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Central Asia Report: November 10, 2005

10 November 2005, Volume 5, Number 43

WEEK AT A GLANCE (31 October-6 November). Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev laid out the core priorities of Kazakhstan's foreign policy to the country's parliament, denying rumors of a merger with Russia and stressing the importance of maintaining strong tries with China, Russia, and the United States in a multidimensional framework. Elsewhere on the foreign-policy front, the president of Kazakh energy company KEGOC announced a multibillion-dollar deal to export electricity to China over the next four to five years, and U.S. Central Command head General John Abizaid visited, stating that "the presence of U.S. armed forces in this region is in no way a demonstration of our dominance." A parole board recommended the early release of jailed opposition leader Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov. And the authorities seized the print run of the opposition newspaper "Juma Times" in Almaty.

At least four inmates died when Kyrgyz police used force to quell unrest at a number of prisons. The violence erupted when police attempted to transport Aziz Batukaev, who is suspected of involvement in the recent killing of legislator Tynychbek Akmatbaev, from a penal colony outside Bishkek. U.S. General Abizaid met with President Kurmanbek Bakiev as Kyrgyzstan and the United States prepared to hammer out a new agreement on the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan. Bakiev subsequently announced that his country will ask the United States to pay more for the use of the base.

Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister and Oil and Gas Minister Guichnazar Tachnazarov became the latest victim of the ongoing shakeup of the country's energy sector, losing his posts amid corruption charges. His predecessor, Yolly Gurbanmuradov, was sacked under similar circumstances in May. Tachnazarov was replaced by Deputy Prime Minister Atamyrat Berdiev, formerly minister of construction.

Human Rights Watch called on the Uzbek government to ensure that Sanjar Umarov, the jailed leader of the opposition Sunshine Coalition, receives "immediate medical treatment." The appeal followed reports that Umarov, a businessman who was arrested on embezzlement charges on 22 October, has been in physical and mental distress while in custody. Elsewhere, reports indicated that Uzbekistan has removed mines along the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border and is currently working to de-mine the Uzbek-Tajik border. Uzbekistan mined the borders in 1999-2000 to prevent incursions by religious extremists.

U.S.: REPORT RENEWS CONCERN OVER IRAN'S RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, SEES HOPE FOR TURKMENISTAN. The U.S. State Department has for the seventh straight year listed Iran among the most serious abusers of religious freedoms. The department's annual report on international religious freedom also says conditions deteriorated in Uzbekistan. The department declined to include Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, or Pakistan in the most serious violator category of "countries of particular concern," as recommended by a U.S. panel.

State Department's survey of 197 countries cited dozens of states that it said failed to observe international norms for religious freedom. The report covered the period from July 2004 to July 2005. Like last year, the focus was on eight states designated as "countries of particular concern."

"We have redesignated eight countries of particular concern -- Burma, China, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Vietnam," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in announcing the report on 8 November. "These are countries where governments have engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom over the past year. We are committed to seeing improvements in each of those countries."

An act of the U.S. Congress obligates the government to make such designations. The secretary of state can choose a number of steps, including diplomatic pressure and sanctions, to seek to improve religious freedoms in states of most concern.

The chief of the U.S. State Department's religious freedoms office, John Hanford, told reporters that Washington has had success in engaging some of the countries on the list, such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam. But he said it has been more difficult to move other states. "Some of these countries have not been willing to engage on any meaningful way on religious matters," he added. "Burma, Iran, and North Korea fall into this category, as does Eritrea."

The report said Iran's government engaged in particularly severe violations against religious minorities. Sunni Muslims, Baha'is, Jews, and Christians reported imprisonment, harassment, and intimidation based on their religious beliefs.

The United States has no formal relations with Tehran, but will continue to work through international bodies to try to pressure Iran, according to the report.

Hours before the U.S. report was issued, Canada presented a resolution to the UN General Assembly's Human Rights Committee critical of Iran. The Canadian resolution calls for improvements in Iran's treatment of religious minorities and on many other rights issues.

The U.S. report listed Uzbekistan among a small number of states "hostile to minority or nonapproved religions." Hanford said Uzbekistan's law on religion violates international norms and conventions and is used against both Muslims and Christians.

"In thousands of cases, authorities have asserted membership in banned political organizations that encourage terrorism based solely on outward expression by Muslims of their devout beliefs," Hanford said. "The government has also made false assertions of membership in extremist organizations as a pretext for repressing the innocent expression of religious belief."

A panel that makes recommendations to the State Department, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in May had sought to designate Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as "countries of particular concern."

The State Department demurred. And though Uzbekistan and Pakistan were cited for violations, Turkmenistan was listed among the countries making significant improvements in religious freedoms. Hanford said Turkmenistan has taken a number of important steps in the past year.

"In Turkmenistan, where serious violations of religious freedom persist, we saw hopeful signs with the streamlining of legislative procedures and the registration of a number of new religious groups. Last year, the government substantially revamped laws regulating religious activities. They decriminalized violations of religious policies. They released all religious prisoners," Hanford said.

A group of human rights organizations in September presented a detailed description of religious repression in Turkmenistan and urged the State Department to designate it a "country of particular concern."

A prominent human rights watchdog in the U.S. Congress, Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, said he was troubled by the positive assessment of Turkmenistan's record. Smith said his human rights subcommittee would hold a hearing on the report on 15 November.

The State Department report also cited Georgia for significant improvements. It said, for example, that attacks on religious minorities decreased in the past year. It noted the arrest of Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili and several associates who had instigated religiously motivated violence.

The report also said Russia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus were among countries that had discriminatory legislation or policies prejudicial to certain religions. (By Robert McMahon. Originally published on 9 November 2005.)

KAZAKHSTAN: MTV EUROPE AWARDS HOST CARICATURES KAZAKH TV JOURNALIST. The live broadcast of the 12th annual MTV Europe Music Awards on 3 November featured a controversial host who pretends to be from Kazakhstan named "Borat Sagdiyev." But the rude host isn't from Kazakhstan at all. Borat is a fictional character created by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen that satirizes a Kazakh television journalist.

Cohen, playing the character of a Kazakh journalist named Borat Sagdiev, welcomed an international audience to the 2005 MTVEurope Awards in Lisbon, Portugal.

Borat got laughs by pretending to get things mixed up. And that's usual for Cohen's invented character, who frequently appears on the MTV network.

MTV calls Borat a television journalist who is the "sixth most-famous man in Kazakhstan."

But nothing about Borat's descriptions of Kazakhstan withstands scrutiny. Borat doesn't look like an ethnic Kazakh. His native language resembles Polish more than Kazakh or Russian. And the music to his fictional program on "Kazakhstani Television" sounds like it is more from the Balkans than Central Asia.

In fact, Borat is a parody of a Kazakh television journalist invented by Cohen. The British comedian first gained international fame by posing as another fictional character -- a British hip-hop music journalist named "Ali G."

That character became so popular among the young generation in Britain that his television program -- "Da Ali G Show" -- became a huge hit in Britain in 2000. Ali G's pop culture status was such that he was even featured as Madonna's chauffeur in the video for her song "Music."

But Kazakh officials aren't fond of the prank interviews that Cohen conducts with unsuspecting Westerners while pretending he is Borat Sagdiev from Kazakhstan.

Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Mukhtar Karibay put the objections this way to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service on 4 November: "Yes, I heard about that guy once...last year or the year before last. He has nothing to do with Kazakhstan. He is a citizen of a foreign country. Our embassies officially protested his statements then. Afterwards it was found out that he was not a Kazakhstani. And then all talks about him withered. I believe it was established that the person had some psychological disorders. Well, since he has mental problems, there is no need to pay attention to that person and to act officially on the ministry's behalf. I am sure it is not the case for any official to react now. There are different people, you know. For instance, there are people, who run out to the center of the stadium naked during soccer matches. That is just a similar case."

In both the United States and Britain -- where the Borat character has appeared regularly on "Da Ali G Show" -- Kazakh officials have formally complained about the false portrayals of their society.

Last year in Washington, Kazakhstan Embassy press secretary Roman Vassilenko told "The New Yorker" magazine that Borat was responsible for spreading many misconceptions and falsehoods about Kazakhstan.

For example, Vassilenko lamented, women are not kept in cages in Kazakhstan as Borat has claimed. Kazakhstan's national sport is not shooting a dog and then having a party. Wine in Kazakhstan is not made from fermented horse urine. And a person cannot earn a living in Kazakhstan as a "Gypsy" catcher.

While acting as Borat, Cohen has made all of those claims about Kazakhstan. He also has convinced many of the unsuspecting victims of his prank interviews to behave ridiculously out of respect for what he says is Kazakh culture.

Once, Borat persuaded a meeting of local officials in Oklahoma City to stand in silence for 10 minutes in memory of the victims of Kazakhstan's so-called "Tishniek massacre."

"As everyone know, today is the 14th year anniversary of the Tishniek massacre. So please, now, I ask you to stand and give them respect. Please, we will have 10-minute silence."

The fact that Cohen invented the fictitious "Tishniek massacre" has led some pop-culture critics to argue that he is really making fun of Westerners who know little or nothing about Central Asia.

But his stunts clearly touch on culturally sensitive issues. One of his most controversial jokes was to lead a sing-along at an American country-and-western bar.

Posing as Borat, he claimed the tune was a national song of Kazakhstan called "In My Country There Is Problem." He then got bar patrons to sing: "Throw the Jew down the well so my country can be free. You must grab him by the horns. Then we have a big party."

Even though Cohen is an observant Jew in real life, the Anti-Defamation League condemned that stunt as anti-Semitic -- saying that his irony would be lost on most of the television program's audience.

Borat's portrayal of women in Kazakh society also has upset Kazakh officials. In one prank interview, an American tries to explain that the legal rights of men and women are equal in the United States. A dumbfounded Borat laughs incredulously and responds with what he says is a common expression in Kazakhstan: "First God, then man, horse, dog. Then women. Then rat."

Speaking with the owner of one elite gentlemen's club in London, Borat described Kazakhstan's equivalent as a place where businessmen gather to watch pornographic videos: "You have a gentlemen club. In Kazakhstan, we have a club where you go. You have other men that come with friend. They talk. They do business. They watch porno. We see a man and a woman, very exciting to see."

Borat's derogatory jokes about Central Asian woman aren't just restricted to Kazakhstan. Women from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan also are targeted by rude and unflattering comments -- always presented as if this is normal behavior for a man from Kazakhstan.

Acting as Borat, he has told his interview victims that a Kazakh man buys his wife from her father for 30 liters of insecticide. He also has claimed that the favorite hobbies for men in Kazakhstan are disco dancing, archery, rape, and table tennis.

Borat describes Kazakhstan as a place where people kill dogs for fun: "We love, in Kazakhstan, to kill animal. To hunt. It so much fun. It is a great feeling when you kill an animal. It make you feel like a real man. We like to shoot a dog. In Kazakhstan they say this thing is crazy. Thank you very much."

In Lisbon at a press conference just hours before the live broadcast of the MTV European Music Awards was due to begin, Cohen again shocked journalists with a joke that has been condemned as "in bad taste."

Disguised as Borat, Cohen told the journalists he had brought a gift for them -- a bag of birds from Romania, the first country in mainland Europe to have detected an outbreak of bird flu. Unfortunately, he said, most of the birds died. (By Ron Synovitz. Originally published on 4 November 2005.)

KYRGYZSTAN: PRISONS HELL FOR MOST, BUT COMFORTABLE FOR CRIMINAL KINGPINS. Machine guns and knives, mobile phones, and computers with Internet connection, large amounts of money in U.S. dollars and euros as well as narcotics -- all are in the possession of a "vor v zakone," or a criminal kingpin, in Kyrgyz jails.

Consider, for example, Aziz Batukaev, who served a term in Prison No. 31 in the settlement of Moldovanovka near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek until he was transferred to another prison on 1 November.

Speaking to journalists on 1 November in the wake of October unrest in Kyrgyz penal colonies, Deputy Prosecutor-General Abibulla Abdykaparov said Batukaev had occupied a whole floor of his prison. That included 16 rooms, where he kept three mares and 15 goats.

Abdykaparov explained that the convict used to drink the domestic animals' milk to heal his ulcer. His wife and daughter-in-law as well as a bodyguard -- not convicts themselves -- were with him when the troops burst into the prison building.

The troops also found pictures of Chechen leaders Shamil Basaev and Aslan Maskhadov, and a flag of the separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, in the cell of Batukaev, who is of Chechen origin himself.

Abdykaparov said the government troops were in a deep shock when they viewed the conditions the criminal kingpin had created for himself in prison. In other parts of the same prison, however, there were other inmates suffering from hunger and diseases.

Those ordinary prisoners say that harsh living conditions made them riot -- first in early September, then in October. The third wave of unrest hit prisons near Bishkek and in the south in late October and ended with the death of four inmates.

Topchubek Turgunaliev, the leader of the Erkindik opposition party, is a former political dissident who served several years in prison before former President Askar Akaev was ousted in March. He told RFE/RL about conditions for ordinary prisoners.

"Conditions are extremely harsh, firstly, because of lack of food. What they get is [called] 'balanda,' which is not only not nutritious, but also kills people. In some prisons, inmates have no food at all or get it once a week. The other problem is that prisons are overcrowded. So there is simply no air. I experienced that myself. In the cells of five-six people, we were 17-18 inmates," Turgunaliev said.

Turgunaliev added that the economic difficulties Kyrgyzstan has faced for the last decade have had an impact on the penitentiary system, too.

An inmate who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity from a prison near Bishkek, said he agrees. "We cover 85 percent of our needs ourselves," the inmate said. "We get everything including clothing, bed sheets, and pillowcases. We ask our relatives to bring it. We also make some things, like backgammon desks, sell them to the outside world and thus provide for ourselves."

The problem does not seem to be new for Kyrgyzstan's leadership. The current system of controlling prisons as well as governing inmates was formed decades ago. It was based mainly on the hierarchy of the criminal world.

In the Soviet Union, the criminal world had its own hierarchy, rules, and jargon. "Vor v zakone" was the highest title and meant a kind of criminal aristocracy who established a thieves' "code of honor" and served as its guardians. They and "avtoritety," or criminal authority, ruled inmates in prisons.

The prison administration usually collaborated with vory and avtoritety and often sought their support in resolving disputes among inmates. Jailed criminal leaders, in turn, were allowed to lead a comfortable life behind bars.

Turgunaliev said this system continues to dominate prison life in many former Soviet republics. "The problem of penitentiary facilities is rooted in the Soviet Gulag system," he said. "All post-Soviet countries with the possible exception of the Baltic states still have the same system. It's stayed untouched."

Vory v zakone and avtoritety still seem to enjoy close ties with authorities in Kyrgyz prisons. Former prisoner Turgunaliev said both parties, the prison administration and the jailed criminal leaders, benefit from collaboration. It makes control over inmates easier and it also brings financial profit, he said.

"Prison facilities are a center of corruption. I know narcotics, including 'gera' [heroin] is brought there. I saw myself how they make 50-70 'lyap' [portions] from a gram of gera. Each lyap cost [$1.50] in 2001. I don't know the current prices," Tugunaliev said.

Turgunaliev added that a gram of heroin brings at least $60 of net profit and the prison administration usually gets a portion of it. "There are two kinds of narcotic trafficking [in prison]," he said. "The first is that of vory v zakone. The other one is controlled by the prison administration. Usually, one of the deputies of a prison head is in charge of the traffic. They get tens of millions [of soms in profit] every month. I emphasize once again: tens of millions."

Prison officials have denied involvement in the narcotics trafficking.

However, Deputy Justice Minister Sergei Zubov said on 1 November that Batukaev's luxury life in Moldovanovka is a result of the "absolute corruption of the penitentiary system."

Kyrgyz authorities admit the penal system has problems and have declared their intention to fight corruption. The first reform of the penitentiary system came in 2002 when the government decided to transfer authority over the prisons from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry. But the move has yet to show clear results.

The close ties between the criminal world and officials in the penitentiary system is considered a significant contributor to corruption in the prison system and a major impediment to prison reform.

After the October prison riots, President Kurmanbek Bakiev promised to allocate 10 million soms ($250,000) to the penitentiary system. But as Meilikozu Mamataliev, head of the Jalal-Abad prison, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, they have yet to see the funding. Inmates at the Jalal-Abad prison rioted in late October and early November.

(By Gulnoza Saidazimova with contributions by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service correspondent Cholpon Orozobekova in Bishkek. Originally published on 4 November 2005.)

TURKMENISTAN: WHAT HAPPENED TO 'RECORD' GRAIN HARVEST? Prices for flour have sky-rocketed in Turkmenistan. In some areas of the country, it is nearly impossible to obtain flour; in others, the price is half or more the average monthly wage. Each year, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov takes great pride in announcing that the country has reached another record grain harvest. This year, Niyazov's own officials appear to have deceived him.

At October's annual session of the Halk Maslahaty, or People's Assembly, Muratberdy Sopiev, the chairman of the farmers' union, said bread shortages would never again be a problem in Turkmenistan. "The celebration table is covered with bread. Most importantly, bread is available at affordable prices and various products from flour are offered to the public in a wide variety," he said. "Shortages of bread are a thing of the past."

Sopiev's remarks came after reports that this year's harvest produced 3 million tons of grain -- easily enough for the nation's 4.5 million people. That allegedly record harvest followed a major push by President Niyazov for farmers to produce more grain and other crops in hopes of beginning an export trade.

But the reality on the ground sharply contrasts with the upbeat rhetoric, at least according to accounts gathered from around the country.

"In the cities and villages the situation is getting more complicated daily," Aman Dauletov, an RFE/RL correspondent in Turkmenistan, said about the flour situation in southeastern Mary and Lebap, the top two grain-producing provinces. "The rise in the price of flour is worrying the people and worse, one can't get flour for money and this is frightening the people. In cities and villages people can't find anyone selling flour."

In the western Balkanabad province, a mostly desert land, the situation is even worse, as RFE/RL correspondent Shahmurat Akuyli reported: "At the Jenet market in Nebit Dag [now officially called Balkanabad], there is Kazakh flour [for sale]. A [50-kilogram] bag of flour costs 650,000 manats [$125 at the official exchange rate], a kilogram costs 13,000 manats [$2.50]. For the average person, this is too much."

Dauletov said the shortage has forced some people to drastic measures. "And if you want to get it [flour] illegally, you go to a flour seller secretly and instead of buying a [marked] bag of flour, you get a plain suitcase with flour [inside]," he said.

Many analysts question the economic figures the Turkmen government releases. For example, Niyazov hjas said this year the country's gross domestic product has risen by an amazing 20 percent. No independent verification of such figures has been available for the more than a decade.

Tales of flour shortages only confirm what many outsiders believed anyway -- that is, that there really has not been much economic growth in the country.

Aleksandr Dodonov was once a deputy prime minister in Turkmenistan and a minister of water resources. Now part of Turkmenistan's opposition in exile, he expresses little surprise at the current grain situation. "The first reason is the counting process. There simply is not the grain that people are reporting about to Niyazov," he said. "The second reason is that the grain they are collecting is of a low quality and practically unsuitable for food products for people. It is useful only as feed for herds."

One would think that sooner or later someone must tell the country's leader about the shortage and recommend importing grain. But Niyazov has a history of dealing harshly with officials who fail to meet his expectations. Beyond being fired, many such officials end up in prison.

Dodonov said such fears could prevent officials from coming to Niyazov to explain the dire situation with this most basic and needed product. "Officials are afraid to inform Niyazov that there is no bread and no flour," he said.

Most troubling about this shortage is that it comes as winter approaches. RFE/RL correspondent Dauletov said that in Lebap province, officials are telling people to plant winter wheat in their gardens, hoping at least to alleviate a shortage that will get worse with the coming weeks.

(By Bruce Pannier with contributions by Rozinazar Khoudaiberdiev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. Originally published on 8 November 2005.)