Accessibility links

Breaking News

Central Asia Report: August 24, 2005

24 August 2005, Volume 5, Number 32

WEEK AT A GLANCE (15-21 August 2005). Kazakhstan's Constitutional Council ruled that the next presidential election should be held in December 2005. The decision, which must still be approved by parliament, staves off a potentially ambiguous situation for President Nursultan Nazarbaev, whose term expires in January 2006, since the alternate date for the ballot was December 2006. Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, the presumptive unified opposition candidate for the presidency, reiterated his intention to run and blasted Nazarbaev in an open letter for dirty political tricks and empty populist promises. Meanwhile, pro-presidential candidates swept to victory in indirect elections to the Senate (upper chamber of parliament). Caspian Antiterror 2005 exercises brought together security forces from 10 CIS countries and observers from Iran. National Security Committee Chairman Nartai Dutbaev announced that "members of international terrorist organizations are trying to create training centers on Kazakh territory" and said that a 2004 investigation broke up an underground group with links to Al-Qaeda. An affiliate of China National Petroleum Corp. and an Indian joint venture each put up bids for PetroKazakhstan, a Canadian-registered company that holds oil assets in Kazakhstan. And Kazakhstan continued to fight outbreaks of bird flu, with the disease apparently killing domestic poultry in the village of Nalobino in North Kazakhstan Province.

Kyrgyz prosecutors filed criminal charges against Adil Toigonboev, the son-in-law of former President Askar Akaev, for fraud, embezzlement, and tax evasion. He is currently being sought in connection with the charges. Meanwhile, Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov announced that his office is readying a request to strip the former president, as well as a number of current members of parliament, of immunity from prosecution. Newly elected President Kurmanbek Bakiev appointed Feliks Kulov acting prime minister. Elsewhere, Bakiev said that Kyrgyzstan is examining the possibility of bringing in a Russian company to manage the country's electrical power grid. Legal wrangling continued over the fate of 15 Uzbek citizens who fled violence in Andijon on 12-13 May and are now detained in Osh. Beknazarov said that while Kyrgyzstan will hand over the 15 as soon a third country submits an official note, and while several Scandinavian countries have expressed a willingness to take in the refugees, no one has yet done so.

Some 2,000 servicemen from Russia's Tajikistan-based 201st Motorized Infantry Division held military exercises involving dozens of tanks and armored vehicles at a facility in Qurghonteppa. The scenario posited a military counterattack after an assault by international terrorists.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov kept personnel shakeups moving at a brisk pace, dismissing Orazmukhammet Atageldiev from his ministerial post as the head of state-run geology firm Turkmengeologiya and replacing him with Ishanguly Nuriev. Other recent victims of "serious deficiencies" in their work are such energy-sector luminaries as Deputy Prime Minister Yolly Gurbanmuradov and national oil company head Saparmemed Valiev, both removed earlier this year. Elsewhere, Turkmen border guards nabbed two Iranian citizens along the Turkmen-Iranian border with four bags of opium weighing a total of 100 kilograms.

The Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office issued an angry denial after reports that four Uzbek refugees had been repatriated from Kyrgyzstan and one subsequently tortured to death. Uzbekistan said that the four were criminals who returned voluntarily and are now in pretrial detention. Nikolai Patrushev, director of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), said that the FSB sent personnel to Uzbekistan to help with the investigation of violence in Andijon on 12-13 May. And in Samarkand, police used force to disperse a demonstration when protesters blocked a road after receiving instructions, they said, to vacate their dwellings to make way for a road-construction project.

TAJIKISTAN: MIGRANT DANGERS AND DREAMS. On 2 August, three men from Tajikistan returned home for the last time. A flight from Yekaterinburg, Russia, to Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, delivered the bodies of Ilhom Saidbekov and Subhiddin Mirzoev. An Interior Ministry official told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that Saidbekov, a 31-year-old resident of Vose, in southern Tajikistan, became ill and died in Omsk. Mirzoev, a 21-year-old from Jirgatol, was killed in an auto accident. The same day, a Novosibirsk-Khujand flight brought home the body of a man from Panjkent identified only as Yoqubov. He was 36 years old and killed under unknown circumstances.

All three men were labor migrants -- Tajiks who left for Russia in search of higher wages. They were not the only ones for whom the trip to Russia was the prelude to a final return. According to Tajikistan's Interior Ministry, the bodies of 155 Tajik labor migrants, 90 percent of them aged 13 to 35 and most of them residents of Khatlon Province, have been returned from Russia to Tajikistan in the first half of 2005. Khatlon Province, which borders on Afghanistan to the south, witnessed heavy fighting during Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war, which destroyed the local economy and left a legacy of unemployment and underdevelopment.

For others, the quest for a living wage in Russia leads to prison. Official data from Russia's penitentiary system put the number of incarcerated Tajiks at 4,700, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Of the 25,000 citizens from CIS countries now jailed in Russia, Tajiks are outnumbered only by 5,000 inmates from Ukraine, a country nearly 10 times as populous as Tajikistan.

Munira Nazarova, a representative of Migration and Law, a Russian-based organization that provides free legal services to migrants and refugees, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that a recent study by the organization showed that most Tajik citizens are jailed for drug-related crimes and petty hooliganism. But she noted: "Among those who have been jailed for drug crimes, there are a lot of people who have been wrongly imprisoned. Most of the time, during a document check the police will put 1 or 2 grams of heroin in their pocket or bag and ask for a bribe. The ones who can't pay end up in jail."


Nazarova explained that migrant workers are ill-equipped to defend themselves in unfamiliar circumstances. "The other biggest problem is that the migrants are not knowledgeable. They can't defend themselves because they don't know how or they don't know the language," she said. "Even those migrants who are prepared to defend themselves often can't hire a lawyer because they don't have the money. The cost of hiring a lawyer is several times more than the monthly income of a migrant construction worker.... Recently, the lawyer we hired resolved a case in the Nagatinskii district of someone who had been wrongly imprisoned."

Not all of the Tajik migrant workers who are unfortunate enough to end up behind bars are in Russia, and not all of them are men. On 22 July, RFE/RL's Tajik Service told the story of a group of Tajik women who returned home after spending time in jail in Dubai. The women, victims of human traffickers in a burgeoning global sex trade, appealed to Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov to take measures to deal with the problem. Nigina Muhammadjonova, a representative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), told RFE/RL, "In their letter, these women asked the president to punish harshly those involved in human trafficking so that they no longer sell the honor and dignity of Tajik women for money."

The Tajik government has made efforts to help women victimized by human traffickers. Interior Minister Humdin Sharifov told journalists in July about a recent initiative. "At the president's request, a commission is now at work in the United Arab Emirates and it has already returned 12 women. These women are now undergoing treatment," Sharifov said. Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov added, "Human trafficking, and especially the trafficking of women, is a serious problem that the government is dealing with. For 20 days now, a commission headed by one of my deputies has been in the [United Arab Emirates] and is working to bring back Tajik citizens."

The IOM confirmed that by late July the government commission had helped to bring back 18 women from the United Arab Emirates. But many more may remain. Official statistics indicate that more than 200 Tajik women aged 18 to 30 are in Arab, Turkish, and Russian jails after falling victim to sex traffickers, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported.

Some Benefits

Despite the dangers, the prospect of better fortunes abroad continues to draw hundreds of thousands of Tajiks -- no one knows exactly how many, with conservative estimates putting their strength at 500,000. Not all of the stories end unhappily. In a 14 June report from Yekaterinburg, Russia, RFE/RL's Tajik Service detailed a mutually beneficial relationship between a landscaping company and Tajik migrant workers. Aleksandra Ivanova, the company's deputy director, said that she employs 100 migrant workers, with 80 of them classified as landscaping specialists, not merely day laborers. "The migrant workers in our company are mainly engaged in cutting down trees, weeding flowerbeds, planting flowers along city streets, and keeping them clean Their work is beneficial for the city," Ivanova explained.

Ivanova described herself as satisfied with her Tajik employees. She noted, however, that while the company takes pains to register its employees legally, police still harass them at times. Rahimjon Mirzoev, a Tajik who has been working for the firm for four years, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service his side of the story: "We go out to work at 6:30 a.m. Sometimes we get Saturday off and sometimes we get Sunday off. Our monthly salary is more than 6,000 rubles [$210]. We have a good relationship with our bosses. If there's a problem, we talk to them, and they take care of it."

Women Migrants

Within the overall phenomenon of Tajik labor migration, new tendencies are seeming to emerge. Mukarrama Burhonova, who works at an IOM information center in Tajikistan, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 14 June that 40 percent of the 1,500 potential migrant workers who visited the center over the past two months were women. Six months ago, she said, the center received only 10-20 women a month. Now they number from 200 to 500. "The number of male migrant workers is very large, but women are not far behind, and women are more insistent about gathering information than men," Burhonova said.

Nozanin Huseynova, a woman from Dushanbe with eight children, came to the IOM center to find out what she could before departing for Russia for the first time. Beset by poverty, Huseynova said that going to Russia to work is the best solution to the problem of supporting her family and paying for her children's education. "Six of my children are studying in middle school or college. My husband is unemployed. My children don't have a chance to continue their education because middle school costs money, college costs money, and we can't afford it," Huseynova said. "The country's leaders don't spend a lot of time thinking about things like this, do they? But I see going to Russia as the way out of these everyday problems."

External labor migration -- from Tajikistan to Russia, for example -- can also prompt internal labor migration, as departing migrants create a labor vacuum at home. As RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 2 June, so many people have traveled from Jirgatol District to Rasht District that locals have taken to calling the latter "little Russia." Jirgatol residents prefer Rasht to Russia because it is closer to home, and they can still make $150-$200 a month working there. Jamshed, a local employer in Rasht, told RFE/RL that migrant laborers in Rasht are primarily engaged in construction and renovations in the houses of local residents who are themselves labor migrants in Russia.

But Russia remains the primary destination for Tajik labor migrants, who are often willing to sacrifice whatever they must to pave the way to what they hope will be a better future. Jonona, a young woman from Dushanbe, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 14 June that she sold her gold earrings and ring to help pay for her journey north. "My father and brother didn't give me permission to go to Russia. They say that it will end badly for me. But what am I supposed to do -- my life is hard," Jonona said. "I don't have a house. I live with three children in a dormitory and I pay 60 somonis [$19] a month in rent. This is why I want to go to Russia to work, so that I can come back and buy a house. I've got my foreign passport, but I don't have enough money to pay for the trip, and I don't know what I'm going to do." (Daniel Kimmage. Originally published on 22 August.)

KAZAKH OIL DEAL MARKS BEIJING'S FIRST FOREIGN ENERGY TAKEOVER. China and India have been battling for oil fields in central Kazakhstan, and on 22 August, it appeared that China won. China's largest oil producer, PetroChina, launched a $4.18 billion bid for PetroKazakhstan, in what could be China's first successful takeover of a foreign-listed energy company. The deal helps China's need for new and secure sources of energy. And it also gives Beijing extra influence in Central Asia.

A final agreement has yet to be signed, and India is vowing to make a counteroffer. But the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) appears to have secured a $4.18 billion deal to purchase PetroKazakhstan.

PetroKazakhstan, a Canadian-based company, is Kazakhstan's second-largest foreign producer and the largest supplier of refined products in the Central Asian nation.

Mark McCafferty, a Central Asian analyst for the Wood Mackenzie oil and gas consultancy firm in Edinburgh, Scotland, told RFE/RL that the purchase fills a key gap in China's oil exports from Kazakhstan. "Certainly from the Chinese side, and specifically the CNPC, it's a very important acquisition, because it's given them quite a sizeable amount of production and reserves in Kazakhstan, and specifically central Kazakhstan. And that's important because they're in the process of building a pipeline in the eastern part of Kazakhstan to China just now, and previously there were big concerns about where the oil was going to come from to fill CNPC's pipeline. They've now secured production through this acquisition of PetroKazakhstan," McCafferty said.

China and Kazakhstan concluded a $9 billion deal several years ago to build an oil pipeline from western Kazakhstan eastward to China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where there are newly built refineries. The fields belonging to PetroKazakhstan are in the center of Kazakhstan, in the path of the Kazakh-Chinese pipeline route, which is already under construction.

This purchase underscores both China's need to find new sources of oil to drive its thriving economy and Beijing's desire to increase its political influence in Central Asia.

Many analysts believe China paid a generous price for PetroKazakhstan, whose fields contain the relatively modest proven reserves of 340 million barrels. Alex Vatanka is the Eurasian editor at the London-based organization Jane's Country Risk. He said the fact that China was willing to pay such a high price to acquire PetroKazakhstan should be a wake-up call for companies considering doing business in areas where China has set its sights.

"The fact that they paid above top dollar for it is an indication about how strongly the central authorities in Beijing feel about this issue. This is going to be a factor that will probably be one of the biggest concerns for Western energy companies getting involved in bidding for energy fields in this part of the world when facing Chinese competition," Vatanka said. "They know that with the Chinese, essentially, if they get the go-ahead, the political go-ahead, then the price becomes almost academic for them."

Central Asia, and Kazakhstan in particular, have been a focus of U.S. investment since the early 1990s. The U.S. companies Chevron and Exxon are working in Kazakhstan's huge oil fields in the western part of the country and in the Kazakh sector of the Caspian Sea.

McCafferty said for China, deals like the PetroKazakhstan purchase represent energy security for Beijing as they supersede U.S.-dominated projects and export routes.

"Kazakhstan in particular is of great strategic importance to them just now, because we've seen in the last couple of years how important security of supply is to China. And currently they're reliant on tankers transporting the oil through the Persian Gulf, and these are both areas which are strongly controlled by the United States. So what you get when you're purchasing reserves and production in Kazakhstan is a direct link from Kazakhstan to China, and no other powers can perhaps interfere with these supplies," McCafferty said.

And Vatanka noted that for Astana, dealing with China carries benefits beyond economics -- at least for Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

"There might be some pressure on him, and he would assume then that having some competition on his home turf -- i.e., the Chinese -- to face off the American pressure is actually good for his regime," Vatanka said.

The purchase gives China an extra foothold in Central Asia's energy market and promises to provide Beijing with added political leverage in future dealings with the governments of the resource-rich region. A final decision on the sale to China is due to be made in October. (Bruce Pannier. Originally published on 23 August.)

CAN KAZAKH OPPOSITION COMPETE IN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS? Kazakhstan's Constitutional Council has set the first Sunday of December as the date of the country's early presidential elections. The date, 4 December, still requires approval from parliament, but already many are predicting an easy victory for incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbaev. The last early presidential election caught the political opposition unaware, leaving them little time to campaign or strategize. This time, however, the opposition had anticipated an early vote and has been forging a platform for the better part of the past year.

The announcement on 19 August of the early presidential vote took few in Kazakhstan by surprise. In particular, For a Just Kazakhstan, the leading opposition group, had seen it coming. But Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, the movement's presidential challenger, still expressed frustration at having so little time left before 4 December. "There are only four months remaining before elections, and until now people haven't even known the exact day of the election," he said. "That's just nonsense that probably has no precedent in the world."

Actually, there is a precedent for December's early election. Kazakhstan's last presidential elections were also held early. Moreover, it was clear months ago that it could happen again. With Nazarbaev's current term due to end in January 2006, and elections scheduled for only the following December, early elections were a likely outcome.

The opposition's anticipation of an early vote has helped from an organizational point of view. But with little more than three months left to mount an official campaign, the opposition still faces some daunting challenges. Serikbai Alibaev, the head of the Astana office of For a Just Kazakhstan, said the late announcement of the election date is clearly favors Nazarbaev. "The idea was not to give the opposition enough time and to get an element of surprise by announcing this decision [only on 18 August]," Alibaev said.

For a Just Kazakhstan is now Kazakhstan's leading opposition group. It was officially registered, on its third try, on 3 August. The movement unites the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, the Pokolenie pensioners' movement, the recently created Alga party (formed from the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party) and the Naghyz Ak Zhol party, a splinter of the original Ak Zhol party.

Many of Kazakhstan's opposition groups pledged late last year to support Tuyakbai, the former speaker of the Mazhilis, or lower house of parliament. In previous elections, the opposition has not been able to gather support for a single candidate, so this political union is critical for Tuyakbai's hopes of success.

But not all of Kazakhstan's opposition groups are behind Tuyakbai.

The Ak Zhol party split last April. Prior to last year's parliamentary elections the party claimed some 147,000 supporters, but it appears most remained with the original party and did not transfer their allegiance to the Naghyz Ak Zhol party that is part of the For a Just Kazakhstan movement. Ak Zhol could run its own candidate.

For A Just Kazakhstan does not have any supporters in parliament. The movement also cannot count on much help from the country's media. Most of Kazakhstan's newspapers, radio, and television stations are owned by the state or people close to President Nazarbaev. The few independent media outlets that do exist in Kazakhstan are subject to a number of problems -- from tax police to simple vandalism. These problems regularly strike pro-opposition media but rarely hit pro-government outlets. Such problems have been particularly acute in the days leading up to previous polls.

Legal problems equivalent to a misdemeanor charge barred the leading opposition candidate from running in the last presidential election. Already the prosecutor's office has warned Tuyakbai about campaigning before an election date was named, a charge Tuyakbai has denied.

"As for the movement For a Just Kazakhstan, there has been no pre-election campaigning," Tuyakbai said. "No calls for people to vote for us took place. In the current situation, I think the most important thing is to hold free and fair elections without ignoring the wishes of the voters. If all this happens, then let the strongest candidate win."

For Tuyakbai, and anyone else who may enter the race against Nazarbaev, there is the prospect of being attacked. Tuyakbai and his supporters claim he and the group were targeted in two attacks earlier this year.

The opposition also must contend with Kazakhstan's relative prosperity. The standard of living in the country has become better, in part due to the huge revenues Kazakhstan is taking in from its oil industry. Something of a middle class is developing and it owes its change in fortunes to the current regime.

A last drawback for the opposition is that, as is true in many other former Soviet republics, the opposition leadership is made up mainly of former government officials. Tuyakbai himself is an old friend of Nazarbaev, and until last year's parliamentary election was deputy chief of the Otan ruling party, which is dedicated to seeing Nazarbaev reelected. Some voters may see Tuyakbai's candidacy as personal opportunism rather than the product of a desire to improve the life of the country's citizens. (Bruce Pannier, with contribution from Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. Originally published on 22 August.)

SAMARKAND HIT BY UZBEKISTAN'S FIRST POST-ANDIJON PROTESTS. Two public protests broke out on 20-21 August in the Uzbek city of Samarkand. On 20 August, demonstrators from the city outskirts blocked roads to protest the scheduled destruction of their houses. And on 22 August, hundreds of merchants angrily protested a sudden decision to relocate the city's main market. The Samarkand protests are the first in Uzbekistan since those that ended in a violent government crackdown in Andijon in May.

The owners of some 100 homes from the village of Bogimaydon, on the outskirts of Samarkand, said authorities gave them only a week's notice to leave their homes before they were destroyed in order to make room for a highway-extension project. They said the compensation they had been offered was far less than the market value of their homes.

In response, the residents blocked the village's main road for several hours on 20 August, holding placards reading: "Don't demolish an old house before building a new one." It is a phrase familiar to the country's authoritarian leader, Islam Karimov. He uses the expression often during speeches, and has also used it as the title of one of his numerous books.

In a voice-mail message left with RFE/RL's Tashkent bureau, a protester described the scene: "Several people who suffered a lot and were fed up took to the streets to say their houses were to be demolished. We blocked the road and were holding placards."

Local human rights activists like Jamol Mirsaidov were said to be among the protesters. Protesters claimed Mirsaidov and other demonstrators were hurt when police used force to disperse the crowd. Uzbek officials have not commented on the protest.

Historic Village

Experts say the issue is about more than Bogimaydon's residents. They argue the village itself is a historical and architectural treasure that should not be destroyed.

Bogimaydon is believed to have been founded as a magnificent garden. Uzbek architects say it was constructed in the 14th century at the behest of Amir Timur -- also known as Tamerlane, the medieval conqueror and founder of an empire that extended from India to the Mediterranean Sea, with Samarkand as its capital.

Toshpulat Rakhmatullaev is an independent journalist and historian who lives in Bogimaydon. He says although the highway extension will not affect the historic part of the village, the road work is an intrusion that never should be so close to a place with such deep historical value.

"Amir Timur had, according to some sources, 14 gardens. Two of them were Bogimaydon and Bogibaland. The new highway is to go in between Bogimaydon and Bogibaland. The houses [set for destruction] themselves were constructed not more than 50 years ago. There are no historical monuments [among the buildings to be demolished]. But the garden area itself has significant historical value. And another issue is also important here. Those who are being forced to vacate their homes are saying, 'Why didn't you notify us a year or six months ago? We would have found new houses, got ready by now,'" Rakhmatullaev said.

The protest in Bogimaydon was followed by another demonstration. Merchants -- mainly women -- from Samarkand's biggest clothing market, Chuqurbozor, gathered on 22 August to protest a decision by authorities to close the bazaar.

Demonstrators said the closure was announced on 21 August -- just a day before it was due to close.

Local police forces quickly blocked the area of the market where the protests took place. A BBC correspondent who was trying to get to the site was detained and held by police for several hours.

Eyewitnesses told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service the number of protesters may have risen as high as several hundred people.

The two protests are the first in Uzbekistan since the violent crackdown against peaceful demonstrations in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon last May. That violence reportedly led to the deaths of hundreds of unarmed protesters, including many women and children.

The demolition of houses has been a sensitive issue in Uzbekistan for the past several years. Earlier this year, an elderly woman from the capital Tashkent set herself on fire after authorities demanded she vacate her house.

Restrictions on trade regulations markets have also led to many past demonstrations around the country.

The largest protest against trade restrictions took place in the eastern city of Quqon (Kokand) in the Ferghana Valley in November 2004. Several thousand people took part in street protests that involved attacks on police and other officials.

Kamron Aliev, a Tashkent-based independent political analyst, told RFE/RL it is disappointing to see that the Uzbek authorities have not seen a "wake-up call" in the Andijon violence, which drew international condemnation. He said he had hoped that Andijon would change the way officials dealt with citizens' rights.

In the case of Samarkand, he said, the authorities should have known to give reasonable deadlines for vacating their homes or alerting them to the closure of the market.

"Of course, if they would have done that, people's discontent would not be as high as it is now. But during the last 10-15 years, authorities and bureaucrats have ignored the people's needs; they have harassed and tortured people. On the other hand, the major weakness of autocratic regimes is that only one person tries to control everything. But usually one person is not able to do it. So, those around him do what they want," Aliev said.

Aliev said the recent decisions in Samarkand might be the deliberate actions of government officials looking to gain power by damaging Karimov, a native of Samarkand, and deepening public dissatisfaction with him.

The situation in Samarkand and Bogimaydon was quiet in the aftermath of the protests, although road construction in Bogimaydon continues.

Security measures have reportedly been strengthened and police are keeping close watch over the public, particularly at bazaars. Bogimaydon resident Toshpulat Rakhmatullaev says local officials have been attempting to calm public unrest.

He also says the authorities are unlikely to reverse their decisions on the highway construction and bazaar relocation. But they may, at least, postpone the changes until after 1 September, the country's Independence Day, when large public celebrations are expected. (Gulnoza Saidazimova, Originally published on 22 August)