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Central Asia Report: October 21, 2005

21 October 2005, Volume 5, Number 40

WEEK AT A GLANCE (10-16 October). U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, meeting with all three countries' presidents. In Kazakhstan, she called on the government to hold a free and fair election when voters choose a president on 4 December. In Kyrgyzstan, she visited the U.S. air base but stressed that "the United States has made it very clear that we are not seeking a permanent set of bases in Central Asia." Rice repeated the point in Tajikistan, stating also that Tajik opposition parties should have the chance to organize and enjoy unfettered access to media. Commenting on Uzbekistan, which was not included on her itinerary, Rice said that "Uzbekistan is not fulfilling its international responsibilities. Nevertheless, she called on the Uzbek government to "turn back from its current course and make a strategic choice in favor of democracy."

The Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General's Office appealed to Russia for assistance in detaining Aidar Akaev, son of ousted Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev. The younger Akaev, who faces corruption charges in Kyrgyzstan, is currently residing in Russia. President Kurmanbek Bakiev called for an amendment to the constitution to strip former presidents, prime ministers, and parliamentary deputies of immunity from prosecution. Bakiev also signed a new election law that removes the requirement that candidates be physically present in the country for five years before elections. Former Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov applied to run in a 25 November parliamentary by-election in Aksy. Other onetime officials planning parliamentary runs are former Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev and former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva.

In Tajikistan, the Supreme Court's commission on criminal cases reduced the sentence of journalist Jumaboy Tolibov to a single year of community service with 20 percent of his wages garnished for an unspecified time. And in Turkmenistan, prolific President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov published a new book, his fifth, entitled "Mahribanlarim" (My Dear People).

Mahbuba Zokirova, a witness at the trial of 15 men accused of organizing violence in Andijon, Uzbekistan on 12-13 May, told the court that government troops fired on unarmed demonstrators in Andijon. Her testimony, which matched eyewitness accounts recorded by international organizations, stood in marked contrast to the statements of other witnesses at the trial, who have supported the Uzbek government's assertion that religious extremists were responsible for the bloodshed. Elsewhere, U.S.-based media training organization Internews ceased operations in Uzbekistan after it lost a court appeal.

AFGHAN FOREIGN MINISTER CAUTIONS AGAINST DRAWDOWN AT CENTRAL ASIAN BASES. Afghanistan's foreign minister is urging members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) not to weaken support for his country's stabilization efforts. Abdullah Abdullah said that, despite a recent communique, the SCO should recognize the importance of maintaining a robust international military presence in Afghanistan. Separately, the country's women's affairs minister said the new parliament offers hope for lifting Afghan women out of poverty and a culture of violence.

Abdullah told a news briefing at RFE/RL in Washington on 17 October that now is not the time to consider reducing the number of international coalition forces waging the antiterrorism campaign in his country.

"The war against terrorism in Afghanistan is an ongoing process," Abdullah said. "Despite all the achievements, it has not come to an end. And friendly countries to Afghanistan should realize that it's a contribution to stability in the whole region. It's not just for Afghanistan."

In July, the SCO issued a communique calling on Washington to set a timeline for withdrawing from military bases in Central Asia. It suggested there is a declining need for combat operations against the Taliban. The SCO comprises Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Uzbekistan has since called on U.S. forces to vacate a base in its country. But Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan continue to permit coalition military operations on their territory. Last week, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev affirmed that U.S. forces can stay at the Manas air base as long as the situation in Afghanistan requires.

Bakiev spoke at a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was touring Afghanistan and three Central Asian states on a trip aimed at boosting democratic forces and underscoring the need to support the effort against Al-Qaeda and Taliban rebels in Afghanistan.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian television on 16 October that as soon as the terrorist threat starts to fade in Afghanistan, there will be no need for U.S. bases in Central Asia.

But Abdullah said on 17 October that the international community plays a vital role in preventing the return to power of Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements. "I hope that the understanding and the broad support for the coalition efforts in Afghanistan will [be] sustained and will be further strengthened rather than weakened," he said. "But one can see signs of different views on that which, hopefully, the United States -- as well as Afghanistan and the rest of the international community and our region -- will be able to work out."

Addressing his country's political transition, Abdullah said he does not expect incoming members of the country's first elected parliament in more than 30 years to press for any sharp changes in foreign policy.

He said decrees from President Hamid Karzai will be reviewed by the parliament, such as the one dealing with Kabul's long-term strategic relationship with the United States. But Abdullah said he expects parliament to approve the country's partnerships with the international community.

Afghanistan's women's affairs minister, Masuda Jalal, told the same briefing that September's parliamentary elections signaled a dramatic turning point for the welfare of women.

One-quarter of the 249 seats in parliament were reserved for female lawmakers. Jalal expressed hope that this will have an impact on the allocation of resources and services for the country's women.

"It means that the policies, strategies, and plans and programs and activities of the government will be further gender-sensitized going ahead," Jalal said. "And further parliamentarians or the parliament as a whole will be impacting women's life very positively, very positively. There are more than 68 women who will come to the parliament, and that is a good power."

Afghan women suffer from some of the world's highest levels of illiteracy, maternal mortality, and impoverishment. The country's constitution says all Afghan citizens have equal rights and duties before the law. But Jalal said deep societal problems involving the abuse of women and girls still exist and must be overcome.

"Although we have the constitution, we have all sorts of violence going on against women and girls -- the forced marriages, the domestic violence, the early marriages, child marriage, the bad [settlement] of disputes by marrying of women and the exchanged marriage. All type[s] of violence [are] going on," Jalal said.

Jalal added that access to legal services for women are very limited. She said it is essential for the international community to remain engaged in Afghanistan's political and economic reconstruction to help surmount the problems facing women. (Robert McMahon. Originally published on 18 October.)

WHAT DID RICE ACCOMPLISH DURING THREE-DAY TOUR OF CENTRAL ASIA? U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice finished her tour of Central Asia on 13 October. The United States continues to maintain economic and military interests in Central Asia, but Rice's visit came amid waning U.S. fortunes in some of the region. She kept criticism of governments to a minimum, angering some opposition figures who hoped the high-ranking U.S. official would help highlight their difficulties to the international community.

Rice had a delicate task coming to Central Asia at this time.

The United States is seen as a promoter of democracy and human rights, and Rice could not escape addressing these issues.

But other players have emerged, or reemerged, in Central Asia that have less concern about rights and democracy. And, like the U.S., they have their own business and security interests in the region.

Rice visited three Central Asian nations -- Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. All three countries are members of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization, which is dominated by Russia; and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is dominated by Russia and China. Both organizations are suspicious of U.S. intentions in Central Asia.

There was speculation that Rice would avoid talk of democratic reform and human rights issues. But in Kazakhstan on 13 October, Rice said there was no conflict between such issues and business and security interests.

"I think if we were interested only in oil and the war on terrorism, we would not be speaking in the way that we are about democracy here," he said. "Quite clearly, while we do have interests in terms of resources and in terms of the struggle for terrorism, we have in no way allowed those interests to get in the way of our open and clear defense of freedom."

Emphasizing this was the decision to remove Uzbekistan from Rice's itinerary. U.S.-Uzbek ties are at a low ebb after Washington's criticism of the Uzbek government crackdown on demonstrators in Andijon in May.

Human rights groups say hundreds of civilians were killed in the violence, which Tashkent has described as an attempted coup by Islamic militants. The U.S. says the demonstration was the result of the government's repressive policies, and has backed calls for an independent inquiry into the bloodshed.

Rice mentioned this in Kyrgyzstan on 11 October. "Well, our view is that the countries that fulfill their international responsibilities are the ones that the international system respects and ultimately rewards," she said. "Uzbekistan is not fulfilling its international responsibilities at this point, and everyone knows that. And Uzbekistan is losing support throughout Europe and certainly with the United States and that cannot be good for the people of Uzbekistan."

The fallout from the dispute was the Uzbek government's demand that U.S. forces using an air base for operations in Afghanistan vacate the facility by year's end.

Some opposition figures felt Rice was generally too careful in her comments.

Addressing university students in Kazakhstan, Rice called the country a key regional partner and potential model for Central Asia.

Bulat Abilov of Kazakhstan's opposition True Ak Zhol party questioned this rosy interpretation. He pointed out that a prominent Kazakh opposition leader was arrested ahead of his scheduled meeting with Rice.

"[On 14 October], in the middle of Almaty, 20 masked policemen arrested our chief of staff [in support of Zharmakhan Tuyakbai's candidacy to the presidency], Tolen Tokhtasynov. Do you think it's OK, when, on one hand, a well-educated nation, and, on the other hand, an authoritarian leader can cause those kind of problems? Is it possible, or is there any experience in the world, when authoritarian regimes of that sort were able to hold free, fair, and just elections?"

In Tajikistan, Rice met with leaders of various political parties. There, as in Kazakhstan, Rice focused on ties with the U.S. and progress in democratic reform.

But after the meeting in Tajikistan, Rahmatullo Valiev of the opposition Democratic Party of Tajikistan said Rice's praise of the country's progress toward democracy omitted some vital points.

"We all came to the conclusion that the [parliamentary] elections in 2000 were more free and more democratic than the elections in 2005," he said. "And freedom of the press in 2000 was better than in 2005. And we [opposition party representatives] said in such a situation in what direction is Tajikistan headed when two basic democratic institutions of Tajikistan are not even developing. It should be the other way around, that in 2005 the level of democracy and freedom should be better. But the opposite is true."

Rice's trip secured more promises from Kyrgyzstan's leadership that the U.S.-led coalition operating in Afghanistan could still use an airbase outside Bishkek. The base has new significance after the Uzbek eviction notice.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization supported Uzbekistan's decision about the base. Washington suspects that it was Russia and China who convinced the Uzbeks to make the decision. In the last year officials from Russia and China have been frequent visitors to Central Asia, successfully coming to promote their own business interests and give promises of security help.

In Kyrgyzstan, Rice said it was logical that Central Asian nations maintained good ties with Moscow and Beijing. "There will be economic and political support for Kyrgyzstan from many countries," she said. "But I want to be very clear -- we want Kyrgyzstan to have good relations with its neighbors, good relations with Russia, good relations with China, good relations in the region. We have good relations with those countries and we hope that Kyrgyzstan will, too. There is nothing about having good relations with the United States that suggests you have to choose to have bad relations with your neighbors. You should have good relations with your neighbors."

Rice's trip reinforced U.S. ties to the countries she visited and garnered further promises for using the military base in Kyrgyzstan. But for the opposition, or those who feel they have no voice in their countries' affairs, there was little to offer them hope that the United States would want, or be able, to apply much pressure on governments in the region to effect change any time soon. (Bruce Pannier. RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tajik services contributed to this report. Originally published on 14 October.)

U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE SPEAKS TO RFE/RL. Transcript of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's interview with RFE/RL and the BBC in Bishkek on 11 October.

Answering an RFE/RL question about when the United States might leave the Ganci Air Base at Manas Airport:

Rice: Well, today, the president [Bakiev] and I spoke to the issue of the [Ganci] base, and he made very clear what he has told us -- that this base is needed for the war on terrorism, it is needed until the terrorists are defeated in Afghanistan, and I don't think we want to set a time-table [for leaving]. We just have to do it as quickly as possible to defeat the terrorists. That's the goal here. It is also the case that the United States has made very clear that we are not seeking a permanent set of bases in Central Asia. We are operating here to support the war on terrorism, which is important to us and important to the region because the terrorists threaten both of us. As to the requirements for the base and relations between Kyrgyzstan and the United States, we are always prepared to talk about our arrangements, but we believe it is a fair arrangement, and we will have a team coming soon to explain better how we have been dealing with certain technical issues concerning the base.

Answering a BBC question about new deployments at Ganci Air Base at Manas Airport:

Rice: The United States believes that it can certainly continue operations and win the war on terrorism with the structures that we have in place now. We are supporting operations out of [Ganci Air Base at] Manas to Uzbekistan and we have needed overflight rights in other places and I expect that that will continue to be the nature of our needs.

Answering BBC question about difficult relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan and the effect on U.S. foreign policy:

Rice: Well, our view is that the countries that fulfill their international responsibilities are the ones that the international system respects and ultimately rewards. Uzbekistan is not fulfilling its international responsibilities at this point and everyone knows that and Uzbekistan is losing support throughout Europe and certainly with the United States and that cannot be good for the people of Uzbekistan. So, I think Kyrgyzstan is the one that is in the strongest position here because Kyrgyzstan is acting as a responsible citizen. There will be economic and political support for Kyrgyzstan from many countries. But I want to be very clear -- we want Kyrgyzstan to have good relations with its neighbors, good relations with Russia, good relations with China, good relations in the region. We have good relations with those countries and we hope that Kyrgyzstan will, too. There is nothing about having good relations with the United States that suggests you have to choose to have bad relations with your neighbors. You should have good relations with your neighbors. (Originally published on 11 October 2005.)