28 April 2005, Volume 5, Number 15
WEEK AT A GLANCE (18-27 April). The split in the Kazakh opposition party Ak Zhol (Bright Path) reached some semblance of a logical conclusion with the formation of Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path), headed by Bulat Abilov, Oraz Zhandosov, and Altynbek Sarsenbaev. The new party will continue to base its approach on Ak Zhol's existing platform, promising to make the difference between old and new visible through its actions. President Nursultan Nazarbaev told the Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty that free speech and the media are an "integral part" of Kazakhstan's progress toward democracy. In the same address, the president said that recent events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan stemmed not from "mythical plots by outside forces," but were rather the result of internal developments. He added, "Poverty and unemployment...are fertile ground for people's dissatisfaction with the authorities." Acting Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev visited, and President Nazarbaev promised Kyrgyzstan 1,000 tons of wheat and 10,000 tons of fuel in humanitarian aid. For his part, Bakiev reiterated his support for his Kazakh colleague's idea to create to a union of Central Asian states.
Former President Askar Akaev continued to command the attention of the country he fled on 24 March, as acting President Kurmanbek Bakiev signed a decree creating a commission to investigate the ousted president's alleged business interests in Kyrgyzstan. The commission will check 42 enterprises to determine whether they are controlled by the ex-president or his family and associates. Acting Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov, who will chair the commission, confirmed that the National Security Service has opened a criminal case against Adil Toigonbaev, the son-in-law of former President Akaev. Acting Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov said that documents discovered in the former president's office prove that Akaev and his aides meddled in recent parliamentary elections. In another election-related matter, the Prosecutor-General's Office will review vote-buying charges against Toigonbaev's wife, Bermet Akaeva. On the media front, the employees of state-run television held a news conference to press their demand that state television be transformed into public television.
Representatives of Tajikistan's Democratic Party expressed deep concern over the fate of party head Muhammadruzi Iskandarov, who who Tajik authorities said on 26 April was arrested in Dushanbe four days earlier. Iskandarov vanished near Moscow on 15 April after Russian authorities had released him nearly two weeks earlier. Moscow had refused to honor a Tajik request to extradite him on corruption and weapons charges. Iskandarov had recently announced plans to run for president. Also in Tajikistan, police announced the successful dismantling of the extremist group Bayat, after 12 members of the group, including two leaders, were arrested in 2005. President Imomali Rakhmonov met with OSCE Chairman-in-Office and Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel. Rupel stressed that "we are not in the business of teaching Tajikistan or its president discipline in the area of human rights," but noted that NGO leaders and opposition politicians pointed to a lack of democracy in Tajikistan at their meetings with the OSCE head. Later in the week, Rakhmonov attended the Asia-Africa 2005 Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he met with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref-Yazdi, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, and Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov hinted at a possible end to his presidency, telling OSCE Chairman-in-Office Rupel that he does not plan to contend in the 2009 presidential elections. Apparently in a magnanimous mood, Niyazov closed the week with a decree allowing foreigners to marry Turkmen citizens without paying the $50,000 deposit that had previously been imposed by law.
Uzbekistan ignored a GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Moldova) summit in Moldova on 22 April. Back home, the mid-April arrest of Sobirjon Yoqubov, a correspondent for the newspaper "Hurriyat," sparked a petition drive by independent Uzbek journalists and calls for the jailed journalist's release from international media watchdog organizations. A new opposition coalition called My Sunny Uzbekistan emerged, its members drawn primarily from the ranks of the unregistered opposition party Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Farmers). And Tashkent Mayor Rustam Shoabdurahmonov was removed at a meeting of the city council that featured an address by President Islam Karimov, who slammed the city administration for negligence. Shoabdurahmonov's replacement will be Deputy Prime Minister Abduqahhor Tukhtaev.
UZBEKISTAN: JOURNALISTS DEFEND JAILED COLLEAGUE. Friction between journalists and Uzbekistan's authorities is nothing new. But the recent arrest of Sobirjon Yoqubov, a correspondent for the newspaper "Hurriyat," has sparked a reaction that goes beyond expressions of concern from international organizations. This time, some of the jailed journalist's colleagues in Uzbekistan have mobilized in his support.
News of Yoqubov's arrest in mid-April came against the backdrop of an event that had already unnerved journalists in Uzbekistan. After an article signed by a certain Safar Abdullaev appeared on the Internet with sensational details of a coming crackdown against independent journalists in Uzbekistan, a number of the individuals named by Abdullaev sent an open letter to the Interior Ministry requesting confirmation or denial of the report. Deputy Interior Minister Alisher Sharafuddinov held an unusual public meeting with the journalists in question on 15 April, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. While Sharafuddinov insisted that no crackdown was in the offing, he confirmed the arrest of a correspondent for the newspaper "Hurriyat."
According to a transcript of the meeting published by tribune.uz, Sharafuddinov said in response to a question from an RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent, "[Sobirjon Yoqubov] was arrested on 11 April, and on 14 April he was charged under Article 159." Article 159 of Uzbekistan's criminal code involves attempts to "overthrow the constitutional order." It is a staple of reports on the government's controversial fight against religious extremism, which critics have described as a campaign of repression that inflames, rather than contains, radicalism. The most common suspects in cases involving article 159 are alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which espouses the establishment of an Islamic caliphate throughout Central Asia even as it officially eschews violence.
International watchdog organizations reacted quickly to Yoqubov's arrest. Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists issued press releases expressing concern for the journalist's safety. Noting that the charges against Yoqubov could carry a 20-year prison sentence, the two organizations quoted sources in Uzbekistan as saying that the authorities might be using an accusation of religious extremism to punish the journalist for addressing a hot-button political issue.
In an 18 April press release, the Committee to Protect Journalists quoted a March article Yoqubov wrote about the murder of Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Yoqubov argued that Gongadze's slaying "became a driving force [for Ukrainians] to realize the necessity of democratic reforms and freedom."
Pascale Bonnamour, head of the Europe desk for Reports Without Borders, told the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) on 20 April that Yoqubov's arrest should be viewed in the context of recent events in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. "The fact that Yakubov is in prison serves as a warning to other journalists to monitor what they say," she said.
The U.S. State Department also expressed concern. "Our embassy is in contact with the Uzbek authorities and has urged observance of due process and fair and humane treatment for Mr. Yakubov," spokesman Adam Ereli said at a 19 April briefing published on the State Department website (http://www.state.gov). As noted in our 2004 Human Rights Report, in the past journalists have been harassed by the Uzbek government in an apparent effort to limit publication of critical stories. We will be following this case closely."
Uzbek journalists spoke out as well. In an appeal on the uznews.net website (http://www.uznews.net), a number of Uzbek journalists condemned the silence of their colleagues and urged them to show support for Yoqubov through an Internet petition (http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/291000507). "In Uzbekistan, where the rights and freedoms of journalists are crudely violated, each of us can become a victim of injustice," the appeal's authors noted. The signatories included two of Yoqubov's colleagues from the newspaper "Hurriyat," Bahriddin Mingboev and Zebo Abduqodirova.
"Colleagues and relatives who knew Sobirjon, as well as ordinary Uzbek citizens who read his publications, are convinced that the charge against him is unfounded and that a serious mistake has been made," the appeal stated. Two of them, both signatories to the appeal, shared their views. Yoqutkhon Mamatova, a lecturer on the journalism faculty at Tashkent University, said: "Sobirjon was one of our most talented students. And he understood state policy. Proof of this is that he had a number of publications in the local press on international terrorism. His arrest may have been the result of someone's mistake." Asilkhon Iskandarov, a classmate of Yoqubov and a student on the journalist faculty at Tashkent University, said: "He's completely innocent. Sobirjon and I have been friends since school, and I know him very well."
The Uzbek government has yet to make clear the substance of its charges against Yoqubov. But as the initial reaction to the journalist's arrest shows, it has already ensured that the case will receive careful scrutiny, both abroad and at a home. (Daniel Kimmage) (Originally published on 25 April 2005.)
ISLAM KARIMOV VS. UZBEKISTAN'S CLANS. Recent reshuffles in mid-level government positions are being seen as a result of rivalries between different political clans in Uzbekistan. Speculation has been fuelled by reports and rumors about one clan's representatives disappearing or fleeing the country. Many Uzbeks think that Islam Karimov's regime is on the wane and the clans are fighting for the spoils of power.
The Samarkand and Tashkent clans are believed to be the most powerful on Uzbekistan's political scene. And it looks like the rivalry between the two has deepened lately. President Islam Karimov, a native of Samarkand and a little-known finance minister in the Uzbek Soviet republic, came to power in 1989. He had the support of Ismail Jurabekov, the head of the Samarkand clan. Since the early days of independence, Karimov -- not wanting to damage his own position -- has attempted to achieve a balance of power among different political groups. That has fueled rivalries even more.
Ruslan Sharipov, an independent journalist from Tashkent currently living in the United States, told RFE/RL that President Karimov benefits from the rivalry most of all. "The ongoing rivalry that we are witnessing these days is to the president's advantage," he said. "He can be calmly sitting in his office, watching, and feeling very safe. What happened recently to Jurabekov, Abdusamad Palvanzoda, and other officials, and what is likely to happen to many others is nothing but clan rivalry."
Earlier this month, reports appeared on the Internet and rumors circulated in Uzbekistan that Jurabekov and Palvanzoda, a former justice minister, had fled the country.
Ismail Jurabekov has held senior positions in the Uzbek government for the last two decades. He is known as a leader of the powerful Samarkand clan and a power broker to the Karimov regime. In 2004, he appeared to lose Karimov's favor when he was dismissed from the position of presidential adviser. The authorities also launched a criminal investigation against him.
It was Karimov's second attempt to dismiss Jurabekov. In January 1999, Jurabekov, then deputy prime minister, was forced to resign. But in February 1999, several explosions rocked the capital Tashkent, claiming a dozen lives. A month later, Jurabekov was reinstated and became a presidential adviser on water and agricultural issues. Some observers have suggested that Jurabekov and his clan organized the blasts, though there is no firm proof to support this theory.
Others have suggested that the explosions were organized by the National Security Council (SNB), led by Rustam Inoyatov, or the Interior Ministry (MVD), headed by Zakir Almatov. Clan politics are present here, too. Analysts say Inoyatov represents the Tashkent clan, while Almatov is backed by the Samarkand clan. The two institutions and their heads are believed to be pillars of Karimov's power.
The rivalry between the MVD and the SNB (former KGB) is typical in ex-Soviet countries. But in Uzbekistan this rivalry has deepened lately. "I am inclined to think that all processes are driven by interclan relationships," Sharipov said. "The two strongest clans for the time being are the MVD and the SNB. They compete and fight with each other. I am absolutely sure that Zakir Almatov's clan is much stronger, as many are saying on the Internet these days."
Some observers have also suggested that the string of explosions in the cities of Tashkent and Bukhara in spring 2004 were organized by the SNB and targeted the MVD. Like the 1999 bombings, there is no firm proof to support this theory.
Several policemen were killed in those attacks. The Interior Ministry's Almatov -- who was supposed to make statements and conduct an investigation into the bombings -- disappeared for several days after the attacks. This month, reports surfaced on the Internet that Almatov had ordered the repression of dissidents. Many speculated that the SNB was behind the reports and aimed to compromise the MVD and Interior Minister Zakir Almatov.
Does President Karimov, who has skillfully maintained the balance of power among the clans for several years, have full control over the situation? Or has he been influenced by those clans?
Analysts say Karimov doesn't have full control. "He [Karimov] benefits from the rivalry among the clans," Sharipov said. "However, he is playing a dangerous game, as one of these clans is likely to overthrow Karimov and put in power someone from their clan instead of him. Therefore, we can't say [Karimov] fully controls the situation simply because Almatov has a huge [police] force behind him and, therefore, I believe, Zakir Almatov is the most dangerous figure for President Karimov."
Analysts say Almatov, who has been interior minister since 1991, has turned the ministry into the country's most powerful and numerous force. They say it leaves the security services and the army far behind.
As the recent revolution in Kyrgyzstan showed, who controls the police could be crucial if Uzbekistan experiences its own uprising. To add to that, Bahodir Musaev, a Tashkent-based independent sociologist, said there are many policemen dissatisfied with their monthly salary of around $60.
Musaev said the current regime is on its last legs. "I believe [the Karimov] regime is at death's door. I don't know how long this agony will last," Musaev said. "But [society] could explode any moment -- triggered by some insignificant event that will then have a chain reaction. People are on the edge. The authorities haven't grasped the situation. They don't understand how strong people's despair is and what the people are capable of doing at this moment."
Musaev said President Karimov will be gone some day. But his political legacy is likely to be devastating. He says the conditions for a peaceful and democratic handover of power have not been created, statehood remains clannish, and no politicians with public personas have appeared in the last 15 years. (Gulnoza Saidazimova) (Originally published on 22 April 2005.)
KYRGYZSTAN: EX-PRESIDENT'S DAUGHTER SAYS AKAEV FAMILY NOT CORRUPT. Bermet Akaeva, the 32-year-old daughter of ousted Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, won a seat in parliament in February's flawed elections that sparked a popular revolt in Kyrgyzstan. Akaeva fled the country with the rest of her family late last month when the revolt ousted her father. She returned to Kyrgyzstan on 15 April. Akaeva gave an exclusive interview to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on 21 April.
Akaeva's return came just as the new government was forming a commission to look into allegations that the Akaev family owned or had a financial interest in many lucrative businesses in Kyrgyzstan. The government produced a list of these businesses today. Bermet's husband, Adil Toigonbaev, figured prominently on that list and officials announced he would be investigated.
Bermet denied in the interview that her husband was involved in any illegal business ventures. She said, "The Prosecutor-General's Office is summoning, and the National Security Service people are investigating this. Let them investigate. My husband was all the time clean. He was working within the framework of the law. If they look hard enough they [probably] can find something, but my husband didn't do anything illegal."
Akaeva also said the commission tasked with investigating the Akaev family's alleged fortune was really trying to disgrace her family.
"My father didn't have any businesses," she said. "Now they are talking about [rumors], about millions and billions [of dollars]. If I had millions and billions would I be living in such a [modest] flat? I believe time and history will show what was truth and what was a lie. I don't trust the commission to be objective because their task is just to destroy us. Now they are persecuting and firing our relatives from their positions. Even [some] members of the government, in official meetings, are saying we have to fire Akaev's relatives from their positions and destroy Akaev's businesses. That is why I don't trust the commission."
Akaeva also defended her father, saying he did some good things for Kyrgyzstan while he was president: "My father was president during a very difficult time in Kyrgyzstan. In 15 years there were some positive results. I have to say that. I don't agree that we [allegedly] have been living a worse life in a worse country."
There were allegations that Bermet and her brother Aydar won seats in parliament due largely to help from her father. Akaeva denied there was any vote rigging or any other special help to ease her and Aydar into parliament.
"They might say that, for sure, authorities helped me because I was the daughter of the president but this constituency [where I ran] was in the city," she said. "It was possible for anyone to monitor. International organizations especially could monitor [events in the constituency]. Even U.S. Ambassador Steve Young was monitoring my constituency personally. There was a record number of monitors in my constituency. That is why my election campaign was very open and transparent."
Concerning her mandate as a deputy, Akaeva said she was ready, along with her brother, to fulfill their duties as elected deputies in parliament.
"Certainly, me and my brother will work as deputies. If they do not revoke my mandate, surely, I will work for my voters."
As for her father and mother, Akaeva had this to say: "Now they are in Moscow; they have been recovering [from the shock of the revolution]. They will surely come back to Kyrgyzstan when the time is right." (Originally published on 21 April 2005.)
KAZAKH OPPOSITION GROUP REAPPEARS UNDER NEW NAME. The Kazakh opposition party Ak Zhol, or Bright Path, split earlier this year, divided over policy ahead of the presidential elections in 2006. Now, a splinter faction has returned to the political scene -- calling itself Naghyz Ak Zhol, or the True Bright Path. But how different is it from its predecessors?
Ak Zhol's former co-chairmen -- Bulat Abilov, Oraz Zhondosov, and Altynbek Sarsenbaev -- told journalists in Almaty on 20 April they had created a new party -- Naghyz Ak Zhol. Sarsenbaev said they kept the name of the new party close to its origins partly for publicity reasons.
"The reason is, since the situation developed within this party, we have held many gatherings. At those gatherings, in every corner of our republic, we were called 'Naghyz Ak Zholdyqtar.' (the People on the True Bright Path). That is why we decided not to change either the party's name or the party's views, but simply add the word 'Naghyz,' proposed by the people for our name," Sarsenbaev said.
Ak Zhol for several years was one of the leading opposition parties in Kazakhstan. Its moderate leadership, composed of former government officials and leading businessmen, represented a broad range of interests. It was the only opposition party to win a seat in last year's parliamentary elections.
But by February 2005, it was clear the party was splitting. A fourth Ak Zhol co-head, Alikhan Baimenov, called a special congress to pass a no-confidence measure against his fellow chairmen. Baimenov said at that time that it was a difficult decision. He said, "A decision was made at the plenum. It was difficult for me as a person, as a citizen and as a politician. But as the Kazakh saying goes, 'He who hides an illness will die from it.'"
Baimenov technically holds Ak Zhol's legislative seat. But, protesting what many considered an unfair parliamentary vote, he announced he would not sit in parliament, and the seat remains empty.
Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry this month registered the changes in party leadership. That effectively left Baimenov as the chairman of Ak Zhol. But Zhondosov criticized that decision, saying the authorities legitimized a decision that was made at an "illegitimate" congress.
Sarsenbaev indicated that the core of Ak Zhol's platform would remain the same in Naghyz Ak Zhol. "Since this will be a new party, changes are inevitable. But the program prepared by the Ak Zhol party, the platform outlined by the Ak Zhol party on the eve of the elections [last summer], the values the Ak Zhol party offered to the people, to the nation, will be the basis for our new party, [Naghyz Ak Zhol]," Sarsenbaev said.
It is unclear how many Ak Zhol members have switched loyalties to Naghyz Ak Zhol. And Sarsenbayev, when asked, found it difficult to describe how the new party will differ from its predecessor.
"The difference [from the old Ak Zhol party] will become clear through our further activities. To outline, set down and propagate the program, and to implement that program, are two different things. We shall be Naghyz Ak Zhol, implementing its program into real life," said Sarsenbaev.
Baimenov said he was surprised by the formation of Naghyz Ak Zhol, and said he had hoped that Abilov and Zhondosov would return to the original Ak Zhol once what he called "temporary passions" subsided.
"Politics is not chewing gum; a copy is not the original. I am confident that [Naghyz Ak Zhol's] current actions are not about creating a new party but about hurting the existing party -- destroying it, through cheating the population," Baimenov said.
Azat Peruashev, the head of the pro-presidential Civic Party, said the creation of the new party would prove counterproductive. "They are trying to use the same name with some additions. That will cause tensions with the officially recognized Ak Zhol and I think it will lead to negative results," Peruashev said.
Naghyz Ak Zhol says one of its goals is to prepare for presidential elections next year. The first step toward that goal is registering the party -- a procedure that is far more complicated than it once was. New registration regulations were a cause of frequent complaints from opposition parties ahead of last year's parliamentary ballot. (Bruce Jacobs) (Originally published on 21 April 2005.)
KYRGYZSTAN'S NEIGHBORS TIGHTEN LAWS TO PREVENT REVOLUTIONS. Images of last month's revolt in Bishkek are still fresh in the minds of many Central Asians. And the region's remaining presidents have no desire to make the same speech delivered by Akaev in early April. "Guided by my human and civil duty before my own people as well as by humanistic motives, I would like to declare my early resignation as president, based on my own request," Akaev said.
With this in mind, Central Asian governments have taken steps to ensure that public protests will not be allowed to force presidential overthrows.
Kazakhstan, for example, has banned public assemblies in the period between a vote and the announcement of its results. Then-Kazakh Justice Minister Ongalsyn Zhumabekov -- who has since moved to head the Central Election Commission -- outlined the changes on 8 April.
"We offered in our project that any mass gatherings and demonstrations between the end of the voting and official announcement of the election results should be banned," Zhumabekov said. "That proposal was approved [by the parliament]."
Kazakhstan is slightly better off than the other four Central Asian states. There is some independent media, an embattled but active opposition, and occasional public demonstrations.
Elsewhere in Central Asia, governments have targeted foreign embassies and nongovernmental organizations.
NGOs were believed to have played a role in the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. And Akaev accused U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Stephen Young of helping to secure his ouster by complaining about the country's flawed parliamentary elections to local media.
Tajikistan took that into consideration in passing a new law last week that obligates foreign embassies and organizations working in Tajikistan to report to authorities on any contacts with media or political and civil activists.
Even reclusive and repressive Turkmenistan took measures to avoid a Kyrgyz scenario. The country has no opposition parties and has only had a few public demonstrations during its post-independence history. Even so, authorities there felt the need to take action in order to ensure their grip on power.
In one such step, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov gave the most precise date yet for holding presidential elections. Niyazov was made president for life in late 1999, but he has on occasion spoken of holding a vote for his successor in 2008 or 2010. Earlier this month he offered new details.
"In 2009, we need to have presidential elections," Niyazov said. "There must be an election, because there must be a replacement for this position sooner or later."
Akaev had angered many Kyrgyz by overseeing constitutional amendments that allowed him to hold multiple terms. In announcing the 2009 vote, Niyazov may have been looking to assure Turkmens that they will eventually have the opportunity to participate in a presidential vote.
Turkmenistan took other steps as well.
A new decree by Niyazov prohibits foreign postal services from delivering to Turkmenistan. Now all mail coming into Turkmenistan is handled by the state postal agency, Turkmenpochta. DHL, FedEx, and other foreign delivery firms are now barred.
Even more significantly, the decree affects the delivery of foreign periodicals and newspapers -- notably, "The Times of Central Asia," an English-language newspaper published in Kyrgyzstan.
Uzbekistan is the one Central Asian nation that has made no special moves to tighten its laws since the Kyrgyz events. But that may be because genuine opposition parties are already effectively banned in the country, and public dissent is virtually unheard of.
A number of elections are on the horizon in Central Asia. But none of the governments has signaled it is bringing its election laws in line with international standards.
The West has routinely criticized elections in the region as falling short of democratic guidelines. But for the leaders of Central Asia, the threat of a repeat Kyrgyz scenario is more urgent than Western calls for democratization. (Bruce Pannier) (Originally published on 20 April 2005; RFE/RL's Kazakh, Turkmen, and Tajik services contributed to this report.)