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Central Asia Report: February 21, 2002

21 February 2002, Volume 2, Number 7

THRUST, COUNTERTHRUST BY TURKMEN REGIME AND OPPONENTS... The fledgling Turkmen opposition-in-exile, based in Moscow, was strengthened by a new defection this week as former Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister Hudaiberdi Orazov announced that he was joining "the open democratic opposition" to President Saparmurat Niyazov, Interfax reported on 18 February. Fifty-one-year-old Orazov, whose portfolio as deputy prime minister in 1999-2000 was financial and economic issues, said Turkmenistan's economy is in a state of "total collapse" but that the authorities disguise that fact by "manipulating statistical data." Orazov was one of those authorities himself until Niyazov fired him a few months ago, possibly in connection with rumors circulating since 2000 that Orazov stashed $10 million of public funds in Russian bank accounts, although he has never faced formal accusations. But on 18 February, the ex-prime minister was portraying himself as a patriot who (while admittedly serving in Niyazov's government) had actually been a closet reformer, and he bewailed the fact that "all my attempts to change the situation in the country for the better came to nothing." He told RFE/RL the same day that he can no longer work with Niyazov because the president is "an obstacle to reforms." Orazov left Turkmenistan a few weeks ago.

A leading opposition figure, former Turkmen Foreign Minister and Ambassador to China Boris Shikhmuradov, told AFP on 19 February that police had arrested 300 "oppositionists" within Turkmenistan in the past several weeks and that they were being tortured in prisons. (On 13 February he said, "More than 100 members of the opposition have been arrested during the last week," AFP reported.) Shikhmuradov further told the news agency that the dictatorship in Ashgabat was "as dangerous as that of the Taliban, with the same medieval methods: obscurantism, the closure of schools, the destruction of science, the closing down of theaters." Presumably he had in mind the ubiquitous semi-mystical slogans exalting Niyazov's genius; Niyazov's decision to abolish the Turkmen Academy of Science a few years ago; and the president's recent ban on Western opera and ballet for being at odds with the traditional culture. Shikhmuradov, who was on a visit to Paris to consult with French officials and European organizations, chided Western leaders for their reluctance to take on Niyazov after the Taliban: "They understand perfectly well what's going on [in Turkmenistan] but don't dare to intervene," he said, according to AFP. Shikhmuradov and his supporters have mounted a campaign to get Turkmenistan suspended from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose norms of democracy and human rights are regularly flouted by Ashgabat.

On 12 February, Niyazov ordered his prosecutor-general to step up efforts to extradite Shikhmuradov from Russia on charges of abuse of power, embezzlement or misappropriation of state property worth $28 million, and illegal arms sales. Similar charges have been brought against another recent recruit to the ranks of the opposition-in-exile, Turkmenistan's ex-ambassador to Turkey, Nurmukhammed Khanamov (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 14 February 2002). The charges, which both of the accused say are fabricated and politically motivated, were only leveled against them after they started publicly criticizing Niyazov -- Shikhmuradov in November, Khanamov a fortnight ago when he declared, "I resign from the post of Turkmenistan's ambassador to Turkey and promise to fight this regime with all possible means." Yet another ambassador also recently announced his opposition to the government in Ashgabat -- Turkmen envoy to the United Arab Emirates Pirmuhammed Gurbanov (see "Diplomats' Defection Seen As Challenge To Niyazov," 15 February 2002,

In response, the regime gave a counterblast in the form of a blistering a letter allegedly signed by 19 loyal ambassadors, including the Turkmen envoys to Washington and the UN, and six consuls. The letter, read over Turkmen TV on 16 February, said Shikhmuradov and Khanamov had "committed various criminal acts and were cooperating with the intelligence services of certain foreign countries." It made no bones about the fact that the defectors had already been deemed guilty on all charges.

...AND NIYAZOV REACHES THE AGE OF THE PROPHET. Meanwhile, Flag Day was celebrated in Turkmenistan on 19 February -- which not coincidentally is the same day as President Niyazov's birthday -- with a military parade, folk-dance exhibitions, acts of sovereign largesse, a gala concert at which songs allegedly written by the president were performed, and fireworks, Turkmen TV and ITAR-TASS reported. Niyazov turned 62.

State media wildly congratulated him on attaining the age of wisdom (the age of the Prophet Mohammad when he died), in honor of which Niyazov was publicly presented with a white ram to sacrifice, as custom dictates. Niyazov announced that he will soon be signing a decree granting 62-year-olds a three-day holiday and the money to buy the ritual sheep, Interfax reported. Additionally, he announced that every Turkmen woman will be receiving a gift of 200,000 manats (about $38) for International Women's Day on 8 March, Turkmen television said. On the eve of his birthday, reported, he hosted a banquet for 15,000 people at his native village of Gypjak, where he has erected a $29-million shrine to the memory of his mother. Commenting on two 80-year-old peasants who seemed hale and hearty, Niyazov said they proved that "a person 60 to 62 years old can be considered middle-aged in modern Turkmen society." Niyazov was made president for life in 1999, but has pledged to step down in 2010.

MOVE TO LEGALIZE HEZB-E TAHRIR? The chairman of the Kyrgyz State Commission on Religious Affairs, Omurzak Mamayusupov, said he sees no obstacles to officially registering the Islamist Hezb-e Tahrir (Liberation Party), Kyrgyz radio reported on 19 February. Hezb-e Tahrir, which is banned throughout Central Asia, calls for the peaceful establishment of an Islamic Caliphate based in the Ferghana Valley to replace secular government in the region. "Our door is open," Mamayusupov said.

Mamayusupov's statement was extraordinary, given the violent police crackdown on Hezb-e Tahrir in southern Kyrgyzstan where the underground movement appears to be gaining adherents especially fast. Late last year there were believed to be 3,000 members of the party in the region, regularly accused by the Kyrgyz press of spreading seditious literature, promoting jihad, and encouraging religious hatred (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 1 November 2001). Mamayusupov's invitation to Hezb-e Tahrir followers to come register is not likely to be taken by them at face value until the government demonstrates more concretely that it is reversing its policy of repression. According to most analysts, this has been a failure in that it has merely driven more of the Kyrgyz population to sympathize with the radical aims of Hezb-e Tahrir. On 19 February, the newspaper "Vechernii Bishkek" reported that last year the authorities arrested more than 400 members of the movement in the southern Djalalabad Region. Criminal charges were brought against 56 of them for inciting "racial, ethnic, and religious hatred," in contravention of Article 299 of the constitution. The rest of those captured were let off lightly with a fine or a warning, the newspaper said, citing police sources. And on 15 February the deputy state commissioner for youth policy, Kanat Januzakov, was warning against religious sects propagating intolerance and terrorism that seduced young people into joining them, Kabar news agency reported. While Januzakov mentioned Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists in this context, his primary target was clearly non-state-sponsored Islam, whose popularity in southern Kyrgyzstan he blamed on "developments in Afghanistan and the activities of extremist opposition forces from neighboring states." Of the 1,176 mosques in Kyrgyzstan, only 346 have been officially registered and the rest are operating illegally, Kabar reported.

Thus it was ingenuous of Mamayusupov to claim, as he did on 19 February, that the reason he has not officially registered Hezb-e Tahrir since being appointed commission chairman (he took the post shortly after 11 September last year) was because Hezb-e Tahrir had not come to him to be officially registered. Now, however, he said that the party's activists are free to register and operate as they wish, but ominously added the rider, "as long as they manage to work within the framework of the law." Nevertheless, the radio said, Hezb-e Tahrir now has a genuine chance to become legally recognized since "not one single religious movement or sect has ever been denied registration in Kyrgyzstan."

MUCH ADO ABOUT KAZBAT. Approximately 500 young Kazakhs have volunteered to join a peacekeeping battalion in Afghanistan, while Kazakh veterans of the Soviet army's ill-fated invasion in 1979 were vociferously protesting the decision to send their boys to Afghanistan at all, AP reported on 19 February. Apparently volunteers were mainly tempted by the $600 monthly wage being offered for contract fighters in the Kazakh battalion ("Kazbat"), which is four to five times the average salary in Kazakhstan. Some Kazakhs signing up for the battalion have been out of work for years and consider $600 to be "a huge sum of money," according to an IWPR report of 15 February. Others admitted they have no clue why Kazakhstan is sending a battalion to Afghanistan.

The Union of Afghan War Veterans (UAWV) met in the ex-capital Almaty on 15 February, which was the 13th anniversary of the departure of the last Soviet soldier from Afghanistan, for a wreath-laying ceremony, the Kazakh newspaper "Ekspress K" reported. Thousands of Kazakhs were conscripted into the Soviet forces to battle the mujahedin, and many did not return. The ceremony was followed by meeting where a raucous argument raged about the pros and cons of contributing soldiers to the U.S.-led operation Afghanistan, the newspaper said. According to the UAWV's chairman, Lieutenant Colonel Serik Baymuldinov, the state never properly thanked, compensated, or helped anybody of their generation for serving in Afghanistan, so it should settle accounts with them before exposing a new batch of youngsters to danger abroad. Other speakers pointed out that Kazakhstan shares no borders with Afghanistan, its security is not threatened as immediately as Uzbekistan's or Tajikistan's, so what national interests beyond prestige could justify the "Kazbat"? Other societies of Kazakh veterans such as the Military Brotherhood raised a similar outcry, AP reported.

On the following day Yerzhan Kazykhanov, director of the Foreign Ministry's department for multilateral cooperation in the Kazakh capital Astana, tried to address public clamor about the Kazbat. Speaking at a conference devoted to "Afghanistan: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow," he assured journalists that Kazakh peacekeepers would serve strictly under UN auspices and would be non-combatants, whose work would be more oriented toward mine-sweeping, engineering, and construction, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 16 February. Kazykhanov did not explain why Kazakhs should be in Afghanistan in the first place, however. But Astana's desire to build ties with Washington and gain leverage in Kabul are both likely motivating factors, as IWPR noted on 15 February, adding that Kazakhstan intends to open an embassy in the Afghan capital: "Analysts say this will help landlocked Kazakhstan to secure its participation in plans to run an oil pipeline through Afghanistan."

In separate but related news, Interfax reported on 14 February that the Defense Ministry in Astana has initiated a program to combat the spread of AIDS and venereal disease within the armed forces, where hundreds of cases of syphilis and gonorrhea are reported each year. Meanwhile, the general state of health in the country is so poor that most conscripts cannot pass the medical examination anyway. Only 20 percent of the 70,000 boys called up in the autumn were taken; many were underweight, and a quarter were sent home for having too low an IQ (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2002).

AFGHANS TO VACATE CAMPS ON TAJIK BORDER. The 10,000 Afghan refugees camped on the border with Tajikistan are set to return to their homes after the Nouruz holiday (the vernal equinox, 21 March), Asia-Plus news agency reported on 18 February. Denied permission to cross the border by Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, whose policy of admitting no Afghan refugees into the country was harshly criticized by international aid agencies after the U.S.-led bombing campaign began last year, Afghans have been living on islands in the Panj River that delineates the Tajik-Afghan border. A UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative said that the refugees are now waiting for warmer weather before returning to homes that may or may not be habitable, and that the relief agency is working with the interim government in Kabul to construct acceptable homes, hospitals, and schools in their villages. The peaceful and mostly unnoticed return of refugees from Central Asian borders is in stark contrast to last fall's predictions, by UN aid agencies, that the proximate result of war in Afghanistan would be humanitarian catastrophe with 50,000 displaced persons flocking to the Tajik frontier (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 25 October 2001).

Meanwhile, on 19 February UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers praised the Kyrgyz government for its "demonstration of generosity" in granting asylum to more than 16,000 Tajiks during their civil war from 1992 to 1997, "Vechernii Bishkek" reported. While Tajikistan itself maintained a closed-door policy toward refugees, Kyrgyzstan opened its door to Tajiks. Moreover, 9,000 of them never returned to their homes in Tajikistan after the 1997 cease-fire and have stayed on in Kyrgyzstan, the newspaper pointed out. Yet despite Lubbers' appreciation for Kyrgyz hospitality, it should be noted that of those 9,000 Tajiks, only 300 have been granted Kyrgyz citizenship, and many of the rest have existed for over five years without papers in a bureaucratic limbo.