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Central Asia Report: February 10, 2006

10 February 2006, Volume 6, Number 5

WEEK AT A GLANCE (30 January-5 February). Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev ordered the creation of a holding company, to be called Samruk, that will manage state assets. Marat Pistaev, head of the Interior Ministry's migration police, said that the ministry wants to study Russian plans to legalize illegal migrant workers and use them as the basis a proposal to Kazakhstan's Labor Ministry. Pistaev estimated that 300,000 illegal migrants from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were employed in Kazakhstan in 2005. Alikhan Baimenov, leader of the moderate opposition party Ak Zhol, met with Nazarbaev, telling journalists after the meeting that Ak Zhol will participate in a new official commission intended to develop and specify a "program of democratic reforms." And the Defense Ministry announced that U.S. forces will participate in the Kazakh-British Steppe Eagle counterterrorism exercises slated to take place in Kazakhstan in September.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev delivered a surprise address to parliament, blasting the legislature for fomenting instability, "political squabbling," "sabotaging" the government's privatization program, and going beyond its mandate. The critical comments came after several weeks of increasingly heated and acrimonious exchanges among the country's leadership amid speculation that the "tandem" of Bakiev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov is fraying. For its part, parliament voted down Bakiev's choice of Sultangazy Kasymov to continue heading the Supreme Court, with deputies suggesting the high court needs new blood. Kapar Mukeev was dismissed as head of the penitentiary system amid an investigation that has Mukeev facing a criminal charge of negligence. A poll of 3,416 Kyrgyz citizens found that only 17 expressed trust in President Bakiev. The employees of state-run newspaper "Kyrgyz Tuusu" staged a demonstration to protest the dismissal of Editor in Chief Bakyt Orunbekov. And the Economy and Finance Ministry reported that the GDP (calculated without results from the Kumtor gold mine) rose 1.4 percent in 2005. Growth was 4.3 percent in 2003, and 7.5 percent in 2004.

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov made a number of personnel changes at a meeting summing up the previous year's work. Matlubkhon Davlatov, formerly head of the Financial Oversight Committee, was appointed presidential adviser for economic affairs, replacing Fayzullo Kholboboev. Kholboboev was made Tajikistan's permanent representative to the Eurasian Economic Community. Deputy Foreign Minister Abdunabi Sattorzoda and Deputy Communications Minister Sherali Najmiddinov, both of whom had been appointed as part of a power-sharing agreement that gave the opposition 30 percent representation in government, were retired for age reasons. Mirzo Anvarov was removed from his position as head of the state-run airline Tojikistan and replaced by Hokimsho Tilloev, formerly deputy tax minister. Nuralishoh Nazarov, former commander of border troops, was appointed deputy minister of emergency situations. Elsewhere, the Foreign Ministry condemned the publication of caricatures of Muhammad in European newspapers.

Reports indicated that pension reductions in Turkmenistan were causing panic among retirees and other beneficiaries of social programs. Under a new law, 100,000 retirees will no longer receive pensions while the pensions of 200,000 others have been reduced, and some pensioners will even have to repay sums they had already received as a result of alleged miscalculations. Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry responded with a rebuke of Russian media for airing reports it described as "false and fabricated." Elsewhere, President Saparmurat Niyazov met with Turkish Ambassador Hakki Akil and U.S. Ambassador Tracey Ann Jacobson to discuss energy cooperation. Official Turkmen reports of the meeting stressed that Turkmenistan is examining "all possible routes for bringing its energy sources to international markets given the demand for them in the modern world."

Germany's "Der Spiegel" reported that Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry has informed the German government that Germany could lose its base in Termez, Uzbekistan, if it fails to invest $24 million in local infrastructure. A German delegation is slated to visit Tashkent in February to discuss the issue. And Switzerland joined EU sanctions against the Uzbek government, which include an embargo on arms sales and a visa ban for 12 high-ranking officials.

TURKMEN SENIOR CITIZENS PROTEST PENSION CUTS. Many elderly people in Turkmenistan are very unhappy these days. That's because President Saparmurat Niyazov -- who likes to be called Turkmenbashi or the "Father of All Turkmen" -- recently canceled payments to about one-third of the country's pensioners. Payments to hundreds of thousands of other pensioners were also cut.

The move sparked small-scale protests at government offices by Turkmenistan's senior citizens, many of whom rely on their pensions as their only source of income. Protests in general are a rare occurrence in this Central Asian country. Some say the severity of the situation threatens to spread further discontent.

After initial shock and confusion in early January, senior citizens in Turkmenistan began protesting the changes to the pension system. Niyazov and the Welfare Ministry subsequently announced the new system, which was signed into law by Niyazov on 25 January.

The Welfare Ministry made it clear on that day that some pensioners will completely lose their payments and others will face significant cuts.

Rare Protests

Open dissent against the government is almost unheard of in Turkmenistan. But independent Turkmen rights groups say that retirees have gathered in recent days in front of government offices and in other areas to voice their discontent over the cuts. Protests were reported in the Ilyaly and Kunya-Urgench districts of northern Dashoguz province. Another report places a crowd of pensioners holding a protest in the center of the western port city of Turkmenbashi.

The cuts will reportedly eliminate pensions going to more than 100,000 people. The first news of the cuts didn't come through official media. Instead, elderly people were called to district government offices across the country, where they were told about the new deal.

Witnesses say the announcements stirred an immediate uproar and caused many elderly people to collapse. Some of them were reportedly hospitalized.

Susanne Paul is the president of the New York-based group Global Action on Aging, an organization that works at the United Nations to highlight what is happening to older people around the world. She says her group is closely monitoring the situation in Turkmenistan as it is concerned that seniors there are facing an emergency situation

"In Turkmenistan it sounds like this is a pretty drastic development to cut the pension incomes entirely, and we're following it closely to see what resistance there might be to it and to what happens next," she said.

Shortage Of Funds?

Niyazov has said the decision to cut pensions is linked to errors in a national census regarding farm workers. Others have attributed it to shortcomings in the state pension fund.

Nurmuhammet Hanamov, leader of the opposition Republican Party of Turkmenistan in exile, questions the legality of the new pension law: "The old law should be effective for those people who have already been getting pensions under that law. They cannot be deprived of the right for the pension under the conditions of the new law. The new version of the law should be implemented only for new pensions."

Independent Turkmen human rights groups are also questioning the legal basis of pension cuts.

The severity of the situation is complicated due to mass unemployment in Turkmenistan. Accurate unemployment figures in the country are hard to come by, but independent groups agree it is exceptionally high. Nongovernmental organizations have reported that labor exchanges in the country cannot adequately cope with the amount of people seeking work. People seeking work at some employment offices can wait in lines for days. And many unemployed are not even registered as being without work because they can't afford the unemployment services.

The picture that emerges isn't pretty. Due to mass unemployment, many pensioners -- until recently -- have been the sole supporters of their family. With many of them now receiving reduced payments or none at all, many families are left without any means of subsistence.

High Unemployment

Erika Dailey, who directs the Turkmenistan Project at the Open Society Institute in New York, says Niyazov's government is to blame for the unemployment situation in the country.

"What is without a doubt is that the government sector is overwhelmingly the [main] employer in the country, and by withdrawing employment opportunities the government is essentially ensuring that people are left with no source of income whatsoever," she said.

Dailey says Niyazov's recent changes to the health, education, and pension systems have had a disastrous impact. "President Niyazov has introduced what he purports to be reforms, ostensibly for budgetary purposes, to bring about a sort of fiscal management or responsibility into these spheres," she said. "But in fact, the impact has been completely unjustifiable from an economic standpoint and in fact has been utterly disastrous in those spheres, specifically health care, education, and pensions."

Officials in Ashgabat are downplaying the situation. Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry on 4 February said that pension maintenance covers "most" of the Turkmen population and that the amount of social payment is "high" and "in line with the social-economic growth of Turkmenistan." It goes on to say that the population is provided for with free gas, electricity, "low" transportation costs, drinking water, and salt.

According to World Health Organization statistics from 2002, life expectancy in Turkmenistan is 51 years for men and 57.2 years for women. In Turkmenistan, people are only eligible to start receiving pensions in their 60s. (By Wade German, with contribution from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. Originally published on 7 February.)

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT WARNS PARLIAMENT OVER 'COURSE OF CONFRONTATION.' Kyrgyzstan's president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, appeared in parliament on 3 February for a surprise address to castigate lawmakers for their collective performance. Bakiev assured legislators that he has no desire to dissolve the parliament, but he demanded that they shape up and get back to the business of governing.

Bakiev had strong words for lawmakers, saying their bickering is hindering efforts to improve the situation in the country. "We need a strong parliament, a strong legislative body, as never before," Bakiev said. "Instead, the parliament is turning into a place of political squabble, the source of an atmosphere of instability in the country."

He accused unnamed deputies of being interested primarily in using their legislative clout to further their own private agendas.

'Sleep In Peace'

"Quit your vodka-selling businesses -- by the way, it's against the law for members of parliament. Then you won't need bulletproof vests," Bakiev said. "Stop breaking the law. Shut down your businesses, legal or illegal. Stop fighting competitors using your authority as parliament deputies -- and sleep in peace."

Bakiev's unexpected challenge came just weeks after a refusal by two provincial governors to submit to presidential transfer suggested central government control was slipping. It also came one week after Prime Minister Feliks Kulov criticized the work of the police and security officials on 25 January, sparking a feud within the government. It has also led to accusations that parliament is proving to be an obstacle to government reform plans.

Bakiev raised that point in his speech. "In my meetings in the regions, I often have to answer the following question: 'Why is the parliament preventing the president and the parliament from doing their work? Why don't you dissolve it?' I hear such questions wherever I go," Bakiev said.

The president then left the parliament building as quickly as he had come.

Cautious Reaction

Parliamentary speaker Omurbek Tekebaev challenged lawmakers to respond to Bakiev's criticism. "Dear deputies! This was no regular address to the parliament by the president. [The president's] address will not be debated and questioned. [But] the president raised important issues. Of course, we have to respond to those issues in accordance with facts and reality," Tekebaev said.

Deputy Melis Eshimkanov then invited his colleagues to reconsider parliament's role in governing. But Eshimkanov, a one-time presidential candidate who also owns the newspaper "Agym" (Stream), suggested that a small group of parliamentarians has given the institution a bad name.

"This parliament should define its position," Eshimkanov said. "Is the parliament needed at all? As [President Bakiev] told us: Perhaps parliament is becoming a destructive force. Perhaps we [should] talk about those five or six [lawmakers] who might be the destructive ones, as he said. It would be good, if we, the parliament, showed its faith and face."

Regional Instability?

The international community is keeping a close eye on events in Kyrgyzstan and the region. The popular revolution that toppled Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev 10 months ago sparked fears among the authoritarian administrations in the region of a sort of domino effect.

Those fears no doubt contributed to Uzbek President Islam Karimov's heavy-handed crackdown against a restive public in Andijon less than two months later, in mid-May.

U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte warned the Senate Intelligence Committee on 2 February of the problems facing Central Asia.

"Central Asia remains plagued by political stagnation and repression, rampant corruption, widespread poverty and widening socioeconomic inequalities, and other problems that nurture nascent radical sentiment and terrorism," Negroponte said.

He also warned of the dangers posed by instability in the region. "In the worst, but not implausible case, central authority in one or more of these states [in Central Asia] could evaporate as rival clans or regions vie for power, opening the door to an expansion of terrorist and criminal activity on the model of failed states like Somalia and, when it was under Taliban rule, Afghanistan," Negroponte said.

Russian Interest

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried hard to prevent the West from making inroads in Central Asia -- pursuing closer relations in the region and reasserting political, economic, and military interests there.

Putin recently expressed backing for one of Central Asia's most widely criticized governments while warning that Russia would not stand idly by in the event of trouble.

In an omnibus news conference on 31 January, Putin justified Uzbek President Islam Karimov's heavy-handed crackdown against a restive public in Andijon in May, saying it helped avert further trouble in Central Asia.

"We don't need another Afghanistan in Central Asia, and we will act very carefully there," Putin said. "We don't need a revolution there. We need evolution that would lead to the consolidation of those [democratic] values you mentioned but that would prevent outbursts such as the one we witnessed in Andijon."

The ongoing problems in Kyrgyzstan, where stability has been scarce since the revolution in March, could be seen by some as bearing out Putin's warning. Many analysts now consider Kyrgyzstan the least stable country in a volatile region. (By Bruce Pannier. Originally published on 3 February.)

IS ISLAMIC MOVEMENT OF UZBEKISTAN REALLY BACK? Authorities in Central Asia suggest that an outlawed group responsible for terrorist attacks in the past poses a renewed threat in the region. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was thought to have been largely destroyed in the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.

But officials in Tajikistan have blamed several recent incidents on the IMU, and they say the group has been increasingly active since an uprising was suppressed in neighboring Uzbekistan eight months ago.

The most recent mention by Tajik officials came on 27 January from Abdugaffor Qalandarov, the chief prosecutor in Tajikistan's northern Sughd Province.

Qalandarov was speaking two days after a prison raid by masked gunmen in the Ghayroghum district of northern Tajikistan freed a prisoner with alleged IMU ties. He warned that the IMU has been increasingly active since an uprising and subsequent crackdown by security forces in Andijon, in eastern Uzbekistan, in May.

Qalandarov claimed the IMU has become even more dangerous than the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist group that seeks the creation of a global caliphate.

"[Hizb ut-Tahrir] is not as dangerous as the IMU," Qalandarov said. "We detained some [IMU] members and hold them responsible. We confiscated weapons and ammunition, including a Kalashnikov machine gun, a Makarov pistol, a grenade launcher, and military uniforms."

Tajik officials said they think the suspected IMU members who attacked the Tajik detention facility are hiding in the Batken region of southern Kyrgyzstan. Tajik and Kyrgyz security officials met in the Tajik city of Isfarah on 2 February to discuss a joint plan to capture those responsible for the prison raid.

Useful Bugbear?

It is the cross-border aspect of the recent incidents that has authorities throughout the region concerned. But observers are quick to note that governments in Central Asia's post-Soviet republics have sought to use the Islamist threat to consolidate their already-firm grip on power.

Ahmed Rashid is the author of "Jihad: The Rise Of Militant Islam In Central Asia." He told RFE/RL that he has doubts about official statements warning of an IMU revival.

"Certainly we know that the IMU leaders are alive and well in the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan," Rashid said. "There have also been accusations in Uzbekistan linking the IMU to killings there. But frankly, we have very little evidence on the ground that the IMU has been able to revive its movement in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. We should remember that Tajik and Uzbek authorities have a habit of first saying that Hizb ut-Tahrir now is a big danger, and then, a few months later, saying the IMU is a big danger -- and not giving any evidence."

History Of Terror

The IMU's stated goal from 1999 was the overthrow of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and its replacement with a caliphate -- an Islamic state. Over time, the group has expanded its goal to include the creation of an Islamic state encompassing all of Central Asia.

Uzbek authorities blamed the IMU for deadly bombings in Tashkent in February 1999, and labeled the group a terrorist organization.

The group is also thought to have been responsible for numerous kidnappings, including that of four American mountaineers in August 2000. After IMU militants raided southern Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in the summer 1999 and 2000, the U.S. State Department placed the group on its list of terrorist organizations.

Its membership is believed to have totaled about 4,000 at its peak, and the IMU renamed itself the "Islamic Party of Turkestan" five years ago. The group also made clear its wider goal of establishing a caliphate to include Muslim-dominated provinces of western China that it calls "Eastern Turkestan."

Thinning Ranks

IMU militants fought in Afghanistan alongside Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces. Its ranks were thought to have been massively depleted when the international community intervened in Afghanistan in late 2001.

At the time, reports suggested IMU military leader Juma Namangani had been killed. But those reports have never been independently confirmed.

A 34-year-old native of Uzbekistan spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity about the IMU. He said he was an IMU member for more than two years, until late September 2001.

"After America's twin towers [of the World Trade Center] exploded on 11 September [2001], the U.S. bombed Afghanistan's Kabul," he said. "We realized that Taliban rule was over and decided to leave Afghanistan. [Namangani] was in Mazar-e Sharif. Mostly [ethnic] Uzbeks and some Tajiks live in Konduz and Mazar-e Sharif. Namangani, who was in that area at the time, was killed in the first air strike by Americans. Yes, he was gone after the first [bombing]."

But the former IMU member claimed the group's political leader, Tahir Yuldosh, managed to survive and regroup. He claimed Yuldosh's forces are now hiding in the tribal belt along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

"No, [Tahir Yuldosh] sought refuge with other -- Afghan -- members of Taliban," he said. "He went to a mountainous area, forcing people to join him, and set up his camp there. He is still holding them by force. The lucky ones managed to escape; others are still there in special camps. There is no way to leave. If they tried, they'd face danger from two sides. [On the one side] there are Pakistani government [forces] who will shoot them. [On the other, there is] Tahir himself, who will shoot them too."

Strength Uncertain

The IMU membership is unlikely to exceed 200 men, according to analyst Ahmed Rashid. But Rashid added that the group's underground strength is still a question.

"I am sure they have an underground presence; I am sure that militants and [IMU political leader] Tahir Yuldosh, who is still in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, are in touch with their underground supporters in Central Asia," Rahid said. "[But] broadly speaking, I think the governments in Central Asia see that Hizb ut-Tahrir is a faster-rising movement than the IMU."

Rashid argued that there have been no clear signs that the IMU is regrouping or moving into Tajik territory in recent months.

Warnings from the region's governments of IMU activities invariably serve to remind many observers that those same officials have been keen to invoke counterterrorism to strengthen their political hands.

Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asia correspondent for the Moscow-based "Vremya novostei" daily, told RFE/RL that Tajik authorities' recent statements should be seen in the light of upcoming presidential election there.

"Tajikistan wants to demonstrate that threats to internal stability and to the regime are only external ones, and that the [President] Imomali Rakhmonov regime has the full support of the elite and of most political parties -- and no dissent or opposition is left. It is very similar to Tashkent's position; Uzbek authorities said there was an external factor in the Andijon events," Dubnov said.

Central Asia has seen a strong Islamic revival in the past decade. Many IMU leaders and militants have come from the Ferghana Valley -- which straddles Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. It is a politically and economically depressed region that has provided fertile ground for Islamist militants. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova, with contribution from RFE/RL's Tajik Service. Originally published on 2 February.)