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Central Asia Report: July 25, 2003


25 July 2003, Volume 3, Number 25

WHAT'S IN A WORD? PARSING THE KYRGYZ CONSTITUTION'S 'NEW EDITION.' In the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on 19 July, President Askar Akaev took part in a government-sponsored roundtable referred to as the Partnership Forum (its full title was "Kyrgyz Statehood in the Third Millennium: New Mechanisms for Partnership Between the State Authorities and Civil Society") that brought together government officials, representatives of pro-governmental and opposition political parties, NGOs, and the media. In a wide-ranging discussion, described by Kabar news agency as "a distillation of all the views about the development of social and political cooperation between constructive forces in the Kyrgyz Republic," one statement stood out: a promise by Akaev, repeating earlier assurances, that he will not seek re-election when his current term expires in 2005.

Fifteen strongly oppositionist and centrist parties were invited to the roundtable, including Ar-Namys, Ata-Meken, and Moya Strana, Deutsche Welle reported. They held an informal meeting on 16 July to coordinate strategies for the roundtable. According to Ar-Namys official Emil Aliev, they agreed to press for local and parliamentary elections to be held on the basis of party lists, to urge the government to grant the opposition equal access to the state media, and to lobby for genuine freedom of the media and of assembly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 July 2003). At the roundtable, however, Akaev's opponents were relatively muted, according to the official news agency Kabar, which reported that the event was notable for its constructive orientation. Similarly, the head of the department for defense and security in the Kyrgyz presidential administration, Bolot Dzhanukov, summing up the roundtable in a press conference, told journalists that dialogue during the event was positive, akipress.org reported on 23 July. He also noted that what he called the "demonstration-and-picket syndrome" has subsided since the roundtable, which in his view has helped to stabilize the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 July 2003).

Critics complained that oppositionists missed an opportunity to use the forum to express their demands to the authorities. In part this was because several political parties -- including the Party of Communists of Kyrgyzstan, the Asaba Party, and others -- boycotted the roundtable, for which they were criticized by the Communist Party of Kyrgyzstan, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. Communist Party head Klara Azhibekova said parliamentarian Absamat Masaliev, head of the Party of Communists, should have spoken up about alleged government deception in the formation of the Constitutional Council, the body created to consider amendments to the constitution that were approved in a referendum in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 July 2003). Deutsche Welle added that three oppositionists who were not actually invited to the roundtable yet turned up anyway -- parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov, Erkindik Party chief Topchubek Turgunaliev, and Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan Chairman Tursunbek Akunov -- sat in the audience but were but were not allowed to speak.

In his opening speech, reported by Kyrgyz Radio on 19 July, Akaev stated that he would not run again for the post of president. "I have answered this twice before. And I answered unequivocally that the new version of the constitution does not provide a new mandate for me.... The elections in 2005 will be held in strict compliance with the new version of the constitution and the principles of democracy," the president said. Edil Baisalov, head of the NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, said that Akaev's promise to step down, as well as his confirmations of the dates of parliamentary and presidential elections, provided a basis for stability in the country, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported.

But others continue to wonder how "unequivocal" Akaev's commitment to relinquish power really is. Aliev, of the Ar-Namys Party, commented after the roundtable that the president's pledge was just another political deception intended for the international community, Deutsche Welle reported on 21 July. In fact Akaev, who would be the first Central Asian leader to step down voluntarily, has never shut the door on himself with the unambiguous clarity of Lyndon Johnson's famous utterance from 1968: "I will not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president." And, on 21 July, the Russian newspaper "Kommersant" reported that worried political analysts in Kyrgyzstan were drawing attention to Akaev's phrase "in strict compliance with the new version of the constitution." Instead of referring to constitutional amendments approved by the February 2003 referendum, Dzhanukov and presidential press secretaries also exclusively talk about a new version or edition ("redaktsia") of the constitution. The shift in government officialese has significant implications, the newspaper pointed out. If the regime can establish that the referendum ushered in a fundamentally new version of the constitution, it is a small step to argue that Akaev can run again against a fresh political backdrop. (The courts accepted a similar argument when they ruled that Akaev's 1991 election victory "didn't count" because Kyrgyzstan adopted its first postcommunist constitution in 1993. Consequently his "first term" effectively dated from his election win in 1995.)

On the other hand, the recent adoption of a law in Kyrgyzstan granting lifelong privileges to former presidents, including immunity from prosecution, has raised speculation that Akaev really is preparing an exit strategy and that the country will experience a peaceful transfer of power, probably to a hand-picked successor (see "Kyrgyzstan: President Hints At Retirement -- But Skeptics Remain Wary," rferl.org, 18 July 2003). But who? "Kommersant" made the case for Akaev's wife, Maryam. It said there was no doubt she would stand as a candidate this autumn in one of the electoral districts in Issyk-Kul Oblast, where her election "is already regarded as a fait accompli." The newspaper then traced Maryam's putative elevation to parliamentary speaker of the parliament and thence to the presidency -- in fact a kind of regency, holding power for 10-12 years until the Akaevs' son, Aidar, currently in his late 20s, attained the maturity and gravitas to take over the family seat.

EFFORTS TO REMOVE LAND MINES, DESPITE UZBEK INTRANSIGENCE. Recent news from Central Asia has drawn renewed attention to the wealth of border problems in the region, especially connected with Uzbekistan's decision to plant minefields along its borders despite protests from its neighbors. Meanwhile, a growing row over the shooting of a Kyrgyz citizen by an Uzbek border guard highlighted the two countries' tense relations.

The Uzbek military laid mines along its frontiers with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan after Muslim militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan launched armed incursions in 1999 and 2000 in the hope of penetrating Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley and stirring up insurrection against the authorities. Since the Uzbek authorities have been unresponsive to Kyrgyz requests that the mines be removed, Kyrgyzstan is proceeding on its own. At a meeting of the Kyrgyz government on 11 July, Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev ordered the Ministry of Emergency Situations and Ecology to begin the process unilaterally, khabar.kz reported. But since Kyrgyzstan has few mine-removal experts, Tanaev said that specialists were being invited from Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 July 2003). During NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson's visit to Bishkek on 11 July, Interfax reported that Akaev asked NATO for electronic equipment to monitor the country's borders because he said that such tools were safer for the population than land mines.

On 18 July, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry sent its Uzbek counterpart another demand that the mines be removed and for maps showing their locations, akipress.org reported. The Kyrgyz side has been unsuccessfully asking the Uzbeks for such maps since the minefields were laid. The Kyrgyz note also contained an assessment, based on international law, claiming that the mining of the border was illegal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 July 2003). But the head of the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry's CIS Department, Erkin Mamkulov, told journalists on 23 July that the ministry had received no response to its note, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported.

Meanwhile, Great Britain has allocated $250,000 to fund the establishment of a Center for Land Mine Problems in Tajikistan, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 11 July. The center is a joint project of the Tajik government and the UN Development Program, which will manage the project. One of its main tasks will be the removal of land mines from Tajikistan -- both those planted by Uzbekistan and others left over from the Tajik civil war in 1992-97. The center is also expected to play a major role in the implementation of Tajikistan's commitments under the 1997 Convention on Prohibition of the Use of Anti-Personnel Mines (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 July 2003).

ROW OVER BORDER SHOOTING. In an incident that has further aggravated Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations, on 16 July an Uzbek border guard shot dead a Kyrgyz civilian in Karasuu, a town that straddles the frontier in southern Kyrgyzstan's Osh Oblast, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The victim, 21-year-old Adylzhan Urkunbaev, was a local man who earned a living by leading people on a wooden footbridge across the river dividing Karasuu, since the Uzbek authorities destroyed the area's major bridge earlier this year in an attempt to stop Uzbeks from entering Kyrgyzstan to shop in the local bazaars. Now, were it not for the improvised footbridge, residents of Karasuu would have to make a 40-kilometer detour to travel from one side of the town to the other via the official border crossing, the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) said on 23 July. The traffic happens under the eyes of the Uzbek frontier guards, who take their cut. But on 16 July, according to Kyrgyz sources who spoke to IWPR, an argument broke out between Urkunbaev and an Uzbek guard demanding extra money, who shot him. Another Kyrgyz version has it that four young men crossed the border to try to talk to the Uzbek guard about building a bridge across the river when a quarrel broke out and Urkunbaev was killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 July 2003). The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry formally protested to Uzbekistan about the shooting, Interfax said on 18 July. Its diplomatic note complained that "the excessive aggressiveness and unfriendly attitude of Uzbek servicemen towards Kyrgyz citizens has repeatedly led to incidents on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border." The ministry went on to insist on a joint investigation and "exhaustive measures against the serviceman who used his weapon," and added that "The Uzbek side must bear the whole responsibility for possible consequences of this incident."

Far from accepting responsibility, however, on the following day the Uzbek Foreign Ministry announced that Kyrgyzstan was responsible for the incident, RIA-Novosti and ITAR-TASS reported. According to the Uzbek version of the incident, some 40 Kyrgyz citizens attempted to cross the border illegally and threw stones and bottles containing flammable substances at Uzbek border guards who tried to stop them. The Uzbek side asserted that the border guards only fired into the air, and a number of the guards were injured by the aggressive actions of the Kyrgyz.

The blame game continued on 21 July as the Foreign Ministry in Bishkek sent another note to Tashkent rejecting the Uzbek version of the border incident, Kabar news agency reported. The ministry said the use of firearms could not be justified in this case and that Uzbekistan should take measures against the (hitherto unidentified) border guard who killed Urkunbaev. Bishkek demanded that the Uzbek authorities ensure their border personnel behave in accordance with the standards of the civilized world (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 July 2003).

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