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Central Asia Report: October 27, 2005

27 October 2005, Volume 5, Number 41

WEEK AT A GLANCE (17-23 October 2005). Free-speech issues sprang to the fore in the lead-up to Kazakhstan's 4 December presidential election, as police confiscated the print run of the opposition newspaper "Svoboda Slova" (Freedom of Speech). The authorities said the newspaper had violated regulations on what may and may not be published in the pre-campaign period, while the newspaper's editors decried a "demonstrative violation of Kazakh law." Meanwhile, the OSCE deployed its observation mission to monitor the ballot. On the business front, shareholders in Canadian-registered PetroKazakhstan approved China National Petroleum Corporation's (CNPC) $4.2 billion buyout bid, although a Canadian court must still rule on an objection to the deal from Russia's LUKoil. CNPC later announced that state-run Kazakh oil-and-gas company KazMunaiGaz will acquire a stake in PetroKazakhstan, estimated in reports at roughly one-third, if the deal goes through.

The murder of Kyrgyz legislator Tynychbek Akmatbaev, killed while visiting a prison to negotiate with rioting prisoners, set off a political firestorm fueled by fears that criminal groups have enhanced their political influence in the wake of President Askar Akaev's fall on 24 March. Akmatbaev's brother, Ryspek Akmatbaev, is a rumored criminal kingpin who was reportedly feuding with an underworld boss held at the prison where Tynychbek Akmatbaev was killed. Charging Prime Minister Feliks Kulov with complicity in his brother's death, Ryspek Akmatbaev led several hundred people in a days-long protest in Bishkek calling for Kulov's removal. Kulov said that he would only step down if President Kurmanbek Bakiev and parliament found the demand justified. For his part, Bakiev called for a thorough investigation of the circumstances of Akmatbaev's death.

Russia marked its departure from the Tajik-Afghan border with a ceremony in Dushanbe, although a Russian official noted that Russia will continue to train Tajikistan's border guards. France announced that it will scale down its military presence in Tajikistan, pulling out six jets and 250 personnel, leaving 150 military personnel. And the Committee to Protect Journalists expressed outrage at a decision by the Prosecutor-General's Office to keep journalist Jumaboy Tolibov in prison despite a Supreme Court ruling to release him.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Turkmenistan, where President Saparmurat Niyazov suggested that Russia should pay more for the gas it buys. Niyazov suggested raising the price for 2006 purchases from $44 per 1,000 cubic meters to $50, with a subsequent increase to $60. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan sank to the bottom of Transparency International's "Corruption Perceptions Index 2005," sharing 155th place with Haiti and Myanmar, outdone only by Bangladesh and Chad in 158th place. Turkmenistan's neighbors fared better but still found themselves in the lower realms of the survey: Tajikistan in 144th place, Uzbekistan in 137th, Kyrgyzstan in 130th, and Kazakhstan in 107th.

Supporters of Sanjar Umarov, leader of the Uzbek opposition group Sunshine Coalition, announced that Umarov had been arrested on charges of committing financial improprieties. Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department condemned reports that rights activist Elena Urlaeva was undergoing forcible psychiatric treatment. The Committee to Protect Journalists announced that Galima Bukharbaeva, the former Uzbek correspondent for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, was among four recipients of the International Press Freedom Awards. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited, meeting with Uzbek President Islam Karimov. The two touted the strengthening strategic partnership between Russia and Uzbekistan.

UZBEKISTAN: ONE WITNESS'S TESTIMONY FORCES COURTROOM COLLISION. Until 14 October, the Uzbek government had every reason to consider the trial of 15 alleged organizers of the 12-13 May violence in Andijon a ringing domestic success. The accused immediately pleaded guilty to charges carrying the death penalty, a parade of witnesses confirmed official allegations that religious extremists bore responsibility for the bloodshed, and no one suggested that government forces acted improperly when they quelled the unrest.

But on 14 October, witness Mahbuba Zokirova painted a radically different picture, testifying that soldiers had shot unarmed demonstrators. Her account contradicted the official version of events and buttressed reports by international organizations citing eyewitness testimony that government forces massacred civilians in Andijon on 13 May. RFE/RL has provided a transcript of Zokirova's testimony. The following excerpts convey both the tenor of her remarks and the most explosive charges they contain.

Zokirova's Testimony

Zokirova: My name is Mahbuba Zokirova, daughter of Ghofirjon. I was born in 1972 in the city of Andijon.

Judge: Do you have an education?

Zokirova: I finished the eighth grade.

Judge: Are you employed?

Zokirova: I've been employed in the past.

Judge: What is your place of residence?

Zokirova: The village of Hakan.

Judge: Andijon Province, village of Hakan, 304 Qumquma Street -- is that correct?

Zokirova: Qum Street.

Judge: House 304?

Zokirova: Yes.

Judge: Zokirova, you've been called as a witness. You have to give accurate testimony on the things you witnessed. You will be held accountable for perjury. I've informed you of this. Please sign the list. (Long pause.) Without hurrying, please tell us about the things and events you have seen.

Zokirova: My daughter and I both have our birthdays on 12 May. Every year, we celebrate our birthday and go out with the kids' dad. Since he was at work, he couldn't come out. Later, I took my kids out to the city. There was a crowd in front of Navoiy Park in the city. There were a lot of people. I went over to find out what was going on. When I went over, there were a lot of women there like me with their kids. There were also one or two armed men there. It never occurred to me that they might be terrorists. There weren't a lot of weapons, so they didn't grab my attention. I don't know, I thought they might be guards. We stood there.

Everyone was out and about and they were talking a lot. To be more precise, there were handicapped people, women. Everyone was talking about the events that had happened. They said that [President Islam] Karimov was on his way. They said he was really coming. They brought out an older man, and they told him some things. I don't remember exactly what. After that a helicopter came. It flew low. It went over our heads twice. We thought that this was really Karimov. They were saying, "Now our president has really come to Andijon." We believed it.

Later, Karimov hadn't arrived and I was at the edge of the crowd. Soldiers in a vehicle at the edge of the road opened fire. Someone dropped to the ground next to me. A little girl said, "I've been shot in the leg." Then I said (and I was lying down), "Have you really been shot?" She said, "No, it didn't hit my leg. It hit the heel of my shoe." I looked and there was a bullet hole. I said, "Yes, it's a bullet hole." I was scared. I have four little kids. They were all there. I was afraid for my kids, not for myself. I still can't believe they were shooting at the people. After this, the armed people and men said, "Come through. Let the women inside. Don't let them shoot them. Have the men shield them." There weren't a lot of armed men. Most of the men were unarmed. Then the women went to the inside and the guys [men] stayed at the edge. A lot of them died. That's what it was like. At one point, I don't know, three or four, maybe five or 10 people who had spoken a lot said, "We'll put them in front. If we put the officials [in front], they won't shoot the people. How can they shoot their own guys? Don't be afraid." I think they put them in front, but me and my kids were in the crowd and I didn't see. When they put them in front, we moved a bit. There was terrible shooting.

Words can't describe it. It's wasn't like that even during the war. It was horrible, bloody. When we were lying down, blood was flowing on the ground where we were lying. I was so scared that I didn't know what was going on. We said, "They shot their own guys. What's going to happen to us now?" Everyone ran in all directions to save their lives. There were about 10,000 people there and they went running away. Most of the people there fled. They got killed. In that situation, the crowd turned, wondering where to run and how to save themselves. They turned down this one street to get away from the shooting. My kid was in the crowd in the middle of the shooting. A guy who picked him up was shot. My 3-year-old and my 7- or 8-month-old were with me. But the guy who picked up my other kid was either shot or fell down on the ground. My kid stayed there. I took my kid and went ahead. "Oh, my child!" I said. People were dying. Shots were ringing out. A child went running and took my kid. My kids were crying. They were all terrified. When I remember it now, I'm scared. (Lowers her voice.) I'm not afraid of you. When I remember those events, I get scared.

Fleeing The Violence

After the violence in Andijon, Zokirova fled to the border with Kyrgyzstan. She described her experiences there in her subsequent testimony:

Zokirova: When we reached the town of Teshiktosh on the border, no one had any weapons. There were women, old women, pregnant women, and children. They took headscarves and made a white flag. The men said, "They won't shoot. We'll send you, the women, across [the border]. If they shoot anyone, they'll shoot us." When we went, they didn't pay any attention to the white flag. The worst part is, even Hitler didn't shoot people who raised the white flag. They fired. I saw it with my own eyes. I swear on my four children -- they fired.

Zokirova said that one of the fleeing refugees saved her child and paid with his life:

Zokirova: Gunshots were ringing out. When the bullets hit the pavement, they burst into flame. It was awful. My child was crying. Even as my child was walking, I was afraid to bring him out from under fire. I was so scared I couldn't move. When I cried out to my child, a short kid ran out, grabbed my child, and held him tight. But the kid was shot in the head and killed. I'm telling the truth for him.

After crossing into Kyrgyzstan, Zokirova and her children found themselves in a refugee camp. She told the court about the conditions there and the circumstances of her return to Uzbekistan.

Zokirova: There was sun. It was stifling. No place was cool. My children are frail, so they quickly got sick. I ended up in the hospital again. The mayor, district governor, neighborhood committee, my boss, and my older brother came to the hospital. "Get up and go," they said. "Why did you run away?" I said, "You didn't see what happened. I saw it. How can I go back to the place where they shot at my children? My trust is gone." They said, "We're not going to touch the women and children. Go back home." I said, "No, I don't believe it. I believe what I saw with my own eyes. How can I go back to where they shot at me? I'm not going to go." They came back, and on the evening of the next day they dragged me, they forced me.

Now I have a chance to talk, so I'm going to speak. The thing is that I'm afraid to live here because now I've said things no one has talked about. I watched TV and I wondered, "Why are they lying? Why aren't they telling the truth? Why aren't they telling the truth about the people who opened fire on children, the ones who fired at the people?"

Near the end of Zokirova's testimony, the judge asked her to be as specific as possible about the individuals she saw doing the shooting. Her response, and a brief exchange with the judge, brought her testimony to a close:

Zokirova: I saw it exactly. I saw it twice. In the vehicle at the side of the road men in soldiers' uniforms wearing helmets did some terrible shooting. After that, when the people got to Teshiktosh, under the trees, guys wearing the same kind of helmets fired from the windows of houses. I didn't see their lower half, but the helmets were visible. They were shooting. I saw them shooting.

Judge: Does the defense have any questions? The accused?

Zokirova: Are you going to put me in jail now?

Judge: No, no one is going to put you in jail.

Zokirova: I've told the truth. There's nothing in it for me. I'm not getting anything from anyone. My conscience is clean...

Coverage Of Her Testimony...

Zokirova's testimony caused a stir in Western media, which treated her allegations that government forces fired on unarmed demonstrators as an unexpectedly dissonant note in what has been widely viewed as a scripted trial with a predetermined outcome. Uzbek officials and government-controlled media also responded, arguing both that Zokirova's discordant testimony pulled the rug out from under charges of a scripted show trial and that Zokirova's ties to the alleged extremists the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office has blamed for the violence in Andijon undermined her credibility as a witness.

Speaking on 17 October, Supreme Court spokesman Aziz Obidov said that Zokirova's testimony put paid to charges of a biased trial, Interfax reported. He stated: "The testimony of Mahbuba Zokirova indicates that a spectrum of opinions is being gathered. This fact again gives the lie to assertions by many of our opponents that this trial is proceeding in accordance with a scenario drawn up in advance." Obidov concluded: "It's not surprising that some witnesses are trying to justify the defendants. Ultimately, only the court will assess all these accounts and pass a verdict."

...Including Attacks On Her Credibility

Some newspaper coverage focused on Zokirova's person. The nationwide daily "Xalq Sozi" wrote on 18 October that Zokirova's testimony "unintentionally revealed...that her mind was completely poisoned by the teachings of Akramiya [the alleged extremist group that Uzbek authorities accuse of masterminding the violence]." "Ozbekiston Ovozi" quoted Zokirova's mother-in-law, who reportedly said, "[Zokirova] does not understand the right path. I have heard what she said in court. I do not agree with her remarks."

Other newspapers attacked the witness's credibility. "Ishonch" wrote, "Covering up crimes committed by those behind the tragic events...Zokirova described them as innocent people. In doing so, she tried to mislead the court." Official news agency UzA raised the prospect of perjury, citing a discrepancy in the number of relatives Zokirova said are currently residing in Romania. UzA commented, "Zokirova, who was warned about criminal liability...for knowingly providing false testimony and refusing to testify, consciously gave incorrect information about her relatives in Romania."

Despite these insinuations of looming criminal liability for her testimony, Zokirova told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service in a subsequent interview that she had not suffered any repercussions in the wake of her court appearance. Queried about possible harassment, she said, "No, nobody said a bad word to me. They were guarding me, even praying for me. I haven't heard any bad words." RFE/RL also asked Zokirova about her alleged ties to Akramiya members:

RFE/RL: After your testimony, some government-controlled newspapers accused you of being a close relative to Akramiya members, being specially prepared by them, started hinting that you might have some mental problems and etc. How would you comment on these accusations?

Zokirova: (silence...) Everybody says what they want. How should I know? (Sighs.) People who know me personally know who I am.

RFE/RL: What would you say about being a close relative of Akramists?

Zokirova: There is no Akramiya, it's just a label. They are obedient Muslims. In my testimony, I couldn't say that, I was scared.

Given the guilty pleas the accused have already entered, and the Uzbek government's demonstrated commitment to its version of events, it is virtually inconceivable that Zokirova's testimony will affect the outcome of the trial. It is equally unlikely that critical observers will change their view of the trial under way in Uzbekistan's Supreme Court on the basis of this single incident. What Zokirova's court appearance, and the reactions it evoked, underscored was the unbridgeable gap between what the Uzbek government says took place in Andijon on 13 May -- a judicious security response to a coup attempt by violent religious extremists -- and what much of the international community believes occurred -- a government-perpetrated massacre to smash an uprising and subsequent demonstration fueled by social, economic, and political frustrations.

This bitter dispute over Andijon has raged since the events occurred. Zokirova's testimony threw it into sharp relief because the two competing leitmotifs -- terrorism and massacre -- collided for the first time in an official setting inside Uzbekistan. Mahbuba Zokirova reminded everyone that the court proceedings in Tashkent, in which the defendants admitted their guilt on the very first day, are not an adversarial trial with two sides offering competing truths, but rather a struggle for control over the public narrative of the violence in Andijon. And the real cause of the interest in Zokirova's testimony, both inside and outside of Uzbekistan, is the knowledge that final judgment on the public narrative of Andijon -- the shared sense of "what really happened" that informs popular consciousness -- belongs not to foreign observers, nor to government officials, but to a potential actor that has yet to render its verdict: the people of Uzbekistan. (By Daniel Kimmage. Originally published on 23 October 2005.)

CENTRAL ASIA: OIL, DIPLOMACY, AND MILITARY MIGHT. In the Soviet era, Moscow's dominant influence over Central Asia was beyond dispute. But the emergence of the five independent Central Asian republics in 1991 has brought competition from other great powers which also hope to exert their influence in the region, including China and the United States. Moscow, Beijing, and Washington all want influence with the new states for economic, political, and military reasons. We look at what is at stake in this first part of our five-part series -- the Battle for Central Asia.

Central Asia regained global strategic importance in 1991 when the vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet empire allowed energy companies around the world to compete for the region's vast oil and gas resources.

Since then, Russia has been able to maintain its monopoly over the hydrocarbons export routes. But U.S. companies have become major players in the contest to develop oil and gas resources. And more recently, Chinese entities have become increasingly present.

Murad Esenov, editor of the Swedish-based "Central Asia and the Caucasus" journal, says the United States, Russia, and China have become the three main forces competing for influence in Central Asia. "This is a normal phenomenon because all those countries have their own interests in Central Asia, especially because of energy resources," Esenov says.

But Anara Tabyshalieva, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Regional Studies in Bishkek, stresses that control over Central's Asia's energy resources is only one aspect of the economic race taking place in the region.

"If you come to any market in Central Asia, you can see all goods come from Russia or from China. So both countries are also interested in Central Asia [for trade]," Tabyshalieva says.

Military Race

Besides economy and trade, competing powers have been eager to forge military and political ties in what many regard as a potentially volatile region.

In many ways, Russian, Chinese, and American interests converge on the counterterror and stability fronts. All three powers agree that global terrorism poses a common threat wherever it lays down roots -- as Al-Qaeda did in Afghanistan.

But Moscow and Beijing have jointly opposed the growing U.S. military presence in the region.

That presence has included Washington's increased military assistance to Central Asian armies as part of the U.S.-led war on terror.

Russia and China have responded in part to America's increased regional presence by developing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The organization groups China, Russia, and four of the Central Asian republics --Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

"Russia and China united to counterbalance the U.S. presence. They use for instance the [SCO] to try to prevent [the expansion of the] U.S. military presence in Central Asia," Tabyshalieva says.

The race for military influence has seen the United States and Russia sometimes engaged in a tit-for-tat race to put military bases into Central Asian countries.

As an example, within two years both U.S. and Russian forces opened two air bases in Kyrgyzstan that are only several dozen kilometers apart.

At the same time, both Russia and China have conducted joint military exercises with Central Asian states.

Diplomatic Differences

But if the great powers sometimes seem to be doing almost the same things in Central Asia, their foreign policies toward the regional governments also contain fundamental difference.

Unlike Beijing and Moscow, Washington is pushing Central Asian governments to institute human rights and democratic reforms. That insistence has raised suspicion and sometimes anger among Central Asian leaders.

In July, Tashkent told the U.S. military to vacate the air base in Kharshi-Khanabad after Washington joined international demands for an independent probe into an uprising and military crackdown in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May.

As the great powers battle for influence in Central Asia, some analysts say that, today, it is still Russia that is the Central Asian republics' main partner.

Alex Vatanka, the Eurasia editor of the London-based "Jane's Country Risk," says that since the incidents in Andijon, the Russians and Chinese have had the upper hand, at least in Uzbekistan. "But also the regime of President [Kurmanbek] Bakiev in Kyrgyzstan has come out in fairly plain language and said that for Kyrgyzstan, strategically, in the long-term, Russia counts above all," Vatanka says.

"You've seen some American involvement in Tajikistan but that's no way enough to offset Russian influence in that country on the political level, but also economically and on the level of military assistance." (By Antoine Blua. Originally published on 25 October 2005.)

CENTRAL ASIA: CHINA-RUSSIA BLOC CHALLENGES U.S. IN REGION. Is it possible that a little-known alliance called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) could challenge the might of the world's only superpower -- if only in the vast landlocked spaces of Central Asia? The SCO brings together China and Russia plus the four Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in a marriage of convenience that seems set on squeezing the United States out of the region. RFE/RL looks at the shifting balance of power in Central Asia and the strength of the Sino-Russian alliance in this second part of a five-part series on the battle for Central Asia.

On 14 May, death came to the streets of the Uzbek city of Andijon. Government troops opened fire -- on innocent civilians, say eyewitnesses, on armed bands of Islamic extremists, says the state.

The violence in Andijon has had profound consequences, not just for Uzbek domestic and foreign policy but for the competition between the great powers for influence in Central Asia as a whole. (For a "Timeline Of Andijon Events," see

When Washington joined calls for an international investigation into the Andijon killings, Uzbek President Islam Karimov looked for and found support from more traditional allies -- Russia and China. There would be no independent investigation.

Karimov's confidence was bolstered at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in the Kazakh capital, Astana, in July. A joint statement issued by the summit urged the United States to set a deadline for ending its military presence in Central Asia. Shortly afterward, Karimov gave Washington six months to get its military forces out of Uzbekistan.

"China and Russia backed the Uzbek initiative, China for the clear strategic reason that it doesn't want U.S. strategic forces in what it regards as its backyard," Dmitrii Trenin, a specialist on the region at the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, told RFE/RL. "And Russia has always felt slighted by the U.S. military presence in the territory of the former Soviet Union. U.S. aircraft sitting on the tarmac of Soviet-built airfields is a psychological offense."

Not In Our Backyard

The initiative had come from Uzbekistan but the enthusiasm of the Chinese and Russian response was in no doubt. Americans in Central Asia make them nervous. Dr. Lai Hongyi, a graduate of Beijing University who now works as a research fellow at the East Asian Institute in Singapore, told RFE/RL that Beijing feared that Washington was set on triggering regime change across the region.

"Russia and China feel that the U.S. has been too aggressive in Central Asia," Lai said. "The U.S. is threatening their national security. The first thing is the U.S. is trying to put [forward] the democratic movements, some kind of people's movements, and propel them into power and then, hopefully, these new governments would be pro-U.S."

China, in particular, was nervous that the people's revolution in Kyrgyzstan in March might prove infectious -- not just in former Soviet Central Asia but also in its own province of Xinjiang, where there is a strong movement for independence among ethnic Uyghurs.

"Any country in the world will be sensitive to political developments in its neighbors and Central Asia is next to China's Xinjiang Province, one of the two provinces in which the largest minorities are ethnic populations," Lai said. "China will feel that if Central Asia is governed by the pro-U.S. regime or government, it will destabilize China's Xinjiang region and will give Beijing a lot of trouble."

The Astana SCO summit marked a sea-change in Central Asia and provided clear evidence of Russia and China's determination to defend a sphere of interest. Russia, in particular, has watched the United States encroach on its backyard with growing alarm. There is talk of the U.S. military moving troops into the southern Caucasus countries of Azerbaijan and Georgia to protect the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and even whispers of a new air base in Turkmenistan, but Russia and China have drawn a line in the desert sand of Central Asia.

Not Taking Sides

But is it that simple? Dmitrii Trenin thinks not. Look at Kyrgystan, he said, where the new government sees U.S. support as an essential counterweight to its powerful Chinese neighbour, and from where U.S. military aircraft still take off to patrol the skies over Afghanistan.

"I would say the situation in Central Asia is more nuanced than it is sometimes believed to be," he told RFE/RL. "What we are seeing now is the continuing and possibly even expanded U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan -- some sort of rebalancing -- most clearly in Uzbekistan, far less clearly in Kyryzstan and Tajikistan. I would say that for most Central Asian states, the relationship with the United States continues to be an important relationship."

And how solid is the Sino-Russian alliance? Relations between Moscow and Beijing have rarely been anything other than brittle. For the moment, a confluence of interests binds them and most of the Central Asian elites in an alliance of convenience. But China's power is growing and the Central Asian states have their own interests to pursue. For the time being, China seems prepared to accept the priority of Russian interests in the region. But for how long now that its economic and military power is growing so fast? (By Robert Parsons. Originally published on 25 October 2005.)

CENTRAL ASIA: RUSSIA AND U.S. OFTEN AT ODDS IN REGION. The U.S.-led war to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan four years ago intensified Washington's engagement with Central Asia. But Russia, an erstwhile ally in the war on terror, has stepped up efforts to restore its influence in the region. Citing recent events in Uzbekistan, analysts see a great advantage for Russia -- Moscow supports the status quo of authoritarian leaders in the region, while Washington is seen as promoting their overthrow. In this third part of our five-part series on the battle for Central Asia, we look at the competing U.S. and Russian interests.

The United States and Russia increasingly appear to be at cross purposes in Central Asia.

Uzbekistan is a prime example. It turned sharply away from Washington toward Moscow after Russia supported the Uzbek government crackdown in Andijon in May.

Following U.S. calls for an investigation of the incident, Tashkent called on the United States to vacate the Kharshi-Khanabad military base in six months. Uzbekistan then joined Russia and four other regional states in seeking a U.S. timetable to close down all bases in the region.

Russia and Uzbekistan last month held their first joint military exercises. Russian energy firms Gazprom and LUKoil have signed on to hundreds of millions of dollars in long-term investments in Uzbekistan.

To Russian foreign-policy strategist Aleksandr Dugin, this marks a rightful return of Russian influence to the region after the U.S. establishment of bases in 2001.

Dugin is a leading exponent of the "Eurasianist" approach to Russian foreign policy and has close ties with the Russian security establishment. He told RFE/RL that the "people power" revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, seen as instigated by Washington, alarmed Russian foreign-policy circles. Those events, he said, effectively ended Russian-U.S. cooperation in Central Asia.

"After the events of the 'colored' revolutions in Georgia and in Ukraine, above all after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, there are [no longer] any doubts in the political class as a whole concerning [the] contradiction -- basic contradiction -- of interests between the United States and Russia," Dugin told RFE/RL.

Competing Diplomacy

The U.S. administration has downplayed talk of competition with Russia in the region. But top U.S. officials have made a series of visits to Central Asia in the months since the Uzbek decision to evict the United States, promoting democracy and pointing to ongoing efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was the most recent, visiting Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan on 10-13 October.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried told RFE/RL the objectives Rice will be highlighting should be shared by Russia as well. "Stability comes ultimately from the legitimacy which is derived from democracy," he said. "If the Russians want stability -- and it certainly would seem to be in their interest -- they ought to support reform but again I'm not going to speak to Russian priorities. They can do that for themselves."

Fried also rejected the call made by Russia and others in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to wind down the U.S. military presence. The group's communique in July suggested there was declining need for combat operations against the Taliban.

"There are good reasons to have these bases in the region which are supporting the efforts in Afghanistan, which surely serve the interests of the countries themselves and, if you think about it, serve Russian interests because the Russians also face a [terrorism] problem," Fried told RFE/RL.

Force For The Status Quo

But from Russia's standpoint, stability may mean maintaining the current authoritarian leadership in the region, ensuring business and other ties that will not upset the status quo.

That's the view of Kimberly Marten, a political science professor at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York. She told RFE/RL that in the current great power competition for influence in the region, Russia and China have an edge.

"If you want to look at it in 'Great Game' terms, the United States doesn't have the ability to compete against Russia and China in that kind of a Great Game because its domestic political culture and circumstances require it to pay attention to human rights and economic transparency in a way that Russia and China don't have to do," Marten said.

Playing Off Both Sides

A number of analysts see Uzbekistan as shrewdly balancing the needs of big powers to strengthen the regime's control.

Kyrgyzstan, home to both U.S. and Russian bases, has also proven adept at balancing off big-country interests.

The new government of President Kurmanbek Bakiev has assured the United States it can continue to use the air base at Manas but suggested Washington pay more for it. At the same time, Russia reaffirmed its long-term interest in maintaining a base at Kant, accompanied by millions of dollars in military aid to Kyrgyzstan.

Russia has also asserted a clear business presence in Kyrgyzstan. David Mikosz is a top official in Kyrgyzstan for the International Foundation for Election Systems, a nongovernmental organization that manages projects in civil-society development in Kyrgyzstan.

"People recognize that Russia has a lot more common interests, I think, in the economy. The United States is more interested, it seems, in cultural activities, the number of exchange programs, the American University [in Bishkek], those sort of things," Mikosz told RFE/RL.

Kazakhstan is another state in the region balancing a multidirectional foreign policy. President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who is up for reelection in December, recently affirmed Kazakhstan's intention to campaign for the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009. He defined as priorities cooperation with Russia, China, the United States, and the European Union. (By Robert McMahon. Originally published on 25 October 2005.)

CENTRAL ASIA: CHINA BRINGS ELECTRONICS, BUT NOT DEMOCRACY. The 9/11 terrorist attacks against America prompted the United States to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. At the time, many predicted Washington would gain a new foothold in Central Asia. The United States established military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, U.S. foreign aid increased, and much American attention was focused on the region. Russia and China looked on warily. But the pendulum may be swinging back in Moscow's and Beijing's favor. China, especially, has expended great effort at winning friends in Central Asia and may become a force to be reckoned with. We look at the issues in this fourth part of our five-part series on the Battle for Central Asia.

Ask people on the streets of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek or Kazakhstan's commercial center of Almaty who their country's closest ally should be and most will answer automatically: Russia.

Oktyabr Kapalbaev, a university lecturer in Bishkek, says that geography and history are key factors. "Our closest ally should be Russia because we were part of the Russian Empire, then the USSR, and now the CIS. And Russia is our closest ally in the CIS. Russia has always helped us in the past and it will continue to do so in the future," Kapalbaev says.

Many people quizzed in Almaty concur. One man expresses a common view when he says no foreign country can unseat Russia from its dominant regional position thanks to its history, language, and culture -- all of which remain intimately familiar to Kazakhs and other Central Asians.

"The closest is Russia. We were under Russia for many years. I served as a soldier there, I studied there and I have relatives there," he says.

Despite Russia's natural advantage, China over the past decade has been tirelessly nurturing its ties with the region. Chinese President Hu Jintao this summer made his second visit to Kazakhstan during which the two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement. They reaffirmed their intention to build an oil pipeline from western Kazakhstan to China (Atasu-Alashankou). They also signed agreements on transport, trade, and science ties.

The Long Game

Across Central Asia, Chinese officials have signed similar deals, made numerous trips, and opened trade offices in hopes of bolstering Beijing's presence.

Rana Mitter, an expert on modern China at Oxford University, explains Beijing's strategy. "China is currently playing what I'd call a �long game' in Central Asia," Mitter says. "It's making investments -- both in terms of actual financial and physical capital -- but also in terms of diplomatic and diplomatic good will in the region, knowing that although things there change relatively slowly, the period in the next 10 to 15 years is going to be a very crucial one in Central Asia and that China must leave its footprint there. So I'd say they're developing their presence."

For authoritarian states like Uzbekistan, closer ties with China present one great advantage. Unlike the United States, Beijing does not pressure its allies to democratize or liberalize its markets.

There are two main reasons driving Beijing's policy. One is the need for energy supplies.

Mitter says that as China is becoming more developed and its economy continuing to grow rapidly, its need for oil, gas, and other natural minerals has become greater. "One of the most notable discussions and disputes in recent months has been the future of a Kazakhstan petrol company, [for whose control] China ultimately managed to outbid India," Mitter says. "This is symptomatic of a much wider regional race for control over energy and therefore the economic effects that come from it."

The other reason is security.

Mitters says that after the fall of the Soviet Union, China faced a security problem on its western borders. "Not a very active one," Mitters says. "But one that might become problematic if those states, for instance, turn to a form of radical Islamism, which China would find very uncomfortable, particularly if the political situation changed. And therefore they think that it's important to make sure that they have stable, and as they see it, moderate governments on their borders which will not interfere with regional stability."

For authoritarian states like Uzbekistan, closer ties with China present one great advantage. Unlike the United States, Beijing does not pressure its allies to democratize or liberalize its markets.

Fear Of The 'Black' Hordes

Nevertheless, it will be some time before China reaps a return on its investment in Central Asia. Language and cultural barriers will take years to surmount. And anti-Chinese attitudes run deep in some Central Asian countries, even among the younger generation. Fear of China's enormous population is usually uppermost in Central Asian minds when talking about China.

Samat Smagulov, a 30-year-old construction worker in Almaty, cites a popular proverb to explain why Kazakhstan should favor Russia over China as an ally: "Russia. There is a proverb: If the 'black' Chinese [hordes] come, the 'white' Russian will seem like your own father."

While Europe and the United States have been flooded with high-quality goods manufactured in China, Chinese-made products available in Central Asia have a reputation for being shoddy -- something that has damaged the country's image as an economic partner.

A man in Almaty, asked about his attitude to Chinese products, didn't mince his words. "Very bad. Everything is such junk. For example, I bet you don't buy any Chinese goods either, right?" he said.

In short, Central Asia presents a much more mixed picture than several years ago. China, Russia, the United States and other countries have all become regional players. Everyone is pressing their own advantage and no one has a monopoly on strategic relations.

In the long term, China may reap the biggest relative gains -- especially if one considers that it played almost no role in the region just a decade ago. But the United States cannot be counted out and it retains at least one major asset that beats even Russia's close cultural links according to Gleason.

"The United States is a country that has from its earliest days been committed to human rights, to individual rights and to the improvement of the human situation," Gleason says. "Other countries around the world have not identified this as their most important vision of the future. As a consequence, in countries all around the world, people still look to the United States as a country that can provide values that will lead them to greater openness, a greater sense of individual freedom, greater commercial freedom. People continue to look at the United States from that perspective in the Central Asian countries and I would expect that will be something that continues to influence them in a significant way."

(By Jeremy Bransten with contributing reporting from Bishkek by RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Akan Imanov. RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report from Almaty. Originally published on 25 October 2005.)

CENTRAL ASIA: IRAN, TURKEY STRUGGLE TO INFLUENCE REGION. Turkey and Iran have been gradually expanding their ties with Central Asian countries since the early 1990s through economic, cultural, and also security contacts. But despite their interest -- as well as cultural ties and geographical proximity -- the two countries have not been able to achieve a strong influence in the region. We look at the roles of Iran and Turkey in this fifth and final part of our series on the battle for Central Asia.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent states in Central Asia provided Turkey and Iran with an opportunity to explore new political and economic roles in the region.

And both countries seemed uniquely well-placed to forge closer ties with the Central Asian republics.

Turkey shares ethnic and linguistic ties with the Turkic states of Central Asia. The Islamic Republic of Iran shares a common language with Tajikistan and a border with Turkmenistan. It also shares the same religion, Islam, with all the states though, unlike them, it practices Shi'ite rather than Sunni Islam.

At the start of the period of independence there was an expectation that the five Central Asian republics would either follow the Turkish model of a secular Muslim state or the Iranian model of an Islamic republic..

There was also concern that Iran would try to covertly or overtly export its Islamic Revolution to Central Asia. But Tehran followed a pragmatic policy in its ties with Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan instead.

And it soon emerged that the Central Asian states would not follow either the Turkish or the Iranian style of government.

Neither One Nor The Other

"The Central Asians weren't wanting to adopt another country's model and they weren't wanting to negotiate or mediate their relations with the international community through Iran or Turkey. They wanted to shape their own identities and future and they wanted to make their own direct contact with the international community and that has been very much the pattern," Edmund Herzig, an expert on Iran and Central Asia at Chatham House in London and a senior lecturer of Persian studies at the University of Manchester, told RFE/RL.

Since then Iran and Turkey have continued their relations with the Central Asian republics in the economic, political, and cultural spheres. But their influence in the region remains limited due to several factors.

Iran and Turkey both have limited resources to expend in Central Asia and are hampered by foreign-policy priorities elsewhere, according to Svante Cornell, the research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program at Uppsala University in Sweden.

"Turkey has its main priority to complete its EU application and negotiations now as of this week and for the foreseeable future that's going to be Turkey's main foreign-policy priority aside from that it has Iraq and Cyprus to deal with and for Iran its focus has always [been] mainly on the [Persian] Gulf region and its relation with other Gulf countries," he said. "So, for that reason, they simply haven't had the resources and the political attention needed to really focus strongly and in a coherent way on the Central Asian region, whereas larger and more resourceful states such as Russia, China, and the United States have been able to do so."

Observers say that in recent years Turkey has to a large extent downscaled its ambitions in the region. Yet it remains active through small businesses and also in the private education sphere.

Iran's Influence Restrained

Iran has been expanding its ties mainly with Turkmenistan but also with Tajikistan. Trade has increased between the countries and Tehran has heavily invested in Tajikistan's transport and communication infrastructure.

Iranian officials have on many occasions expressed their will to further strengthen relations with Central Asian states. On 23 September, Iran's Ambassador to Kazakhstan Ramin Mehmanparast announced his government's readiness to participate in joint investment projects in Kazakhstan in various areas, including transportation and the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries.

However, Turaj Atabaki, professor of Iranian and Central Asian studies at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, told RFE/RL that the U.S. presence in the region is a major barrier against the further expansion of Iranian ties with the five Central Asian republics.

"The U.S. does not accept under any conditions the expanding of ties between the Central Asian republics and the Islamic Republic of Iran," Atabaki said. "So a future growing Iranian influence in the region will depend on the country's relationship with the U.S. If Iran is willing to secure a stable place for itself in the region, first it should resolve its problems with the U.S."

Herzig also believes that Iran and Turkey will not be major players in the Central Asian region in the future. "I don't think they will have lot of influence in the traditional sense of being able to influence the policy or being able to put pressure on Central Asian states," he said. "I don't think either Iran or Turkey has the resources or the position to be able to do that. I think what we will see and are seeing is that incrementally the level of relations including commercial and economic relations, social and cultural relations will increase. The Central Asian states were for many decades cut off from their historic and natural contacts with the countries to the west, south, and east as part of the Soviet Union and gradually those contacts are being reestablished."

Herzig added that the process is bound to continue. (By Golnaz Esfandiari. Originally published on 25 October 2005.)