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Central Asia Report: November 16, 2004

16 November 2004, Volume 4, Number 42

WEEK AT A GLANCE. Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) served up a surprise on 11 November, announcing that it has broken up a terrorist group with links to Al-Qaeda. The KNB arrested nine Kazakh citizens and four Uzbek citizens, members of the so-called Mujahedin of Central Asia Group. Also detained were four Kazakh women, allegedly trained as suicide bombers, who cooperated with the investigation. The group's leader was Zhakshybek Biimurzaev, a native of Kyrgyzstan and a former fighter in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which formed close ties with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan before the U.S.-led military operation toppled the Taliban in 2001. Biimurzaev told investigators that the group, which managed to recruit 50 Uzbek citizens and 20 Kazakh citizens over the last two years, was involved in terror attacks in Uzbekistan in the spring and summer. Elsewhere, Lieutenant General Lance Smith, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, met with Kazakh Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev; the two countries' armed forces will conduct joint antiterrorist exercises in 2005. To close the week, President Nursultan Nazarbaev met with the leaders of the pro-presidential Otan party. Otan members won 43 seats in the 77-member Mazhilis in the 19 September parliamentary elections amid opposition allegations of media bias and other mischief; a number of independent deputies have joined the party's parliamentary faction.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev celebrated his 60th birthday on 10 November. The next day, he began a four-day trip to Russia, where he met with President Vladimir Putin and St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko. In his public remarks, Akaev stressed Russia's right to a position of influence in Central Asia, described the Russian air base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, as a boon to stability in the region, and expressed support for Russia's post-Beslan policy of preemptive strikes against terrorist bases wherever they are located. In St. Petersburg, reports spoke of up to $1 billion in orders for local firms to provide equipment for the construction of Kyrgyzstan's Kambarata-1 and Kambarata-2 hydropower plants; reports were silent on just where the money will come from, however.

Russia finally began its long-awaited handover of the Tajik-Afghan border to Tajik jurisdiction. Tajik officials said that the entire 900-kilometer Pamir section of the border will come under Tajik control by mid-December, with the remainder of the transfer to be completed by 2006. Lieutenant General Lance Smith, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, visited to discuss military cooperation and security issues with Tajikistan's military brass. A court sentenced 20 Hizb ut-Tahrir activists to prison terms ranging from three to eight years for criminal activities on behalf of the banned extremist organization. The German Development Bank and Tajikistan's Economy Ministry inked agreements for Germany to provide Tajikistan with $11.6 million in economic-development grants. The embattled independent newspaper "Ruzi Nav" prepared to file suit against the transportation tax police, who confiscated the newspaper's print run when it arrived in Dushanbe from Bishkek on 4 November. And political parties continued to gear up for February 2005 parliamentary elections, deciding how many candidates they will run on party slates and in single-mandate constituencies.

Turkmenistan released 9,000 prisoners in an amnesty timed to coincide with the end of Ramadan. Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov told the UN General Assembly that a U.S.- and EU-sponsored draft resolution on human rights violations is baseless.

Craig Murray, Britain's former ambassador to Uzbekistan, kept up his harsh criticism of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government and its methods with a blistering address at Chatham House. Murray described Uzbekistan under Karimov as a "kleptocracy" where torture runs rampant, and he called on the West, and the United States in particular, to withdraw its support for the Uzbek government and bolster democratic opposition to the regime. In Uzbekistan, Davra Kengashi, an NGO that brings together representatives of Uzbekistan's opposition parties and human rights activists, announced that, after seeing its attempts to register candidates thwarted by official intransigence, it will boycott 26 December parliamentary elections. A UN mission from the High Commissioner on Human Rights arrived to survey current programs. And a Tashkent court sentenced five people to sentences ranging from 15 1/2 to 16 years for involvement in terror attacks. (Daniel Kimmage)

KAZAKH BREAKTHROUGH ON UZBEK TERROR CASE. The explosions, shoot-outs, and suicide bombings that struck Uzbekistan on 29 March-1 April and 30 July killed more than 50 people and left a host of unanswered questions in their wake. The trials that have taken place across Uzbekistan this fall have not fully clarified the key question of responsibility for the attacks, even as they have reignited a familiar debate over the methods Uzbek authorities use in their fight against religious extremism. But an unexpected break in the long-running case came on 11 November, when Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) announced that it has broken up a terrorist group with links to the violence in Uzbekistan. The new information suggests that remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which lost much of its organizational capacity when U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime, have regrouped in a neo-IMU. And while it confirms some important aspects of earlier statements by Uzbek officials, it also raises new questions about the terror threat in Central Asia.

KNB First Deputy Chairman Vladimir Bozhko announced at a press conference in Astana on 11 November that Kazakh security forces have broken up a terrorist group in Kazakhstan with links to Al-Qaeda, Khabar news agency reported. The KNB arrested nine Kazakh citizens and four Uzbek citizens, and detained four Kazakh women trained as suicide bombers. Kazakh officials said that the group managed to recruit 50 Uzbek citizens and 20 Kazakh citizens since it began its activities in mid-2002. In the course of the arrests, police confiscated weapons, forged documents, and a large quantity of extremist propaganda, including a videotaped address by Osama bin Laden.

The so-called Mujahedin of Central Asia Group was linked to the IMU, a group with known Al-Qaeda ties, through one of its leaders, Zhakshybek Biimurzaev, a native of Kyrgyzstan and former IMU fighter. Biimurzaev directed the Mujahedin's activities in Kazakhstan, while Ahmad Bekmirzaev (also spelled Bekmirzoev, Bekmurzaev, or Bekmurzoev in some reports), another IMU veteran, directed the Uzbek wing. Bekmirzaev was killed in a shoot-out with Uzbek police outside Tashkent on 30 March.

KNB officials said that members of the group were involved in terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan in late March-early April and three suicide bombings in Tashkent on 30 July, Kazinform reported. The bombings targeted the U.S. and Israeli embassies and the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office, killing four Uzbek law-enforcement personnel and the three suicide attackers. Khabar news agency quoted Zhakshybek Biimurzaev, the group's commander in Kazakhstan, as saying: "This year there were three terror attacks in Tashkent in July. I organized them on the instruction of my amir [commander] Usman. Three Kazakh citizens took part in them; I was opposed to this, but the amir ordered it." Later, Biimurzaev received orders from his commander to carry out another terror attack; Bozhko said that the group's top leaders, who were located outside of Central Asia, had planned to assassinate a high-ranking Uzbek official.

According to Bozhko, the group's regional leaders, Bekmirzaev and Biimurzaev, received their training at terrorist camps in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, two areas where the IMU was active in the period before 2001. (In a curious detail, Biimurzaev was said to have trained with Khattab, the notorious Arab jihadist who was killed in Chechnya in 2002 under unclear circumstances.) Other members were sent for training to what Bozhko termed Al-Qaeda and Taliban camps, presumably in the remote regions of Pakistan where their remnants are believed to have fled after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. The group targeted Uzbekistan, Bozhko said, "because [the Uzbek authorities] purportedly oppress Muslims," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Members also referred to the United States and Israel, the Tashkent embassies of which were attacked by suicide bombers on 30 July, as "enemies of Islam."

The news conference in Astana underscored that ties to the violence in Uzbekistan spread throughout the region. As Uzbek authorities had previously announced, Avaz Shoyusupov, one of the suicide attackers on 30 July, was a Kazakh citizen. Two other Kazakh citizens, Isa Eruov and Makhira Ibragimova, the latter the wife of Bekmirzaev, blew themselves up in Uzbekistan in spring 2004, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Biimurzaev was arrested with the help of Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service. One of his aides, Aidos Usmonov (described by Khabar as an Uzbek citizen and spelled Obboz Osmonov), was caught in Pavlodar, Kazakhstan on his way back from Russia, where he had allegedly been seeking new recruits. Bozhko noted that the Uzbek citizens arrested in Kazakhstan will be extradited to Uzbekistan once Kazakh officials complete their investigation.

The initial press conference adds significantly to our understanding of what took place in Uzbekistan earlier this year, although more information will have to come to light to clarify the details. In its general outlines, the account presented by Kazakh authorities in Astana on 11 November confirms some of the charges at the Tashkent trial of 15 defendants that began on 26 July and ended on 24 August. A 31 July press release by Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry indicates that the 15 defendants, who were charged with participation in the violence on 29 March-1 April in Tashkent and Bukhara, were led by Bekmirzaev, described by Kazakh authorities as the group's commander in Uzbekistan. During the trial, the defendants identified a picture of Avaz Shoyusupov, the Kazakh citizen who blew himself up in the lobby of the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office in Tashkent on 30 July, and said that they met him in Kazakhstan in early 2004.

The Uzbek press release notes that some of the defendants underwent training at camps in Pakistan's Southern Waziristan Province, where Deutsche Welle has reported activity by IMU remnants, as well as in Kazakhstan. At the 11 November press conference, however, Bozhko stated categorically that "there were no camps and bases for training terrorists on the territory of our country." But the Uzbek press release describes the "auxiliary camps" in Kazakhstan where some of the 15 defendants underwent training as "private apartments" in Shymkent and elsewhere, which would seem to indicate that the apparent dispute between Uzbek and Kazakh officials concerns terminology.

But serious questions arise over the group's alleged organizational affiliation. The Uzbek trial stressed the ideological influence of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), noting that several of the defendants were members of the banned extremist organization. In a nationally televised address on 31 July, the day after the suicide attacks on the U.S. and Israeli embassies and the Prosecutor-General's Office, Uzbek President Islam Karimov said that the suicide attackers and the 15 defendants "belong to the same group." In the same address, he chided the media for suggesting IMU involvement in the attacks and, citing the confessions of the 15 defendants, stressed the role of HT ideology in the terror attacks.

Yet the Kazakh news conference, which in other respects confirms the official Uzbek version of events, said nothing about HT and implied a direct link to the IMU through Bekmirzaev and Biimurzaev. For its part, HT, which espouses the radical aim of establishing a caliphate in Central Asia while claiming to eschew violence, has repeatedly denied any involvement in terror attacks in Uzbekistan.

Given the histories of the two organizations and the information that is common to both official Uzbek and Kazakh accounts, the involvement of a "neo-IMU" in the attacks in Uzbekistan appears more likely than the sudden transformation of HT into a violent terrorist organization. Before the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan destroyed its base of operations, the IMU carried out violent attacks on the Uzbek government, and the IMU is well within the ideological orbit of violent jihad, especially after its leadership developed close ties with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The neo-IMU would seem to consist of surviving members of the original IMU who fled Afghanistan after late 2001 and regrouped elsewhere, some in remote areas of Pakistan and others in Central Asia. The neo-IMU may also have drawn current or former adherents of HT in Central Asia, and particularly Uzbekistan, who wished to take more direct action.

The insistence by Uzbek authorities that most, if not all, roads lead to HT may represent a refusal to deviate from what has now been official policy for several years -- that HT represents the greatest threat to stability in Uzbek society. In the context of this policy, the focus on HT in defendants' testimony could have resulted from the actions of overzealous investigators and prosecutors. An 18 August letter from Human Rights Watch to President Karimov raised the issue of coercion in the abovementioned trial of 15 defendants, stating, "the prosecution's case is based entirely on the defendants' confessions, and the defense has so far failed to inquire at trial as to the conditions under which such confessions were made."

Whether or not subsequent reports confirm the existence of a neo-IMU, there is enough information at present to draw several conclusions about the group. First, its financial resources seem limited, which is likely to impact its organizational capacity. At the news conference in Kazakhstan, Bozhko said that while the Mujahedin received some funding from abroad, they financed their operations with two armed robberies in which three people were killed. A terrorist organization willing to risk armed robbery is clearly in some financial difficulty. Reports noted that attackers in Tashkent in the spring assaulted policemen on patrol and stole their weapons, a further indication of limited means. Second, the foiled plan to assassinate a high-ranking Uzbek official, taken in conjunction with past attacks that targeted police and the Prosecutor-General's Office, suggests a commitment to attacking symbols of the Uzbek government. Future operations may unfold along similar lines. Third, future operations will be problematic. According to the information provided at the Astana news conference, Kazakh security forces have broken up one group and will surely be looking for others.

Counterterrorism cooperation has been increasing in the region, and Uzbek, and possibly Kyrgyz, security forces will also be stepping up their efforts to clamp down on suspected militant activity.

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT'S BIRTHDAY VISIT TO RUSSIA. Fresh from his 60th birthday celebration on 10 November, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev promptly set off on a four-day visit to Russia. In meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko on 11-14 November, Akaev painted bilateral relations in rosy hues. And as is increasingly the case in Russia's relations with Central Asia, paeans to friendship went hand in hand with prosaic plans for boosting business ties.

On 11 November, the Kyrgyz president met with his Russian counterpart at the latter's residence in Novo-Ogarevo. According to a transcript of their discussion provided by the Russian president's press service, Akaev hailed Russia's air base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, as "a reliable shield against any threats of international terrorism." In a nod to the topic that would dominate discussion in Petersburg two days later, he noted that "we are close to signing an agreement to start construction on the large power stations on the Naryn River, Kambarata-1 and Kambarata-2."

Private talks were apparently more substantive. The two presidents discussed debt-for-equity transactions that could rid Kyrgyzstan of its $180 million sovereign debt to Russia and give Russian companies control over Kyrgyz military-industrial facilities, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 12 November. One acquisition is already in the works; it involves Kyrgyzstan's Dastan facility, the only factory in the CIS that produces the Shkval VA-111 torpedo. Kyrgyzstan's parliament voted on 29 October to recommend the sale of the state's share in Dastan, a 37.665 percent stake worth roughly $5 million, to Russian companies, possibly Russian arms exporter Rusoboroneksport, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 1 November.

Another issue that occupied Putin and Akaev, according to "Kommersant-Daily," was the stationing of AWACS aircraft at the U.S. air base in Manas, which, Putin warned, could put Kyrgyzstan in violation of its obligations under the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The newspaper noted, however, that "observers in Moscow suggest that they've made a fuss in Kyrgyzstan about U.S. intentions [to station AWACS at Manas] to play on Russian unease and force Moscow to write off Kyrgyzstan's remaining debt under the Paris Club." Finally, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported, with a complete absence of specific details, that the two leaders touched on the subject of the 2005 presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan, in which Akaev has said he will not run.

The trip got down to business in St. Petersburg, where Akaev met with Governor Matvienko to discuss how St. Petersburg enterprises might contribute to the construction of the Kambarata-1 and Kambarata-2 hydropower plants on Kyrgyzstan's Naryn River. One of the stations is nearly finished; the other is only a quarter complete. By various estimates, the remaining construction could cost $1.5 billion. quoted Matvienko as saying, "Our enterprises and design institutes will take part in adjusting the project and supplying equipment." For his part, Akaev said, "Over the next 7-10 years, cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and Petersburg will be measured in the billions of dollars in orders for the production of turbines and generators for these enormous electrical stations," reported. Russian press reports put the amount of potential contracts at $1 billion.

Throughout, Akaev waxed affectionate for Russia, including a recently announced Russian policy that has evoked mixed reactions abroad. After the terror attack in Beslan in early September, General Yurii Baluevskii, chief of the Russian General Staff, said that Russia would take preemptive action to eliminate terrorist bases anywhere. On 14 November, Akaev told World War II veterans in Volokolamsk, "We support Russia's position on undertaking preemptive strikes against international terrorism," RIA-Novosti reported. Akaev continued, "Our approach is the same as Russia's, and the evidence is the opening of the Russian military base in Kant and the creation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization." In a similar vein, but on a broader scale, Akaev had remarked a day earlier that Russia has a historic right to wield influence in Central Asia, RosBalt reported.

Big plans come with big questions, and the ambitious talk in St. Petersburg left the biggest question of all unanswered. As Naryn Ayip bluntly put it in "Kyrgyz Weekly," "Who will pay for Kyrgyzstan's billion-dollar orders to Petersburg enterprises?" Kyrgyzstan lacks the means, and Russia has thus far shied away from such costly entanglements. But the visit did produce one modest tangible result in the form of a billion-dollar yardstick for observers to measure the future progress of Kyrgyz-Russian relations. (Daniel Kimmage)

10 YEARS LATER, ASHGABAT MORE AFFLUENT, BUT POISONED BY 'ATMOSPHERE OF POLITICAL REPRESSION.' The Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, and the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, are sister cities. The Turkmen government extended an invitation to officials in Albuquerque to attend celebrations marking the country's 13th year of independence on 27 October.

Gregory Gleason, a professor of political science and public administration at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, accompanied the city delegation to Turkmenistan and spent about two weeks in Ashgabat. He returned to the United States on 6 November.

It was not Gleason's first trip to Turkmenistan. His last visit was in 1993, his most memorable in December 1991. "I recall vividly just by chance being in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating in December 1991, sitting around the floor with my Turkmen colleagues, my friends who were scholars and officials in the Turkmenistan government at the time. And I recall the sense of euphoria at becoming an independent country and the sense of great uncertainty about what the future would hold for Turkmenistan as an independent country," Gleason told RFE/RL.

At the time, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov promised that he would turn the country into a second Kuwait. Things haven't worked out that way. While much of the country's oil and gas wealth has been sunk into grandiose public-works projects, ordinary Turkmen have seen little real improvement in their lives. The government has drastically cut many social services and spending on education.

According to human rights and media-freedom organizations, Turkmenistan has one of the most repressive governments in the world. A recently released report from the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, for example, lists Turkmenistan as one of the worst countries in the world in terms of media freedom, ranking it 164th out of 167 nations.

Gleason said the appearance of the capital has changed dramatically since his last visit. "The contrasts [between the early 1990s and now] are striking. One thing, it's the capital of a country that's undergone significant transformation in terms of its physical features. Ashgabat is now home to a number of magnificent public buildings -- the buildings of the ministries in particular. In addition to a number of quite beautiful mosques and public museums, the roads are without question some the best I've seen, and there's quite a lot of new housing construction that's going up. So, the physical features of Ashgabat are certainly an impressive sight," he said.

Gleason said many residents of Ashgabat -- a city of some 700,000 -- appear to be better off than they were a decade ago. "One of the other things that's striking is the improvement in the material standards of many of the people who live in Ashgabat. It's very clear that people who lived in the city 15 years ago, 10 years ago, and who experienced at that time a great deal of deprivation have undergone a transformation. There's a very marked increase in the number of consumer goods available in stores," Gleason said

Gleason points out that these improvements are not the result of market reforms, however. "There's criticism, of course, that this is simply a populist technique that's designed to satisfy mere acquisitiveness on the part of individuals and that the government thereby can basically purchase the political support of many of the population," he said.

Gleason cautions against inferring too much from the fact that the material situation of some Ashgabat residents has improved. "The political situation in the country obviously strikes a sharp contrast with the material situation," he said. "Although the material situation has improved markedly, the political situation clearly has deteriorated in the respect that the country has a human rights situation that merits close international attention."

Gleason said this is clearly seen in the attitude of Ashgabat residents. He said that while people were friendly and curious, candid conversations were difficult. "There is a sense, an atmosphere of political repression, that I think prevents people from speaking openly with respect to the government, with respect to their feelings as to how the government is organized and operates," he said.

It is vital for the international community to pay attention to Turkmenistan, Gleason said, and to pressure the government to implement badly needed reforms. He also noted that the question of succession is crucial, as Niyazov's sudden death could spark widespread turmoil, as groups inside the country and opposition figures in exile compete for power.

Gleason said Turkmenistan is a moderate Islamic state in a volatile region. Ensuring the stability of future Turkmen governments is in the interest of the world community. (Bruce Pannier)