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Central Asia Report: February 9, 2005

9 February 2005, Volume 5, Number 5

WEEK AT A GLANCE. The opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party vowed at a 31 January news conference that it will continue to hold demonstrations, even as it protested the detention of seven party members after an unsanctioned rally in Almaty on 29 January. The opposition newspaper "Soz" found itself facing a $38,500 payout after a court ruled that the newspaper libeled the National Security Committee (KNB) in an article that claimed the KNB was spying on the leaders of the opposition party Ak Zhol. And President Nursultan Nazarbaev blasted bloat in state-owned companies, banks, and large holdings companies at a 1 February cabinet meeting, charging that their numerous non-core assets hinder competition and stifle small business.

The Kyrgyz newspaper "MSN" confronted a legal wrangle as "Vechernii Bishkek" filed suit for over $100,000 in damages, claiming that "MSN" inaccurately alleged that President Askar Akaev's son-in-law controls "Vechernii Bishkek." On 2 February, campaigning officially kicked off for 27 February parliamentary elections, with 425 candidates competing for 75 seats in the country's new unicameral parliament. The same day, Topchubek Turgunaliev, leader of the opposition party Erkindik, announced that the opposition has started collecting signatures to impeach President Akaev. For his part, the president presented a new program called Clean Kyrgyzstan, extolling the benefits of clean technology, clean water, clean hands, clean elections, and a clean environment. The Kyrgyz NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society gathered 300 people in Bishkek on 5 February for a rally in support of free and fair elections, as an almost equal number of police closely monitored the demonstrators.

An apparent car bomb rocked Dushanbe on 1 February, killing the driver of the car, injuring four people, and lightly damaging the Emergency Situations Ministry. Some officials suggested that the blast may have been a terror attack, but shied away from further conclusions pending an investigation. For its part, the banned Islamist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir issued a denial of involvement. Tajikistan's six officially registered political parties concluded an agreement on "rules of conduct and mutual relations" in the lead-up to 27 February parliamentary elections. Russian Aluminum, which plans to invest over $1 billion into aluminum production in Tajikistan, announced that it is starting a feasibility study for completing the construction of the Roghun hydropower plant; the study is set to be done by October 2005. And President Imomali Rakhmonov made another move in an ongoing government reshuffle, dismissing Zokir Vazirov as deputy prime minister and appointing him minister of labor and social services, dismissing Mahmadshoh Ilolov as minister of labor and appointing him head of the Academy of Sciences, and removing Abdusattor Rajabov as deputy interior minister. He also named Mahmadamin Mahmadaminov chairman of Amonatbonk, the state savings bank, and issued a decree cutting 878 positions from the traffic police.

Turkmenistan's parliament held its first session since 19 December 2004 parliamentary elections, promptly pronouncing 2005 the "year of the 'Rukhnama,'" President Saparmurat Niyazov's spiritual guide for the Turkmen people. An official online newspaper criticized Azerbaijan for objecting to recent negotiations between Turkmenistan and Canada's Buried Hill Energy on the possible development of the disputed Serdar/Kyapaz Caspian oil field, claimed by both Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. And President Niyazov removed Justice Minister Taganmyrat Gochyev.

A small group of demonstrators in Uzbekistan donned orange on 1 February and took to the streets in an attempt to gain compensation for homes along the Uzbek-Kazakh border that were torn down to comply with a bilateral agreement that prohibits dwellings near the frontier. They won from Tashkent Governor Kozim Tulaganov a promise that a government commission would visit their village to assess property values for future compensation. At a meeting of the Uzbekistan-EU Cooperation Council in Brussels, Foreign Minister Sodiq Safoev promised that Uzbekistan will do away with the death penalty. President Islam Karimov signed a decree approving a new cabinet on 4 February. Safoev will head the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, and Elyor Ghaniev, formerly head of the Agency for Foreign Economic Ties, will take over as foreign minister. Buritosh Mustafoev, former head of the Central Election Commission, will become justice minister, as unofficial sources suggested that former Justice Minister Abdusamat Polvonzoda may soon head the Supreme Court.


By Daniel Kimmage

As Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan prepare for parliamentary elections on 27 February, information wars are heating up in both countries. The basic ammunition is the word, but battles go far beyond dueling declarations to include struggles for control over the means of generating and disseminating information. Tough tactics are the order of the day, with opposition newspapers facing legal travails, duplicate organizations springing up to sow confusion, and dubious leaks envenoming the atmosphere. But the real victim is the political process itself, which can easily lose its way in the fog of information war.

The first front in the information wars involves ideas, and it is often the meanings of words that are at issue. A hard-fought polemic over the meaning of the word "revolution" is underway in Kyrgyzstan, which many outside observers have suggested could the next candidate for political change in the emerging tradition of Ukraine's Orange Revolution or Georgia's Rose Revolution. Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev has made it his personal quest to explain that these were not true popular movements, but rather foreign-inspired coups, and that a repetition in Kyrgyzstan is a real and pressing danger. As the president put it at a cabinet meeting in Bishkek on 11 January, "The most dangerous thing is that our home-grown provocateurs now have qualified trainers who have learned how to coax from provocations the flame of revolutions of various colors," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. In an address to young people on 5 February, he depicted revolution as foreign contagion attacking the traditions of the Kyrgyz people. "I believe that the Kyrgyz people, with their ancient democratic culture, will demonstrate their immunity to the attempts by extremist forces advancing mercenary goals to infect the country with dangerous revolutionary viruses," he said, according to Kabar.

The opposition, careful to avoid the appearance of openly fomenting revolution yet intent on stressing that conditions are right for political change, has offered its own definition. When the BBC asked Roza Otunbaeva, the leader of the Ata-Jurt opposition movement, on 2 February whether Kyrgyzstan is "ripe for its own 'velvet,' 'rose,' or 'orange' revolution," she replied, "I believe that it is absolutely ready. But I would like to make a significant correction. We're not talking about a revolution, but about the peaceful, calm, and constitutional transfer of power in our country. Revolutions, which ordinary people associate with blood, theft, and looting, are not what took place in Tbilisi and Kyiv. And they won't happen here [in Kyrgyzstan]."

Another front in the information war involves the means of disseminating information. Television is far and away the most important medium, and in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the ruling elites have a firm grip on the airwaves. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, three television stations have significant broadcast range. The largest of them is state-controlled KTR. Another, KOORT, is controlled by Adil Toigonbaev, President Askar Akaev's son-in-law, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported on 10 September 2004. The third is Piramida-TV. In August 2004, only a few months before February 2005 parliamentary elections, a group called Areopag acquired a stake in the network. As Eurasianet reported on 28 August 2004, Areopag has a number of links to President Akaev's family and administration. In Tajikistan, state-run television predominates.

With television less contested, the dissemination front in the information war often shifts to print journalism. In Tajikistan, the independent weeklies "Ruzi Nav" and "Nerui Sukhan" have experienced a host of difficulties since the tax police shuttered their printing house in August 2004. Further run-ins with the tax police ensued, despite an international outcry. At one point, the staff of "Ruzi Nav" even printed up an issue of the newspaper in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, although Tajik tax police impounded it when it arrived in Dushanbe in November. Most recently, tax police confiscated an issue of "Ruzi Nav" in late January. In Kyrgyzstan, the newspaper "MSN" now faces a defamation lawsuit from a rival newspaper involving damages in excess of $100,000. The lawsuit, and possible criminal charges against the newspaper in connection with an earlier regulatory dispute, led the opposition People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan to appeal to President Akaev on 1 February, charging that the authorities "want to close 'MSN'...on the threshold of parliamentary and presidential elections," "RFE/RL Newsline" reported on 2 February.

Yet another front in the information war involves the actual generators of information -- political parties and organizations. The aims here range from confusion to usurpation, and an important tactic is the splitting of existing organizations or the creation of duplicate structures. In Tajikistan, the Socialist Party has split into two factions. When the faction led by Abduhalim Ghafforov, an Education Ministry official, held a party conference in June 2004, the faction led by Mirhuseyn Nazriev protested that the split was a state-sponsored attempt to divide and demolish the opposition party, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 21 July 2004. The Central Election Commission's eventual decision to recognize the Ghafforov-led faction and approve its party slate for inclusion in parliamentary elections would appear to lend credence to Nazriev's claim.

The Kyrgyz student organization Kel-Kel provides a textbook example of cloning. Kel-Kel arose in mid-January amid protests over a district election commission's refusal to register opposition leader Roza Otunbaeva's candidacy for parliamentary elections. Kel-Kel did not associate itself with any particular party, but billed itself as an organization to defend electoral and civil rights. Almost immediately, however, another organization appeared calling itself Kel-Kel, using the same color schemes and logos, and even involving leaders with the same last names, IWPR reported on 28 January. As IWPR noted, the second Kel-Kel is pro-government; it has echoed President Akaev's anti-revolutionary rhetoric in its condemnation of "velvet revolutions" and "hysterical demonstrations."

The final front in the information wars is disinformation, or compromising materials, usually of unclear provenance and purpose. Two outstanding examples have appeared in Kyrgyzstan in recent months. The first is an alleged action plan penned in September 2004 Bolot Januzakov, deputy head of the presidential administration; it lays out clandestine measures for monitoring the political situation in Kyrgyzstan in the run-up to parliamentary elections, including surveillance of NGOs that maintain contacts with the opposition. The second is an alleged transcript of a secret meeting in late 2004, with Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev crudely admonishing officials to "liquidate" nettlesome opposition politicians. The documents first surfaced in the Internet, and both officials have vigorously denied their authenticity.

Purported "smoking guns," which are almost always unverifiable, usually give rise to myriad interpretations. The individuals impugned cry foul and allege defamation. Their opponents, caught between an unwillingness to embrace possibly tainted materials and a suspicion that the compromising material may contain a grain of truth, revel in complexities. In an article in "MSN" on 15 January, Rina Prizhivoit, a staunch critic of President Akaev and his government, opined that Akaev's political advisers may have cooked up the "Tanaev transcript" "to show the firmness and decisiveness of the president, who defends democracy and the law, against the backdrop of the outrageous excesses that Nikolai Tanaev has blessed his underlings to carry out. And they did it expressly so that all of Kyrgyzstan's independent media would publish it." But Prizhivoit allows that the transcript might also represent an attempt to portray Tanaev "as an idiot and a criminal, so that there would be someone to blame for 'unacceptable' methods of combating the opposition."

In the end, compromising materials and disinformation sully the political process itself more than any concrete individuals. For while they leave analysts guessing at sources and motives, they exert a disheartening effect on the real participants in the political process -- voters, who are left to blunder about in a haze of insinuation. But if the fog is thickest on the disinformation front, it is also considerable on the front of information generation as well. The fight for control over information dissemination, where most of the battles have gone to ruling elites, forms a further impediment to the political process. Taken together, the shifting fronts of the information war greatly reduce the possibility of a fair fight on the front that is supposed to matter most -- the one that involves ideas.


By Antoine Blua

Ak Zhol (Bright Way) was the only opposition party to win a seat in parliament in September's elections in Kazakhstan. The poll was widely criticized as rigged, yet the results failed to generate much of a public outcry. In an effort to increase their chances in future elections, three opposition parties the following month founded the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces of Kazakhstan. Some opposition parties have also come together in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which will both hold parliamentary elections later this month.

Kazakhstan's opposition Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces said last week it is setting up a working group to devise the principles of a new national movement, For a Just Kazakhstan. Ak Zhol party co-Chairman Altynbek Sarsenbaev is a member of the council. He explained to RFE/RL that it is necessary to step up efforts to consolidate and unite what he calls "all the progressive forces" in Kazakhstan.

"First, we created our coordinating council. The main purpose of the council was to prepare a package of documents for our big program. The council successfully finished the document in just a short time. This document is a draft for our country's new constitution. One of our main aims is to create a common democratic movement, so that the country's democratic forces will have more influence on society," Sarsenbaev said.

The council includes Ak Zhol, the Communist Party, and the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK). Their leaders have also said they were ready to choose a single candidate to run in the 2007 presidential election.

Professor Bhavna Dave is a specialist in Central Asian affairs who teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She said that in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of which are due to hold parliamentary elections on 27 February, opposition groups have also realized they have to come together in order to gain strength. "There's certainly a realization, after having seen what happened in Ukraine and earlier in Georgia, that the opposition has to pull together its resources and people to fight against the regimes. And there are some efforts being made in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to gear up for elections," Dave said. Late last year, peaceful protests in Ukraine led to opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko being elected president. In 2003, Georgia's bloodless Rose Revolution toppled former President Eduard Shevardnadze.

In Kyrgyzstan, the opposition is aiming to obtain a majority of seats in parliament this month, in the hopes of influencing the outcome of the presidential race in October, from which the incumbent, Askar Akaev, is constitutionally barred. In order to raise the opposition's public profile in Kyrgyzstan, three blocs appeared on the country' political scene last fall -- the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, Jany Bagyt (New Direction), and Ata-Jurt (Fatherland).

Natalia Ablova is the director of the Kyrgyz-American Bureau for Humans Rights and Rule of Law in Bishkek. She told RFE/RL that leaders from the three movements earlier this year signed a memorandum pledging to work together to ensure that parliamentary elections are free and fair. "The opposition is very diverse, but they all understood the necessity to get united. And they signed an agreement to support each other's candidates during the current electoral campaign. This is unprecedented, that the leaders put aside their own ambitions and decide to work together to achieve the main objective of the day: to get more seats in the parliament," Ablova said.

Four opposition parties in Tajikistan have also come together ahead of parliamentary elections. The coalition For Just and Transparent Elections comprises the Islamic Renaissance Party, the Social-Democrat Party, the Socialist Party, and the Democratic Party. Rahmatulloh Valiev, the Democratic Party's deputy head, told RFE/RL, "The existing election law does not guarantee a free and fair election process. That's why the coalition will dispatch monitors in each polling station."

Dave said these moves in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are just initial steps. She said the unity and solidarity of the countries' oppositions depend on internal factors, including factional rivalry. More fundamentally, she added, Central Asia's opposition remains fragmented and divided because of what she called "compelling systemic factors." "The ruling regimes deliberately divide the opposition, coerce them, buy off influential people to sideline them, and generally make life quite difficult for opposition leaders," Dave said.

In Kazakhstan last month, a court authorized the liquidation of the opposition DVK party for anticonstitutional activities. One of its leaders, Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, has been in prison since 2002. Also in jail is Feliks Kulov, the head of Kyrgyzstan's most popular opposition party, Ar Namys (Dignity).

More recently, five former Kyrgyz diplomats had their parliamentary candidacies rejected because they had not resided continuously in the country during the last five years. Opposition supporters say the decision was politically motivated.

Tajik Democratic Party leader Mahmadruzi Iskandarov was also denied registration for the upcoming elections after a criminal case was opened against him.

The Tajik Central Election Commission has also refused to register candidates from the opposition Socialist Party. The party was split in 2003 when its Dushanbe branch elected a government official as chairman. This election was seen as an attempt to weaken the party ahead of the parliamentary polls.

Authorities in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have also regularly refused to register any genuine opposition parties or candidates.

(Originally published on 8 February 2005; Farangis Najibullah of RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Yerzhan Karabekov of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)


By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Ukraine is the most recent example of a president stepping down in a post-Soviet country. And, although the Ukrainian government determined the privileges and benefits that President Leonid Kuchma would have after he left office, some allies of new President Viktor Yushchenko say a criminal investigation should be launched against Kuchma. In Russia, Boris Yeltsin also left power voluntarily. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, however, was pressured to resign. What happens to presidents after they leave office?

It is still unclear what benefits and privileges former Ukrainian President Kuchma will have. The country's cabinet decided on 28 January that Kuchma would receive retirement benefits that include bodyguards, a summer cottage (dacha), and a pension. These are taxpayer-supported benefits for life similar to those received by Ukraine's other retired president, Leonid Kravchuk. Kuchma is also entitled to live in a mansion in Kyiv's elite Pushcha Voditsa neighborhood and to have two assistants, an adviser, two cars, and four drivers. The dacha comes with a cook, two maids, and two waiters. But some politicians, mainly allies of Kuchma's successor, Viktor Yushchenko, have called for Kuchma's immediate prosecution for alleged criminal activities. If he were prosecuted and convicted of a crime, Kuchma would lose all of his privileges.

The post-Soviet countries have seen few examples of presidents leaving office voluntarily. Andrei Ryabov, an expert on Russian politics with the Carnegie Moscow Center, told RFE/RL that legislation in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) dealing with benefits for former presidents has not yet been developed.

"In the CIS, the system of providing ex-leaders [with benefits and privileges] has not clearly developed yet, unlike the People's Republic of China, [which] has had a very good and effective mechanism since then-leader of China Deng Xiaoping became less active in politics," Ryabov said. "In the post-Soviet space, this system is forming. We've had only two serious precedents -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin and -- [to a lesser extent] -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze." Ryabov said he did not mention Kuchma because his privileges depend mainly on an upcoming decision by new Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, who took office last week.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin stepped down voluntarily on 31 December 1999, before the end of his second term and chose Vladimir Putin as his successor. Yeltsin got unprecedented privileges and became known as "Pensioner No. 1" in Russia. Ryabov said the example set by the extremely comfortable benefits given to Yeltsin did not result in the creation of a standard framework regarding such benefits because his retirement "package" was based on a personal agreement he made with Putin.

"It's too early to say that the system [of privileges and benefits] is complete and finalized because the former leaders' privileges are not based on law, even though they may seem to be based on law," Ryabov said. "In fact, they are based on the promises of the new leader [Putin], who was 'made' by [Yeltsin] and his allies. As long as Vladimir Putin stays in power he will fulfill all the promises [he made to Yeltsin]. But if the next president is critical of Yeltsin and Putin, I doubt he will let Yeltsin keep his privileges."

The major part of an agreement between Yeltsin and Putin was regarding privileges for Yeltsin's family members and for his close allies to hold on to various positions in the government after Putin assumed office. "Putin precisely fulfilled all promises regarding Yeltsin's family and key individuals in the Russian political establishment who were closely related to Yeltsin," Ryabov said. "Aleksandr Voloshin remained the head of the presidential administration for the next three years. If he wouldn't have been critical of the [case against Yukos head Mikhail] Khodorkovskii he might have stayed in his position even longer. [And Yeltsin ally Mikhail] Kasyanov headed the government for almost four years, and so on. All those promises [to Yeltsin] were met [by Putin]."

Georgian President Shevardnadze also received significant privileges and benefits despite being forced to leave office early after the 2003 "Rose Revolution." Germany offered him political asylum soon after he quit office. But Shevardnadze refused to leave Georgia. At the time, some politicians said the ex-president must be charged with crimes. But Shevardnadze was not prosecuted, though his son-in-law was arrested and subsequently released after paying a huge fine.

Muhammad Solih, the leader of the banned Erk opposition party in Uzbekistan, said Shevardnadze's security and privileges were guaranteed by new Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili. "As an intelligent person Saakashvili provided for a respectful retirement [for Shevardnadze]. If individuals who come to power are patriots and care for the people, they wouldn't aim to imprison the old leaders immediately," Solih said. "For the sake of peace and stability of the people, they would just say: 'OK, he is our first president, we should respect him.' And people should understand this."

However, Solih noted that the treatment of former leaders must depend on their actions during their presidencies. "Obviously, you cannot imagine that new leaders forgive someone who oppressed his people or killed them, as [deposed Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein or [former Serbian President] Slobodan Milosevic [did]," Solih said.

Several post-Soviet countries have already developed legislation on the status of former presidents, including most countries in Central Asia, where there has not been a single case of presidential power transferring through either a democratic election or the appointment of a successor after a leader leaves office.

However, Ryabov and Solih said the rule of law is a necessary condition for the peaceful transfer of power as well as for an ex-president's personal security and well-being. "If everything in a society depends on one person, his resignation may result in the sinking of units, clans, and corporations and the emergence of new ones belonging to a new leader," Solih said. "This is greatest horror of undemocratic regimes. It is also a tragedy for a society and a state that depends on a single individual."

(Originally published on 7 February 2005.)


By Gulnoza Saidazimova

There has not been a single change of a president in Central Asia since those five countries gained independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Although every other former Soviet republic has changed its leader at least once, the Central Asian presidents have amended their country's constitutions and held dubious referenda in order to extend their terms for as long as possible. They have, however, prepared legislation on the benefits they would receive upon leaving office. So, why are they so reluctant to step down? Is it an obsession with power, a lack of a successor or some other reason?

Muhammad Solih, the leader of the banned Erk opposition party of Uzbekistan, was the only challenger to Uzbek President Islam Karimov during the 1991 presidential election. He was eventually forced to flee the country and received political asylum in Europe. In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, Solih said that if a president steps down in Central Asia he will lose not only political power, but also economic control. But the most important reason for those leaders to stay in office, Solih said, is a concern they have about their personal security in their postpresidency lives.

They fear what the people's attitude towards them might be if they leave office. This is the reason. If we take the case of the Uzbek president, it is more probable that retaliation will come from his allies [and not from the people]. Overall hatred towards [Karimov] is very visible [in Uzbekistan]," Solih said.

Karimov has ensured a string of privileges and benefits for himself in the event that he would leave office. In 2003, the Uzbek parliament approved the law on "Fundamental Guarantees on the Activities of Uzbek Presidents," which gives former presidents and their immediate family members such privileges as life-long immunity from any criminal or legal prosecution. The law reads, "Ex-presidents cannot be detained, nor can they be subject to interrogation and search." Once a president leaves office in Uzbekistan he becomes a senator for life. All ex-presidents and their relatives are also given life-long, state-funded personal security.

If Karimov were to leave office, he would be entitled to retain the current Tashkent suburban presidential residence. Future presidents would also receive such residences. Upon his death, his widow would receive a special pension regardless of any other sources of income she might have.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev have also secured similar laws in the event that they should one day become former presidents.

Turkmen leader Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov has secured a presidency-for-life for himself, though, from time to time, he calls on the parliament to hold presidential elections. Niyazov most recently did that on 2 February, when he said the country should see its next presidential election in 2008 or 2009 and that there should be at least three candidates. He also told lawmakers that the mandate of future presidents should be restricted to two terms.

"Presidential elections will be held, God willing. We will have at least three or four people [candidates] that will participate in the elections. They have the right to serve two presidential terms, as it says in our supreme law, in our constitution. If one becomes president for two terms, five years each, it is 10 years [in total]. Let's not make it any longer than that. See, you did that [made an exception] for me because I am the first president. Let's continue working a little bit longer. But for the [new] president, God willing, if there is a person who can honestly work and be popular among the people, then we will have a competitive election," Niyazov said.

When one of the Central Asian leaders steps down, it will change the political picture of the whole region. Kyrgyzstan may become the first Central Asian country to have a new president should Akaev decide not to run for reelection in the vote scheduled for October. In the early days of independence Akaev was known as a proponent of democracy and Kyrgyzstan was known as an "island of democracy" in Central Asia. But the island has subsequently shrunk or even sunk altogether as presidential authority has been increased. The Akaevs' control over various sectors of the economy has also increased greatly. Therefore, some observers say, his clan would not let him step down even if he wanted to because they are afraid of losing economic power if they lose political power.

Stephen Young, the U.S. ambassador in Bishkek, has gone on record as encouraging Akaev to step down. He has repeatedly given statements saying the United States would like to see a political succession in Kyrgyzstan. The head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Center in Bishkek, Markus Mueller, also commented on a possible change of leadership in Kyrgyzstan. "I can't speculate on this," he said. "He, the president himself told me that he would not run [for another term in office]. He said [this to me] and he [also said it] several times, both in Germany and here. I can only believe that he is telling the truth -- that if he says so, he would not run [again]."

Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said that one of the most likely developments the Central Asian countries could see is the current presidents' choosing an heir from their clans. "I think, [they will choose an heir] only from their clan since the political systems in Central Asia are highly clannish," Ryabov said. "[An heir] must be a high-ranking person from the clan, he must know all secrets of the clan, so to speak. He should also be able to make political decisions. It's very important."

Solih said it may be very hard for an Uzbek president to choose an heir from his clan. "[Uzbek President] Karimov doesn't trust those people because he knows they are waiting for a moment when Karimov's position weakens," he said. "Then they will be the first to betray him. It is his own fault because he has appointed those people who can't speak the truth, who can't criticize the president. I think there are no people in Karimov's immediate surroundings [who he can appoint in place of himself]." Solih said the only possible way out for Karimov is to start political reforms and economic liberalization as soon as possible so that he can rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the Uzbek people and the international community.

(Originally published on 8 February 2005.)


By Gulnoza Saidazimova

The newly formed Uzbek government held its first meeting on 7 February. Last week's overhaul of the cabinet included the replacement of the foreign and justice ministers. Does the appointment of a new foreign minister mean Uzbekistan is changing its relations with the outside world? And are cabinet changes really significant in a country where all major decisions -- on both internal and foreign policy -- remain in the hands of the president, Islam Karimov?

Uzbekistan's former foreign minister, Sodiq Safoev, was seen as a talented lobbyist with strong ties to the United States. During the period Safoev was serving as the country's ambassador to Washington, the U.S. State Department added the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to its list of terrorist organizations. The IMU is blamed for insurgent attacks in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000, and Tashkent has long considered the group an enemy of the government. Getting its name added to the U.S. terrorist list was widely seen as a professional triumph for Safoev.

When he was appointed foreign minister in 2003, it was seen as a sign of Tashkent's desire to forge stronger ties with the United States. But now Safoev has been removed, and relegated to a post as head of the parliamentary committee on foreign relations. Does the appointment of his replacement, Elyor Ghaniev, mean Uzbekistan is re-adjusting its foreign policy yet again?

Some observers say yes. A commentary on 7 February in Russia's "Vremya Novostei" daily said the switch signals a new pro-Russia tendency in Uzbek policy. The paper wrote that Karimov "isn't hiding the fact that his 'illusions' about cooperation with the West have evaporated." Uzbekistan's new dominant foreign-policy trend, the paper predicted, would be economic relations.

Ghaniev previously served as the head of the Uzbek agency for foreign economic relations. But not everyone believes that a minister's background can serve as a forecast of the policy ahead.

Muhammad Solih is the leader-in-exile of Uzbekistan's banned Erk opposition party. He told RFE/RL that no foreign minister has the power to significantly alter the country's foreign policy. "Sodiq Safoev was not pro-Western. He is just a small part of the whole system. In comparison with politicians like Elyor Ghaniev, Safoev is just a little more intelligent, a little more of an open-minded person with experience working with the West. This is the difference. But in terms of fidelity to Karimov's regime, Safoev and Ghaniev are in the same group," Solih said.

Bahodir Musayev, an independent sociologist based in Tashkent, agreed. He told RFE/RL it is almost inconsequential who holds the foreign minister post, since it is ultimately Karimov who determines what policy the country should follow. "I don't think the replacement of Safoev with Ghaniev will change foreign policy from a Western-oriented policy to a Russian-oriented one. Is Ghaniev known for a pro-Russia stance? No. We don't have public politicians whose personal opinions differ from the opinions of the president," Musayev said.

Musayev said there is only one reason behind last week's cabinet reshuffle -- Karimov's desire to further consolidate his power. "I believe there is only one trend behind this -- one that will serve to strengthen the presidential institution and [Karimov's] personal power," Musayev said.

Other reshuffles include the promotion of Rustam Azimov from deputy prime minister to first deputy premier -- a post that gives Azimov, who also serves as economy minister, direct presidential access. The head of the Central Election Commission, Buritosh Mustafayev, also ascended to a government post, becoming justice minister.

Sociologist Musayev said Karimov reshuffles his cabinet often as a way of maintaining balance between different political clans. Azimov and Ghaniev belong to one main faction whose members mainly come from Tashkent; Mustafayev belongs to another group, the Samarkand clan. Musayev said the recent cabinet changes are of only minor significance, since top-tier politicians -- like Internal Affairs Minister Zakir Almatov -- remain in place.

"Currently, Almatov is one of the most influential figures [in the country], and he has not been replaced [for many years.] There is a huge force behind him -- the police. If Almatov was replaced, then we could definitely expect some changes in internal policy. There could be a softening of the repressive policy [of the Uzbek government]. But replacing Foreign Minister [Safoev] with Ghaniev doesn't mean anything," Musayev said.

Observers say Karimov tends to demote those who become overly popular with the public, or the subject of speculation or gossip -- which is rife in politically opaque Uzbekistan.

Safoev had been a highly visible politician. And in 2003, rumors were rife that Safoev had married Karimov's eldest daughter, Gulnora. The story was untrue, but the rumor traveled fast, with the BBC among the first to report the marriage. The Uzbek Foreign Ministry swiftly issued a statement denying the reports, spurring a flurry of allegations and denials that included speculation that Karimov had anointed Safoev his presidential successor.

Was Safoev's demotion last week a result of his connections with Washington? Did Karimov worry his foreign minister was a future Viktor Yushchenko or Mikheil Saakashvili to whom the West would turn to lead a democratic and free Uzbekistan? Sociologist Musayev said yes. "The endless reshuffles aim to keep individual politicians from strengthening their positions and creating a corporate structure that would be separate from the presidential one," Musayev said. With the latest reshuffle, both Musayev and Solih said Karimov has come closer to his goal of absolute presidential power. How he intends to use it, however, remains to be seen.

(Originally published on 8 February 2005; Khurmat Babajanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)