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Central Asia Report: June 29, 2004

29 June 2004, Volume 4, Number 25

THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. Kazakhstan continues to ready itself for 19 September elections to the lower house of parliament. The People's Communist Party (KNPK), which claims 70,000 members, gained official registration, bringing to 12 the number of officially registered political parties. The KNPK emerged from a split with the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. For its part, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Election Observer Mission announced that it will send 20-30 long-term observers to track the election process and 200-300 short-term observers to keep an eye on polling places on election day. Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev said in the course of a visit to China that Kazakhstan hopes to join the World Trade Organization by late 2005 or early 2006. And on a visit to Kazakhstan, a Saudi delegation headed by Crown Prince Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud said that Saudi Arabia intends to help to reconstruct the port in Aqtau with the aim of transforming it into a free economic zone and a Caspian commercial hub.

A visiting delegation from Iran discussed with Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev the possibility that Iran may invest $10 million into the construction of a conference center in Kyrgyzstan's Issyk-Kul region. Also on the financial front, Bhaswar Mukhopadhyay, the outgoing International Monetary Fund representative for Kyrgyzstan, praised the country's economic progress and expressed the hope that continued reforms will guarantee a bright future. On the security front, National Security Service Deputy Chairman Boris Poluektov warned that the banned Islamist extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir has 3,000 members in Kyrgyzstan. Poluektov urged tougher punishments for the dissemination of extremist views. Doing its part to disseminate moderate views, the Religious Board of Kyrgyzstan's Muslims unveiled a Russian-language website that will feature materials on Islamic values. In the political arena, the opposition Ar-Namys party complained of increasing official harassment. Finally, the Constitutional Court said that it will review a query from legislators about the legality of a possible bid for a third term by President Askar Akaev, although the president has said on several occasions that he does not plan to run again.

The head of Tajikistan's Democratic Party urged President Imomali Rakhmonov to veto recently passed changes to the country's election law, saying that suggestions from opposition parties received short shrift in parliament. Meanwhile, parliament voted to exempt print media, children's literature, and educational materials from the value-added tax, although critics charged that the changes will benefit printers and importers of printing supplies more than the country's cash-strapped newspapers. At a ceremony in anticipation of the of the 26 June UN-sponsored International Day against Drug Abuse, Tajikistan's Drug Control Agency said that the country is home to 7,000 addicts, while noting that unofficial accounts put the number as high as 50,000. In Russia, law-enforcement authorities announced the capture of Tavakkulshoh Mirov, a Tajik suspected of committing 20 murders in his home country during his tenure as an alleged organized-crime leader in 1994-2001.

Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov reacted somewhat testily to celebrations marking the 12th anniversary of his presidency, skipping a concert in his honor and later remarking, "I am being praised so much that I cannot even leave my home because of it...." Meanwhile, Turkmen opposition sources and at least one Russian newspaper reported an outbreak of plague in Turkmenistan. A group of Russian citizens in Turkmenistan issued an open appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, alleging that new rules on diplomas make it almost impossible for them to work. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman told journalists at a 25 June briefing, however, that he cannot confirm reports of discrimination against Russians in Turkmenistan. Nevertheless, he said, Russia would like to see a bilateral commission meet to review outstanding issues between the two countries.

News emerged on 23 June that Uzbekistan is willing to move ahead on an agreement with neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to demine sections of the borders between the three countries. Uzbek authorities apparently made the decision in early June before airing it at an 18 June OSCE meeting in Vienna. The mines, originally laid after 1998 to prevent Islamist extremist incursions, have been a source of tension between Uzbekistan and its neighbors, as well as a lethal threat to residents of border areas. Furthering the spirit of openness, Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych signed an agreement on 25 June in Tashkent removing all exceptions and restrictions from free trade between Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

THE MINE FIELD OF CENTRAL ASIAN COOPERATION. If diplomatic mantras are rarely a good guide to reality, they can at least serve as a reliable indicator of what reality lacks. Gatherings of the Warsaw Pact nations would have been unthinkable without endlessly repeated affirmations of the "friendship of the peoples," though that friendship frayed as soon as Moscow made it clear in the late 1980s that tanks were no longer available to enforce it. The Arab League long ago wedded itself to a discourse of "Arab unity," even though its member nations today experience considerable difficulty in agreeing on a time and place to meet, let alone a common approach to common problems.

For the countries of Central Asia, "regional cooperation" remains the favored phrase of presidents and foreign ministers. When the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan gathered in Tashkent on 17 June for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), they duly mouthed the mantra. Far from the summit's pomp, however, the possibility of actual progress suddenly emerged on an issue that has stood for several years as evidence of a regional disinclination to cooperate -- Uzbekistan's mining of its borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Uzbekistan began to mine sections of the border in 1998, primarily to prevent incursions by Islamist radicals affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The security situation has changed substantially since then, especially after the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan toppled the Taliban regime and scattered the remnants of the Afghanistan-based IMU. Today, the mines claim as their victims ordinary Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek citizens in border areas who have the misfortune of taking a wrong step. Various reports indicate that more than 60 Tajik citizens have died in mine-related incidents over the last six years, while more than 30 people have died along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border since 2000. As one might imagine, the issue has caused considerable rancor in Kyrgyz-Uzbek and Tajik-Uzbek relations.

But now Uzbekistan is willing to reconsider. Though the news was not widely reported until 23 June, the official decision appears to have come in early June. According to Uzbek Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilhom Zokirov, Uzbekistan's defense minister expressed a willingness to move toward a demining agreement with his country's neighbors at a meeting with European envoys on 11 June, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on 23 June. Uzbek representatives confirmed the offer at an 18 June meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna, and numerous news agencies reported the news on 23 June.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan welcomed the initiative. Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry stated that "the demining of sections of the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border will only help to strengthen the traditionally neighborly and mutually beneficial relations in the Central Asian region." The statement went so far as to call the move "an important step toward forming a regional system of collective security and furthering processes of integration."

The legacy of resentment the mines have left was evident in a slightly sour tone to some of the official statements. As quoted by on 24 June, one Uzbek expression of regret lamented the harm to civilians who "fell victim to their own imprudence and decision to ignore the basic requirements of crossing a state border." For its part, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry saw fit to remind Uzbekistan that "the Kyrgyz Republic has repeatedly appealed to the Uzbek side to demine sections of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, and it has stressed that it would not allow the infiltration of international terrorist groups into Central Asian countries, and particularly into Uzbekistan."

A willingness to resolve the issue is only the beginning, of course. Many of the mines are strewn across difficult terrain. Moreover, a source in Uzbekistan's National Security Service told that mudslides and other natural occurrences in mountainous areas may have shifted the locations of some mines. Specialists queried by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service suggested that the demining operation will be costly. The question now is whether Uzbekistan's sudden wish to share safer borders also includes a desire to shoulder the cost.

THE MAHALLA FACTOR IN UZBEKISTAN'S DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION. The ever-growing amount of literature on democratic transition has good reason to stress the primacy of institutions. Laws are eminently vulnerable to subversion by the people who are supposed to obey and enforce them. Consciousness remains sufficiently mysterious and resistant to suggestion that, though no one denies its crucial importance, it tends to hover on the horizon as an intangible. In the end, it is healthy institutions, with their ability to draw strength from the internal histories and cultures they accrete, that hold the greatest appeal for those who dream of democratic transformation.

Uzbekistan does not occupy the front ranks of countries commonly associated with completed democratic transitions, but it possesses at least one long-standing institution that would seem to hold promise as a building block of civil society and democracy. The mahalla, derived from an Arabic word meaning "place," is one of those institutions one defines in brief only at the risk of angering a legion of cultural anthropologists armed with dissertations and monographs. But for better or worse, a brief definition is indispensable. The noted scholar Olivier Roy defines the mahalla broadly as a solidarity group that coalesces around a mosque and brings together members of a group bound by common ethnicity, language, religious denomination, and place. Human Rights Watch writes that the mahalla in Uzbekistan -- for it exists elsewhere in Central Asia -- is "a centuries-old autonomous institution," adding that "before the Soviet period, the mahalla was usually a community of several hundred people, organized around Islamic rituals and social events." One official Uzbek source simply terms it "a community of people residing in one neighborhood." In Western shorthand, it may be thought of as a homogenous neighborhood or community.

The mahalla's democratizing potential lies in its self-governing functions, which in independent Uzbekistan are performed by so-called mahalla committees. Composed of respected members of the community known in Uzbek as oqsoqols and often written in English as aksakals (literally, "whitebeards"), the committees, in the ideal, tend to a range of community issues that require coordination beyond the individual and household levels, yet do not quite warrant the interference of the state.

Consultative in nature and local by definition, mahalla committees offer an attractive alternative to the centralized leviathan of the post-Soviet state. Writing in "Demokratizatsiya" (Vol. 8, Spring 2000) about youth in Central Asia, Kathleen Kuehnast points to the positive the mahalla can play:

"In fact, there is more and more evidence in Central Asia that local action can have a more meaningful impact on the problems of children and youth than government intervention. Take, for example, the revitalization of the Uzbek mahalla (neighborhood committee) as an approach. In the urban areas, a mahalla may consist of 350-400 households, and it has the power to settle domestic and land disputes, as well as to provide support to low-income households...."

Kuehnast goes on to note, however, that "the more mahallas are used to channel money to a local community, the more likely it is that they may be co-opted by the state." And herein lies the rub, for many observers feel that the state has not only co-opted the mahalla, but swallowed it entirely.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) chronicled the dire consequences in a September 2003 report entitled "From House to House: Abuses by Mahalla Committees." The 36-page report states at the outset that "the Uzbek government has converted the mahalla committees from an autonomous expression of self-government to a national system for surveillance and control." The report goes on to examine the 1999 law that subjugated the mahalla committee to local administrative structures. It then details the nefarious role that mahalla committees played in recent instances of religious persecution, extrajudicial punishment, domestic violence, and forced resettlement.

The HRW report so irked the Uzbek authorities that they prepared a point-by-point refutation, conveniently arranged in two columns with each HRW assertion paired to a corresponding rebuttal. (Readers can find the Russian text at The objections fall into two general categories -- points of law and specific facts. HRW charges that a web of formal and informal ties binds mahalla committees to the major repressive mechanisms of the state. The Uzbek counterargument is that under Uzbek law, "organs of self-government are not part of the system of state power," and HRW's accusation thus represents a tendentious misreading. The majority of the rebuttals fall into this category. On the involvement of mahalla committees in specific violations of rights, the Uzbek side provides fewer rebuttals. Where they occur, the objections are over matters of fact. For example, HRW states that mahalla committees acted as a mechanism of local surveillance in the crackdown that followed the 1999 bombings in Tashkent. Here, the Uzbek side rejects the very basis of the charge: "At the same time, one should note that there was no crackdown after the explosions."

(These legal and factual disputes cannot be resolved here. However, some reports by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service support specific assertions in the HRW report. For example, an 18 October 2003 report detailed an extrajudicial proceeding within the mahalla against Erk party activists who had staged a protest in front of the Prosecutor-General's Office.)

On 29 April 2004, Uzbekistan's parliament passed a new law on the election of mahalla oqsoqols. As summarized on on 23 June, the new law contains sensible-sounding provisions that suggest a framework for democratic self-government at the local level. Yet the summary concludes with a familiar reservation, asking whether the need to coordinate mahalla elections with local executive authorities will render the elections meaningless.

Whether one sees the mahalla as having fused with the state or as retaining the potential to act as a democratizing catalyst for local autonomy, it remains a unique barometer of what is happening on the ground. For all the changes it has undergone, the mahalla has survived, and it will continue to telegraph the shifts within Uzbek society, for good or ill.

TURKMEN PRESIDENT IN A SOMBER MOOD. As Turkmenistan celebrated the 12th anniversary of Saparmurat Niyazov's presidency, the trickle of news from Central Asia's most isolated country briefly swelled to a torrent. But not all of the reports were in keeping with the festive spirit of the occasion -- the president found the celebrations cloying and decided to stay home, drug abuse is apparently on the rise, Russians are voicing complaints of discrimination, and, as if all that were not enough, reports of plague seeped across the border and into print.

The anniversary took place on 21 June, replete with the unveiling of a new monument and a gala concert. The bronze statue stands before the Turkmen parliament in the center of Ashgabat and depicts Niyazov taking the oath of office. The 90-minute concert, carried live by the country's three television channels, featured songs and poems in praise of the president, comedy routines, and folk performances.

But the president chose to ignore both events, as Russia's reported. In remarks broadcast on Turkmen television on 21 June, Niyazov explained his decision: "Don't be offended that I don't attend concerts. If you mention my name less in future concerts, I will come. You dedicate the whole concert to me and that's why it is difficult for me to sit and watch it. You relax and watch while I look down shyly and blush. Perhaps many people like the pomp and glorification, but I don't."

While the president blushed at home, unsettling reports about the state of affairs in his realm circulated abroad. On 25 June, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) wrote of increasing heroin and opium use in Turkmenistan. An anonymous official told IWPR: "Drugs are sold everywhere in Turkmenistan, with heroin the most popular, and young people are being actively drawn into the trade. If the authorities do not take serious measures to prevent this, their inaction will be seen as official policy."

Some foes of the Turkmen government suggested that drug trafficking already is official policy. In a 21 June interview with Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Annadurdy Hajiev, former deputy head of Turkmenistan's National Bank, claimed that high-ranking Turkmen officials are involved in drug smuggling and said that he has information about "how the Turkmen regime engaged in narcotics trafficking."

In a rare instance of tangential corroboration, Turkmen Television aired a roundtable discussion on the problem of drug trafficking on 26 June. Although the participants took pains to stress that the bane of narcotics has been "brought in by those who intend to destroy our country" and assured viewers that border troops are making every effort to police the frontiers, they admitted that the problem exists. An official from the Prosecutor-General's Office conceded, "Unfortunately, there are people among us, in our country, involved in illegal drug trafficking."

Meanwhile, Russians in Turkmenistan issued an unprecedented appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin on 22 June, asking him to intercede to defend their rights. The appeal, which garnered coverage in a number of Russian newspapers, charged that new regulations on foreign diplomas are making it virtually impossible for Russians to practice their chosen professions in Turkmenistan, and that many Russians have lost their apartments as a result of anti-Russian discrimination. President Niyazov shrugged off the charges, saying: "We know that none of the Russians in Turkmenistan are being discriminated against. Envy is the cause of all this," Russia's "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 25 June. The article went on to note, however, that Turkmen authorities continue to take measures against the Russian language: "One feels rightfully indignant that there are no longer any classes in Russian in universities and colleges -- here, Saparmurat Niyazov has outdone the Baltic nationalists and their obsessive Russophobia."

Official Russian reactions were muted. Addressing the issue at a 25 June briefing, a Foreign Ministry spokesman would say only that Russia wants to reconvene a bilateral commission to review "humanitarian issues." Both the Kremlin and Turkmenistan's official website described a 25 June telephone conversation between Putin and Niyazov as focusing on energy-sector cooperation.

Other reports suggested that more serious problems might be afoot in Turkmenistan. A 24 June article in Russia's "Vremya novostei" cited unidentified independent sources as saying that an epidemic of plague broke out a month ago in an isolated desert region and is now threatening to spread to the capital. Frido Herinckx, the head of the Doctors Without Borders mission in Turkmenistan, told Deutsche Welle on 24 June that he had no information about any outbreak of plague. But a Deutsche Welle correspondent in Turkmenistan citing an anonymous source in the Health Ministry reported that seven people died from anthrax in Mary Province after eating meat from an infected cow.

Against this backdrop, President Niyazov, already the author of a book officially recognized as his people's "spiritual guide," produced his latest poetic creation -- "My Soul." The understandably somber text appeared in Russian translation on Turkmen opposition sites. We present here an English rendition of two key stanzas:

"My poor soul, my old friend,
I buried your noble dreams.
Denying you a joyful fate,
I razed you to the ground.
No one can conquer others' souls
Without first mastering his own.

"For the king's throne there are contenders,
But it is I, Saparmurat, although a king,
Who feels that he is still a servant."