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Central Asia Report: May 25, 2004

25 May 2004, Volume 4, Number 20

THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev traveled to China for an official visit, returning home with a signed agreement to build the 988-kilometer Atasu-Alashankou oil pipeline from western Kazakhstan to China. Nazarbaev called the pipeline, slated for completion in 2005, "a new route for future Kazakh oil." He went on to say, "This is the diversification and multivector approach I have been talking about. I think that neither the West nor Russia should harbor any unease about this." The pipeline deal was the most important, but not the only, deal to come out of the visit, which produced a number of agreements on trade and military cooperation. At home, five of Kazakhstan's 10 officially registered political parties spoke out against the planned introduction of electronic voting in fall parliamentary elections. On a visit to Kazakhstan, a delegation of European ambassadors to the OSCE spoke out in favor of the country's bid to chair the organization in 2009, while taking care to note that a consensus decision will emerge in 2006.

A Kyrgyz parliamentary commission reported that the country's National Security Service (SNB) was responsible for bugging the offices of six opposition deputies, although bodies ranging form the presidential administration to the Interior Ministry were also aware of the practice, which came to light in January. The SNB denied the allegation, and parliament voted to begin hearings on the report. Security Council Secretary Misir Ashyrkulov announced the creation of a Union for Honest Elections encompassing representatives of centrist and opposition parties; the union is intended to ensure that 2005 presidential and parliamentary elections meet international standards of fairness. The Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to a 14 May article about Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov in the Kyrgyzstan supplement to Russia's "Komsomolskaya pravda." Calling the article libelous and offensive, the ministry denied allegations that Aitmatov misused official funds and improperly issued diplomatic passports. Meanwhile, several members of parliament expressed their ire at Kyrgyzstan's own "Vechernii Bishkek," which recently published an article on parliamentarians' malapropisms.

Tajik Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov told Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" in an 18 May interview that Russia should have a military base in Tajikistan. Noting that the base must have "a very clearly defined framework for functioning," Nazarov went on to lament the fact that negotiations have bogged down in what he termed "technical details." A regional prosecutor announced that 33 criminal cases involving banned Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir have been opened in the northern Soghd Oblast in the first quarter of 2004. The prosecutor added that a separate investigation continues into the purported extremist group Bayat, with 18 people under arrest on charges ranging from arson to murder.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov began the week by sacking the head of the Seydi oil refinery for failing to stop cross-border smuggling to Uzbekistan. Later in the week, the Foreign Ministry took the UN Commission on Human Rights to task for its "tendentious" resolution condemning Turkmenistan's human rights record. In a continuation of the theme, President Niyazov announced on 21 May that no one in Turkmenistan has suffered persecution or imprisonment as a result of political convictions.

Uzbekistan's minister of justice announced that 73 of 76 political parties and nongovernmental organizations have successfully completed re-registration. The ministry refused to register opposition parties Birlik and Ozod Dehqonlar (Free Peasants) because of forged signatures in their applications. (The well-known opposition party Erk did not submit registration documents at all, according to the minister.) Another victim of the re-registration campaign was George Soros's Open Society Institute, which the ministry refused registration and criticized for murky financial dealings, as well as the promotion of slanderous materials detrimental to Uzbekistan's image. Several other organizations were registered with warnings to stick to the letter of the law in their activities, including the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute.

BAYAT: NOTHING BUT QUESTIONS. The discovery of a new extremist group in Tajikistan poses troubling questions. For now, those questions have less to do with the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism than with the extravagant coverage the issue often receives in the media.

Bayat -- from the Arabic word for an oath of allegiance, an important concept in early Islamic history -- burst onto the scene on 12 April, when Tajik prosecutors announced the arrest of 20 people in the northern Isfara district. The suspects are charged with crimes ranging from arson to murder, and specifically the 12 January killing of Baptist pastor Sergei Bassarab. A 27 April report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) summed up the little that is known about Bayat. IWPR cited unnamed security sources who describe a radical Islamist organization with possible ties to the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group that has been linked to Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. But Tajik officials have provided scant additional information, and the report closes with a statement by prosecutors that Bayat was merely "a group of hooligans who have no political motives."

Those looking to trumpet the arrival of a dangerous new extremist group do not have to manufacture evidence. According to a 24 April article in Tajikistan's "Leninabadskaya pravda," Bayat has been the object of a five-month-long investigation by the Prosecutor-General's Office and Interior Ministry that has resulted in 25 criminal cases against seven individuals who have admitted ties to the IMU. The article describes Bayat as a group that arose in 1992 and fought in Tajikistan's 1992-1997 civil war on the side of the United Tajik Opposition. Its leader today is 48-year-old Hodi Fattoyev, also known as Qori Hodi. Many members of the group apparently received a religious education in Saudi Arabia.

Other alleged links to the Arab world go beyond education. Avesta news agency reported on 20 April that Tajik special services do not rule out a link between Bayat and Bay'at al-Imam (which can be roughly translated as "the oath of allegiance to the prayer leader"), an Arab extremist group linked to Abu Mu'sab al-Zarqawi, whom U.S. forces allege to be the commander of Al-Qaeda operations in Iraq. Abdallah Abu Rumman, a Jordanian newspaper editor, told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on 8 March, "I met Abu Mu'sab al-Zarqawi [in prison] in September 1996. He was the leader of a group of political prisoners who called themselves 'Bay'at al-Imam.'" Abu Rumman also notes that Hizb ut-Tahrir, a nonviolent Islamist group banned in many countries for its radical goal of reestablishing a caliphate throughout the Muslim world, maintained a presence in the Jordanian prison where Al-Zarqawi was an inmate in 1996-1999.

Even more sensational details emerge from a lurid series of articles in Kyrgyzstan's "Vechernii bishkek." A 13 April article described Bayat as a "terrorist organization whose tentacles have encompassed all of Central Asia." The article continues with a breathless excursion into the radical underbrush, replete with an extensive clandestine recruiting network, military training camps in Afghanistan, and a veritable army of "trained combatants...merely awaiting the signal to bomb Tajikistan from within."

It is perhaps worth noting that most of the preceding is little more than conjecture. First, Tajik officials have made conflicting statements about Bayat. The 20 April report by Avesta news agency cites one source in the Prosecutor-General's Office as saying that Bayat "is nothing but a hooligan group that has no political purposes," and another source in "Tajik special services" as saying that there may be links between Bayat and Bay'at al-Imam and the IMU. When Nabijon Rahimov, a prosecutor in the Soghd Region where the Bayat arrests took place, gave a news conference on 18 May, he would say only that "the investigation is not over yet," Avesta reported.

Second, the link between Bayat and Bay'at al-Imam is nothing more than a semantic coincidence in the absence supporting evidence. As IWPR reported on 27 April, Bayat appears to be specific to the village of Chorkuh, "where Islam is unusually strong." Nothing else would seem to indicate a larger broader presence. At the 18 May news conference, Rahimov stressed that all 18 Bayat suspects currently in custody come from Chorkuh. In fact, it is entirely possible that Bayat is nothing more than a rural criminal gang with a fancy name.

Still, the overall picture is far from reassuring. Hizb ut-Tahrir, which espouses radical goals while eschewing radical methods, appears to be on the rise in Tajikistan. (At the same news conference where he discussed Bayat, prosecutor Rahimov told journalists that 33 criminal cases involving Hizb ut-Tahrir have been opened in Soghd Region in the first quarter of 2004.) Deputy Prime Minister Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda recently called the spread of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Tajikistan a threat to the stability of the country and the region, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 17 May.

The question for now is whether Bayat should even be considered in evaluating this larger picture. Views diverge widely on Hizb ut-Tahrir, but no one disputes its existence. Instead, disagreements arise over the extent of the threat it poses and the possibility that Central Asian governments are using this threat as an excuse to jail potential troublemakers. With Bayat, we still lack basic information. The excursion above shows that, with a subject as charged as Islamic extremism, a lack of basic information is not necessarily an obstacle to far-reaching conclusions.

INTERVIEW: THE U.S. MILITARY PRESENCE IN CENTRAL ASIA. RFE/RL Central Asia analyst Daniel Kimmage interviewed Roger McDermott in London on 19 May. McDermott is a research associate at the University of Kent and the author of "Defeating Global Terrorism: Developing the Antiterrorist Capabilities of the Central Asian States."

RFE/RL: What military facilities does the United States maintain in Uzbekistan?

McDermott: The United States was granted vital access to facilities at Karshi-Khanabad, by the government of Uzbekistan, in support of the U.S.'s violent overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. The deployment includes around 1,800 personnel, constituted of air support and logistics personnel, military police, and a Special Forces battalion, which provides direct counterterrorist training to the Uzbekistani armed forces.

RFE/RL: How important are these facilities to operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

McDermott: Access to Karshi-Khanabad proved to be a vital element in the rapid military success in Afghanistan, as well as providing a continued suitable base from which to launch offensive air operations in search of Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and IMU [Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan] remnants in Afghanistan. Although the U.S. does not directly pay for its use of the base, increased levels of economic aid, which followed the deployment, are seen as an important quid pro quo. Moreover, the political influence of the U.S. military presence, though small in numbers, far exceeds its military significance. That is to say, without the entry of U.S. forces to the country and host nation support for the Global War on Terrorism [GWOT] the U.S.-Uzbek Strategic Partnership signed in 2002 simply would not have taken place.

RFE/RL: What is the main purpose of the U.S. air base at Manas, Kyrgyzstan?

McDermott: Kyrgyzstan granted basing rights to U.S. and coalition personnel in support of combat and combat support units at Manas airport. Each takeoff and landing at Manas costs the U.S. $7000-$7500.

RFE/RL: How do these facilities fit in with the "lily-pad theory" of military bases?

McDermott: In the context of the U.S. examining the possible closure or downsizing of its current European bases, there has been speculation that new bases could be established elsewhere, including within the Central Asian region. Such bases, known as "operating sites" and "lily pads," remain an attractive option for Pentagon planners, aware of the sensitive nature of any suggestion of permanent bases in the region, since the bases could be used during a crisis to allow access and support. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has continued to praise the role of Uzbekistan and access to Karshi-Khanabad in the GWOT, whilst seeking to downplay the prospect of a permanent U.S. military presence. Karimov's government would most likely be open to any plans for its facilities to be used as "lily pads."

RFE/RL: How have Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan benefited from military cooperation with the United States?

McDermott: Servicemen from both countries are gaining greater access to U.S. military training, methods, thinking, and operational techniques. The U.S. has stepped up military-to-military training in both countries with priority given to counterterrorism training, border security, assistance in developing a Non-Commissioned Officer [NCO] corps. Though clear advances have been made, there is a long way to go in promoting military reform in these countries, which remain beset by the problems of Soviet-legacy forces; large, unwieldy, and inefficient management structures, aging weapon systems, shortage of spare parts, lack of troop mobility, and many more. A key stumbling block in the path to greater cooperation is the lack of larger numbers of officers in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan with sufficient English language training to benefit from U.S. military training programs.

RFE/RL: How long do you think the United States will continue to maintain these facilities in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan?

McDermott: Opposition to the permanent basing of the U.S. military comes mainly from Russia [and China], and to assuage their concerns the official line in Washington has been that these forces will remain in the region until the job is complete. This means until Afghanistan is fully stabilized. It is, however, open to question as to what this time scale involves. U.S. and NATO access to bases in Central Asia will most likely emerge, though perhaps not on a permanent time scale. For the foreseeable future the U.S. and its allies will strive to stabilize Central Asia, which will demand deeper security assistance and an expanded role for NATO.

Though Uzbekistan has proven a key U.S. ally in the GWOT, problems have emerged which pose a potential risk of undermining that relationship. U.S. aid to Uzbekistan, which reached $87.4 million in fiscal year 2003, has been jeopardized as a result. In December 2003, [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush did not certify Uzbekistan as making progress under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program for human-rights criteria. Since then, responding to a near constant wave of criticism from human-rights groups over Uzbekistan's poor human-rights record and authoritarian regime, Washington has been forced to take these issues seriously. Indeed, the U.K. ambassador in Tashkent, Craig Murray, has also publicly criticized the Karimov regime several times, drawing comments in diplomatic circles as to the surprising nature of his approach in making such statements about the host country. Nevertheless, the strategic partnership with the U.S. remains intact, primarily because the Pentagon's views have had ascendancy over the State Department on these issues. Unless Tashkent addresses these areas in the coming months, pressure will grow on the Bush administration to revise its relationship with Uzbekistan.

RFE/RL: How would you describe Russian views on the U.S. military presence in Central Asia?

McDermott: Underlying the political rhetoric from Moscow are genuine concerns that the U.S. will press ahead with an unclear agenda within a region traditionally regarded as being within Russia's sphere of influence. Indeed, Russia has solid ties with these countries culturally, politically, economically, and, in most cases, militarily. Russia has sought to strengthen the Collective Security Treaty Organization with its Central Asian members, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, through joint military exercises, forming the Collective Rapid Deployment Forces, strengthening its military capabilities through the opening of an air base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, in November 2003, and using the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] [to facilitate] a role for Uzbekistan, which hosts the SCO Regional Antiterrorist Center in Tashkent. Moscow has also fostered closer bilateral relations with its Central Asian neighbors in an attempt to stem the rising influence of the U.S. In many of these initiatives, the old "zero-sum game" -- which perceives American advances at the expense of Russia -- have underpinned the security thinking.

RFE/RL: Do you see any prospects for U.S.-Russian military cooperation in Central Asia?

McDermott: The critical test will come in the aftermath of the NATO summit in Istanbul in June 2004, which will mark a significant deepening of the Alliance's partnership with Central Asia and the Caucasus. If Russia can be persuaded to recognize that a confluence of security interests exist between its own interests and those of NATO, then cooperation will be possible. What is clear, however, is that the U.S. and NATO are seeking to stabilize the region and Russia's cooperation -- even if restricted to the political sphere -- will be a critical component of this strategy.

RFE/RL: Do you consider that the United States will increase military cooperation with any other Central Asian countries?

McDermott: Kazakhstan -- this is the one Central Asian country that is likely to witness continued expansion of its military cooperation with the U.S. This took a step forward in 2003, with several months of negotiations between the U.S. Department of Defense and the Kazakhstani Ministry of Defense, culminating in the signing of a five-year bilateral military cooperation agreement. It envisages U.S. assistance to develop military infrastructure in Kazakhstan's western region in order to promote its security capabilities in the Caspian Sea, antiterrorist training, enhancing its air power capabilities, equipping the Navy, and strengthening national training facilities. Kazakhstan also became the first Central Asian country to deploy elements of its national peacekeeping battalion beyond the region, sending 27 servicemen to Iraq in August 2003 to carry out water purification and demining duties.

RFE/RL: Do you consider that the foreign military presence -- both Russian and U.S. -- acts as a stabilizing or destabilizing factor in Central Asia?

McDermott: The success of the U.S. in removing the Taliban from power in Afghanistan addressed one of the most significant threats which had faced Central Asia. Moreover, coalition operations decimated the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group with the declared aim of overthrowing the government of Uzbekistan. Currently, there are concerns within some Central Asian capitals that the U.S. may not see the job through, perhaps distracted by Iraq, [and will] leave the region without fully stabilizing Afghanistan. If the U.S. and NATO can stabilize Afghanistan and impart, through training and reform initiatives, enhanced civil-military control and professionalism within the region's armed forces, the security situation will continue to stabilize. This must be coupled with political and economic reform within these countries. Russia plays an undervalued role, maintaining military and security links with Central Asia. The possible withdrawal of Russian border guards from Tajikistan, reportedly requested by Dushanbe, could undermine further the security of the Afghan-Tajik border and make more difficult attempts to stem the flow of illegal narcotics from Afghanistan.

Roger N. McDermott is an honorary senior research associate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent at Canterbury. He is also the author of "Defeating Global Terrorism: Developing the Antiterrorist Capabilities of the Central Asian States," published in February by the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.