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Central Asia Report: May 26, 2006

26 May 2006, Volume 6, Number 16

WEEK AT A GLANCE (May 15-21, 2006). Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the latter's residence in Sochi. Putin invited Nazarbaev to the G-8 summit in Petersburg in June, agreed to extend favorable tariffs to Kazakhstan for rail shipments through Russia, and said that Russia will pay market prices for Kazakh natural gas; in return, Russia will assume a larger role in the gas-production sphere inside Kazakhstan. In Berlin, Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev said that a gas pipeline across the Caspian, a project that enjoys U.S. support and faces Russian opposition, can only be built with the consent of all five Caspian littoral states. On the home front, a Kazakh court sentenced Alibek Zhumabaev, an activist for the opposition movement For a Just Kazakhstan, to a five-year prison term for preparing public disturbances during the December 2005 presidential election. For a Just Kazakhstan leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbai described the verdict as politically motivated and promised an appeal.

Busurmankul Tabaldiev, the newly appointed head of Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service (SNB), announced that SNB employees should have "Chekist training" and stressed that future hires will receive training exclusively at Russian intelligence-service schools. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev appointed Myktybek Abdyldiev head of the presidential administration, and Kyrgyzstan's parliament approved Marat Alapaev as chairman of the National Bank and Nadyrbek Turganbaev as chairman of the Accounting Chamber. Bakiev affirmed that Kyrgyzstan wants the United States to pay "market prices for its presence in Kyrgyzstan" as a U.S. delegation was expected to arrive in Kyrgyzstan for talks on a new agreement for the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan; Bakiev has stated that Kyrgyzstan is seeking annual lease payments of $200 million from the United States, which has paid approximately $2 million until now. Finally, the For Reforms opposition movement announced that it hopes to gather 50,000 people for a rally in Bishkek on May 27.

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov charged that drug production in neighboring Afghanistan has "tripled" since September 2001. He stressed that Tajikistan is doing its part to guard the 1,344-kilometer border between the two countries, noting that Tajikistan has jailed 800 officials in the last five years for involvement in the drug trade. Three French Mirage 2000 fighter jets and 250 servicemen arrived in Tajikistan, boosting the French contingent in that country to 400. Russian Aluminum (Rusal) announced that it has begun the $50 million first stage of its project to construct the Roghun hydroelectric power station, which will eventually provide power for aluminum-production facilities Rusal plans to build in the country. A court in Khujand sentenced nine women to prison terms ranging from five to 10 years for membership in the banned extremist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov continued his signature series of ministerial sackings, dispatching Deputy Prime Minister and Textiles Minister Dorguly Aidogliev for alleged "serious flaws in his work and abuse of office." Aidogliev's replacement as textiles minister is Yklymberdy Paromov. Elsewhere, Niyazov announced that he has approved the construction of a seismological station near the Turkmen-Iranian border to monitor underground nuclear tests.

Erkin Vagapov, deputy chairman of state-owned Uzbek oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz, announced that Uzbekistan has agreed in principle to sell gas to Russia on the basis of a long-term contract with a price based on a formula that reflects tendencies on the international market. For its part, state-controlled Russian gas company Gazprom announced that it plans to expand the throughput capacity of the Central Asia-Center pipeline through Uzbekistan from 50 billion to 70 billion cubic meters a year. President Islam Karimov issued a resolution creating a financial intelligence service. The Justice Ministry shut down the Kokand and Ferghana branches of U.S.-based NGO Central Asian Free Exchange (CAFE) after a court ruled that CAFE representatives engaged in illegal proselytizing in the two cities. And an unconfirmed report indicated that former Defense Minister Qodir Ghulomov may appear before a military court in connection with offences he is alleged to have committed during his tenure as minister, which ended with his removal in November 2005.

ANALYSIS: UZBEKISTAN'S NEW FRIENDS Uzbekistan's relations with the West went into limbo after Uzbek security services responded with overwhelming force to quell violently an uprising and subsequent demonstration in Andijon on May 12-13, 2005. In a multipronged diplomatic offensive to head off isolation, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has made concerted efforts over the past year to forge closer ties with Russia, China, South Korea, India, and Pakistan.

Speaking in Tashkent on May 9 at a ceremony to commemorate the Soviet victory in World War II, President Karimov listed the countries that are now the highest priorities for Uzbekistan's foreign policy, UzA reported.

"We have signed an alliance treaty with Russia," he said. "Moreover, our people, and particularly our young people, need to realize that our agreements to deepen friendly, mutual cooperation with such great nations as China, South Korea, India, and Pakistan represent major steps on Uzbekistan's path toward stability and progress."

Signaling Change

Karimov was expanding on comments he made on May 25, 2005, in the immediate aftermath of the bloody events in Andijon.

Speaking in Tashkent before his departure for a visit to China -- where Karimov would enjoy a warm reception against a backdrop of Western calls for an international investigation of reports that Uzbek security forces perpetrated a massacre in Andijon -- the Uzbek president touted burgeoning relations with Russia, an upcoming visit to Uzbekistan by India's president, good ties with South Korea and, of course, planned agreements with China promising, according to Karimov, up to $1.5 billion in Chinese investments in Uzbekistan within five years.

The visit to China -- which resulted in an agreement on a $600 million oil joint venture and came as an important symbolic statement that Western condemnation would not isolate Uzbekistan -- was only the beginning of an Uzbek foreign-policy push along the lines Karimov suggested in his remarks before he left for Beijing.

Russia...And Friends

The most prominent example of Uzbekistan's push for post-Andijon friends is, of course, Russia. In November 2005, Russia and Uzbekistan signed a treaty that provides for mutual military assistance in the event of "aggression." State-controlled Russian gas company Gazprom and Kremlin-friendly oil company LUKoil have committed themselves to billion-dollar deals in Uzbekistan's energy sector. Most recently, Gazprom announced that it plans to expand the throughput capacity of the Central Asia-Center pipeline, which runs through Uzbekistan, from 50 billion to some 70 billion cubic meters a year.

The current year has witnessed Uzbek initiatives to boost ties with Pakistan, South Korea, and India.

In late March, Karimov visited South Korea. South Korea is the largest investor in the Uzbek economy, RFE/RL reported on March 28, but mixed experiences in Uzbekistan in recent years have led South Korean companies to look elsewhere. Karimov's visit -- which was apparently intended to restore South Korean investors' confidence -- bore modest fruit in the form a memorandum of understanding for South Korea's National Oil Corporation and Korea Gas Corporation to explore and possibly develop two oil and two gas fields in Uzbekistan.

In late April, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to Uzbekistan, the first such visit by an Indian premier in over a decade. India's Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas and GAIL, a state-run gas company, signed a memorandum of understanding to conduct oil and gas exploration in Uzbekistan.

Karimov stressed that Uzbekistan "is ready to allocate geological territory to Indian companies to explore the resource of gas, oil, and other hydrocarbons." Less than two weeks later, UPI reported that GAIL and Uzbekistan's Uzbekneftegaz will work together to build facilities in Uzbekistan to produce liquefied petroleum gas. The report did not say how many facilities are planned, but it noted that they will cost $50 million-$60 million each and have a production capacity of 100,000 tons per year.

Pushing Non-Interference

In early May, Karimov visited Pakistan for the first time in 14 years. The trip did not produce any bombshell agreements, but it represented a significant step forward for ties that have been largely dormant in recent years. In a symbolic gesture, Karimov expressed support for Pakistan's bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan).

The SCO espouses an approach to multilateral relations Uzbekistan now finds much to its liking: business ties cemented by ruling elites who have accepted a particular principle of noninterference in each other's internal affairs. In practice, this means that elites do business with each other with a pointed lack of attention to the issues of democratic governance and human rights that have so soured Karimov's relations with the West. It is this principle that now underpins Uzbekistan's foreign policy and relations with the countries it counts as friends. (By Daniel Kimmage. Originally published on May 23)

CENTRAL ASIA: RIGHTS GROUP SAYS REGION SUFFERING AFTER ANDIJON Human rights watchdog Amnesty International says in its annual report released on May 23 that the May 2005 bloodshed in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon defined the overall human-rights situation in Central Asia in 2005. Some of the region's governments tightened the screws amid the international community's slow, uncoordinated, and inconsequential response to the bloody events in Andijon.

The repression of dissent; torture, ill-treatment in detention facilities, unfair trials, official impunity, flawed elections, and human trafficking are nothing new for Central Asia.

But Amnesty International's report says the situation in the region has actually gotten worse since Uzbek troops "allegedly killed hundreds of unarmed men, women, and children when they fired indiscriminately and without warning on a crowd in the eastern city of Andijon" in May 2005.

'Still No Justice'

"We saw the resurgence of old-style repression in places like Uzbekistan," said Amnesty Secretary-General Irene Khan. "We have just marked the first anniversary of the Andijon massacre, and there is still no justice for the victims there."

Rights watchdogs say hundreds fell victim to the government's brutal handling of demonstrators in Andijon, while Uzbek authorities insist that 187 mostly "foreign-paid terrorists" died in what they labeled an "antigovernment mutiny."

Judit Arenas, Amnesty International's spokeswoman, told RFE/RL that Amnesty is concerned about the international community's response to the Andijon killings.

"I think the big problem is that the West has intervened in the situation in Uzbekistan too little and too late," Arenas said. "For many years, Uzbekistan was considered [the West's] strategic ally. We saw how after [the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States], [a] strategic decision on the air bases that they held made the Western governments -- especially the U.S. -- turn a blind eye [to] a human rights record that had been dire for many years."

Arenas says the United States condemned the Andijon killings and took a firm stance only after official Tashkent evicted U.S. troops from an air base in southern Uzbekistan. Washington and Brussels demanded an independent investigation into the killings. The Uzbek government rejected the calls and has blocked all but official reports of the killings. The EU imposed an arms embargo and one-year visa ban for 12 top Uzbek security officials.

Russia And China Side With Tashkent

Meanwhile, Arenas says some countries endorsed the Uzbek government's brutal tactics toward protesters.

"[A] serious political message has actually been sent out to the Uzbek authorities that this kind of repression is OK," Arenas said. "We've heard how Russia and China have continued to support the Uzbek authorities and that's something that simply must not be allowed to continue."

The stance by Moscow and Beijing sent a mixed signal throughout Central Asia.

The Amnesty International report states that following the Andijon killings, hundreds of protesters were ill treated and intimidated. Journalists, opposition members, and human rights activists were harassed, beaten, and detained in Uzbekistan.

Regional Ramifications

That, the group's report says, has had serious repercussions in the whole region.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan had to deal with the flow of Uzbek refugees following the Andijon uprising. More than 400 refugees were flown from Kyrgyzstan to European countries, while other asylum seekers and refugees risked detention and forcible return. Kyrgyzstan returned four Uzbeks to Uzbekistan in June. The Uzbek security service even pursued some asylum-seekers onto Kyrgyz territory, in some cases with the cooperation of Kyrgyz authorities.

Kazakhstan also cooperated with Uzbek authorities in November when it returned at least eight Uzbeks accused of membership of a banned Islamic organization.

Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan

The Amnesty report says Turkmenistan failed to halt human rights violations. Religious minorities, civil society activists, journalists, and relatives of dissidents have faced harassment and imprisonment or were forced into exile. At least 60 prisoners -- jailed for an alleged assassination attempt against President Saparmurat Niyazov in 2002 -- remain incommunicado.

In Tajikistan, Amnesty recorded torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officers. In most cases, the organization's report says, no investigation was conducted and the perpetrators enjoyed impunity.

The Amnesty International report states that Tajikistan's parliamentary polls in February 2005 and Kazakhstan's presidential election last December fell short of international standards with authorities rigging the election results.

In both countries, opposition members and independent journalists faced harassment and intimidation. Kazakh authorities also shut down an opposition party, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, prominent opposition leader Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov was granted an early release from prison last December.

Amnesty spokeswoman Arenas says Central Asia in general suffered from a lack of attention from the international community while authoritarian leaders in the region tightened their grips on power.

"One of the key messages we are promoting at the moment is the fact that the war on terror has essentially allowed a lot of repressive governments to continue unchecked because the international focus has simply been diverted elsewhere," she said. "And I think that's definitely the case for Turkmenistan, where a lot of trials are actually held in secrecy. Unfair trials have been taking place for a very long time and we don't even know how many people have actually been sentenced or for how long."

In Afghanistan, the lack of security remains the biggest challenge. Arenas says President Hamid Karzai's government benefited from the international community's aid in recent years, but the situation in the country remains precarious.

"The situation in Afghanistan remains very unstable and the government and its international partners have actually not been able to provide security to the people," Arenas said. "We know that the country is greatly fractioned. We know that there are areas where women still continue to be very much at risk. And this climate of [a] lack of public security and rule of law has actually allowed many problems to continue unchecked."

The Amnesty report says flaws in the administration of justice remain a key source of human rights violations in Afghanistan. The legal process is hampered by corruption, the influence of armed groups, a lack of oversight mechanisms, the nonpayment of salaries, and inadequate infrastructure. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova. Originally published on May 23)

TAJIKISTAN: LONE ISLAMIC PARTY PURSUES DUAL PATH TO CHALLENGE INCUMBENT Tajikistan's only officially registered Islamic political party is working on two fronts ahead of the presidential election slated for November. The opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRP) is seeking to unseat the entrenched incumbent, President Imomali Rakhmonov. It hopes to do so by attracting Muslim voters while at the same time distancing itself from the radicalism of banned Islamic groups in the region.

President Rakhmonov has pursued an effective divide-and-conquer strategy that has left many opposition parties crippled or drawn into uneasy partnerships with the presidential party. The result is fierce competition among Islamic-rooted groups as they seek to capitalize on the weakness of the staunch secular opposition.

Even the IRP -- the only sanctioned Islamic party -- stands little chance of defeating Rakhmonov and his powerful People's Democratic Party in November. But a senior leader of the IRP in the northern Soghd Province, Salohiddin Husainzoda, says the party is not ready to concede. He insists the IRP -- who last year claimed a membership of 20,000 -- is gaining strength.

"After the signing of the [1997] peace accord, the Islamic Renaissance Party managed to prove itself as a viable political party. With each day, we attract more members to our party," Husainzoda says.

Waxing Or Waning?

The IRP was part of an antigovernment coalition during Tajikistan's civil war in 1992-97. When the fighting stopped, the party spent several years as a member of the governing coalition. But those alliances dissolved long ago, leaving behind a fractious opposition.

The IRP was strong and confident enough to field Rakhmonov's only opponent in the 1999 presidential election. But since then, the IRP has not fared so well -- evidenced by flagging support in the 2000 and 2005 elections.

But the IRP is prepared to go it alone. Party activist Dodojon Yakubov hints at a strategy to leverage the IRP's unique status in this predominantly Muslim country of 6 million. And he says they aren't looking for campaign allies.

"In the [presidential] election that will be held in November, the leadership of the Islamic Renaissance Party has decided that we will participate [alone]," Yakubov says. "That way, we hope the people of Tajikistan -- who are mostly Muslims [and] who are educated -- will support our party in presidential election."

Walking The Line

But there is a risk to relying too heavily on Islamic credentials in a region where governments are aggressive about suppressing Muslim extremism. Critics charge that authorities here use such fear as a pretext to crack down on legitimate political dissent.

IRP members claim that they are harassed and intimidated by local authorities in Soghd Province. Police have been known to turn up at meetings of the IRP's female membership -- not to check passports -- but to discourage political activism.

One IRP member in Khujand, Mohiniso Ochilova, likened the officials' actions to arrests and scare tactics employed against the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Islamist Rivals

Ironically, Hizb ut-Tahrir and other radical Islamic groups present the IRP with a challenge of their own. While it has complained about the inclusion of the word "secular" in the country's constitution, the IRP's stated agenda is for democratic reform with a more prominent role for religion in Tajik politics.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, on the other hand, advocates the replacement of secular governments with an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia. It is banned throughout most of the region. But it still recruits in the region -- and IRP officials claim that Hizb ut-Tahrir has sought to undermine their party's activities for years.

IRP's Soghd Province leader Husainzoda accuses the Hizb ut-Tahrir of waging a campaign to discredit his party among the public.

"Ever since Hizb ut-Tahrir became active [in Tajikistan], it became obvious that they disliked us to some extent. We heard that they were spreading rumors about us," Husainzoda says.

IRP activist Yakubov echoes sentiments expressed by a number of his party colleagues about Hizb ut-Tahrir.

"Firstly, Hizb ut-Tahrir is a foreign party -- so they have no right to work in our society. Secondly, their platform runs counter to the Tajik Constitution," Yakubov says.

'We're Not Them'

Soghd Province leader Husainzoda argues that the IRP presents Tajiks with a useful alternative to the Islamist agenda of Hizb ut-Tahrir. He says that fact should please Tajik officials.

"In some areas -- in those regions where groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir and others are active -- we cannot create a strong presence," Husainzoda says. "But in those areas where the Islamic Renaissance Party has a strong presence, there is no sign of Hizb ut-Tahrir or any other illegal groups."

Familiar Faces?

The IRP has not yet anointed its choice to challenge President Rakhmonov. But that is not unusual in the region, since political challengers have a habit of attracting particular attention from prosecutors -- often landing in jail or fleeing into exile as a result.

IRP party leader and cleric Said Abdullo Nuri remains an influential figure on the Tajik scene. He signed the 1997 peace accord on behalf of the rebel coalition. But he is currently facing slander charges over his recent allegations of official corruption at a public utility.

Soghd Province leader Husainzoda says the announcement of the IRP's candidate will have to wait until a party congress in August or September.

"A presidential election will take place this year, and as one of the country's independent and powerful parties, we will field a candidate," Husainzoda says. "It is still our party's secret. But we will reveal our candidate before the election."

That person's chances of upsetting the status quo in November could depend on whether the IRP can successfully present itself as a moderate Islamic voice -- and steer clear of official obstacles. (By Bruce Pannier. Originally published on May 19)