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Central Asia Report: December 2, 2004

2 December 2004, Volume 4, Number 44

THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. With the world's attention focused on Ukraine's disputed presidential election and the ensuing mass demonstrations in Kyiv, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka were the first to shrug off international concerns at allegations of massive fraud in the 21 November runoff and offer their congratulations to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan swelled these thin ranks, hailing Yanukovych as the victor and voicing hopes for improved Kazakh-, Kyrgyz-, and Uzbek-Ukrainian ties, even as postelection protests continued to rock the Ukrainian capital.

Two explosions shook the building that houses the headquarters of the pro-presidential Otan party in Almaty on 28 November, slightly damaging the structure and injuring a passerby. Police focused their investigation on vandals, Otan representatives spoke of an attempt to destabilize the country, opposition politicians condemned the attack and disavowed any involvement, and the rumor mill mulled over the possible involvement of extremists. Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, former speaker of the Mazhilis (lower chamber of parliament), left the "team" of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and joined the coordinating council of Kazakhstan's opposition. Unhappy over 19 September parliamentary elections it saw as deeply flawed, opposition party Ak Zhol left the Mazhilis, giving up the single seat it won in the 77-member legislature on the basis of its party slate.

The disappearance of rights activist Tursunbek Akun, who vanished on 16 November, galvanized Kyrgyzstan's opposition. An Interior Ministry spokesman said that no law-enforcement bodies were involved in the disappearance, although Akun's relatives had said that he was answering a summons to appear at the National Security Service when he left home on 16 November. The opposition rallied, appealed to President Askar Akaev to find Akun, and finally began to gather signatures for a petition to impeach the president. Elsewhere, police continued to search for at least five suspects in connection with a 20 November explosion in Osh in which a fleeing suspect killed himself and a pursuing policeman. Representatives of international lending institutions gathered to meet with Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev and express their concern at an increasing number of projects in the "unsatisfactory" and "risk" categories. They urged careful monitoring to prevent further problems.

Russian Aluminum (Rusal) detailed its future investment plans in Tajikistan, including $600 million to build an aluminum smelter, $150 million to modernize the Tajik Aluminum Plant, and $550 million to complete the construction of the Rogun hydropower plant. As Rusal planned to move in, Russian border guards moved out, continuing their handover of the Pamir section of the Tajik-Afghan border. The investigation of Ghaffor Mirzoev, the former head of the Drug Control Agency and National Guard, who was arrested on 6 August on murder and corruption charges, was extended until 20 February 2005. Former Interior Minister Yoqub Salimov went on trial at the Supreme Court on charges of treason and attempting to initiate a coup. The trial is taking place behind closed doors because, prosecutors say, case materials contain state secrets.

Uzbekistan's Prosecutor-General's Office announced that all three of the suicide bombers who struck Tashkent on 30 July were Kazakh citizens, a conclusion reached through a joint Uzbek-Kazakh investigation and reportedly confirmed by DNA evidence. The country's five officially registered political parties, all of them pro-presidential, began to present their platforms on television in preparation for 26 December parliamentary elections. And Ravshan Haydarov, the governor of Sirdaryo Province, was removed from his post, ostensibly at his own request, as President Islam Karimov berated him for shortcomings in the region's agricultural sector. Abdurahim Jalolov, first deputy minister of agricultural and water resources, was appointed to replace him.

FAULTY PASSPORTS TRIP UP TAJIK TRAVELERS. With Tajikistan's economy heavily dependent on remittances from migrant workers, travel abroad -- and especially to Russia -- is a lifeline for countless families.

Beginning on 1 January, Tajik citizens will need to have a valid foreign passport to enter the member nations of the Eurasian Economic Community (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan). A series of recent reports by RFE/RL's Tajik Service showed that flawed passports are yet another obstacle on the hard road many Tajiks travel in search of a better life.

For the many Tajiks who do not have a valid foreign passport, the trek abroad begins with a trip to the passport office, still known popularly by its Soviet-era abbreviation -- OVIR. As RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 23 November, six locations in Sughd Province process applications and issue new passports. An RFE/RL correspondent who arrived one Tuesday morning at one such office, located in the town of Bobojon Ghafurov 10 kilometers to the south of Khujand, found dozens of people lined up at a single window. They explained that they had traveled 100-150 kilometers from the towns of Asht and Adrasmon for passports. Many had already made the trip more than once.

One person explained: "I came to pick up a passport 3 days ago. They said that it's not ready. I came back today and I've been waiting since the morning. They told me to come back in the afternoon." Another said, "I've come back and forth from Asht three times. It would be good if they gave me my foreign passport when they promised. Everyone knows how hard it is to get here and back."

Muzaffar Alijonov, the director of OVIR in Ghafurov, told RFE/RL that his overworked staff is doing the best it can. He said, "There's a directive from the minister [of the interior] that provides only two employees for one center for accepting applications and issuing foreign passports. But what I want to say is that those employees work from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. It sometimes happens that we don't go home until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m."

But a freshly printed foreign passport from the local OVIR is no guarantee of safe passage. Sharifali Kamolov, a resident of Bokhtar in Khatlon province, was pulled off a Dushanbe-Moscow flight on 22 November because his foreign passport was invalid. Kamolov had paid a fee of 110 somonis ($39.50) for the document a mere 10 days earlier. He told RFE/RL, "They said my passport was forged..."

Kamolov was not the only person who didn't make the plane. A border guard at the Dushanbe airport told RFE/RL that flawed travel documents prevented 22 passengers from boarding the 22 November Dushanbe to Moscow flight. Moreover, the grounded travelers complained to RFE/RL that airport authorities told them they would only be refunded 75 percent of the price of their airline tickets.

Khayrullo Rahimov, a resident of Varzob, told RFE/RL that the passengers waylaid by invalid passports came from various places in Tajikstan, but he believed that most of them were from Khatlon Province. Rahimov continued, "I got my foreign passport three weeks ago. When they first gave me the passport, they printed 'Belarus' in place of 'Tajikistan.' I returned it. I said, 'It says Belarus here, but I'm from Tajikistan!' They gave me this passport, I bought a ticket and came here. They took it in the airport, said that my passport was fake, and returned it."

Gulnora Mirova, an Interior Ministry official in Khatlon Province, told RFE/RL that her department has already sent back 400 passport because they lacked special identifying marks. She said that the Foreign Ministry needs to solve the problem: "This is not OVIR's fault or the Interior Ministry's fault. The passports are printed in Kazakhstan, and the Foreign Ministry receives them and distributes them. We just do our part of the work. This happened as a result of the lax supervision of employees in the Interior Ministry who accepted the blank passports without checking them."

After 150 Tajik citizens were unable to leave the country because of passports that lacked the necessary watermarks, Tajik authorities are trying to determine how many of the 200,000 blank passports they had printed in Kazakhstan are flawed, ITAR-TASS reported on 24 November. A Foreign Ministry spokesman told Asia Plus-Blitz on 24 November, "We are now waiting for the head of the company in Almaty where the documents were printed.... All defective passports will be replaced by new ones free of charge." The spokesman added that while the extent of the problem is not known, it appears that a large shipment of defective passports was sent to the Khatlon Region.

In Khatlon, officials are taking steps to set things right. An Interior Ministry official told Asia Plus-Blitz, "As of 27 November 2004, 185 holders of foreign passports in Kulob have gone through the procedure of obtaining replacement documents. That's how many invalid passports have been discovered in the region." The official noted that the replacements are free, but he added that the budget does not have funds to reimburse travelers whose faulty passports prevented them from boarding planes.

For the vast majority of Tajik citizens lining up for new passports, the eventual destination is Russia, where up to 1 million of their compatriots are now trying to take advantage of brighter economic prospects. But a 24 November report on the village of Ponghoz by RFE/RL's Tajik Service showed that the prospects are decidedly mixed.

Ponghoz is a village of 3,000 people located 120 kilometers to the north of Khujand. In recent years, six of the village's young people have died in Russia, two killed by a gang of drug dealers outside Yekaterinburg and four felled by illness. A doctor in the village told RFE/RL that miserable conditions are to blame. He said, "The poor living conditions of Tajik migrant workers in Russia, which I've seen with my own eyes, destroy their health. Migrant workers live in basements, in garages. There's dampness, humidity. The work day is long and arduous, lasting 12-14 hours. There's little food. Four young people from our village who went to Russia's Khanty-Mansiisk region to work fell ill with stomach ulcers. They died after they returned home." Hospital staff in the region told RFE/RL that returning migrant workers have also brought venereal diseases back with them from Russia.

MEASURING TURKMENISTAN'S GAS RESERVES. Turkmenistan has made a name for itself in the outside world with two seemingly limitless resources -- the ambitions of its ruler and its reserves of natural gas. The extent of president-for-life Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov's appetite for authority evokes few doubts. But the precise amount of the country's natural gas reserves has raised questions from Islamabad to Moscow.

On 9 November, the Karachi-based daily "Dawn" reported that Pakistani officials had decided to cancel an upcoming meeting of the steering committee for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) natural-gas pipeline project because Turkmenistan had failed to provide verifiable evidence of reserves to feed the pipeline. An ambitious project that could provide Afghanistan with much-needed income and Pakistan with much-needed gas, TAP faces myriad security concerns and political complexities. But the most basic benchmark for any planned pipeline is, of course, the availability of gas to fill it.

One reason TAP may never get off the ground is that the gas it would transport has already been contracted to others. First and foremost among them is Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom. In April 2003, Gazprom signed a 25-year "gradual increase" contract with Turkmenistan. Purchases in 2004 will total 4.25 billion cubic meters, rise to 6 billion cubic meters in 2006, and increase to 70-80 billion cubic meters by 2009. The deal could be a major moneymaker for Gazprom. The contracted price is $44 per 1,000 cubic meters, but with half paid in cash and half in kind, the aggregate value balances out to $33 per 1,000 cubic meters, economist Najia Badykova wrote in RFE/RL's "Central Asia Report" on 10 August. At the other end of the pipe, Gazprom's West European customers pay more than $100 per 1,000 cubic meters.

That, at least, is what the deal looks like on paper. Aleksandr Ryazanov, deputy chairman of Gazprom, recently indicated that he would like confirmation that the reserves are also present beneath the ground in the required amounts. In Ashgabat for an industry conference on 16 November, Ryazanov said, "By 2008, [Gazprom's annual] purchases of Turkmen gas will be 80 billion cubic meters, which is why it is already important to have a clear picture of raw material availability," ITAR-TASS reported.

Gazprom is apparently taking steps to clarify the picture. The Russian company has engaged Texas-based Degolyer and MacNaughton to conduct an audit of Turkmenistan's gas reserves, Russia's "Gazeta" reported on 26 November. Although company representatives would not comment on the audit, the newspaper suggested that by year's end Gazprom should have more information about the 1.6 trillion cubic meters of Turkmen gas it has contracted to buy by 2028.

Gazprom needs a reliable audit soon so that it can make an informed decision on the expansion of Uzbekistan's pipeline system, the conduit for Turkmen gas. "Gazeta" quoted Ryazanov as saying, "Uzbekistan is the bottleneck. It's impossible to pump 70-80 billion cubic meters through Uzbekistan using the existing [pipeline] system, so by the end of 2005 we have to make a decision on the construction of a new pipeline and we have to build it in a maximum of two years." The required investments are sizeable. According to Ryazanov, $400 million will be required to boost Uzbekistan's annual transport capacity to 55 billion cubic meters in 2006. Still, Ryazanov has said that Gazprom would be willing to make additional investments in transport infrastructure and, if the gas is there, buy more than the 25-year contract stipulates. He stressed, "We don't want to stop at the minimum gas shipments," RIA-Novosti reported on 15 November.

In the end, however, Turkmenistan's reserves are one of the more stable variables in the export equation. President Saparmurat Niyazov is famed for his fickleness, and he could be tempted to try to improve on the terms of the existing deal with Gazprom, perhaps by seeking out more accommodating customers. In the longer term, there is ample reason to doubt the smooth implementation of a 25-year contract with the 64-year-old President Niyazov as its guarantor. A 4 November study by the International Crisis Group reviewed a number of political scenarios for the future of Turkmenistan, ranging from Niyazov's death and a succession struggle to a palace coup or even an unlikely popular uprising. While warning that "personalized, authoritarian regimes guard information closely, making analysis of internal dynamics all the more difficult," the authors nonetheless predicted, "In most cases, it is possible to imagine a very serious shift toward chaos, in which even those state services that now exist would fail." (Daniel Kimmage)

UZBEK OPPOSITION DIVIDED, SEARCHING FOR UNIFYING VOICE. Uzbekistan's opposition movement is fairly typical of the political situation across Central Asia.

The opposition is divided and, to a large extent, dependent on foreign support. And many opposition leaders are exiled. That means their activities have much less impact on the political life inside the country than if they were on the scene.

Still, speakers at a recent conference at Columbia University said that -- despite these problems -- now is a crucial time for the various factions in the country to pull together.

Conference panelist Abdumannob Polat is the younger brother of Abdurahim Polat, chairman of the popular movement Birlik in Uzbekistan, and directs the Central Asia Human Rights Information Network. He said the divided opposition groups in Uzbekistan must start searching for common ground.

"Any scenarios, any recipes should be based on some kind of consensus -- 100 percent of consensus is impossible -- but generally some kind of consensus because people and groups make their judgments based on their perception of their interests," Polat said.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov won Washington's political backing and generous aid in exchange for military bases and enlisting Tashkent in the antiterrorist coalition in Central Asia. But he has been charged by rights activists with the routine suppression of political dissent.

Farhod Inogambaev -- a researcher at Harvard University who until last year was the chief financial adviser of Karimov's daughter, Gulnora -- is now living in exile with his family in the United States and is strongly opposed to Karimov.

He said that Western states with ties to Uzbekistan should avoid investing their interests completely in Karimov.

"I believe that the West should not put all the eggs in one...basket. Because Karimov is not Uzbekistan, he is not the Uzbek nation," Inogambaev said. "I believe also that the West should also support and invest in a new generation of democratic opposition."

Arkadii Dubnov, a participant in the conference and one of the few speakers not affiliated with any political movement, is a columnist for "Vremya novostei," a Moscow-published daily.

Dubnov, who has spoken on numerous occasions with presidents of all five Central Asian states, said there is a popular assumption that opposition movements in Central Asia are based on ideological or political differences. He told RFE/RL that this is not true.

"The opposition [movements] in Central Asia are, first of all, structured along the conflicts of interests and competition among clans. The clans may have different structures -- territorial, tribal, financial," Dubnov said.

After the terrorist acts in Tashkent in 1999, Karimov's government cracked down on opposition movements by labeling dissent as an expression of "radical Islam."

Karimov also warned that, if he is overthrown, the United States and its allies might have to face a radical Islamist state in the heart of Central Asia.

Some of the participants in the New York conference said that radical Islam could, indeed, one day become a formidable power in Uzbekistan.

Polat said that is because the Islamists are better organized than the democrats in opposing the government.

"If there will be free elections in about one or two years in Uzbekistan, in free environment, a coalition of moderate and radical Islamists will take power because they are much more organized [than democrats and nationalists] and they have much more influential people [in the government]," Polat said.

But panelist Inogambaev disagreed with that assessment, saying 70 years of Soviet-style communism has had a profound impact on Uzbek religion and society.

"It does not illustrate the population of Uzbekistan," Inogambaev said. "We are very secular, yes. [The] Uzbek nation -- we are Muslim but very, very moderate, and for the most part the Uzbek population is more Russified than Islamified. I think [the coming of radical Islam] is a total over exaggeration."

Suleiman Muradov, another conference participant, is cofounder of the ERK Democratic Party of Uzbekistan and a former head of ERK's Samarkand branch. He is now exiled in the United States.

Muradov, too, said he does not see religious radicalism as becoming the leading opposition movement in Uzbekistan. He told RFE/RL that there is no way a radical Islam could take over in Uzbekistan under current conditions.

"Do you remember how the Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan came to existence? Karimov's regime created it," Muradov said. "All the young people who strived for justice and normal democratic life -- Karimov began to oppress them. At the same time there was a civil war in Tajikistan and [young] people began fleeing a peaceful country to go to war."

The ERK opposition party has announced it will boycott the parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan scheduled for December.

It also has called on the international community to ignore the elections completely. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has expressed concern that the elections will be rigged and has asked the OSCE not to send an election observer mission to Uzbekistan. (Nikola Krastev)

KAZAKH OPPOSITION SEEKS REAL POLITICAL POWER. In size and natural riches, Kazakhstan has no rivals in Central Asia. The huge, oil-rich country also stands apart by the health of its political opposition movement.

At a recent conference at New York's Columbia University, opposition experts from Central Asia repeatedly noted that Kazakhstan's opposition is organized better and enjoys more financial autonomy than movements elsewhere in the region.

And the movement now appears intent on gaining real political power.

Amirzhan Kossanov, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Republican National Party of Kazakhstan, tells RFE/RL that various Kazakh political movements are already in advanced stages of negotiations to select a unified opposition candidate to run in presidential elections scheduled for 2006.

"The self-sufficiency of the Kazakhstan opposition makes it a threat for the government. There are negotiations right before the presidential elections about a unified opposition candidate. The Kazakhstan regime is confused because it knows it's not popular among the people. They realize that free and just elections are a death sentence for them," Kossanov says.

"The Kazakhstan regime is confused because it knows it's not popular among the people. They realize that free and just elections are a death sentence for them."

Kossanov adds that there is also a healthy democratic competition among leaders of different opposition movements.

Arkadii Dubnov, an analyst for the Moscow daily "Vremya Novostey," has spoken on numerous occasions with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev as well as with the leading figures of the country's opposition.

Dubnov tells RFE/RL that after achieving a certain level of independence, the Kazakh economic elite is now hungry for political power.

Precisely because many of their leaders are now wealthy, these new opposition movements do not need financial assistance from abroad, unlike in other Central Asian countries.

"The opposition in Kazakhstan today is first of all represented in parties like Ak Zhol. These are the young wolves bred and nurtured within Nazarbaev's regime. Now, they are demanding their piece of political power. They have already gotten their economic strength, but now they are determined to assert their interests on a legitimate political level," Dubnov says.

Dubnov says the new Kazakh parties can support themselves without any dependence on grants from abroad and they have already achieved significant political influence.

The Kazakh opposition movement received another boost this week when former parliament speaker Zharmakhan Tuyakbai announced that he is joining the Coalition of Democratic Forces. That grouping unites the major opposition groups such as Ak Zhol, Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan, and Communist parties.

Tuyakbai said his decision was prompted by disagreement with recent presidential policies. But he is not the only high-level official to have recently joined the opposition.

Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who was former prime minister from 1994 to 1997, wrote an open letter to the country's opposition movements in October, appealing for a unified platform to take on Nazarbaev in the 2006 elections.

Kossanov of the Republican National Party tells RFE/RL that the average Kazakh citizen now sees the opposition as a legitimate alternative to Nazarbaev. And that, he says, is another factor distinguishing the country form its neighbors.

"The uniqueness of the Kazakh opposition is that it is joined by people who were part of the governing elite: [Akezhan] Kazhegeldin, the former prime minister, current leaders of Ak Zhol opposition party were in leading positions in Nazarbaev's government. These are people who are familiar with the decision making process of the current government, they know how to influence and to make an impact in the power structures from the outside," Kossanov says.

But they still have to contend with Nazarbaev, who controls the key levers of power. And Kossanov says the president, in Soviet fashion, is widely believed to keep a file of compromising information about all high-level officials.

"Everybody in Kazakhstan knows that President Nazarbaev does not appoint anyone in an influential position without having compromising information [kompromat] on the appointee. Everybody knows that; it is an unwritten rule of his personnel policy. We can't find angels who would now lead the opposition, various democratic parties. We have all been nurtured in this system," Kossanov says.

Kossanov adds that Kazakhstan is unlikely to see a scenario such as last year in Georgia, where an unpopular president stepped down to avoid bloodshed.

For his part, analyst Dubnov says Nazarbaev is concerned about the growing strength of the new opposition. He says that following Russian President Vladimir Putin's with the Yukos oil company, the Kazakh leader is now trying to put the economic brakes on his rivals' expansion and thirst for political strength. (Nikola Krastev)