conference of international donors, hailing low inflation and a 15 percent reduction in poverty over the last five years. World Bank Vice President Shigeo Katsu noted, however, that Kyrgyzstan still needs to fight corruption. But President Akaev distanced himself from Western assessments of corruption in his country, telling an economic development conference on 4 November that Transparency International, which recently ranked Kyrgyzstan 122nd out of 145 countries on its "Corruption Perceptions Index," lacks objectivity and is itself a "nontransparent organization." On the political front, former Foreign Minister Muratbek Imanaliev announced the creation of a new opposition movement, fittingly called New Direction. And on the energy front, KyrKazGaz, a Kyrgyz-Kazakh joint venture, will manage the Kyrgyz section of the Tashkent-Bishkek-Almaty gas pipeline.

Asian Development Bank (ADB) President Tadao Chino visited Tajikistan, where he and President Imomali Rakhmonov discussed 2004-06 cooperation, including $32 million in ADB loans and grants in 2005. A Tajik railway official, irked at Uzbekistan's recent decision to begin requiring visas for Tajik citizens traveling by rail through Uzbekistan, accused Uzbek railway officials of waging an "undeclared war" against their Tajik counterparts. Tajikistan's Majlisi Namoyandagon (lower chamber of parliament) passed a new Tax Code and Customs Code. U.S. Ambassador Richard Hoagland laid flowers at a memorial to Russian soldiers who have lost their lives in Tajikistan, stating that the recent establishment of a permanent Russian military base in the country is "an important measure to strengthen regional stability." President Rakhmonov signed a decree doubling salaries for workers in science, health care, and social services as of 1 January, and increasing the minimum wage unit from seven somonis ($2.50) to 12 somonis ($4.30). In remarks on 6 November to mark Constitution Day, the president spoke out against religious extremism, but in favor of an August ruling by religious leaders banning women from attending services at mosques. And the hapless independent newspaper "Ruzi Nav," now printed in Bishkek after tax police shut down its printer in Dushanbe in August, saw its print run confiscated at the airport upon arrival from Kyrgyzstan, ostensibly for improper documentation.

Uzbekistan witnessed its worst outbreak of civil unrest in years, as up to 10,000 merchants in Kokand briefly came together in a spontaneous demonstration on 1 November when tax inspectors and police tried to enforce strict new regulations on individual trade. The city's mayor calmed the crowd with a promise to delay the implementation of new rules, which ban the sale of imported goods through intermediaries. Similar incidents took place on a smaller scale in other cities. Martti Ahtisaari, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) chairman in office's personal envoy to Central Asia, visited to discussing upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for 26 December. For its part, the unregistered Erk opposition party announced a boycott of the elections and called on the international community to do the same. ADB President Tadao Chino visited to ink $164 million in new loan agreements. And the State Property Committee received $14.7 million when it sold off its 57 percent stake in Coca-Cola Bottlers Uzbekistan Ltd., a company that gained notoriety in the course of the brief marriage and protracted divorce of Gulnara Karimova, daughter of President Islam Karimov, and Mansur Maqsudi, who lost his stake in the company when the couple's marriage broke up in 2001.

Turkmenistan was featured in a new report by International Crisis Group ( entitled "Repression and Regression in Turkmenistan: A New International Strategy." The report paints a grim picture of a nation pummeled into decline by a despot. The summary warns: "The decline of state institutions ensures succession will be difficult, possibly violent. Even a short period of disorder could produce a humanitarian crisis. Niyazov's regime has not responded to quiet diplomacy. The international community should agree a list of key reform benchmarks and work much more actively for change."

UZBEKISTAN'S ANGRY MARKETS. Heavy-handed efforts to enforce new regulations on the freewheeling trade at Uzbek markets have sparked the largest expressions of popular discontent the country has witnessed in years. The episode holds cautionary lessons for everyone. For the authorities, it provides the strongest indication to date that current policy is creating conditions for potentially violent unrest. For analysts, it suggests that a focus on religious extremism as the primary flashpoint for instability in Uzbekistan is an overly narrow paradigm. And for the Uzbek opposition figures, both at home and abroad, who hope for change, it shows that popular discontent does not necessarily presume the ready emergence of political alternatives to the status quo.

The trouble began in Kokand on 1 November when police and tax inspectors set about enforcing new regulations intended to impose greater order on the chaotic markets that are a fixture of post-Soviet economic life. As reported on 4 November, the regulations require that market traders use cash registers to record sales and keep paper records, open bank accounts, and transfer revenues to the bank on a daily basis. Moreover, if regulatory authorities determine that the weekly amounts transferred are suspiciously low, they can suspend a merchant's license to do business. Regulations also stipulate that imported goods can only be sold by the individual who acquired the goods abroad and brought them into the country.

For the vast majority of individual merchants who make a living selling goods at the market, most reports indicate that compliance with the regulations ranges from onerous to impossible. In comments to the BBC's Uzbek Service, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), and unregistered Uzbek opposition party Birlik's Harakat news service, individual merchants stressed that they lack the financial resources to comply with the new regulations. The ban on selling imported goods through intermediaries imposes particular hardships. In Kokand, a city of over 200,000 people, up to 60,000 people are unemployed, human rights activist Rafikjon Ganiev told IWPR on 2 November. As many as 12,000 traders ply their wares at the city's four markets, reported on 4 November. Yet only 200-500 of them actually travel to acquire the goods they sell; the rest of the merchants are resellers, and thus violating regulations.

Police and tax inspectors moved in on the market in Kokand on the morning of 1 November, the BBC's Uzbek Service reported. As they checked compliance with regulations, they began to confiscate goods from violators. Within 15 minutes, they had seized wares worth a total of more than $4,000, reported. Tension mounted quickly, and by 9 a.m. several hundred angry merchants clashed with police and inspectors. The crowd beat up a policeman and three tax inspectors and then broke into the warehouse where the authorities had sequestered confiscated goods. The crowd swelled, and by late morning protesters numbered between 5,000 and 10,000.

The confrontation reached a potential flashpoint when a group of 1,000-1,500 protestors decided to march on the city's hokimiyat, or administrative center. Police blocked the road. Both sides displayed surprising restraint, however, and the protesters dispatched a small group of women to negotiate with Kokand Mayor Maruf Usmonov, the BBC and reported. The women raised a number of grievances with Usmonov, discussing not only the new trading regulations, but also unpaid salaries, periodic electrical outages, intermittent gas supplies, and unemployment in the city. The mayor succeeded in defusing the situation with a promise to suspend the new regulations, although he stressed that he lacked the authority to repeal them. According to IWPR and the BBC, the crowd dispersed later in the day after Usmonov addressed them.

Kokand was not the only city in Uzbekistan to experience unrest. Merchants at a market in Bukhara blocked traffic on 1 November, reported. Harakat put their number at 50-60. quoted one merchant as saying: "We don't have much money. We borrow in order to buy merchandise. Now they're prohibiting us from buying goods in Tashkent. They said that we have to go abroad ourselves and buy things. Where are we supposed to get that kind of money?" The crowd dispersed after Bukhara Mayor Karim Kamolov addressed protesters and promised to take measures. The next day, the market was functioning normally.

Several hundred demonstrators protested attempts to enforce new regulations in Jizzakh on 1 November, Birlik's Harakat news service reported. A 4 November press release by the human rights organization Ezgulik estimated the number of demonstrators in Jizzakh at 100. The governor calmed them, saying that they could continue to trade as before until the end of Ramadan on 14 November. A disturbance took place at Tashkent's Chilonzor market on 1 November when inspectors began to check permits and confiscate goods, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. The next day, inspectors checked merchants' documents as they entered the market.

On 2 November, more than 1,000 people demonstrated at Ferghana's Juydan market, Russia's Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations reported, as well as Harakat and the opposition Erkinyurt website. As in other demonstrations, women made up a majority of the protesters. Some women poured gasoline on themselves and threatened to immolate themselves, although none of them carried out the threat. Following a by-now familiar pattern, Ferghana Mayor Avazbek Ergashev calmed the protestors with a promise to postpone the implementation of new regulations.

As the reports cited above indicate, the authorities in Kokand, Bukhara, Jizzakh, and Ferghana avoided violent confrontation with protestors and calmed the angry crowds with promises to delay the enforcement of new regulations. Despite initial fears, widespread arrests did not follow the unrest. Harakat and reported that no arrests took place in the immediate aftermath of the disturbance in Kokand, site of the largest demonstration. In fact, correspondents for reported that no tax inspectors or police at all were in evidence at the market on 2 November, although merchants were reluctant to speak with journalists and plainclothes security officers appeared to tail the correspondents.

Other reports indicated that officials were concerned that media coverage could encourage further unrest, and that security forces were making efforts to document the situation. The Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations noted in a 4 November press release that when BBC Radio correspondent Matluba Azamatova was conducting an interview in Ferghana on 2 November, onlookers spotted men videotaping the scene. Zikrillo Ruzimatov, head of the local Interior Ministry department, told people that the men were part of a BBC crew. When Azamatov explained that they were not, the crowd became angry and smashed the camera. A local official later told Azamatova, who had reported on the demonstration the day before in Kokand, "Merchants went on strike in Ferghana because of your report yesterday on unrest at the Kokand market."

Another reporter who ran into trouble was independent journalist Tulqin Qoraev. On 5 November, police in Qarshi detained Qoraev in connection with unrest among local merchants. Qoraev later told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service: "On 2 November a group of merchants came to the [Kashkadarya] province administration to expression their dissatisfaction with the government resolutions. On 1 November I had interviewed traders at the market. On the basis of this they are accusing me of organizing the demonstration." Qoraev denied the charge and alleged that police were motivated by a long-standing grudge because of the journalist's previous efforts to publicize police misconduct. Safar Sarmonov, head of the Qarshi police department, told RFE/RL that police had evidence that Qoraev organized the demonstration. According to Sarmonov, police did not arrest Qoraev; they merely brought him in for a warning.

While the decision to delay the implementation of new regulations has had a palliative effect, the eventual outlook remains unclear. Tense calm prevails in Ferghana, the BBC reported on 8 November. But BBC correspondent Monica Whitlock indicated that merchants who depend on goods imported from China and Kazakhstan to eke out a meager living are despairing over the future, and experts forecast that the government may make another attempt to enforce the new regulations once Ramadan ends in mid-November. As Ismoil Dadajonov, the deputy chairman of unregistered opposition party Birlik, told on 4 November: "In a single day, 10,000-12,000 people could lose work. For now, they've defended their rights. The mayor told them: 'Go and out trade. We'll let you be for now; no one will touch you.' But that's absurd -- one little mayor can't go against the president."

The incidents send several messages. For the Uzbek government, they indicate that any move to exert greater control over markets could carry potentially dangerous consequences. Markets remain a mainstay for thousands of people who see virtually no other economic opportunities for themselves and are clearly willing to mount a challenge to the authorities if they sense a threat to their livelihood. For analysts seeking to identify possible threats to stability in Uzbekistan, the disturbances come as a reminder that perils lurk not only in extremist movements, but also in social conditions. And for everyone who cares about the future of Uzbekistan, the unrest serves as a warning. When conflict takes the form of a high-ranking official addressing an angry crowd, it betokens a political system that has failed to produce a resolution by more mediated means and thus left little margin for error.

DO KAZAKH POLITICAL SCANDALS SIGNAL PROGRESS, OR CRISIS? If the occasional political scandal is an indication of health -- a passing bout of the flu that proves the immune system is functioning -- Kazakhstan's body politic is alive and kicking. This year has been a good one for scandals, from Emergency Situations Agency head Zamanbek Nurkadilov's unexpected call for President Nursultan Nazarbaev's resignation in March to recent charges of election skullduggery leveled by now former speaker of parliament Zharmakhan Tuyakbai. But are these scandals really just periodic exceptions to healthy rule, or are they symptoms of a chronic condition?

Lately, the scandals have come thick and fast. Pro-presidential parties won a commanding victory in the 19 September parliamentary elections marred by allegations of media manipulation and outright fraud, with the charges shrugged off by the authorities just as determinedly as they have been pressed by the opposition. Altynbek Sarsenbaev, co-chairman of the moderate opposition party Ak Zhol, whom President Nazarbaev had appointed to the post of information minister with much fanfare, resigned in protest immediately after the elections. Then, in mid-October, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, speaker of parliament and a member of the pro-presidential Otan party, dismissed the elections as a farce in an interview. Soon after his scandalous comments, he left the party (although he claimed he remained a member of the president's "team"). For his part, President Nazarbaev unexpectedly convened the new parliament, which is opposition-free thanks to the protest resignation of Ak Zhol member Alikhan Baimenov, in early November, nearly a month ahead of schedule.

Kazakhstan's small, frequently beleaguered, yet lively independent press has lavished attention on these vicissitudes of political life. Below are excerpts from interviews with three of the key players in the latest round of political scandals.

Altynbek Sarsenbaev

Khabar Agency, a media conglomerate run by Darigha Nazarbaeva, President Nazarbaev's daughter, sued former Information Minister Altynbek Sarsenbaev in late October for describing Khabar as a "media holding that has monopolized the Kazakh media market," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The suit, which asks for over $7 million in damages, states that Sarsenbaev, who was information minister at the time he made the comment, knowingly spread false information. Sarsenbaev discussed the case in a 4 November interview with "Vremya."

Asked about the "essence of the issue," Sarsenbaev said: "The essence is simple. Am I prepared to prove in court whether the media outlets I named in my interview are controlled by Darigha Nazarbaeva?" He added: "I have concrete documents that allow me to ask Darigha very interesting questions at the very first [court] session. I don't want to say yet what these documents are; let's wait for the trial." When asked whether he can prove that Khabar belongs to Nazarbaeva, Sarsenbaev replied: "Let Darigha prove that 50 percent of Khabar's shares don't belong to her. Then the question is, Who do they belong to? I'll prove who!" Sarsenbaev concluded: "I don't understand what impelled Darigha Nazarbaeva to step into this minefield at this very moment, after parliamentary elections and before presidential elections. A trial like this could be explosive. Let me stress one more time: This will be a major political trial. We haven't seen anything like this."

Zamanbek Nurkadilov

In a 2 November interview with "Navigator," Zamanbek Nurkadilov, the former head of the Emergency Situations Agency who made a splash in March with his call for President Nazarbaev to resign, discussed Nazarbaev's decision to call parliament into session in early November. Nurkadilov said: "I think that the president decided not to wait around. People are waiting for him to respond to the elections, and he answered all the question at a stroke. It's as though he said, 'If you don't like the old order, I'll create a new one.'"

He continued: "Everything that has taken place is the logical conclusion to the events that have occurred since 11 March, when I first went public with my criticism of the president. After my statement, they insulted me. They said that I was an alcoholic. Everyone stayed silent. They kicked the artist Makpal Zhunusova [Nurkadilov's wife] off national television, and no one said a word. Our relatives lost their jobs. Everyone was silent."

Nurkadilov launched into an impassioned critique of the Kazakh opposition's overall effectiveness. He said, "My comments and the statements by other opposition figures create a sensation for a day or two." Nurkadilov lambasted opposition parties for failing to make use of nationally televised debates in the run-up to parliamentary elections, dismissing their comments as sloganeering: "What we heard was: 'Long live Ak Zhol and Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan.'" Zharmakhan Tuyakbai's condemnation of election violations and his decision to leave the pro-presidential Otan party did not impress Nurkadilov, who commented: "Then suddenly Zharmakhan Tuyakbai wakes up. Another two-day sensation." Finally, he dismissed the recent creation of a Coordinating Council of opposition parties, saying: "They're talking about some kind of single candidates [for 2006 presidential elections]. What single candidate? It's crap."

Nurkadilov concluded: "Nazarbaev created the current system. He strove for this, which is why he eliminated everyone one by one. Now he's creating a new political system. A completely obedient parliament will give birth to a new President Nazarbaev.... So, goodbye elections!"

Zharmakhan Tuyakbai

Former speaker of parliament Zharmakhan Tuyakbai told his story to "Respublika" in an extended interview on 5 November. Tuyakbai dated the start of his dissatisfaction to 1996 and the passage of a new constitution. The president's promises of reform inspired a certain hope, but the results never seemed to materialize. Tuyakbai said, "In the end, an absence of democracy, lack of societal control [over government], and the underdevelopment of social institutions led to those gross violations of the rights of voters and candidates that took place during the last election campaign."

When asked whether he had spoken to the president since his condemnation of the elections, Tuyakbai said that he had. He continued: "I explained all the circumstances -- the violations that took place during the counting of votes, not to speak of the violations during election campaigning. I gave concrete details about the violations that occurred on election day, what happened during the counting of votes for opposition parties, the voting tallies that show that [opposition parties] not only cleared the barrier [for entry into parliament], but received many more votes, while the Central Election Commission provides completely different numbers...." He said he told the president: "You're the guarantor of the constitution. You should react in appropriate fashion." According to Tuyakbai, Nazarbaev said in response that he had asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to look into the violations, and that was the end of their conversation.

The former speaker had harsh words for parliament as an institution. "I was in parliament for five years," he said. "We beat our heads against the wall but we didn't achieve anything." He continued, " our country is a nominal organ that's needed simply as a facade, as confirmation that our society is democratic." He explained: "As soon as I came to parliament, I realized that the Mazhilis cannot really do anything. It's completely surrounded by a fence of prohibitions: don't go here, don't go there, this is forbidden, that's not part of the program. In reality, Mazhilis members can't do anything but yell. They can't do anything more."

Asked about his own future, Tuyakbai denied that he harbors presidential ambitions. Instead, he said that he will try to influence the political situation in the country to the extent that he is able. But he took a dim view of the current state of affairs, saying, "If the situation continues to develop as it is, we'll end up with a totalitarian regime." Still, Tuyakbai stopped short of denouncing Nazarbaev. He said, "If President Nazarbaev gives some real though to the future of the country, he will see that we have no choice but to go along with other normal countries and follow a civilized course of development."

In the end, however, the man who only recently described himself as a member of the "president's team" rendered an ambiguous, yet not wholly unsympathetic, verdict on Kazakhstan's leader: "I have hope. After all, hope springs eternal. I've known him for a long time. This is an extremely intelligent man who has an outstanding sense of the situation. He makes accurate predictions about future developments, he knows how to communicate with people. And if he has the good will, if he desires changes, he can do it. But I have serious doubts about whether this will happen...."