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Central Asia Report: December 29, 2002

29 December 2002, Volume 2, Number 47

TURKMEN POLICE REPORTEDLY CAPTURE FUGITIVE FORMER FOREIGN MINISTER. The manhunt for the mastermind behind last month's attempt to assassinate President Saparmurat Niyazov, which began last week with a raid on Uzbekistan's Embassy in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, had the hallmarks of a wild goose chase. One week later, with Turkmen authorities crowing that they had captured public enemy number one, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, it looks as if there may have been a method to the madness.

On 16 December, more than a dozen Turkmen special services officers forcibly entered the Uzbek Embassy in Ashgabat and searched the ambassador's residence, claiming to have information that Turkmen nationals involved in the bid to kill Niyazov had taken refuge in the building. When they failed to find anyone hiding there, the officers filmed a Turkmen who had accompanied them into the building and testified on camera that he had been living in the embassy for some time. On the following day the Uzbek Foreign Ministry issued a protest note, calling the incident a gross violation of the norms and principles of international law, and demanding an immediate explanation as well as immunity for its diplomatic mission in Ashgabat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 December 2002).

Speaking on Turkmen Television on 18 December, Prosecutor-General Kurbanbibi Atajanova shed light on the police's precipitous actions when she made two seemingly amazing claims. First, she stated that opposition leader Shikhmuradov, assumed to be in Moscow where he is based in exile, was in fact in Turkmenistan. She said he arrived in the Uzbek town of Qarshi on 23 November and slipped across the border that night in order to be on hand to seize power after the planned assassination of Niyazov on 25 November. But she made the allegation credible and compelling by adding a supporting wealth of detail. She described the model Volvo he traveled in, his exact movements, the times and addresses of his meetings with alleged co-conspirators, and the roles of his accomplices in the plot. Second, Atajanova accused Uzbekistan's ambassador in Ashgabat, Abdurashid Qodyrov, of hiding Shikhmuradov and one accomplice in the embassy after the attack failed. She said the plotters hid out in the building from 26 November until 7 December. Shikhmuradov, she said, had disappeared. But his accomplice, Nurmuhammed Orazgeldyev, was arrested on 14 December at a bus station in the town of Mary dressed in women's clothes, the prosecutor-general said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2002).

On 19 December, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov dismissed these charges as groundless. But he did add a rider to his denials, little noticed at the time, that seems more significant in light of subsequent events. Komilov said, as quoted by Interfax: "Uzbekistan thinks it expedient to note that Boris Shikhmuradov, who was the foreign minister of Turkmenistan for many years, has visited the republic many times and, naturally, has numerous acquaintances and persons he maintains contacts with in Uzbekistan." For anyone suspicious enough to wonder whether Uzbekistan may really have assisted Shikhmuradov after all, Komilov's caveat sounds like a clever hedge designed to give government figures "deniability" in case compromising revelations ever came out about Uzbek collusion.

Meanwhile, Turkmen authorities offered neither apologies nor explanations for raiding the Uzbek Embassy. On the contrary, the Foreign Ministry in Ashgabat ratcheted up the diplomatic tension when it issued a statement on 21 December declaring Qodyrov persona non grata "for committing acts incompatible with the status of a diplomat" and demanding that he leave the country within 24 hours. Qodyrov duly left the country the next day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2002). The Turkmen special services maintained that Shikhmuradov and an accomplice, businessman Iklym Iklymov, were still in the country, and they intensified the search. Turkmen Television called on citizens to assist in the manhunt, showing photographs of the two men and urging viewers to report any information about their whereabouts to the police (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2002).

At this point, one might have expected Shikhmuradov to prove the Turkmen government to be liars by the simple expedient of showing himself on Russian television. The fact that he did not may have planted some seeds of doubt among observers who had been inclined to dismiss Ashgabat's allegations out of hand as wild posturing or pretexts for a purge. Then, on 26 December, presidential spokesman Serdar Durdyev announced that Shikhmuradov had been captured by police at an undisclosed location within Turkmenistan. Prosecutor-General Atajanova confirmed the news on television, saying that Niyazov's nemesis had been captured together with Iklymov.

Meanwhile, Shikhmuradov posted a statement on his opposition website,, dated 24 December and allegedly written while he was still at liberty, in which he announced that he was planning to give himself up to the Turkmen National Security Ministry voluntarily. This was the first hint from his side that he really was in Turkmenistan. Shikhmuradov claimed on the website that he had been hiding in the country since September, organizing a series of mass rallies in Ashgabat and elsewhere that were scheduled to take place in late November. After the assassination attempt -- and he was silent on the all-important question of whether he was involved in it or had prior knowledge of it -- he felt obliged, he said, to surrender in order to stop the police from arresting and torturing innocent people to make them reveal his whereabouts.

Is this likely, given that by delivering himself into Niyazov's hands he is almost certainly condemning himself to death? Or is it more probable that his letter on the website was backdated and posted by someone as prearranged in case he was caught -- part of a face-saving contingency plan giving the impression of a noble martyrdom for the cause of democracy?

Is it likely that Turkmen law-enforcement officials are so reckless and incompetent that they would provoke an international incident by making wild charges against Uzbekistan? Or is it more probable, given the apparent detail with which they had tracked Shikhmuradov's moves in the run-up to the assassination attempt, that they actually had collected enough evidence to substantiate their accusations of Uzbek complicity?

Is it likely that Tashkent might actually have colluded -- albeit at a suitable remove to ensure that all top officials had deniability -- in a plot to eliminate Niyazov? Could the fact that Niyazov recently refused Uzbekistan permission to use its Caspian ports and railways to export goods, or the fact that Uzbekistan has various outstanding land, water, and energy disputes with its neighbor, or the fact that Central Asia would simply be a more stable and predictable place without the erratic Niyazov in power, be relevant in this regard? Could the fact that Tashkent actually has a history of trying to undermine neighboring regimes, as when it supported the failed coup in Tajikistan in November 1998 headed by former Tajik Army Colonel Mahmud Khudaiberdiev, be relevant in this regard?

UZBEK, UKRAINIAN LEADERS TALK TRADE, SLAM GUUAM. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma visited the Uzbek capital Tashkent on 19-20 December and held discussions with senior Uzbek officials on trade and transport issues. Kuchma last visited Uzbekistan two years ago.

At a meeting with President Islam Karimov on 19 December, the two sides addressed the declining volume of bilateral trade. Trade turnover amounted to $350 million in 2001 but has plunged about 15 percent this year, according to Uzbek Television. Karimov hinted that hard-currency deficits on both sides contributed to the problem. Gas, cotton, textiles, and aircraft are among the items Uzbekistan sells to Ukraine, while its imports from Ukraine include iron, chemicals, and farm machinery.

Karimov also complained about the high tariffs that Ukraine was demanding for transportation and services at its Black Sea ports. These are important export outlets for Uzbekistan, but the volume of Uzbek exports passing through them has declined as Ukrainian tariffs have risen to the point where it makes sense to use alternative routes, Karimov said. Nevertheless, he added that Uzbekistan was still interested in shipping cotton via Ukraine. (Meanwhile, on 19 December, Kazakhstan's Khabar Television reported that the first cargo ship carrying Uzbek cotton had left the Kazakh port of Aqtau on the Caspian Sea, heading for the port of Bandar-e Abbas in Iran. The television described the choice of route as a victory for the Kazakh government, which had lobbied for Uzbekistan's business on behalf of three state entities handling the cotton consignments -- the state railroad company Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, the state company KazTransServis, and the port of Aqtau.)

Neither leader appeared to have much faith in the viability of the GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) grouping, originally created in the mid-1990s on the basis of its members' common interests in forming an East-West corridor for cargo and passenger transportation. Uzbekistan, which joined GUUAM in 1998, had already signaled its dwindling interest in the organization in June when it announced it was temporarily suspending its membership. Last week Karimov said that if the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) could function as an organization fulfilling the interests of its member states, whose main motivation in cooperating was economic, then GUUAM would become redundant, Interfax reported on 20 December. He added that "the economic component should become the foundation of the future CIS." He suggested the GUUAM states' economic interests might be ensured equally well through bilateral agreements or through the creation of a free-trade zone (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2002). Kuchma, for his part, referred to GUUAM as "amorphous" and said it was "necessary to analyze the need for [its] existence," Interfax-Ukraine reported on 20 December.

The two sides also signed a cooperation agreement between their foreign ministries, and a document on mutual recognition of the registration of medicines. Kuchma also met ethnic Ukrainians living in Uzbekistan and inaugurated a monument to the Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko.

KYRGYZSTAN SQUARES CIRCLES IN EFFORTS TO TRIANGULATE RUSSIA, U.S., AND CHINA. Kyrgyzstan's neighbors are still coming to terms with the implications of President Askar Akaev's recent decision to permit the deployment of both Russian and American troops on his country's territory. Meanwhile, Akaev's government has continued to maintain that no strategic competition is involved in its simultaneous accommodation of two (erstwhile) rivals -- or even three rivals, if Kyrgyzstan's burgeoning military relationship with China is added to the equation.

Earlier this month, Kyrgyz Defense Minister Esen Topoev revealed that Russia planned to deploy an array of aircraft and around 700 military personnel at the Kant military airfield near Bishkek starting next year (see "Central Asia: Diplomatic Visits Highlight U.S., Russian Competition,", 3 December 2002). The men and machines -- planned to consist of 10 Su-25 and Su-27 attack jets, five training aircraft, two transport planes, and two multipurpose Mi-8 helicopters -- will represent one of the most significant deployments beyond Russia's border since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. The air squadron is intended to support a 5,000-member rapid-reaction force assembled by Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan under the aegis of the CIS Collective Security Treaty. The final decision on the deployment is due to be made at the May 2003 summit of presidents of the Collective Security Treaty member states, with the military buildup at Kant following in the late summer.

At a briefing in Bishkek on 25 December, Russian military attache Vladimir Varfalomeev was at pains to stress that Moscow would not in any sense be setting up a base of its own at Kant airfield, but merely stationing its planes at a facility belonging to the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry, Interfax reported. "The treaty's collective forces will be deployed here to ensure security on the CIS's southern frontiers in accordance with resolutions adopted in the wake of the treaty," Varfalomeev said.

Meanwhile some 1,700 soldiers, 19 F-16 jets, and two KC-135 refueling planes of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition are currently situated at Manas airport, approximately 35 kilometers from Kant. Although the planes actually hail from the Danish, Norwegian, and Dutch air forces, America's military predominance in the combat against terrorism has analysts seeing the juxtaposition of forces at Manas and Kant as a symbol and concrete manifestation of regional rivalry between Washington and Moscow. By the same token it shows Kyrgyzstan, whose position as host to both U.S. and Russian bases is unique in the region, running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. On the one hand, it has accepted over $90 million in U.S. aid in 2002, most of the money targeted to the military and security spheres. On the other hand, Russia rewarded Kyrgyzstan for agreeing to the basing arrangement by extending the latter's debt repayments, which exceed $160 million, by another 20 years, with part of that sum going towards developing air-base infrastructure, according to the Institute of War and Peace Reporting on 20 December. It is questionable whether tiny Kyrgyzstan really can accommodate and serve two such powerful, and presumably jealous, masters at the same time.

Bishkek's response has been to deny that there is any contradiction involved. On 18 December, Akaev's foreign-policy adviser, Muratbek Imanaliev, said the government would be working to develop closer political and economic cooperation with Russia. He simultaneously rejected the idea that Moscow's efforts to raise its military profile in Central Asia was a reaction to U.S. deployments in the region. Denying any competitive motive, he maintained the move was "dictated by Russia's foreign political interests," and even suggested that the large overlap in American and Russian antiterrorist interests might tend towards mutual cooperation rather than rivalry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2002).

Akaev, in an interview published in the newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 December, argued that both the United States and Russia were his country's main strategic partners, and stressed he was making no attempt to play one against the other in his foreign policy. He repeated this point vigorously at a regular session of the National Security Council on 21 December. "Kyrgyzstan's foreign policy is not built on opposing some countries against others according to an either/or principle. We are interested in friendly relations both with Russia and the U.S.," Akaev said on Kyrgyz Radio. He added that attempts to interpret the Russian deployment at Kant "as some form of challenge to the U.S. are a gross lie, and are intended to drive a wedge in the strategic partnership between Russia and America." And, on 26 December, Akaev triangulated again, boasting that U.S. President George W. Bush had called Kyrgyzstan one of America's best friends and allies, while commenting that friendly relations with Russia were a priority and that Kyrgyzstan must strive not to set the interests of the great powers against one another "but, on the contrary, to harmonize them," Interfax reported.

After three weeks of adamant denials that there are strains, conflicts, or regional rivalries involved since the Russian deployments at Kant were made public, there is a growing sense that the Kyrgyz government doth protest a little bit too much. At any rate, Akaev's neighbors do not seem completely convinced. Uzbek President Islam Karimov told journalists in Tashkent on 12 December that the presence of military bases in Central Asia could be regarded as positive only where they served to ensure security, peace, and stability. "Military rivalry between the great powers in an overheated region is counterproductive," he said, not mincing words (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2002). On the same day, Uzbek Radio commented that Washington was a strong and reliable strategic partner -- with an implied contrast with Russia, whom Karimov has frequently criticized for ineffectually keeping to the sidelines in the struggle against terrorism while the Pentagon did the hard work (see "Central Asia: Uzbek President Skeptical About New Russian Military Presence,", 13 December 2002). Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has also appeared uncomfortable with the idea of Russia and the U.S. jostling for elbow room in Kyrgyzstan. Asked directly by the newspaper "Kommersant" on 20 December whether Washington and Russia were competing for influence in Central Asia, Nazarbaev waffled. Such questions were distractions, he suggested, when the key issues were economic: "We all require huge amounts of investment. So we should not concern ourselves about a military presence, but rather about how to do constructive work that benefits everybody," Nazarbaev said.

None of the foregoing even touches on Kyrgyzstan's relations with China, which have the potential to complicate the situation still further. Servicemen of the Chinese People's Liberation Army joined Kyrgyz armed forces for antiterrorism exercises in Kyrgyzstan on 10-11 October, representing the first time Chinese troops had ever participated in maneuvers abroad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 October 2002). The two sides subsequently signed an antiterrorism pact (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2002) and there have been suggestions that Beijing may also ask to station troops in Kyrgyzstan as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's efforts against terrorism.

KAZAKH PRESIDENT HAILS 'BREAKTHROUGH YEAR' IN RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA, FORESEES 'LANDMARK YEAR' IN 2003. Nursultan Nazarbaev concluded a two-day visit to Moscow on 20 December with wide-ranging talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The two discussed closer political and economic collaboration within the framework of multilateral forums such as the CIS Collective Security Treaty and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as bilateral questions of energy cooperation, economic integration, and the weapons trade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2002). Nazarbaev was also in Moscow to inaugurate "2003 -- the Year of Kazakhstan in Russia," a project designed to boost economic, scientific, educational, and cultural relations between the two countries. He called 2002 a "breakthrough year" for Kazakh-Russian bilateral relations. He noted significant progress on such issues as the division of the northern Caspian Sea -- where the Kurmangazy, Khvalynskoe, and Tsentral'noe oil fields are situated, agreements on the transit of Kazakh oil through Russia via the Tengiz-Novorossiisk pipeline, and the modernization of Kazakhstan's Ekibastuz hydroelectric power station with Russian help, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Nazarbaev added that next year should see the further development of ties in energy, transportation, and the metals industry, as well as the final delimitation of the his country's 7,400-kilometer border with Russia, of which he said 85 percent had already been demarcated. If 2002 was a "breakthrough year," he said he wanted 2003 to be a "landmark year" in relations with Moscow, Kazakh Television reported on 20 December. He gushed that Kazakhstan had no unresolved problems with the Russian Federation. But Putin had a slightly less rosy view of relations, saying there were still some problems to be ironed out. As examples he mentioned various ecological sticking points connected with the exploitation of the Caspian's resources, and a worrying 12 percent decline in bilateral trade turnover that he said needed to be analyzed and dealt with forthwith, Interfax reported.

Also on 19 December, Nazarbaev told RTR that Kazakhstan was positively inclined to consider a Russian request to extend its lease on the Baikonur Cosmodrome for up to 50 years. Russia, which has been renting the facility for $115 million per year since 1999, currently has a 20-year lease that is due to expire in 2014. Kazakhstan hopes for "larger financing and active involvement in all space studies and launches from the Kazakh spaceport at Baikonur," Nazarbaev said. At the same time he noted that a joint Kazakh-Russian commission concluded this year that the detritus falling on Kazakh territory after each launch was harmful to the environment. There have also been launch accidents in recent years that caused chemicals and rocket parts to rain down on nearby Kazakh villages. The Russian military's large presence in the small town near the Cosmodrome, together with restrictive hiring practices, have further aggravated relations, Interfax noted on 19 December. Nevertheless, Nazarbaev and Putin signed a memorandum instructing their governments to start negotiations over the lease extension. Nazarbaev also toured the Mission Control Center in the Moscow regional town of Korolyov, where the possibility of training two Kazakhs for the International Space Station was discussed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2002).