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Central Asia Report: September 20, 2001

20 September 2001, Volume 1, Number 9

IN THE SHADOW OF THE BEAR, CENTRAL ASIAN STATES CLARIFY THEIR POSITIONS ON STRIKES AGAINST AFGHANISTAN. As the United States strives to muster support for the idea of punitive strikes against the Taliban, and even a possible ground campaign in Afghanistan, Central Asian governments unanimously condemned the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September but expressed different levels of willingness to cooperate actively with American plans to retaliate. Feeding into the calculations of each of the states were such factors as: the extent of their dependence on Russia; worries about being swamped with refugees; fears of reprisals in kind, which the Taliban have threatened; and their own domestic situations.

Decisions by Central Asia's leaders about their countries' positions had to be taken against the background of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's statement on 14 September, reported by ITAR-TASS and AFP, in which he outrightly opposed the use of Central Asian bases for an American-led antiterrorist operation, saying the region fell under a Russian sphere of influence. "Central Asia is within the zone of competence of the CIS Collective Security Treaty. I don't see any basis for even the hypothetical possibility of a NATO military operation on the territory of Central Asian nations that belong to the Commonwealth of Independent States," Ivanov said. However, after meeting Ivanov in Moscow on 17 September, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton expressed optimism that the Russians' stance on American use of ex-Soviet military bases was less uncompromising, saying that "I don't think they have ruled anything in or anything out," AFP reported. Meanwhile the Russian newspaper "Izvestiya" on 15 September alluded to a source in the Russian General Staff who had revealed that Moscow had agreements with various Central Asian states on using their airbases for punitive strikes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin further ensured that Moscow's views on jointly fighting international terrorism got taken into account in the region by telephoning his counterparts in all five Central Asian countries and Azerbaijan on 17 September, Reuters reported.

KAZAKHSTAN: Nevertheless, on 15 September Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, following a visit to the U.S. embassy in Kazakhstan's ex-capital Almaty, announced that his nation would support American anti-terrorist measures including military responses, "with all the means that Kazakhstan has," AFP reported. Foreign Minister Yerlan Idrisov confirmed his country's commitment to cooperate with Washington in fighting extremism on 18 September, but held back from pledging military support, according to RIA Novosti's report. Perhaps in deference to Russia, Idrisov noted that important regional steps had already been taken to combat terrorism, referencing the recent creation of the CIS Rapid Reaction Force and anti-terrorism center, and the adoption of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's antiterrorist convention.

Idrisov's remarks followed top-level discussions in Almaty between Kazakh officials and Russia's Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo, who was on the first stop of a whirlwind tour to consult with four Central Asian governments. "Russia and Central Asian states find themselves on the vanguard of struggle against terrorism," Rushailo said in Almaty, RIA-Novosti reported. He also announced that the rapid deployment forces would be holding command and staff exercises near the Afghan border "in the immediate future," Russian ORT television reported. The forces consist of 1,500 servicemen from four battalions provided by Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. On 18 September, however, Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Hairulloev said there were no plans to employ the rapid reaction forces in connection with a possible attack on Afghanistan, Asia-Plus reported.

Rushailo flew on to the Uzbek capital Tashkent on 18 September for similar talks, followed by visits to Tajikistan and finally Kyrgyzstan on 20 September.

Hot on the heels of Ruhailo, Turkish Defense Minister Sabakhattin Cakmakoglu arrived to Almaty on the evening of 18 September to meet his Kazakh counterpart. The following day he announced that Turkey would give Kazakhstan about 30 military vehicles and $800,000 in military assistance, "RFE/RL Kazakh News" reported on 19 September.

UZBEKISTAN: Tashkent, after originally expressing strong support for an American-led action involving Uzbek territory and resources, and an equally strong willingness to snub Moscow, seemed to be equivocating under Russian pressure. Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov told "The Washington Post" on 17 September that Uzbekistan was open to "all possible forms of cooperation" and would entertain requests to station American troops on its soil. Officials had also indicated that Uzbek airspace would be made available for air strikes. As for Moscow's likely disapproval, Komilov told the newspaper that "we didn't assume any responsibility that we would always coordinate our foreign policy with anybody." In recent years Tashkent has sought to distance itself from Russian influence by pulling out of the CIS Collective Security Treaty and refusing to join the CIS Rapid Reaction Forces. On 18 September, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on CNN's "Late Edition" that Washington had not approached Tashkent with any specific requests yet, but that "we will be talking to the Uzbek authorities."

Yet Uzbek President Islam Karimov suddenly changed the Uzbek tune on 19 September after meeting the Russian security chief Rushailo, ITAR-TASS reported. "Uzbekistan has never given any obligations or held talks with the United States on using its airspace and military bases to attack Afghanistan," Karimov announced. International terrorism and its paymasters should be the target, not the country of Afghanistan, against which America had not declared war, he said.

Last year, Karimov forbade Moscow to launch anti-Taliban attacks from Uzbek territory. Uzbekistan, which shares a 170-kilometer border with Afghanistan, was the main launching pad for the Soviet invasion in 1979. As well as having the largest standing army in Central Asia, Uzbekistan maintains a large airbase outside Tashkent, another airbase and a tank park in Termez on the Afghan border, and extensive infrastructure.

In a statement reported by Interfax on 14 September, Foreign Minister Komilov urged UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to establish an international antiterrorist center "to coordinate the unconditional enforcement of decisions to combat terrorism, its manifestations, and sources of financing." Komilov pointed out that Uzbekistan had proposed the initiative twice before at international forums and that, although unsuccessful, "a large number of states" had supported it. The Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan has sent a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush with a similar proposal to set up an international center against terrorism, "RFE/RL Kyrgyz News" reported on 19 September. Both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have battled with militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in recent years.

Uzbek media have not been slow to draw parallels between the terrorist attacks on America and the series of bombs that exploded in Tashkent in February 1999, which Karimov's regime blamed on Islamic militants trained in Afghanistan. Last month the Pakistani newspaper "The Nation" reported that the leader of the terrorist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Juma Namongoniy, had been appointed the Taliban's chief military field commander and was working under the Taliban's de facto defense minister, Osama bin Laden. Presumably alluding to that connection, U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney said on NBC News' "Meet the Press" on 16 September that among bin Laden's "loose coalition of groupings" was "a movement from Uzbekistan."

On 18 September, an Afghan military source confirmed that Namongoniy had been put in command of a 9,000-strong unit consisting of Taliban, Pakistani and Arab mercenaries, Uzbeks and Chechens, Interfax reported. The unit is based in the northern Afghan province of Takhar, 60 kilometers from the Tajik frontier, the report said.

TAJIKISTAN: The weakest and poorest of the Central Asian states, with a 1,500-kilometer Afghan frontier patrolled by thousands of Russian troops, Tajikistan initially signaled willingness to cooperate with Washington but was quickly shepherded into the Russian fold. The chief spokesman for the Tajik Foreign Ministry, Igor Sattarov, stated on 16 September that his government would not allow "the use of the Tajik territory by a third country" to launch attacks on Afghanistan, calling these rumors "entirely without foundation," AFP and Russian NTV International television reported. Tajik Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov had said two days previously that Tajik air corridors might be available for American jets, but only if Moscow approved the idea. Nevertheless, it was not explicit from Sattarov's language in referring to "Tajik territory" that the use of Tajik airspace was definitively ruled out.

On 16 September ITAR-TASS reported that 7,000 servicemen of Russia's 201st Motor Rifle Division, stationed in Tajikistan, had been put on red alert. There are two Russian divisions in the country. The 201st consists of four regiments, of which two are based in the Tajik capital Dushanbe and two in the south of the country, about 100 kilometers from the Afghan border. On the same day Russian TV6, reported by BBC Monitoring Service, added that Tajik security and armed forces had been confined to barracks and placed on high alert in case the Taliban, emboldened by last week's assassination of Northern Alliance Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, should step up military operations in the border regions.

On 18 September, Chinese and Tajik defense officials held talks in the Tajik capital Dushanbe where it was announced that Beijing was granting Tajikistan $1 million in military assistance, AFP reported. The money is to go toward paying for military training, exercises, and rearmament.

Tajikistan is particularly worried about a mass of Afghan refugees trying to enter the country, which it is unprepared to cope with. Tens of thousands of Afghans were fleeing major cities like Kabul and Kandahar, and unspecified numbers were headed for the borders, AFP reported on 17 September. On 18 September, Russian ORT television said that there were about 10,000 refugees on the Tajik-Afghan border and that more were expected within the next few days. Many Afghans are ethnically Tajik, especially in the regions adjacent to Tajikistan controlled by the Northern Alliance.

KYRGYZSTAN: Making use of Kyrgyz territory or military infrastructure has not been mooted as an option either in Washington or in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, where concerns have focused on securing borders and dealing with refugees. A senior Kyrgyz military official, quoted by Interfax on 17 September, said that Washington should not strike Afghanistan until it had solid evidence that it bore any responsibility for the attacks in America. Moreover he worried that IMU terrorists who were presently sheltered in Afghanistan might be forced by U.S. punitive bombings to move northward into Central Asia. "RFE/RL's Kyrgyz News" reported on 18 September that Miroslav Niyazov, deputy director of the Kyrgyz National Security Service, estimated that between 30,000 and 100,000 refugees were already on the Tajik-Afghan border, many of whom could flee through Tajikistan onto Kyrgyz territory in the wake of an American attack. A Foreign Ministry official said on 18 September that Kyrgyzstan would accept refugees; camps are being prepared. On the same day, security and defense officials told Kyrgyz parliamentarians that the southern borders had been fortified, Interior Ministry forces were on high alert, and round-the-clock patrols had been instituted in Bishkek, AKIpress web site reported on 18 September.

TURKMENISTAN: Turkmenistan has typically been more erratic and inconsistent in signaling its position on anti-Afghan strikes than other Central Asian nations. On 14 September, ITAR-TASS and RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported that President Saparmurat Niyazov had promised Eric Schultz, Charge d'Affaires at the U.S. embassy in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, that his country would support international countermeasures against terrorism. Yet a Turkmen Foreign Ministry source indicated on 17 September that permitting Washington to use the country as a forward base was not on the cards "because Turkmenistan is a neutral country," AFP said.

Hitherto Turkmenistan's official foreign policy stance, captured in the slogan "Permanent Neutrality," has led it to eschew active participation in any regional organizations while independently cultivating relations with Kabul to further its interests. It has not joined the CIS Collective Security Treaty. But while officially Ashgabat expresses no preference for either side in the Afghan civil war, it has supplied the Taliban with gas and electricity and has always stopped short of condemning them, mindful of long-term hopes that Turkmen hydrocarbons could be exported southward via Taliban-controlled territory.

Turkmen ex-Foreign Minister and now opposition leader Avdy Kuliev reiterated the view that Niyazov was most unlikely to help America stage punitive strikes against the Taliban, in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio on 15 September, reported by BBC Monitoring Service. Kuliev noted that open collaboration with Washington would sour Turkmen-Taliban relations, which he said were very good.

There are over one million ethnic Turkmen living in Afghanistan, who both would be endangered by U.S. attacks and would probably flee towards Turkmenistan's border with Afghanistan, precipitating a refugee crisis.

It is far from certain, however, that Turkmenistan will be able to maintain its precarious neutrality under international pressure. There were signs that it was already compromising its "permanent neutrality" during this summer's rows over dividing the Caspian Sea, when Niyazov seemed to be siding with Iran against Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan.

CHINESE PREMIER IN KAZAKHSTAN FOR TALKS, SCO SUMMIT. Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji concluded a three-day visit to Kazakhstan on 14 September, having conferred with top Kazakh officials and attended a prime-ministerial summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Almaty, Interfax-Kazakhstan and the Chinese Xinhua news agency reported. Zhu had arrived in the Kazakh capital Astana on 12 September from St. Petersburg after spending five days in Russia.

During talks with the chairmen of the Kazakh Senate and Mazhlis (lower house of the parliament), Zhu encouraged more interparliamentary cooperation and exchanges and invited Kazakh delegates to visit China, Xinhua said. However Zhu transacted his most important business at a meeting with his Kazakh counterpart Qasymzhomart Toqaev, where expanding economic and trade relations were on the agenda. Official statistics registered $1.55 billion of bilateral trade in 2000, and $778 million for the first seven months of 2001, making Kazakhstan China's second biggest trade partner among the ex-Soviet states after Russia.

Zhu told journalists after the meeting that China's volume of trade with Kazakhstan and Russia would increase by $10 billion annually as a result of oil imports, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 13 September, which noted China imported $25 billion of petroleum products last year. Yet in an interview with the newspaper "Kazakhstanskaya pravda" on 11 September, Zhu said that at present Kazakhstan was producing insufficient amounts of crude to make a planned 2,800-kilometer oil pipeline to China feasible. The agreement in principle to build such a pipeline was signed four years ago and reaffirmed by President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Beijing in November 1999. But also on 11 September Maulen Ashimaev, director of the Kazakh Institute for Strategic Studies, admitted in a press conference that "the construction of the oil pipeline to western China has lost its topicality now for technical reasons" but saw hope of its implementation "in the medium term," the Kazakhstan Today news agency reported. Although "technical reasons" is a catch-all euphemism, it is clear that Astana is now focused on exporting its petroleum westwards via the Black Sea, or one day via the Turkish port of Ceyhan, rather than to China.

In Astana the Kazakh and Chinese sides signed six documents in all, including agreements on avoidance of double taxation and cooperation in the health field. Recognized by both sides as "the most important" document, however, was an agreement on the use of transborder rivers. As part of its development plan for western China, Beijing is intending to dam the Irtysh River, which rises in the Chinese Altai Mountains, and channel up to 10 percent of its water along a 300-kilometer canal to towns in Xinjiang Province whose populations are projected to increase massively in upcoming years with an influx of Han Chinese into traditionally ethnic-Uighur areas. Meanwhile eastern Kazakhstan depends heavily on the Irtysh for agriculture, industry, and hydropower. A second transborder river to be tapped by China, the Ili, is also significant but less crucial to the Kazakh economy (see "RFE/RL Weekday Magazine," 28 May 1999, and "The Times of Central Asia," 10 September 2001).

Toqaev also reiterated to Zhu his government's support of Beijing's "One-China" policy and pledged not to develop any official relations with Taiwan.

President Nazarbaev, meeting Zhu in Almaty on 14 September, noted that bilateral relations were developing positively, especially as far as trade and cooperation in the hydrocarbon sector was concerned, Kazakh Commercial Television said, reported by BBC Monitoring Service. The television report added that the Kazakh and Chinese leadership had agreed to present a common front against American preconditions for their countries to join the World Trade Organization; Washington is demanding certain unacceptable agreements on insurance liabilities for American firms participating in joint enterprises, it said.

The first prime ministerial summit of the six states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), held in Almaty on 14 September, issued a statement condemning the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and signed a memorandum on regional economic cooperation, boosting trade, and facilitating investments, ITAR-TASS and Xinhua news agencies reported. Although the memorandum referred to fruitful cooperation since the SCO was founded on 15 June 2001 "in the political, security, trade, and economic fields," the last two items were the true focus of the summit. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov told delegates that for the last five years the Shanghai Five, as the organization was known until Uzbekistan's accession this summer, had been preoccupied with regional security, but that "as of today, we have greatly extended the scope of our cooperation and put the accent on the mutually complementary nature of our economies," ITAR-TASS reported on 14 September.

In Almaty Kasyanov also had private talks with Nazarbaev about the official launch, scheduled for later this month, of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) pipeline stretching from Kazakhstan's Tengiz oilfield to the Russian port of Novorossiisk, and about addressing ongoing disputes over dividing up the resources of the Caspian Sea between its five littoral states, ITAR-TASS said.

MASSOUD ASSASSINATED; EMERGENCY MEETING IN DUSHANBE DISCUSSES AFGHANISTAN. Senior diplomats from India, Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan convened an emergency meeting in the Tajik capital Dushanbe on 13 September to assess the situation in Afghanistan, following a suicide bombing that fatally wounded the Northern Alliance's military leader Ahmad Shah Massoud on 9 September, Reuters and Interfax news agencies reported. Massoud's death, suspected at the time of the meeting, was only confirmed on 15 September, when a spokesman said that Massoud had died that morning in northern Afghanistan. On the following day, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov sent a telegram of condolence to Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, describing Massoud as "a true national patriot and hero" whose death was "an irrecoverable loss for the fraternal Afghan people and for all friends of Afghanistan" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September 2001). There have been speculations that Osama Bin Laden was behind the assassination.

Sources indicate that the meeting, held behind closed doors, considered ways to shore up the anti-Taliban alliance that the charismatic Massoud had held together and now threatens to disintegrate after his demise. Military, technical, and humanitarian assistance were discussed, Reuters reported. Meanwhile 44-year-old General Muhammed Fahimkhan, head of the Alliance's security services, was introduced to meeting participants as Massoud's replacement as the Alliance's military commander. Fahimkhan, a graduate of the geology department at Kabul University, served under Massoud fighting against Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Clearly the role of the anti-Taliban coalition in the wake of the terrorist strikes against the U.S. were factored into the discussions. There are fears that a determined push by Taliban forces, which presently control over 90 percent of Afghan territory, could rout the embattled Northern Alliance and drive tens of thousands of Afghans northwards into Tajikistan and neighboring nations, not to speak of additional waves of refugees in the wake an American retaliatory strike against Afghanistan. Last month Tajikistan was already deemed to be on the brink of economic collapse and widespread starvation following massive crop failure this summer as a result of the second year of disastrous drought, triggering pleas for international assistance.

On 13 September in Dushanbe, President Rakhmanov held talks with visiting Indian State Minister for External Affairs Omar Abdullah and received a promise that within a few days India would provide Tajikistan with $5 million of humanitarian aid, and 7 tons of medicine to treat tuberculosis, Tajik Radio reported. Talks also addressed cooperation in the pharmaceutical industry and agreements on jointly combating terrorism and drug trafficking. Abdullah subsequently traveled to Tashkent for meetings with Uzbek Defense and Foreign Ministry officials, but no new agreements were signed, Uzbek Radio said on 17 September. India, like Uzbekistan, is offering its territory to Washington as a base for retaliatory strikes against Afghanistan.