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Central Asia Report: January 10, 2003


10 January 2003, Volume 3, Number 2

RUSSIAN SECURITY CHIEF REBUILDS BRIDGES IN ASHGABAT: SECURITY IN THE FOREGROUND... During a two-day trip to the Turkmen capital Ashgabat on 2-3 January, Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo pledged his country's assistance in investigating the reported November bid to kill President Saparmurat Niyazov. In large part, Rushailo's mission was to demonstrate solidarity with the Turkmen regime following accusations of Russian complicity in the assassination plot: in November a Turkmen government spokesman said there were "politicians in Russia who connived with the organizers of the attempt" (see "Russia: Moscow Dismisses Turkmenistan's Accusations," rferl.org, 27 November 2002). But some analysts saw more to Rushailo's visit than merely a fence-mending exercise. They detected a shrewd political maneuver by Niyazov, who appears willing to offer more flexibility in Turkmenistan's position on the division of the Caspian Sea in exchange for Moscow's help in eliminating his political opponents.

On 2 January, Rushailo discussed regional and bilateral security and cooperation issues with Rejepbai Arazov, who is Turkmenistan's defense minister but doubles as secretary of the State Security Council -- a new body created on 30 December by a resolution of the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council). Arazov was only appointed to head it on the day of his meeting with Rushailo, according to Turkmen TV. Arazov is also one of three power ministers heading the National Council for the defense of constitutional order, RFE/RL reported, the other two being Security Minister Batyr Busakov and Interior Minister Annaberdy Kakabaev. Rushailo held meetings with all three ministers on 2 January, ITAR-TASS said. He opened the day's talks with an assurance that "Turkmenistan and the Russian Federation are equally interested in bringing their bilateral relations to a new level."

These discussions were a prelude to a face-to-face session between Rushailo and Niyazov on 3 January that lasted nearly five hours. When Rushailo emerged, it was to declare Moscow's firm support for the Turkmen president after the attempt on his life. "Russia has always stated its position and we would like to stress once again that we consider the incident as a manifestation of terrorism and we are ready to cooperate in the context of the law-enforcement bodies and secret services," Rushailo told Turkmen TV. This promise of Russian cooperation is something Niyazov has been anxious to secure -- he has requested it at least twice over the telephone with President Vladimir Putin, who initially seems to have rebuffed him (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 5 December 2002). Two of the alleged planners of the attack, former Turkmen Central Bank head Hudaiberdy Orazov and former Turkmen Ambassador to Turkey Nurmuhammed Hanamov, are believed to be in Russia, and both have Russian citizenship (as does former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who was found guilty of planning the attack and sentenced to life imprisonment.)

Rushailo's visit concluded on 3 January with the signing ceremony of a protocol between the Turkmen and Russian security councils, providing for cooperation in the search for and extradition of suspected criminals. It also outlined measures to be taken against people declared traitors by Turkmenistan who have dual citizenship, ITAR-TASS noted. The protocol will be worked into a planned treaty on bilateral security, which should be signed during the first half of 2003, Rushailo said. Meanwhile he did not mention the four Russian citizens, ethnic Chechens, who are among the 51 people detained in Ashgabat on suspicion of plotting against Niyazov. Rushailo had been expected to seek their extradition to Russia, AP said on 3 January.

...OIL IN THE BACKGROUND. The discussions in Ashgabat were not all about forging closer security ties, as the composition of the Russian delegation indicated. As Rushailo himself was careful to emphasize, he was accompanied by Russian Energy Ministry officials who held talks on the sidelines with their Turkmen counterparts. The two sides discussed a Russian offer to pay cash for Turkmen gas, and considered the transit of Turkmen oil through Russia's Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. But the focus of talks was apparently the long-standing legal issue of how to divide the Caspian Sea -- in particular, Moscow's latest bid to break the deadlock by urging its neighbors to weigh the value of resources in contested areas instead of simply their territorial size (see "Turkmenistan: Russia, Iran Seeking To Protect Caspian Energy Interests," rferl.org, 6 January 2003). It is not clear whether the two sides made any progress. Rushailo told journalists afterwards that many unresolved problems remained, naming "the security of natural resources, environmental safeguards and the safety of the biological resources of the Caspian Sea," ITAR-TASS reported on 3 January. Yet Turkmenistan's sudden willingness to revisit Caspian issues with Russia, and the juxtaposition of those talks with the signing of a security agreement, strongly suggest linkage between the search for a Caspian solution and Russian help in running down Niyazov's political foes.

On this reading, the autocrat of Ashgabat has been very clever indeed. Pushing their speculations farther, some imaginative analysts wonder if Niyazov has seized an opportunity created by events, or ingeniously created those events himself -- staging the assassination bid, recasting it as a coup attempt and terrorist attack, making calculated accusations against Moscow for harboring terrorists, and essentially setting into motion a chain of events culminating in what, on the face of it, looks like a Russian promise to serve up his enemies to him on a platter. Other observers would say that Niyazov is the recipient of an unwarranted compliment from those analysts who mistakenly believe that the Turkmen president is as devious and Machiavellian as they are.

KYRGYZ, TAJIK CHECKPOINTS REMOVED AFTER BORDER VIOLENCE. Small riots broke out on 3 January along the frontier between Tajikistan's Sughd region and Kyrgyzstan's Batken region, as the destruction of a Kyrgyz border post by Tajik villagers was followed by retaliation against a Tajik border post by Kyrgyz villagers. No injuries were reported, and law-enforcement officials from both sides quickly restored order. Nevertheless, the incidents were ample evidence that resentments are simmering in the area, and apparently have been simmering for a while.

Both Kyrgyz and Tajiks claimed to be reacting to provocations by the other side. Asking who originally provoked whom, however, means trying to follow a chain of tit-for-tat that stretches back a few years. Bilateral talks to demarcate the 940-kilometer border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan commenced in 1997 but were suspended the following year as a result of domestic political problems in Tajikistan. Some 40 areas remained disputed, and border talks were only resumed last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 December 2002). In November 2001, Tajiks from the Vorukh enclave -- a part of Tajikistan that is administered by Tajik authorities in Sughd Oblast but is physically located within Kyrgyzstan's Batken Oblast -- reportedly built private homes, felled juniper trees, and pastured cattle on a disputed piece of land 30 hectares in area. Kyrgyz residents protested that the Tajiks were encroaching on territory that belonged to Kyrgyzstan, but local officials did not act on their complaints.

Border issues got touchier in 2002 following reports that Tajik customs officials were systematically harassing Kyrgyz citizens traveling across the Vorukh enclave (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2002). Last October, the Tajiks authorities caused further grievances by unilaterally establishing two more border posts, neither of which was legal, according to Kyrgyz Television on 4 January. One of them was at Djekeoruk, site of last week's violence. Kyrgyz authorities responded by establishing, over a period of months, several new border posts of their own around the Vorukh enclave, including one at Kok-Terek that was set up on 27 December. The creation of this checkpoint was also illegal, insofar as it violated a previous agreement between Kyrgyz officials in Batken and Tajik officials in Sughd (see "Tajikistan/ Kyrgyzstan: Clashes Reported Along Border," rferl.org, 6 January 2002).

On 3 January, some 300 Tajik residents of the Vorukh enclave marched on the new Kok-Terek checkpoint and destroyed it, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. (ITAR-TASS said that the villagers had come from Isfara Raion in northern Tajikistan, however.) In retaliation, about 100 Kyrgyz from the Kok-Terek area crossed into Tajik territory and demolished the Djekeoruk checkpoint, overturning several vehicles in the process.

According to some reports, the Tajiks had been provoked to violence by Kyrgyz border guards who allegedly assaulted passengers on a Tajik bus, hitting the vehicle with large pieces of wood. The Kyrgyz governor of Batken Oblast, Mamat Aibalaev, was having none of this. On 4 January, he squarely blamed Tajik "hotheads," charging that "a few separatists in Tajikistan, but not the Tajik government, are trying to destabilize the situation," RFE/RL reported. Moreover, he justified the actions of his fellow Kyrgyz, saying that they "had to remove the posts. The Tajiks have been establishing the posts illegally. This is not their territory. This is disputed area."

By the same token, Kyrgyzstan should not have had checkpoints there either. In line with an agreement reached during talks on 4-5 January between Batken and Sughd officials, both sides' controversial posts were dismantled by 5 January. Not everybody was pleased. Tajik Border Protection Committee Deputy Chairman Nuralishoh Nazarov worried that leaving the border open would only benefit smugglers, and he even averred that the attacks on the posts had been part of a plan by arms traffickers to get the checkpoints removed, Asia-Plus reported on 7 January. Nazarov noted that weapons and 12 tons of contraband aluminum had been seized to date at the Djekeoruk crossing.

The next steps in normalizing the situation on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border are, from the Kyrzgy side, an assessment mission to the area by a government delegation led by Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Bazarbai Mambetov, and, from the Tajik side, a visit by members of Tajikistan's State Border Committee to meet their Kyrgyz counterparts and discuss how to prevent a recurrence of last week's events (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2002). Meanwhile, the next round of meetings of the intergovernmental commission on border delimitation is scheduled to take place in the Tajik capital Dushanbe in March.

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