Accessibility links

Breaking News

Central Asia Report: July 6, 2004

6 July 2004, Volume 4, Number 26

WEEK AT A GLANCE. The NATO summit on 28-29 June drew Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, and Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov to Istanbul to partake in meetings and festivities. (All three countries are members of the NATO Partnership for Peace program and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council.) Notably absent was Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who has been busy shoring up ties with Russia of late. On 3 July, all of the Central Asian presidents but Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov gathered in Moscow for an informal CIS summit. The paths of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan also intersected when their parliaments held final sessions before summer recess.

Darigha Nazarbaeva, daughter of President Nazarbaev, head of the Asar party, and CEO of the Khabar news agency, announced that she will give up the latter post until after the 19 September parliamentary elections to avoid any appearance of impropriety. Opposition newspaper "Navigator" admitted to committing an impropriety when it alleged on 2 June that the Kazakh presidential administration stood behind a forged issue of the opposition newspaper "Assandi-Times." The retraction and apology came in response to a libel suit filed by the presidential administration.

In Kyrgyzstan, top officials warned that radical Islamist groups represent an increasing threat to national security, with Hizb ut-Tahrir in particular gaining 1,800 members in the country over the last year. National Security Service Deputy Chairman Tokon Mamytov warned that Al-Qaeda might attempt to use domestic extremist groups for strikes "against Western diplomatic missions and military sites of the antiterrorism coalition in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan." Elsewhere, the Kyrgyz government sold an $85 million stake in Centerra Gold, the Canadian mining firm that operates Kyrgyzstan's Kumtor gold mine. Parliament tended to money matters as well, passing a bill on 30 June that will require high-ranking officials to make their earnings public.

Tajik and Russian negotiators reached an agreement to transfer the Pamir section of the Tajik-Afghan border from Russian to Tajik command by September 2004. The Moskva border guard unit will follow in 2005 and the Panj unit in 2006. Opposition journalist Dodojon Atovulloev, who currently publishes his "Charoghi Ruz" newspaper in Moscow, returned home on 26 June after more than a decade in exile. But the homecoming soured when someone suggested to Atovulloev that his life might be in danger, prompting the journalist to return to Moscow on 30 June.

Uzbek President Karimov decreed a 30 percent hike in salaries for public-sector workers, pensions for the elderly, and stipends for students. The good cheer did not extend to everyone, however. Opposition journalist Ruslan Sharipov was sentenced to two years' community service in Bukhara after a secret trial, dashing hopes of an early release. Sharipov had received a four-year prison term in 2003 for alleged homosexual activities and sex with a minor; government critics charged a frame-up to punish Sharipov for his activities in defense of human rights. Recent official comments had raised the prospect of an amnesty.

In Turkmenistan, imprisoned opposition leader Boris Shikhmuradov is in poor health in an underground prison cell beneath the National Security Ministry in Ashgabat, Deutsche Welle reported. Russian envoy Andrei Molochkov left for home, officially for health reasons, amid some speculation that Russia's Foreign Ministry had deemed him too accommodating to the Turkmen government. The unquestioned head of that government, President Niyazov, signed a $53 million contract to buy two Sikorsky helicopters especially designed for the conveyance of high-ranking officials.

SEVEN YEARS AFTER TAJIKISTAN'S CIVIL WAR. Seven years have passed since Tajikistan's civil war came to an end with the signing of a peace accord on 27 June 1997. On 24 June, the newspaper "Ruzi Nav" asked a number of prominent figures, "Can we be sure that the peace is solid and that nothing threatens it?" We provide below a sampling of the answers in English translation.

Muhammadruzi Iskandarov, head of the Democratic Party of Tajikistan: "There is a threat -- if the conduct of the elections in 2005 is unfair, nontransparent, and undemocratic."

Muhiddin Kabiri, deputy head of the Islamic Renaissance Party: "Of course, even the most peaceful and powerful country faces dangers, and especially our country, which emerged not long ago from a civil war. Luckily, we don't really face any external threats today. I think that the greatest threat to our national peace and unity is corruption within the country. The second threat is increasing authoritarianism within Tajikistan. We need to remember that the more authoritarian and less pluralistic our government becomes, the weaker the statehood, national security, and peace we have achieved will be."

Ato Hamdam, director of the Adib publishing house: "There's no danger threatening peace in Tajikistan. I don't think that the divergent ideas, disputes, and differences that exist today between political parties and certain groups and organizations are a threat to peace in Tajikistan because our people are not the same as they were a few years ago. We've experienced and come to understand many things."

Umed Bobokhonov, director of the Asia Plus news agency: "For the most part, I hope that the peace in Tajikistan rests on solid ground and that, God willing, no one can undermine it. Nevertheless, I think that the impoverishment of the people and the ideas in some political circles could present a threat to peace and stability in our society."

Abdurahmon Abdumannonov, head of the Information Department of the presidential administration: "At present, society is definitely growing and developing. Certain groups are appearing that want to undermine peace and stability in our country by any means. They're not entirely satisfied with the government's current policy. But these groups are a minority in our society. On the international arena, Tajikistan enjoys high prestige and has sufficient influence in international organizations. Within Tajikistan, progress is evident. In comparison with past years, the standard of living has improved. But this doesn't mean that there are no problems with the economy or in society. As long as there are problems, there will be forces that want to undermine the peace and stability of society, not by peaceful means, but by other means.

"I don't think that the Tajik press, whether it's state-owned or independent, bears any ill will toward the Tajik state or Tajik society. Of course, the attitude of each publication to government policy and the solution or this or that problem varies. But in the end, we all have the same goal: to develop Tajikistan, to keep society peaceful and stable, and to see the country prosper. The political parties themselves don't make any attempts to undermine the country's unity, peace, or stability."

Nasriddin Saidov, deputy in the Majlisi Namoyandagon (lower chamber of parliament): "Yes, there's a threat -- the government and other groups ignore the desires and requests of political parties; the workforce, and particularly young people, is leaving the country; a small group is buying up large enterprises cheaply. This could pose a threat to the peace in Tajikistan."

Suhrob Ziyo, head of the BBC Persian Service: "Tajiks are not going to fight against each other again. The bitter experience of our civil war should serve to protect us against all confrontations and differences. Only the clashing interests of the world's great powers in Tajikistan could disturb peace and stability in our country. If their interests in Tajikistan are imperiled, they could try to incite political discord. Conflict between the ruling party and other political parties, pressure on the free press, election campaigns, and a deterioration in people's living standards could also affect the peace to a certain extent."

Karmi Abdulov, historian: "Nothing threatens peace among Tajiks. But one hopes that the following will garner attention: 1) The government and political parties in civil society should try to raise people's standard of living; 2) political parties, political organizations, and civil society should work together with the government for practical laws and resolutions in keeping with the Constitution; 3) the gap between words and deeds should be reduced; 4) parties, organizations, civil society, and the government should struggle together to resolve the pressing issues of the day: regionalism, corruption, and drug trafficking."

AMBASSADOR MOLOCHKOV LEAVES TURKMENISTAN. Like many couples with a complicated history and considerable cause to quarrel, Turkmenistan and Russia prefer to stress the positive in public. For Turkmenistan, Russia is one of few countries to place a premium on engagement with an increasingly isolated partner best known for its mercurial leader's foibles and quirks. For Russia, a long-term contract to buy huge quantities of Turkmen gas allows Gazprom to maintain a high volume of lucrative exports to Europe at a time when the state-controlled gas monopolist faces declining yields from existing fields and lacks the billions of dollars needed to develop new production assets.

The plight of Turkmenistan's Russian minority casts something of a pall over this mutually beneficial partnership. But even as international organizations and Russian newspapers have chronicled violations of Russians' rights in Turkmenistan -- especially after a decree abolished dual citizenship in April 2003 -- official Moscow has limited its objections to the occasional statement and press release from the Foreign Ministry. More tellingly, while state-controlled television regularly fulminates about the latest anti-Russian outrages perpetrated by Baltic nationalists against their Russian minorities, Turkmenistan does not attract similar coverage. In fact, in February, the state-controlled Rossiya television channel pulled a documentary film about Turkmenistan's role as a transit route for Afghan heroin on its way to Russia and other destinations. Producers decided to yank the documentary, which had been timed to coincide with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's 64th birthday, after a behind-the-scenes blitz by the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Turkmen Embassy in Moscow, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported.

This underlying tension in Russian-Turkmen relations imbues diplomacy between the two countries with considerable intrigue and innuendo. Fittingly, the recent departure of Russian Ambassador Andrei Molochkov from Ashgabat set as many tongues wagging as it left questions unanswered.

Though mainstream Russian media outlets would not report it until later, the first news of Molochkov's impending departure came in a 25 June report on an obscure English-language site called NewsCentralAsia ( Registered to a commercial complex in Karachi, Pakistan, the site appears to specialize in reports illustrating the fine state of affairs in Turkmenistan and debunking negative news about the country. (A 28 June article, for example, called recent reports of plague in Turkmenistan "pure and unadulterated terrorism" that "so-called media outlets" are using "to further their obvious plans about Turkmenistan.") On 25 June, NewsCentralAsia wrote that Molochkov had hosted a farewell dinner on 22 June and would be leaving for Moscow "late next week." The report ended, "[Molochkov] is leaving Turkmenistan on medical grounds."

Molochkov himself spoke out on 29 June in an "exclusive interview" with NewsCentralAsia headlined "Russian Envoy Thrashes Misleading Media, Upbeat On Turkmen-Russian Relations." In the interview, Molochkov blamed "irresponsible journalists" for problems in Russian-Turkmen relations (singling out for special mention RFE/RL, Turkmen opposition website Gundogar, and Deutsche Welle). Molochkov parried the charges most frequently leveled against Turkmen authorities, stressing, "[W]e cannot find any proof that people are losing their flats just because they are Russians, not a single proof that people are losing their jobs because of Russian diplomas. We have not a single proof of participation of Turkmen authorities in narcotraffic, not a single proof." Molochkov also expressed the hope that a "second round of consultations" on humanitarian problems would soon take place in Moscow, an apparent reference to a bilateral commission that Russia's Foreign Ministry has been trying to convince Turkmen authorities to reconvene. Finally, Molochkov underscored that his understanding of the situation should not be taken merely as an expression of his personal opinion: "I am fulfilling whatever my president says because we have a presidential foreign policy."

By 1 July, Russian newspapers and Turkmen opposition websites were discussing both the fact of Molochkov's departure and the implications of his parting comments. The opposition site Gundogar optimistically concluded that Moscow was hatching a "new, progressive, and promising conception of relations between Russia and the member states of the CIS." Writing in "Vremya novostei," Arkadii Dubnov disputed some of Ambassador Molochkov's assertions, pointing out a concrete instance of a Russian who lost a two-room apartment in Ashgabat, apparently because of his nationality.

A 1 July article in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" dispensed with diplomatic niceties and baldly stated that Molochkov's return to Moscow owed less to medical difficulties than to the Russian Foreign Ministry's "extreme dissatisfaction" with Molochkov's pro-Niyazov proclivities. The article noted that Molochkov spent three months away from his post when his wife died earlier this year. Upon returning, the ambassador had a tense meeting with President Niyazov, who complained that Russian newspapers were printing too many gloom-and-doom accounts of events in Turkmenistan. Molochkov's efforts to rein in the Russian press proved too much for the Foreign Ministry, which decided to recall the wayward ambassador. The article's author went on to note that under Molochkov, who took up his post in August 2003, "the Russian Embassy consistently absented itself from the resolution of the problems that afflict Turkmenistan's Russian-language population, including Russian citizens."

All of this untoward speculation spurred Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to comment publicly on the matter on 1 July. Lavrov told Russian journalists in Jakarta that Molochkov's departure was occasioned "on the one hand, by a professional situation in terms of staff rotation and, on the other hand, by humanitarian considerations," Interfax reported. Lavrov went on to explain that Molochkov had recently lost his wife and brother, and undergone a difficult operation as well. The minister concluded, "We cannot ignore the firm opinion of doctors."

Molochkov himself confirmed the official end of his tenure as ambassador to Turkmenistan in an interview with RIA-Novosti on 3 July, the date of his actual departure for Moscow. Responding to accusations that he had defended the interests of Turkmenistan's Russian community with insufficient zeal, Molochkov told the news agency, "Of course, there are unresolved issues and problems between our countries, but it's the tradition of Russian diplomacy not to bring complications before the court of public opinion but rather to try to resolve them in a bilateral fashion." Adviser Andrei Krutko will be the acting ambassador until a replacement for Molochkov is selected, the news agency reported.

The brouhaha over the murky circumstances of Molochkov's departure illustrates two key aspects of Russian-Turkmen relations. First, Turkmenistan has a clearer understanding of those relations and a freer hand than its larger and more powerful partner. The clarity of understanding is partly a consequence of a highly centralized political system controlled by an unchallenged leader; but it is also the result of a sober-minded foreign policy based on quid pro quo in matters of business and scrupulous indifference to extraneous concerns. Russia, for its part, must minimize contradictions, attempting to maintain economic cooperation even as Russians face adversity in Turkmenistan, especially since the plight of Russians abroad is still the subject of public discussion in Russia. Second, as long as these contradictions continue to beset Russian-Turkmen relations, Russia's envoy in Ashgabat will occupy uneasy ground, and his actions will telegraph Moscow's approach to its troublesome partner.

Andrei Molochkov represented one set of priorities. The fact of his departure does not indicate that they have changed, but the choice of his predecessor bears watching; for if change is in the offing, he might well be its agent.

ESPIONAGE ARRESTS IN KYRGYZSTAN. On 2 July, Kyrgyzinfo reported that Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service (SNB) had arrested 10 high-ranking officials on suspicion of espionage and collaboration with foreign countries and international terrorist organizations. The news came one day after SNB Deputy Chairman Tokon Mamytov told parliament that Islamist extremists were stepping up their activities in Kyrgyzstan and planning terror strikes against Western targets in the country. Is Kyrgyzstan the next battleground in the struggle with religious extremism? Or are the authorities using the threat of terrorism as a pretext to tighten the screws and crack down on domestic opposition?

Kyrgyzstan has never featured prominently in accounts of rising religious extremism. Reports of Hizb ut-Tahrir activity, primarily in the country's south, are frequent, but scant additional evidence points to any mounting threat. Moreover, Hizb ut-Tahrir is something of an anomaly among radical groups. Its aims are indubitably radical -- the reestablishment of the caliphate and the imposition of Islamic law, which, in the regional context, would entail overthrowing secular regimes and replacing them with something profoundly different. Still, Hizb ut-Tahrir has not been conclusively linked to terrorist activity and has repeatedly and explicitly affirmed its commitment to nonviolent change. Some specialists view it as a threat nonetheless, pointing to the frequently violent tone of its leaflets and its structure of clandestine cells, which they see as preparation for an eventual shift to more extreme methods of effecting change. Others interpret the rise of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Central Asia as an expression of disaffection and a protest against authoritarian regimes, but they stress that it would be tendentious to claim that Hizb ut-Tahrir itself represents a nascent terror threat.

(Four men -- three Kyrgyz citizens and one Kazakh citizen -- were arrested in Kyrgyzstan in September and charged with planning an attack on a U.S. military facility in Kyrgyzstan. They were convicted in April and sentenced to 10-13 years in prison, AP reported. The judge in the trial linked them to Hizb ut-Tahrir, but the men's lawyers maintained their innocence and said that the defendants confessed under duress after being beaten in custody.)

Recent statements by Kyrgyz security officials, however, have pointed not only to rising Hizb ut-Tahrir activity, but also to ties with groups with a known record of violent extremism. In remarks to Kyrgyzstan's parliament on 1 July, SNB Deputy Chairman Tokon Mamytov suggested that Islamist extremists pose a genuine threat to the country's security. Mamytov first enumerated the various radical organizations active in Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan -- the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan, the Islamic Party of Turkestan, and Hizb ut-Tahrir. He went on to note, "The information that Islamic radicals acting in various parts of the regiondecided to unite into a new clandestine organization, the Islamic Movementof Central Asia, in 2003, is alarming for Kyrgyzstan," Interfax-AVN reported. More worrisome still, Mamytov stated, "Broad clandestine systems of these terrorist and separatist organizationsin Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Central Asia, Arab countries and Western Europe and large ethnic communities abroad have increased the interest of Al-Qaeda in some of them, including the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Documentary evidence of Al-Qaeda attempts to use militants of these groups in terrorist acts against Western diplomatic missions and military sites of the antiterrorist coalition in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which the Kyrgyz National Security Service recently received, is proof of this."

The espionage arrests followed the next day. Initial reports by Interfax and ITAR-TASS cited SNB spokespeople as saying that the arrested officials worked in the cabinet apparatus, Justice Ministry, Foreign Ministry, and Interior Ministry, and at least one report suggested that extremists might have infiltrated government with an eye to a seizure of power. The Foreign Ministry announced almost immediately, however, that none of its officials had been arrested, Kabar news agency reported. And the SNB is apparently in no hurry to clarify the situation. "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 3 July that the SNB's press center announced that "no information about the identities of the individuals arrested and the nature of their collaboration with foreign structures" would be forthcoming in the near future. Elsewhere, SNB officials told news agencies that they had up 10 days to bring charges, although charges could be filed "next week."

Kyrgyzstan's "Vechernii Bishkek" published a slightly different version of events on 5 July. That newspaper quoted a "reliable source" as saying that the SNB had arrested four Kyrgyz citizens on 25 June and charged them on 28 June with trafficking in state secrets. The article noted in closing that "the individuals detained by the SNB do, in fact, include highly placed officials."

The first reaction to the espionage arrests came from the opposition NGO For Democracy and Civil Society Coalition, reported on 2 July. In an official statement, the group said that it "has reasons for doubting the validity and importance of the accusations." The statement warned, "The simultaneous detention of senior officials may also be aimed at frightening Kyrgyz government officials in the lead-up to [2005 presidential and parliamentary] elections."

The sudden official focus on a rising terror threat and news of the espionage arrests come amid signals that Kyrgyzstan's government might be rethinking its broadly pro-Western orientation. In a widely noted article in Russia's official "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 8 June, President Askar Akaev unflatteringly likened Western efforts to export democracy to the Bolshevik export of revolution. Also in early June, Kyrgyzstan's official "Slovo Kyrgyzstana" suggested that the United States might be using NGOs such as the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, and George Soros's Open Society to foment a Georgia-style "rose revolution" in Kyrgyzstan. A 5 July analysis by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting cited several Kyrgyz opposition figures and Western observers who concurred that Kyrgyzstan's "romance with the West" is coming to an end.

The threat of Islamist extremism has sparked a wide-ranging and bitterly argued debate in Central Asia, with some alleging that the phenomenon is vastly exaggerated and the real danger lies in authoritarian misrule, while others charge that tough measures are required to stave off outbreaks of violence. The information currently available about the espionage arrests in Kyrgyzstan is too sketchy to draw any conclusions. But while the threat of extremism might not yet be a prominent part of the political landscape, debates over the issue are likely to become an increasingly visible feature.