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Central Asia Report: March 31, 2006

31 March 2006, Volume 6, Number 10

WEEK AT A GLANCE (March 20-26). Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev chaired the first meeting of a new commission charged with developing a democratization program for 2006-2011. The president noted that the process may involve a "constitutional reform." On this count, Culture Minister Ermukhamet Ertysbaev said that early parliament elections will be needed if constitutional reforms are to be completed by year's end. But Mazhilis (lower chamber of parliament deputy) deputy Darigha Nazarbaeva, daughter of President Nazarbaev, strongly disagreed, calling Ertysbaev's statement a factor that "destabilize[s] the political situation in the country." Senate speaker Nurtai Abykaev indicated that he will not heed calls for him to resign. The calls began after his subordinate, Erzhan Utembaev, was arrested for allegedly organizing the murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev. The opposition party Sarsenbaev had co-chaired, Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Ak Zhol), received official registration from the Justice Ministry. And Nazarbaev, concluding an official visit to Uzbekistan, praised Uzbek President Islam Karimov's handling of unrest in Andijon in May 2005. Nazarbaev said that Karimov was "protecting the peace of the 26 million people of Uzbekistan," adding that "groups of trained extremists had entered Uzbekistan with the aim of destabilizing not only you but also us."

Kyrgyzstan celebrated the first anniversary of former President Askar Akaev's ouster with a military parade and concert. President Kurmanbek Bakiev dubbed last year's events "truly a people's revolution." For his part, Akaev, who currently resides in Moscow, accused the former opposition of organizing a coup d'etat supported by the drug mafia. On the eve of the March 24 anniversary, former Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov and former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva, both key figures in the 2005 protests who are now in opposition to the current government, lamented the lack of change since Akaev's overthrow. Beknazarov also told a news conference that Akaev offered him money in 2005 if Beknazarov would close a criminal case against Akaev and members of his family. Akaev's lawyer called the allegation a "lie from beginning to end."

The European Union expressed concern about the case of Muhammadruzi Iskandarov, the imprisoned head of Tajikistan's opposition Democratic Party. Iskandarov received a 23-year prison sentence in October 2005 after he was extradited from Russia under murky circumstances. President Imomali Rakhmonov signed a decree raising wages for medical and educational workers by 40-60 percent.

Representatives of Ukraine and Turkmenistan signed a debt-settlement agreement putting Ukraine's debt to Turkmenistan at $169.6 million, with $46.8 million owed in cash and $122.8 million in commodities. And Turkmen Oil and Gas Minister Gurbanmurat Ataev said that Ukraine must arrange deliveries of Turkmen gas with Russia, which controls the transit route to Ukraine.

Uzbekistan gave the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) one month to leave Uzbekistan, saying that "[The] UNHCR has fully implemented its tasks and there are no evident reasons for its further presence in Uzbekistan." UNHCR said it would comply, but noted that 2,000 Afghan refugees in Uzbekistan still rely on UNHCR for assistance, education, and health care. The U.S. State Department and Human Rights Watch both condemned the Uzbek move and asked the Uzbek government to reconsider its decision. The Asian Development Bank approved a 2006-10 strategy to Uzbekistan that envisions loans of $100 million a year over the next three years.

UZBEKISTAN A FACTOR FOR INSTABILITY IN FRAGILE CENTRAL ASIA. Uzbekistan has been at the center of international concern for almost a year, since the government of President Islam Karimov staged a crackdown on May 13, 2005, on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijon, in which possibly several hundreds of people died. Many in Central Asia believe the high level of tension in Uzbekistan could spread instability throughout the region.

Uzbekistan shares common borders with the other four Central Asian republics plus Afghanistan, and is thus well-placed to impact the other countries in this volatile region.

And regional analysts say it is having an impact. Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA) specialist Annette Bohr cautions against being alarmist, but adds, "There is already political, social, and economic fallout from the situation in Uzbekistan which is affecting its neighbors."

For instance, Kyrgyzstan has had to cope with refugees fleeing the crackdown on dissent by the Uzbek regime of President Islam Karimov. Resolving the conflicting demands about whether to return refugees -- as demanded by Uzbekistan -- or send them on to other countries, has taxed Kyrgyzstan at a time of political confusion following the overthrow of President Askar Akaev.

Bohr says that for its part, Kazakhstan is trying to regulate the flow of Uzbek immigrants arriving to work illegally in low-paid jobs. In January and February, Kazakhstan deported some 50 illegal Uzbek immigrants. And she notes violent incidents and loss of life along the Kazakh-Uzbek border because of smuggling from the Uzbek side.

And Tajikistan, still trying to recover from its civil war, is vulnerable to pressures of all sorts.

'Epicenter' Of Instability

Another RIIA analyst, Yury Federov, says Uzbekistan appears to be a pivotal point for events in the whole region. "Internal developments in Uzbekistan are really worrisome; the ruling regime keeps itself in power through repression, and many people in Uzbekistan believe that repression in the final end cannot save the current regime from the crash, which may lead, in turn, to a general destabilization of the situation in the country and in the neighboring region," he says.

Federov says that in the event of any trouble, the densely populated Ferghana Valley, which runs through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, could be the "epicenter" of instability.

Fellow RIIA specialist James Nixey agrees that trouble could rapidly spread across the loosely controlled frontiers of the valley. "Where the Ferghana Valley is concerned, the borders are much more porous there, they are not well protected, they are not well guarded, and therefore the movement of extremists is much easier than through official border channels," he says.

Nixey sees Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan as having stronger governments, and therefore being less vulnerable to unfolding events in Uzbekistan.

Russia As Stabilizing Force

So what can be done to ease the possible threat to regional stability? The West, at any rate, has a decreasing influence on events in Uzbekistan since relations descended to frigid levels after criticism from the United States and the European Union of the Andijon events.

But analyst Nixey says that as Western influence wanes, that of Russia over its former satellite of Uzbekistan tends to increase, and therefore Washington and the EU states could use forums like the Group of Eight leading industrial countries to persuade Moscow to pressure the Uzbeks towards moderation.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is making a play for regional leadership and that means becoming more involved with Uzbekistan. President Nursultan Nazarbaev made his first official visit to Tashkent on March 19, and the two countries agreed to undertake joint stabilization measures in the economic, political, and security fields.

"Nazarbaev does, of course, want to portray himself as the regional power; it is all part of his grander plan," Nixey comments. "He has been recently reelected, he's in a strong position, it is not in his interest to have the rest of Central Asia destabilized anyway so, although one could look for underhand motives, in fact there is a pragmatic and very realistic motive for Nazarbaev, whereby he is interested in regional security for his own sake."

Those comments come in the wake of an article in "The International Herald Tribune" by the chairman of the board of the International Crisis Group, Chris Patten. Patten, a former EU external affairs commissioner, calls the Uzbek government one of the world's "most repressive regimes."

As the democratic world has only limited leverage over Uzbekistan, Patten advocates a long-term strategy designed to help the Uzbek people by strengthening civil society. He calls for support for independent media within that country, plus broadcasting beamed-in from abroad.

He says Uzbek neighbors Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan should get foreign assistance to strengthen their borders and, at the same time, to prepare in advance for possible refugee flows from Uzbekistan. (By Breffni O'Rourke. Originally published on March 30.)

FIRST ANNIVERSARY OF AKAEV'S OUSTER MARKED IN KYRGYZSTAN. March 24 is an official holiday in Kyrgyzstan, as the country marks the first anniversary of what the leaders of the country are calling the "People's Revolution."

It was the last of the "color revolutions" and looting afterward made it the most violent. It was the first time in more than a decade that a leader in Central Asia was replaced. It also forced the presidents in neighboring countries to take measures to ensure such events are not repeated.

Some people do not consider the events of last March a revolution and many say the change in leadership that came about has not led to any improvements for the Kyrgyz people.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev opened the celebrations today in Bishkek's central Alatoo Square to a crowd of guests and others involved in last year's events.

"Dear compatriots! Dear participants in the 'People's Revolution!' I congratulate you with all my heart on the first anniversary of the March 24 'People's Revolution!'" he said.

Not In The Classic Sense

But some question whether the events of last March were a revolution. John MacLeod, of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), gave an idea of why there is some confusion.

"It wasn't a revolution in the classic sense, there were sort of a confluence of events: [the] weakness of the ruling administration combined with a growth of various kinds of public protests. Nobody could have expected that the regime would go so quickly -- but at the same time this was not an organized political, nationwide movement directed against President [Askar] Akaev, it began as something else," MacLeod said.

A Regime Draws To A Close

Protests against perceived bias in the treatment of opposition candidates started in Kyrgyzstan ahead of the late February first round parliamentary elections and gradually took on an anti-Akaev character. The popular discontent culminated on March 24 when a crowd stormed the presidential and parliament building, or Kyrgyz White House, in Bishkek.

Hours later, the leader of the opposition For People's Power bloc, Kurmanbek Bakiev, announced the end of the old regime.

"The president of the republic, Askar Akaev, has left the republic. He is no longer on the territory of Kyrgyzstan," Bakiev said. "The head of the government, Nikolai Tanaev handed in his resignation."

Bakiev was made acting prime minister, then quickly acting president, despite the fact that only in the last days of unrest did he emerge as a leader of the protesters.

Popular opposition leader Feliks Kulov was freed from jail, where he had languished for five years. Kulov was immediately given the task of reigning in the lawlessness and looting that broke out in Bishkek while euphoric crowds celebrated their victory.

Constitutional uncertainty remained as to the transfer of power but ousted President Akaev cleared that up at the start of April: "In accordance with the constitution, I would like to come to Bishkek, address parliament, and declare my intention to give up my powers [as president]."

Euphoria Replaced By Skepticism

Akaev never returned to Bishkek, though he did formally announce his resignation in a televised broadcast from the Kyrgyz Embassy in Moscow a few days later. Akaev has still not visited Kyrgyzstan, and President Bakiev said yesterday that there is no need for him to come back.

As euphoria faded in the days that followed, it became clear that the new government was having problems of its own in dealing with the multitude of problems the country faced. The IWPR's MacLeod notes economic conditions have not improved, though that is not surprising.

"Expectations that suddenly the economy would improve and social provisions would get better were entirely unrealistic and I think no government could have delivered that," he said.

The new authorities really did not have much time to implement reforms. Protests continued in Bishkek and elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan for months after the March events. Additionally, three members of parliament were assassinated between June and October. After early president elections in July, even President Bakiev admitted that criminal elements had penetrated the government and he made the fight against corruption his main priority.

The new Kyrgyz authorities also did not receive much help from their neighbors, as MacLeod said: "The [Kyrgyz] government's main task really was to survive, certainly the initial six months, in the face of considerable hostility from other regional actors -- Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan -- who were not happy to see this happening in Central Asia."

Waiting For Results

Leaders in neighboring Central Asian states tightened their laws on public demonstrations and media and cracked down on the opposition. Less than two months after the March events in Kyrgyzstan, troops in Uzbekistan fired on demonstrators in Andijon, killing at least 187 people, by official estimates. Most other reports say that several hundred people were killed.

For many in Kyrgyzstan, these internal and external problems are no excuse for what they see as the new government's failure to improve their lives.

Among them are opposition figures who sided with Bakiev before and immediately after the events of last March. One is Roza Otunbaeva, a former ambassador to the United States and Canada and Kyrgyzstan's acting foreign minister during the first months of Bakiev's leadership. Otunbaeva is now a leading critic of Bakiev's government, and she explained why to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

"People had to feel something new within the last year [after the revolution]. It is okay that you cannot immediately make the factories work. However, if [the Kyrgyz government] would stamp out corruption, then there would be a lot of money available [for reforms]."

Veteran opposition leader Azimbek Beknazarov also served in the post-March government as acting prosecutor general. Like Otunbaeva, he did not receive a post after Bakiev was elected president in the July elections. And, like Otunbaeva, Beknazarov is now a leading critic of the new government.

"The new government led by Bakiev is making a lot of mistakes. The main point is that [Bakiev's government] did not take any crucial steps to change Akaev's system. Until now, there is no breakthrough in constitutional reforms. No ideology that would promote the ideas and victory of the 'People's Revolution,' was carried out during the year [since the revolution]."

Bakiev acknowledges that there are still great challenges facing the nation but also regularly notes that the government was overwhelmed by unexpected problems since last March that demanded immediate attention. He has pledged this year will be one of economic improvement in the country and that the basic needs of the people will be a priority for himself and the Kyrgyz government. (By Bruce Pannier. Originally published on March 25.)

DEPOSED KYRGYZ PRESIDENT DISCUSSES HIS OUSTER. Former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev was interviewed by RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Cholpon Orozobekova on March 23. Akaev lives in a self-imposed exile in Moscow, where he is teaching at Moscow State University. Akaev fled Bishkek on March 24, 2005, amid unrest and protests in the country.

RFE/RL: Mr. Askar Akaev, you have been living in Moscow for almost a year. Do you miss your homeland?

Akaev: Of course. I don't think there is a single person who wouldn't miss his homeland. I can say that today I particularly miss it.

RFE/RL: What have you been doing since you moved to Moscow? Do you miss political life, or is academic life more comfortable for you?

Akaev: First of all, the last year was not an easy one for me. The problems my country was facing after the March events worried me all the time.

I, as far as I could, made every effort to maintain peace in our country, to develop it. I also made sure to support the new government. Regarding me, myself, I am happy that I have returned to the scholar's position.

RFE/RL: Let's go back to the events of March 24 last year. Mainly the public, but also politicians, accuse you of fleeing Kyrgyzstan. Do you regret that you left for Moscow?

Akaev: I don't. I have answered this question many times. My aim was to keep our country united, to prevent division, bloodshed, and any possibility of civil war. I understood that the prevention of all of that is my duty to my people. Therefore, that is what I did. I did it in order to ease the political situation at the time. Those days brought many problems, especially looting in the [capital] city. But if civil confrontation and bloodshed, which I mentioned earlier, would have occurred, more problems would have appeared. Therefore, I do not regret that decision.

RFE/RL: Journalists just came from the [Kyrgyz] White House, where President Bakiev held a press conference and answered journalists' questions. In talking about you, he said that you have to apologize to the Kyrgyz people. What is your response to this?

Akaev: I always spoken about my mistakes during my presidency, so I'll do it again today. It was impossible not to make mistakes in such a high position during such hard times; the Soviet Union was collapsing and the Kyrgyz Republic was building its independence. I admitted my mistakes from the beginning. But I did not commit any crime or take any action against the public interests that I would need to apologize for.

RFE/RL: About the March 24 events -- in your opinion, what mistakes did you make? Some people say that you should have met with the people during the unrest; others say that you should have stayed at the White House. What do you think?

Akaev: I think you saw it on television as well. We cannot call those thousands of people "representatives of the nation." They were criminals, in general. They were drunk and high [on drugs]. They wouldn't negotiate. The leaders of the irreconcilable opposition, who organized that coup, were relying on such criminal structures.

RFE/RL: There is an opinion that all military forces, either National Security Service or Ministry of Internal Affairs, were working for the opposition during the March events. Do you think that you were receiving all the information that you needed?

Akaev: I understood that only after March 24. National Security authorities could not provide us full and correct information about the situation in the country. In fact, I did not have information that the irreconcilable opposition was united with and relying on criminals, the drug mafia. I did not ever think that the opposition might rely on the drug mafia and organize a coup d'etat.

So, there is every reason to say that the national security authorities failed in their duty there. Probably they knew everything, but did not tell me. People say that, and there must be a reason for that. Today I also think that they were negotiating with the opposition -- not about easing the situation -- but about cooperation after a takeover. I think this was one of my main mistakes. Before the elections I should have replaced all of the negligent managers whose work was unsatisfactory. I thought about creating a new government after the elections, to bring in new forces, new leaders. That was my mistake. I should have done it before the elections.

RFE/RL: Another question related to the "revolution." There is a rumor that military assistance was coming from Russia; that Russia's Alfa military division almost reached Kazakhstan, and that unrest was going to be stopped by force, when the Alfa force came. Did you ask for any assistance [from Moscow] to stop the unrest?

Akaev: No. I had certain principles during my presidency. The first principle was never to stray from the democratic path of development. The other one was never to use outside forces for internal problems in the country. I never strayed from these principles for 14 years.

RFE/RL: So, the Alfa unit was not coming?

Akaev: No. I did not even request that. Even history shows that power kept by outside forces never brought any good. It would break unity within the nation and could lead to civil war as well.

RFE/RL: You are living in Moscow, so you are probably homesick. What would happen if you took a flight to Bishkek in spite of everything? How would the current government and people meet you? What is keeping you [in Moscow]?

Akaev: I think that if I were to do so the political situation in Kyrgyzstan would explode like a volcano. As you can see, the government's policy after March 24 is to persecute and accuse my family and me. They are linking all negative events to us -- the Akaevs, "Akaev's forces." The current government is doing everything possible to prevent my return to Kyrgyzstan. Those crimes, informational terror through television and newspapers, all of it is done in order to keep Akaev out.

RFE/RL: Criminal cases were raised against your son, your wife, and your son-in-law. Where is your family right now? How is their life, their security, and their possibilities to return to Kyrgyzstan?

Akaev: Our life is average. I cannot say that it is good because, as you said, we are away from our homeland; the new government is spreading negative propaganda about us, just like that during the Stalin repressions. My son Aidar and daughter Bermet, as always, are studying and working here, not wasting [their] time. However, they wanted to serve people as members of parliament. They took away Bermet's parliamentary seat by force. Regarding Aidar, they launched politically motivated cases against him and hampered his activities. There are no legal grounds for the cases brought against Aidar.

RFE/RL: Two of your children were running for deputy seats during the parliamentary elections. Why didn't you advise one of them to wait, because many people say that this inflamed the protests?

Akaev: They grew up and received an education. Bermet worked in an international organization for 10 years. She wanted to work for people then. I did not give them governmental positions by order, unlike Bakiev, who assigned one brother as ambassador to Germany, another to China, and a third to the National Security Council. I had two brothers as well, but during my 14 year of rule I never gave them a governmental position. People chose them as deputies themselves. I could not interfere there.

RFE/RL: Do you believe that presidential administration resources were used in those parliamentary elections? Maybe even actions by officials doing "work" for you without your permission?

Akaev: Maybe. We cannot say that it did not happen at all. Some officials in all countries -- even democratic ones -- misuse their power.

RFE/RL: People say that your son-in-law, Adil Toigonbaev, "used" our country, moving many assets from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan. Where is he now and what do you think about the criminal suits [against him]?

Akaev: Everybody knows about these criminal cases. Bakiev's first order when he came to power was to find Akaev's wealth. They established a special commission for it, led by Daniyar Usenov. They worked for six months and did not find any riches, did they? What did that commission do? They claimed that all of Kyrgyzstan's industry is controlled by Akaev. This was the reason for checking all business and enterprise structures, followed by a redivision of illegal property. Even deputy Azimbek Beknazarov said it when he was general prosecutor. So, the commission could not prove anything. Talking about my son-in-law, you know that he is a citizen of Kazakhstan, so I can't provide any additional information.

RFE/RL: There is big dispute about the Uzongu-Kuush [in which land was given to China] and Aksy [an event at which protesters were killed by security forces]. There are some complaints about you as well. Do you still think that you acted correctly regarding those incidents?

Akaev: There shouldn't be any complaints about Uzongu-Kuush. A special commission was established for it. Such countries as Russia, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan also had disputes over land with China. We got 70 percent of all disputed land, while China received 30 percent. Other countries divided 50-50 or even 30-70. So it was a very advantageous decision for Kyrgyzstan, and one that I will never regret. We also maintained positive relations with China, which is very important for development in the 21st century. Talking about the Aksy events, it was a very painful thing. Mistakes by local government led to a national tragedy. I gave such an opinion in those days, too. All the guilty people were punished. Such things could never happen again. Correct, as president I bear responsibility for it. Current President Bakiev was prime minister in those days. He is responsible for it as well. Then he was in a sanatorium in Jalalabad for one month, claiming to sick instead of solving the issue.

RFE/RL: Were you in Bishkek then?

Akaev: No. I was abroad on a business trip. I don't remember where I was exactly. I immediately returned and established a commission led by Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev. They worked very successfully and completed the task.

RFE/RL: The four or five people punished were amnestied soon after. Today, people say that those people should be retried, and that Akaev should be among them, since he or his people were the ones giving the order to shoot. What is you opinion?

Akaev: As I told you before, my principle is never to use force regarding internal issues. Even on March 24 I prohibited the use of arms [against the protesters]. Because if one has a gun, he may shoot. I did not use arms even in those days.

RFE/RL: Who told you about the death of six civilians, and under which circumstances?

Akaev: Prime Minister Tanaev by phone. It was really hard for me. As president, I valued every life and every drop of blood of our citizens.

RFE/RL: The fourth anniversary of the Aksy events were marked this month. What can you say to the people of Aksy?

Akaev: I wish them peace and unity. We celebrated Norouz a couple of days ago. A hope it will bring only good to them and that things such as what happened in Aksy will never happen again.

RFE/RL: There is an aid program used mainly for poor African countries. The question of whether to join this program is being raised. In your opinion, would it negatively affect the image of Kyrgyzstan or could Kyrgyzstan benefit from it?

Akaev: I think entering the aid program would be a big mistake. As you know, we were negotiating on the restructuring of our debt. In this way we reduced 60 percent of our debt to the Paris club. It did not negatively affect our international image or us. This is the way we should work. The program consists of mainly African countries. No one has much hope in them. They have too many obligations and some grants and supports are unavailable to them. For example, Japan does not help out the member states in this program. Meanwhile, Japan is a country that supported us in the building of the Osh-Bishkek highway and the Manas International Airport. So, entering [this program] may force us to take big credits, and that would increase our debt. Therefore, the aid program is the wrong thing to do.

RFE/RL: The new government is requesting a higher rent for the Ganci Air Base. Don't you think that you set too small of a rent price? Should the new government keep both air bases?

Akaev: Payment for Ganci was always subject to the political situation. The political situation in 2001 was different than it is today. [The terror attacks on] 9-11 and the international war against terrorism united all of us. If today the government can negotiate and raise prices, it will be good for the economy of Kyrgyzstan. Ganci was established for the war in Afghanistan. The Russian air base in Kant has a totally different mandate. It has to keep stability and security in the region, which is a positive thing.

RFE/RL: Have there been any job offers for you from big international organizations?

Akaev: As I said before, I decided to leave big politics. Scientific work in Moscow totally satisfies me. Therefore I never searched for any other job.

RFE/RL: The so-called "criminal leader" Rysbek Akmatbaev, whose guilt has not yet been proven in court, said that you used to ask him to help you from time to time. According to him this occurred especially during the elections, in order to get certain candidates elected.

Akaev: All of that is false. I never had relations with such criminals during my presidency. On the contrary, I was fighting crime. Where were they during my presidency? Could they openly interfere in politics? There was not even one such incident during 14 years. March 24 was done with the support of these criminals. We could say that now the government is paying them back. Criminal elements and the government are uniting. We know that will not bring any positive results. Take Latin America, for example. I tell you that the current government has to remove criminals from power; otherwise they will harm Kyrgyzstan's future.

RFE/RL: People say that your family was interfering in state affairs too much, especially your wife, who put up a monument to her father.

Akaev: My family never interfered in state governance. It is one of the myths of the opposition, aimed to discredit me. My wife, Mairam Akaeva, did not interfere in any deal, but she did occupy herself with charity work.

RFE/RL: Talking about charity, the prosecutor-general found out that district mayors and oblast governors were transferring state funds to [your wife's] charity centers.

Akaev: Governors and mayors were transferring funds to the oblast education centers in order to make teachers' working conditions better. Mairam Akaeva never used it for her personal interest.

(Translated from the Kyrgyz by Kaarmanbek Kuluev and edited by Bruce Pannier. Originally published on March 25.)