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Central Asia Report: April 6, 2006

6 April 2006, Volume 6, Number 11

WEEK AT A GLANCE (March 27-April 2). Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairman in Office and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht visited all five Central Asian nations. In Kazakhstan, he encouraged the country's bid for the organization's chairmanship in 2009, saying, "We feel that Kazakhstan is the worthiest candidate for the [chairmanship] post in the OSCE in Central Asia." In Kyrgyzstan, De Gucht said that the OSCE is "opposed to the extradition of the four Uzbek refugees who are still being detained in Kyrgyzstan." In Turkmenistan, De Gucht urged President Saparmurat Niyazov to "start political reforms and democratization." The OSCE described De Gucht as "very critical about the overall situation" in Turkmenistan, but official Turkmen reports omitted this and painted a rosy picture of fruitful cooperation. In Tajikistan, De Gucht received assurances that a controversial law on NGOs will not be passed before the November presidential election and that the authorities, who suspended BBC FM broadcasts in January, will grant the station's license as soon as it submits registration documents. And in Uzbekistan, De Gucht emphasized the OSCE's readiness for expanded dialogue, raised the issue of reported rights violations, and called on the Uzbek authorities to share information on unrest in Andijon in May 2005.

Kazakh Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev said that a working group will draw up a new military doctrine in keeping with President Nursultan Nazarbaev's recent suggestion that Kazakhstan needs a professional army with rapid-deployment capabilities. For his part, Nazarbaev removed Environment Minister Kamaltin Mukhamedzhanov, reportedly at the latter's request. Human Rights Watch appealed to Nazarbaev to investigate the forced return of nine Uzbek nationals, including four asylum seekers registered with the UN, from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan in November 2005. The rights group included in its appeal evidence linking Kazakh security forces to the seizure and return of four Uzbeks.

Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission annulled the candidacy of Ryspek Akmatbaev in a parliamentary by-election, citing a criminal conviction and violation of the in-country residency requirement. The ruling prompted an estimated 1,000 Akmatbaev supporters to take to the streets of Bishkek. They dispersed after President Kurmanbek Bakiev came out to address them, and a Bishkek court subsequently reinstated Akmatbaev's controversial candidacy. Akmatbaev, who has been linked in numerous reports to organized crime, hopes to fill a parliamentary seat vacated when his brother, Tynychbek Akmatbaev, was killed during a visit to a prison in October 2005. Elsewhere, police in Osh arrested six alleged members of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. President Bakiev appointed Marat Alapaev head of the National Bank. The president also created a working group to draw up draft constitutions with various forms of government to be used in a coming referendum on whether Kyrgyzstan should have a presidential, presidential-parliamentary, or parliamentary form of government.

Aleksei Miller, head of Russia's Gazprom, visited Tajikistan, where the Tajik Energy Ministry and the state-run Russian gas company signed a memorandum of understanding to form a joint venture to develop Tajikistan's natural-gas fields. The Russian side will own 75 percent of the company, with investment amounts to be announced in the future. Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Khayrulloev told Interfax that Russia is Tajikistan's main partner for military cooperation and said that he sees no need for the Tajik military to move to NATO military standards. And a government resolution eased visa requirements for the citizens of 68 countries, allowing them to obtain 45-day visas within three days.

Ukrainian oil and gas company Naftohaz Ukrayiny announced that March 22-24 talks in Ashgabat produced a Turkmen-Ukrainian debt settlement agreement. An $88 million Ukrainian prepayment for Turkmen natural-gas shipments in 2006 will go toward Ukrainian debts for 2003-05 shipments. With Ukraine's cash debt thus paid in full, the Ukrainian side agreed to pay a commodity debt of $68 million by August 10.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov visited South Korea, where he signed a strategic partnership declaration with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. The visit also produced a number of South Korean investment initiatives, primarily focused on Uzbekistan's energy sector. And Sergei Smirnov, first deputy director of Russia's Federal Security Service, announced that Russia has detained and extradited to Uzbekistan 19 alleged members of the banned extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir in 2006. Smirnov added, "Russian security forces will continue to help Uzbek security forces to preempt terrorist threats."

DISPUTED KYRGYZ CANDIDATE TESTS OFFICIAL VOWS TO CLEAN UP, KEEP DEMOCRATIC COMMITMENT. Kyrgyzstan's political leadership has found itself in a difficult position just a year after it was ushered into power by a popular uprising. Officials have made their campaign to cleanse the government of corruption and criminal elements a priority. But an alleged crime boss is poised to win a seat in the national parliament in elections on April 9. Kyrgyzstan depends heavily for foreign investment and loans on its reputation as the most democratic state in Central Asia. Now it faces a dilemma over whether officials are compromising that image by softening their fight against organized crime.

The latest chapter in the saga of alleged crime boss Rysbek Akmatbaev came on April 3, when the Supreme Court upheld a lower-court decision to allow Akmatbaev to run in a parliamentary by-election.

Supreme Court justice Larisa Gutnichenko read out the court's ruling: "The Judicial Collegium [of Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court] has decided to uphold the ruling of Birinchi Mai District Court of the Bishkek city from April 2, 2006, on this case. The reviewing appeal by the representative of the Kyrgyz Central Election Commission has been rejected."

The Central Election Commission had sought to bar Akmatbaev's candidacy on the grounds that he had not permanently resided in Kyrgyzstan for the past five years.

Charges...And Countercharges

But for many, the question of Akmatbaev's suitability hinged more on allegations of criminal wrongdoing. Akmatbaev was exonerated on murder charges in January because the statute of limitations had run out on the crime, leaving many convinced that justice was not served.

Supreme Court Chairman Kurmanbek Osmonov explained the circumstances of Akmatbaev's eventual acquittal to RFE/RL: "[Rysbek Akmatbaev's] previous convictions [in 1998] were nullified because the time defined by the law [by which the case must be tried] had passed. If a person's convictions are annulled or eliminated, then that person is considered not convicted. [Otherwise] according to such logic [condemning a person on the basis of allegations], then you might also exclude people like Prime Minister [Feliks Kulov from running for office], saying that he was even jailed -- not just convicted -- in the past."

Akmatbaev is hoping to fill the seat left open when his brother, Tynychbek, was killed while inspecting a besieged prison facility in October. Akmatbaev has accused Prime Minister Kulov of complicity in that killing -- a charge that Kulov has strongly denied. A parliamentary probe into the prison riot also concluded that Kulov played no part in the murder.

Underlying Problem

Two other members of parliament had been killed in the months before the Akmatbaev slaying, with each appearing to shed brighter light on corruption and criminal influence within the government.

Confronted with myriad problems, President Kurmanbek Bakiev was forced to make cleaning up the government a priority.

Edil Baisalov heads a coalition of NGOs called For Democracy and Civil Society. He suggests that the president's pledge to clean up government might be taking a backseat to avoid interfering in the democratic process. Baisalov argues that the Supreme Court erred in paving the way for an Akmatbaev candidacy.

"This [Supreme Court decision to allow Akmatbaev to run] is illegal. Maybe they were afraid of Rysbek Akmatbaev or of something else -- [perhaps] protest rallies? Maybe, they have some political purposes. Maybe this is a step against [Prime Minister] Feliks Kulov. My personal opinion is that there was pressure from the White House [the seat of the Kyrgyz presidency] on the Supreme Court."

Supreme Court Chairman Osmonov rejected such an accusation: "There was not any [pressure] from the White House. The decision made by the Birinchi Mai district court in Bishkek also was correct."

U.S. Ambassador Mary Jovanovich said late last month that attempts by some criminals to become members of parliament could create serious problems in Kyrgyzstan. The chairman in office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Karel De Gucht, echoed Jovanovich's concerns during a visit to Kyrgyzstan last week.

Akmatbaev seems likely to win a seat in parliament. Unofficial polls show him with the support of some 80 percent of voters in his district.

(By Bruce Pannier, with contribution from Tynchtykbek Tchoroev, Aziza Turdaeva, and Venera Djumatayeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. Originally published on April 4.)

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.)