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Central Asia Report: September 6, 2001

6 September 2001, Volume 1, Number 7

KYRGYZSTAN CELEBRATES INDEPENDENCE AMID QUESTIONS ABOUT DUAL CITIZENSHIP, STATE LANGUAGE... The tenth anniversary of Kyrgyzstan's independence was celebrated on 31 August in the capital Bishkek with an eclectic mix of Soviet-style throwbacks and capitalist touches. A military parade marched past Kyrgyz leaders, watching from a tribune in the city's central plaza, Alatoo Square, which is still dominated by a statue of Lenin. Then came a civic procession of at least 3,000 people, followed by the launch of a giant balloon advertising DHL Worldwide Express, Interfax and Kabar news agencies reported. According to Interior Ministry press releases, police were put on high alert to forestall any terrorist acts by the banned, Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir Party or by unspecified "Wahhabis." No disturbances were reported.

Speaking on Kyrgyz television on 30 August, President Askar Akaev paid tribute to Kyrgyz historical heroes (and some legendary ones, like Manas) who had fought for freedom and national sovereignty. Among their numbers Akaev mentioned "heroes of World War II and heroes of armed conflicts with international terrorists on the territory of ancient Batken in 2000 and 1999." During the past two summers, guerrilla fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have invaded Kyrgyzstan's southern Batken Province from bases in the Tajik mountains.

His compatriots should be proud, Akaev said, that they had "achieved strong ethnic unity and civil accord among all the people of Kyrgyzstan," and "not permitted the ethnic groups that live in Kyrgyzstan to become alienated."

These remarks were topical, since last week saw the Kyrgyz government publicly wrestling with ways to stem the large-scale emigration of able-bodied citizens, particularly ethnic Russians, who are disenchanted with the country's precarious economic and social situation. During the last 10 years over 400,000 people left the country, mainly Slavs, who now constitute about 15 percent of the population. Kyrgyzstan's total population in 1999 was 4.86 million.

On 28 August, a majority of the members of the Kyrgyz parliament's Legislative Assembly made a public appeal to President Akaev to amend the constitution to allow for dual citizenship, the InfoCenter Bishkek website reported. According to Zaynidin Kurmanov, who read out the appeal and heads a rightist coalition in parliament, the move would protect Kyrgyz nationals already living abroad, attract investments into Kyrgyzstan, and improve the democratic climate. Supporters of dual citizenship add that it would be an incentive for people to remain in Kyrgyzstan rather than permanently decamp to Russia or Kazakhstan, the favored destinations for emigres. Detractors of the idea fear that dual citizenship would accelerate emigration, especially from Kyrgyzstan's economically depressed and terrorist-prone southern regions. The Constitutional Court recently turned down a proposal by a group of parliamentary deputies to allow dual citizenship with Russia.

The official state language is another issue with important ethnic ramifications since most Russians in Kyrgyzstan cannot understand Kyrgyz. Last week Akaev's administration signaled its intent not to alienate ethnic Slavs unduly when Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev defeated a draft law "On the State Language," proposed in the Legislative Assembly, that would have given Kyrgyz priority status in official contexts, AKIpress news agency reported on 28 August. The administration argued that the proposal was both unconstitutional and too expensive to implement. But plans to make Russian the second state language proceed apace. Kyrgyz radio reported on 16 August that the government had prepared a draft bill to that effect, noting that it would "promote further development of friendly relations between representatives of all ethnic groups." The law would entail changing Article 5 of the Kyrgyz Constitution on the state language. On 29 August Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo, who was in Bishkek for the independence celebrations, told journalists that official recognition of the Russian language in Kyrgyzstan would reduce the exodus of Russian-speakers, RIA-Novosti reported. The draft law is due to go before the legislature soon. Bilateral military and economic projects between Russian and Kyrgyzstan would further discourage emigration by creating jobs, Rushailo said.

Dealing with the influx of ethnic Kyrgyz, no less than the exodus of ethnic Russians, was also on the government's agenda in the last week, as Akaev signed a decree to facilitate repatriation of Kyrgyz migrants and refugees, Kabar and Interfax reported on 29 August. According to government statistics, 42,000 ethnic Kyrgyz entered the country between 1991 and 2000, half of them displaced from Tajikistan during the 1993-1997 civil war. About 10,000 people have refugee status, and 90 percent of them intend to stay in Kyrgyzstan. Akaev's decree calls for the elaboration of state program, beginning next year, to simplify procedures for people returning to "the historic homeland" to obtain citizenship, register with the police, get their children in school, and receive plots of land. Kyrgyz are returning from China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere, but the program will focus especially on helping Kyrgyz from the Afghan Pamirs, Kabar said.

...WHILE DOMESTIC AND INTERNATIONAL SECURITY DOMINATE UZBEK ANNIVERSARY. Tight security was the order of the day in the Uzbek capital Tashkent on 1 September, as Uzbekistan celebrated its 10th anniversary of independence, Agence France Presse reported. The festivities kicked off the previous evening with a music-and-dance show for government officials and invited guests on Mustaqillik Square in the city center, which was ringed with heavy police vehicles. The whole downtown area was cordoned off by security forces and the city itself was encircled by police checkpoints. Mustaqillik Square was one of the sites where bombs exploded in Tashkent in February 1999, narrowly missing Uzbek President Islam Karimov, in a terrorist action that remains ultimately unexplained but has been blamed on the militant IMU. Karimov, speaking on Uzbek TV on 31 August, underscored his regime's commitment to maintaining "peace and stability" at all costs while the country faced "such increasing threats as terrorism, religious extremism and fundamentalism, and drug addiction."

Although Islamist rebels have been relatively dormant this summer in Uzbekistan, the Uzbek Ministry of Defense said that eight terrorists were killed by government forces in the Bostanlyk District near Tashkent on 30 August, during a mountain operation against a rebel band that had crossed the border from Tajikistan's Leninobod region, Interfax reported. A large number of weapons were seized and two border guards who had been held hostage by the rebels were released.

Meanwhile on 30 August the leader of the banned Uzbek opposition party Birlik (Unity), Abdurahim Pulatov, told Iranian radio, that Uzbeks had little to celebrate this 1 September. Judged in terms of economic well-being, respect for human rights, and freedom of worship, life in Uzbekistan was worse than under Gorbachev and "tens of thousands" of innocent people were being held in Uzbek prisons, he said. He added that even Uzbekistan's independence was an illusion since "it is economically, militarily, and morally dependent on Russia."

At least militarily Karimov has kept Russia at arm's length, pulling out of the CIS Collective Security Treaty and staying aloof from the joint Rapid Reaction Forces whose inaugural antiterrorist exercises took place last month in southern Kyrgyzstan. Therefore there was cause for surprise at Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov's announcement on 30 August, reported by Interfax, that Tashkent had approached Moscow with a request for weapons to fight terrorists, and that Moscow was preparing to supply them. But Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov hurried to contradict his Russian counterpart, telling ITAR-TASS on the same day that he "categorically denies" that Tashkent has made such a request, which he suggested "can only be viewed as wishful thinking" -- meaning, presumably, wishful thinking on the part of Russians hoping to extend Moscow's influence over Uzbekistan.

However Karimov was not reluctant to acknowledge gratitude to China last week for supplying Uzbekistan with military materiel such as sniper rifle and flak jackets in remarks reported by ITAR-TASS on 29 August. After Uzbek Minister of Defense Yurii Agazmov returned from Beijing with a military cooperation agreement, Karimov said that "from now on Uzbekistan can count of the military assistance of China in repulsing aggression" by Islamists. On the same day the Uzbek parliament ratified the convention against terrorism, separatism, and extremism in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Interfax-Central Asia reported.

Nor did Uzbekistan's prickly independent stance towards Moscow stop Karimov praising Russia for its "interested presence" and stabilizing role in Central Asia during in an interview with Russia TV on 1 September. Identifying rebel activity as "the biggest problem facing Uzbekistan today," Karimov said that without Russia's presence "we would not be looking to the future as confidently as we do today." Yet it should be noted that Karimov, who regularly lambasts Moscow for its hegemonic pretensions in Central Asia when he addresses Uzbek audiences, has tended to express warmer sentiments towards Moscow for Russian consumption; Uzbek media ignore the discrepancies, and few Russian newspapers that might carry Karimov's remarks are allowed to enter Uzbekistan.

KAZAKHS RUE THEIR NUCLEAR PAST, BUT STILL IN THE MARKET FOR NUCLEAR PROJECTS. A two-day conference entitled "The 21st Century: Towards a World Free of Nuclear Weapons" in the ex-Kazakh capital Almaty concluded on 30 August with a memorandum urging nations to support nuclear non-proliferation, Kazakh Khabar TV reported. The conference, presided over by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and attended by numerous international figures including ex-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, ex-Indian Prime Minister Inder Gujaral and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, commemorated the 10th anniversary of the closing of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test ground in northeast Kazakhstan where the Soviets conducted 456 tests between 1949 and 1989. During the conference Nazarbaev appealed for more international aid to address the consequences of the Soviet nuclear program at Semipalatinsk, saying that Kazakhstan had received $20 million in aid so far but needed over $1 billion to fully address the legacy of ecological degradation and a high incidence of cancer and birth defects among the population in the northwest of the country.

Kazakh Commercial TV, said on 29 August that the United States had turned down a Kazakh request for financial aid in mothballing the remnants of the Soviet nuclear arsenal remaining on Kazakh territory. In the early 1990's Nazarbaev garnered international praise when he gave up over a thousand SS-18 missile warheads, eschewing nuclear status for his independent country. More recently he has joined Russia and other Central Asian states in opposing Washington's plan for a missile shield. The Kazakh TV broadcast said that Washington had explained its refusal to accede to the Kazakh request as tit-for-tat for Nazarbaev's supporting a "pro-Russian anti-missile defense treaty."

However, Nazarbaev made it clear this week that Kazakhstan's anti-nuclear stance in the military sphere does not preclude its support for peaceful nuclear projects that draw on the experience of Kazakhstan's atomic scientists. Kazakh Khabar TV reported on 30 August that scientists working with a nuclear reactor at the National Nuclear Center (the renamed Semipalatinsk test facility) were ready to conduct research on an innovative nuclear engine for rockets carrying payloads to Mars. On the same day, Vice President of the Russian Academy of Sciences Yevgenii Velikhov told journalists that Nazarbaev had agreed to join an ongoing international effort to build an experimental thermonuclear reactor, Interfax said. The project, which envisages construction of the reactor by 2010 and of the first thermonuclear power plant by 2030, presently includes Russia, Japan, Canada, and several Western European nations. Kazakhs working with Russians at the National Nuclear Center have already developed some of the components for such a reactor, Velikhov said. It has not been decided in which country the experimental thermonuclear reactor would be built.

FAMINE LOOMS IN TAJIKISTAN. More Western donors pledged aid to Tajikistan this week, following a plea by Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and a report last month by the Geneva-based International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRCS) saying that 1 million Tajiks face starvation after widespread crop failure caused by the second year of catastrophic drought. The population of Tajikistan is 6.1 million, 80 percent of whom live below the official poverty line, making it the poorest of the ex-Soviet states. This year's drought has led to a shortfall in the grain harvest of 341,000 metric tons which are now required to avert disaster, IRIN news agency said on 30 August, adding that a dilapidated irrigation system and other legacies of the five-year civil war are contributing to Tajikistan's woes.

The Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan in tandem with the IFRCS were the first international bodies to respond to the crisis, launching a $4 million appeal for a six-month program to provide about 130,000 people with food, medicine, and clean drinking water, Asia-Plus reported on 29 August. The European Union, which allocated a $8.7 million aid package to Tajikistan last year, promised a further $1.8 million to distribute seeds, with an emphasis on winter wheat seeds for kitchen gardens.

On 31 August the Japanese government gave Tajikistan a grant of $16 million, which was followed by a $560,000 grant from Denmark on 2 September for food, seeds, and fertilizer, AFP and RIA-Novosti reported.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has decided to send 5,000 tons of food products, Tajik radio reported on 27 August.

Last month IFRCS also urgently requested $600,000 in humanitarian assistance for Karakalpakistan, the northern region of Uzbekistan abutting the Aral Sea, which has also been hard-hit by drought. The organization said that 20,000 people were in need of aid. On 28 August the Iranian IRNA news agency reported that thousands of families in Karakalpakistan were preparing to move to Kazakhstan as a result of water shortages caused by drought and excessive diversion of the Amu Darya River for cotton irrigation. The water level of the Amu Darya is down 20 percent from last year, the agency said. On the following day Kazakhstan's ambassador in Tashkent, Umarzak Uzbekov, told Interfax that 3,000 ethnic Kazakh families in Karakalpakistan were seeking financial help to emigrate to Kazakhstan.

TURKMENBASHI, THE UBIQUITOUS. The first part of a new six-part series devoted the Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, otherwise known as Turkmenbashi or "Head of the Turkmen," aired on the government Altyn Asyr TV channel on 3 September. Entitled "Turkmenbashi, the Protector," the series follows in the tradition of a 19-part series called "Turkmenbashi, My Leader" that aired in 1999-2000. The authors of both series are presidential Press Secretary Kakamurad Ballyyev and Deputy Director of the State News Service Jumageldy Hommatdurdyyev. The latter has described the new series as "a present" on the occasion of Turkmenistan's 10th independence anniversary on 27 October. The series celebrates the country's progress under Turkmenbashi's leadership and his "titanic effort in creating the holy Rukhname," a new book by Niyazov setting out a proper code of conduct for modern Turkmen, the government paper "Neitralny Turkmenistan" said.

In remarks broadcast by Turkmen TV on 14 August, Niyazov strongly criticized journalists for the endless fare of programs about him, complaining that "programs like this, when everything is about me, make people tired," and ordering them to "stop such things completely." But Niyazov, whose rule over Turkmenistan is absolute, regularly makes a show of complaining that state honors and the cult of personality that he has instituted in the country have been foisted on him against his will by a rabidly enthusiastic nation. Yet the Turkmen State News Service reached new heights of hypocrisy when it reported on 31 August that, despite Niyazov's earlier warning that the government-controlled media must not focus on him, the government-controlled media had decided to disregard his reservations and broadcast "Turkmenbashi, the Protector" anyway.

Niyazov overcame his own reservations on 30 August when he inaugurated a new, third state TV channel named "The Era of Turkmenbashi." It airs for five hours a day and is dedicated to glorifying him and his achievements.

Niyazov appears increasingly determined not only to fill the airwaves with himself but to isolate his people from any outside contact. As of 5 September, entry visas for citizens of the other Central Asian nations, the Caucasus states, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan will be limited indefinitely, AFP reported. The move is in line with recent decrees making it difficult for Turkmen to obtain exit visas to travel abroad or to marry foreigners.