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Central Asia Report: March 10, 2006

10 March 2006, Volume 6, Number 8

WEEK AT A GLANCE (February 20-March 5, 2006). The murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev, whose body was discovered outside Almaty on February 13, produced considerable political fallout in Kazakhstan. Five active-duty members of the National Security Committee's (KNB) Arystan special-forces unit were arrested for involvement, and Erzhan Utembaev, head of the Senate (upper chamber of parliament) administration, was arrested as the alleged organizer. In the aftermath, KNB head Nartai Dutbaev resigned for failing to contain "rogue" elements in the KNB. President Nursultan Nazarbaev appointed Amangeldy Shabdarbaev, head of the presidential guard, to replace Dutbaev.

Opposition leaders, who voiced doubts in Utembaev's ability to organize such a high-profile killing and suggested other highly placed figures may be involved, held an unsanctioned rally in Almaty to honor Sarsenbaev's memory, gathering several thousand people who broke through police cordons to occupy Republic Square. A court subsequently sentenced the rally organizers, activists in the For a Just Kazakhstan opposition movement, to fines and jail terms of up to 15 days, prompting some of the jailed activists to begin a hunger strike. Meanwhile, newspapers and Internet sites speculated extensively on the murder, while Darigha Nazarbaeva, the president's daughter, and her husband, Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliev, warned that they would sue media outlets that insinuated they were in any way involved with the killing.

Elsewhere, President Nazarbaev addressed a joint session of parliament, presenting a new development strategy. He warned that while Kazakhstan would press on with democratic reforms, freedom should not be understood as "permissiveness." Nazarbaev also expressed confidence in the Senate's leadership, an apparent endorsement of Senate speaker Nurtai Abykaev. Observers had speculated that storm clouds were gathering around Abykaev, who was Utembaev's boss, when Abykaev was absent during the president's address to parliament.

In Kyrgyzstan, President Kurmanbek Bakiev designated March 24, the anniversary of unrest that ousted President Askar Akaev, a national holiday. But former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva, who played a key role in the demonstrations that toppled Akaev and has since joined the opposition, said that real change has been minimal in the past year. Parliamentary speaker Omurbek Tekebaev, who recently made derogatory comments about Bakiev, stepped down; his replacement, Marat Sultanov, said he will pursue a more conciliatory line with the executive branch. Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov said that the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan cannot be used for offensive operations against Iran. And a Bishkek court upheld a lower court's decision denying refugee status to two Uzbek citizens currently detained in Osh, bringing to four the number of Uzbek detainees denied refugee status in Kyrgyzstan and raising the prospect of their extradition to Uzbekistan, where rights groups have warned they would face torture.

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov attended a ceremony to mark the start of construction work on the Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric power plant, a project in which Iran is investing $180 million. The Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) said that it will run its own candidate in Tajikistan's November presidential election, although IRP leader Said Abdullo Nuri had suggested earlier that the IRP might support the candidate of the ruling People's Democratic Party, presumably the incumbent president. And the UN Development Program in Tajikistan stated that donor nations and organizations see a need to step up the fight against HIV/AIDS in Tajikistan, warning that the country could face an epidemic if the number of HIV-infected people reaches 1 percent of the population by 2008.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov told Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in a telephone conversation that Ukraine must pay debts for past gas shipments that Turkmenistan puts at $159 million. On the domestic front, Niyazov blasted top energy-sector officials for corruption. Niyazov removed Amangeldy Pudakov as director of the Turkmenbashi refinery complex, replacing him with Tachberdy Tagiev. Pudakov is now the focus of a corruption investigation, as is Sapar Yeldashov, former deputy chairman of state gas company Turkmengaz. Deutsche Welle and reported that there is anecdotal evidence of cases of avian flu among poultry and wild birds in Turkmenistan.

An Uzbek court sentenced Nodira Hidoyatova, coordinator of the opposition Sunshine coalition, to a 10-year prison term for a variety of economic crimes. And the director of the Eurasia Foundation's Tashkent office said that the NGO has decided to close its Tashkent office under pressure from Uzbek authorities, who have initiated legal proceedings against the Foundation in Uzbekistan.

KAZAKHSTAN: A SHAKEN SYSTEM. The brutal killing of Altynbek Sarsenbaev has sent waves of shock through Kazakhstan's political establishment and triggered waves of speculation in the media. So what does the killing of a man who was once an ally of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and then a leading opponent say about Kazakhstan's political establishment?

The hit was brutal. Altynbek Sarsenbaev, Vasily Zhuravlev, and Baurzhan Baibosin were discovered on a desolate stretch of road outside Almaty on February 13, their bodies riddled with bullets and their hands bound behind their backs. But the murder was shocking for more than its brutality. Altynbek Sarsenbaev was one of Kazakhstan's most prominent politicians, twice a minister, a onetime ally of President Nursultan Nazarbaev who joined the opposition in 2003 and most recently a co-chairman of the opposition party Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path).

Zhuravlev, his driver, and Baibosin, his bodyguard, were the collateral victims of a killing that has sent shock waves through Kazakhstan's political establishment. But while Sarsenbaev's murder might at first glance suggest tension along the familiar fault lines of opposition and authorities, the events and revelations of the last two weeks point to tensions that run deeper than this simple division and call into question the seeming stability of what had been considered Central Asia's most successful and least volatile political system.

The Investigation

The post-Soviet landscape is littered with unsolved contract killings. The investigation of Sarsenbaev's murder, however, quickly produced suspects, arrests, surprising revelations, and high-level resignations.

On February 20, a week after the bodies were discovered, Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedjanov announced the arrest of six suspects in the crime, five of them directly involved and one of them an "organizer." Mukhamedjanov said that the organizer of the crime agreed to pay $25,000 for the kidnapping and murder of "a certain businessman." In his remarks on February 20, the minister declined to reveal the suspects' names but said that they were confessing.

The next day, February 21, the National Security Committee (KNB) announced that five of the six arrested suspects were members of the KNB's elite Arystan (Lion) special forces unit, a descendent of the Soviet Union's legendary Alfa Squad, best-known for an operation in Kabul in 1979 that killed Afghan President Hafizullah Amin and set the stage for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On February 22, KNB head Nartai Dutbaev resigned, telling journalists he lacked the "moral right" to head the agency in light of the situation. Seitzhan Koibakov, the head of the Arystan unit, also submitted his resignation (it was accepted on February 28).

The events of the following day, February 22, included the arrest of Erzhan Utembaev, a former deputy prime minister currently serving as head of the administration of the Senate, the upper chamber of parliament. Also arrested was Vitaly Miroshnikov, later identified as a former Arystan officer, fingered by police as the driver of the car that took Sarsenbaev, his bodyguard, and driver to the place where they were executed.

At a briefing in Astana on February 27, Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedjanov announced that the investigation had established a "clear picture" of the crime and presented journalists with preliminary findings based on the confessions of individuals in custody.

In his briefing on February 27, reprinted in part by Khabar news agency, Mukhamedjanov presented the following version of events:

"Personal enmity" had prompted Utembaev, the head of the Senate's team of administrators, to contract the killing after Sarsenbaev published an article that Utembaev felt damaged his career. In October 2005, Utembaev met with a former law-enforcement officer, Rustam Ibragimov, who appears to be the 'organizer' arrested along with the five special-forces officers, and asked him to have Sarsenbaev beaten up. Ibragimov tailed Sarsenbaev, reported back that the politician never moved without a bodyguard and driver, and suggested to Utembaev that it would be easier to kill Sarsenbaev.

Utembaev "gave the matter some thought and agreed," Mukhamedjanov said. To cover the costs, Utembaev took out a $60,000 loan from an unidentified bank and gave the money to Ibragimov. For his part, Ibragimov contacted the five Arystan officers and offered them $25,000 to kidnap a businessman.

On February 11, the five Arystan officers snatched Sarsenbaev, his bodyguard, and driver, and handed them over to Ibragimov and Miroshnikov. Ibragimov and Miroshnikov drove the three men to a deserted area outside Almaty, where, Miroshnikov says, Ibragimov executed all three with a handgun. Ibragimov then called Utembaev to tell him the job was done.

The interior minister said the breakthrough in the case came when two of the special-forces officers stole cell phones from the murder victims and gave them to a wife and a girlfriend, who made calls that were traced by police. Mukhamedjanov closed his account of the investigation's progress with the caveat that it will continue for several months and may yet bring new facts to light.

'Influence Groups'

The murder and its rippling aftershocks have triggered a frenzy of analysis, speculation, and guesswork inside and outside Kazakhstan. Since virtually all of the reactions focus on the behind-the-scenes moving forces in Kazakh politics, a brief overview of that context is in order.

A November 2005 report by the Almaty-based Eurasian Center for Political Research and the Epicenter Agency for Social Technologies provides a useful, if hardly complete, survey of what it terms "influence groups" in Kazakh politics. The report defines an influence group as "an organized group that uses its financial-economic might and/or lobbying capability to acquire, or try to acquire, means of systemic influence on the legislative and executive organs of power in order to advance certain interests or forces."

In other words, an influence group is an informal alliance of individuals held together by kinship, personal affiliation, and/or common interest. During the Soviet period, such groups existed in Kazakhstan and other republics, but they came into their own in the post-Soviet period with the breakdown of state power and scramble to gain control of material resources that had once belonged to the centralized state. In Russia under President Vladimir Putin, the influence group broadly known as the "siloviki" has drawn significant attention.

In Kazakhstan, observers have often noted the importance of "tribal" connections in the form of kinship ties and "zhuz" (clan, horde) affiliation. The report suggests that the "tribal factor" has declined in influence since the 1990s. It states: "Current influence groups are formed along the principle of personal loyalty and affiliation and interact with each other on the basis of hard, pragmatic interests."

The report orders influence groups in a hierarchy, with President Nursultan Nazarbaev's own group at the top of a pyramidal structure. The president's group differs from other groups, however, in that the president himself is the focal point of the power structure and so all groups compete for influence over him. As the report puts it, "the political struggle between [influence groups] takes place not for the electorate, but for influence over the head of state." One consequence of this is that "shadow politics predominates over public politics." Another is that the president's own group is somewhat diffuse, since all top groups must maintain links to the president. Additionally, while the president holds supreme power, the report cautions that "supreme power can destroy an individual influence group, but it cannot exert decisive influence on the system."

The president, then, is both a player and a referee, and while he can stretch, suspend, and break the rules of the game, he cannot change them permanently. His power is vast, but it is limited by the need to maneuver between influence groups and maintain a balance between them.

The report identifies four top-level influence groups. The first is that of Darigha Nazarbaeva, the president's eldest daughter, and her husband, Rakhat Aliev, currently deputy minister of foreign affairs. The Nazarbaeva/Aliev group controls significant media assets, giving it an advantage in public politics, but its financial resources are somewhat limited, as it lacks major assets in the raw-materials sector. Moreover, Rakhat Aliev's aggressive maneuvering in the past has earned him numerous foes in political and business circles.

The second group is that of Timur Kulibaev, another son-in-law of the president. The report claims that this is the largest and most influential group and that its assets, which are concentrated in the raw-materials sector, overlap with those of the president.

The third group is that of Nurzhan Subkhanberdin, also known as the "Kazkommertsbank" group since Subkhanberdin chairs Kazkommertsbank, Kazakhstan's largest private financial institution. The report describes the Kazkommertsbank group as linked to the Kulibaev group but not a part of it. The Kazkommertsbank group also provides a forum for elements in business and political circles that are dissatisfied with the status quo.

The final top-level group identified in the report is the so-called "Eurasian" group, which brings together the businessmen Aleksandr Mashkevich, Patokh Shodiev, and Alidzhon Ibragimov. The Eurasian group, whose leading figures are not ethnic Kazakhs, has significant holdings in the metals industry. But the report notes that other top influence groups view the Eurasian group as "foreign," and that the group needs the support of Nazarbaev to avoid being "squeezed out" by its competitors. By the same token, Nazarbaev uses the Eurasian group as a counterbalance to influence groups tied to his immediate family.

The report also details second-level influence groups, some of them structured around financial-industrial groups, others around less prominent relatives of the president, still others around individual politicians. It notes that the second-level groups may be where Nazarbaev is looking for a suitable successor. Third-level groups often function on the regional level.

What the report stresses is that Kazakhstan faces an "emerging conflict of elites" and an increasingly acute issue of succession, with age and constitutional restrictions limiting Nazarbaev's likely term in office to 2012. Nazarbaev's 91 percent victory in the December 2006 presidential election -- assumed by the report, which appeared in November, as a foregone conclusion -- merely set the stage for the upcoming "conflict of elites" and a succession struggle. And these will be hard fought, since, the report indicates, "Kazakhstan does not yet have a systemic and stable mechanism for resolving intra-elite contradictions that would function on the level of political institutions, and not the currently predominant informal interrelations of individual clans or political figures."

More To The Story?

Analytical reactions to the murder have largely concurred on two points, both of which imply that the roots of the murder extend into the clan structure detailed in the November 2005 report. The first is that while the murder eliminated a prominent opposition figure, this was in all likelihood not its primary goal. Nazarbaev scored an overwhelming and easy victory in the December 2005 presidential election, and though the opposition charged fraud, it did not hold any significant protests and does not appear to pose a threat to the ruling elite. Political analyst Erlan Karin expressed a widespread view in the newspaper "Respublika" on February 24, arguing that the murder marked the beginning of a succession struggle among various clans. Bakhtiyar Sagandykov made a similar point on the political-news agency APN on February 26, stating that "intra-clan conflict in Kazakhstan has entered the 'hot,' shooting phase." In other words, Sarsenbaev fell victim to a conflict between forces more powerful than the country's beleaguered opposition.

The second point of agreement is that the chain of responsibility for the murder may go beyond Erzhan Utembaev, who has been arrested and identified by Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedjanov as the individual who contracted the killing. Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, head of the opposition group For a Just Kazakhstan, told a press conference on February 23 that Utembaev's "personal and professional qualities" suggest that he "alone was not capable of taking such a decision independently, planning, organizing and committing such a monstrous and unprecedented crime," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported.

In an open letter to Prosecutor-General Rashid Tusipbekov and Interior Minister Mukhamedjanov published in "Svoboda Slova," on February 23, Tuyakbai, who also heads an independent opposition commission investigating the Sarsenbaev murder, urged police to interrogate the following highly placed individuals: Rakhat Aliev, first deputy foreign minister and son-in-law of Nazarbaev; Darigha Nazarbaeva, a parliamentary deputy and Nazarbaev's daughter; Kairat Satypaldy, first deputy president of the national railway company and Nazarbaev's nephew; and businessmen Aleksandr Mashkevich, Patokh Shodiev, and Alidzhon Ibragimov (the three men identified by the Eurasian Center for Political Research as the leaders of the "Eurasian" group).

In a February 23 statement reported by "Kazakhstan Today," Darigha Nazarbaeva also implied that the chain of responsibility does not end with Utembaev, and may even be part of a broader attempt to seize power. She called Sarsenbaev's murder an "attempt [at political assassination] on the president" and a "carefully and skillfully planned operation to discredit President Nursultan Nazarbaev and the entire existing system of state authority." Nazarbaeva warned that there are "destructive and influential forces, both in the opposition and in power, that are unhappy with the results of recent elections," referring to Nazarbaev's 91 percent share of the votes in December 2005. Nazarbaeva stated that "these forces want a review of the results of the presidential election and a new division of power." Nazarbaeva stressed that the involvement of special-forces officers in the Sarsenbaev killing suggested that "very influential forces" were behind the murder.

The Fallout

The fallout from the murder investigation has already had an impact on one of the influence groups identified above, namely that of presidential son-in-law Timur Kulibaev. As an article in Respublika on February 24 noted, the removal of KNB head Nartai Dutbaev and the arrest of Utembaev are "two blows" against Senate speaker Nartai Abykaev, since Dutbaev was Abykaev's ally, and Utembaev his subordinate. Abykaev, whose post technically puts him next in the chain of command should the president be incapacitated, is a former head of the National Security Committee (KNB) and reportedly an ally of Kulibaev. Russia's "Kommersant" also noted on February 26 that the "scandalous revelations" that have followed Sarsenbaev's murder have inflicted damage on members of the Abykaev-Kulibaev group.

Abykaev himself issued a statement on February 24, a day after opposition leaders expressed concern that he might try to influence a murder investigation focused on his subordinate. Abykaev responded that he has no "moral, human, and official right" to influence the investigation of Sarsenbaev's murder and called Utembaev's arrest "a great surprise and shock," Kazinform reported. Abykaev remains speaker of the Senate, but was not present when Nazarbaev addressed a joint session of parliament on March 1 and has now been hospitalized with "heart pains," "Kazakhstan Today" reported, citing the Senate's press service.

The fact that one influence group's loss is another's gain has not gone unnoticed. The February 24 article in "Respublika" noted that the "losers" in the wake of the Sarsenbaev murder have been opponents of Rakhat Aliev. A number of opposition newspapers and websites published lurid allegations derived from "cui bono" speculation along these lines, with one weekly featuring an interview with a "retired security officer who, citing sources close to the investigation, alleged the murder was instigated by Aliev," AP reported on February 26.

Rakhat Aliev and Darigha Nazarbaeva have let it be known that they are in no mood to shrug off the insinuations. Aliev issued a strongly worded statement on February 28, "Kazakhstan Today" reported, condemning a "stage-managed smear campaign to accuse me and other well-known people in Kazakhstan of purported involvement in the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbaev." Calling the reports a "hideous lie" intended to "destabilize our society," Aliev warned that his lawyers are gearing up for legal action against the "authors and disseminators of this libel." In a statement on March 1, Nazarbaeva fumed that various media "are knowingly disseminating false information about the involvement of close relatives of the president in this crime," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. She closed: "I consider it necessary to issue a resolute warning to the authors of such libelous publications, in whatever public outlet or country they have appeared, that not one of these actions will be left without the inevitable legal consequences provided for by law, including international law."


One issue for now resists even the most preliminary conclusions, and that is the question of ultimate responsibility for Sarsenbaev's brutal murder. The official investigation may be moving quickly, but it has raised as many questions as it has answered. The stated price of the killing is suspiciously low, and Utembaev's purported bank loan to pay for a hit is, at the very least, intriguing. The claim that highly trained special-forces commandoes would give cell phones swiped from a crime scene to their wives and girlfriends seems highly implausible. And the doubts that Utembaev would embark alone on so bold a crime out of "personal enmity" are valid.

Nevertheless, the events of the past two weeks do suggest a number of conclusions. Sarsenbaev's murder could provide Kazakhstan's battered opposition with a rallying point amid popular revulsion not only at the cold-blooded killing, but also the rampant speculation in print and electronic media about underhanded warfare between factions within the elite. On February 26, Sarsenbaev's comrades in the opposition gathered a crowd estimated at up to 4,000 people in Almaty to honor Sarsenbaev's memory. Denied a permit to meet in the city center, and greeted when they gathered by blaring music apparently organized by the authorities, demonstrators burst through a police cordon to hold a rally on Republic Square. The rally's organizers were subsequently sentenced to fines and jail terms of up to 15 days, "Vremya Novostei" reported, but they have vowed to press on.

The second conclusion is that the murder and subsequent events have confirmed the darker implications of the November 2005 report on influence groups, which depicts a clan-ridden power structure in which "shadow politics predominates over public politics." The murder itself, whoever committed it, drives home the lack of a "systemic and stable mechanism for resolving intra-elite contradictions that would function on the level of political institutions." Moreover, the bulk of speculation about the murder, as well as apparent attempts to derive benefit from it, has broken down along the lines of the influence groups the report identifies. The departure of Dutbaev from the KNB and the weakening of Abykaev are, by virtually all accounts, a boon to the Nazarbaeva/Aliev group and a detriment to the Kulibaev group. And the sheer volume and range of speculation the Sarsenbaev murder has generated point to an obvious lack of transparency in the political system.

The final conclusion is that reports of Kazakhstan's stability have been somewhat exaggerated. Critics of President Nursultan Nazarbaev's 91-percent reelection in December 2005 pointed to evidence of "managed democracy," in the form of media manipulation and administrative interference. Critics of managed democracy maintain that it is an inherently unstable system because it mimics democracy's form while gutting its content, making politics the exclusive preserve of a ruling elite that cannot, and will not, be held accountable even as it resolves issues of crucial national importance through murky, backroom deals. When those deals go bad, they sometimes turn bloody.

The instability of managed democracy, with its muscular informal groups and anemic formal institutions, has been most evident in the spectacular breakdowns that brought about regime change in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. But crises come in more than one color, and elections are only one possible flashpoint. The current imbroglio in Kazakhstan does not yet have the makings of a full-fledged systemic crisis, but it strongly suggests that despite Kazakhstan's undeniable economic progress and record of stability, it remains an open question whether it is more structurally secure than its post-Soviet brethren. (By Daniel Kimmage. Originally published on March 3, 2006.)

KAZAKHSTAN: PRESIDENT TRIES TO CALM GROWING POLITICAL CRISIS. When Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev came before a joint session of parliament on March 1, he focused on a familiar topic -- development priorities to make Kazakhstan one of the world's 50 "most competitive" nations. His appearance came at a turbulent time, only two weeks after the murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev. In his speech on March 1, the president did not directly address the political turmoil that followed the killing. But through oblique hints, subsequent direct comments on the case, and the appointment of a new head of Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB), Nazarbaev clearly demonstrated that he hopes to defuse a growing crisis within the country's political elite.

Although the bulk of the president's remarks on March 1 dealt with his ambitious plans for national development, a number of comments appeared to come in response to the fallout from the Sarsenbaev killing, which has included the arrest of five members of an elite special-forces unit and the head of the Senate's administration for involvement in the murder, the resignation of the chairman of the KNB, a large opposition demonstration in Almaty, and a flood of "leaked" materials, primarily in the opposition press, alleging the involvement in Sarsenbaev's killing of individuals close to the president.

'Permissiveness' Not Allowed

Nazarbaev stressed in his address that, while Kazakhstan will press on with democratic reforms, excessive "permissiveness" could destabilize the country, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He added that "one of the reasons for the delusions we fall into is that the liberalism of the authorities is understood as a weakness and an inability to veto all manner of 'mischief' and 'caprices' of willful, ambitious individuals." The president noted: "Regardless of criticism inside and outside the country, we must ensure a fairly tough system of defense for this democracy even as we develop democratic traditions." Nazarbaev concluded that "we will continue to move toward democratization, the guarantee of further freedom for citizens, and liberalization. But for this we need discipline as well."

The remarks seemed to carry two messages, one for the representatives of Kazakhstan's powerful influence groups, and another for the country's opposition. The passage about the "'mischief' and 'caprices' of willful, ambitious individuals" could be a simple reference to Erzhan Utembaev, the head of the Senate administration who has been identified as the organizer of the Sarsenbaev murder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2006). But it may also be read as a warning to rival influence groups within the Kazakh elite that have used the fallout from the murder to pursue their own ends, whether by pushing for personnel changes or spreading damaging information about their opponents. Nazarbaev let it be known that he is aware of the situation and will take measures to ensure that it does not get out of control.

Jail Sentences For Protest Organizers

The passage about a "tough system of defense" for democracy "regardless of criticism inside and outside the country" implies a warning for the opposition. An unsanctioned rally on February 26 to honor Sarsenbaev's memory drew several thousand participants who broke through police cordons to occupy Almaty's Republic Square. Two days later, a court sentenced the organizers, mainly activists from the For a Just Kazakhstan movement, to fines and jail terms of up to 15 days (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2006). The president's remarks suggested that the authorities will not hesitate to take action if unsanctioned demonstrations persist.

The president's daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva, and her husband, Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliev, have issued unambiguous warnings that they will take legal action against the perpetrators of what Aliev called a "stage-managed smear campaign to accuse me and other well-known people in Kazakhstan of purported involvement in the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbaev," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The publications involved include several opposition newspapers and websites.

When the president addressed parliament, the Senate speaker, Nurtai Abykaev, was not in attendance. Abykaev had been hospitalized with "heart pains," "Kazakhstan Today" later reported. The speaker, whose position puts him in line to succeed Nazarbaev should anything befall the president, had suffered what a February 24 article in "Respublika" termed "two blows" in the lead-up to the president's address, with his subordinate Erzhan Utembaev arrested for the Sarsenbaev murder and his political ally Nartai Dutbaev removed from his post as head of the KNB. Against this backdrop, Abykaev's absence on March 1 raised eyebrows.

Nazarbaev In Control

But Nazarbaev affirmed his general confidence in the Senate's leadership on March 2, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The president said, "We have no complaints about the leadership of the Senate. There should be no misunderstandings." The comment seemed to caution observers against reading too much into the speaker's hospitalization.

Nazarbaev also revealed on March 2 that the accused organizer of the Sarsenbaev murder has written to him personally with a confession, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. He said, "Utembaev has already confessed to law-enforcement agencies, and he's written me a letter in which he reported that he has fully acknowledged his guilt." Nazarbaev stressed that Utembaev wrote to him that "he decided on this deed without any pressure because the deceased [Sarsenbaev] impugned his honor."

The comments buttressed the official account of events presented by Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov at a briefing on February 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2006), and indicated that the president is, for now, satisfied that the chain of responsibility ends with Utembaev.

Finally, Nazarbaev on March 2 appointed Amangeldy Shabdarbaev, head of the president's own guard since 2002, to lead the KNB, Kazinform reported. Deutsche Welle reported on March 3 that "according to politicians and political analysts, Shabdarbaev does not belong to any of the 'influence groups' between which an open confrontation began after the murder of Altynbek Sarsenbaev." Viewed against the backdrop of Nazarbaev's most recent comments, Shabdarbaev's appointment indicates that the president has opted for a general clampdown on rising political tensions in the wake of the Sarsenbaev murder and specific measures to ensure that they do not give rise to an all-out battle between influence groups within the ruling elite. (By Daniel Kimmage. Originally published on March 6, 2006.)

CENTRAL ASIA: INTERNET FILLS VOID LEFT BY MEDIA ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM ISSUES. While the degree of media freedom varies considerably among the five countries of Central Asia, there appears to be a region-wide aversion to the thorny issue of religious freedom. It is difficult to gauge whether the reasons might lie in a reluctance to confront controversy -- as some argue -- or in state-imposed strictures or even a fear of offending. The result is that, aside from cursory references to the dominant religions, the domestic media have generally shied away from questions of faith. But civil-society groups and independent media outlets -- with the help of increased Internet penetration -- are trying to change that.

The barriers to free expression are considerable in this region, where authoritarian administrations are often eager to keep a tight lid on public debate.

That presents a considerable challenge for media organizations, which operate without the safeguards enjoyed by their counterparts in the West, and sometimes leaves local journalists fearing for their own safety.

Taboo Topic

Eric Freedman is on the faculty of the journalism school at Michigan State University. He recently conducted research into independent news websites' coverage of religion in Central Asia. He concluded that the topic of freedom of conscience remains almost untouched among domestic media.

"News organizations -- whether they are independent or supported by [nongovernmental organizations] or a state or a party -- tend to avoid controversies and political controversies," Freedman said. "And religion certainly falls into that category of public policy and political controversy in the region."

Local journalists tend to avoid religious freedom issues, he says, while coverage of religion is often limited to dominant faiths -- like Sunni Islam -- and other officially recognized confessions, such as Orthodox Christianity.

Control Over Media

In countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, authorities regularly exercise control over what media outlets publish. That allows them to publish selectively to achieve official aims.

In mid-January, an official from the Uzbek State Committee for Religious Affairs, Behzod Qodyrov, touted a rise in the number of registered religious groups to 2,186. The figure, he argued, "proves the absence of any restrictions or obstacles to freedom of religion in Uzbekistan."

Igor Rotar is a Central Asia correspondent for Forum-18, a Norway-based news agency specializing in religious rights. He told RFE/RL that the Uzbek announcement was a prime example of official propaganda.

"There was a recent statement by an official who wrote that so-and-so many religious organizations are registered in Uzbekistan and that this is a proof of religious freedom," Rotar said. "But he 'forgot' to mention that this number is equal to just one-third the number of religious organizations registered in Kazakhstan [where the population is smaller]. He also said that the Jehovah's Witnesses group was registered in Uzbekistan but he 'forgot' to mention that they are registered in just two towns. In other parts of the country, police regularly detain Jehovah's Witnesses. Two people served over one year in prison each simply for their belief."

Internet A Valuable Source

Michigan State University's Freedman said Internet news agencies, NGOs, and the international community have become major providers of information on religious issues in Central Asia despite obstacles to Internet viewing. The Internet appears to be partly filling the void left after Western radio stations -- including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty -- were closed down in Uzbekistan. Freedman singles out the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting; the Open Society Institute's; and IRIN News, the United Nations' Integrated Regional Information Networks. He adds the Moscow-based website and Forum-18 to his list of Internet pioneers:

"It looks at [religious freedom] and it reports on it in a way that is very much like traditional Western European and U.S. coverage in that stories tend to be fact-based," Freedman said. "There is an attempt to obtain multiple viewpoints, although what the Forum-18 experience and what the other news services we looked at have encountered -- and certainly Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty -- is that government officials are often not responsive to press inquiries regardless where they come from."

Still, the environment for such reporting remains mostly unfriendly in official terms. Independent media outlets feel compelled to rely heavily on anonymous sources. Local reporters often work under pseudonyms to avoid harassment and possible prosecution.

Forum-18's Igor Rotar was detained upon his arrival in the Tashkent airport in August and deported to Russia two days later. He has reported on harassment of Baptists in Kazakhstan and Hare Krishna followers in western Uzbekistan, and he wrote about the demolition of a synagogue in Tajikistan, among other issues.

Brighter Future

However, information providers are optimistic about the Internet's future in Central Asia despite the current obstacles for would-be viewers. Daniil Kislov is the founder of the information agency:

"According to our estimates, about 2 percent of Uzbek citizens get information from the Internet either by visiting websites or receiving print-outs from relatives and friends," Kislov said. "I should point out that the influence of Internet publications and the number of Internet users are growing because people seek news in the current information vacuum. Internet is also the most influential media among the elites."

Such reasoning suggests the impact of Internet coverage of religious-freedom issues is strong and influences elites both in the West and inside Central Asian.

"One of the longer term impacts, I think, of reporting from the outside on Central Asia is that it does raise awareness among policymakers and funding agencies and NGOs in other parts of the world," Freedman said. "So that if you were with the World Bank, for example, or the OSCE, or Committee to Protect Journalists, or another entity in the West, this is a way you get information. You may ultimately work that in as you make decisions on who to fund, who to loan money to. Individuals on the outside make pressure on their members of parliament or congress to do something. So there is the possibility that will generate some outside pressure."

Freedman stressed that media coverage raises the awareness of local citizens, including those working for government institutions. Such efforts to inform extend beyond the existing situation to include examples from the international community, he said. That could translate into long-term gains as young people form their opinions about issues like freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova. Originally published on March 7, 2006.)

TURKMENISTAN: OSCE VISIT BRIEFLY HIGHLIGHTS PLIGHT OF MINORITIES. The OSCE's high commissioner on national minorities, Rolf Ekeus, on March 7 completed a two-day visit to Turkmenistan aimed at encouraging improved treatment of the country's minorities. The trip was Ekeus's third to that country, where international rights groups have long complained about discrimination by strongman President Saparmurat Niyazov's administration. But there are questions about how effective the OSCE has been in encouraging fairness for ethnic Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Russians, and others.

Critics cite a list of minority groups that face discrimination from Turkmenistan's authorities -- including being forced to study in Turkmen language, adopt Turkmen national clothing, and essentially foresake their own ethnic roots. Such groups make up an estimated 15 percent of the country's 5 million people.

But foreign diplomats -- especially from Western countries -- are generally wary when visiting Turkmenistan. Aside from common protocol for dealing with the country's authoritarian leadership, there are other concerns. Turkmenistan is located in a politically strategic area -- neighboring Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and the energy-rich Caspian Sea. Turkmenistan itself is also rich in oil and natural gas.

Its strategic geopolitical location and its wealth of hydrocarbon resources has prompted some to question whether foreign officials have not been giving the Turkmen government a free ride.

OSCE minority-rights monitor Ekeus's words on the first day of his visit were similarly cautious. He said, "I think we have started very well, and I hope we can continue the matter of the integration of the society, development of the state language, [and] protection also of the smaller languages," Ekeus said. "So we think we can move forward in this area."

Ekeus later hinted that President Niyazov might have sought to sidetrack the OSCE from the stated purpose of his visit: "The president [Niyazov] has discussed very important issues of energy, [and] of security, and we have discussed issues of significance also concerning the minority situation, and education and language issues."

Looking For More

Farid Tuhbatullin is a former environmental activist in Turkmenistan whose criticism of the government helped land him in jail. International rights groups publicized his case, and he was eventually released. Tuhbatullin is now the head of Turkmenistan section of the International Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.

He said, "We know that Uzbek schools are closed now; there is no possibility of studying in Uzbek language. It is the same situation with the [ethnic] Kazakhs -- that is, Kazakh schools also do not work anymore, and that has forced many representatives of the Kazakh nationality from the country."

He contends that Turkmen authorities have prevented Ekeus from seeing the true situation of ethnic minorities through selective access to those groups and their representatives: "Unfortunately he has been in Turkmenistan several times, but our information [suggests] that they practically haven't let him meet freely with representatives of ethnic minorities," Tuhbatullin said.

Lack Of Respect?

Tuhbatullin pointed out basic indications that minority rights are not respected in Turkmenistan -- beginning with schooling for two of the country's largest ethic minority groups, ethnic Uzbeks and Kazakhs. "The largest national diaspora [in Turkmenistan] is of course the Uzbeks, who live in the north and east of Turkmenistan," Tuhbatullin said. "We know that Uzbek schools are closed now; there is no possibility of studying in Uzbek language. It is the same situation with the [ethnic] Kazakhs -- that is, Kazakh schools also do not work anymore, and that has forced many representatives of the Kazakh nationality from the country."

Tuhbatullin also mentioned the small Baluchi minority in Turkmenistan. He notes that when Turkmenistan was still a Soviet republic, that group had a greater opportunity to use its native language.

Ethnic Russians have complained of their official treatment, as well. The Turkmen government's decision to cancel a dual-citizenship agreement with Russia in 2003 led many ethnic Russians to leave Turkmenistan. It also drew the attention of the Russian State Duma over the plight of ethnic Russians who chose to remain in Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan's ethnic Russians have since encountered considerable obstacles to studying -- and even enjoying entertainment, in the Russian language. Russian television is difficult to receive in Turkmenistan, and Russian-language radio station Mayak was taken off the air.

International Effectiveness

Tuhbatullin argues that while groups like the OSCE raise the topic of discrimination, the Turkmen government seems to ignore such concerns with impunity.

"Unfortunately, I haven't seen any results from these visits from the OSCE or any other intergovernmental organizations," Tuhbatullin says. "They haven't produced any [critical] documents."

Ekeus, meanwhile, encouraged Turkmen officials to afford greater respect for minorities. His wording was delicate, however, suggesting simply that "there is always more to be done."

(By Bruce Pannier. RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report. Originally published on March 8, 2006.)