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Central Asia Report: October 10, 2005

10 October 2005, Volume 5, Number 38

WEEK AT A GLANCE (26 September-2 October). A number of independent newspapers in Kazakhstan suffered a blow when the Vremya-Print printing house annulled a contract to print them, prompting a hunger strike by the editors and angry statements by opposition presidential candidates Zharmakhan Tuyakbai and Alikhan Baimenov, who charged that President Nursultan Nazarbaev is engineering a media clampdown in the lead-up to the 4 December presidential election. The editors apparently ended their hunger strike as they entered into negotiations with other presses to publish the newspapers. On the electoral front, the Central Election Commission certified the eligibility of 11 candidates, including incumbent President Nursultan Nazarbaev; Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, the leader the opposition For a Just Kazakhstan bloc; parliamentarians Ualikhan Kaisarov and Erasyl Abylkasymov; businessman Salim Oten; Amantai-kazhy Asylbek; lawyer Mekemtas Tleulesov; and Alikhan Baimenov, the leader of the Ak Zhol party.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev presented his new government to parliament, which promptly approved 10 members but rejected six, including Roza Otunbaeva for foreign minister. For his part, the president responded with six new nominations: Alikbek Jekshenkulov, who currently heads the international politics section of the presidential administration, as foreign minister; Yevgenii Semenenko as labor and social security minister; Nurlan Sulaimanov as transportation and communications minister; Sultan Raev as culture minister; Aigul Ryskulova as head of the State Migration Committee; and Turusbek Koenaliev as director of the prime minister's administration. Elsewhere, former Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov urged demonstrators in his native Aksy district to remain calm in their calls for his reinstatement. Beknazarov told them: "President Bakiev was elected by the people, and the constitution gives him the right to dismiss me. Whatever the reasons were, let that be on his conscience. Time and history will judge him."

Tajikistan hosted meetings of the prime ministers from the member states of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO; Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) and Eurasian Economic Community (EES; Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan). The CACO meeting ended with the signing of six documents intended to move Central Asia closer to a common market, while the main accomplishment of the EES meeting was the signing of a document on customs unification. The prime ministers of the EES member states also agreed to form a council on EES fiscal and economic policy, with economy and finance ministers from EES countries as its members. Elsewhere, officials from Tajikistan and Afghanistan agreed to strengthen cooperation efforts in guarding the border between the two countries, and prosecutors in Dushanbe asked Tajikistan's Supreme Court to sentence Democratic Party head Mahmadruzi Iskandarov to a 25-year prison term and impose a 1.5 million-somoni ($470,000) fine. Iskandarov, who faces a variety of terrorism and corruption charges, maintains his innocence.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov dismissed Akhal province Governor Murad Atagarriev for "nepotism, bribery, polygamy, and drug addiction," replacing him with Amandurdy Muratguliev, whom the president relieved of his duties as economy and finance minister. Niyazov also chided officials for inadequate efforts to secure the cotton harvest.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Daniel Fried met with Uzbek President Karimov in Tashkent. Fried confirmed after the meeting that the United States will comply with an Uzbek request that it vacate the Karshi-Khanabad air base. While noting that the United States and Uzbekistan share common security concerns, Fried stressed that the two countries "have had a very difficult period in relations, complicated by grave concerns regarding the human rights situation and events in Andijon." On the day the U.S. delegation arrived, a defendant at the trial of 15 alleged organizers of violence in Andijon on 13 May testified that the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent provided rebels with funds. Fried told reporters the claim was "ludicrous." Meanwhile, Russia's Gazprom signed a 2006-10 gas purchase agreement with Uzbekistan that will essentially give Gazprom control over all of Turkmenistan's gas for export.

ANDIJON COVER-UP PROVOKES EU SANCTIONS. Further details emerged in Brussels on 30 September about the sanctions EU foreign ministers are virtually certain to impose against Uzbekistan at their monthly meeting in Luxembourg on 3 October. Officials have made it clear the sanctions will remain in place as long as the Uzbek government continues to cover up what the EU -- among other international organizations and governments -- has described as a massacre of civilian demonstrators in Andijon in May.

Officials in Brussels made clear that EU member states are determined to get to the bottom of the bloody events in Andijon in May. They confirmed that the upcoming EU foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg is virtually certain to agree a raft of sanctions on Tashkent in retaliation for what the bloc sees as a cover-up of the massacre by Tashkent.

The measures will include an arms embargo, preparations for a visa ban on top officials, aid cuts, and the suspension of parts of the EU-Uzbek Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.

EU foreign ministers have twice before asked the Uzbek government to permit an independent international inquiry into the events in Andijon. Human rights organizations estimate hundreds of demonstrators died after being fired upon by Uzbek troops. The Uzbek government has refused an inquiry. Now, one official said today, the EU "has run out of patience."

Without commenting on planned EU sanctions, Emma Udwin, a European Commission spokeswoman, told RFE/RL that an inquiry is a central EU demand.

"We remain deeply concerned about the events in Andijon earlier this year," Udwin said. "At the present time we only have reports to go on, but those reports are extremely serious, the reports of loss of life, and how life was lost. It seems to us essential that an event of this gravity should be investigated by an international independent inquiry, so that all of us can know the truth."

Privately, diplomats point out that things might be a little more complicated. An EU source who asked not to be named told RFE/RL today that the holding of an inquiry would not necessarily be enough to satisfy the EU or lead to a normalization of relations with Uzbekistan. The official noted that "it would not help, if such an inquiry concluded the [Uzbek] authorities were killing people in the streets."

However, spokeswoman Udwin said an inquiry is unavoidable if Uzbekistan does want to normalize relations with the EU.

"If Uzbekistan has nothing to hide, it can only gain by holding such an inquiry and we have pressed Uzbekistan, pointing out that it is only harming its own interests if it continues to resist the holding of this kind of investigation, which the whole international community -- and not only the EU -- has called for," Udwin said.

An arms embargo should be announced on 3 October. The European Commission says it has already prepared the necessary legislation.

EU diplomats have told RFE/RL the planned arms embargo is largely a symbolic act, as there is no or little arms trade going on between EU member states and Tashkent. Uzbekistan, however, provides an important logistical foothold for countries such as Germany and Spain in their operations in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Stabilization Assistance Force.

Tashkent has already evicted the United States from one of its bases, but has announced no steps against other countries. NATO officials have told RFE/RL previously that the alliance has prepared contingency plans to circumvent Uzbekistan if necessary.

The EU will also cut aid to Uzbekistan in 2006. Instead of 11.25 million euros ($13.6 million), the country will receive 9.25 million euros. Officials say that some of the remaining funds will be reoriented. Instead of going toward supporting political and economic reforms, as planned, some of the money will be used to fight poverty in the Ferghana Valley. Within the context of the antipoverty drive in the Ferghana Valley, part of the aid earmarked for Uzbekistan will now be spent in Kyrgyzstan.

One official said today that poverty in the region is seen as a root cause of the unrest in May.

Visa bans on Uzbek officials directly implicated in the Andijon events are also in the pipeline, but the EU has yet to assemble a list of targets.

The EU will announce on 3 October that it will suspend parts of its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Uzbekistan. Officials in Brussels explained today that this will mean upcoming expert-level meetings in areas such as justice and home affairs will be canceled. In July, the EU already canceled a round of lower-level trade and investment talks with Uzbekistan.

However, officials say, the European Commission wants to leave some channels of communication open, believing dialogue remains the best way to influence the Uzbek government. It is therefore possible that the ministerial level meeting of the EU-Uzbek Cooperation Council scheduled for later this autumn could yet take place. (Ahto Lobjakas. Originally published on 30 September.)

INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE ON TASHKENT MOUNTS OVER ANDIJON. International pressure is mounting on officials in Tashkent over their refusal to allow an independent inquiry into the violence in Andijon in mid-May. EU diplomats say the bloc will agree on 3 October to impose an arms embargo and other sanctions on Uzbekistan. The steps come as trials continue in Tashkent for the first 15 people accused by the government of organizing the unrest. Where do international tensions over Andijon go from here?

The ghosts of Andijon have returned to haunt the Uzbek government. This time it is the European Union that has conjured up memories of what rights groups call the May massacre in eastern Uzbekistan.

EU ambassadors meetings in Brussels on 29 September decided it is time for a public demonstration of the EU's unhappiness with Tashkent's for refusing to allow an independent international investigation into the events.

The EU ambassadors agreed to a set of sanctions against Tashkent that will be officially announced at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on 3 October. The measures include a ban on exports of arms and military equipment to Tashkent and a reduction in EU aid.

A spokesman for the Uzbek Foreign Ministry, Ilhom Zakirov, told RFE/RL on 30 September that Tashkent has no official reaction to the EU move "insofar as a final decision has not yet been made and this matter is still being reviewed [by the EU]."

Alex Vatanka, the Eurasia editor of the London-based publication "Jane's Country Risk," described the impending EU sanctions as mainly symbolic but likely to have an effect on Tashkent's diplomatic relations.

"Uzbekistan, politically, has become such a headache for the European Union that they're likely to, now as we read, impose limited sanctions on Uzbekistan," Vatanka said. "I don't think necessarily that will change the mind or philosophy of the government of Uzbekistan but it is going to have implications for Uzbekistan's foreign policy."

The EU measure is the latest development in Uzbekistan's rapidly deteriorating relations with the West. Tashkent is already embroiled in a quarrel with Washington over its refusal to allow an independent investigation into the Andijon events.

Washington's criticism of Tashkent's actions in Andijon contributed to the Uzbek government's recent demand that the Americans leave an Uzbek air base by the end of this year. The air base had been used since late 2001 for operations in Afghanistan and was the cornerstone of Uzbekistan's role in the U.S.-led coalition.

The deterioration in U.S.-Uzbek relations has seen growing calls in the U.S. Congress for now breaking off any support for Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

Congressmen Bill Delahunt (Democrat, Massachusetts) on 29 September called on the U.S. administration to end Defense Department payments to the Uzbek government.

"In essence this is the culmination of a concern that I have shared for some time now and its an effort to bring to the attention of the Congress the conduct of Mr. Karimov, one of our partners in the so-called coalition of the willing," Delahunt told RFE/RL. "I think it's time that we be very clear, draw a very bright line, and disassociate ourselves from the Karimov government."

There are signs that the U.S. administration is also fast losing patience with Karimov. "The Washington Post" today quoted U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried as saying time is running out for Karimov to "respond to our message." Fried, who is touring Central Asia this week and already has visited Uzbekistan, said Washington is not interested in "six months" of diplomatic wrangling over Andijon.

But analysts say the increased Western pressure on Tashkent might not cause Tashkent to listen so much as to simply turn toward other allies who express less concern over human rights issues.

Vatanka said the cooling of relations with the EU and United States offers new opportunities to Russia and China to make gains in their rivalry with the West for influence in Central Asia.

"It will enable other states in the region, particularly Russia and China, to perhaps strengthen their support for the [Uzbek] regime and benefit from what is going to be a widening gap between Uzbekistan and the European Union," Vatanka said. "So far, since Andijon, all indications are that they're [Russia and China] more than happy to come in to the aid of Karimov in order to satisfy their foreign policy objectives in Uzbekistan and within Central Asia."

Both Russia and China have refused to criticize Karimov over Andijon since the beginning of the crisis.

"We, in fact, knew how all this was prepared [the events in Andijon], or at least we knew some of the elements [of the plan]," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said of Moscow's position in June. "It's quite clear there was an external link. This helped us to take really an objective stance [on the events in Andijon] based on all circumstances of what had happened and [to avoid] any one-sided assessment which has only political considerations."

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Kong Quan, expressed Beijing's position very similarly just a month earlier -- in late May.

"About what happened in Uzbekistan recently, we think it's their internal affair, but we strongly support the government crackdown on separatists, terrorists, and extremists," Kong said. "We support Uzbekistan, together with other Central Asian countries, combining their efforts in order to maintain peace and development in Central Asia."

The dispute between the West and Uzbekistan is the over both how many people died in Andijon and how Tashkent handles domestic unrest.

Rights groups and witnesses claim hundreds of people, mainly unarmed protesters, were killed when Uzbek troops fired indiscriminately on protesters who had gathered in a central square in Andijon for an antigovernment rally on 13 May. The rally followed a violent jailbreak overnight.

A report by Galima Bukharbaeva of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) minutes after shooting started in Andijon gave an idea of the carnage.

"I was able to hide myself in an aryq [a small canal], and from there I saw wounded people being carried away from the crowd," Bukharbaeva said. "I saw five men completely covered in blood being carried away in front of me. The people carrying them were also covered in blood. They said those people [being carried] were dead. They were just bodies; they didn't move. But I think some of them were wounded. There were five or maybe more people [wounded]. They were saying, 'Look, journalists, there are two or three dead bodies here.' But we couldn't look because the shooting continued."

The Uzbek government says 187 people were killed, most of them armed Islamic radicals and soldiers, police, and local officials. Karimov said two days after the event that radicals had sought to overthrow order in Uzbekistan.

"We have practically all the family names, and they are members of a current within Hizb ut-Tahrir that in Andijon are called Akramiya," Karimov said. "Their main purpose is to turn over the existing constitutional structure, to turn over the power in different places and found what is called a caliphate, that would unite all Islamites. The movement was categorically against all sorts of constitutional institutions, against a secular development of the events. That is their purpose." (Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Robert McMahon. Originally published on 30 September.)