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Central Asia Report: November 22, 2001

22 November 2001, Volume 1, Number 18

CENSORSHIP, SOLIDARITY, AND SACKINGS IN WAKE OF ALIEV'S RESIGNATION. A week of political drama in Kazakhstan began with the resignation on 14 November of President Nursultan Nazarbaev's son-in-law, 38-year-old Rakhat Aliev, from his post as deputy chairman of the National Security Committee (NSC). Unfolding events offered tantalizing glimpses of a Byzantine power struggle going on between the government and opposition, between the center and the provinces, and within Nazarbaev's family itself.

On 10 October Deputy of the Mazhlis (the Kazakh parliament's lower house) Tolen Toqtasynov publicly accused Aliyev of abuse of power for using the NSC to monitor the activities of opposition political parties, while he secretly owned or controlled the majority of the country's print and electronic media outlets -- among them Kazakh Commercial Television (KTK-TV) and the popular newspaper "Karavan" -- together with his wife, the president's eldest daughter, Dariga (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 18 October 2001). Aliyev denied the allegations, which he claimed were politically motivated. He said the man ultimately behind the campaign against him was the 38-year-old governor of Pavlodar Region in northern Kazakhstan, Galymzhan Zhaqiyanov, for whom Toqtasynov was merely a front man (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 October 2001). Zhaqiyanov controls media instruments of his own; both he and Aliyev have been using their outlets to criticize one another for a long time. Aliev, who became deputy security chief in 1999, previously was a senior official of the Kazakh tax police.

On 14 November parliamentary deputies called on Aliyev to give an account of his activities and those of the NSC at a session of the Mazhlis. They also pressed NSC Chairman Marat Tazhin to make sure Aliyev turned up, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. But Tazhin, far from supporting the deputies' demands, ordered his subordinate not to appear before the Mazhlis. According to Kazakhstan Today news agency, Aliyev had said he was perfectly willing to appear before the deputies since he had nothing to hide. Forbidden to do so by his boss, however, Aliyev suddenly submitted his resignation to President Nazarbaev on 14 November. Furthermore, he said that he intended to sue Tazhin through his lawyers in the United States, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau reported the following day.

Nazarbaev accepted his son-in-law's resignation on 15 November and promptly appointed in his place a 45-year-old ex-KGB official, Major General Nartai Dutbaev, who among other posts had run the NSC department in Pavlodar Region, Interfax-Kazakhstan said. Many observers were surprised to see the president apparently turn against a member of his own family, especially given the level of nepotism in state structures: Dariga runs the state news agency Khabar, while his other son-in-law, Timur Kulibaev, is head of one of the country's largest banks. To explain the timing of Nazarbaev's change of heart toward Aliev, it may be significant that, according to some sources, Aliev's marriage with Dariga is on the rocks. Moreover, Nazarbaev was later quoted as telling journalists that he had discovered that Aliyev simply had "too many enemies" and thus was a liability, RFE/RL reported on 17 November. Russian newspapers have been speculating for months that a battle to succeed Nazarbaev is underway among members of his family, with Aliyev and Dariga leading contenders and perhaps rivals. Head of the opposition Orleu movement Seydakhmet Quttyqadam offered another perspective on possible shifting political alliances when he pointed out that Aliyev belongs to the Middle Horde, while Nazarbaev belongs to the Great Horde (see "RFE/RL Kazakh News," 15 November 2001). The three Kazakh Hordes (Great, Middle and Small) are a legacy of nomadic society that are thought to function like clan-networks through which political patronage is channeled.

Meanwhile, Aliev's whereabouts on the day his resignation was accepted were unknown, with rumors flying that he had been placed under house arrest. Significantly, Dariga did not step forward to defend him. But Aliev's sister, Gulshat, who happened to be in Lebanon on 15 November, held a press conference in Beirut at which she said that his life was in danger and asked international democratic institutions to follow his case. In a nice twist, she said she was afraid her brother might be unlawfully persecuted, and that she would engage American lawyers to help defend his human rights, Kazakhstan Today reported.

Almost immediately after Aliyev tendered his resignation, KTK-TV, owned by the Alma-Media Holding company that he had been accused of secretly controlling, shut down for two days and only showed a color test card. On 16 November, all copies of the weekly newspaper "Karavan," also a part of Alma-Media, were recalled from the distributors and the newspaper's operation was suspended. On the same day, the staffs of both the TV station and the newspaper issued a joint statement protesting the suppression of press freedom by Kazakh law-enforcement agencies, which the journalists described as "the practical introduction of censorship." In response, they announced that they had established an independent union called Solidarnost ("Solidarity"), in order "protect press freedom and democratic principles," RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau reported. They further demanded that police stop tapping journalists' telephones and intercepting their mail, and that the government stop using trumped-up charges to shut down independent media.

The Ministry of Culture and Information responded that allegations of censorship and interference were untrue and represented "a deliberate attempt to misinform the public," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 17 November. The government had exerted no pressure on KTK-TV and the channel had suspended broadcasts of its own volition, the ministry said.

When KTK-TV returned to the air late on 16 November, it reported that the building of Kazakhstan TV Channel One, the Kazteleradio (Kazakh TV and radio) building, and the Kok-Tobe broadcasting tower in the city of Almaty were effectively being seized by the Interior Ministry, as the private security firms normally responsible for guarding them were in the process of being replaced by squads of police armed with assault rifles. These included special antiterrorist units from the NSC, the report said. Allegedly, the transfer had been mandated by a government decree of 10 November whereby strategic installations throughout the country should pass under state protection as security against terrorist threats. However, KTK-TV said, no one had actually seen the document and nobody at the Interior Ministry would tell journalists what it said. But Khabar TV reported on 16 November that Almaty's heating plant, water supply system, television tower, and telecommunications companies all fell under the rubric of strategic facilities and were being taken over by state guardsmen.

There had been earlier hints of tighter government controls with the detention on 14 November of Daniar Ashimbaev, a famous Kazakh journalist and one of the founders of the Moscow-based, Internet publication, which has criticized Nazarbaev's regime harshly. Ashimbaev himself is believed to be a supporter of Aliev. The day that Aliyev resigned, Ashimbaev was arrested in Almaty for illegal drugs possession after 0.05 grams of heroin and six tablets of ecstasy were allegedly found on his person (see "RFE/RL Kazakh News," 16 November 2001).

Aliyev resurfaced in public on 17 November, appearing on KTK-TV to issue a brief statement. First, however, Nazarbaev delivered a television address from his presidential office in which he said that Aliev's decision to resign had been perfectly correct given the circumstances -- which he did not specify -- and announced that he had appointed him to be deputy head of the presidential guard service. He continued to say that he would always stand up for those media outlets "that obey the law" and wrapped up his address with an irrelevant promise to support small and medium-sized businesses. Aliyev then spoke to the cameras, complaining that he had been the victim of libelous accusations but insisting that he had proven his innocence in court and the slanderers had been punished. It was unclear what accusations and what decisions in his favor he was referring to.

The heat is not off Aliyev yet, though. Zhaqiyanov, the governor of Pavlodar Region, told TAN-TV on 16 November that Aliyev was responsible for a political crisis by trying to gather all Kazakhstan's power structures and media outlets into his hands, and said that national leaders still owed parliament an explanation of what was really going on in the country. Zhaqiyanov also seems to have provided the main impetus behind a new political movement called Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, whose formation was announced in Almaty on 18 November, Khabar TV and Interfax reported. Among the other seven founding members were such senior political figures as Deputy Prime Minister Oraz Dzhandosov, Deputy Defense Minister Zhannat Ertlesova, and Mazhlis Deputy Toqtasynov, who made the initial accusations against Aliyev in October. The group's platform is to initiate new reforms since, in its view, "democratic reforms in Kazakhstan have stopped." Deputy Finance Minister Kayrat Kelimbetov, who told Khabar TV on 19 November that he would be joining the movement, said more specifically that more power should be devolved to parliament and local legislative bodies from the executive, and that more regional officials should be elected rather than appointed.

At a press conference on 19 November, the managers of KTK-TV and "Karavan" revealed that for three months both media organs had been under strong pressure from unidentified financial and political interests to distort their coverage of certain public figures in Kazakhstan, Khabar TV reported. The TV and newspaper had suspended operations the previous week, the director of Alma-media said, in order to resist insistent demands and offers of bribes to smear local "famous people and politicians," which included "the president's family members." To help insulate them from such pressure in the future, the two media outlets were selling 20 percent of their shares to an American oil magnate, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau reported on 20 November.

To cap off a politically memorable week in Kazakhstan, Prime Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev appeared on KTK-TV on 20 November to deliver a long, rambling statement that began with a defense of the government's economic record but quickly turned into an attack on insidious forces who were trying to undermine the country from within, practicing "Internet terrorism," "pretending to be concerned about democracy," "aiming at redistributing property" -- and who were eventually identified as Pavlodar Governor Zhaqiyanov, Deputy Defense Minister Ertlesova, Labor Minister Alikhan Baymenov, and his own Deputy Prime Minister Dzhandosov, all of whom were important members of the newly founded Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. Singling out Pavlodar Region for criticism of its poor economic record, Toqaev called on the president to impose discipline and order in the land with a strong hand and to sack immediately the four public figures he had named. Otherwise, threatened Toqaev, "I will resign myself." By way of impressing on his listeners the need for social order at a time of terrorist threat, and the kind of instability that could overtake the country without a firm leader at the helm, he said that Kazakh security organs had uncovered two assassination plots against Nazarbaev in the last three months alone. He offered no details or corroboration.

On the morning of 21 November, some of the leaders of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan whom Toqaev had attacked arranged a meeting at the National Press Club in the Kazakh capital, Astana, to which they invited the prime minister to discuss or clarify his statement of the previous evening. Toqaev did not show up, at which point spokespeople for the new movement told journalists that they could no longer work in the government with him -- thus effectively forcing Nazarbaev to choose between him or them. He showed no hesitation in his preference, with the presidential press service's announcement a few hours later that Governor Zhaqiyanov, Deputy Defense Minister Ertlesova, and Deputy Prime Minister Dzhandosov had all been sacked.

IMU LEADER REPORTED DEAD IN AFGHANISTAN. Juma Namongoniy, leader of the terrorist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), was killed together with 24 companions, probably on 18 November during the bombing of Kondoz in northern Afghanistan by U.S. air forces, Russian sources and the Tajik Varorud news agency said. A second possibility was that Namongoniy died during a skirmish as Taliban groups that had surrendered outside Kondoz were disarmed by the Northern Alliance. The news of his death was first reported by General Aborrashid Dostum, one of the Northern Alliance's main military leaders, who did not say how he came by the information. But the Islamic State of Afghanistan's foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah, who was in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent on 19 November for discussions about the country's post-Taliban future, expressed skepticism about the news, Varorud said, noting that Namongoniy had mistakenly been reported dead before and that other reports suggested that he and 6,000 fighters of his group might already have moved south since their northern base at Taloqan was captured earlier this month by the Northern Alliance. Nevertheless, Interfax reiterated that the IMU leader was dead on 20 November, citing anonymous Tajik military sources.

If true, Namongoniy's death is cause for celebration in Tashkent, where he has been regarded as public enemy number one since a series of bombs, apparently intended to kill President Islam Karimov, exploded in the capital in February 1999 and were blamed on Namongoniy and his associates. His elimination would also be a coup for the Pentagon, which is widely believed to have promised to destroy IMU forces and bases in Afghanistan in exchange for Uzbekistan's cooperation in the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban (and IMU). The Pakistani newspaper "The Frontier Post" reported on 8 November that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar had appointed Namongoniy front-line commander of the Taliban's northern forces, based at Taloqan and numbering 14,000 men including Arab, Tajik, Uzbek, and other foreign mercenaries and volunteers. Meanwhile Asia-Plus reported on 19 November that Taliban fighters who survive the battle of Kondoz might be looking to regroup in the northern Afghan province of Badakhshan with a view to crossing the mountain passes into Tajikistan and continuing the struggle from Tajik territory.

KARIMOV IN ASTANA, AMERICAN DEFENSE OFFICIALS IN TASHKENT. Uzbek President Islam Karimov made a two-day state visit to the Kazakh capital, Astana, on 16-17 November, during which he and President Nazarbaev addressed at least one outstanding source of possible regional tension by finally signing a joint protocol delimiting all but 4 percent of their 2,250-kilometer border. Two short stretches totaling 60 kilometers remain to be demarcated, near the village of Turkestan and through the Arnasai Depression, the newspaper "Kazakhstanskaya pravda" reported on 15 November. Accompanying documents provided for further cooperation on border issues and state frontier crossing points, Uzbek television said on 16 November.

(However Uzbekistan still has important, unresolved border issues with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, chiefly related to Tashkent's unilateral decision to mine the frontiers without providing its neighbors with maps of the hidden mines. Thirty-seven Tajik civilians have been killed and 41 injured from stepping on mines along Tajikistan's northern border with Uzbekistan, Varorud news agency reported on 19 November.)

A second source of continual Uzbek-Kazakh tension -- Uzbekistan's intermittent shut-offs of natural gas supplies to its northern neighbor, either for non-payment of debts or occasionally, it seems, as a form of political punishment -- was apparently resolved with the recent signing of a five-year agreement on Uzbek gas supplies to Kazakhstan's southern regions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 November 2001). Nazarbaev declared his satisfaction with that agreement and said their two nations were drawing so close together, "one may say they have one blood and one culture." Karimov meanwhile focused his public remarks on regional security issues, which were also on the summit agenda, worrying aloud that the next phase of fighting in Afghanistan could be "guerrilla war" and that a protracted war could mean that "those who call themselves an alliance today might start fighting each other in the future," according to RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau on 17 November. At his final press conference in Astana, Karimov denied Russian media reports that some 10,000 American, German, French, and British troops would be deployed on the Uzbek-Afghan frontier, calling the reports deliberate misinformation.

Uzbek media did not offer any explanations why the commander of the U.S. operation in Afghanistan, General Tommy Franks, arrived in Tashkent on 19 November, although the AVN Military news agency noted on the following day that he was expected to visit the Hanabad air base that is hosting about 1,000 U.S. troops. The U.S. Embassy in Tashkent said Frank's visit was a routine inspection and morale booster for the American soldiers stationed in the country, dpa reported on 20 November. Uzbek television was equally vague about the mission of Carl Levin and John Warner, chairman and minority member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, respectively, who met Karimov and the Uzbek foreign and defense ministers on 20 November. They arrived in Tashkent to strengthen the legal foundation for U.S.-Uzbek military and technical cooperation, the television said.