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Central Asia Report: November 25, 2004

25 November 2004, Volume 4, Number 43

The Week At A Glance. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and Uzbek President Islam Karimov warmed up their long-chilly personal and bilateral relations with a meeting in Bukhara, Uzbekistan on 19 November. The two signed a friendship treaty and agreements to simplify travel between the two countries for border area residents and service personnel employed at facilities in border regions. The two presidents also reaffirmed their commitment to a 1996 agreement on water use, a long-standing source of tension between the countries. The leaders had warm words for each other and offered high hopes for the future of bilateral ties. The meeting, which was initiated by President Karimov, marks an upswing in relations that soured when Turkmen authorities accused Uzbekistan of complicity in a November 2002 attempt on President Niyazov's life.

Financial news captured headlines in Kazakhstan. President Nursultan Nazarbaev set seven priorities for the nation's financial sector, including creating a more robust stock market, taking steps toward the creation of an accumulation pension system, and developing more modern systems for risk-management and lending. World Bank President James Wolfensohn called the risk of another financial crisis in Kazakhstan akin to the 1998 Asian debacle "minimal," although he urged the development of the communications and banking sectors. Parliament passed the 2005 budget, with revenues of $8.7 billion, expenditures of $9.5 billion, and a $775 million deficit, or 1.7 percent of projected GDP. On the security front, Vladimir Bozhko, first deputy chairman of the National Security Committee (KNB), announced that Kazakhstan is taking steps to combat a growing terror threat from groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). His statement came less than a week after the KNB announced that it had broken up an organization linked to Al-Qaeda and the IMU. Finally, the Central Election Commission rejected a proposal by the opposition party Ak Zhol to hold a nationwide referendum to annul the results of the 19 September parliamentary elections.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev visited Germany, where he gave a wide-ranging interview to Deutsche Welle. Akaev reaffirmed his decision not to run in the October 2005 presidential elections, praised the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan, said Kyrgyzstan was aligned with France and Germany on the war in Iraq, and dismissed imprisoned opposition leader Feliks Kulov as a run-of-the-mill corrupt official. Human rights activists and opposition legislators expressed concern over the fate of Tursunbek Akun, a prominent rights activist who has not been seen since 16 November. Akun's wife has said her husband vanished after receiving a summons from the National Security Service (SNB), but the SNB said it issued no such summons and denied any involvement in Akun's disappearance. A police officer and a fleeing suspect were killed in Osh when the latter detonated an explosive device; police are seeking at least five suspects in connection with the incident.

Even as the United Nations warned that Afghanistan is turning into a "narco-state" that supplies nearly 90 percent of the world's opium, neighboring Tajikistan announced that police had confiscated more than 300 kilograms of drugs from 16-19 November, with heroin comprising a quarter of the haul. Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov visited Dushanbe and met with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov to discuss economic and cultural cooperation between the two capital cities. Laura Kennedy, U.S. State Department assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, met with President Rakhmonov to review bilateral cooperation and the transfer of the Tajik-Afghan border to Tajik jurisdiction, which began recently. Kennedy offered U.S. "technical assistance" to strengthen the border and said she will ask international organizations to do the same.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov spoke by telephone with Iranian President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami. The two presidents agreed that they will both attend the official opening of the Friendship Dam, a joint hydropower project on the two countries' border, in early 2005. An oil and gas exhibition in Ashgabat featured a prominent Russian presence, underscoring the importance both countries place on energy-sector cooperation. Nevertheless, Aleksandr Ryazanov, deputy chairman of Gazprom, said in Ashgabat that, given Gazprom's plan to increase its annual purchases of Turkmen gas to 80 billion cubic meters by 2008, the Russian company would like a clearer picture of Turkmenistan's gas reserves.

Uzbekistan witnessed a spate of visits by U.S. officials. Michael Kozak, U.S. principal assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, paid a fact-finding visit from 16-19 November that focused on upcoming parliamentary elections. The U.S. State Department's Kennedy met with Foreign Minister Sadyk Safaev in Tashkent on 18 November to discuss bilateral relations, regional security, and democratization. And U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce William Lash visited for three days to review U.S.-Uzbek economic cooperation.

INDEPENDENT TAJIK NEWSPAPER WAITING FOR A NEW DAY. Tajikistan's independent weekly "Ruzi Nav" (New Day) has been waiting for what its name promises since tax police shuttered the Jiyonkhon printing press in late August. In the interim, days have stretched into weeks. The newspaper has appealed to both Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and the international community, tried unsuccessfully to find other printers in Tajikistan, gone to the trouble of running off an edition of the newspaper at a printer in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, and seen that edition confiscated by the transportation tax police at Dushanbe's airport. "Ruzi Nav" now awaits a ruling from Tajikistan's Culture Ministry even as the editors ready a lawsuit.

The independent weekly's troubles began when the tax police shut down the Jiyonkhon printing house on 18 August. Ironically, "Ruzi Nav" was peripheral to the problem that shuttered Jiyonkhon. The police were going after "Nerui Sukhan" (Power of the Word), another independent weekly that has made a name for itself with hard-hitting articles and, like "Ruzi Nav," had its share of run-ins with the authorities. Asia Plus quoted "Ruzi Nav" Editor in Chief Rajab Mirzo on 19 August as saying: "[The tax police] seized the edition of 'Nerui Sukhan' and sealed the printing house, and the regular editions of 'Ruzi Nav' and [Islamic Renaissance Party newspaper] 'Najot' have not been published. The tax police officers justified their actions by saying that the number of published copies exceeded the figure given by the newspaper."

In an appeal to President Rakhmonov and members of the international community on 19 August, Mirzo charged that "the purpose of closing down the Jiyonkhon publishing house under the pretext of 'Nerui Sukhan's' problem is also to prevent the publication of 'Ruzi Nav' and 'Najot.'" At the same time, the newspaper looked elsewhere for a printer, but to no avail. On 24 August, "Ruzi Nav" correspondent Manuchehr Masud said, "The newspaper will not be published even this week because no printing house has volunteered to publish it yet," Avesta reported. In another open letter to the president and the international community, this time on 26 August, Mirzo noted that the owners of other printing presses told him that "they have been ordered not to publish" the newspapers stranded by the closure of Jiyonkhon.

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued an open letter on 31 August to President Rakhmonov protesting the harassment of journalists in Tajikistan. The appeal stated: "The clampdown on 'Ruzi Nav' is of particular concern; the newspaper has endured ever-growing pressure from authorities since its launch in August 2003. 'Ruzi Nav' has exposed government corruption and criticized the government's record in combating drug addiction and prostitution." The letter concluded, "we call on you to dismiss government officials who are harassing journalists, and ensure that police and prosecutors aggressively investigate and prosecute those responsible for harassing and attacking journalists."

Officials shrugged off charges of media harassment and insisted that the tax police were merely going about the mundane business of enforcing the law. Davlatali Davlatov, deputy leader of the ruling People's Democracy Party, told Avesta on 7 September, "It is clear that the activities of ['Ruzi Nav,' 'Nerui Sukhan,' and 'Najot'], including the printing house that used to print them, were suspended because of tax evasion and problems with the tax police."

Time passed. By mid-October, "Ruzi Nav's" search for a printer had taken it out of Tajikistan. On 18 October, Editor in Chief Mirzo told Iranian radio that "Ruzi Nav," "Nerui Sukhan," and "Olamu Odam," another newspaper unable to find a printer in Tajikistan, were going to be printed in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, with legal help from the media-assistance foundation Freedom House. Mirzo explained, "We are going to send the newspaper via e-mail [to Bishkek] and we have made a contract with a Kyrgyz transport company, which will deliver the newspapers [to Tajikistan]."

But when the print run arrived in Dushanbe from Bishkek on 4 November, it fell afoul of the tax police's transportation division, which promptly impounded it, Asia Plus reported. But before they confiscated the print run, tax police fully explored their options. First, they counted the newspapers to make sure that the actual number corresponded to the declared number of 15,000. Next, they suggested that the shipment could serve as the host for an infectious disease. Finally, Mirzo told the news agency, the tax police declared the newspaper a cultural artifact and shipped it off to the Culture Ministry for a definitive ruling on the legal intricacies of its transportation across borders.

Once again, the official story was at variance with reporting by independent news agencies and the explanations of Editor in Chief Mirzo. A 9 November report on Tajik television detailed the government's efforts to create a "reliable legal basis for a free press," noting darkly that some individuals in the media "are taking advantage of this and breaking the law." A tax official then explained that the Kyrgyz edition of "Ruzi Nav" was printed under a contract that described the newspaper as a weekly registered under Kyrgyz laws, while the newspaper's statute is registered with Tajikistan's Justice Ministry. The official promised that the Culture Ministry would resolve the matter. Leaving aside the seeming oddity of referring a dispute over contracts and statutes to the Culture Ministry, the report concluded with the rhetorical question, "At a time when the newspaper is calling for the strengthening of a democratic and law-based society...wasn't it possible to arrange the publication of the weekly in this country, and to contribute to resolving society's problems by paying taxes to the budget?"

As the Culture Ministry mulled the matter, a despondent Mirzo told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 13 November: "This is definitely an example of censorship. I think that it's not going to end here. Our case will probably be sent to other [government] agencies and they'll drag it out that way until people forget that such a newspaper existed." For his part, Tajik political analyst and journalist Nurali Davlatov told RFE/RL that he didn't buy the official claims of a simple tax dispute devoid of political subtext. "I think that this affair is connected to Tajikistan's upcoming [February 2005 parliamentary] elections. Tajikistan, which has proclaimed itself a democratic state, will be well served, I think, by resolving this matter in court," Davlatov said. Mirzo seemed to agree, telling RFE/RL that the newspaper's staff is preparing to file a lawsuit in the near future.

The Justice Ministry was still readying its review as of 16 November, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. An unnamed source at the ministry told the news agency that not every member of the commission appointed to decide the newspaper's fate had managed to examine the material. Queried about "Ruzi Nav's" chances, the source would only say that he didn't find the newspaper's articles so critical that they needed to be banned.

HOW TO SURVIVE AS A JOURNALIST IN UZBEKISTAN. As Uzbekistan prepares for parliamentary elections on 26 December, its national press corps must figure out a way to write about the race without uncovering any unseemly details. In a long article on the website of the Committee for Freedom of Speech and Expression of Uzbekistan ( published on 29 June, an author identified only as D. Morfius, a likely pseudonym, offers a unique peek at the unwritten rules for writing -- or rather not writing -- news in Uzbekistan. Uzbek journalists face a special challenge: They must express confidence about the inevitable victory of good (the forces of President Islam Karimov) over evil, while at the same time avoid declaring that the result of the election is known well in advance.

As Morfius described it, journalism in Uzbekistan requires a well-developed sense of restraint. While some subjects, such as criticisms of Karimov, are predictably taboo, others are less obvious. For example, articles about Uzbekistan's neighbors, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, appear so rarely that they would almost appear to be banned. Why? According to Morfius, "Because their economies have outstripped Uzbekistan's in terms of economic development, which raises the question of why is Uzbekistan's government so untalented?" It is forbidden to write about other countries' economic achievement or to report that Uzbekistan has one of the lowest per capita rates of foreign direct investment in the CIS. Integration among CIS countries is also off limits as a topic because its discussion might highlight how isolated Uzbekistan has become. Criticism of Uzbekistan's one ally, benefactor, and protector, the United States, is, of course, precluded.

Talking about how people actually live is also problematic, according to Morfius. President Karimov can talk to journalists "for hours about democracy, its gains and achievements," but newspapers should not report on such "prosaic" things as poverty, unemployment, and the months-long backlog of unpaid wages and pensions. According to Morfius, the "size of the average wage in Uzbekistan is treated as a state secret, and such a concept as a basket of consumer goods does not exist in principle...because then it would be revealed that the majority of the population lives belong the minimum survival rate."

Statistics about other negative social phenomena are similarly unwelcome. The suicide rate, the number of homeless people, the crime rate, the number of abortions, the rate of venereal disease infection -- all of these numbers are simply not published. Other data -- for example, the cost of the annual celebration for Uzbekistan's independence day or the number of people who work for the Interior Ministry or the intelligence service (SNB) -- is so closely guarded that it appears to have the status of a military secret.

While there are many subjects that journalists know to steer clear of, there are others where they must tread carefully, paying careful attention to details. Even a subject as seemingly straightforward as meetings between heads of states requires attention to word order. If Karimov meets with another president, then the sentence should begin "Uzbek President...." That way, as Russian grammar dictates, his title is capitalized, while that of his colleague is in lower case.

While none of these strictures are written down (as are "temnyky" in Ukraine), journalists in Uzbekistan have a clear sense of what they can and cannot write, according to Morfius. It's fortunate that they have this sixth sense, since the supplementary documents to the law on the defense of state secrets, which explain what is secret, are themselves classified. (Julie A. Corwin)





Communist Party


"shakhid" (suicide bomber)



October Revolution



The personality of Islam Karimov

The health of Islam Karimov

The family of Islam Karimov

The firms and companies belonging to Karimov

The personal lives or commercial activities of high-level bureaucrats

The number of people who work for the Interior Ministry and intelligence service

Repression of religious people

The use of child labor

Corruption in higher-education facilities

Corruption among state bureaucrats or law-enforcement officials

Military readiness

Unpaid wages

The official status of the Russian or Tajik languages


Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, or Karl Marx

Censorship in Uzbekistan

Source: "O chem zapreshchaetcya picat v Uzbekistane," D. Morfius, 29 June 2004,

CHINA'S MOUNTING INFLUENCE IN CENTRAL ASIA. Despite its geographic proximity, China for the past century played only a marginal role in Central Asia. Economically, politically and culturally, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan were firmly in Russia's orbit. But independence in 1991 brought changes -- among them the opening of the "Bamboo Curtain" to the East. Initially, it was shuttle traders bringing consumer goods from China who began to fan out across Central Asia. Then came big business and senior politicians. In just over a decade, China -- with its booming economy and growing political clout -- has become a major player in the region. In a joint project, RFE/RL and Radio Free Asia are examining China's growing influence in Central Asia, what is motivating Beijing to expand its role in the region, and what the future may bring.

Chinese pop music blares from loudspeakers, mixing with the cries of Chinese traders at a busy local market.

Welcome to China? No, in fact, we are in Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty, at the Ya-Lian bazaar.

Since it opened in 1997, the Ya-Lian has become one of the city's largest marketplaces, attracting thousands of shoppers to its stalls, which offer everything from household appliances and clothes to consumer electronics.

It is a scene repeated at hundreds of Chinese markets across Central Asia. Initially, the traders were locals bringing in scarce goods from just across the border to sell. But in recent years, they have been replaced by an influx of Chinese tradesmen who have set up more permanent shops and become a fixture of Central Asian urban life.

This street activity is just one sign of China's growing presence in the region. But at higher levels, Chinese officials and business leaders have been crisscrossing the region, signing cooperation agreements and contracts that aim to expand Beijing's foothold.

China's interest in countries such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan is motivated to a large extent by its need for energy resources. China's economy is booming, but its domestic oil and mining industries cannot keep pace with demand.

Chinese officials, as a result, have fanned out across the globe -- including Central Asia -- in search of suppliers, as Xu Yihe, senior reporter with the Dow Jones Newswires in Singapore, told RFE/RL.

"Chinese oil companies are almost everywhere in the world," Xu said. "They're dispatching teams of oil experts to negotiate oil projects, especially upstream projects in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and North America."

Those efforts are beginning to bear fruit. In May, after seven years of negotiations, China and Kazakhstan agreed to build a 1,000-kilometer pipeline from Kazakhstan's central Karaganda region to China's northwestern Xinjiang region by the end of 2005.

The pipeline will be a key link in a 3,000-kilometer project that aims to join China to the Caspian Sea. China has also offered to help Uzbekistan develop its small oil fields in the Ferghana Valley.

Chinese investment is also going into other energy resources, such as hydroelectric projects in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with scores of additional plans up for discussion.

Niklas Swanstrom is executive director of the program for contemporary Silk Road studies at Sweden's Uppsala University. Speaking to RFE/RL from Beijing, where he is a guest lecturer at Renmin University, Swanstrom said the quest for natural resources shapes China's policies in Central Asia, but it is not the whole picture.

China is rapidly emerging as a world power. In a decade or two, it might directly challenge the supremacy of the United States, Japan, and Europe. But before this happens, Beijing's leaders are trying to create a zone of friendly and stable countries around China's borders that will give them political support, as well as economic leverage in the future.

This has led Beijing to set up trade missions in every Central Asian country, invest in local enterprises, donate money to aid projects, and give a high profile to new bodies -- such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- that group the region's countries.

"The Chinese do want natural resources," Swanstrom said. "They do want oil and gas because China is in desperate need of these as its economy grows. But it goes deeper than that. They want to secure the borders. They want to make sure that Central Asia is a stable region. Because if Central Asia runs into military conflicts, it is likely to spread over to Xinjiang, China's westernmost province. And that would be a problem for the Chinese government. So part of this is to create stability in the Central Asia region because stability in Central Asia means stability for China. And also, it's in the Chinese interest to develop these markets, to create the infrastructure in Central Asia."

On the security front, Beijing has found eager partners in Central Asia's authoritarian leaders, who share its worries about Islamic militancy, as international affairs expert John Garver, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States, noted.

"I think there is a meeting of the minds between China's leaders on the one hand and the leaders of the post-Soviet Central Asian states on the other. And cooperation in this area takes the form of intelligence exchanges, police cooperation, training of police, training of military forces, and the design of military operations targeting terrorist activities," Garver said.

Omurbek Tekebaev, leader of Kyrgyzstan's opposition Atameken (Motherland) Socialist Party, told RFE/RL that it was the United States that involuntarily helped China expand its presence in Central Asia. He traced the rise to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.

"After 9/11, the United States broke the old stereotype, sending its troops to Central Asia and the Transcaucasus," Tekebaev said. "When the U.S. strengthened its position, China began to also show that it was interested in Central Asia. So, recently, the Chinese leadership told a meeting [of regional leaders] in Tashkent that it will invest about 4,000 million dollars in the Central Asian countries. For example, Chinese leaders spoke openly about their intention to pay the full cost of about $1.5 billion for the construction of a highway from China to Central Asia, via Kyrgyzstan."

Swanstrom of Uppsala University said Russia's sometimes tenuous grip over the region has paved the way for outsiders, including the Americans, to come in. But the Chinese -- because of their comprehensive regional economic and security interests -- have been the most effective.

"It has to do with the Russian domestic weakness to a certain extent, and that gives the Chinese and many other actors -- among them, of course, the United States and Europe -- an opportunity to move in," Swanstrom said. "But the Americans and Europeans have not taken that opportunity to the same extent that the Chinese have."

Not everyone in Central Asia is happy about China's interest in the region. There is a latent fear, especially in the countries bordering China, that Beijing is hungry for land. And if that is the case, even a small immigration of Chinese to the region would swamp the local populations.

Although it is vast in territory, for example, Kazakhstan's population of some 14 million people represents just over 1 percent of China's 1.4 billion people.

The charge is dismissed out of hand by Beijing officials. But Murat Auezov, a former Kazakh ambassador to China, was less than diplomatic when expressing his concerns.

"I know Chinese culture. We should not believe anything the Chinese politicians say," Auezov said. "As a historian, I'm telling you that 19th-century China, 20th-century China and 21st-century China are three different Chinas. But what unites them is a desire to expand their territories."

Swanstrom was more optimistic. For now, Russia continues to enjoy a decisive cultural and economic advantage in Central Asia. But he argued that breaking this monopoly could serve the Central Asians well.

"It doesn't necessarily have to be a zero-sum game, but from the Central Asian states, there's also interest in decreasing the Russian influence and to have Chinese influence -- maybe even Indian influence and American influence and European influence," Swanstrom said. "They have realized over the years that it's not good to have one dominant power in the region. They don't want it to be the Chinese or the Russians. They're trying to diversify the influence over the region, and they are very conscious about the fact that neither the Russians nor the Chinese would be the perfect actor to dominate the region." (Jeremy Bransten)

(RFE/RL's Kazakh and Kyrgyz Services, as well as Radio Free Asia, contributed to this report.)