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Central Asia Report: July 28, 2005

28 July 2005, Volume 5, Number 28

WEEK AT A GLANCE (18-24 JULY 2005). Kazakhstan's National Olympic Committee announced that it would file a bid for Almaty to host the 2014 Winter Games. The International Olympic Committee will make a decision on the site by July 2007. The Confederation of Nongovernmental Organizations of Kazakhstan told the Constitutional Council that two draft laws on NGOs violate the country's constitution. The draft laws, which have drawn criticism from civil-society groups for provisions that would tighten state control over NGOs, currently await the president's signature to become law. On the political front, the opposition party Alga (Onward) held its founding congress in Almaty with 1,100 delegates. The party's founders had originally planned to call it Alga, DVK! -- a reference to DVK, or Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, the opposition party that was dissolved by court order in January. Asylbek Kozhakhmetov, who heads the group that is setting up Alga, said that Alga supporters have collected 30,000 of the 50,000 signatures needed to register the party with the Justice Ministry.

Kyrgyzstan was preparing for a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on 25-26 July. The visit came less than three weeks after the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) issued a declaration calling on the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan to provide a timetable for withdrawal from the military facilities it is using in Central Asia, most notably the U.S. air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Elsewhere, health authorities in southern Kyrgyzstan imposed a quarantine on the camp for over 400 asylum seekers after eight of the asylum seekers became ill. And Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan inked an agreement for Uzbekistan to supply Kyrgyzstan with 350 million cubic meters of natural gas in 2005 at a price of $42 per 1,000 cubic meters. Uzbekistan agreed to the deal after Kyrgyzstan made good on $13 million in arrears from 2004 shipments.

Tajik Finance Minister Safarali Najmuddinov announced that the country's national debt stands at $905 million, or 40 percent of GDP, an improvement on the situation in 2000, when the national debt was $1.3 billion, or 70 percent of GDP. Elsewhere, an official from the Prosecutor-General's Office said that more than 200 members of the banned extremist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir have been convicted in Tajikistan since 2000. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov met with French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who thanked Rakhmonov for allowing France to deploy a detachment of French servicemen at Dushanbe airport to support operations in Afghanistan.

Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov for talks focused on economic cooperation. The two signed an agreement for China to provide a $24 million preferential credit for the development of Turkmenistan's oil and gas industry, and Niyazov noted that Chinese firms may take part in the reconstruction of Turkmenistan's Seydi refinery and the construction of a textile factory in Kipchak, Niyazov's hometown. The opposition website Gundogar ( reported that former Deputy Prime Minister Yolly Gurbanmuradov, a longtime Niyazov ally who was stripped of his posts in late May on corruption charges, received a 25-year prison term after a closed trial. The news could not be independently confirmed.

The Chinese vice premier also stopped in Tashkent, where she met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov for a discussion of economic ties. Against this backdrop, China's Sinopec company agreed to invest $106 million in Uzbekistan's oil sector. Two employees of the U.S.-based media support group Internews went on trial in Tashkent on charges of producing video and written materials without a license.

KYRGYZSTAN: AIR BASE EXPECTED TO DOMINATE RUMSFELD TALKS. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Kyrgyzstan on 25 July. He was expected to meet President-elect Kurmanbek Bakiev and acting Defense Minister Ismail Isakov during his two-day stay in Bishkek. The visit came after Bakiev questioned whether U.S. troops should continue to be based in his country, saying Washington should set a date for withdrawing its military bases in Central Asia.

It marked Rumsfeld's second visit to Kyrgyzstan since March, when the country's first post-Soviet President Askar Akaev was ousted in a popular uprising.

During his first visit, in April, Rumsfeld offered his backing to Kyrgyzstan's new leadership. He also received assurances from the new leaders that U.S. forces would be able to continue using the Ganci air base to support U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

This second visit came amid concern that the newly elected president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, may ask the United States to withdraw its troops from Kyrgyz soil.

Earlier this month, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- a regional grouping that includes Kyrgyzstan, Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- said Washington should set a clear date for withdrawing from military bases in Central Asia.

Bakiev, speaking to journalists in Bishkek on 23 July, said Rumsfeld's visit would not be limited to a discussion of the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan.

"We have bilateral relations with the U.S., not only in the military field, but also we have developed economic ties during the past several years. That is why, certainly, we will discuss economic relations issues during [Rumsfeld's] visit, and we will also discuss security issues," Bakiev said.

The U.S. first deployed troops in the country in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. The Ganci base is currently home to around 1,000 U.S. military personnel.

Speaking ahead of Rumsfeld's arrival, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva said the issue of the American military presence in Kyrgyzstan would be raised, saying it's the main reason for Rumsfeld's visit.

Michael Hall, the director in Bishkek of the International Crisis Group's Central Asia Project, told RFE/RL ahead of Rumsfeld's visit that the stop appears to have come on relatively short notice.

"It certainly does look as it was rather sudden and it's probably an attempt by the United States to ensure that it's got a continuing relationship, continuing military partnership with the new Kyrgyz government. So, I think it's quite possible, yes, this is a reaction to some of the statements that have followed the Shanghai meeting," Hall said.

Some observers like Mark N. Katz, a professor of government at U.S.-based George Mason University quoted by Russia's RIA-Novosti, suggested that the Bakiev administration's numerous and sometimes contradictory statements are merely attempts to get more money from the United States to operate the base.

Russia's "Vremya Novostei" daily speculated ahead of the visit that the Pentagon chief might announce Washington's intention to allocate grants as well as give up to $200 million in no-interest loans to the new Kyrgyz government in exchange for using its soil for military operations. That could not be independently confirmed.

So, was it an attempt to "buy" the Bakiev government's favor?

"I think there is a great deal of concern in the international community about more instability in Uzbekistan, for example. And in order for this not to affect the region as a whole, there needs to be the support of neighboring states," Hall said. "So, there may be a certain degree of wanting to, as you put it, 'buy' some favor with the Kyrgyz government. But it may be a part of a genuine effort as well to increase stability in the region at a time when stability in a region as a whole is in serious danger."

Last week, the U.S. Senate approved $35 million for democratic projects in Kyrgyzstan. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova. Adapted from a piece originally published on 25 July 2005.)

UZBEKISTAN: REFUGEES WANT TO RETURN ONLY IF REGIME CHANGES. There are more than 400 Uzbeks in the Suzaq refugee camp near the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad. They fled last May after hundreds of civilians reportedly were killed in clashes with government troops in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon.

It's not easy getting to the Suzaq camp, even though it's only about 12 kilometers from downtown Jalal-Abad.

The first problem is obtaining official permission to visit. The other problem is getting to the site itself. Half of the road is paved, and taxis run smoothly over it. But the other half is unpaved. And the ride is rough.

Located among the hills, the camp's rows of gray tents are visible at the entrance, where guards stand watch as Kyrgyz migration officials check documents.

Once in, the first tents house the men. They are inside, sitting or lying on mattresses. All look on curiously and greet their visitor.

Seated on benches under a roof near the tents is a group of women and young girls, doing embroidery with golden threads -- a typical Uzbek product and famous among foreigners and locals. They say they recently made an embroidered flag of Kyrgyzstan and sent it to the president, asking him not to send them back to Uzbekistan.

The women say they are worried about fate of 29 refugees who were recently taken from Suzaq to a detention center in the nearby city of Osh.

Uzbek authorities have been pressuring the Kyrgyz government to send the 29 men back, insisting they are criminals and terrorists.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and other international groups have called on Bishkek not to extradite the men, saying that it would violate international agreements that Kyrgyzstan has signed.

Refugees in Suzaq said they want to be sent together to the same country, just as long as it is not Uzbekistan.

"We were not acquainted before," one woman said about her friend. "But we escaped bullets together, we supported each other in hardship, we helped each other when we were in shock. We became like a single family. Some of us have no parents here, others left children behind. That's why we ask to be sent to a same country. This is our only request."

Most refugees told RFE/RL that they would prefer to go back home -- but "only if the regime changes," as this 17-year-old girl said: "We will return if the regime changes and the president steps down. Otherwise, I am staying here with these people. Since [Islam] Karimov became president, life got harder. It's better to live in hardship [outside Uzbekistan]. I am going to stay here and bear all hardship but I want life to get better [crying] and want to go back to Uzbekistan, to Andijon some day."

The women told stories of how they lived before coming here, what they were doing when the dramatic events of 13 May unfolded in Andijon -- and whom they left behind.

They speak articulate Uzbek, and most are also fluent in Russian; some speak other foreign languages. Several are former teachers. All wear either headscarves or the hijab, a Muslim headscarf. Some say they started covering their head in the camp, where it is difficult to keep their hair in good condition as they shower only once a week.

They also said they do not pray. Nor do the men pray together, as Muslim traditions require. Some do it individually.

Women said they have also created a system of management in the camp.

The 29-year-old Noila is head of the tent for eight women. Her team is in charge of sorting out buckwheat for today's lunch. Women in the tent said men cook for the whole camp and women help them prepare ingredients.

"In order to make life easier, we organized it better. We elected a head of each tent and also commission members among women. Commission members, for example, receive humanitarian aid and distribute among others equally. I am a head of eight women. One of my tasks is to find out everyone's needs and tell it to commission members who, in turn, pass it on to the 'outside world,'" Noila said.

They said they have less work now than they had at home, but they do not seem bored or idle. There are also several children, including a seven-month-old sleeping in a cradle.

Their spirit also seems high. They all believe their cause is the right one, as 41-year old Maharamkhon said.

"If God is willing, we'll go back home when things will get better there. Because we are not guilty, we just wanted to demand our rights for the first time in 15 years [since Uzbekistan became independent]. We went to demonstrate because we thought democracy started [in Uzbekistan]. We were not worried when we went there, because we knew that in Kyrgyzstan no one had shot anybody. We wanted a better life, that's why we decided to tell [authorities] about our problems and our pain," Maharamkhon said.

After the first round of conversation and interviews, they start asking questions -- mostly about Uzbek politics.

Many ask if the U.S. government is going to pressure Uzbek authorities to conduct an independent investigation into the events in Andijon. The Uzbek government says 187 people were killed, many of them police, but witnesses and human rights groups say as many as 750 people were killed when Uzbek troops fired on peaceful protesters.

On the way back, several groups, including little children, sit in the shade of trees along the road to the camp.

They are relatives who came from Andijon to see their loved ones. (By Gulnoza Saidazimova. Originally published on 21 July 2005.)

UZBEKISTAN: OPPOSITION LEADERS MEET OUTSIDE WASHINGTON. For the first time in 15 years, representatives of the various Uzbek opposition parties have come together to discuss a common strategy. Last week, outside Washington, D.C., exiled leaders of unregistered secular opposition parties and movements as well as representatives from Uzbekistan gathered to discuss ways to democratically wrest power from the current government.

The Uzbek opposition leaders assembled in Alexandria, Virginia, earlier this month under the slogan, "He who cannot get a grip on himself is in no condition to win."

The gathering brought together representatives of such parties as Birlik, Erk, Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Peasants), and the independent human rights organization Ezgulik.

Farhod Inogamboyev, a former financial adviser to Uzbek President Islam Karimov's daughter Gulnora, was one of the conference's organizers. He explained the rationale behind trying to coordinate action among the various groups.

"For more than a decade, Karimov's regime has been successful enough to keep the opposition fragmented and keep them fighting amongst themselves and by doing this the regime has benefited greatly, portraying to the world that there is no capable opposition to the current, existing regime of Karimov," Inogamboyev said.

No opposition party is registered in Uzbekistan. Since 2002, when U.S.-led coalition troops operating in Afghanistan started using a base in Uzbekistan, unregistered secular parties such as the Erk Democratic Party, Ozod Dehqonlar, and the Birlik Democratic Movement have been active publicly.

But such groups have very limited opportunities to assemble. The few protests they have held were quickly organized and just as quickly broken up.

The group in Alexandria agreed to cooperate in ousting the current Uzbek regime from power using peaceful means and to hold a congress later this year.

The leader of Erk, Mohammad Solih, who has lived outside Uzbekistan for a decade, says the group agreed on most points in Alexandria.

"It would not be a mistake if I said our opinions were united," Solih said. "Only a few details were left unresolved. In my opinion, within the next three or four months a coordinating congress will be held and I think these details will be resolved."

And Babur Malikov, a former ambassador to the U.S., now a leader in Ozod Dehqonlar, said the congress the opposition plans tentatively for October is open to groups who were not represented in Virginia.

"Some 10 or 12 people gathered (10 July) in Alexandria, near Washington," Malikov said. "We met and there made the firm decision to hold an all-Uzbek congress. All the opposition groups can participate in this congress. It's open to everyone and during the congress we will define our strategy. I think this is a big event in the history of the Uzbek opposition."

That history has not been one of strong cooperation. In fact, it is precisely that lack of cooperation that made the meeting in Alexandria something of a milestone. Still, Erk leader Solih indicated that the groups are already considering a future where they will be competing, not cooperating.

"Our aim is, temporarily, we will be together until the regime is long gone from power," Solih said. "The result of our struggle, if we succeed, will be elections, democratic elections. Then every party can nominate their own candidates or some parties can unite into a bloc and nominate candidates for the presidential and parliamentary elections."

These parties will first need to be registered, something at which they have not succeeded despite numerous efforts to do so.

As Inogamboyev said, the opposition is hoping for help from the world's democracies:

"[We made an] appeal for support mainly from the Western democracies, from Western governments, particularly from the United States, first of all to recognize and support the Uzbek democratic opposition, secondly to acknowledge that it is not only Islamic fundamentalism that is an alternative to Karimov's government," Inogamboyev said. "Furthermore, we appealed also to the United States to stay engaged in the region and not to withdraw its military forces."

Inogamboyev said the Uzbek opposition wanted U.S. forces to stay in Central Asia to balance the growing influence of China and Russia in the region.

But how much support these groups have inside Uzbekistan?

Currently, there are five registered political parties, all of which support Karimov. Then there's the banned Islamic opposition. The voice of the secular opposition is drowned out between the two.

Political analyst Alimardan Annayev said some in Uzbekistan simply do not expect much anymore from the secular opposition:

"Unfortunately, maybe on the other side of the ocean they can unite but will this be beneficial for people my age [middle aged]? I cannot see it," Annayev said.

Changing such opinions may prove the most difficult challenge for Uzbekistan's secular opposition.

(By Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Khurmat Babadjanov and Shukrat Babajanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. Originally published on 20 July 2005.)

U.S.: CENTRAL AND SOUTH ASIAN MILITARY OFFICERS ATTEND CRISIS TRAINING. Officers from four Central and South Asian states and the U.S. Army are in the midst of a two-week training exercise aimed at improving cooperation on border security and counterterrorism efforts. The officers are participating in computer-generated models of crises and seeking how to overcome the logistical -- as well as linguistic -- challenges of mounting a multinational response in Central Asia.

About 200 military personnel are taking part in the exercises, at a training center some 250 kilometers south of the U.S. capital, in the eastern U.S. state of Virginia.

They include representatives of the border services and Defense and Interior ministries from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. Also involved are members of the National Guard from the U.S. state of Massachusetts.

Such regional coordination is rare, and representatives from the participating states tell RFE/RL that they are finding it useful.

The head of the Kyrgyz delegation, Colonel Yuri Pogrebniak, says one challenge has been how to integrate different military cultures.

"We have two main problems. One is that we have two schools for training for officers, and we have two schools for training the armed forces. Those are the American and ex-Soviet schools. Their approaches differ greatly. The second problem is bilingualism, which is the use of English and Russian language. During the training, we are overcoming these problems to the detail. So we are making large and noteworthy progress, and we count on having positive results," Pogrebniak said.

Russian remains a common language among Central Asian militaries.

The U.S. Army's planner for the regional cooperation exercise, Lieutenant Colonel Peg Devreaux, says she arranged for 22 Russian linguists to assist. But there are still language obstacles.

"We had not loaded Russian software onto all our computer systems, only on selected systems. So, one of the lessons learned is to increase our capability of computer systems being able to toggle back and forth between Russian and English," Devreaux said.

One scenario for the training model involved coordinating a response to a terrorist attack on a nuclear waste containment pond in Kyrgyzstan, which involved waste spilling over a large territory.

In another model, border services from different states tried to share information on suspicious people seeking to cross frontiers.

Devreaux says the participants have found that control procedures are generally similar for each state. But there is a gap, she says, between communications technology used by U.S. forces and some Central Asian states.

Pakistan, which is under U.S. pressure to stem the flow of Taliban forces into Afghanistan, would benefit from improved technology. That's according to its top official at the training exercises, Brigadier General Farhat Sabir.

"As we all know, it's very difficult to really make the borders nonporous. It's very difficult. Nevertheless, we are now progressing. We are acquiring the equipment. We are well trained. But, certainly, a lot more is still required to have really effective control over the borders," Sabir said.

Sabir calls the training exercise in Virginia a "great experience" that could harmonize regional efforts in fighting terrorism and trafficking.

The head of the Tajik team, Colonel Zarif Abidov, echoes this.

"Here, during this drill, we settled on the best ways of exchanging information between our states. This is also one of the most important components. And in case of unexpected emergencies, God forbid, such as a terrorist attack or other man-made disaster, we arranged how to provide assistance to each other," Abidov said.

The exercises are taking place at a time of intensified debate among some Central Asian leaders about the continuing presence of U.S. military bases in the region. Earlier this month, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan, said the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan should provide a final deadline for the use of facilities and deployment of military contingents in the region.

The U.S. Defense Department uses air bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visits Kyrgyzstan next week in a visit seen as an attempt to secure support for keeping U.S. forces at the Manas air base.

The representatives of the Kyrgyz, Kazakh, and Tajik forces taking part in the training exercise speak highly of cooperation with the U.S. military. Colonel Pogrebniak of Kyrgyzstan stresses the usefulness of such links.

"I'm no politician. I'm a military person and do not feel like I can make any political statement. But on my behalf, I can say the following: Our nation is very small, we are in need of peace and international accord, and we are ready to accept anyone who is willing to extend their hand for help," Pogrebniak said.

Uzbekistan chose not to participate in the exercises. Its relations with Washington have cooled following repeated U.S. calls for an independent investigation into the government crackdown in Andijon two months ago.

Turkmenistan and Russia sent observers to the exercise. Afghanistan was unable to participate because it could not provide travel documents in time to send delegates to Virginia.

There are plans to hold a similar regional training exercise in Kyrgyzstan next year. (By Robert McMahon. Originally published on 22 July 2005.)