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Central Asia Report: April 21, 2006

21 April 2006, Volume 6, Number 13

WEEK AT A GLANCE (April 10-16, 2006) Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev told provincial governors and the mayors of Astana and Almaty that the task of making Kazakhstan one of the world's 50 most competitive countries should become a "national idea." Darigha Nazarbaeva, the president's daughter and head of the Asar Party, stated that a newly created democratization commission should set out first and foremost to answer the question of what kind of political system Kazakhstan should have. And Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev met with his Chinese counterpart, Li Zhaoxing, in Beijing for talks focused on deepening bilateral relations.

Edil Baisalov, head of the Kyrgyz NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, was hospitalized in Bishkek after an unknown assailant struck him on the back of the head with a blunt object. Prime Minister Feliks Kulov visited Baisalov in the hospital, telling reporters later that the attack was political and intended to intimidate. The attack took place shortly after Ryspek Akmatbaev, who has been linked in numerous media reports to organized crime groups, won a parliamentary by-election, although the Central Election Commission refused to register Akmatbaev's victory because of an ongoing murder investigation. Baisalov had spoken out repeatedly against Akmatbaev's involvement in politics. In the wake of the attack on Baisalov, the cabinet adopted a package of crime-fighting measures. A group of NGOs and political parties set April 29 as the date for a large demonstration to call for the rule of law and constitutional reform.

Tajik Interior Minister Humdin Sharifov announced that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was responsible for two explosions in Dushanbe in 2005 that claimed one life. He said that four alleged IMU members have been arrested in connection with the blasts, while two others are being sought. Meanwhile, six suspected IMU members, including one Russian citizen, went on trial on terrorism charges in Sughd Province. The Supreme Court denied that Tajikistan has any political prisoners, responding to a recent claim by opposition Social Democratic Party leader Rahmatullo Zoirov that there are more than 1,000 political prisoners in Tajikistan. A court in Dushanbe halted the activities of the Tajik Union of Journalists for three months, arguing that the union's charter violates provisions of Tajik law. The lower chamber of parliament voted to ban adoptions of Tajik children by foreign parents. And China agreed to provide a $269 million loan for road construction in Tajikistan. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov released longtime Prosecutor-General Gurbanbibi Atajanova from her duties in connection with her retirement. Her replacement will be Muhammatguly Ogshukov, who had served as deputy prosecutor-general since 2002. Niyazov also formed a committee to oversee the implementation of agreements signed during his recent trip to China. In connection with the most important deal, a framework agreement on a natural-gas pipeline linking Turkmenistan and China, the president asked officials to survey gas reserves to supply the pipeline. Iran and Turkmenistan signed an agreement for Iran to buy 8 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Turkmenistan in 2006 at $65 per 1,000 cubic meters, with the price effective on February 1. Iran will buy 14 billion cubic meters in 2007. And Amnesty International welcomed the release of Gurbandurdy Durdykuliev from forcible confinement in a psychiatric hospital, where he had been held since 2004 after asking for authorization to hold a peaceful protest against President Niyazov's policies. Uzbek President Islam Karimov issued decrees removing Vyacheslav Golyshev from the posts of deputy prime minister and economy minister and appointing him state adviser on socioeconomic policy issues. Golyshev's replacement as economy minister will be Botir Hojaev. Elsewhere, the foreign minister denied the charge in a recent Amnesty International report that Uzbekistan cooperated with the U.S. government on the rendition of terrorism suspects.

TURKMENISTAN: EMBATTLED WRITER ACCEPTS PRESTIGIOUS LITERARY AWARD. Banned Turkmen novelist Rahim Esenov received the 2006 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom To Write Award at a lavish gala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on April 18. The 79-year-old novelist described as a "miracle" his appearance at the award presentation. He was under confinement for more than two years in Ashgabat and, up to the last moment, the Turkmen authorities had rejected his request to travel to the United States to receive the prize. Speaking at the Open Society Institute in New York earlier in the day, Esenov described his "hospital-to-jail" voyage following the ban in Turkmenistan on his latest novel, "The Crowned Wanderer," in 2004.

In a two-minute speech at the award presentation, Esenov said he wished he could thank individually each one of the 3,100 members of the American PEN Club.

He said his "tongue can't keep still" as he expressed his gratitude to his American hosts for making the event happen. And he said that he had always tried to stand up for what he believed was right.

The PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award honors prominent figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression.

Up to the very last days, Esenov's travel to New York to receive the award was in limbo over the repeated denials of the Turkmen authorities to grant him an exit visa. Finally, after growing pressure from the United States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), he was allowed to board the plane.

Attendees at the award presentation included Salman Rushdie, the Indian-British novelist who has won numerous literary awards; Jhumpa Lahiri, the Indian-American novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000; E. L. Doctorow, a recipient of numerous literary awards; David Remnick, editor in chief of the influential "New Yorker" magazine; Graydon Carter, editor in chief of "Vanity Fair" magazine; Mort Zuckerman, publisher of the "New York Daily News"; and Barry Diller, a Hollywood mogul. Jeff Trimble, acting president of RFE/RL, for whom Esenov has worked for a number of years, was also present.

The audience at the rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan twice gave Esenov a standing ovation.

Esenov said he was happy to finally meet so many supporters: "I want to thank you that you have found time, that you've come to hear me. It is very interesting for me as well to meet you, to see your faces, your smiles, your eyes. They speak volumes."

It is the second trip to the United States for Esenov, a well-known political dissident in Central Asia. The first time he visited the United States was in 1988.

Esenov says that out of the more than 20 books he has written in Russian, he considers his historical novel "The Crowned Wanderer" his lifetime achievement. Esenov started working the book in 1977, and it was banned in 1997 after the author refused to edit it to the tastes of Turkmenistan's authoritarian president, Saparmurat Niyazov. It centers around the life of Bayram Khan, a military general and a man of letters who fought to save the Turkmen nation from falling apart.

In February 2004, after Esenov suffered a stroke, he was forcibly removed from his hospital bed and placed in detention. He described the experience during one of his appearances in New York on April 18.

"They brought a stretcher and wanted to put me on it," Esenov said. "I told them that I don't want a stretcher. They said: 'Oh, no, you need a stretcher, you are ill!' I answered them with an English proverb: 'Once the head has been taken off, one does not complain about the haircut.' I descended by myself from the second floor using the staircase and they all the time tried to hold me under my elbows. I told them, 'Hands off!' because I thought it was humiliating. I didn't want to make them happy, to show my weakness."

After an international outcry, Turkmen authorities released him -- but not before confiscating and destroying 800 copies of his book.

Esenov described how he was constantly watched by Turkmenistan's notorious secret police: "I noticed that around my house [there was] the so-called 'outside' surveillance; they were following me everywhere. But I just tried not to pay attention. I knew that my phone was being tapped; I knew that my mail was being opened. All this was done in a nasty, arrogant manner without even an attempt to conceal it."

The PEN American Center announced Esenov's award presentation in New York specifically to challenge his continuing house arrest.

On March 24, when officials of the U.S. Embassy visited him in his home in Ashgabat, he was informed he would receive the award. At that meeting, Esenov accepted PEN's invitation to travel to New York for the award, and PEN worked closely with the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat to make the trip possible.

(By Nikola Krastev. Jeff Trimble, RFE/RL acting president, contributed to this report. Originally published on April 19, 2006.)

CENTRAL ASIA: NATURE WAITS FOR CROSS-BORDER SANCTUARIES TO CATCH ON. In an effort to curb biodiversity loss in some of nature's most blighted regions, some governments are teaming up with their neighbors to set up cross-border protected areas. Such projects seek to reverse destruction that threatens to make life unsustainable for thousands of species of plants and animals and help local communities take care of their environment. RFE/RL examines some of the lessons that Central Asians have endured.

The irrigation of vast cotton fields in Central Asia has led to the gradual shrinkage of the Aral Sea over the past several decades, leaving behind a parched desert.

The region is contaminated by a toxic mix of chemical residue washed down the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers from farms. These toxics devastate wildlife and threaten human health.

But Esmail Kahrom, professor of zoology and environment sciences in Tehran, says countries in the region don't appear to have learned their lessons.

He says Lake Hamoun, which straddles the Iranian and Afghan borders, has dramatically suffered from the damming of the Helmand River on Afghan territory.

"What happened in Hamoun was that one country was thinking to solve its own problems individually," Kahrom says. "As a result, the river which was feeding Hamoun was utilized by the Afghan government. Dams were built and Hamoun dried up."

Wildlife, towns, fisheries, and agriculture that once surrounded the nearby wetlands have disappeared, creating a wasteland.

Central Asia's second-largest lake, Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan, is in danger of drying up, partly due to overexploitation of the Ili River, near China.

Years of neglect have also left the largest inland body of water on earth -- the Caspian Sea -- in a precarious state. Its five littoral countries -- Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan -- haven't even resolved the legal status of the sea itself, much less mustered the political will to protect its future.

Martin Kaiser, a forest adviser in Germany for the environmental group Greenpeace, says cross-border cooperation is essential to preserve ecosystems in regions like Central Asia.

"In Central Asia, we have large and big ecosystems which are part of the same problem but also part of the same solution," Kaiser says. "You can't find a solution for one part of the Caspian Sea or the Aral [Sea] or for other ecosystems -- mountain regions -- without having a coherent concept across the borders."

Kaiser argues that the establishment of large-scale protected areas across state borders could help protect Central Asia's 7,000 species of flora, 900 species of vertebrates, and 20,000 species of invertebrates -- many of which are unique to the region.

To address the issue, the Central Asia Trans-boundary Biodiversity Project was launched in 2000 with a grant of more than $10 million from the Global Environment Facility.

The project is aimed at helping Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan to integrate four of their protected areas into a unified network -- Aksu-Djabagly in Kazakhstan, Besh-Aral and Sary Chelek in Kyrgyzstan, and Chatkal in Uzbekistan.

But Baktybek Koichumanov, from the Kyrgyz state agency for environmental protection and forestry, stresses that the project has not yet been finalized.

"Now in the Western Tien Shan, according to an agreement between Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, a big bio-reservoir is being established," Koichumanov says. "If the governments of the three states sign it to establish a transborder biosphere zone, then, I think, there will be protection for wild animals moving [through borders], as well as for plants, because even plants move across borders."

After all, more durable joint solutions to the problem of man versus nature have been found. Governments in Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia have pledged to create a protected area on the island of Borneo to slow deforestation. A cross-border natural reserve is being created in Gabon, Congo, and Cameroon to preserve Central Africa's best-preserved rainforest. And in the Amazon rainforest, South American governments are working to link national parks and Indian reservations.

Gordon Shepherd, director of the International Policy Unit at the World Wildlife Fund in Switzerland, says local communities in Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia would benefit from cross-border projects to conserve water resources.

"In all of those areas, a good supply of fresh water is important. That depends upon forests, floods plains, [and the] proper management of river basins so that there is sufficient water passing through countries for industry, agriculture, people, and the ecosystems," Shepherd says. "If you got rid of the ecosystems, then you got floods, pollution -- a whole series of problems. Quite a large number of local communities depend on local fish resources. Quite often people have a high percentage of the proteins they get coming from hunting."

Shepherd stresses that ecosystems exist across politically established lines and must be tended along the lines that nature draws.

"[Cross-border environment degradation] gets you into social problems, poverty problems, and possibly security problems if people start to fight over natural resources," Shepherd says. "And all of that can be avoided if you look at the way ecosystems function and just recognize that by conserving the ecosystem and the services that it gives you forget about the boundary issue you were fighting about [with your neighbor]."

(By Antoine Blua. RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report. Originally published on April 16, 2006.)

KYRGYZSTAN: ATTACK ON NGO LEADER HIGHLIGHTS CLIMATE OF FEAR. Are political opponents trying to kill one of Kyrgyzstan's most outspoken civic leaders? That's the question on many people's minds after an April 12 attack on Edil Baisalov, leader of the NGO-umbrella group "For Democracy and Civil Society." Baisalov's public targeting of criminal elements in the government has made him powerful enemies that are being blamed for last night's attack. RFE/RL examines contradictory reports about the attack itself and the climate of fear in his fragile Central Asian democracy.

Physicians treating Baisalov have refrained from saying whether he was shot -- as eyewitness accounts have suggested -- or struck in the head with a rock or other object.

But Health Ministry officials said on April 13 that Baisalov is in stable condition at a Bishkek hospital, where he'll remain for a week.

Speaking on the morning of April 13, Baisalov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that he thinks he was hit with a stone. Baisalov described what he remembers after leaving the offices of his For Democracy and Civil Society coalition.

"I was coming out of the office and crossing a street toward our car on the other side of the street," Baisalov said. "Suddenly, it felt like somebody hit me from behind. I lost consciousness for an instant but didn't fall down. Then I saw someone fleeing. Then I started bleeding profusely. Then [some ethnic] Russians came and started to help me. I told them, 'Somebody hit me.' And they told me, 'No, no one hit you, they shot you with some kind of popgun [or 'khlopushka'].'"

Political allies are assuming that the attack was politically motivated. After all, Baisalov helped organize a public rally in the capital on Saturday (April 8) urging that criminals be barred from participation in government. The very next day, a reputed crime boss currently under investigation for murder won a parliamentary by-election.

Baisalov's deputy, Jyrgalbek Turdukojoev, told RFE/RL that For Democracy and Civil Society thinks the attack was prompted by such efforts to combat organized crime. "We believe that this happened because of Edil Baisalov's very strong political activity," Turdukojoev said.

Prime Minister Feliks Kulov has been one of the loudest voices condemning criminal infiltration into government and state institutions. Within hours of the attack, Kulov had suggested it was meant to intimidate activists and the broader public.

"The people who are trying to do things like this -- their aim is not just simply to kill but [also] to create fear," Kulov said. "[For them] the outcome was not important, whether they killed or not. What was important was to create fear."

The Ar-Namys party -- which Kulov founded but has since left -- released a statement today warning that "crime has become virtually a branch of state power" and suggesting Kyrgyzstan's current leadership is "completely helpless" to combat it.

Deputy Interior Minister Omurbek Subanaliev today insisted that organized crime's fingerprints are all over the Baisalov attack.

"The chance of a third party's involvement is negligible because Edil Baisalov really [spoke out] against criminality," Subanaliev said. "He was outstanding regarding latest developments in Kyrgyzstan [in the fight against organized crime]."

Lawmaker Melis Eshimkanov said Baisalov told him one day before the attack that he feared he was being followed.

"Just yesterday I spoke with Edil [Baisalov] and he said that in the last few days, he felt someone was constantly watching him and his car was always being followed by several vehicles," Eshimkanov said. "He asked us for help with security. Deputy Kubatbek Baibolov and I asked the Interior Ministry today about this, but the matter still hadn't been decided."

Three members of parliament were killed in separate incidents last year -- along with a number of local officials and businessmen.

Baisalov has vowed not to be deterred from continuing his work, however. And his group is planning a new rally against criminal influence in politics for April 29.

(By Bruce Pannier. Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report. Originally published on April 13, 2006.)