Uzbekistan: No Sign Of What Should Be An Imminent Presidential Election
By Gulnoza Saidazimova
President Islam Karimov (file photo)
July 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Less than six months before the presumed end of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's final term, there has been no official announcement of any upcoming vote and no campaigning of any sort.
Many potential voters appear to know nothing of any presidential election, while observers doubt that any polls will take place.
The hallmarks of modern elections include candidates announcing their programs and parties their platforms, meetings with voters, and public debates. They may also include mutual accusations and scandals, as well as concessions and alliances. It is a familiar process among democratic countries -- and can even be seen in some places where political leaders feign democracy.
But the situation is very different in Uzbekistan. A 38-year-old entrepreneur in Tashkent, Rustam, was among those who told RFE/RL recently that they have seen no sign of a looming election.
"No, we have no information -- nothing," he said.
Jahongir, a 19-year-old Tashkent-based student, says he is interested in politics and is eager to cast a vote in his first election of voting age.
"Unfortunately, there is no information on elections right now," he told RFE/RL. "I just know that I can participate in elections, since I turned 18."
Legislation In Place
The constitution places a limit of two terms on the head of state. Legislators in the Oliy Majlis, the Uzbek parliament, plainly established the date of the next direct presidential election.
A member of the Uzbek Constitutional Court, Bakhtiyor Mirboboyev, said as much in an interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.
"There is a resolution by the Oliy Majlis that answers the question of when the presidential election should be held," Mirboboyev said. "It states that the presidential election should be held on the last Sunday of December 2007. That [Sunday] falls on December 23. So, there is a resolution by the Oliy Majlis stating that the election should be held on December 23."
Current law says the date of any upcoming election should be announced and campaigning should begin six months prior to the balloting.
Uzbek officials have made no such announcement.
"There has been no preparation or anything concrete about elections," said Qochqor Toghayev, a member of the Central Electoral Commission.
Reading Tea Leaves
The country's state-controlled media remain silent on the topic, although they have widely covered the president's recent trips to Uzbekistan's regions.
Some independent websites have interpreted Karimov's regional visits as the start of a campaign.
Independent observers speculate about possible political scenarios. Many say Karimov -- who has ruled the country since 1989, initially as first secretary of the Communist Party and later as president of an independent state -- will try to hold on to power (see biography).
Several former Soviet republics -- namely Azerbaijan and Russia -- have seen peaceful transfers of power to individuals groomed for the presidency and loyal to their predecessors.
It is unclear whether Karimov might anoint anyone -- Uzbek politics is a closed circle, and no confidant or possible successor appears to have emerged.
Other possible options for Karimov include amending the constitution or other legislative sleight of hand, or organizing a referendum in which the public might ask him to stay in office.
While those who are aware of the election requirement might seem bewildered, opposition groups appear to have embarked on pre-election squabbles in another realm -- the Internet.
Scores of Internet articles include accusations and counteraccusations among members of the Birlik (Unity), Erk (Freedom), and other groupings, as well as opposition-leaning rights activists.
They look like attempts to divide up the bearskin before the bear is shot, and the rancor highlights deeply rooted disagreements within the Uzbek opposition.
Some opposition parties have already announced their intention to vie for the presidency.
Ismoil Dadajonov, a Birlik leader, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that his party's decision to take part in the process still stands.
"At an extended meeting of the central council of the Birlik party, we decided to participate in the presidential election," Dadajonov said. "That decision remains in effect. The Birlik party will participate in the election."
Erk announced its candidate -- exiled leader Muhammad Solih -- more than a year ago. But speaking to RFE/RL on July 3, Solih was more circumspect about his or his party's plans.
"Our position will become clear after the announcement," Solih said. "Will Karimov hold this election or not? If yes, will the opposition participate in the election? What are the conditions if the opposition participates? Who is considered the 'opposition' in Karimov's opinion? All these questions will directly affect our position and declaration. Therefore we haven't announced our position on the elections yet."
Or A Done Deal?
While even the opposition awaits signs of Karimov's plans, analysts express doubts about any opposition candidate's ability to successfully challenge Karimov.
The absence of any legal foundation for opposition activities and the lack of a political forum for dissent make it all but impossible for an unregistered opposition figure to run for president.
Opposition members claim their candidates would win sufficient voter support if the elections were free and fair.
But a Tashkent-based student who was asked by RFE/RL about the political opposition, Jahongir, tells a different story. He says he has never heard of Erk, Birlik, or other groups that Karimov's administration has sought to marginalize by banning or refusing to register.
"Frankly speaking, what you are saying is news to me," Jahongir said. "We know about three or four parties we have in Uzbekistan right now. We don't know anything about parties that were [active] in the 1980s and 1990s."
Turkmenistan: Ancient City Nisa Added To UN's Cultural Heritage List
By Bruce Pannier
The ruins of ancient Nisa (file photo)
July 6,2007 (RFE/RL) -- UNESCO has released its most recent additions to the World Heritage List of cultural and natural sites, which this year included Nisa, the capital of the ancient Parthian Empire, in what is now Turkmenistan.
Nisa sits at the foot of a range of reddish-yellow hills, laid out to take advantage of the almost constant breezes that blow through the ravines in those hills and cools the ancient city while the areas around it bake in the heat.
For travelers some 1,500 to 2,000 years ago -- when Nisa was at its zenith -- the city must have looked like paradise after a journey through deserts where summer temperatures climb to well over 50 degrees Celsius.
Today, only the lower walls and bases of the columns remain in Nisa, about 15 kilometers from Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat.
"For the ex-Soviet republics, this whole question of their cultural identity and their cultural heritage is a really important one," a UNESCO expert says. "In many ways, they were cut off from their past in Soviet times."
A City At A Crossroads
"It's a historical and archeological site of great significance," Francis Childe, the section chief for Asia and the Pacific in the World Heritage Center at UNESCO in Paris, tells RFE/RL. "The Parthian Empire was one of the most powerful and influential civilizations of the ancient world, and Nisa itself dates from the third millennium B.C. right through into the current era, around the third century A.D. It was a rival of Rome. [Parthia was] one of the great civilizations of Central Asia, combining influences not only passing from east and west but also from north and south."
Not surprisingly, the architecture of Nisa includes local influences, as well as traces of Roman and Bactrian architecture. The area's hot, dry climate helped keep the site remarkably well preserved, something Childe said makes it an ideal place to be added to the World Heritage List.
"The integrity and the authenticity of the property itself, the surrounding landscape, its conservation, and several other factors mean that this is really an outstanding site, not just of Central Asia but in terms of world heritage itself," he says.
Soviet scholars conducted some archeological work at Nisa after World War II. But serious excavation of Nisa only started again during the 1990s, when a team from the Italy's University of Turin arrived.
UNESCO's recognition of Nisa may also help reduce the problem of theft from the site. As happened at the Great Wall of China, many nearby residents in the Nisa area have found a ready source of building materials by simply taking stones from Nisa's ruins.
Childe says the inclusion of Nisa on the list also brings tangible benefits that can help preserve the site.
"There is a World Heritage Fund and [for] sites that are on the list, government authorities can apply for help in terms of its conservation, [they] can apply for establishing or improving management structure, training for the national staff that are looking after it," Childe says. "Sometimes we arrange for regional and even international training as well, so there is an ongoing maintenance...in terms of our interrelation with the national authorities and with the experts who are involved. And that's actually a very important part of the function that we here at the World Heritage Center play."
Restoring A Nearly Lost Heritage
Childe added that the preservation of ancient cities such as Nisa helps give back to the peoples of Central Asia a past they nearly lost when the region was part of the Soviet Union.
The approach to Nisa (courtesy photo)
"For the ex-Soviet republics, this whole question of their cultural identity and their cultural heritage is a really important one," he says. "In many ways, they were cut off from their past in Soviet times. Now we find, in fact, cities that existed in the ex-Soviet republics -- including Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan -- some of them many thousands of years old, attesting to very high levels of civilization. So in a way, the rediscovery of these sites has also to do with the rediscovery of their own past and of their own history and with a new sense of pride in who they were as well as what they are today."
This pride is evident from the Turkmen state television report about the inclusion of Nisa on the World Heritage List.
"This is already the third ancient city in Turkmenistan to be put on the list," Turkmen television reported recently. "In 1999, another historical site in Turkmenistan was included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, ancient Merv, where the famous mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar is located. In 2005, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee decided to add to the list Kunyaurgench, the largest archeological park in northern Turkmenistan, on the left bank of the Amu-Darya [River]. It is a broad zone with many ruins and monuments bordering on the contemporary city of Kunyaurgench."
Childe said there are already close to 1,000 cultural-heritage sites in Central Asia, and added that more are sure to be added to the list in coming years.
(Guvanch Geraev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)
New President Shows Shades Of 'Turkmenbashi'
By Farangis Najibullah
Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at his inauguration ceremony in Ashgabat on February 14
July 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In his first six months as Turkmenistan's president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has launched some reforms, reinstated pensions, and reopened the national Academy of Sciences, which had been shut down by his autocratic predecessor.
But the president has also published his biography and held a gala birthday celebration complete with the minting of gold coins graced with his portrait.
While some observers have welcomed signs of change in Central Asia's most isolated country, critics fear the development of a personality cult similar to the one by the man that Berdymukhammedov replaced, Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov.
Better To Give And Receive
Berdymukhammedov celebrated his 50th birthday on June 29 by awarding himself the Watan (Motherland) Order -- a gold and diamond pendant weighing about 1 kilogram. As a part of the award, the president was also paid a bonus of $20,000 and received a 30 percent increase in his salary and pension.
"I think we can see a greater level of engagement from Turkmenistan in the international world, but again I think it is going to be limited..."
MORE: An interview about Turkmenistan with noted American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux.
The Watan Order, which can be awarded to the Turkmen president only once, was given to Berdymukhammedov to honor his "outstanding achievements" -- after only six months in office.
During that half a year he also managed to have his biography published. And to help commemorate his birthday, the government issued 400 gold and silver coins decorated with the president's portrait.
Russian and Western news agencies criticized Berdymukhammedov's lavish birthday honor as a continuation of the presidential cult of personality in Turkmenistan established by Niyazov, also known as "Turkmenbashi," or the "father of all Turkmen."
Hope For Change
However, some analysts say it could be a one-off celebration and that Berdymukhammedov will actually move away from Niyazov's excesses.
Berdymukhammedov was named acting president in late December after Niyazov's death. In February, he was elected to president in what has been called an unfair election that fell short of international standards.
Few people expected major changes in Turkmenistan's domestic and foreign policies, since Berdymukhammedov made it clear from the beginning of his rule that he would continue his predecessor's policies.
However, he did promise some reforms, including social reforms, and to some extent he started to open up the isolated country to the world.
Berdymukhammedov's electoral platform included a revision of the country's social-security law. Niyazov had cut off some 100,000 pensioners' retirement benefits and substantially decreasing many others' social payments.
Restoring Pension Payments
Under the new social-security law -- which came into effect on July 1 -- the suspended pensions were reinstated.
Berdymukhammedov has also reopened the Academy of Sciences, which was described by Niyazov as a "useless institution" and closed down.
Niyazov's numerous portraits decorating walls and billboards around the country -- and turning Turkmen cities into a kind of personal photo-album -- are now being taken down. Some of them, however, are being replaced by the new president's portrait.
The new president has made some changes to Turkmenistan's power circles by removing some of the key "behind-the-scenes" political figures.
The influential Akmurad Rejepov, the former head of the presidential guard, was fired and then arrested in May.
However, it is the foreign policy of the energy-rich country that attracts more attention abroad -- especially among those who want to import Turkmen gas.
Speaking at the ceremony in the capital, Ashgabat, marking his 50th birthday, Berdymukhammedov said that Turkmenistan maintains its "neutral status" and has "equal relationships" with all.
"Without joining any kind of political alliances, we will carry on with our efforts to build new gas pipelines to carry our gas to China, and to Pakistan and India via Afghanistan, and to Europe via the Caspian Sea," he said. "This means that we will have equal and mutually beneficial relations with Russia and the United States, with European countries, and with our neighbors as well."
Most recently Chevron, a U.S.-based energy company, announced its intention to open an office in Turkmenistan and participate in the development of Caspian Sea energy resources.
Some things haven't changed, as this large portrait of President Berdymukhammedov at a horse racing track in Ashgabat (file photo)
Matthew Clements is the Eurasia editor in the Country Risk Department for Jane's Information Group in Britain.
Clements says Turkmenistan's engagement with the international community will continue to be limited, and Berdymukhammedov will not want great foreign interference -- especially by Western, democratic countries -- in the country.
"I think we can see a greater level of engagement from Turkmenistan in the international world, but again I think it is going to be limited to what Turkmenistan wants to be dealing with," he said. "And I would not expect a livening of relations with the West unless it is going to involve energy deals."
Berdymukhammedov's reforms have thus far not touched on the dire situation of human rights and civil liberties in Turkmenistan, which have been sharply criticized by international observers for most of Niyazov's reign as president, which began in 1991.
Similarly, they have done little to improve the living standards of Turkmen people. Despite vast gas resources, most of the population lives in poverty.
For instance, Berdymukhammedov's latest action to reinstate pensions and other social payments looks good on paper. But the minimum pension in Turkmenistan is only around $25 a month.
(RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Guvanch Geraev contributed to this report.)
Is Talk Of IMU Aimed At Courting Outsiders?
By Farangis Najibullah
This 1999 photo shows guards on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border on alert for IMU members
July 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's National Security Directorate announced today that at least seven men with alleged connections to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have been arrested in two northern provinces, Faryab and Jowzjan.
The announcement is the latest warning of radical Islamist activity in Central and South Asia.
In neighboring Tajikistan, authorities detained 10 suspected IMU members in late June as a trial there continued of 14 others facing similar allegations.
Tajik and Uzbek defense officials warned last week of "increasing threats posed by terrorist and extremist groups" in Central Asia.
But could the region's leaders be inflating the threat posed by extremist groups in order to portray their countries as the front line against terrorism and boost their leverage ahead of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)?
The IMU is regarded by U.S. and the members of the SCO as a terrorist group. Officials have in the past pointed to senior leadership and training ties between the IMU and Al-Qaeda.
At an SCO meeting in Bishkek on June 27, Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Khairulloev predicted that militant groups would be more active throughout Central and South Asia as the last of the current crop of opium poppies are harvested in Afghanistan.
"Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and IMU followers will intensify their activities starting from July," Khairulloev said. "As far as their impact on Fergana Valley is concerned, we are more concerned about the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. As you know, they are being financed by some foreign governments, and they have to justify their existence -- because if there is no activity, there would be no financing."
Speaking alongside his Central Asian counterparts, Khairulloev said that Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have sought to tighten their borders to intercept IMU members' movements.
Despite official warnings -- and prominent arrests and trials of suspected IMU supporters -- some observers say there is no evidence to support claims that militants are more active.
Critics accuse Central Asia's bullying governments of playing up perceived threats to justify crackdowns on dissent at home and to portray themselves as crucial to international counterterrorism efforts.
Michael Hall, head of the Central Asian project for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a nonprofit analytical and advocacy group, said authorities in the region are likely to issue more statements highlighting the IMU threat ahead of a major summit in August of the SCO.
Hall said he thinks officials want to show fellow SCO members Russia and China that they are valuable counterterrorism allies who deserve greater support.
Hall said that while there has long been some degree of threat in Central Asia, the IMU is actually weaker now than before the United States declared its "war on terror" in 2001.
"There probably are remnants of the IMU in Central Asia to this day," Hall said. "But to what extent they are linked to what is left of the IMU currently based in Pakistan -- to what extent they are connected with one another and to what extent they are capable of pulling off any major acts of terrorism -- I think it is very difficult to make any clear statement on that front. I think [that] in many cases the threat posed by the groups is certainly, to a certain extent, exaggerated."
Matthew Clements, Eurasia editor in the Country Risk Department for the U.K.-based Jane's Information Group, argued that if there is any danger of radicalism in Central Asia, it stems from authorities' pressure on religious and political freedom, as well as a lack of socioeconomic opportunity.
"I think the danger of this [situation] is that elements of this could become more radicalized -- and this is mainly due to government action [and] to the fact that these people feel that their socioeconomic well-being is being put second by the government," Clements said. "[They feel] that they are not being politically represented. And also because the populations are being cracked down upon by the governments. And these crackdowns themselves are likely to engender greater feelings of radicalism."
Hikmatulloh Saifullozoda heads the "Dialog" think tank in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, and is a prominent member of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) -- the only officially registered Islamic party in Central Asia. He said that while radical Islamic underground groups might have a limited number of followers in Central Asia, they don't enjoy much popular support. Saifullozoda questioned whether what he labels authorities' "unnecessary pressure" on religious freedom might help religious extremists win sympathy.
He also warned governments against provoking public anger by needlessly intervening on sensitive issues like conservative women's wearing of head scarves.
"If the authorities solve these social problems, and as long as they do not interfere in sensitive issues -- which could take an unexpected turn -- I think no one would support the radical groups," Saifullozoda said.
There is a general consensus among analysts that groups like the IMU currently are not capable of destabilizing the region on any grand scale. But that does not mean they could not try to launch isolated acts of terror.
Observers pointed out that democratic reforms -- fostering freedom of speech, religion, and political activities -- could reduce the risk of radical groups winning public support.
They also suggested that governments could help their own cause through efforts to raise living standards by creating jobs and battling corruption.
In poverty-stricken regions like Central and South Asia, these observers warned, social unrest can take on virtually any form. And regardless of the immediate threat they present, radical groups like the IMU have a lot of experience at harnessing public disenchantment.
Kazakhstan: Ethnic Minorities Guaranteed Seats In Parliament
By Bruce Pannier
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo)
June 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan will have parliamentary elections in August, and some of the seats to be filled have been slotted for ethnic minorities in the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, a little-known body that will send 17 of its members to parliament in August elections.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev accepted a motion on June 19 to dissolve the Mazhilis, or lower house of parliament, and called for new elections to be held on August 18.
"The early elections for deputies for the Mazhilis of Kazakhstan, elected from the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, is set for August 20, 2007," he said.
"We are all citizens of Kazakhstan and, according to the constitution, we have the right to be elected and to elect."
What Is The Assembly?
The Assembly of People of Kazakhstan was created in March 1995. According to the body's website, it has 350 members who represent the some 100 ethnic groups in Kazakhstan. Its chairman is Nazarbaev.
It will be the first time there will be an election involving the assembly members, who were appointed to their seats.
In August, assembly members will elect other members of the assembly to the nine of the 107 seats in the Mazhilis (lower house) and eight seats in the Senate (upper house).
Zhumatai Aliev, the deputy chairman of the assembly, said he approves of the idea to elect ethnic minority leaders to parliament.
"Representatives of ethnic groups who are in the assembly will speak up for the interests of our government, of our people," he said. "They consider Kazakhstan their homeland and this is their homeland. They will speak up for reforms; they and the chairman of the assembly who is the president of our country."
Giving Minorities Seats
Anatoly Chesnokov is the first deputy chairman of the Association of Russians, Slavs, and Cossacks. He talked to RFE/RL about the assembly.
"The small ethnic groups very rarely have the sufficient means to show off their knowledge," he said. "In a lot of parliaments in many countries, for example Romania, where there are more than 100 nationalities, practically all the groups are represented."
But others are concerned that with more than 100 nationalities present in Kazakhstan, only some of the ethnic groups will fill the 17 seats in parliament and will represent their nationalities there.
Gerold Belger is an ethnic German who translates works into Kazakh. In a conversation with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, he pointed out some of the problems with the plan to put assembly representatives in the parliament.
"If every nationality would have its own representative in the legislature then the Kazakhs, who are the titular nation, would not have any place," he said. "That means one needs to think here. If we take only representatives from the larger minorities, say the Russians, Koreans, Tatars, and Germans, other groups will be dissatisfied. So I don't see a solution to this problem."
Elected By A Small Group
Kakharman Kozhamberdiev is an activist in Kazakhstan's Uyghur community. He told RFE/RL he is troubled by details that have not been made clear yet.
"Our government is unitary," Kozhamberdiev said. "The president, obviously, wants representation from this institute that has existed for 12 years. But, in fact, the members of the assembly themselves are not elected, no one elected them. For example, I don't know how these people got there [in the assembly]. Therefore it is necessary to work out a mechanism so that [all of] the members of the assembly will be elected. They need to elect people to the assembly so that qualified people are picked for the [assembly's] quota in parliament."
Malikshah Gasanov is the first vice president of the Kurdish Association of Kazakhstan. He said his group already suffers from being undercounted by authorities.
"I think that it's about time this question was addressed, because if people are elected on a general basis (direct elections by the people) then representatives of the smaller minorities would never be elected to parliament," he said. "But let's understand this correctly. Let's say a Turkish representative wasn't elected in previous elections, he didn't get enough votes. That is a different issue. There are nine seats [in the lower house] given to [the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan]. These nine places will undoubtedly be given to the larger [ethnic] groups in Kazakhstan."
Undercounted And Underrepresented?
Gasanov added that officially there are some 46,000 Kurds in Kazakhstan, but in reality he claims there are more than twice that number. Gasanov said many Kurds deported from Georgia toward the end of World War II were registered in Kazakhstan as Turks and Azerbaijanis.
And Ult Tagdyry (National-Patriotic Movement) leader Dos Koshim said that according to Kazakhstan's Constitution, "there should be no distinctions based on nationality, religion, or race." He said another violation of the constitution is that "according to the elections law we all have an equal opportunity to be elected and there should be equal rights."
Koshim said this right also is being violated since "only representatives of the assembly pick the delegates from the assembly, and not the 9 million registered voters of Kazakhstan."
The head of the Azerbaijani Cultural Center is Asyla Osmanova. She said she did not agree with the representatives from the assembly being elected to the parliament only by the members of the assembly. "We are all citizens of Kazakhstan and, according to the constitution, we have the right to be elected and to elect."
Osmanova also asked: "Tomorrow, will the candidate serve society or his or her own diaspora?"
While the idea of ensuring national minorities have a place in government seems sensible, it does run somewhat counter to the idea of equality for all people that the Kazakh leadership has stressed for so many years.
(Yerzhan Karabekov of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)
Kyrgyzstan: New Aksy Probe Could Reach Current Circles
By Bruce Pannier
A monument erected to the demonstrators who died after police fired on the crowd in Aksy
June 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- At the request of concerned citizens and the prosecutor-general, Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court agreed today to open an old wound.
The court agreed to a request by the Prosecutor-General's Office to reopen the investigation into a deadly confrontation five years ago between police and demonstrators in southern Kyrgyzstan.
At least five people were killed when police fired on protesters after a rally turned violent in the district of Aksy in March 2002.
The government resigned two months later, but amnesty for all those involved -- granted by then-President Askar Akaev -- left relatives of those killed frustrated in their search for justice, and for answers.
The court met for 45 minutes before the chairman of the Collegium of the Kyrgyz Supreme Court, Akylbek Matkerimov, announced its decision.
"The decision made on April 9, 2004, by the Kyrgyzstan Supreme Court's Collegium for Criminal and Administrative Abuses [closing the case] is to be reversed," Matkerimov said. "The criminal case against [former officials] is to be sent to the Kyrgyz Republic's Prosecutor-General's Office in order to reinvestigate it. The conclusion made by the deputy prosecutor-general of Kyrgyzstan is to be satisfied."
Questions remain as to why no one was ever held accountable in the incident. Relatives of those killed have never stopped demanding justice.
The Supreme Court's decision could leave some current government officials anxiously watching to see how their roles in those events are viewed.
One such official is current legislator Sultan Urmanaev, who in March 2002 was governor of the Jalal-Abad Province in which Aksy lies. The Prosecutor-General's Office has already asked parliament to lift Urmanaev's immunity so it can open a criminal investigation into what, if any, role he played.
In comments to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Urmanaev denied playing any role in the tragedy. He claimed officials like then-Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev, then-President Askar Akaev, and then-State Secretary Osmonakun Ibraimov gave him no instructions. In fact, he said the head of the presidential administration at the time, Amanbek Karypkulov, discouraged him from getting involved in the case surrounding opposition lawmaker Azimbek Beknazarov.
"I received no order or request from then-Prime Minister Bakiev nor from Akaev himself, nor from [former] State Secretary Osmonakun [Ibraimov]," Urmanaev said. "But Karypkulov attempted to isolate me from the case related to Beknazarov. When I had raised the issue of calming the crowd or negotiating with the people, [Karypkulov] kept telling me, 'Don't touch on that question, don't interfere in the Beknazarov case,' and he had been isolating me from the issue."
What Is Known...
On March 17, 2002, a group of more than 1,000 protesters appeared in Aksy. The crowd was protesting the detention of Beknazarov, the district's representative in parliament, on charges of abuse of office that related to a previous post. Beknazarov supporters believed the authorities were using that incident to silence a popular government critic.
Bottles and stones were thrown at police and security forces before something happened that had not taken place at any point in Kyrgyzstan's decade of post-Soviet independence. The police shot at the protesters, killing six people.
The former chief of the Aksy police, Daniyar Kuluev, told RFE/RL that he signed the order to implement Operation Typhoon to stop the protests -- and that the order was given only after demonstrators started breaking the law.
"The signature to start the operation was written down only after the disorder started," Kuluev said. "We were sitting at the police station that later was vandalized."
...And What Is Not
The incident sparked widespread protests in Kyrgyzstan. Outraged demonstrators blocked the main highway linking the northern and southern parts of the country. In the capital, Bishkek, officials denied police exceeded their authority in firing on protesters. Some, like then-President Akaev, accused the opposition of seeking to plunge the country into an "abyss of chaos" and manipulating protesters. The appearance in early April of a video showing police firing on demonstrators added fuel to the fire. The protests continued into May and reached Bishkek -- finally leading to the resignation of the government led by the man who is now the country's president: Kurmanbek Bakiev.
Opposition lawmaker Kanybek Imanaliev said recently that even if Bakiev was involved, the public has a constitutional right to know what happened at Aksy.
"In accordance with the constitution then and the [new] constitution now, the government answers for social disorder -- and who was prime minister? That is the first issue," Imanaliev said. "The second [issue] is, inasmuch as the Aksy events were a black mark on the image of Kyrgyzstan, we are in favor of an objective, adequate assessment that leads to the punishment of the person who authorized police to use deadly force -- and the governor, of course, has the authority to give such a command. There is also a need to punish those who fired [on the crowd], as it is hardly likely that the governor had a weapon."
Investigators are likely to feel pressure from various quarters. Relatives of the victims of Aksy want the whole truth. Some officials involved in those events might prefer that the investigation avoid delving too deeply. And police officers who actually fired on the crowd, and local officials who might have passed along the order to implement Operation Typhoon that day, might fear being made scapegoats for the Aksy tragedy.
(Nazgul Koshoeva and Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)
Tajikistan: 10 Years Of Peace, But Prosperity Still Elusive
By Bruce Pannier
(Front row, left to right) Government delegation head Shukurjon Zuhurov, Islamic Renaissance Party leader Said Abdullo Nuri, opposition representative Otakhom Latifi at the second round of peace talks in Islamabad in 1995
June 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tajikstan will on June 27 mark the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Tajik National Peace Accord that officially ended a brutal five-year civil war. Though Tajik President Emomali Rahmon is inviting citizens to join in the festivities to celebrate 10 years of peace, many people do not view the last decade as a progressive period.
At the Moscow ceremony, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (Imomali Rakhmonov at the time) and United Tajik Opposition (UTO) leader Said Abdullo Nuri stood on a podium in Moscow and signed the Tajik National Peace Accord. Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Iran's ambassador to Russia were also in attendance.
Peace At Last
Yeltsin announced the signing of the deal, saying: "On the ancient and long-suffering land of Tajikistan a long-lasting peace has come at last."
"If [people] want improvement, transformation, people should fight for their rights and their rights should be respected. Only in this way will there be a lasting peace."
PHOTO GALLERY: Images from the Tajik civil war.
Rahmon said it was a dream for his country's people: "Peace and harmony were an enviable dream of the peoples of Tajikistan. The history of mankind bears witness to the fact that Tajiks never raise the sword of hostility."
And UTO leader Nuri noted it had been a long road to peace. "The United Tajik Opposition and the government traveled a very difficult road during the three years of [peace] negotiations," he said. "They passed through many formidable obstacles to reach this day."
It was a difficult road. The peace agreement officially ended five years of civil war that killed more than 100,000 people, created nearly half a million refugees, and internally displaced people while shattering the country's infrastructure.
Reasons For War
The causes of the war were complicated. The government portrayed it as a fight between its secular forces against Islamists, though democratic movements participated in the UTO as well. The war also had a regional aspect, which some analysts saw as Rahmon's native Kulob area trying to assert itself and hold onto power. And there were powerful local figures who simply wanted to rule their territory as warlords but sent their paramilitary groups to help government forces. In terms of observing basic human rights and media freedoms, Tajikistan ranked among the worst countries in Central Asia during this time.
The Tajik peace agreement was unique. It not only ended hostilities but also gave the opposition 30 percent of the positions in government and provided for armed opposition fighters to join the Tajik Army. The last of those opposition officials left office in December last year.
But while Rahmon and other Tajik officials hail the peace deal and its significance this week, public opinion indicates that few Tajiks are satisfied with the situation in the country. Dodojon Atavullo has long been an opponent of Rahmon's government. He is the chief editor of the newspaper "Charoghi Ruz," published in Russia. He said the peace agreement was successful in stopping the fighting but did nothing else.
"The word 'peace' is misleading, just like the words 'freedom, independence, and justice,'" Atavullo said. "The people in Tajikistan respect peace but unfortunately the peace process ended in a political bargaining process and if during the civil war years there were 150,000 or even 300,000 refugees, today we have more than one million economic refugees who have left the country. Unfortunately, the Tajik leadership was only able to stop the fighting but the causes of the conflict remained."
Could History Repeat Itself?
And Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party, the only officially registered Islamic party in Central Asia, warned that unless changes for the better come the country could find itself back in the same predicament it was in.
"If everyone thinks peace is a fact and the country won't go back to this [civil conflict] and so do not pay attention, they are mistaken," he said. "From our point of view the violations of the agreement and continuing violations generally concern political matters. If future elections will again be like the 2005 parliamentary elections we will look at that as a violation of the peace accord. I think the spirit of the peace agreement should always be on everyone's mind in Tajikistan."
Ahead of the 10th anniversary of the peace agreement, RFE/RL's Tajik Service spoke with people on Tajikistan's streets and offered visitors to its Tajik-language website an opportunity to voice their opinions about problems in Tajikistan one decade after the signing of the peace accord.
One Tajik woman said the continued violations of basic rights are the biggest problem in the country.
Tajik officials at the treaty signing ceremony in Moscow in 1997
"Human rights violations could have political consequences," she said. "Misunderstandings could arise between the people and the government, so every citizen should pay attention. Our people are afraid to speak out but that doesn't mean there are no problems. Their silence is a minus for the government. If they want improvement, transformation, people should fight for their rights and their rights should be respected. Only in this way will there be a lasting peace."
But one man said employment was the greatest problem, a comment that is hard to argue with since 600,000-800,000 Tajik citizens now work as migrant laborers in Russia and Kazakhstan.
"Unemployment -- when a person cannot find work they will protest," he said. "Corruption is also a problem. Everyone is taking bribes, like that policeman standing over there. Of course it is bad when they don't pay attention to the constitution; they do not work according to the constitution for 16 years now. The problems we had [years ago] remain and now we have even more problems."
And another woman said new restrictions on practicing religion are a problem.
"Of course, all sides should support the peace but what we see with rules against wearing the veil, the prohibition against having loudspeakers in the mosque, forbidding young people from attending mosque, all these restrictions ruin the lives of the people who just want to live as they wish," she said. "And from the experience of the civil war we know that confrontation leads to war, so I think [the authorities] should not violate rights."
RFE/RL's Tajik Service compiled a list of the country's priority problems according to responses in interviews and from visitors to its website. It has those responses along with reports about the peace anniversary.
(Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)
Central Asia: Region's Reporters Need 'Structures Of Solidarity And Support'
June 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Paul Quinn-Judge is a long-time journalist and former Moscow bureau chief for "Time" magazine whose reporting work has taken him throughout the former Soviet Union, Southeast Asia, the Balkans, and even Washington. He has also trained journalists from Georgia and Kazakhstan during a fellowship with Knight International's International Center for Journalists. RFE/RL's Turkmen Service asked Quinn-Judge about approaches to promoting a free press in the Central Asian states.
RFE/RL: Turkmenistan is a very closed country [in which] there is no independent media and there is no freedom of the press... A similar situation can be observed in the region. You have experience working with Kazakh students and professionals. What can be done to improve the media situation in such closed countries as Turkmenistan?
Paul Quinn-Judge: I think you have to do almost everything. There seem to be no structures of protection, security, or support for journalists working in closed societies in the former Soviet space -- none that I know of. And this makes it all the more easy, I think, for many regimes to harass journalists, intimidate them, and sometimes force them out of their professions and other times, as in the case of Turkmenistan [where RFE/RL correspondent Ogulsapar Muradova died under unclear circumstances while in custody in September 2006], to kill them.
The crucial issue in all these countries is getting young people involved -- people who aren't tired, who don't "think they've seen it all," and who also may have far more skills than the older generation did because they're actually getting concrete training.
So I think, obviously, the first thing that needs to be done is coordination across the region. There need to be reporting structures, so people in each country can get the word out about what's happening to them. And I think at the moment, many journalists in the region are trying to be a little too brave and a little to discreet about things. My very strong feeling -- having watched what happens in other parts of the former Soviet space, like Chechnya -- is that when the authorities start to harass somebody in a small way, it normally means it's going to escalate. I strongly feel that, as soon as journalists come under pressure, they should start passing out the word. This presupposes some form of structure of support for journalists in the region. It could be one of the preexisting international organizations, or one of the press groups, or it might have to be something new.
But obviously, you need to work in two directions. You need to work through your own structure -- that is, through your own management and your own leadership -- and one would very strongly hope that the leadership of Radio Liberty would give support to people who've come under pressure. At the same time, the pressure -- the support -- has to come from diplomatic institutions, which is crucial in the region, because I think these countries are still very sensitive to being challenged by outside powers. Thirdly, you need structures, I think, of journalists throughout the region who keep in touch with each other, who share information -- but they also share techniques of protection and security. Until you have those [structures], it's like so much in this part of the world -- people are going to be picked off one by one. If there are no structures of solidarity and support, life is going to become even more difficult, I think, for many journalists working in the region.
RFE/RL: Recognizing the press as the vanguard of democracy, why are democratic countries who are seeking closer cooperation with energy-rich countries, like Turkmenistan, unable to put the issue of press freedom as the key point of their relations?
Quinn-Judge: Well, the problem with democratic countries tends to be that they're democratic and therefore they have very short attention spans. Each term of office of each leader basically outlines the whole expanse of the attention span that they have towards a certain country. So there's very little continuity.
So I think that in many cases, one tends to see the problem being that democratic countries take a very short-term attitude to the situation. They express enthusiasm in words for democracy and they are much more interested in very quick -- or maybe even long-lasting -- economic ties. I think much more pressure has to be put on democratic countries to behave in a way that supports movements towards democracy in countries like Turkmenistan -- without guiding it, without giving the orders. Once you start to give the orders, of course, this is the perfect excuse for any government to close you down, to pick up people. It's a very delicate path.
I see individuals, officials, I mean, from democratic countries, individual ambassadors, for example, who've been quite willing to speak out; i've seen others, who are, very sadly, silent on these issues. I would hope that an organization like Radio Liberty could not only work on giving information to people in Turkmenistan about what's happening in their country, but could also pass the word back to democratic institutions that fund them that the time has come to really give much more support. Protection is crucial, because without protection you're not going to have information. Without protection, sooner or later, in many countries, you'll just have to pull out journalists, rather than have them there and let them become martyrs. And there are people who are very brave -- almost foolishly brave, at times, and willing to stay -- but people have to have structures of support. Without that, they are taking excessive risks, and without that, also they cannot function efficiently.
RFE/RL: How can journalistic standards and freedom of expression be advanced in closed countries? What is the key to transformation? You are involved in some projects...
Quinn-Judge: In extremely closed countries, it's very hard to tell, because everything is locked down. In semi-authoritarian countries, semi-democratic countries, in countries where the media has a certain degree of freedom, I think the answer to that question is easier -- which is that you need to encourage the parts of the media which are free, or which are willing to function and are able to function more or less openly, you need to encourage [and] train very good young people to go into media, and you need to give them the opportunity in media where they can work.
To take the most free, the most democratic country in the South Caucasus/Central Asia region, Georgia -- it has a lot of problems with this because its media is moribund, its media is stagnating, which means that superb young journalists are being trained who have nowhere to go. So that's the problem in a country like that. In other countries, you have very fine journalists being trained who also have nowhere to go but [that is] for political reasons. Obviously, the crucial issue in all these countries is getting young people involved -- people who aren't tired, who don't "think they've seen it all," and who also may have far more skills than the older generation did because they're actually getting concrete training.
The sort of training that young journalists from South Caucasus [or] from Central Asia get -- in Georgia, for example -- is extremely high. So they have the skills. And I think, sooner or later, they are going to develop the critical mass where they're going to be able to play a major role. In many countries, though, we're going to see journalists have to lie low, to a certain degree, given the repressive nature of the regimes. And to change that you need not only commitment inside but [also] pressure from outside.
Central Asia: Young Women Trade Student Life For Married Life
By Farangis Najibullah
Tajik students in Dushanbe (file photo)
June 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Formal education for many girls in Central Asia ends with secondary school. A shortage of good jobs and career opportunities discourages many families in these post-Soviet republics from investing in university-level education for their daughters.
This week, hundreds of thousands of young people will graduate from secondary schools across Central Asia. A flurry of activity frequently accompanies the end of the school year, as girls in their late teens make the choice between continuing school or starting a family. Not all of them are rushing off to prepare for university or trade schools in the fall.
The destinies of some young girls are sealed -- they are getting married as soon as secondary school is finished.
A majority of the region's marriages are arranged by parents. Dating is uncommon in the villages of Central Asia; the idea of unmarried couples living together is virtually unheard of.
Hamida Imomova, a teacher in the Tajik town of Khujand, says some girls at her school distributed their wedding invitations even before their finishing exams.
"It is the same, both in cities and villages," Imomova says. "I have been working at schools for several years, and I have seen many girls -- the so-called 'lucky girls' -- who get married almost immediately after finishing secondary school. The girls invite us to their weddings, which take place once school is finished."
In Soviet days, many of the 17-year-old girls graduating from secondary preferred to continue their educations at one of the many centrally operated universities or colleges.
Back then, the ideal marrying age for those educated girls might have been 21 or 22.
But now -- even in this region, where many girls are married by their late teens -- marriage is coming sooner.
Alo Hamidova, an 18-year-old Uzbek student, tells RFE/RL that many of her female classmates, at a medical college in Tashkent, are married.
"These days, girls get married at 18 or 20. For instance, half of the girls here -- in the second year [of studies] at our medical school -- are married. That's how it is in Tashkent," Hamidova says. "In the rest of the country, girls get married a bit later - between 19 and 22 years old. Parents, first of all, want to find a rich bride. Her financial status and her parents' backgrounds are important."
Nowhere Else To Go?
A lack of alternatives appears to be contributing to a declining trend in the age of brides.
University education is not an option for many young women. Education is mostly free at many state colleges and universities in Central Asia. Still, not every family can afford expenses like dormitories or books.
There is also a perception that -- five years and lots of expenses after enrolling for higher education -- female graduates still face a particularly tough job market.
Just a handful of young women get the opportunity to study abroad, leading in some cases to handsome pay at international organizations.
Shahnoza Karimova, a Tashkent-based journalist, says that after graduating from secondary schools, many young women try to learn skills that can generate income.
"Hardly anyone would want a bride with university education, because [such women] can't find a job," Karimova says. "Parents prefer a bride with skills and jobs that bring money -- like dressmakers, embroiderers, and nurses. The boys leave for Russia after school in search of an income. The girls learn a new skill in the evening and work at the farms -- as laborers -- during the day. In such circumstances, parents are worried about their daughters' safety and try to marry them to a suitable person as soon as possible."
Divorces are not uncommon in Central Asia. But staying single forever is rarely a preferred option -- for many women, becoming a second wife to an older, married man is a real possibility.
Financial necessity is clearly one of the factors affecting the incentive to marry, judging by some of the areas where trends are reversed. While marriages are coming earlier for so many people in the region, increasing numbers of young adults in prosperous cities in energy-rich Kazakhstan are waiting into their 30s to marry. In many cases, they are willing to postpone the joys of family life in favor of achieving more in their careers.
Elsewhere, however, the ranks are growing of young men and women who have settled down early to start their families. With jobs in short supply in much of Central Asia, the arguments for waiting are simply losing out.
Running out of alternatives -- and pressured by conservative traditions to marry early -- many young women in countries like Tajikistan are exchanging ambitions of higher education for the stability that they hope to find in their newfound family life.