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Central Asia Report: March 2, 2004

2 March 2004, Volume 4, Number 9

CENTRAL ASIA: THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spent 24-26 February in the region, meeting with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmedov. Although no sensations emerged from the cordial visit, which focused on regional security cooperation, Rumsfeld stated at a news conference in Tashkent that the U.S. has no plans to establish permanent bases in Central Asia. U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Richard Hoagland later reinforced the secretary's comments with a separate statement on the same issue.

On the eve of Rumsfeld's arrival, Uzbek authorities released 62-year-old Fatima Mukhadirova, who had been sentenced to six years in prison for religious extremism. Human-rights organizations had charged that she was imprisoned for demanding an investigation into her son's death in prison. Some observers interpreted Mukhadirova's release as a public-relations gesture by the Uzbek government in honor of their high-ranking American guest. As these events were unfolding, the U.S. State Department released its 2003 Human Rights Reports on 25 February. The reports paint a generally grim picture of the human-rights situation in Central Asia, singling out conditions in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as particularly troublesome.

In Bishkek, Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev announced that Kyrgyzstan will not accept German nuclear waste for reprocessing. Days earlier, a Kyrgyz NGO had criticized a contract between Kyrgyzstan's Kara Balta Mines and Germany's RWE NUKEM to store and process radioactive waste in Kyrgyzstan. According to the NGO, the project offered no economic benefits and threatened to harm the country's image.

In Kazakhstan, the state oil-and-gas company KazMunaiGaz signed an agreement on 25 February with an international consortium to develop the country's giant Kashagan oil field. Under the agreement, which envisions $29 billion in investments over a 15-year period, oil will begin flowing in 2007 or 2008. The original deadline was 2005. Earlier in the week, KazMunaiGaz President Uzakbai Karabalin told journalists that the company has submitted a feasibility project for a pipeline to link Kazakhstan with China and hopes to begin construction this summer.

Finally, Tajikistan secured from Russia the extradition of former Tajik Interior Minister Yakub Salimov on 24 February. Once a close ally of current Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, Salimov fell from favor and left the country in 1997. He was arrested in Moscow at the request of Tajik authorities in June 2003. Though Salimov faces capital charges of treason and plotting a coup, Russian authorities agreed to extradite him on the condition that he not face the death penalty at home.

BIG PLANS FOR KAZAKHSTAN'S OIL. Kazakhstan has far-reaching hopes for the future of its oil industry. At a 23 February press briefing, top executives at the state-owned KazMunaiGaz oil and gas company made it clear that those ambitions stretch from Turkey to China.

KazMunaiGaz President Uzakbai Karabalin confirmed that his company plans to plug into the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, reported on 23 February. Noting that talks are under way between the governments of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, Karabalin said that he hopes the major issues can be resolved "soon." He added that a "very careful approach" is required, since matters of "legislation and taxation" are involved. Azerbaijan State Oil Company President Natik Aliyev (no relation to President Ilham Aliyev) explained that since Azerbaijan's parliament customarily ratifies such agreements, Azerbaijan may ask Kazakhstan's parliament to do the same, Azerbaijan's online newspaper "Echo" reported on 24 February.

Once the necessary agreements are in place Kazakhstan intends to link up with BTC through a new port at Kuryk. Kuryk, in turn, would itself serve as a link to another port in Kazakhstan, Aktau, 76 kilometers to the northwest. Eventually, oil from Kazakhstan's Kashagan field would flow from Aktau to Kuryk for shipment across the Caspian Sea to Baku and the BTC. According to "International Oil Daily," the port at Kuryk should be ready by the time the first oil begins to flow from Kashagan in 2007 or 2008.

But western export routes are only part of the picture. Karabalin also detailed recent movement on plans for a pipeline to China. He told reporters that KazMunaiGaz has submitted a feasibility study for a 1,300-kilometer-long stretch of pipeline from Atasu in central Kazakhstan to the Alashankou railroad terminal on the Chinese border, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 24 February. Once the study is approved construction could begin as early as the summer of 2004, the BBC reported. Kazakh specialists have expressed confidence that it will only take two years to build the Atasu-Alashankou leg of what will eventually be a 3,000-kilometer pipeline, an estimate that could prove overly optimistic.

Grand plans provide ample grist for skeptics' mills. Schemes to integrate Kazakhstan into BTC have a checkered history. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev promised at a 1999 summit in Istanbul to pump his country's oil through BTC, for example, but reneged on the pledge. BTC itself has a long history of squabbles and delays (although it is currently on schedule for completion in 2005). On the eastern front, a pipeline to China presents the inherent risk of project tethered to a single customer, who then wields inordinate power over its captive supplier. Finally, Kazakhstan's main claim to hydrocarbon fame -- its giant Kashagan field -- has itself witnessed its share of scandals and setbacks. The project's participants have approved a $29 billion development plan for Kashagan, Bloomberg reported on 25 February, but the first oil will not flow until 2007 or 2008, three years later than was originally planned.

Still, the long-term outlook is encouraging. Kazakhstan hopes to triple its oil output to 3.2 million barrels a day by 2015. The date could prove propitious. A 24 February article in "The New York Times" paints a picture of gradually rising world demand and increasingly tired oil fields in crucial producer Saudi Arabia. Edward O. Price Jr., a former Saudi Aramco and Chevron executive, told the newspaper that the world can only expect a "few years" of 12-million-barrels-per-day production from the Saudis. By 2015, Price "expects global oil markets to be in short supply."

RUSSIAN EXTRADITION FUELS 'QUID PRO QUO' SPECULATION. Russia and Tajikistan are currently engaged in difficult negotiations over the future of military cooperation between the two countries. Against this backdrop, Moscow's abrupt decision to extradite former Tajik Interior Minister Yakub Salimov after holding him since June has given rise to talk of quid pro quo.

Before his fall from grace, Salimov was an imposing figure on the Tajik political scene. According to biographical information provided by Deutsche Welle and Interfax, Yakub Salimov was a paramilitary commander in 1992-93. As civil war engulfed Tajikistan, Salimov was one of the figures who helped to bring about current President Imomali Rakhmonov's rise to prominence. Salimov went on to serve as Tajikistan's interior minister from 1993 to 1995, wielding considerable power under chaotic conditions. In 1995, he became Tajikistan's ambassador to Turkey before returning to Dushanbe in 1996 to chair his country's Customs Committee. In the spring of 1997, he saved Rakhmonov from an assassination attempt in Khujand. By year's end, however, Salimov had been forced to flee Tajikistan after a series of political missteps and unwise alliances amid the jockeying that accompanied the end of the civil war.

After 1997, various sources place Salimov in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. He also traveled frequently to Moscow, where Russian security forces arrested him on 21 June 2003, acting on an international warrant Tajik authorities had issued several years earlier. A lull ensued after the arrest as months passed and Salimov languished in Moscow's Lefortovo prison.

When it finally came, movement on the case was swift. Salimov was extradited to Tajikistan with minimal fuss on the evening of 24 February, Deutsche Welle reported on 26 February. Though the charges against Salimov -- which include treason and the organization of a coup attempt -- carry the death penalty, a source in the Tajik Prosecutor-General's Office told Interfax on 25 February, "Russia extradited Salimov under a guarantee that he would not face capital punishment."

Official Tajik reaction to the extradition has been muted. Tajik Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov told RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 26 February that Salimov has been undergoing questioning since 25 February. Bobokhonov added that the charges of treason and coup plotting were filed in Salimov's absence, and only now will an investigation be able to show whether or not Salimov actually had a hand in the events in question.

Meanwhile, some observers saw a link between Moscow's decision to extradite Salimov and ongoing Russian attempts to parlay a temporary troop deployment into a permanent military base in Tajikistan. A new round of negotiations on Russian-Tajik military cooperation began last week, and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 26 February that it was at that time that Tajik officials arrived in Moscow for Salimov. (Dodojon Atovulloev, a Moscow-based Tajik opposition journalist, provided partial corroboration, telling RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 24 February that Russia's prosecutor-general issued the order to extradite Salimov on 29 January, although the extradition itself did not take place until 24 February.) The newspaper goes on to suggest that Russian negotiators "may have succeeded in obtaining concessions from their Tajik counterparts over the military base in exchange for Salimov's extradition."

Russian political observer Arkadii Dubnov concurs. He told Deutsche Welle in a 26 February interview: "There's a serious chance that the Salimov case may have been a bargaining chip between Moscow and Dushanbe. Moscow has a bone to pick with Dushanbe over the tough going in the negotiations on the status of the Russian military base in Tajikistan and the situation with Russian border guards on the Tajik-Afghan border. Salimov's extradition may have been intended to encourage a reciprocal gesture from Tajik authorities toward Moscow."

MURDER SHINES SPOTLIGHT ON MIGRATION. The violence that can erupt when labor migration collides with xenophobia has long been a matter of serious concern in Western Europe. The vicious murder of a 9-year-old Tajik girl in St. Petersburg, Russia, in early February comes as a reminder that the interplay of labor migration and xenophobia is now an important part of the relationship between Russia and Central Asia, and particularly between Russia and Tajikistan.

Nine-year-old Khursheda Sultanova died from multiple stab wounds on 9 February. According to her father, Yusuf Sultanov, a group of teenagers shouting fascist slogans attacked him, his daughter, and his 11-year-old nephew as they were walking home from a skating rink. The incident sparked widespread outrage, and law enforcement authorities undertook a massive investigation. Though no arrests have yet been made, high-ranking militia officials promised as recently as 27 February that the crime would soon be solved, reported the same day.

Khursheda's father, Yusuf Sultanov, is a migrant worker from Tajikistan, one of many Tajiks driven abroad by economic crisis at home and drawn to Russia by its proximity and comparative prosperity. Their numbers are difficult to gauge, and their legal status varies -- some live and work in Russia legally, others enter legally but lack proper registration, and others work in Russia in violation of the law. "Novye izvestiya" estimated on 25 February that up to 1 million Tajiks currently reside in Russia.

Brutal economic disparity is what makes Russia such an alluring destination for Tajik migrant workers. According to a study that appeared in the Russian journal "Ekonomist" on 16 February 2004, the average monthly wage in Russia in 2002 was 11.5 times what it was in Tajikistan. As a resident of the Tajik village of Uzluk told a reporter for "Novaya gazeta" on 9 December 2003, "Every man here dreams of saving up money for a ticket and leaving for Russia as a migrant worker."

An investigative article in "Novye izvestiya" on 25 February detailed the life that awaits Tajik migrant workers lucky enough to secure employment hauling goods on a pushcart at one of Moscow's large markets. Though their overall earnings can total up to $500 a month, Tajik migrant laborers pay a number of indirect "taxes" -- contributions to a "militia fund" to avoid harassment at the market, a "funeral fund" to cover expenses in case one of their countrymen should die while in Russia, 70 rubles ($2.50) a day for the use of the pushcart, and 40 rubles a day for a cot in a common room. Workers send the bulk of what's left to support their families in Tajikistan, where some sources estimate that remittances are on a par with the entire state budget.

With complicated registration rules dooming Tajik migrant laborers to a twilight zone of semilegality at best, the police become the bane of their existence. As Karomat Sharipov, head of the Tajik National League organization in Moscow, told "Novye izvestiya," "Every day I ride around to police precincts and courts helping out my fellow countrymen and listening to their countless stories about the extortion and the injustice they encounter." Moreover, as the tragic death of Khusheda Sultanov appears to confirm, greedy policemen are far from the only danger confronting Tajik migrant laborers in Russia.

But with times hard in Tajikistan, the flow of laborers in search of extra rubles to send home will likely continue, even against a backdrop of rising antimigrant feeling in Russia and the possibility of violent attacks. As N. Mirsaidov wrote bitterly in Tajikistan's "Varorud" on 11 February, "Where would we be without Russia? Without Russia, we would hardly be able to avoid a real humanitarian catastrophe of the sort that today afflicts the poorest countries in Africa."

THE CURSE OF TIMUR. Did an ill-advised Soviet expedition to open the grave of feared Central Asian conqueror Timur fall victim to an ancient curse and let slip the dogs of war? Or is the curse of Timur merely a bit of modern myth-making?

On 18 January, Russia's RTR aired a documentary film titled "The Curse of Tamerlane." Timur -- also known as Timur Leng, Timur the Lame, and Tamerlane -- is one of the great formative figures in Central Asian history. He was born in 1336 not far from today's Samarkand. According to Vasilii Bartold, an eminent historian of the region, Timur was born into the "Turkic-influenced Mongolian tribe of Barlas." In his book "The New Central Asia," the scholar Olivier Roy succinctly explains the significance of the conqueror "who was to found a short-lived empire which stretched from Ankara to Delhi. This empire definitively consolidated the Turco-Persian cultural synthesis in Transoxania [the region between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, roughly corresponding to today's Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan]: a literary form of Turkish sits alongside Persian as both cultural and official language; the orthodox religion is strictly Sunni; and Samarkand becomes the jewel of an Islamic art which owes everything to Persian artists. Timurid culture lived on after the death of its founder."

Timur's final resting place was a mausoleum in Samarkand called Gur Emir, or the emir's tomb. As "The Curse of Tamerlane" recounts, a group of Soviet scholars set out in 1941 to determine whether or not the remains interred at Gur Emir actually belonged to the mighty Timur. Malik Kayumov, who served as the cameraman for the expedition, was the documentary filmmakers' primary source. He told them of his encounter with three old men in a teahouse a few hours before the grave was to be opened. According to the old men, ancient manuscripts warned that anyone who disturbed Timur's repose would unleash the scourge of war. Heedless of the warning, the group went on with its work. The date was 21 June 1941. Hours later, the German invasion of Russia began.

On 20 February Kamol Ayni published a sharply worded rebuttal of the documentary's claims on the site of Tajikistan's official news agency, Khovar ( Kamol Ayni is the son of Sadriddin Ayni, a Tajik writer and historian who participated in the Timur expedition. Sadriddin Ayni brought his 13-year-old son along with him to observe Timur's disinterment. Kamol Ayni kept a dairy, and his remarks are based on the notes he claims to have made on that fateful day. Ayni cites the relevant passage:

"When everyone came out of the crypt, I saw three old men speaking with my father in Tajik.... One of the men held an old book in his hands. He opened it and said in Tajik, 'This book is in the old script. It says that whoever disturbs Timurlan's grave will suffer disaster and war.' Everyone cried out, 'Allah, deliver us from misfortune!' Sadriddin Ayni took the book, put on his glasses, examined it carefully and addressed the old man in Tajik, 'With all respect, do you believe this book?' The old man answered, 'Of course, it invokes [the] name of Allah.' Ayni said, 'Do you know what kind of book this is?' The old man said, 'It's an important Muslim book that invokes the name of Allah and protects the people from misfortune.' Ayni said, 'This book is written in Farsi [literary Tajik]. It's just the Jangnoma, a book about battles and duels, a collection of fantastic stories about heroes. The book was compiled not long ago in the late 19th century. The words that you cite about the grave of Timurlan are written into the margins of the book in a different hand. You probably know that according to Muslim traditions, it is considered a sin to open any graves and holy places. These words about Timurlan's grave are a traditional phrase that has also been used in reference to the burial places of Ismail Somoni, Hoja Ahrar, Hazrat Bahouddin Balogardon, and others. They are meant to protect the burial places from grave robbers. But ancient burial places and the graves of historical figures have been opened in various countries for scholarly purposes, just as we are doing. Here's your book. Study it...and use your head.'"

Ayni goes on to note that Kayumov, whose native language was Uzbek, did not know Tajik and could not have understood the exchange between Sadriddin Ayni and the old men. Moreover, when Kayumov examined the book himself he began leafing through its pages from left to right, demonstrating his ignorance of Farsi (which is written from right to left). Finally, Ayni accuses Kayumov of "distorting everything with a note of disdain for the Tajiks and Tajik-speakers who were there."

Ayni was apparently not the only viewer in Tajikistan to respond to the film, nor the only one to espy in it a "note of disdain for the Tajiks." In fact, the resulting polemic in the Tajik press was lively enough to draw a response -- in Uzbek -- on a website affiliated with the Uzbek opposition party Erk ( Writing from Khojand on 27 February, Temir Malik decried a string of publications that "defame Emir Timur, calling him evil and likening him to such internationally accursed figures as Genghis (Chingiz) Khan, Napoleon, and Adolf Hitler; dismiss the account of Malik Kayumov, who 'disparaged the reputation of Sadriddin Ayni'; and even besmirch the good name of the well-known cinematic master [Malik Kayumov]." Malik concludes, "Clearly, the fact that the great conqueror's achievements are viewed in Uzbekistan as a model of statecraft appears to have irked certain people whose affairs are in less than exemplary order."

As is often the case in historical disputes, the voices that could corroborate the exact events of 21 June 1941 belong to departed elders. But the curse of Timur, whose empire "definitively consolidated the Turco-Persian cultural synthesis" in a region that is now home to recently independent states intent on forging their own identities, appears to live on.