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Central Asia Report: April 18, 2006

18 April 2006, Volume 6, Number 12

WEEK AT A GLANCE (April 3-9, 2006). Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev visited Russia, where he met with President Vladimir Putin. The two agreed to double the throughput capacity of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium's 1,500-kilometer pipeline to transport oil from fields in western Kazakhstan to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov also said that the rental fees Russia pays for the use of military testing grounds in Kazakhstan will drop from $27.5 million annually to $24.78 million. Back home, Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry denied registration to the opposition party Alga, arguing that 20,000 of the 62,000 members the party claimed in its application do not exist. Information Minister Ermukhamet Ertysbaev said that the opposition press is violating the law with insinuations of government involvement in the deaths of opposition leaders Zamanbek Nurkadilov and Altynbek Sarsenbaev. Finally, President Nazarbaev appointed Nurlan Iskakov environment minister.

Kyrgyz NGOs marched in Bishkek to protest what they described as the increasing involvement of the criminal underworld in politics. The next day, April 9, Ryspek Akmatbaev, widely described as an organized-crime kingpin, ran in a parliamentary by-election. Akmatbaev's candidacy had been suspended in light of an ongoing murder investigation, but the Supreme Court reinstated him on April 3. Defense Minister Ismail Isakov denied that Kyrgyzstan was the source of a new missile Iran recently tested. And Prime Minister Feliks Kulov stepped down as head of the Ar-Namys Party and suspended his party membership in keeping with legislation limiting state officials' engagement in party activities.

Russia and Tajikistan held joint military exercises involving 800 troops, including 300 from Tajikistan. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov observed the final day of the war games, in which Russian and Tajik units "rebuff[ed] attacks by bandit groups of international terrorists." The opposition Democratic Party experienced turmoil, as Masud Sobirov announced the formation of a Vatan (Homeland) faction within the party, while Deputy Chairman Rahmatullo Valiev charged that the faction was formed illegally and suggested the authorities might be behind an attempt to force a split. Finally, Rahmatullo Zoirov, head of the opposition Social Democratic Party, told a news conference that there are 1,000 political prisoners in Tajikistan, 80 percent of them held for ties to the banned extremist groups Hizb ut-Tahrir or Bayat.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov visited China, where he signed a framework agreement to build a natural-gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China. The agreement says that China will buy 30 billion cubic meters of gas each year for 30 years, starting in 2009, at a price in line with the "international market." It leaves financial and construction details to be resolved by December 31, 2006.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov appointed Ergash Shoismatov deputy prime minister in charge of the oil and gas sector. Shoimatov replaced Otkir Sultonov, whom Karimov removed in connection with a "transfer to other work." The rights group Memorial released a new book detailing the arrest and prosecution of 875 people in Uzbekistan for political and religious reasons in January 2005-December 2005. The list includes 166 persons charged with ties to Hizb ut-Tahrir, 142 charged in connection with the unrest in Andijon in May 2005, 45 charged with membership in Akramiya, 45 charged with membership in Jamoati Tabligh, and a large number charged with other varieties of religious extremism. And one prisoner went free, as jailed journalist Sobirjon Yoqubov was released when a court ruled that there was insufficient evidence of Yoqubov's alleged membership in an illegal religious organization.

CENTRAL ASIA: TURKMENISTAN-CHINA PIPELINE PROJECT HAS FAR-REACHING IMPLICATIONS. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has grown increasingly unhappy with his country's role as a natural-gas reservoir feeding Russia's ambition to reinvent itself as a 21st-century energy superpower. After a number of high-profile moves in recent months to raise the price of Turkmen natural gas for Russia, Ukraine, and Iran, Niyazov has now signed a deal with China to build an export pipeline to the east that would break Russia's monopoly on export routes for Turkmen gas. Experts have cast doubt on the project's feasibility, but whether or not it becomes a reality, it underscores the emerging contours of energy geopolitics in Eurasia.

Niyazov arrived in China for a rare visit on April 2 amid anticipation that a pipeline deal was in the works. The two countries inked the framework agreement the next day. A text of the pipeline agreement published by official Turkmen news agency TDH states that China will buy 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas each year for 30 years, starting in 2009. The initial agreement leaves the nuts and bolts of pipeline construction to be worked out by December 31, 2006. Official reports were mum on financial details, but Russia's "Kommersant" reported on April 3 that Niyazov would use his visit to China to try to convince the Chinese side to finance the pipeline project.

A Turkmen television report on April 8 suggested an earlier start date and provided additional information about the pipeline route. "In the first phase [of the project], we plan, starting from 2008, to deliver some 30 bcm of Turkmen gas [annually] via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, to Urumci [western China] and beyond it, to Shanghai [eastern China], and to increase these volumes to up to 50 bcm by 2010," the station reported.

Many Skeptics

Outside observers reacted skeptically to the deal, raising doubts about both Turkmenistan's ability to meet additional export commitments and the project's overall feasibility. In an interview with the Turkmen opposition website, Dr. Roland Goetz, an energy expert at Germany's Institute for International and Security Affairs, noted that no one really knows how much gas Turkmenistan possesses. Official statistics put Turkmenistan's total production in 2005 at 63 bcm, with exports amounting to 45 bcm (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 January 2006). Estimating Turkmenistan's maximum export potential at 100-120 bcm/year and noting that the pipeline to China would have to traverse 4,000 kilometers, Goetz concluded, "I doubt the economic feasibility of this entire idea." He added, however, that for China, political and military factors might outweigh economic considerations. Goetz also noted that since the new pipeline would give Turkmenistan a measure of independence from Russia, "Ashgabat will do everything possible to bring the project to completion."

Others views of Turkmenistan's production potential are grimmer. In a contribution to "The Washington Post" on April 6, Nadejda M. Victor, a research fellow at the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University, wrote that "Turkmen gas production is poised to decline and Turkmenistan's gas industry is barely functional because the country's political environment is scary for long-term investors."

China is serious about its desire to ensure energy shipments from the West. It recently spent more than $4 billion to acquire an oil company with production assets in Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 19, 2005) and has reached an agreement with Russia to build a natural-gas pipeline from Siberia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2006).

Nevertheless, the doubts about the Turkmen project are well-founded, and other projected Turkmen pipelines -- across Afghanistan and across the Caspian -- have remained pipe dreams. But the framework agreement signed in Beijing is still a serious indicator of Turkmenistan's intentions, the outlines of future geopolitical jostling for primacy in the Eurasian energy sphere, and problems on the horizon for Russia.

Message From Ashgabat

One obvious message the Turkmen-Chinese framework agreement sends is that Turkmenistan will continue its push for higher prices in its negotiations with current customers (Russia, Ukraine, and Iran). The agreement does not specify a price for the Chinese gas purchases that are to begin in 2009, but it states that the price "will be set on a reasonable and just basis, based on a comparable price on the international market," and paid "exclusively in U.S. dollars." President Niyazov said in February that Turkmenistan intends to raise the export price of its natural gas from $65 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters in the fall (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2006). The framework agreement suggests that Russia and Ukraine should take note.

Another message the agreement entails is that the first serious clash between Russian and Chinese interests in Central Asia will likely occur in the energy sphere. Russia's Gazprom is set to become increasingly dependent on Central Asian imports to maintain the company's sagging gas balance and can be expected to exert political leverage to defend its interests in this vital region. If China makes a serious push to gain access to Central Asian gas -- replete with investments in a pipeline that links Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan -- it could set the stage for Central Asian competition between Beijing and the Kremlin.

Gazprom Squeezed

Finally, the emerging contours of competition for access to energy resources in Central Asia are another cloud on the horizon for Gazprom. Gazprom's short-term strategy envisages a major increase in purchases of Central Asian gas. Vladimir Milov, from the Institute for Energy Policy, explained in a briefing at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, D.C., on March 16 that Gazprom will have no means to offset declining domestic gas production beginning in 2008, and by 2010 will be purchasing 100 bcm of gas from Central Asia. Gazprom is counting on Turkmenistan to provide the bulk of that gas, with purchases slated to go to 70-80 bcm a year as early as 2007-08.

Gazprom's future plans assume that Turkmenistan will sell virtually all of its export production to Russia. But the draft agreement between China and Turkmenistan implies that if the new pipeline becomes a reality, it could be a priority commitment for Turkmenistan. The text states that the gas for export to China will come from fields on the right bank of the Amu-Darya River, but it adds, "If additional volumes of gas are required to build the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline, the Turkmen side can guarantee gas shipments from other gas fields."

Both Milov and Victor warn that Russia, a key supplier of gas to Europe, could face a supply crunch in the not-so-distant future. Goetz stresses that Turkmenistan's negotiations with China point in exactly this direction: "For now, Ashgabat is, so to speak, loyal to Moscow, but if President Niyazov suddenly changes his mind, this could have implications for the entire energy situation, including the situation in Europe." (By Daniel Kimmage. Originally published on April 10, 2006.)

KYRGYZSTAN: U.S. OFFICIAL URGES GREATER DEMOCRATIC REFORMS. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Richard Boucher said U.S. help to Central Asia isn't limited to economic and security issues but for moving forward with democratic reforms. Boucher was in Kyrgyzstan on April 11 as part of a regional tour that has taken him to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and also includes Kazakhstan. Boucher spoke in Bishkek with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and other media about U.S. relations with Central Asian countries.

"Well, actually, [U.S.-Kyrgyz relations] have been quite good and we've done very well together," he said. "We are cooperating on security issues for the region, including the air base here. We are cooperating on economic opportunities for Kyrgyzstan, with a lot of assistance to Kyrgyzstan for development of the economy, but we're also looking at new ideas and new possibilities [for the] export of Kyrgyz power to other countries of the south, for example."

Boucher said U.S. help was not limited to security and economic assistance, but also included helping the new authorities move forward on democratic reforms.

"We are also working on the political process and democratic reform," he said. "Kyrgyzstan has an open media, has a strong civil society, has a lot of things going for it, but there is obviously more to do, and so we have been trying to work with the government to promote constitutional reform and reforming the judiciary and [there's] a serious fight against corruption. I know there is a lot of disappointment in some of those areas. People think that it hasn't moved as fast as it should have, and I think we are, frankly, very interested in regaining the momentum on those issues."

In his new position, Boucher also addressed the recent problems between the United States and the government in Kyrgyzstan's neighbor Uzbekistan.

"The [Uzbek] government makes it increasingly hard to work with the organizations there," Boucher said. "They have closed down local organizations. They have closed down organizations that work with us. They close down organizations that work with the United Nations. They've closed down the people [to whom] we offer scholarships and the people who go out and test students and find eligible candidates for our scholarships. That's been closed down."

Boucher indicated that U.S. ties with Uzbekistan would not improve unless the Uzbek government changed its policies.

"Coming after the massacre in Andijon, where such horrible abuses occurred from the [Uzbek] government, we find that there is very little that we can do," he added. "We are not going to support a government that would act that way [toward] its own citizens, and we are not going to be able to work with the citizens if the government keeps acting this way. So, it is getting more and more difficult."

The Uzbek government claims 187 people were killed when troops opened fire to put down an attempted coup led by Islamic militants. Rights organizations, both local and international, say the number of people killed was several times higher and that the majority of protesters in Andijon last May was practicing its legal right to demonstrate peacefully.

The event complicated Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations when more than 400 Uzbek refugees fled the violence and crossed into Kyrgyzstan. Boucher praised the Kyrgyz authorities for allowing most of the refugees to be evacuated to third countries. He also spoke about the fate of four remaining refugees who have not yet been granted asylum in Kyrgyzstan or any other country.

"There are over 400 [Uzbek refugees] who have found safety and better lives because of the actions the Kyrgyz government took," Boucher said. "We think those are very important. It was somewhat difficult, there were a lot of pressures, but those were courageous actions. There are still four people left [in jail] and we think these people all deserve the same consideration and the same treatment as the others who were able to leave. So, we and the United Nations continue to advocate for them to be considered refugees and allowed to go through the normal refugee process." (By Bruce Pannier. Originally published on April 11, 2006.)

UZBEKISTAN: UN RAPPORTEUR FAULTS FAILURE TO DETAIN FORMER INTERIOR MINISTER. Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently declared its intention to challenge a German federal prosecutor's decision not to open a case against former Uzbek Interior Minister Zokir Almatov, whose controversial visit to Germany for medical treatment infuriated those who accuse him of overseeing torture of detainees and mass killings in Uzbekistan. Almatov, who resigned in December for health reasons after nearly a decade as Uzbekistan's interior minister, slipped quietly out of the country before German authorities dropped their investigation. RFE/RL's Uzbek Service spoke in early April to Manfred Nowak, the UN special rapporteur on torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment -- whose predecessor accused Uzbek authorities of responsibility for widespread abuses including the use of "systematic torture." Nowak had urged German authorities to detain Almatov during his purported visit and prosecute him for those alleged crimes. (Originally published on April 11, 2006.)

RFE/RL: You called for Zokir Almatov's arrest -- the former interior minister of Uzbekistan -- when he was in Germany. What was this call based on? Did you have a sufficient basis for suspecting Mr. Almatov of having committed crimes?

Manfred Nowak: Yes. First, my predecessor, Theo van Boven, carried out a fact-finding mission to Uzbekistan, where he came to the conclusion that torture was practiced systematically, and also that Mr. Almatov -- at that time the minister of interior -- had a major responsibility. [Editor's note: Van Boven visited Uzbekistan in December 2002 and concluded torture was "systematic" in the country's prisons and detention facilities.]

Now, since Germany ratified the UN convention against torture and also has a domestic law on international criminal law, it is under an obligation under the torture convention if there is sufficient evidence -- both by my predecessor but also by Human Rights Watch and others, who appealed to the German government -- to actually arrest Mr. Almatov and to start criminal investigations based on the evidence available. And then they would have to decide...whether they would bring him before a German court or extradite him to another country which would be interested [in prosecuting him] and which would have jurisdiction.

RFE/RL: German authorities ignored this call from you and other international observers... Now they let him leave, and they [rejected] opening a criminal case against Mr. Almatov. How would you...assess the German authorities' actions?

Nowak: First of all, it's not true that they ignored my urgent action. They started investigations. And only recently the public prosecutor -- Kay Nehm -- actually decided to drop the case and not to charge Mr. Almatov. So they did carry out investigations.

But it's true that, in the meantime, Mr. Almatov was able to leave Germany. We don't know how he was able to leave Germany, whether this was with the assistance of German authorities or not. But the fact is that he was not arrested immediately and he was able to actually leave the country. And of course this is one of the aspects where I am a little disappointed [is] that is one of the arguments of the general public prosecutor not to open charges against Mr. Almatov was that he is now out of the reach of German authorities. And that of course is not a proper argument, in my understanding, because if Germany were to charge him and there were an international arrest warrant, that would definitely restrict Mr. Almatov's freedom of movement outside of Uzbekistan, etcetera. So that is the very idea of the principal of universal jurisdiction -- whether it is against Mr. [Augusto] Pinochet, [unclear], or Mr. Almatov -- that if a country is actually willing to take action -- and at the time when they started the investigations, Mr. Almatov was in Germany, so Germany does have jurisdiction -- that then you continue with these investigations in order to finally ensure that people who committed torture or crimes against humanity are actually brought to justice.

It is very, very difficult -- be it now by the International Criminal Court or on the basis of the principal of universal jurisdiction -- to actually act against the main human-rights violators. And, according to my information and that of my predecessor, Mr. Almatov was not only as minister of interior involved in the practice of torture -- and he had the command responsibility -- but he was involved also in the events in Andijon on the 13th of May last year.

RFE/RL: Another argument of the federal prosecutor of Germany, Kay Nehm, was that the likelihood of a successful investigation against Mr. Almatov was nonexistent because the Uzbek authorities would not cooperate in this case and there would be no people to testify against Mr. Almatov. But Human Rights Watch and other organizations are saying there are a lot of Uzbeks outside Uzbekistan who are ready to testify, and [that] there are also international people like Craig Murray, the former U.K. Ambassador and Theo van Boven, your predecessor. Would you be ready to testify against Mr. Almatov if such a case was launched?

Nowak: I only took up this post on the 1st of December 2004, so I would not be in a position to testify on allegations against Mr. Almatov which were made in the time before [that date]. So Theo van Boven, who actually also provided a written testimony, would be the right person in relation to all the allegations. And he did a fact-finding mission to Uzbekistan where he arrived at these conclusions.

Of course, if it concerns allegations that I have received as the [UN's] special rapporteur on torture, I am willing also to make them available. I myself did not really carry out investigations on the spot, so that's why I did not actively carry out investigations.

RFE/RL: Could you give an example of a case that was put in Mr. van Boven's report after he visited Uzbekistan -- one of the examples...that brought him to the conclusion that torture in Uzbekistan is systematic.

Nowak: It was a general treatment -- both in the normal criminal procedure, but, of course, in particular against the primarily Muslim population of the country that is seen as fighting the regime. If you look at the report, which is publicly available, and also at the testimony which Theo van Boven gave afterwards, I think there is ample evidence that both police and other security forces have been and also are continuing to systematically practice torture -- in particular against dissidents or people who are opponents of the regime.

RFE/RL: You said German authorities launched investigations initially to find out if there is sufficient basis for opening investigation against Mr. Almatov. But Mr. Almatov was in Germany -- he was let in and he was let out. If he wasn't using someone else's documents when he was leaving, that means that German authorities knew that he was leaving and German authorities knew that international people were calling for his arrest -- and they didn't prevent him from leaving. Does that mean they said one thing but, in practice, they ignored these calls?

Nowak: The one thing is that he got a kind of humanitarian special visa in order to enter Germany to be treated in a German hospital. That is what we know. We also know that he left the country, but we don't know how he left the country. It would be purely speculation now to say it was with the assistance of German authorities. We just don't know. It's also possible for people to leave the country without any kind of assistance from the German authorities.