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Central Asia Report: October 6, 2004

6 October 2004, Volume 4, Number 37

THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. Election excitement continued in Kazakhstan, as runoffs took place on 3 October in 22 single-mandate constituencies where 19 September first-round races had failed to produce a winner. Initial results pointed to a replay of first-round results, with a sweeping victory for pro-presidential parties against a backdrop of opposition charges that those parties benefited from administrative resources and pliant election commissions. Meanwhile, President Nursultan Nazarbaev pressed on with administrative restructuring, appointing Mukhambet Kopeev to head the newly formed Ministry of Emergency Situations. Esetzhan Kosubaev heads the recently merged Ministry of Culture, Information, and Sports. The reforms, which cabinet has been charged with completing by 1 December, also saw the liquidation of a number of agencies and the transfer of their functions to other government bodies. A longer-term project kicked off on 28 September, when a ceremony marked the start of construction on the 988-kilometer Atasu-Alashankou pipeline from Kazakhstan to China. The $700 million project is slated for completion in December 2005.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev began the week in New York, where he met with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and addressed the UN General Assembly, calling for a united front against international terrorism and debt relief for underdeveloped mountainous countries. After returning home, Akaev met with Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref-Yazdi, who brought with him news that Iran will give Kyrgyzstan a $50 million loan on preferential terms for infrastructure development. Reports that the National Security Service had blocked the sale of weapons-grade plutonium-239 with an undercover sting operation caused a brief flurry in the press before it emerged that the bust involved 50-60 Soviet-era smoke detectors that contained miniscule amounts of radioactive material.

Russian and Tajik officials met for two days to prepare documents on the transfer of the Afghan-Tajik border from Russian to Tajik jurisdiction. The documents are expected to be signed when Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives in Dushanbe in mid-October on a visit that had originally been scheduled for 4-5 October. The lower chamber of parliament opened a new term on 1 October, its sixth and final term before new elections are held in 2005. The Military Prosecutor's Office extended its preliminary investigation of former Drug Control Agency head Ghaffor Mirzoev until 20 November to cope with the large amount of evidence and many witnesses involved. Meanwhile, former Interior Minister Yaqub Salimov, facing treason and corruption charges, asserted his innocence through his defense lawyer, Saidkomil Qurbunov.

Martti Ahtisaari, special envoy of the OSCE chairman-in-office for Central Asia and former president of Finland, stopped in Ashgabat for a meeting with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov on 1 October. Ahtisaari described the purpose of his visit as "to broaden and deepen our cooperation to whatever extent is possible." On the domestic front, President Niyazov held a tense meeting with top officials responsible for the cotton harvest, criticizing them for lagging efforts and sparking some talk of a less-than-spectacular harvest. On the regional front, Defense Minister Major General Agageldi Mammetgeldiyev met with his Uzbek counterpart in Turkemenistan on 28 September, four days after the two countries' presidents broke a long silence with a phone conversation and agreed to hold their own meeting in Bukhara, Uzbekistan in November.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov appointed Shermat Nurmatov minister of agriculture and water resources. Karimov also signed a decree to create a Ministry of Culture and Sports in place of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and State Committee on Physical Culture and Sports. The National Security Service showed off its successes against the drug culture, publicly burning 566 kilograms of confiscated narcotics, including 381 kilograms of heroin.

A TURKMEN-UZBEK THAW? In the general chill that pervades relations between the nations of Central Asia, ties between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan stand at the polar ice cap. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and Uzbek President Islam Karimov are the two most imperious and willful rulers in the region, and they share a history of personal antipathy. Recent signs point to a possible thaw. Should spring come, there will be plenty of fences to mend.

Niyazov and Karimov held their first telephone conversation in some time on 24 September, news services from both countries reported. Though the fact of the conversation was noteworthy, the content was apparently rote fare. As Uzbekistan's official UzA news agency put it, the leaders "had a detailed discussion of a broad range of issues related to developing bilateral relations and future cooperation between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in various fields." More importantly, however, they followed their long-overdue exchange of bilateral pleasantries with a tentative agreement to meet face to face in November in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

The phone call's first fruit ripened quickly in the form of a meeting between the two countries' defense ministers on 28 September in Turkmanabat, Turkmenistan, reported. Turkmenistan's official TDH news agency spoke of a "thorough exchange of views on questions of developing military cooperation, ensuring regional security, and strengthening trust in regions where the two states share a border..." Ilhom Zokirov, spokesperson for Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the border is the source of the greatest difficulties between the two countries. According to Zokirov, 90 percent of the shared border has been delimited, but the demarcation process has been proceeding slowly.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service explored border issues between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in a number of recent reports. One report on 29 September noted that the delimitation and demarcation process has been a nightmare for citizens of one country who now find that their homes and lands are on the territory of another country. Another report the same day showed how a lack of cooperation could affect the water supply to Uzbekistan's Kashkadarya Province.

Uzbekistan's Tallimarjon reservoir draws water from the Amudarya River. But to reach Tillamarjon in Uzbekistan, the river water must travel 76 miles from pumping stations located in Turkmenistan. Until recently, the responsibility for guarding and maintaining the pumping facilities had belonged to Uzbekistan and Uzbek personnel. But in early September, Turkmenistan closed the border to Uzbek guards and workers.

Rustam Ochilov, the director of the Qarshi Canal, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that Turkmenistan's tendency to introduce new regulations without consulting the Uzbek side is making it very difficult to ensure proper maintenance of the pumping facilities. For example, under a bilateral agreement, Uzbek specialists had previously received entry-exit permits to travel to Turkmenistan from the Uzbek side. The Turkmen side unilaterally dispensed with this and began to issue the permits on its own. Since the beginning of September, Turkmenistan has refused entry to more than 100 Uzbek policemen who had been guarding the water works.

On 30 September, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on the crucial role the Qarshi canal plays in irrigating Kashkadarya Province. According to Rashid Toshev, director of the Amu-Kashkadarya irrigation works, the Qarshi Canal provides water for 329,000 hectares (813,000 acres), or 60-70 percent, of the province's sown area. With cotton grown on 119,000 hectares, and cereals on 97,000 hectares, the region produces an average of 280,000-290,000 tons of cotton and more than 400,000 tons of cereals each year. The Qarshi Canal also provides water for the Muborak oil refinery and Shurtan gas extraction complex, as well as the Tallimarjon hydropower plant that is slated to begin operations by the end of 2004.

The Qarshi Canal, which is also an important water source for locations within Turkmenistan, has been in use for more than 30 years, and its facilities are in need of major repairs. An overhaul of the pumping stations that move water from the Amudarya is vital to the future of Kashkadarya Province.

A 27 September article in "Vremya novostei" by Arkadii Dubnov, who writes frequently on Central Asian issues, reported that it was Uzbek President Islam Karimov who made the call to revive Turkmen-Uzbek relations. Dubnov also noted that meetings with the Turkmen president often spend a long time in the planning stage -- a get-together with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to ink a gas accord has been on the calendar for two years and gone through at least four postponements.

Although the meeting between the two defense ministers indicates that the 24 September phone call was more than just rhetoric, both sides have yet to move from words to deeds. But time may be ripe for a rapprochement. Nearly two years have passed since relations reached a nadir in late 2002, when Turkmen security forces searched the Uzbek Embassy in Ashgabat after suspicions of Uzbek complicity in a 25 November 2002 attempt on the Turkmen president's life. If and when the two presidents finally meet, they can spend their time contemplating not only the water under the bridge, but also the water they must keep flowing for their countries' well-being.

WHERE THERE ARE SMOKE DETECTORS... The phrase "weapons-grade plutonium" has a particular allure, especially if smugglers and sting operations are in the vicinity. So when reports surfaced in late September that Kyrgyz security forces had foiled an attempt to sell a batch of plutonium-239, eyebrows fluttered upward. But by 30 October, a representative of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) had told the BBC that what was initially described as 60 lead containers with weapons-grade plutonium were, in fact, 55 harmless Soviet smoke detectors with a few micrograms of radioactive material. So what really happened?

News agencies RIA-Novosti and Kazinform reported on 28 September that officers of Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service (SNB) conducted a sting operation on 21 September, arresting a Kyrgyz citizen who was attempting to sell 60 containers of plutonium-239. Both reports cited the SNB's own press service as their source, and both noted that plutonium-239 can be used to produce weapons. Neither report mentioned a specific amount of plutonium beyond the 60 containers.

By 29 September, the newspapers "Vremya novostei" (Russia) and "Vechernii Bishkek" (Kyrgyzstan) ran stories about the bust. "Vremya novostei" quoted Chinara Asanova, spokesperson for the SNB, as saying that a 21 September sting operation resulted in the seizure of "60 units of radioactive instruments containing plutonium-239." Asanova also noted that, earlier in the year, SNB officers had arrested two individuals for trying to sell 110 grams of cesium-137 to "foreign buyers" for $110,000. The cesium could be used in a so-called "dirty bomb" and, Asanova concluded, "The recent tendency in the country toward significant interest in radioactive substances on the black market seriously concerns the SNB."

But a specialist from Russia's Atomic Energy Agency told "Vremya novostei" that the Kyrgyz account didn't make sense. He said that plutonium-239, which results from neutron absorption by uranium in nuclear reactors, "cannot be freely available; there have been no cases anywhere in the world of plutonium-239 discovered in the form in which it [allegedly] was discovered by Kyrgyz security services." The expert suggested that the Kyrgyz SNB may have confused weapons-grade plutonium-239 with the more common plutonium-238.

If "Vremya novostei" was skeptical, "Vechernii Bishkek" was downright enthusiastic. A breathless story titled "Osama bin Laden's Dream" touted the discovery of "an entire shipment of weapons-grade plutonium sufficient for the manufacture of a 'dirty bomb.'" The article described a complex sting operation, with SNB officers posing as customers from a Baltic country. The plutonium was supposedly stored in "lead containers with factory markings."

On 30 September, Kyrgyzinfo clarified the earlier statement about "60 units of radioactive instruments containing plutonium-239." According to tests by Kyrgyzstan's Health Ministry, the instruments were Soviet-era smoke detectors, and they did contain small amounts of plutonium-239, the same kind of plutonium used to manufacture weapons. The same day, the BBC quoted Melissa Fleming, an IAEA spokeswoman, as saying that "Kyrgyz officials had confirmed that the containers were stolen smoke detectors of a type produced 20 to 30 years ago in the USSR."

The two smoke detectors tested by the Kyrgyz Health Ministry were the RID-6M and RID-1 ("RID" stands for "radioisotope smoke detector"), the former produced in 1989 and the latter in 1981. Both are Soviet-era models that had apparently gone out of production by the early 1990s. A decade later, Russian officials were already collecting them for safe disposal. A radiation inspector in Russia's Primorskii Krai told a local news agency on 30 January 2002 that "Some Primorskii organizations need to dismantle their RID-6M radioisotope smoke detectors. The RID-6M has a service life of 10 years. The smoke detectors in the Gorky Theater, for example, have reached the end of their service life and should be handed in for below-ground disposal, since they are already radioactive waste.... The RID-6M contains a substance that is the source of alpha rays with plutonium-239 isotopes..."

A September 2003 press release from Russia's Atomic Inspection Service reported the discovery of 190 RID-1s and 47 RID-6Ms under the rubric of "unregistered radiation sources":

"RID-6M and RID-1 smoke detectors, which contain the radioactive isotope plutonium-239, were discovered by a private individual on the garbage dump of the company BIAS [Berdks, Novosibirsk Oblast].... Testing showed that the packages with radioisotope smoke detectors do not present a danger to others. Smoke detectors RID-1 [190 units] and RID-6M [47 units] were sent to the Novosibirsk Oblast Sanitary and Epidemiological Inspection Center to resolve the issue of their below-ground disposal in order to prevent environmental pollution."

Smoke detectors have also appeared in a black-market context. A 1996 article in "Scientific American" (vol. 287, no. 1) stated that "Some of the plutonium that smugglers try to peddle comes from smoke detectors." A 1994 article in "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists" was more specific, describing a plutonium seizure in Bremen that year as consisting of "0.05 milligrams (containing 92 percent plutonium 239 and 6 percent plutonium 238) from a smoke detector."

The amounts of radioactive material in "smoke detector" cases appear to have been insufficient for any truly nefarious purposes, and the IAEA spokeswoman's comments suggest that this holds true for the most recent incident in Kyrgyzstan. We are still waiting for more information about exactly what transpired. But for now, the real question is why Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service saw fit to couch its initial communication to the press in terms that suggested there was more to the story than just smoke.

TWO VISIONS OF THE FAITH IN UZBEK ON THE WEB. The challenges of the 20th century have transformed faith itself into a battleground in much of the Muslim world, with consequences still in the making. Central Asia has only recently rejoined the polemic after decades of Soviet-enforced slumber. Yet the debate over the role of faith in the arrangement of human affairs often founders amid diametrically opposed views.

In Central Asia, some of the fiercest fights over religion have taken place in Uzbekistan. Officials warn that medieval fanatics seek to undermine the secular state, and religious dissenters, from the medieval to the moderate, are left with precious few venues to express their views. In fact, the Internet may be the only place where contrasting views of Islam in Uzbekistan exist side by side, and where the gulf that separates them can be clearly seen.

Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf, the former chief mufti of Uzbekistan, has had strained relations with the government of President Islam Karimov. He spent most of the 1990s in exile after criticizing an official preference for police methods in the fight against religious extremism, but was invited back home in 1999. More recently, he has been allowed to publish in Uzbekistan, and in September he opened a website at

Though it is not a purely "official" affair, the website seems to have official approval. Shoazim Minovarov, head of the Religious Affairs Committee in the Uzbek cabinet, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on 15 September that the new site will provide information about Islam to all those with an interest in the faith. Minovarov stressed that as misguided religious ideas and interpretations spread, there is an even greater need for correct explanations of Islamic aims and goals. Muhammad Yusuf's site will help to provide the latter, he said.

Although the site contains materials in both Uzbek and Russian, we focus on the Uzbek version, which is fuller. Writings by the former chief mufti are organized into categories covering all the fundamental topics of Islam: the Koran, the utterances of the prophet, the tradition, and Islamic law. Other articles discuss the five pillars: faith, prayer, fasting, zakat (similar to tithing), and pilgrimage. Other sections cover such issues as society, the family, the individual, history, and Sufism. A page on "important issues" runs the gamut from jealousy to "Islam against terror."

The site proclaims as its motto "to strive for unblemished Islam and pure faith in the spirit of those who are unified in their adherence to the tradition [of the Prophet], to study and apply the Koran and the tradition, to disseminate knowledge of Islam, to follow the righteous forbears [the first generations of Muslims] and the great religious scholars, to spread a spirit of inclusiveness and brotherhood, to end religious illiteracy, to eliminate discord and factionalism, and to do away with fanaticism, heresy, and conflicts."

A more moderate appeal to orthodoxy would be difficult to imagine. But is not the only Islamic site aimed at Uzbek speakers. Another site,, takes a very different approach.

MuslimUzbekistan offers materials in four languages -- Arabic, English, Russian, and Uzbek. The Uzbek site focuses primarily on the persecution that Muslims suffer in Uzbekistan. Other news is about events in Iraq and Palestine. Sources are generally mainstream, including RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, but the site's authors couch reports in a tone of extreme hostility to the Karimov regime. The tenor is much the same for accounts of other conflicts. More eclectic offerings include an Uzbek translation of the essay "9/11 was staged to defame Muslims" by conspiracy theorist John Kaminski.

The "About our site" section of MuslimUzbekistan not only describes a project that sets for itself very different goals than; it offers a distinct vision of the faith as a badge of suffering and a rallying cry for struggle:

"A thousand years before the region now called Uzbekistan became known to the world by that name, it was Muslim. It is still a Muslim land today. And, God willing, it will remain so in the future. But for these words to be more than a mere wish, Muslims still have much work to do. Because in this ancient Muslim country, which has lived for centuries on the basis of Islamic laws and rules and derived its traditions of statehood from the Koran and the tradition, millions of believers now endure severe persecution. Their Islamic independence has been trampled. Tens of thousands of innocent Muslims suffer in prisons. History has not witnessed such grim days since the invasion of Chingiz Khan. This site provides information about the true plight of the nation's Muslims today and the thousands of ways they suffer for the faith. It tries to give voice to their wishes, hopes, and thoughts. It exposes the ploys and schemes of God's enemies. It struggles against the tyrants for the defense and victory of the faith. And it does its part to satisfy the people's thirst for Islamic knowledge."