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Central Asia Report: January 19, 2004

19 January 2004, Volume 4, Number 3

ISLAMIC PARTY OFFICIAL JAILED. On 12 January in Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe, the Supreme Court's Military Board sentenced Shamsuddin Shamsuddinov, the deputy chairman of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), to 16 years' imprisonment. Shamsuddinov was convicted of organizing an armed criminal group during the Tajik civil war (1992-97), illegally crossing the border, illegal weapons possession, polygamy, and murder, Asia-Plus and Interfax reported. Three alleged confederates were simultaneously tried for participating in several murders. They were given sentences ranging from 16 to 25 years.

Shamsuddinov claims the charges against him are fabricated. The IRP leadership backs him and has denied that he was involved in military activities during the civil war at all (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2004). Even if he was involved, though, and did commit the serious crimes he was accused of committing during the civil war, the charges should have been rendered moot by amnesties following the June 1997 peace accords that ended the war (and led to the legalization of the IRP, which, as the dominant faction of the United Tajik Opposition, had been outlawed in 1993). As IRP Deputy Chairman Muhiddin Kabirov told RFE/RL, since 1997 there have been three general amnesties that applied to all armed formations, including government and opposition groups (see "Tajikistan: Islamic Renaissance Party Leader Sentenced To 16 Years In Prison,", 13 January 2004).

From the start, the Shamsuddinov case has raised questions about judicial procedure in Tajikistan while awakening fears that the government of President Imomali Rakhmonov was using the courts to undermine its political opponents. Shamsuddinov disappeared on 30 May 2003 from his home in the city of Chkalovsk in northern Tajikistan's Sughd Oblast, where he was the IRP regional party chief. Initially believed kidnapped, he turned up five days later in police custody in Dushanbe. IRP leader Said Abdullo Nuri complained that his deputy had been denied access to a lawyer and repeatedly beaten by the police while in detention (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 12 June 2003). Shamsuddinov was formally charged in October by Chief Military Prosecutor Sharif Kurbanov, who insisted at the time that the accused man's political affiliation had nothing to do with the investigation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 October 2003).

It was then a remarkable coincidence that in the meantime a second senior member of the IRP, Qosim Rahimov, was arrested in July. A member of the party's Supreme Council -- and incidentally a hajji, having performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, and popularly nicknamed Mullah Qosim -- 60-year-old Rahimov was charged with being part of a gang that raped 11 under-aged girls and ran a chain of brothels in Dushanbe. According to Dushanbe Prosecutor Habibullo Vohidov, there was no political motive behind the charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 July 2003). Rahimov, who is still in prison awaiting trial, could face a prison sentence of 15 to 20 years.

In an appeal to the president last September the IRP demanded the release of both its members, said that the charges against them remained unproven, and asserted that the real objective of the arrests was to discredit the party and intimidate its members and activists. On several previous occasions in spring and summer 2003 IRP leader Nuri had also protested publicly that the government was harassing members of the party. At one point Nuri himself faced a serious challenge when a report appeared on the website of the state news agency "Khovar" on 12 September claiming he had ordered the murder of Sobirjon Begijonov, the chairman of Jabbor Rasul Raion in Sughd Oblast. Begijonov was shot dead by unidentified assailants outside his apartment building in May 2000. The news agency offered no proof of Nuri's involvement, the IRP chairman was never charged, and the report, which Khovar officials denied authorizing, was eventually removed from the website -- but not before rumors began flying and Nuri's reputation was damaged. He denied the allegations and said he suspected a smear campaign originating within Tajikistan's security services (see "Tajikistan: Islamic Renaissance Party Facing Serious Problems,", 24 October 2003).

It is against this background that verdicts were handed down against Shamsuddinov and his three alleged accomplices on 12 January. The accomplices, according to Asia-Plus, had escaped the country, been arrested by Russian law-enforcement officers, and extradited to Tajikistan for trial. As members of Shamsuddinov's guerrilla band, Alisher Komilov and Mahmadjon Fozilov were found guilty of killing several Russian soldiers serving in Tajikistan and sentenced to 16 and 18 years in prison, respectively. Lutfullo Faizulloev was found guilty of being in league with Shamsuddinov in the murder of Sughd Oblast administrator Begijonov. He received a 25-year jail term. Asia-Plus reported on 13 January that the convicted men may appeal against the sentence within a week.

IRP press spokesman Hikmatullo Saifullozoda said the court rulings were "unjust" and biased, and he added that the party believed the criminal charges were contrived, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 13 January. "First, this [verdict] is obviously to discredit the party's leadership," Saifullozoda said. "Second, society knows that the only party that could challenge the ruling People's Democratic Party in coming elections is the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan." On 14 January the IRP issued a much more hard-hitting statement criticizing the rulings. Hinting that, in the wake of the court sentences, the 1997 peace accord may be losing its value, the statement said, "from day to day, the role of this accord as a factor of stability in Tajikistan is vanishing from the country, and its fundamental demands and norms are being ignored by politicians." Nuri said the court decisions were an attempt to discredit the IRP and could threaten the peace in Tajikistan. He demanded an immediate meeting with Rakhmonov and Dushanbe Mayor Makhmadsaid Ubaidullaev, a request that has drawn no response so far from the authorities (see "Tajikistan: Islamic Renaissance Party Criticizes Jailings,", 15 January 2004).

To judge by its performance in the Tajik general elections in 2000, when the IRP received only 7.5 percent of the vote and won just two parliamentary seats, it would not seem to pose much of a threat to President Rakhmonov's People's Democratic Party. Yet the IRP still has influence and clout in the country, not least for the distinction of being the only officially registered Islamic political party in Central Asia. Its leadership has been looking to make gains in parliamentary elections scheduled for February 2005. It is notable, therefore, that most of the crimes allegedly committed by IRP members took place in Sughd Oblast. Not only is Sughd Oblast home to 40 percent of the country's population but, in American electoral jargon, its inhabitants tend to be floating voters. Traditionally they have not been firmly committed to supporting either the government or the IRP. The IRP has set itself the goal of increasing its support in the region as it ramps up to next year's elections. The courts and media have just made that task much harder. Arrests and convictions of IRP figures for lurid acts of murder and rape are the kind of publicity known, in the jargon of American pundits, as negative advertising.

AGREEMENTS ON SPACEPORT, CASPIAN DEVELOPMENT AT ASTANA SUMMIT. Russian President Vladimir Putin made an official two-day visit to the Kazakh capital Astana on 9-10 January at the invitation of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev. It was Putin's first visit abroad this year and according to ITAR-TASS it will probably be his last until after Russia's presidential elections, scheduled for March. The summit testified to strong and mutually advantageous relations developing along multiple fronts, making the Russian-Kazakh relationship a strong candidate for the most successful bilateral partnership in Central Asia. Commenting on the summit on 12 January, the Russian newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted, "As many as 10 documents were countersigned by senior officials. It seems like a long time since Putin and his ministers signed so many important documents at the end of bilateral talks.� The broad-format talks in which some 20 officials and businessmen from each side participated lasted only 5-10 minutes. In short, the idyll seemed so complete, it was as if there was nothing to talk about."

There were numerous harbingers of a successful summit in the days before its opening. Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev told journalists in Astana on 8 January that Kazakhstan expected to invest as much as $1 billion in the Russian economy this year, RIA-Novosti reported. Toqaev added that Kazakh banks had already begun investing in Russia. He noted that Russians were eager to invest in Kazakhstan, which he said was beneficial both economically and politically, given international predictions of Russia's probable future economic growth (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 January 2004).

Nazarbaev signed into law a bilateral agreement on road links providing, among other things, for the free transit of Kazakh vehicles across Russian territory, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 8 January. On the same day, Toqaev told the news agency that the two countries had demarcated some 7,350 kilometers, or 98 percent, of their borders. Toqaev said he expected the presidents to agree at the summit to complete the process and to sign a treaty on the matter in 2004.

Tuzakbay Karabalin and Vagit Alekperov, the presidents of Kazakhstan's state hydrocarbon company KazMunaiGaz, and Russia's LUKoil, respectively, signed a contract on development of the Tyub-Karagan bloc in the Kazakh sector of the Caspian Sea and on conducting a joint geological survey of the neighboring Atash bloc, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 9 January. Their cooperation falls under the framework of the so-called Dostyk Project for joint Caspian exploration and industrial development, estimated to cost $3 billion. If commercial oil reserves are found, the two companies agree to split the costs equally. Alekperov noted that LUKoil has already invested $1.5 billion in oil-development projects in Kazakhstan in the last eight years, making the firm the largest Russian investor in Kazakhstan.

In back-to-back speeches broadcast on Khabar TV on 9 January, Putin and Nazarbaev launched a "Year of Russia in Kazakhstan," which Nazarbaev said would boost relations between the two countries. (The Year of Kazakhstan in Russia was celebrated in 2003.) Putin implied that bilateral cooperation was practically hardwired into their peoples given "the genetic memory and closeness of our nations," and he praised the way that "Russia and Kazakhstan have managed to grow economically and become influential democratic powers." Nazarbaev was slightly more hard-headed in his response. While celebrating the scope of their collaboration from political to cultural and scientific matters, the Kazakh president stated clearly that "economic cooperation is the basis of our relations," and noted approvingly a 30-percent growth in trade turnover on 2003, which totaled over $5 billion. Putin later told reporters he thought their countries' trade turnover could be doubled relatively quickly, Interfax reported on 9 January. The first step must be to "do everything to destroy all bureaucratic barriers as soon as possible," Putin said, especially regarding customs and transport issues. As much as 60 percent of the trade volume in 2003 came from border trade. Significantly, Putin was accompanied by Orenburg Governor Aleksei Chernyshev, who was scheduled to meet with Kazakh officials to discuss trade between Kazakhstan and Russia's Orenburg Oblast, RFE/RL reported on 9 January. Kazakhstan and Orenburg Oblast share a 1,800-kilometer border. According to ITAR-TASS, trade between Orenburg Oblast and Kazakhstan is some $400 million.

The presidents signed a bilateral agreement on 9 January on the long-term use of the Baikonur cosmodrome, extending a 1994 bilateral lease contract to 2050. The current lease of Baikonur expires at the end of 2013. The annual rental fee for the space-launch complex, set at $115 million in 1999, remained unchanged under the extended agreement. According to some Russian and Kazakh officials, the issue of the fee was not even raised in discussions preceding the signing. The spaceport is the takeoff site for 70 percent of Russia's rockets, including those supplying the International Space Station. Putin and Nazarbaev also signed a memorandum on bilateral and international use of the Baikonur facilities, giving particular attention to solving environmental problems at the complex, including the use of less toxic types of rocket fuel and the cleanup of an area formerly used for intercontinental ballistic missile silos (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 January 2004.) The two leaders discussed the presence of Kazakh police, tax authorities and customs officers in Baikonur City. Most of the 80,000 residents are Russian citizens (see "Kazakhstan: Putin Visit To Focus On Baikonur, CIS, Oil Resources,", 9 January 2004). The presidents also issued a joint statement on bilateral cooperation in the energy sector, Interfax reported on 9 January. The statement focused on the joint development of Kazakhstan's oil fields in the northern Caspian Sea, the transport of Kazakh oil and gas to world markets, and cooperation in developing the electric-power industry.

RUSSIAN MEDIA ON KAZAKH-RUSSIAN RELATIONS: NOT ALL SMOOTH SAILING. Russian media commentary on the summit, while acknowledging that bilateral relations were generally good, nevertheless managed to communicate a sense of unease about Kazakhstan, due both to its galloping economic development and the independent policy directions it was taking, particularly in the military arena.

As the Russian newspaper "Izvestiya" noted on 9 January, many Russian economists look at Kazakhstan with a touch of envy, given the country's high rate of GDP growth (around 9 percent in 2003) and direct foreign investment. "Some experts are warning that Kazakhstan, although it will not cease to be a partner, will also gradually become a rival," the newspaper said. As further examples of the threatening dynamism of Russia's neighbor, the paper mentioned the implementation of the North-South transport corridor on Kazakh territory ("the infrastructure of the port of Aqtau has been established more quickly and much better than Russian equivalents"), Kazakhstan's efforts to modernize and expand its airports to handle large-scale transit air traffic, and the growing ambition and aggressiveness of Kazakhstan's well-capitalized entrepreneurs.

The Russian newspaper "Kommersant" was also perturbed by the state of bilateral relations. "It may appear to an outside observer that relations between the two countries are taking shape in an almost ideal manner. But that would be a false impression," the paper said on 9 January. Among Moscow's grievances against Astana, it said, "the main ones are Kazakhstan's intensifying pro-Western orientation, especially in the military sphere and the fuel and energy sphere, and the effective ouster of the Russian language and representatives of the Russian-speaking population from the country's state and public life." The paper complained that a decree from 1 January 2003 forced Kazakh broadcast media to make 80 percent of their programming in the Kazakh language. It also alleged that authorities were pressuring schools to reduce the amount of Russian-language instruction, that less than 20 percent of students in higher education were ethnically Russian, and that over 80 percent of top managers and government officeholders were ethnically Kazakh. It also complained that Kazakhstan's decisions about oil partners and routes consistently favored Western companies to Russia's detriment.

But the most disturbing aspects of Kazakh policy towards Russia were military, according to "Kommersant." It focused on a newly announced plan for Kazakhstan to spend more than $1 billion on modernizing its air defense system. Interfax reported on 9 January that Astana had organized a tender worth over $1 billion to build an integrated air-traffic control system for the Kazakh air-defense forces. The newspaper said Kazakhstan's preferred partners were the United States, Britain, and Germany, spurning Russia and effectively abandoning commitments under a 1995 agreement that signatories to the CIS Collective Treaty would coordinate military-technical policy and jointly develop air-defense assets. "The Kremlin is also angered to see Kazakhstan intensifying cooperation with the United States, Britain, Spain, and Turkey in strengthening its military infrastructure (in particular in creating naval bases) in the Caspian. To this end the NATO countries earmarked as much as $35 million to Astana in 2003 alone. Overall, Moscow believes that a Kazakh policy is gathering momentum to consolidate its partnership with NATO, regarded by Astana as pretty much the chief guarantor of security in Central Asia," the newspaper said.

Kazakhstan's defense orientation was also the subject of a long piece in the Russian newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 13 January. It agreed that the tender to upgrade the air-defense system was a major bone of contention. Although Russia has been invited to bid, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" said it was unlikely to secure the contract since "Kazakhstan is gradually reorienting its military and military-technical contacts away from Russia and towards the U.S. and NATO countries." In support of that contention the paper reported the following: Kazakhstan was the only member of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to send troops to Iraq; it has accepted over $10 billion [sic] of American military aid, including a C-130 cargo aircraft and four Huey-2 helicopters; it has accepted American offers to help create a Kazakh Caspian navy, while the Pentagon will assist in equipping naval bases on the sea; and for several years Kazakhstan has not participated in CIS joint air-defense exercises at Russia's Ashuluk test range, while conducting similar firing exercises at its own Saryshagan range -- the implication being that Astana wants to pull out of the CIS joint air-defense system.

It soon appeared that the announcement of the tender was a bargaining ploy. After Nazarbaev's talks with Putin during the summit, the Kazakh plan for an international tender was dropped (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2004). "Kommersant-Daily" asserted on 12 January that by announcing it was seeking international help in modernizing its antiaircraft defenses, Astana succeeded in getting Moscow to significantly reduce the price it would charge for such modernization. Kazakh Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev promptly announced that he would be making an official trip to Moscow on 16-17 January. The major issues on the agenda of his talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Ivanov, and Andrei Belyaninov, director general of the state military export company Rosoboronexport, will be military-technical cooperation and Russian arms deliveries to Kazakhstan under the preferential terms afforded CSTO members, Interfax-AVN reported on 14 January. Altynbaev was also scheduled to meet the managers of the Lianozovo Electric Engineering Plant, which specializes in the manufacture of radars -- just the sort of purchases needed to upgrade Kazakhstan's air defense systems.

The message behind the apparent success of the Kazakhs' bargaining ploy (if that is what it was) is that, even if they are not currently intending to forego Russia's military assistance in favor of Western partners, Russia is deeply worried that they might. The announcement of the tender, with the prospect of Western technicians crawling all over Kazakhstan's military-defense systems, obviously touched a Russian nerve. Playing off NATO and Russia is a strategy that Kazakhstan is likely to employ again in the future.