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Central Asia Report: November 15, 2002

15 November 2002, Volume 2, Number 43

TURKMEN LEADER LASHES OUT FOLLOWING COTTON-CROP FAILURE. Heads rolled in Turkmenistan as President Saparmurat Niyazov came to grips with the scale of the failure of this year's cotton harvest. The minister of agriculture, four of the country's five governors, and various other officials were sacked. Cotton is the Turkmenistan's main cash crop.

There had already been intimations in late September that cotton figures would fall short of expectations. The president visited northern Dashoguz Oblast and, after criticizing the regional leadership for planting the crop too late in the year, warned them that they would be blamed if the harvest did not meet targets (see "RFE/RL Turkmen Report," 3 October 2002). Dashoguz Oblast is supposed to be the country's leading cotton-producing area. Niyazov also criticized the chiefs of the Mary and Balkan oblasts, which are other major cotton regions, and various central-government officials. At the same time, he belatedly brandished some carrots, as well as sticks, ordering that cotton pickers be paid higher prices immediately after the harvest as an incentive to reach the planned target of 2 million tons.

He issued more threats against local-administration heads and government ministers at a cabinet session in the capital Ashgabat on 4 November, by which time the gravity of the situation was apparent. Under 500,000 metric tons of cotton had been collected, less than one-quarter of the target. Officials were told they would be held responsible for their shortcomings, including their waste of budgetary resources and bank credits (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 November 2002). Meanwhile, on 4 November was blaming the weather: Heavy spring and summer rains had waterlogged soil and retarded planting. There was no rainfall in the country in September and October, but the showers resumed in November and were hampering the harvest in many districts, the Internet newspaper said.

(By way of comparison, Uzbekistan's Agriculture Ministry said the country had harvested 3.2 million tons, or 84 percent of this year's target of 3.75 million tons, RFE/RL reported on 13 November. The ministry's cotton expert, Rasuljon Holmatjonov, said that unusually heavy rainfall this year ruined the crop.)

Rain or no rain, "proper organization alone would have given us at least 1.5 million tons of raw cotton," Niyazov told a second cabinet session during an 85-minute harangue on 11 November, as reported by Asia-Plus and Interfax. Instead, a mere 489,000 tons, or 24 percent, of the planned target had been gathered, according to the state statistics and information institute Turkmenmillihasabat. Turkmen TV noted on 11 November that climate, mismanagement, and lack of property rights had all been blamed for the disaster. But Niyazov focused on what he called "the human factor" -- specifically, bad organization and the inefficient use of manpower and technical resources. He announced that a newly enlarged department at the Agriculture Ministry would spearhead the application of modern technology, machinery, and fertilizers to Turkmenistan's agrarian sector. Biologists attending the meeting were ordered to research better cotton strains and more promising plantation schemes for next year. Two low-level ministry officials were sacked, as the president said they lacked experience, Turkmen TV reported on 11 November.

Niyazov was gunning for more senior officials, however, at a third session held on 15 November. Castigating the "lack of responsibility, unprofessionalism, incompetence, and dishonesty of leaders in the center and in the regions," he sacked Deputy Prime Minister for Agricultural Issues Rejep Saparov, Agriculture Minister Rustam Artykov, and four of the country's five governors, the newspaper "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" reported. Saparov, who had held his post for 10 straight years, was demoted to head of the presidential staff, reported on 15 November.

Simultaneously, the governors of Mary, Ahal, Balkan, and Dashoguz oblasts were dismissed. "I am sacking all of you for grave shortcomings, for failure to perform your duties, and for inflicting damage on the state and the nation," said Niyazov, according to Turkmen TV. "Instead of creating the necessary conditions so that tenant farmers and landowners can work efficiently, you have been busily compiling false reports and selling off plots of land. The law-enforcement bodies have ample evidence about this." He added: "That is why you are being dismissed without being offered another position. All I can suggest is that you learn to live like ordinary farmers by stepping into their shoes," ITAR-TASS reported.

The current energy minister, Annaguly Jumagylyjov, was named the new governor of Mary Oblast. The current economics minister, Enebay Ataeva, was named the new governor of Ahal Oblast. The president said the latter would retain her position of deputy prime minister.

Niyazov also had harsh words to say about the way winter wheat was being sown. He blasted those governors who "make false reports, representing unsown areas as sown with grain," and ordered the police to make a thorough investigation, Turkmen TV reported on 15 November. Turkmenistan has claimed over the years to be steadily improving its wheat crop, culminating in this summer's assertions that the country had had its best harvest ever with a bumper crop of 2.3 million tons. Meanwhile, critics of the regime warned that it regularly manipulated statistical data (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 18 July 2002).

On 15 November, opposition website discussed "17 Reasons for the Poor Cotton Harvest in Turkmenistan 2002." It noted that fully 16 percent of the land reported by regional authorities to Ashgabat to have been planted with cotton -- 120,000 out of 750,000 hectares -- was actually never planted at all. Other reasons included soil exhaustion, lack of crop rotation, a crippling lack of machinery, the near total lack of fertilizers or defoliants, the absence of truly knowledgeable agricultural experts, the absence of genuine private landholders, and the refusal of people to go on working in the fields without compensation.

RAPE CASE PROMPTS SHARPER CRITICISM, UMBRELLA WALKS. Kazakh oppositionists continued to rally around jailed independent journalist Sergei Duvanov, while international organizations cranked up their expressions of concern and criticisms of the government's conduct in the affair -- albeit couched in well-moderated diplomatic language. Duvanov, 49, is editor of a human rights bulletin and frequent critic of President Nursultan Nazarbaev. He was arrested on the morning of 28 October after falling into a heavy sleep, induced by drinking tea that he believes was laced with a strong sedative. He was woken by police to be informed he had raped an underage girl. On the following day, he was due to fly to the United States to lecture on media freedoms and human rights in Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 7 November 2002).

On 9 November, at the recommendation of his supporters and lawyer, Duvanov ended the hunger strike he had started 10 days earlier to protest his detention (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November 2002). Prison personnel had begun force-feeding him on 8 November. In an open letter posted on the "Respublika 2000" website on the same day, Duvanov wrote that a hunger strike was the only way to prove his innocence, since the course of the verdict in a government-controlled court was a foregone conclusion. Considering what happened to opposition figures Akezhan Kazhegeldin, Mukhtar Abliyazov, and Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov -- all recently sentenced to long prison terms -- "one can confidently predict that the authorities will not miss their chance but do everything in their power to imprison a refractory journalist," Duvanov wrote.

In any case, the fairness of the trial will be difficult to monitor. As "The Washington Times" pointed out on 14 November, the fact that it is a rape case against a minor means that the court proceedings by law will be private.

Meanwhile, in Almaty, three members of the Committee for the Release of Sergei Duvanov kept up a hunger strike they had begun on 6 November. One of them, well-known political scientist Nurbulat Masanov, was forced to discontinue his strike on 13 November on doctor's orders. An ambulance rushed him to a state hospital, but officials refused to admit or treat Masanov, who instead was taken to his home to recover. Another opposition activist immediately began a hunger strike to replace Masanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 November 2002).

In a 7 November press release and report on the Duvanov case, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) expressed concern over the circumstances of the journalist's detention. It noted the timing of his arrest on the eve of a foreign speaking tour, as well as his run-ins with the authorities before, and in veiled language essentially accused Nazarbaev's regime of conducting a politically motivated vendetta. The OSCE urged Kazakh authorities to "conduct promptly a full, fair and transparent investigation" with the participation of "independent foreign experts to handle possible DNA evidence," Reuters reported. Also on 7 November, the European Union circulated a statement in which it noted the strong presumption of a "political pretext" behind Duvanov's arrest, "aimed at making one of the most prominent critics of the Kazakh government shut up," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The EU called for "a full, transparent and objective investigation" to "dispel all doubts" surrounding the case. The U.S. State Department chimed in on 12 November, as spokesmen Richard Boucher explained that Washington's "primary concern is that any legal process against [Duvanov] be carried out in a fair, transparent and open manner," AFP and Reuters reported.

Duvanov's supporters invented a new kind of protest on 12 November, when some 30 people strolled silently back and forth outside the Abay Theater in Almaty, carrying black-and-white umbrellas imprinted with Duvanov's name in red letters, Interfax reported. Roza Taukina, head of the nongovernmental organization Journalists in Trouble, said that similar demonstrations were planned daily for an hour at a time in different crowded areas in Almaty. She added that Duvanov's supporters had changed their tactics after police arrested some 40 demonstrators over the last few days, jailing several for two to four days, and fining 12, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Meanwhile, Almaty police headquarters issued statements intending to undermine the notion that the protests reflected any popular support for Duvanov. The police said that most of the people participating in the illegal rallies were pensioners or unemployed people from provincial towns who joined in accidentally or were lured in with promises of money, Interfax-Kazakhstan said on 14 November.

However, Taukina assured reporters that promenading with umbrellas without uttering a word perfectly legal. Law-enforcement officers disagreed. They broke up the umbrella walk outside Abay Theater and took about a dozen of the demonstrators into custody, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported.

Meanwhile, a U.S. law firm assisting in Duvanov's defense -- Yablonski, Both and Edelman, based in Washington -- compiled a memorandum dated 12 November that documented eight major violations of the defendant's rights according to the Criminal Procedure Code. Among the violations it details, reported by on 13 November, are the planting of evidence against him by investigators at the crime scene, and the fact that the state's senior investigator affirmed in her written findings that the alleged rape took place, thereby violating the presumption of innocence. Also, Duvanov was not permitted access to a lawyer within the legally required time period. Nor was he permitted to confront the complainant prior to his interrogation, his request for scientific tests to be conducted at the scene of the alleged crime was refused, and he was not released pending trial, although his formal detention and arrest were conducted in violation of the legally required time frame. The search warrant was not formulated correctly. Finally, the legal team asserts it was not afforded a proper opportunity to challenge the criminal investigation's findings.