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Central Asia Report: October 24, 2003


24 October 2003, Volume 3, Number 36

CEREMONY INAUGURATES RUSSIAN BASE IN KYRGYZSTAN... At a ceremony on 23 October, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin officially opened the Russian air base in the town of Kant, situated about 25 kilometers from the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 October 2003). In doing so they confounded the predictions of many observers who doubted the base could be inaugurated by this date. The opening had already been postponed twice earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 3 August 2003). The final agreement on the base was signed in late September when Akaev visited Moscow.

Akaev toured the air base on 20 October and pronounced it fully operational, "ready to handle all types of aircraft -- ground-attack aircraft, fighter jets, and also heavy cargo aircraft," ITAR-TASS reported. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov arrived two days later, on the eve of the unveiling ceremony, also to make sure that everything was in order. Russian news agencies said on 22 October that there were already five Su-27 fighter jets, five Su-25 bombers, six Il-76 airplanes, four L-39s, one An-24, one An-12, one Il-18 plane, and two Mi-8 helicopters at the aerodrome. (One the same day, eurasianet.org said that four MiG-29 jets had also been seen landing there.) This panoply probably represents the full complement of aircraft that Moscow currently plans to station at Kant. In previous months Russian and Kyrgyz officials have repeatedly said it would house about 20 Russian aircraft including attack planes, fighters, transport planes, and helicopters. Four trainer planes are also due be transferred from Kyrgyzstan's armed forces.

Plans call for over 500 military and civilian personnel eventually to be deployed at Kant; at present, according ITAR-TASS, only 150 Russian servicemen are there. Russian Lieutenant Colonel Andrei Samotsvet has been appointed commander of the air base. So far Moscow has only earmarked some 79 million rubles (about $2.6 million) for the base's reconstruction, RIA-Novosti noted on 22 October. Maintaining the facility has been estimated to cost 130 million rubles annually, however, while re-equipping it will cost 219 million rubles, the news agency said. Those numbers raise obvious questions about how "fully operational" the air base really is at the moment.

Putin arrived in Bishkek on 23 October on the final leg of a nine-day Asian tour that included stops in Malaysia and Thailand, where he attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Putin's remarks at the opening ceremony at Kant were calculated to dispel worries that the base would contribute to regional tension or provoke competition with Western coalition forces stationed at Bishkek's Manas airport. Kant represents the first new Russian military base on foreign soil since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Many analysts regard it as a response to the United State's burgeoning military presence in a region seen by Russia as its strategic backyard. Established under the auspices of the CIS Collective Security Treaty (signed by Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan), Kant is meant to make up the air component of the treaty organization's rapid-reaction forces. "By creating an air shield here in Kyrgyzstan, we intend to strengthen security in the region, whose stability has became a tangible factor affecting the development of the international situation," Putin said as quoted by AP and Kabar news agency. "We believe it will create a good basis for cooperation and will be a factor for deterring terrorists and extremists of all kinds."

Putin stressed that Kant had a regionally defined purpose quite separate from the military imperatives of this U.S.-led coalition deployed at Manas, calling the new base "a necessary and timely measure that will facilitate the solution of both collective and national tasks within the Collective Security Treaty." By the same token, he professed to see no potential problems in Kant's proximity to Manas. "We support the activities of our partners in coalition on the territory of Central Asian countries.... The American base -- or, to be more exact, the base of the international coalition -- was set up to deal with the specific task of fighting against international terrorism in Afghanistan, and only while the operation lasts." By contrast, he said, the Russian forces in Kant would be deployed on a "permanent" basis.

Akaev, in his own remarks, picked up this last point, reminding listeners that the Manas base "is temporary. It was set up on a UN mandate for conducting the antiterrorist campaign on the territory of Afghanistan," while Kant "is open on a permanent basis." More precisely, the agreement governing the Russian deployment is expected be in force for at least 15 years, but may then be extended by five-year terms, according to Kyrgyz Defense Minister Esen Topoev (see "Kyrgyzstan: Putin To Attend Official Opening Of Russian Air Base," rferl.org, 22 October 2003).

In related news, on 20 October Kyrgyz parliamentarians failed to ratify an agreement on the status of New Zealand personnel at Manas, saying they wanted more information on the makeup and financial expenditures at the base, and more information from Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov on the expected length of the coalition's presence in Kyrgyzstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 October 2003).

Akaev told the audience at Kant that his country would always be Russia's faithful ally, and he welcomed its military in with the words, "Russian servicemen from now on have their own home on Kyrgyz soil," RIA-Novosti reported on 23 October. Akaev has consistently advocated close ties and cooperation between his country and Russia (see "Kyrgyzstan: President Defends Russian Presence In Central Asia," rferl.org, 24 September 2003). He was especially forthright about Russia's importance to Kyrgyz security while touring Kant on 20 October, when he reminded journalists that in 1999 and 2000 southern Kyrgyzstan had suffered incursions by terrorists based in Afghanistan. Rather surprisingly, he went on to say, "We always remember that our friends from Russia were the first to help us, and this support then helped us a lot to fight against terrorism," ITAR-TASS reported. He did not explain what military assistance Moscow had provided on the second of those occasions. But Akaev gave a more forward-looking rationale for partnering with Moscow by noting that "Russia's power is continually growing, and it can afford an air base that will protect its friends from any threats." Nevertheless, many analysts have questioned how long Kyrgyzstan can realistically balance the presence of two giants, Russia and the United States, on its soil without having to throw in its lot with one or the other.

Russian Defense Minister Ivanov also spoke at Kant. He emphasized that its establishment was in the national interests of both Kyrgyzstan and Russia. "By enhancing Kyrgyz defense capabilities we reinforce Russia's sovereignty," he said as quoted by ITAR-TASS. On the face of it, he was saying that it was to Russia's advantage to have a counterterrorism strike force that could help firm up its soft underbelly, i.e. the buffer region, including Kyrgyzstan, between Afghanistan and Russia's southern border.

But one of the great truths behind the establishment of Kant, too sensitive to mention in polite diplomatic company, is that it is very probably also meant as a deterrent to conflict between the Central Asian states themselves. Instability of that sort would be far more disastrous to Russian security than some alleged Islamic fundamentalists working their way northwards across the region towards Russia. And intraregional tensions continue to grow in Central Asia, with the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border currently one of the possible flashpoints (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 17 October 2003). It is significant in this regard that, the day before Kant opened, Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin announced that Russia was ready to send land-mine-removal specialists to help Kyrgyzstan remove land mines on its frontier with Uzbekistan. Laid by the Uzbek military in 1999, the mines have been a major irritant to the Kyrgyz ever since (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 October 2003).

...WHILE RUSSIA PLEDGES DEEPER ENGAGEMENT IN KYRGYZ ECONOMY. It would be naive to believe that Kyrgyzstan, despite the highfalutin talk about security and friendship, has acceded to a large Russian military presence on its territory without some significant material inducements on the side. The nature of the incentives being offered began emerging into the public eye this week.

For a start, on 23 October Kyrgyz Minister for Foreign Trade and Industry Sadriddin Zhiyenbekov, and Vladimir Polishchuk, deputy chairman of Russia's Committee on International Military Cooperation, signed a bilateral intergovernmental agreement on collaborating in the military-technological sphere. Aleksandr Smelyakov, a spokesman for the Russian arms export company Rosoboronexport, told RIA-Novosti that, on Putin's instructions, his firm had given the Kyrgyz Defense Ministry "small arms, equipment and uniforms, and radio communication units," worth a total of $3 million. Remarks made the same day to journalists by Kyrgyz Defense Minister Esen Topoev indicated that the items were intended for Kyrgyz special forces. Smelyakov added that a Kyrgyz Mi-8 helicopter would be overhauled as part of a package of services that Russia was offering Kyrgyzstan.

Meanwhile a two-day Kyrgyz-Russian investment forum opened in Bishkek on 22 October, attended by major Russian industrialists, financiers, ministry officials, and representatives of Russian provincial government. Putin and Akaev joined them on the second day. According to the latest figures from the Kyrgyz National Statistics Committee, bilateral trade turnover was up to $196.5 million in 2002, representing an increase of some 30 percent over 2001. Russia is Kyrgyzstan's main trading partner, with 16 percent of its foreign trade. The volume of direct Russian investment in the Kyrgyz economy grew four times in 2002 over the previous year.

Nevertheless, Akaev told the forum that Russia and Kyrgyzstan must start looking at more large-scale joint investment projects in order to bring "the two countries' relations to a brand-new level," RIA-Novosti reported on 23 October. Putin responded by signaling Russian companies' readiness to invest in Kyrgyz enterprises. "Russia is interested in the joint exploration of Kyrgyzstan's mineral resources and the development of bilateral collaboration in industry and agriculture," he said. "We are ready to consolidate our cooperation in joint targeted programs and investment projects, above all in transport and energy."

On the previous day, Kyrgyz First Deputy Prime Minister Dzhoomart Otorbaev had told the forum that his country would like to attract Russian investment specifically in the development of the mining industry, ore processing, hydropower engineering, information technology, services, and tourism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 October 2003). At the same time Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev said that the sale of Kyrgyz electricity to Russia, which began in August, represented a major breakthrough in economic relations between the two countries, ITAR-TASS and kabar.kg reported. Putin noted on 23 October that Russia had already received 400 million kilowatt-hours of Kyrgyz electricity.

At the end of the forum, Russian Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev announced an agreement on a five-year contract for the delivery of Kyrgyz electricity to Russia, Interfax said. The contract came in addition to a series of smaller agreements, decided at the forum, for Russian provinces to start buying Kyrgyz electricity in 2004. A further joint project discussed at the meeting was the construction of a high-voltage power-transmission line in southern Kyrgyzstan. Akaev's pleasure at the outcome of the forum was clear to see. The total sum of contracts and agreements inked at the forum exceeded $14 million. "This increased the volume of our trade and economic cooperation by nearly 10 percent at once," the president was quoted by RIA-Novosti as saying.

OPPOSITION CONGRESS HELD IN TASHKENT. In another example of a Central Asian state confounding its critics, the Erk (Freedom) Democratic Party, a banned opposition group in Uzbekistan, succeeded in holding its planned congress on 22 October in the Uzbek capital Tashkent with the permission of the government. This breakthrough was all the more extraordinary since, over the last month, Uzbekistan's security forces had been working actively and brutally to prevent the congress from taking place.

Erk originally applied to the city mayor's office for permission to hold a national meeting on 27 September, but the request was ignored for months, then refused two days before the event was scheduled to take place. Meanwhile, officials "harassed and threatened Erk members in a clear attempt to dissuade them from attending the congress," including Erk Secretary-General Atanazar Arifov, according to a 30 September press release by the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 October 2003). Then, at the beginning of October, some 20 activists, mainly from the independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU), staged a protest in Tashkent demanding that President Islam Karimov step down. A statement signed by many of the activists said there was "no hope for the restoration of justice and democracy under Karimov's authoritarian rule" (see "Uzbekistan: Defiance of Authorities Grows," rferl.org, 23 October 2003).

Apparently in retaliation, on 13 October the police stopped two Erk members, Oigul Mamatova and Abduhoshim Ghofurov, in their car. Mamatova was head of the Erk party-congress organizing committee, while Ghofurov doubled as HRSU chairman. The police arrested them and confiscated Erk posters, badges, delegate invitations, and some 400 books including works by Muhammad Solih, Erk's exiled leader, the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported on 21 October. Later, during a search of Ghofurov's home, conducted apparently without a warrant, the police confiscated a computer with the party's whole database, a printer, and other equipment. Both Mamatova and Ghofurov were released after about 15 hours. Mamatova immediately embarked on a hunger strike to protest what she said was the illegal seizure of party property. Her strike lasted at least five days, according to an open letter she posted at uzbekistanerk.org.

Angry about the arrests and confiscations, some 30 Erk members tried to march on the police station in Tashkent's Sobir Rahimov district on 14 October but were rounded up by the police, muslimuzbekistan.com reported. Most were let off with a warning, but Ghofurov and one other Erk member were jailed for five days. Undeterred, about 15 Erk members and supporters picketed the Prosecutor-General's Office on 15 October. This was reportedly the first time Erk members have undertaken such an action, and their first demonstration in 12 years. The picketers demanded that party property be returned, police harassment of party members be ended, and the party be allowed to hold its congress, which had been rescheduled for 22 October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 October 2003). This demonstration was also broken up by police, but the participants were reportedly not detained.

Against this background, the authorities' willingness finally to allow the congress to take place on 22 October must have come as a considerable surprise to Erk members. The first party congress to be held in Uzbekistan in 10 years, it was held outside the Tashkent city center with a sign posted outside reading, "We are heading towards a democratic state in which every citizen is guaranteed their freedoms." Erk leader Solih told RFE/RL that the meeting had become possible as the regime "was forced to ease its pressure because the government itself was under pressure from international organizations." A commentary on erkinyurt.org on 23 October attributed it to the political influence of the United States in Uzbekistan, in particular to the presence of Freedom House in Tashkent.

In a written address distributed to delegates, and posted on uzbekistanerk.org, Solih attacked the puppet, opposition political parties created by Karimov to provide democratic window dressing. In 1991 presidential elections, Solih was the only independent candidate ever to challenge Karimov. Now in exile in Norway, Solih was sentenced in absentia in 2000 by Uzbekistan's Supreme Court to 15 years in prison on charges (widely regarded as unsubstantiated and malicious) of terrorism and antistate activities. Nevertheless, Solih wrote in his address that he felt no personal enmity towards Karimov, but condemned him as an "Asiatic leader" presiding over corruption and economic decline. Lamenting the ethnical impoverishment of a younger generation growing up under such conditions, Solih specified educational reform, strengthening the institution of the family, and overcoming poverty ("a source of moral degradation") as three of Erk's most pressing strategic concerns. He denied involvement in the Tashkent bombings of 16 February 1999, and accused the regime of using them as an excuse to crack down on its political enemies.

Erk Secretary-General Arifov confirmed to RFE/RL that the party intended to press the government to reinstate its registration, thus opening the way for it to compete in local council elections, parliamentary elections in 2004, and the presidential race in 2007.

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