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Central Asia Report: June 8, 2004

8 June 2004, Volume 4, Number 22

THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. Breakthroughs in Russian-Tajik and Russian-Uzbek relations indicated that Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have made ties with Central Asia a priority issue for his second term. A face-to-face meeting between President Putin and Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov in Sochi on 4 June ended months of unseemly haggling and produced an agreement that will transform Russia's temporarily deployed 201st Motorized Infantry Division into a permanent military base in Tajikistan, delay until 2006 Tajikistan's assumption of control over the Tajik-Afghan border, and give Russia ownership of a space-surveillance facility in Nurek. Although the details are not entirely clear, Russia appears to have obtained all of the preceding in exchange for forgiving approximately $300 million in Tajik debt.

Also on 4 June, Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov announced that Russia and Uzbekistan are gearing up to sign a strategic partnership agreement at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Tashkent on 17 June.

Security secretaries from the six SCO member nations -- China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- gathered in Tashkent to discuss the upcoming summit's agenda. The meeting gave Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan a chance to smooth ruffled feathers after Uzbek border guards shot a Kazakh citizen dead on 1 June under disputed circumstances. In an unusually conciliatory move, President Islam Karimov promptly sacked the head of his border service.

In Kazakhstan, a bogus issue of the opposition newspaper "Assandi-Times" sparked a furor. The newspaper's editors charged the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbaev or "structures close to it" with distributing the faked edition, which appears to have been intended to sow confusion and dissension among anti-Nazarbaev forces. The presidential administration hit back with a strongly worded statement denying any involvement in the stunt, demanding an apology, and threatening legal action. On a calmer note, President Nazarbaev met toward week's end with some of Kazakhstan's biggest foreign investors, drawing praise from the head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and a pledge to invest more heavily in the Caspian region from Russia's LUKoil.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev reshaped his administration, adding sections to maintain ties with parliament and tend to public relations. Meanwhile, the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization rapid-reaction forces conducted joint exercises with Kyrgyzstan's own rapid-reaction forces. In Tajikistan, parliament made good on President Imomali Rakhmonov's 30 April pledge and passed a moratorium on the death penalty.

Turkmenistan appeared to beat a retreat on its new diploma policy, claiming that it intends to verify, not invalidate, foreign diplomas obtained after 1993. The qualifications emerged after Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement of concern on 3 June. "Wanted" posters went up in Ashgabat for Kakajan Ovezov, former minister of the country's food industry. Ovezov had been at forced labor after a 2002 conviction for bribery; he now seems to have fled. Guichnazar Tachnazarov, chairman of the national gas concern, may also be on the lam -- an opposition website reported that he has flown the coop for Great Britain amid allegations of smuggling in the gas industry.

A panel of international experts told a news conference in Tashkent on 31 May that a prisoner who died on 19 May was not tortured to death, but rather committed suicide. The experts' conclusion prompted a retraction from Human Rights Watch (HRW), which had originally ascribed the death to torture. Nevertheless, HRW and other NGOs applauded the precedent of inviting independent experts to investigate human rights abuses. The World Association of Newspapers awarded Uzbek journalist Ruslan Sharipov its 2004 Golden Pen of Freedom award. Sharipov could not attend the ceremony because he is under house arrest in Uzbekistan, but he announced in a message, "I always serve the truth and I want freedom of speech to be celebrated around the world."

CARROTS, STICKS, AND THE TAJIK-AFGHAN BORDER. After months of public and private wrangling, Russia and Tajikistan finally settled a welter of military-cooperation issues at a 4 June meeting of the two countries' leaders. Though the outlines are still coming into focus, the agreement underscores a new Russian approach to relations with Central Asia that blends ambitious strategic ends with pragmatic economic means.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov met in Sochi against a backdrop of three interrelated, unresolved issues -- Russia's 201st Motorized Infantry Division, control over the Tajik-Afghan border, and a space-surveillance facility in Nurek. Russia has long wanted to transform the 201st, which has been "temporarily" deployed in Tajikistan since the Soviet Union fell apart, into a permanent military base. Russia has also wanted to retain control of the Tajik-Afghan border, where Russian commanders supervise a border force composed largely of Tajik guards. Finally, Russia wants to own Nurek, a space-surveillance center that can detect and monitor objects at altitudes up to 40,000 kilometers.

Until the two presidents met face-to-face, talks had been a tough slog. By March 2004, Russian negotiators were sufficiently irritated at the lack of progress to leak the sticking points to the media, which duly reported that Dushanbe wanted Moscow to write off $300 million of Tajik debt, shell out an additional $50 million in cash for Nurek, and even give the Tajik president the right to take command of Russia's 201st Division in an "emergency" situation. Russian negotiators refused even to consider such "unacceptable" conditions, as each leaked report carefully noted. Meanwhile, along the Tajik-Afghan border, Tajikistan was gearing up to take back control in a yearlong handover slated to last until 2005, even as a chorus of Russian voices warned of an impending narcotics deluge.

That was then. Now, Russia will get its base, Nurek, and keep control of the border. Putin's foreign-affairs adviser, Sergei Prikhodko, told journalists on 4 June that Russia will receive "free of charge and in perpetuity" the use of territory for a permanent military base, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. The center in Nurek will become Russian property. The border handover will be postponed until 2006, and a new Russian-Tajik operational group will be created to provide a framework for resolving border issues, from drug-interdiction efforts to any eventual handover of control to Tajikistan.

What does Tajikistan get? A Russian government source told RIA-Novosti, "Part of [Tajikistan's] debt, which today comes to $299 million, will be invested in projects in Tajikistan's energy sector, in particular the Sangtuda hydroelectric station." The source went on to say that Russia will halt interest payments as long as the Tajik side continues to make investments into the project. Once the hydroelectric station is finished, Russia will own a part of it, apparently through Russia's Unified Energy Systems (EES) electricity monopoly. More details emerged on 7 June when a source in the Tajik presidential administration told Avesta that Russia will write off $250 million of Tajik debt in exchange for the space-surveillance center in Nurek. Russia will use the remaining $50 million of Tajik debt to invest in projects inside Tajikistan. Moreover, Russia will join an international consortium to build the Sangtuda hydroelectric power station. Finally, the two countries will work together to conclude an agreement on labor migration.

With Tajikistan apparently giving more than it is getting, initial reactions to the deal focused on the horse-trading that likely took place behind the scenes. Russia's noted on 4 June that a Russian threat to withdraw its border troops, potentially opening the door to a huge influx of drugs across the vulnerable Tajik-Afghan border, frightened the Tajik president into cutting a deal. "Kommersant-Daily" opined the same day that Russian negotiators hinted at introducing entry visas for Tajik citizens, hundreds of thousands of whom now take advantage of lax entry requirements to cross into Russia in search of work. Increased obstacles to Tajik labor migration would deal the Tajik economy a potentially destabilizing blow, and their mere mention may have served as a persuasive negotiating ploy. "Vremya novostei" offered yet another explanation, writing on 3 June -- the day before the agreement was announced -- that influential members of the Tajik elite recently warned President Rakhmonov that chilly relations with Russia would harm their lucrative business ties with Moscow. Finally, several reports indicated that inhabitants of Tajikistan's Pamir region, which borders Afghanistan, were so upset at the prospect of a Russian troop withdrawal that they were ready to start a campaign of serious civil unrest.

The details will take time to emerge. RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 5 June that President Putin plans to visit Tajikistan by year's end, at which time he will presumably open Russia's new military base. By then, a clearer picture should emerge of the deal that paved the way for the base. For now, even as the prospect of multibillion-dollar energy deals warms long-chilly Russian-Uzbek relations next door, the breakthrough in Russian-Tajik relations shows that Russian foreign policy once again places a high priority on the expansion of strategic influence in Central Asia, and that Moscow is learning how to use economic carrots and sticks to get what it wants.

THE PERSONAL AND THE POLITICAL IN KYRGYZSTAN. Single-word descriptions offer the simplest and most convenient means of classifying political systems -- democracies, dictatorships, monarchies, etc. Two-word descriptions add a smattering of nuance and a plethora of additional categories, from parliamentary democracy to constitutional monarchy. But if these designations work handily for such clear-cut opposites as Norway and North Korea, they are less useful in the large mass of countries that occupy the confusing middle ground.

From west to east, Central Asia moves from simplistic clarity to muddled middle ground. If "one-man rule" makes for an easy starting place in Turkmenistan, the situation grows somewhat more complex in neighboring Uzbekistan, murkier still in Tajikistan, and downright bewildering in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Does the latter, for example, confront us with an example of "managed democracy," "illiberal democracy," "transitional authoritarianism," or some yet more exotic hybrid?

The classic approach to answering this question would be to examine the laws and institutions of political life in Kyrgyzstan. This well-grounded theoretical exercise quickly runs up against practical difficulties -- a perfectly written law can be imperfectly enforced and obeyed, a well-designed formal institution can be undermined by informal arrangements. Things, in other words, may not be what they seem.

There is another approach -- the study of political discourse. By examining the terms and concepts people use to talk about politics, the priorities implicit in the words they choose, we can sometimes glean insights that may not be immediately evident from a survey of written laws and formal institutions.

Political discussions have been especially vibrant in Kyrgyzstan over the last two weeks. On 20 May, the Civic Union for Fair Elections, a group formed by opposition politicians and parliamentarians, announced that its chairman would be Misir Ashyrkulov, the head of the country's Security Council and a longtime friend of President Askar Akaev. Four days later, Akaev sacked Ashyrkulov from the Security Council, setting off a debate that continues to this day.

Tactical coalitions to ensure free and fair elections are the flavor of the season in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, the three Central Asian countries where democratic mechanisms have made the greatest advances. In Tajikistan, a coalition of opposition parties for "free and transparent elections" took shape in late April. In early May, Kazakhstan's officially registered political parties signed a charter of political competition to ensure fair and honest elections unmarred by dirty tricks. Kyrgyzstan's Civic Union for Fair Elections brings together some of the country's best-known opposition forces. Though the groups are all tactical in nature -- focused on monitoring the fairness of elections but not advancing any common political goals -- some observers have seen them, and especially the Kyrgyz Civic Union, as a possible basis for that holy grail of Central Asian opposition politics: a unified bloc to take on the entrenched powers-that-be.

At first glance, Ashyrkulov is an odd figure to head an opposition alliance, even a tactical one with the limited goal of monitoring parliamentary and presidential elections. The 58-year-old Ashyrkulov's friendship with President Akaev dates back to the two men's student days in Leningrad 40 years ago. Ashyrkulov did not enter politics until 1997, when he gave up his position as rector of Bishkek's School of Management and Business to become the deputy minister of national security, "Vremya novostei" reported on 1 June. His rose quickly, becoming the minister of national security in 1998, then director of the presidential administration, and finally head of the Security Council in 2001.

Ashyrkulov's career, and life, nearly came to an end on 6 September 2002, when an assailant lobbed a grenade at him. He underwent lengthy treatment in Russia, and still carries 18 fragments of the grenade in his body. The main suspect is a 30-year-old heroin addict named Talaibek of questionable mental stability, "Vechernii Bishkek" reported on 11 May. Talaibek, however, was clearly doing someone else's bidding. quoted Ashyrkulov on 29 May as saying that Talaibek had told him that he was working for Osh Governor Naken Kasiev, but quickly added that "the court will have to decide this." Most recently, the court postponed Talaibek's trial until 7 June at Ashyrkulov's request in connection with the latter's travel abroad, "Vechernii Bishkek" reported.

Ashyrkulov provided his own views on his decision to head the Civic Union and his subsequent dismissal in two interviews, one with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on 26 May, and another with "Moya stolitsa" on 31 May. In his interview with RFE/RL, Ashyrkulov began with the basis: Akaev fired him for joining the Civic Union; the former Security Council secretary sees himself as "bridge" and an "intermediary" between the opposition and those in power; the Civic Union represents "all currents" in the opposition; and Ashyrkulov is confident in its ability to ensure fair parliamentary elections.

Told flat-out that people do not trust him and asked whether he is still doing the president's bidding, Ashyrkulov responded to RFE/RL: "Of course, people can have their doubts...I think that any possible political conflicts with the president will not affect our personal relations. Moreover, I'm convinced that when we both leave politics...the day will come when we can discuss with a smile who was right in this or that situation and who was at fault." Given that President Akaev has said on numerous occasions that he will not seek re-election in 2005, could the formation of the Civic Union and Ashyrkulov's apparent move into the opposition's camp mark the beginning of a complicated operation to anoint him Akaev's successor? Ashyrkulov answered: "This is a question for the president himself. I don't think that I'm the only acceptable person for this."

The interview with "Moya stolitsa" touched on similar issues. At one point, however, Ashyrkulov related the following scene of his dismissal: "Of course, I understood that [Akaev] was very uncomfortable. Either jokingly, or seriously, he said: 'Of course, I'm the captain of a sinking ship. You did the right thing to head this movement. I wish you luck. I have to let you go so that you can take care of your business.' And I laughed...."

Reactions to the formation of the Civic Union under Ashyrkulov's leadership focused almost exclusively on the issue of sincerity. Some saw Ashyrkulov's move to the opposition camp as a genuine political transformation, while others viewed him as a Trojan horse with ulterior motives. In a 27 May article for EurasiaNet, Bishkek-based independent observer Aigul Rasulova presented the simplest interpretation, describing Ashyrkulov as a centrist who lost out to hard-liners in the presidential administration, broke ranks by heading the Civic Union, paid the price in the form of his dismissal, and could become the single presidential candidate of a unified opposition. In this version, Ashyrkulov's motivations are honest and the possible outcome is positive.

In a 28 May interview with "Slovo Kyrgyzstana," State Secretary Osmonakun Ibraimov presented a similar version, albeit from a very different perspective. Ibraimov ridiculed the Civic Union and its members, dismissing them as politically irrelevant and likening Ashyrkulov to Brutus. Strangely enough, this interpretation has the effect of confirming Ashyrkulov's newfound oppositional affiliation and affirming the opposition's sincerity even as it describes Ashyrkulov as a traitor and the opposition as a group of squabbling ne'er-do-wells.

At the other end of the spectrum, human rights activist Tursunbek Akun told a 1 June news conference that the whole fuss was nothing more than a "strategic move" by the president, "Moya stolitsa" reported on 3 June. Akun broke the scheme down into three stages: 1. Ashyrkulov agrees to head the Civic Union; 2. President Akaev sacks Ashyrkulov, thus raising the latter's oppositional cachet; 3. Osmonakun Ibraimov ridicules Ashyrkulov (in the interview noted above) but without questioning his sincerity, further establishing the former security chief's bona fides. According to Akun, the whole seamy business aims to "divide the opposition movement once again while maintaining the illusion that all is well with democracy in Kyrgyzstan."

Yet another interpretation holds that everyone is in on the game. Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, a member of parliament and presidential candidate, told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 1 June: "I wouldn't rule out that it is a multi-move gambit by the president. It is quite possible that both sides know about it -- each getting some advantage from it. The opposition gets to show that there is disarray in the presidential camp that people are defecting from it and that's bad for the president -- so they tolerate Ashyrkulov's presence. For his part, the president finds it useful to know what the opposition is planning, so that he can take preventive action."

There is yet another permutation. In a lengthy 27 May article in "Moya stolitsa," Rina Prizhivoit mixes and matches seemingly contradictory explanations. The article begins by stating that President Akaev clarified the situation when he fired Ashyrkulov. The dismissal "rehabilitated Ashyrkulov in the eyes of those who considered him a spy sent into the enemy camp. Now they can rest assured that the Civic Union is not the brainchild of the president's political strategists." Ashyrkulov's motives would seem sincere. But a mere three paragraphs later we read, "To bring together on a single team Misir Ashyrkulov and the Ar-Namys Party, whose leader ended up in prison thanks to the efforts of then-National Security Minister Ashyrkulov, is the height of political sophistry."

Not all reactions to the Civic Union were dismissive. A 3 June article in "Obshchestvennyi reiting" concluded: "The organizational infirmity that has frequently been the cause of irritation may have been overcome this time. And while there is no guarantee that life will be free from cataclysms and ordeals, it is honest and fair elections that can help the country to regain the squandered good will of investors and raise its strategic competitiveness. In our view, all of this is a worthy aim, worthier than the current spiral of degradation. It is high time to stop treading water." Even the above-cited contradictory article by Rina Prizhivoit ends on a positive note: "The new-born Civic Union is a hitherto unseen phenomenon in Kyrgyz political life. It is evidence that in our society there are serious forces capable of moving from words to deeds despite internal disagreements, capable of forming a united front for democracy without Akaev. This gives cause for hope."

What, then, do reactions to the formation of the Civic Union tell us about the form of government that has taken shape in Kyrgyzstan in the years since independence? For one, the basic political idiom is that of a democracy, but with a deep underlying skepticism about the efficacy of democratic mechanisms in their current form. The terms of discussion are elections and the politicians who submit their candidacies to the test of a popular vote, but with little focus on constituencies and issues. Instead, as most of the reactions quoted here demonstrate, the focus is on individual personalities, motivations, and interpersonal dynamics. Properly speaking, this is not so much the realm of political analysis as it is the realm of personal psychology. Moreover, the comments of participants and observers show that the psychological factor often makes for perfect ambiguity. Is Ashyrkulov's motivation for heading the Civic Union sincere or insincere? One's answer depends on several factors -- how well one knows Ashyrkulov, what one thinks of him as a person -- but few of them can really be termed "political."

Personality and interpersonal dynamics play an important role in politics, of course, but strong institutional mechanisms serve to limit their significance, or at least channel them into open forums where they do less mischief than in the proverbial smoke-filled back room. But when institutional mechanisms are weak, politics becomes personal in a fashion that obscures and hampers the democratic process. In Kyrgyzstan today, democratic mechanisms and institutions have become sufficiently ingrained that they form the lexicon of political discourse. They have not yet become larger or more powerful than the individual personalities of the people who make, and sometimes manipulate, the mechanisms and institutions. This personalized democracy, in which individuals trump institutions, gives cause for both hope and frustration. For now, just how much hope and how much frustration depends largely on what we think of the individuals who are the key players in the evolving system.