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Central Asia Report: August 4, 2006

August 4, 2006, Volume 6, Number 23

WEEK AT A GLANCE (July 24-30, 2006). A rocket carrying what would have been Belarus's first satellite into orbit crashed after liftoff in Kazakhstan. On hand to observe the launch, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka "stoically accepted the blow of fate," in the words of a Russian space agency official. Kazakhstan began an investigation. Kazakhstan and Russia concluded agreements to join forces on uranium enrichment, mining, and reactor development, with three joint ventures valued at a total of $10 billion planned. A police officer who received burns over 70 percent of his body in a clash over unauthorized construction in an Almaty suburb died from his wounds. Bolat Abilov, head of the Naghyz Ak Zhol opposition party, received a three-year suspended jail term and a three-year travel ban for insulting a police officer. General John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, visited Kazakhstan, telling a news conference in Astana that the United States does not plan to set up new military bases in the region. And U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns told a business forum in the Kazakh capital that the United States supports Kazakhstan's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Kyrgyzstan's task force on constitutional reform finished its work. The three new draft constitutions it produced -- prescribing presidential, parliamentary, and presidential-parliamentary forms of government, respectively -- envision a 75-member parliament with 50 deputies elected on party slates and 25 in single-mandate constituencies. All 75 deputies are currently elected on single mandates. The drafts would also change the status of Russian from an official language to a language of interethnic communication. Prime Minister Feliks Kulov warned that a recent accident at the Kumor gold mine could reduce the country's 2006 GDP by nearly $120 million. And President Kurmanbek Bakiev issued a statement saying that he and Uzbek President Islam Karimov have agreed to join forces to fight terrorism and extremism with better coordination between the two countries' security services.

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov hosted Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Rakhmonov, and Ahmedinejad opened the Iranian-funded Anzob tunnel and hailed deepening ties between the two countries. Ahmadinejad proposed the establishment of a Persian-language television network to broadcast to Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan. Elsewhere, Tajikistan and the World Bank signed agreements for three grant projects totaling $20 million to reduce poverty, reform the state sector, and prevent avian flu.

Ahmedinejad also visited Turkmenistan, where he held two rounds of talks with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. The two agreed to set up a joint task force, which will now take a month to develop proposals for Iran's future gas purchases from Turkmenistan. Iran is set to buy 8 billion cubic meters of Turkmen natural gas in 2006 and 14 billion cubic meters in 2007.

A report indicated that Uzbekistan is considering raising the price of the natural gas it sells Russia from the current $60 to $100-$120 per 1,000 cubic meters. Russia's Gazprom is slated to buy 9 billion cubic meters of gas from Uzbekistan at $60 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2006. The World Bank, which suspended new loans to Uzbekistan in March, will resume lending under an interim strategy of "continued engagement" over the next 12-15 months. And a civil court in Tashkent ruled to close the Uzbek offices of U.S.-based agricultural NGO Winrock International for activities that did not correspond to its charter.

UZBEKISTAN: FATE OF ANDIJON RETURNEES UNKNOWN. Twelve Uzbeks from Andijon who resettled in the United States with UN refugee status returned to Uzbekistan in mid-July. Their fate is not known. Uzbek authorities said their return was voluntary. But human rights groups and UN officials are concerned about their plight. Meanwhile, other Andijon refugees seem to be willing to follow their compatriots back home.

The names, gender, and other details of the 12 refugees who returned to Uzbekistan are unknown.

Andrea Berg, who heads Human Rights Watch's (HRW) office in Tashkent, tells RFE/RL that she has not been able to learn anything about the 12 since they returned.

Current Status Unknown

"I don't know anything about them. I just can tell you that when it happened, big articles were posted on the websites of the [Uzbek] government and the Foreign Ministry," she said. "They wrote in red letters that 12 people returned with the assistance of the [Uzbek] embassy and so on. Half a day later, all articles disappeared from the Internet."

Berg adds that she cannot contact anyone in Andijon as there are virtually no human rights activists or independent journalists remaining in the city. "If I travel there and contact ordinary people, I put them at great risk," she says.

RFE/RL spoke to an Uzbek refugee who has lived in southern Kyrgyzstan since he fled Andijon after the bloody events of May 13, 2005, in which hundreds of people are reported to have been killed.

The man asks to be introduced as Maqsud. He tells RFE/RL that he personally knows five women and two men from the 12 returnees.

Maqsud, who has regular contact with his relatives in Andijon, says they tell him that the returnees' family and neighbors were happy to see them when they returned.

Initial Reports Positive

"As I heard, there was joy in our neighborhood when they came back," Maqsud said. "There were no difficulties. I talked to people who went to see them. There was not a single word about [their past]. Especially [the returned] women were happy."

Maqsud says that the husbands of the four female returnees have been in jail in Uzbekistan. He says the women might have another reason to be happy.

"[Their husbands] were arrested after the events of the 13th [of May 2005]," he added. "They have not been tried or sentenced yet. But there is information [that family members] received that says they will be released by September."

Maqsud also says that some of the refugees' children who were left in Andijon were often too poor to attend school, and didn't receive a social allowance from the government. Now, he says, Uzbek authorities have resumed the monthly payments and some of the kids can now go to school.

Such information, if accurate, could affect the decisions of other refugees abroad. Maqsud, who was recently granted UN refugee status and is awaiting resettlement in a third country, tells RFE/RL that he has begun having second thoughts about going to Europe.

Many Happy Returns?

Meanwhile, some of the other Andijon refugees also seem keen to follow the 12.

On June 27, a group of Uzbek refugees in Germany wrote an open letter to Uzbek President Islam Karimov saying they want to return home.

One of the refugees that has resettled in the United States told RFE/RL that many Uzbeks are determined to return to Andijon. At least 150 were resettled in the United States. "Some of [the ones that want to go back] are relatives of the 12. They are [already] buying presents for their close relatives left in Uzbekistan," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

However, human rights groups and refugee officials are warning Uzbek refugees about the risk of returning.

Goran Debelnogich, a resettlement services coordinator for a refugee and immigration agency called the International Institute of Akron, deals with Andijon refugees in Ohio. He tells RFE/RL that the refugees are at risk if they return to their country of origin.

Uzbek Officials' Assurance

"We only heard that there are family members from Uzbekistan telling them that things are good -- I guess, on the advice of the Uzbek government -- that they should return home," he said. "Usually, the governments -- because of public perception -- they probably would want them [to come] back. The thing is that we don't know what the consequences are [once they return]. We are not sure if [these people telling them to come back] on the instructions of the government or just families wanting them back. Is it safe, secure?"

HRW's Andrea Berg says some refugees have serious concerns about their family members left behind in Uzbekistan -- just like the four women returnees whose husbands are in prison.

"When someone sits in a prison [in Uzbekistan], he or she needs help from relatives because every month prisoners are allowed to receive 12 kilograms of clothing, food, and hygienic products like toothpaste," he said. "If relatives are abroad, there is no one to bring these things to prison, and an inmate is left with nothing. Many [refugees] are aware of this hard situation and therefore they want to return."

Debelnogich says that the U.S. authorities -- through the embassy in Tashkent -- are helping Uzbeks bring their family members to the United States. He also says that Uzbeks in the United States as well as their relatives in Andijon should feel secure about the process as Uzbek authorities are not a part of it.

The Uzbeks who fled Andijon first sought refuge in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and, with the assistance of the UN refugee agency, 439 of them were flown to Romania and subsequently given political asylum in the United States, Canada, Australia, and various European countries.

Uzbek authorities wanted them sent back from Kyrgyzstan, saying some of them had committed grave crimes or terrorist acts in Uzbekistan. Human rights groups said the refugees were likely to face prosecution and possibly torture if they returned home.

The Uzbek Embassy in Washington assisted the 12 Uzbeks in returning home. Russia's Regnum news agency quoted an unnamed source at the Uzbek Foreign Ministry as saying on July 17 that Uzbek authorities considered the refugees' request to return home and concluded that those people were not involved in "terrorist attacks in Andijon." The statement said: "It was proved that they were deceived and taken outside the country."

Amnesty International's Maureen Greenwood-Basken wrote to RFE/RL last week saying that "the quick and secretive nature of their return raises suspicions." She added that Amnesty has "concerns about ongoing pressure on the other Uzbeks now in the country." (By Gulnoza Saidazimova. Originally published on August 1, 2006.)

KYRGYZSTAN: VICTIMS OF 1916 'URKUN' TRAGEDY COMMEMORATED. Ninety years ago, tens of thousands of Kyrgyz died during a revolt against Russian Tsarist forces and a mass flight to escape to China. The events are known in Kyrgyzstan as "Urkun" ("exodus").

On August 3, a group of people planned to descend from the mountains of northeastern Kyrgyzstan where they buried the bones of those who succumbed to the elements during that 1916 flight to China. With Kyrgyz officials and local residents, the group organized a commemoration feast in the village of Barskoon, on the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul.

By some accounts, nearly half the Kyrgyz from the northern part of the country died during Urkun. Even the lowest estimates put the death toll at more than 100,000 people.

Uprising Brutally Suppressed

The group leaving the mountains this week buried the remains of some of the thousands of people who died fleeing Tsarist forces in 1916 at the Bedel border post near the Kyrgyz-Chinese border on July 30.

History professor Tynchtykbek Tchoroev (Chorotegin), who is also the director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, is the author of a book on Urkun.

"Already forced off prime farming land by newcomers from Russia and Ukraine, the population finally revolted in 1916," Tchoroev says. "The main reason was a call for men in Russia's Central Asian colonies to serve in the Tsarist army fighting in World War I under the Russian flag. The war in Europe was a strange and unnecessary conflict for the local [Central Asian] nations. The uprising broke out across Central Asia and was brutally put down."

Into The Mountains

In the eastern part of what was then Russian Turkestan, tens of thousands of Kyrgyz and Kazakhs who were not killed in the fighting fled toward China. Having escaped the bullets of Tsarist troops -- those fleeing came up against a more formidable obstacle in the Tien-Shan (Tengir-Too) Mountains.

There, they died by the thousands in mountain passes more than 3,000 meters high. It is the bones of some of these people that were buried on 30 July.

Burkan Zulkainarov is a member of the Asaba Party, one of the initiators of the trip into the mountains to retrieve and bury the remains.

"From the Bedel Pass -- which is 4,000 meters above sea level -- to the Chinese border a river flows whose banks are covered with human bones," he says. "I was shocked. In Soviet times, there was a military garrison there and, as we were told, soldiers from Muslim [Soviet] republics were never taken in there."

Forgotten Tragedy

Neither was the tragedy covered in Soviet-era history books.

Some Kyrgyz scholars, such as the late professor Kushbek Usonbaev, tried to publish research about Urkun during Soviet times, but the communist authorities in Kyrgyzstan did not appreciate their efforts. A monograph by Usonbaev was removed from publication in the early 1980s.

It was only in 1991, the last days of the Soviet Union, that people in Kyrgyzstan could openly take an interest in Urkun. Some did so immediately.

Well-known Kyrgyz politician Jypar Jeksheev was one of them, and he told RFE/RL about the first commemoration of the Urkun in 1991, before the Soviet Union collapsed.

"That was the 75th anniversary," Jeksheev says. "We gathered in the village of Asylbash [in the Sokuluk district of the Chui region] from where many of the people in 1916 left. There were about 70 people, and they held a meeting and after the meeting there was a march to Issyk-Kul -- the 'Journey of Life.'"

In July 1991, the group marched toward the Soviet-Chinese borders in two directions (in the Issyk-Kul and Naryn regions), the destination of survivors in 1916.

Trying To Understand

Historian Toktorbek Omurbekov, the dean of the history faculty of the Kyrgyz National University, has researched Urkun. He told RFE/RL that there are still opportunities to learn more about the revolt and the flight through the mountains from first-hand sources.

"Now, there are still people who are 90 or 100 years old and can tell the tale of the bloody events in the Chui region," Omurbekov says. "[These events] are not recorded in any books. Only now are they talking about the massacre."

The word "massacre" -- and even "genocide" -- is increasingly on the lips of people in Kyrgyzstan when they remember Urkun. It is a difficult issue, as times have changed greatly since 1916. Today there is still a sizeable ethnic Russian population in Kyrgyzstan, and the Kyrgyz government is anxious to keep them there.

But there are some, like journalist Toktorbai Bekturganov, who believe an official apology from Moscow is needed.

"[Russian President Vladimir] Putin himself, recently in St. Petersburg, said every people has a sovereign democracy," Bekturganov says. "If we take this at face value, then Russia should apologize and put up a monument that says 'Forgive us.'"

Others, like prominent Kyrgyz playwright Mar Baijiev, say 1916 is a long time ago and while the event should not be forgotten, it should also be remembered that both sides suffered losses during the fighting in 1916.

"I think that we would be one-sided if we said Russia committed a massacre," Baijiev says. "There is such a tendency [to do so], but in fact we are guilty also. It seems that Tsarist Russia didn't want to send our men to war, but to send them to tend to the animals [used by the army] and provide support [for troops at the front]. I think it's a tragedy, but a historical mistake also."

A Time Of Remembrance

Jypar Jeksheev, without casting blame on anyone for Urkun, said it remains an important event in the history of the Kyrgyz people and deserves some special and official attention.

"If historians could pick one specific date, then we should mark that date as one in which hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz died," Jeksheev says. "There should be ceremonies and that date should be noted in the constitution."

Kyrgyz historians stress that the issue is not a reason for an anti-Russian sentiment, because Russian liberals like Aleksandr Kerensky -- the head of the provisional Russian government from February to October 1917 -- and some Russian historians, were the first to bring attention to these massacres.

Viktor Chernomorets, an ethnic Russian politician in Kyrgyzstan, was among those who marched in 1991 toward the Kyrgyz (then Soviet)-Chinese border to commemorate the heroes of the 1916 uprising and victims of the massacre and flight.

Independence Bid

During the 1916 revolt, in at least two regions of Kyrgyzstan (Kemin and Kochkor), the local lords proclaimed themselves khans (leaders of sovereign states). Even though their attempts failed, it showed that the local regions were eager to use any opportunity to become independent of Tsarist Russia.

That is why local historians say the 1916 uprising was one of the engines that impelled the Soviet regime to create autonomous republics in the region. (By Bruce Pannier, with contributions by Venera Djumataeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. Originally published on August 2, 2006.)