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Central Asia Report: January 10, 2008

Kyrgyzstan: Authorities Seize Radioactive Material Bound For Iran

By Bruce Pannier
If the world needed reminding of the ongoing threat posed by nuclear materials left unsecured and scattered across the former Soviet Union, it's got it now.

On January 9, Kyrgyz officials announced that they had taken possession of a small load of a radioactive substance discovered aboard a train bound for Iran. The material has been placed in a special area in Kyrgyzstan, but questions are being raised about the nature and quantity of the substance, who was behind its transport, and how the train carrying it crossed three border checkpoints before being detected.

While it might simply be a coincidence that the train was bound for Iran, such a destination is also likely to raise eyebrows, given Western concerns over Tehran's nuclear activities and alleged support of terrorism.

Kyrgyz officials are looking for answers, but their behavior has raised questions, too. Why, for example, did it take them nine days to announce the discovery of the material, which was found on December 31 when radiation detectors alerted Uzbek border guards? They promptly sent the train back to Kyrgyzstan.

The Kyrgyz National Security Service continues to decline comment on that and other questions, and Almabek Aitikeev, a departmental head in the Kyrgyz Emergency Situations Ministry, offered only generalities about the quantity of the material when asked by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

"Not quite a bucketload of radioactive waste material was there mixed in with sand, dust, and snow," Aitikeev said. "We did our work and sealed up the waste on December 31."

Through Three Border Checks

Kubanych Noruzbaev, an official from the Kyrgyz Ecology and Environmental Protection Ministry, said on January 10 that the material was cesium-137, a product of nuclear reactors and weapons testing that is often used in medical devices and gauges. But it could also be used in a crude radioactive explosive device -- a "dirty bomb" -- and underscores the fact that despite some progress since 1991, parts of the former Soviet Union are still littered with sites where lethal radioactive materials remain largely unsecured.

Noruzbaev said the cargo train belonged to a Tajik firm but the cargo was loaded by Kyrgyzstan's state railway company, Temir, in Kyrgyzstan with other material and was bound for Iran. Noruzbaev also questioned how the train made it so far before being detected by Uzbek border guards.

"It passed through our border, the Kyrgyz border [and] it passed through two border checkpoints in Kazakhstan, entering and exiting [Kazakhstan]," Noruzbaev said. "Only on the territory of Uzbekistan was it discovered, and they [the Uzbeks] sent the train back to us."

Noruzbaev said the radioactive material should have been discovered long before the train arrived in Uzbekistan. "But how could it happen that it was not detected when it passed through special checkpoints?" Noruzbaev said. "And even more so, how could a [radioactive] source like cesium-137 or -140 pass [without detection]?"

'You Would Get Burns'

The Kyrgyz news agency reported on January 9 that the levels of radiation being emitted from the train car were so high that the Emergency Situations Ministry asked for volunteers to go and unload the cargo. Four people wearing special protective clothing volunteered to venture into the wagon where they discovered the source of the radiation: dust and waste material on the floor, which they swept up and deposited in a bucket. The bucket was then sealed in concrete and stored in a special facility.

Reports say the material emitted 1,000 milliroentgen per hour, which is considered a dangerous level. Most companies handling such material consider 5,000 milliroentgen per 2,000-hour work year to be the "regulatory upper limit" for safety.

"It emits radiation, radioactive waves, and they are harmful, maybe not in mediocre amounts but prolonged exposure," Noruzbaev said. "If you held it a while, depending on the dosage, you would get burns of varying degrees."

But how did the material make it onto the train? In an interview on January 9 with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Emergency Situations Minister Kamchybek Tashiev was vague. "We established a commission immediately after the information about [the radioactive material] became known," Tashiev said. "The commission arrived at the site and removed the radioactive waste according to the law on radioactive security. In such a way, we took every measure to stop the spread of any radioactive substance among the populace."

Kubat Osmonbetov, a geologist, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that cesium-137 and cesium-140 are definitely lethal in large doses. Osmonbetov also noted that there is a uranium-processing plant in northern Tajikistan, raising the possibility that the Tajik train in question may have been used in the past to transport radioactive material and that remains of that material had somehow been left in the wagon.

(Amirbek Usmanov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Mirosrar Asrorov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)

Turkmenistan: 'Gas-Rich' Residents Shiver In The Cold

By Bruce Pannier

A young boy braves the cold in Ashgabat

As Russia, Iran, China, and Europe all vie for a piece of Ashgabat's natural-gas pie, many ordinary Turkmen have been left shivering out in the cold -- despite official promises of free gas.

Turkmen authorities have long boasted about the country's vast gas reserves, exports of which are expected to at least double in coming years as new pipelines are completed to improve links to China and Russia. Natural gas is a cornerstone of Turkmen foreign policy -- a fact highlighted this week when Ashgabat cut its gas flows to Iran: officially because of technical problems, although a price dispute appeared as likely a culprit.

Indeed, the former Soviet republic, once seen as one of the world's most closed societies, has so much gas that officials proudly boast that citizens use it for heating and cooking -- free of charge. Water, electricity, and gas have been free, government-provided staples since the country's 1991 independence. The late President Saparmurat Niyazov instituted the policy and his successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has vowed to continue it.

But people in rural areas, where two-thirds of the country's 5 million people live, paint a different, and colder, picture -- one that suggests Turkmenistan's growing export obligations are affecting domestic consumption.

Blaming The Public

A correspondent for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service in eastern Turkmenistan says that as the Central Asian winter has set in, rural inhabitants have begun experiencing huge problems with gas supplies. The correspondent says that while the urban population appears to have enough gas, pressure is falling in the homes of rural residents.

A homemaker in the Lebap village of Arab says she and her family have never had gas since moving there in 1993. "Our neighbors and I are not able to pay for the pipeline to be built to our neighborhood," says the woman, in her 30s. "Some families used small pipes to connect their homes to the pipeline, but now [authorities] don't care about providing access to gas. We don't know what to do."

Residents in rural areas outside Ashgabat tell RFE/RL correspondent Soltan Achylova that employees from the state gas company appear to have their own interpretation of the free-gas policy. Locals say that representatives of the gas supplier tell them that households frequently consume more than their allotment and that the utility company is thus forced to lower pressure in the pipelines or even cut off supplies completely "from time to time" to help them stick to yearly limits. They claim that such explanations are often accompanied by solicitations for bribes to keep the gas flowing.

Achylova reports having had representatives of the gas company visit her home to pressure her for money. She refused, instead going to the company offices to complain; the company responded by telling her that gas is no longer entirely free and that she will be charged for anything more than one stove burner or one radiator for heating.

"I said if I need to pay, tell me how much and I will pay here, please do not ever send anyone to my home," Achylova says. "After that, no one has come to my home. I think people do not understand or do not demand their rights."

Achylova says she wonders whether "the Turkmen authorities are taking advantage of people's ignorance in order to collect money" and questions whether such payments end up "in the state coffers."

Growing List Of International Customers

Turkmenistan is clearly concerned with those coffers, even as ordinary citizens struggle to get enough gas to heat their homes and cook their food.

After Ashgabat blamed technical problems for a temporary cut in gas exports to neighboring Iran, both Turkmen and Iranian authorities this week insisted the interruption was unrelated to price. But a look at Turkmenistan's growing list of gas clients suggests that price concerns might have been behind the move, which also affected Iranian gas exports to Turkey.

Turkmenistan currently has two gas-export pipelines -- one from the Soviet-era connecting it with Russia, and another built some 10 years ago that links it with Iran.

Iran currently imports some 8 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas annually at a rate of $75 per 1,000 cubic meters. That's half of what Russia's powerful Gazprom is slated to pay. Under a new 30-year contract beginning later this year, Turkmenistan will sell up to 50 billion cubic meters of gas annually to Gazprom for $150 million per 1,000 cubic meters.

"Without a doubt, what has happened recently is a demonstration of Ashgabat's desire to increase the price it gets [from Iran] for gas," says Moscow-based political analyst Artem Ulunyan.

Meanwhile, Turkmenistan has also signed a new pipeline deal with Kazakhstan and Russia to build a pipeline along the northeastern shore of the Caspian Sea to eventually supply markets in Europe. That pipeline, with a capacity of at least 20 billion cubic meters annually, is expected to be ready by 2010 and it's a good bet that Ashgabat will fetch market price for its gas that at least matches what Gazprom is set to pay.

Turkmenistan also has a deal to begin exporting to China some 30 billion cubic meters of gas annually via a pipeline that should be ready by the end of 2009. The original agreement called for a price of $80 per 1,000 cubic meters.

But Ulunyan says Berdymukhammedov, seeing world gas prices, might realize the deal with Iran is simply outdated. "It is no secret that those contracts made during the time of Niyazov cannot be considered advantageous for Turkmenistan,” Ulunyan says. "So that means that probably now the talk is about reviewing the price for Turkmen gas."

Whether Ashgabat will demand more money from Iran remains to be seen. Tehran does have a bargaining chip, since it was mainly Iranian money and labor that built the pipeline connecting it with Turkmenistan.

Many Turkmen citizens, however, are more concerned about having enough gas for cooking and heating than for exporting to Iran -- or anywhere else.

"It's difficult for housewives," says the homemaker in the village of Arab. "Since September, we have used an open fire for cooking. There's no way to use an alternative cooker with electricity. The power is too low."

(RFE/RL Turkmen Service's Osman Halliyev contributed from Lebap Province and Soltan Achylova contributed from Ashgabat)

New Kyrgyz Prime Minister Makes Economy A Priority

By Bruce Pannier
New Prime Minister Igor Chudinov, with a career spent in energy and industry, has vowed to boost Kyrgyzstan's stagnant economy -- particularly in key sectors such as farming, minerals and gold, and a fledgling tourism industry that has recently dubbed the country "the land of Santa Claus."

President Kurmanbek Bakiev's Ak-Jol (Best Path) Party appointed Chudinov, a former industry and trade minister, as prime minister on December 24. The party stormed to victory in parliamentary polls on December 16 that were criticized by both the opposition and Western monitors as falling short of international standards.

Following widespread outrage and post-poll protests, the election dust has now settled, leaving the new prime minister with a major challenge: bringing stability to one of the more restive states of Central Asia, where Bakiev himself was swept to power on the wave of a popular revolt in March 2005. For now, that means no changes at the top. "I have tried to keep the government as it was appointed in April," Chudinov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service in an exclusive interview. "A lot has been achieved this year, so in my opinion changing people just for the sake of change is not exactly right."

Kyrgyzstan has had a presidential form of government for more than a decade. But a new constitution has shifted some powers from the executive to the legislative branch -- so in theory Chudinov should be the first Kyrgyz prime minister in years to have the ability to make policy.

Domestic critics have already voiced concern, saying Chudinov lacks the experience needed to lead the government -- and that, moreover, he appears to have been appointed partly because he simply cannot challenge Bakiev, as constitutionally the president must speak Kyrgyz. Chudinov, an ethnic Russian, does not speak Kyrgyz, although he says he has begun learning the country's state language.

"I have not witnessed [Chudinov] do anything good for Kyrgyzstan before," opposition politician Naken Kasiev, a former health minister and Osh region governor, told RFE/RL. "He was only involved in the energy sector. And I don't think that simply because of his appointment, relations with Russia will be strengthened."

Chudinov, 46, was once a high-placed official in Komsomol, the Soviet-era youth organization. After Kyrgyz independence in 1991, he worked in business until 2005, when he was named director-general of Kyrgyzgaz, the state company that procures gas supplies for Kyrgyzstan.

Trying To Keep Pace

Burnishing his business background, Chudinov vowed to help Kyrgyzstan -- which lacks the fossil-fuel resources of its behemoth neighbors -- better compete in a region dominated by the booming economies of China, Russia, and Kazakhstan. He said he would focus on improving core sectors such as agriculture, minerals, and mining, and better exploiting the country's natural resources to expand its tourism industry.

"We will work in several areas, primarily intensifying our work in agriculture," Chudinov said in the interview, conducted on December 28 in the Kyrgyz capital. "Without the agrarian sector, it is impossible to develop our country any further. We will focus on specialization and processing capacities and that is how I think we will be able to salvage our agriculture."

Kyrgyz argiculture is focused on produce -- melons, apricots, apples -- as well as livestock such as cattle, horses, and sheep. But while it's vital, Chudinov is aware that farming alone will not propel Kyrgyz economic growth, which in recent years has been the lowest in Central Asia -- even lower than in poverty-stricken Tajikistan, whose growth in gross domestic product of 7 percent in 2006 compared favorably with Kyrgyzstan's 2.7 percent.

"Naturally, we will also emphasize the development of the mining industry and the processing of mineral resources, which are in abundance [in Kyrgyzstan]. We have large reserves of limestone, which we export and then import various construction materials from neighboring countries. I don't think it's right and we will make efforts in this regard," Chudinov said, suggesting that the country should process more of its raw materials into finished products.

Chudinov also spoke about the gold-mining industry as one sector where the country can boost revenues. He said work at some of the key sites in Kyrgyzstan will be intensified now that the world price for gold is at an all-time high, and that profits from sales of gold will be placed in a new state reserve fund for use in improving the socioeconomic situation in the country.

Chudinov also noted that work needs to be done to increase Kyrgyzstan's hydroelectric power capabilities, both for domestic consumption and export to neighboring states.

And with more than 90 percent of the country covered by mountains and spectacular alpine lakes, Chudinov said promoting tourism would be another priority. To that end, Bishkek got a boost from a Swedish engineering firm that determined Kyrgyzstan was the ideal spot for Santa Claus's global toy-delivery hub. Tourism officials in the predominantly Muslim country quickly moved to capitalize on that finding by naming a mountain peak after the Christmas icon and declaring Kyrgyzstan "the land of Santa Claus."

"Of course, we will pay close attention to the development of tourism," Chudinov said. "It is also very important for our country. We are an ecological oasis in Central Asia, if you will. We have amazing natural resources."

Regarding foreign policy, Chudinov said Kyrgyzstan welcomes good relations with all countries, but he said that realistically there are two countries Kyrgyzstan needs as partners. "Kazakhstan and Russia certainly remain our main partners today," he said. "These are big markets that need our products, our agricultural produce."

But he also said Bishkek remains hopeful of improving relations with Uzbekistan, its biggest supplier of gas. Chudinov has experience dealing with Uzbekistan, as he headed up negotiations to purchase natural gas from Tashkent.

(RFE/RL Bishkek bureau chief Kubat Otorbaev conducted the interview.)