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Central Asia Report: May 11, 2004

11 May 2004, Volume 4, Number 19

THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. Kazakhstan's cabinet faced the pleasant task of amending the nation's 2004 budget upward to accommodate an unexpected windfall of $424 million. Kazakh number crunchers had forecast oil prices of $22 per barrel in 2004, but with current prices for Kazakh crude holding strong at $27 per barrel, there is that much more money in the till. The cabinet added $424 million in expenditures and revised 2004 GDP predictions up to 5 trillion tenges ($37 billion) from 4.877 trillion tenges. On 4 May, Kazakhstan's nine officially registered political parties signed a charter of political competition in order to ensure that this fall's parliamentary elections are transparent, honest, fair, and devoid of dirty tricks. A day later, the political field widened when the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan party announced that it had finally succeeded in obtaining official registration after more than 20 unsuccessful attempts.

Kyrgyz politicians from President Askar Akaev on down have expressed concern recently over crime and corruption. If further proof was needed that both are a problem, it came in the form of the 5 May killing of Chynybek Aliev, the Interior Ministry's top anticorruption official. Unknown assailants gunned him down in the nation's capital and fled the scene. An Interior Ministry spokesman later said that the killing was almost certainly a consequence of Aliev's investigations into contract killings. President Akaev ended the week by promising progress on at least one front, vowing to take "real steps" to crack down on corruption.

Crime and punishment were also on the agenda in Tajikistan, where President Imomali Rakhmonov proposed a death-penalty moratorium. He had originally done so in his 30 April address to the nation, and a draft bill will now move on to parliament. Meanwhile, Russia extradited Valijon and Fahmiddin Sodirov to Tajikistan, where the brothers will face charges for criminal and terrorist acts they are alleged to have committed during and after the 1992-97 civil war. Russian-Tajik cooperation in another sphere formed the subject of several comments by Tajik and Russian officials, who stressed that the withdrawal of Russia's 201st Motorized Infantry Division is not on the agenda and that talks between the two countries on establishing a permanent Russian base around the 201st are, despite recent rumors to the contrary, proceeding apace.

Turkmenistan's military valiantly repelled 3,500 "terrorists" who attempted to seize key oil and chemical facilities in war games that involved two SU-25 fighter planes, missile and rocket systems, a mobile artillery complex, and two MI-4 helicopters. President Saparmurat Niyazov pronounced himself pleased with the results of the exercise, proclaiming, "The army of neutral Turkmenistan is capable of dealing with any threat."

The Uzbek press focused on real terrorists on 4 May, with major newspapers running lengthy articles decrying the terror attacks that shook Bukhara and Tashkent on 28 March-1 April. "Narodnoe slovo" drew one lesson from events, concluding, "The situation demands that we all be vigilant, watchful, and actively cooperate with law enforcement." "Halq sozi" drew another, writing, "The time has come to note and evaluate the actions of some individuals and foreign organizations that are allegedly 'analyzing in depth' the terrorist attacks against our homeland." Those who feel that this spring's fashion in Tashkent is a warm smile for Moscow and a cold shoulder for the West may wish to cite the newspaper's elliptical comment on Afghanistan and Iraq: "It is impossible to impose by force Western life on an Eastern way of life that has developed and been refined over the centuries." (Daniel Kimmage)

TAJIKS TO REPLACE RUSSIAN BORDER GUARDS ON AFGHAN BORDER... In his annual address to parliament on 30 April, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov announced a major shift in the country's border services.

The Russian troops that have traditionally guarded the Tajik-Afghan border, he said, will be phased out and replaced with Tajik guards. "According to the agreement resulting from negotiations between working groups, the remaining part of the Tajik-Afghan border will in the future be gradually handed over to Tajik border guards," he said.

The president stressed that Russian border guards have played a "tremendous role" in the protection of the border -- a key gateway in drug-trafficking routes emanating from Afghanistan. Rakhmonov expressed hope that Tajik border troops will cooperate with their Russian colleagues throughout the transition period and beyond. He did not say when the withdrawal of Russian guards would be complete.

Tajik border officials in December said their troops are ready to assume command of all checkpoints on the Tajik-Afghan border as early as this year. Russian border troops have already transferred their duties along certain sections of the mountainous border. Tajik border guards currently command patrols along one-fourth of the 2,000-kilometer border. Tajik troops have also been guarding the country's 500-kilometer border with China since the end of 2002.

It has been more than a decade since Tajikistan gained independence. Why does the shift come now? Alex Vatanka, the editor in chief of the security-assessment publication "Jane's Sentinel: Russia and the CIS," told RFE/RL that security improvements in Tajikistan and Afghanistan have allowed Dushanbe to begin reducing its dependency on Moscow. "Tajikistan has had a number of years where it's experienced relative security," he said. "It's no longer the country that it was back in the 1990s, when the civil war was going on. At the same time, the external threat emanating from Afghanistan have been reduced massively since the days of the Taliban."

But Vatanka expressed doubts about whether Tajik troops are in fact prepared to assume full control of the border. Although Tajik soldiers have always been involved in guarding the border, it was at the rudimentary level, with no strategy or command privileges.

The 1993 Treaty of Friendship between Moscow and Dushanbe gave Russia's Federal Border Service authority for the protection of the Tajik border, with the support of Russia's 201st Motorized Infantry Division, traditionally based in Tajikistan. Most contract servicemen and conscripts in the 10,000-strong force are Tajik, but the vast majority of its officers are Russian.

Aleksandr Kondratev is a spokesmen for the Russian border service. He also expressed concern that border conditions may suffer once Tajik troops assume control. "[Russia] has well-equipped border posts and well-trained border guards on the Tajik-Afghan border," he said. "We have enough means at those border posts, and we have everything necessary to maintain security on the Tajik-Afghan border. In my opinion, the flow of narcotics coming from Afghanistan into Tajikistan will increase after the replacement of the Russian border guards."

With opium and heroin production rising dramatically in Afghanistan, drug trafficking through Tajikistan has skyrocketed during the past few years. In its annual report on the illegal drug trade, the International Narcotics Control Board noted that guards on the Tajik-Afghan border seized almost 6 tons of heroin last year -- 1,000 times more than in 1996.

The massive opium production in Afghanistan -- which in 2002 was estimated at about 3,400 tons, or around three-quarters of the world's total -- has turned Central Asia into a hotspot for drug trafficking. Tajik drug-control agents have conceded the handover to Tajik troops may mean a rise in smuggling in the short term. But officials say most transitional problems should be smoothed out within several months.

Nuriddin Amirqulov, deputy chairman of the Tajik State Border Protection Committee, said: "I disagree with the opinion that we are not ready to protect our border. We are ready to do our utmost to protect our border. And speculation that narcotics will flow from Afghanistan to Tajikistan after Russia's withdrawal is baseless."

With help from the International Organization for Migration, the Tajik border committee in December opened a training center in Dushanbe for future Tajik border officers. (Antoine Blua with Sojida Djakhfarova of RFE/RL's Tajik Service)

...AS HEROIN BUSTS TIE RUSSIAN MILITARY TO DRUG TRADE IN TAJIKISTAN. It was yet another arrest in Tajikistan's drug war. Authorities announced on 5 May they had detained a man near the border with Afghanistan carrying 12 kilograms of heroin. It's not just the large amount of heroin that made his arrest noteworthy. Police said the suspect, Safarali Gulomov, is a Tajik with Russian citizenship and a medic with the Russian border-guard service -- the more than 10,000-strong force that for over a decade has helped locals fight drug smuggling from Afghanistan.

Faizulloh Gadoev, chief of the Interior Ministry's antidrug department, confirmed the arrest in a phone interview with RFE/RL's Mirzonabi Kholikzod in Dushanbe -- and noted it's the second time in two weeks Russian border guards have been implicated in the drug trade. "There were other such incidents last year, too, though I can't remember the exact numbers," he said. "A week or 10 days ago we detained another border guard with some 10 [kilograms of drugs]."

Last year, two Russian soldiers were jailed for heroin possession. In 1997, 12 were arrested after trying to transport 8 kilos of drugs by plane to Russia. And three years ago, a former Russian military-intelligence officer said such shipments were common practice -- and that up to 100 senior officers were involved in the drug trade.

Niklas Swanstrom, who heads the program for Contemporary Silk Road Studies at Sweden's Uppsala University, told RFE/RL: "We've seen evidence that the Russian military, and at a high level, has been involved in the Central Asian drug trade, if not by any other factor [than] by the size of this transport from Central Asia through Russia or the former Soviet Union. It can only be transported by trucks, private planes, or military aircraft -- and military aircraft seems to be a big factor in this. And that can only be organized by senior officers."

That's roundly denied by the border service. The head of its press service, Colonel Aleksandr Kondratev, denied any widespread involvement of Russian border guards in drug trafficking. And in a phone interview with RFE/RL's Kholikzod, he also cast doubt on the first of the two recent arrests, saying the man named by police, Artem Kovalev, was not even in the service.

The border guards also say they are doing a lot to help stem the cross-border drug flow. They, along with Tajik authorities, have seized more than 30 tons of drugs -- including 16 tons of heroin -- in the past five years, according to the Tajik Drug Control Agency.

Seizures have soared each year. Last year, authorities confiscated 9.5 tons of drugs -- 10 times as much as in 1999. But still, drug-control experts estimate that's just a tiny percentage of what gets through.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime says the "Silk route" -- from Afghanistan through Central Asia to the West -- now appears to be the main drug-trafficking route to Europe. In its most recent report, the body said some 4,500 tons of opium were produced in 2002 -- and three-quarters of it was made in Afghanistan.

James Callahan is the organization's Central Asia representative. He told RFE/RL that there are obvious temptations -- and not just for Russian border guards. But he said the cases of drug smuggling in the Russian military are probably isolated incidents. "It is quite costly for the [Russian] government [to maintain the border force in Tajikistan]," he said. "And I don't think that if the Russian government felt it actually had a force there that was -- at the highest levels, or at very high levels -- involved in the trade itself, that they would continue to invest in this. I've met the leadership of the Russian border guards and others and they seem very professional. I think when you're talking about the kinds of salaries that people are paid -- although they're better in the Russian border guards than in the Tajik border guards -- and the temptations for the trade, as well as the ethnic ties across the border, you will inevitably have people who are in positions in the law enforcement area that will be tempted to do this."

Those temptations -- for the Russian military at least -- will soon be removed, as Russian border guards are to be phased out in coming months. (Kathleen Knox with Farangiz Najibullah and Mirzonabi Kholikzod of RFE/RL's Tajik Service)

TURKMEN STATE WORKERS WITH FOREIGN DEGREES TO BE DISMISSED. Turkmen state workers who received their diplomas of higher education from schools outside of the country after 1993 have received a letter from the authorities notifying them that their degrees will no longer be recognized in Turkmenistan after 1 June.

The letter notes they will be dismissed from their jobs as of that date, as well. There will be exceptions -- for instance, when the student was sent abroad under an interstate agreement. The letter of notification implements a general decree passed by the Education Ministry in June 2003.

In a televised speech last year, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov explained the motives behind the decree. "There are about 5,000 Turkmen students who are studying abroad," Niyazov said. "Among them, there are honest as well as dirty people, too. If we don't have an agreement with those countries, students should be taught in our country."

It is unclear why the year 1993 was chosen, or how many people are affected by the decree. But the dismissal of teachers, doctors, engineers, and other professionals in Turkmenistan's state-run economy is expected to be massive. Observers say the move will further erode the country's social services, increase unemployment, and force many members of Turkmenistan's educated class into permanent exile.

Aaron Rhodes, the executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights in Vienna, called the move "one more step in the direction of isolation and mediocrity in Turkmenistan. It's another attack on the future of Turkmenistan as a member of the international community, and it doesn't bode very well for the ability of the Turkmen people to solve their own problems." Rhodes sees the decree as part of a broader effort by authorities to filter foreign influence out of Turkmen society and to exert more control over citizens.

An unidentified resident of the capital Ashgabat agreed. "It seems it is appreciated if fewer people move abroad," he told RFE/RL. "If they travel less, they will get less information. It may be done to block the development of the youth's worldview." However, he added that he does not believe the purpose of the measure is to abuse minority rights. "If minorities have an education, they could move to other countries and could find jobs there," he said. "Most of them are going to move if they can."

Bess Brown, a Germany-based expert on Central Asia, said the new measure is consistent with past government practices. "Obviously, most people affected by it were going to be people who had taken degrees in the Russian Federation because that's where people went to study, including Niyazov," Brown said. "His degree is from Leningrad [Polytechnic Institute]. [But] it affects everyone of every nationality. It's part of this policy of wrecking the educational system that Niyazov has been engaged in for several years now."

Turkmenistan's education system has been in steady decline. Universities accept only about 3,000 students a year, one-10th of the number before independence in 1991. Education levels are far below international standards, as well, making it more difficult for students to transfer credits to foreign universities.

Professors and students who do not have a thorough command of the Turkmen language are also being pushed out of the country's universities, which now teach almost exclusively in Turkmen. (Antoine Blua with Naz Nazar of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service)

SMALL TAJIK JEWISH COMMUNITY FIGHTING TO SAVE ITS SYNAGOGUE. The small Jewish community in the Tajik capital Dushanbe is upset over plans to tear down the city's only synagogue. The plans are part of an urban-renewal project in the city's Ismoil Somoni district. As Mikhail Abdurakhmanov, the chief rabbi of Dushanbe, explained in an interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service: "We received a letter from the district of Ismoil Somoni, in which they said the synagogue would be destroyed and a park built in its place. The synagogue has been there for 100 years and we want to keep this synagogue."

There are just 500 Jews in Dushanbe. Several thousand more are believed to be scattered throughout the rest of the country. But despite their dwindling numbers, their roots run deep. Jews have been in Central Asia for thousands of years. Many supporters of the Dushanbe Jewish community say the group has a historical right to keep its synagogue, or be given time to build a new one before the demolition project begins.

Supporters include Central Asia's Jewish emigre population. Rafael Nektalov is the editor of the New York-based Jewish emigre newspaper "The Bukharan Times" and the coordinator of the Bukharan Jewish Congress of the United States. Nektalov said he learned of the planned demolition from friends and relatives still in Central Asia. "Information has come to us that they planned to tear down the synagogue in Tajikistan," he said. "The Tajik ambassador [to the United States] said it was located in an area next to a Russian military base and they were renovating that district, so it was possible they would tear down the synagogue."

The U.S. and Israeli embassies in Tajikistan have been urging local authorities to intervene in the controversy. Ghoib Golibov, the head of the government's religion commission, held out hope that a solution might be found. "We said we had some compassion for them and that it might be possible to keep the synagogue," he said. "They have a letter from the district and the district authority asking them to move the synagogue as soon as possible. It is possible a conflict could arise, and if there is no other solution, then the district should find a new place and build a new synagogue."

It may surprise some that native Jewish communities can still be found in mainly Muslim Central Asia. But the successive empires that ruled the region gave Jews wide berth to travel within their boundaries, and Jewish culture flourished for centuries.

The ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara in modern-day Uzbekistan remains the heart of the region's Jewish community, and is home to Central Asia's chief rabbi. Ismoil Somoni, the founder of the Samanid Dynasty who is revered as the father of the Tajik nation, is buried in Bukhara not far from Chashma Ayub, the Old Testament site where the Prophet Job is believed to have struck his staff on the ground and tapped into a life-giving spring.

But the number of Jews in Central Asia has declined sharply since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The exodus was especially large in Tajikistan, where the five-year civil war drove many people to flee the country.

The Tajik government acknowledges the deep roots of the country's Jewish community. Nektalov of "The Bukharan Times" said supporters of the Dushanbe synagogue may ultimately find a unexpected ally in Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov. "The president of Tajikistan, Imomali Rakhmonov, is one of the most interesting leaders in Central Asia because he has a good understanding of the Jewish Diaspora, particularly the Jewish Diaspora of Tajiks in America. Every time he comes to New York he always finds time to spend with us, and comes as our friend, as our brother, and says, 'We are always waiting for you to return to Tajikistan,'" Nektalov said.

Dushanbe later this year celebrates its 80th anniversary as the Tajik capital. Many representative of the Jewish emigre community are planning to return for the events -- and possibly aid in the fight to keep a synagogue standing in Dushanbe. (Bruce Pannier with Iskander Aliyev of RFE/RL's Tajik Service)