Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Reports Archive

Central Asia Report: February 23, 2005

23 February 2005, Volume  5, Number  7

WEEK AT A GLANCE. Kazakhstan's embattled opposition, which gained only one seat in September 2004 parliamentary elections and recently witnessed the court-ordered dissolution of the party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, suffered another blow when the Ak Zhol party began to show signs of a split. At dueling press conferences on 14 February, co-Chairman Alikhan Baimenov detailed a party meeting the day before at which he successfully lobbied for a no-confidence vote against fellow co-Chairman Altynbek Sarsenbaev, while Sarsenbaev and his supporters accused Baimenov of weakening the opposition's cause by failing to cooperate with the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces. The opposition newspaper "Soz" also experienced problems, as Editor in Chief Sharip Kurakbaev announced that a court order halted publication of the newspaper, which recently lost a $38,500 defamation suit to the National Security Committee. Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov tried to drum up foreign investment on a trip to Hungary. And President Nursultan Nazarbaev addressed the nation on 18 February, hailing the economic achievements of the past decade and calling for the formation of a union of Central Asian states.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev gave his own address on 17 February, threatening to file a defamation suit against the opposition newspaper "MSN" unless it retracts recent allegations that the president and his family control significant business interests in the country. The heads of state-owned telecom, gas, and power companies announced their own plans for defamation suits against "MSN" in connection with the allegations. The litigious onslaught sparked demonstrations, with 200 people staging a protest in Bishkek on 19 February to denounce what they described as an attempt to stifle free speech in the lead-up to 27 February parliamentary elections. On the international front, Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov announced on 14 February that Kyrgyzstan has decided against any deployments of AWACS aircraft at the U.S. air base in Manas. Russia's "Kommersant-Daily" suggested that the Kyrgyz move came as a bit of quid pro quo, with Moscow asking Bishkek to keep out U.S. AWACS in return for Russian support for Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev's government in upcoming parliamentary elections. Oddly enough, U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Stephen Young told a news conference in Osh on 17 February that the question of deploying AWACS at Manas had never been raised.

Alan Waddams, European Union ambassador to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, announced that the international community will pony up $20 million over the next two years to strengthen Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan as Russian forces complete their handover of the frontier to Tajik jurisdiction. The EU will contribute 6.5 million euros ($8.5 million), Britain 2 million euros, and the United States $9.5 million. Meanwhile, Tajikistan continued to prepare for 27 February parliamentary elections, with opposition parties alleging numerous violations of the Electoral Code, observers predicting a strong showing for the ruling People's Democratic Party, and voters displaying limited interest.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov reaffirmed his flair for the extravagant gesture with a pledge to build a winter-sports complex in the desert. Gazprom head Aleksei Miller visited Ashgabat once more in an apparent attempt to resolve a price dispute between the state-controlled Russian gas company and Turkmenistan, which shut off gas shipments to Russia in January in a hardball move to renegotiate an existing contract. No breakthrough resulted. And as President Niyazov celebrated his birthday on 19 February and prepared for an eye operation, he pointedly informed his subjects, "I can't see some of you.... After the operation, my vision will be sharper. But don't think that I don't see at all. I definitely see."

Rustam Shoghulomov was removed from his position as head of the Uzbekistan Press and Information Agency, although he will continue to serve as the director of the Uzbekistan publishing house. Also dismissed was Charles Murray, Britain's controversial former envoy to Uzbekistan. The Foreign Office finally bid farewell to Murray, who had been recalled from Uzbekistan in October 2004 after alleging that information British and U.S. intelligence were receiving from Uzbek officials had been obtained from detainees under torture. The ex-envoy, who made a name for himself with unsparing criticism of Uzbekistan's human rights record, now plans to pursue a political career in Britain (see interview with Murray below).


PIPELINES OR PIPE DREAMS?

By Amin Tarzi and Daniel Kimmage

The on-again, off-again prospects of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan Natural-Gas Pipeline Project (TAP) have come alive once more with a recent decision by India's cabinet to authorize discussion of three pipeline routes to India, including TAP. Without the Indian market, TAP was not deemed a profitable undertaking. But even if New Delhi and Islamabad come to a full agreement on the project, and Kabul's enthusiasm remains at current levels, a multitude of other problems could render the pipeline no more than a pipe dream.

First envisaged in 1991, TAP is designed to transport natural gas from the Dawlatabad fields in Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan and eventually to India. The initial phase of the project, excluding the pipeline's possible extension to India, would involve the construction of a pipeline about 1,700 kilometers in length, mostly through Afghan territory, that can transport up to 20 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB), which has financed a feasibility study for the project, has estimated that the Turkmenistan to Pakistan section of the pipeline would cost between $2 billion-$2.5 billion and would require four years of construction after all decisions are taken by the cooperating countries and international financial institutions.

According to a 14 February report by "International Oil Daily," ADB officials have confirmed that the TAP pipeline is "economically and financially a viable project." While Turkmenistan has yet to submit a certification of its Dawlatabad gas reserves, an unidentified ADB source quoted on 1 February by "Platts Energy Economist" said that the Turkmen side is expected to deliver the needed certification by March.

India's Geostrategic Fears

On the receiving end, India's reluctance to rely on gas from a pipeline crossing the territory of archrival Pakistan had proved to be a major stumbling block. However, the recent authorization given by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for his country to explore several possibilities to transport much-needed natural gas to India has rekindled interest in the TAP project.

Indian Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar told reporters in January that by looking at the region's map "you may accuse me of dreaming, but as a minister I am paid to dream." Aiyar added, "We have the Bangladesh-Burma [Myanmar] pipeline, we are looking at a pipeline from Iran that would cross Pakistan, and we want a pipeline from Turkmenistan that would cross Afghanistan and Pakistan," "Platts Energy Economist" reported on 1 February.

Should India cement its links to big state-owned players in Russia's energy industry, Moscow could increase its leverage over a potential TAP participant, rendering the dream of riches for Kabul and peace and energy for New Delhi and Islamabad a mere pipe dream.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose country is eager to get the TAP project under way, told visiting Indian External Affairs Minister Kunwar Natwar Singh on 15 February that his country hopes New Delhi will look favorably at the trans-Afghan pipeline. A press release from Karzai's office indicated that pipeline would bring "significant economic benefit to Afghanistan and the region."

But before Karzai and his Indian and Pakistani partners begin to celebrate economic prosperity and a constructive new phase in the elusive New Delhi-Islamabad partnership, several stumbling blocks need to be cleared.

The Security Issue

Afghanistan's security remains a major question, especially if the U.S.-led coalition forces and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) begin to withdraw from that country. Beyond interim security, which could be provided by Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) under ISAF command, and perhaps air patrols by Afghanistan's future military partners, Kabul needs to extend its legal and physical authority throughout the pipeline route.

Currently there are two routes under discussion. The first runs through northern Afghanistan, cutting through Kabul before entering Pakistan; the second travels through western Afghanistan, passing through Kandahar into Pakistan.

Unfortunately, security concerns extend beyond Afghanistan. If the route through western Afghanistan emerges as the best option, the pipeline would cross Pakistan's Baluchistan Province. In January, a little-known separatist group attacked a gas storage facility in Baluchistan. The attack was not unique, as local tribesmen increasingly are targeting natural gas facilities in the province to settle accounts with the central government, ask for higher royalties, or promote their nationalist agendas.

If the alternative option is chosen, the pipeline would cross the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, which includes the semi-autonomous tribal areas. These regions, most notably the tribal areas, are known for their fierce independence. Both the NWFP and the adjoining Afghan border regions are also home to radical Islamists groups with very strong anti-India sentiments. A pipeline serving Indian interests would present them with a tempting target.

Turkmenistan's Price Hikes

Turkmenistan's relations with Russia are another variable in the complex equation that will determine the gas-rich Central Asian country's future deals. As the "RFE/RL Central Asia Report" has noted, Turkmenistan has signed a 25-year "gradual increase" contract with state-controlled Russian gas company Gazprom under which Russia's purchases of Turkmen gas will rise from roughly 7 billion cubic meters in 2005 to 70 billion-80 billion cubic meters by 2009.

But the Russian-Turkmen relationship has been showing signs of strain lately. In early January, Turkmenistan strong-armed Ukraine into accepting a price hike, raising the price of gas from $44 per 1,000 cubic meters to $58. Fighting for similar gains on the Russian front, Turkmenistan shut off gas shipments to Russia in January. Gazprom head Aleksei Miller met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat on 10 February, but their talks were inconclusive. Although Gazprom stated in a press release after the meeting that the two sides agreed to "follow existing agreements," Turkmenistan's official news agency stressed that the current price -- $44 per 1,000 cubic meters, paid half in cash and half in kind -- is "unacceptable," Russia's "Vremya novostei" reported on 14 February. Further talks are expected.

However, Gazprom and Turkmenistan resolve the price dispute, the Turkmen government's desire to force the renegotiation of an existing contract, not to mention the hardball negotiating tactics implicit in the shutoff of gas shipments to Russia, are a cautionary lesson to other would-be partners. Moreover, Gazprom has its own concerns about Turkmenistan's gas reserves. As "Nefte Compass" reported on 20 January, Gazprom is waiting to see an audit of Turkmen gas reserves conducted by Texas-based DeGolyer and MacNoughton before investing in an upgrade of the Central Asia Center pipeline.

Gazprom, which has contracted to buy large amounts of Turkmen gas to cover for declining yields at its existing fields against a backdrop of fearsome development costs for new fields in Siberia, is likely to take a dim view of any alternate export routes for Turkmenistan. State-controlled Gazprom provides a steady stream of revenues to the Russian budget, and the Kremlin can be expected to safeguard its interests. An anonymous oil-industry source told RBC on 18 January that the Russian gas company Itera, which at one point considered involvement in TAP, might have disassociated itself from the project because it "was not supported by Russian authorities."

India, now drawing attention with its interest in TAP, may also be looking to expand its ties with the Russian energy sector, and specifically Gazprom. Indian Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar is expected in Moscow on 21 February for talks that will focus on a possible agreement between India's Oil and Natural Gas Corp. (ONGC) and Gazprom to cooperate on natural-gas extraction projects in both Russia and India, Reuters reported. ONGC has also been conducting talks about the possibility of acquiring a stake in Yuganskneftegaz, the Yukos production asset state-owned Rosneft recently plucked from the ruins of erstwhile oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovskii's empire. Should India cement its links to big state-owned players in Russia's energy industry, Moscow could increase its leverage over a potential TAP participant, rendering the dream of riches for Kabul and peace and energy for New Delhi and Islamabad a mere pipe dream.


UZBEK EMINENCE FALLS FROM GRACE

By Daniel Kimmage

Critical articles in Uzbekistan's timid official press are sufficiently rare that their appearance generally sparks speculation in the grand old spirit of what used to be called Kremlinology, with observers eagerly teasing out hints of hidden power struggles and coded references to coming policy changes.

This time, the spark came in the unlikely form of a lengthy article about agriculture that appeared first in Uzbek on 12 February in the newspaper "O'zbekiston ovozi," and then in Russian on 15 February in "Narodnoe slovo." Written by a prosecutor, the article details widespread wrongdoing in the agricultural sector and breaks the news of a criminal case against a onetime top power broker. While the resulting conjecture has left most of the questions unanswered, it provides a useful guide to some of the more vexing issues in Central Asia's most populous country.

Signed by E. Mengliev, a department head at the Prosecutor-General's Office, the article presents a review of the agricultural sector in 2004 along with the results of a probe that led to the opening 1,296 criminal cases and saw more than 30,000 individuals face various forms of disciplinary action. In one instance of malfeasance, 475 officials illegally distributed more than 20,000 hectares of land to friends, relatives, and themselves. But the real revelation comes when the author turns his pen on Ismoil Jurabekov, until recently one of the most powerful men in Uzbekistan. Mengliev writes that Jurabekov's mismanagement and criminal negligence "caused production and harvests to decline and damaged the country's economy." For this and other crimes Jurabekov faced criminal charges, but the case was closed under a 1 December 2004 amnesty in light of Jurabekov's "full admission of guilt, age, and health."

Jurabekov rose to the upper echelons of Uzbekistan's power structure in the Soviet period. He maintained a high profile throughout the 1990s until his retirement in 1998. He reemerged in 1999 as a presidential adviser with far-reaching control of the agricultural sector until he was dismissed without explanation in February 2004. Seen as a key figure in Uzbek President Islam Karimov's Soviet-era rise to power and a powerful figure in the Samarkand clan, Jurabekov was commonly known as the "gray cardinal" of Karimov's court and reputed to be the second-most-powerful man in the country.

The unexpected news of a criminal case against Jurabekov confirms rumors that have circulated for some time, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on 14 February. Moreover, the article's appearance in both Uzbek and Russian in two leading official newspapers indicates approval at the very highest level. Observers were quick to weigh in with reactions.

Arkadii Dubnov, a longtime analyst of Central Asian affairs, wrote in Russia's "Vremya novostei" on 17 February that the article may point to a new stage in the clan rivalries that pervade Uzbek politics. Dubnov noted that when Jurabekov was a top adviser, "he removed and appointed regional heads and initiated the dismissals and appointments of high-ranking officials and law-enforcement heads. Those dismissed were usually representatives of the Tashkent clan, while 'Samarkand clan members' were appointed." Dubnov concluded, "The final removal of the head of the Samarkand clan, now scapegoat for the authorities' missteps, from the political arena indicates a strengthening of the Tashkent clan. Moreover, [Tashkent clan] representative Rustam Azimov was recently appointed to the post of first deputy prime minister that once belonged to Jurabekov. Thus, Tashkent clan members now lead in the race for the right to succeed Karimov."

An article that appeared on 15 February on Erkinyurt, a website affiliated with the banned opposition party Erk, suggested that Jurabekov's fall could serve a dual function, mollifying recent expressions of discontent while warning the upwardly mobile that no one is safe. The author opined: "The government needed to come up with some sort of response to recent protests by the Erk party and farmers. The fatted calf of 'Jurabekov & Co.' seems to have been chosen for sacrifice. On the other hand, the government that has so abused the common people now seems to have decided to strike fear into the hearts of mid-level businessmen who have come up somewhat in the world, farmers, and governors and their underlings who have escaped the president's gaze. The message is that they could be next...."

Others cautioned against reading too much into the event. Journalist Sharof Ubaydullaev told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the episode is exceedingly murky: How could Jurabekov have concealed his criminal misdeeds while occupying high posts for more than 20 years? Why was the public only informed of the criminal case in 2005, when it had already been closed? More importantly, Ubaydullaev stressed that while the Jurabekov affair will fade, there is no guarantee that similar events will not occur in the future.

What the affair and attendant commentary demonstrate, first and foremost, is the almost total lack of transparency in Uzbek politics. Against that backdrop, Dubnov's move to link Jurabekov's fall with the fortunes of the Samarkand clan represents an understandable, albeit speculative, attempt to seek insights in the informal sphere when the formal sphere yields few clues. The conclusion that attention in state-run media to official incompetence and wrongdoing comes as a response to discontent and a warning to others suggests a government that recognizes the existence of problems but lacks viable mechanisms for remedying them. And the prediction that the brouhaha may simply come and go while the underlying causes remain reminds us that when extreme opacity is the rule in criminally tinged affairs of the state, positive change tends to come as an exception.


INTERVIEW WITH FORMER BRITISH AMBASSADOR TO UZBEKISTAN CRAIG MURRAY

By Kathleen Moore

Craig Murray may be one of Britain's least diplomatic diplomats in recent memory. While ambassador to Tashkent, he spoke publicly about repression and the lack of democratic freedoms in Uzbekistan. Last year he accused the United States and United Kingdom of using intelligence gained from people tortured in Uzbekistan. And in a widely published speech in November, he criticized the United States for helping prop up what he called President Islam Karimov's "brutal" regime. Murray was suspended from his post in October 2004 and has now taken severance pay -- moves the British Foreign Office has said are not connected with his outspoken views. He now plans to run against British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in Britain's Parliamentary election, expected in May.

RFE/RL: What's prompted you to stand against Jack Straw in the upcoming general election?

Murray: I think that under this government Britain has moved away from the basic principles that governed foreign policy for many years, in particular support for the United Nations, support for the role of international law. And that's really quite a serious step which the British people didn't approve of, people didn't approve of us entering into an illegal war against Iraq without the sanction of the UN Security Council. So I'm trying to bring that home to the foreign secretary, because he obviously carries the responsibility for foreign policy.

RFE/RL: Are you hoping to emulate Martin Bell [a former British journalist who entered politics in order to defeat a member of parliament embroiled in a corruption scandal] or is winning not the point?

Murray: I'm hoping to do a "Martin Bell" in the sense that I want to make the illegal war on Iraq, the government's attacks on human rights at home, its failure to support human rights abroad -- I'm hoping to make those key issues which get more national attention than they would otherwise. Martin Bell did the same two elections ago for the issue of sleaze, and concentrated media attention on that. I'm hoping to concentrate media attention on the issues of legality and foreign policy. So I'm hoping to emulate him in that sense, bring media attention on a relevant issue. Obviously I'd like to emulate him in terms of being elected, but that's entirely up to the voters of Blackburn [Straw's constituency].

RFE/RL: And you are including in those issues that you want to highlight the U.K.'s acceptance of intelligence gained under torture overseas?

Murray: That's one of the key issues I will highlight, the fact that Jack Straw has personally sanctioned the use by the U.K. of intelligence materials obtained under torture. I came across it in Uzbekistan, but exactly the same thing is happening in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, many, many countries. What is worse, people have been able to be locked up here in the U.K., detained without trial, on the basis of such intelligence, which is really a dreadful scandal. I will by trying to highlight that in the election campaign.

RFE/RL: What was it that prompted you to speak out about rights abuses while you were ambassador to Uzbekistan?

Murray: I think the brutality in Tashkent was so extreme and so all-pervasive that it was necessary to expose it. I did speak out very strongly, but for example [former U.S. Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright had made a speech in 2000 which was just as strong as anything I ever said about the regime in Tashkent. Sadly, of course, with the coming of the [George W.] Bush administration, America decided it was again going to start backing some nasty dictators who they viewed as on their side, and the American position changed, and the rest of the West was only too eager to fall in behind that noncritical support of [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov. But that was in violation of every international agreement on human rights, and I was only speaking along the lines of accepted British policy.

RFE/RL: What was the reaction of you fellow ambassadors?

Murray: I think they were pretty surprised. When I first arrived in Uzbekistan, as a new ambassador you make courtesy calls on other ambassadors. When I called on other European Union ambassadors and said to them, 'Goodness the human rights situation here is terrible, this is a really nasty dictatorship,' two of them said to me absolutely directly, 'Yes we know, but we don't mention that because they're [Uzbekistan] close allies of the United States.' And there was an understanding among ambassadors in Tashkent that they just pretended not to notice what was going on. That made their lives more comfortable living and working in Tashkent, they weren't people personally fond of confrontations. And I think there was some discomfort and pique that I had brought to public attention issues that they viewed as best swept under the carpet.

RFE/RL: The United States has said it's promoting reforms in Uzbekistan and that it has kept human rights on the agenda, withholding some aid last year because of the poor human rights record. The EU has also spoken in terms of supporting and encouraging reforms. Has this approach brought any results, do you think?

Murray: No, none whatsoever. There isn't any reform happening. The U.S. sometimes tries to pretend there are bits and pieces of reform. For example, two years ago the U.S. ambassador was loudly proclaiming the abolition of censorship. [the U.S. ambassador said in 2002 he welcomed the move to end official media censorship, but added it was only a first step leading Uzbekistan to an open society.] In fact no such thing has happened, Uzbekistan is still 100 percent censored in its media. And when the State Department cut $12 million of aid last year because of Uzbekistan's appalling human rights record, the Pentagon immediately gave an increase in military aid of more than twice that to make it up. [In August, General Richard Meyers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced in Tashkent that Washington would give Uzbekistan an additional $21 million to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons.] I think that the U.S. is in an absolutely disgraceful position with regard to Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL: How should the West treat the Uzbek regime?

Murray: We should treat it as a pariah regime. There is certainly no more freedom in Uzbekistan than there is in Belarus, and the regime in Tashkent is still more vicious and violent than the regime of [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka. And Lukashenka we're quite happy to ostracize and bring sanctions against while we court Karimov. If you take Zimbabwe, which was named as one of [U.S. Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice's evil dictatorships, I have no time for President [Robert] Mugabe, but there is an opposition in Zimbabwe, and people can, at some risk, go to the polls and vote for an opposition candidate, and they do so. There is an independent judiciary in Zimbabwe whereas there is no such thing in Tashkent. Uzbekistan is certainly in the 'Top 10' for dictatorial regimes in the world and we should treat it as such. We don't have any difficulty treating Mugabe and Lukashenka as pariahs, so why should we not treat Karimov in the same way?

RFE/RL: Do you think you achieved anything by speaking out?

Murray: There are individual cases of people who would be in prison today and possibly would be dead today if we hadn't managed to act and intervene in their cases in Uzbekistan. I think there is much more international attention towards Uzbekistan. I don't believe, for example, that the [U.S.] State Department would have made its token cut in aid if it wasn't for the international attention that the U.K. brought to the human rights violations in Uzbekistan. So I have achieved something in at least raising an awareness of the problem in the world. But plainly I haven't achieved any real reform in Uzbekistan because there is no sign of that.

RFE/RL: Do you have any regrets about what you did?

Murray: Obviously on a personal basis I enormously regret the loss of my career which had been extremely successful in my 20 years at the Foreign Office. I didn't head to Uzbekistan thinking, 'This is a good place to throw my career away.' It wasn't intended. I regret that, but I don't feel I could have done anything else.


VOTER AWARENESS LOW AS VOTE NEARS IN TAJIKISTAN

By Farangis Najibullah and Daisy Sindelar

If you had just six hours of electricity a day, would you spend it watching election news on TV? That is the question facing many Tajiks living beyond the capital Dushanbe. Wintertime power supplies are limited to three hours in the morning and three hours at night. Even those people interested in following the campaign on TV or radio may simply not have the time to do so.

Sharifa, a young woman in the southern Tajik town of Kulob, told RFE/RL she has almost no information about the upcoming election. "I don't know anything about the elections," she said. "There is no gas, no television and no radio. In circumstances like these, how are you supposed to know what the election is about and who the candidates are?"

Tajiks living in rural areas also have little access to newspapers and magazines. Financial strains mean most print media come out no more than once a week. Few travel far beyond major cities. And with more than half the country living below the poverty line -- earning the equivalent sometimes of just $5-$10 a month -- many Tajiks cannot afford to buy newspapers even when they are available.

Reaching voters has proved a challenge for the six political parties campaigning for parliamentary seats. Abdullah Fozil, a journalist from the country's northern Maschoh district, said some candidates simply walk from street to street, trying to meet as many people as they can. "Some candidates speak to people on the street or at private gathering or parties. There is no [platform] or microphone for them. They need to use every other kind of opportunity they can find to speak to people," Fozil told RFE/RL.

But even the simplest face-to-face campaigning has been made difficult by weeks of heavy snowfall across the mountainous country. Snowdrifts and avalanches have blocked roads, leaving many village residents isolated. Candidates from the two dominant political groups, the People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT) and the Communist Party, have reportedly been given the use of government automobiles for some of their campaigning. Some local and international observers say even in the capital city of Dushanbe there are few apparent signs of campaign activity.

But opposition groups have had to show more ingenuity. Shamsuddin Saidov, an official with the Islamic Revival Party in the southern Kulob region, says some candidates have gone to extreme lengths to reach voters. "Our party's candidate, Sayed Umar, has had to go by foot -- or sometimes even by horse -- to reach voters in villages," he said. "Yes, this was the only way we could reach people in the mountainous regions."

Still, it is proving impossible to reach every remote Tajik village. Jumakhon, a man living in the southern region of Khatlon, said he and many of his fellow villagers have heard nothing about the election. "It has been snowing badly in my home region," he said. "I found about the elections only when I came to Kulob from the Shurobod [area of Khatlon]."

The situation is less bleak in some parts of the country. Some suburban residents near the northern city of Khojand say they have followed the campaign closely -- due in part to efforts by local officials to raise voter awareness.

Roziya, a teacher working near Khojand, said she prefers to vote for people already holding official posts, many of whom are members of the ruling People's Democratic Party. She said such officials make better candidates than those from the opposition parties because they have good connections and are more capable of fulfilling their pre-election promises.

"I live in Yova village. I'm following the elections. We will be voting for the head of our collective farm. He has been very helpful. With his help, our village was connected to a gas pipeline and the main road was repaired," Roziya said.

The parliamentary election is just over a week away. But some local and international observers say even in the capital city of Dushanbe there are few apparent signs of campaign activity. Peter Eicher, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's election observation mission in Tajikistan, told RFE/RL: "One of the things that strikes you if you come to Tajikistan and wander the streets of Dushanbe or other cities is how little evident political activity there is at this point. There are very few posters or banners; there have not been any major election rallies."

Tajiks in the capital have far better access to election information than people living elsewhere. But awareness does not necessarily translate into enthusiasm. Many Dushanbe residents say if past experience is any guide, the upcoming vote will bring few changes to their lives.


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