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Central Asia Report: March 21, 2003

21 March 2003, Volume 3, Number 12

FIVE DEGREES OF SEPARATION: THE CENTRAL ASIA STATES' POSITIONS TOWARDS WAR IN IRAQ. The U.S.-led attack on Iraq began on the morning of 20 March. During the weeks and months running up to the start of hostilities, the Central Asian leaderships have staked out different positions toward the war, depending on a variety of factors. Those factors include the war's likely effects on each country's economy, any potential dangers to the regimes themselves, especially the threat of escalating anger on the part of their largely Muslim citizenries, and the states' relations with international actors, foremost among them the United States and Russia.

KAZAKHSTAN. Of all the states of Central Asia, Kazakhstan has the most to lose and the least to gain from a war against Iraq. Most obviously, the conflict endangers Kazakhstan's economic well-being, which is heavily dependent on hydrocarbon exports and investment. Postwar reconstruction of Iraq (particularly its oil industry) can only siphon off aid and investment dollars that might have gone to Kazakhstan. The government also worries that the more the present administration in Washington gets embroiled in the Middle East, the less time, resources, and political capital it will devote to Central Asia.

Meanwhile Kazakhstan shares the fears of other oil producers that Iraqi crude will start flooding the global market. Not only would this diminish Kazakh earnings by driving down world oil prices, it would sharpen competition with Russia. And Moscow, with a stranglehold on Kazakh exports by virtue of controlling the pipeline system through which most Kazakh oil passes, could be sorely tempted, if faced by a massive slump in oil prices, to protect its own exports by choking off some of Kazakhstan's.

Grigorii Marchenko, chairman of the National Bank of Kazakhstan, tried on 11 March to dismiss some of these economic concerns. Addressing the Mazlis (lower house of parliament) in the capital, Astana, he said that, under any of the most feasible war scenarios, "our economy will not suffer seriously in the near future, that is to say, during the next 1 1/2 years," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. In the case of "a rapid operation followed by a relatively rapid restoration of Iraq's oil potential under American control," most analysts predicted oil prices could fall as low as $15 to $17 per barrel in 2004, Marchenko told legislators. Nevertheless, the National Fund -- an oil fund to help Kazakhstan weather out a crisis -- stood at $2 billion and could tide over the country for two years, he said. On the other hand, if the war drags on and it takes longer to restore Iraq's oil industry, global oil prices are likely to rise, according to the bank chief.

Notwithstanding Marchenko's optimism before the parliament, President Nursultan Nazarbaev emerged from a cabinet session on 19 March more worried. Nazarbaev ordered that a government commission be formed at once to draw up an economic plan of defense in case there were "serious fluctuations" in global markets for raw materials, a press release from the presidential office said.

It is hard to imagine how war in Iraq could impinge directly on Kazakhstan's security, but Astana has apparently decided to be safe rather than sorry. On 16 March, Khabar TV, commenting that the Iraq crisis was making countries in the region "pay more attention to their defense capabilities," reported that the Kazakh Army was strengthening the Western Military District with a large-scale redeployment of men and materiel across the country from the eastern border areas. The movements are officially a prelude to the "Batys-2003" (West-2003) strategic exercises scheduled for late April in Atyrau Oblast. Military spokesmen denied they were linked to events in the Middle East. Nonetheless, army subunits launched military maneuvers there on 14 March, and the Kazakhstan Today news agency reported on 19 March that the national air-defense forces had been put on alert during the countdown to war and were monitoring western Kazakhstan's airspace. Khabar TV fretted that a stray Tomahawk missile aimed at Baghdad might land on Kazakhstan instead. American missiles have gone awry before, it noted, and the Tomahawk has a range of 1,600 kilometers, while the distance from Baghdad to Kazakhstan's Caspian shore is 1,350 kilometers.

War against Iraq has also put Astana in a tricky spot politically. The war is massively unpopular in Kazakhstan, according to a survey conducted in the county's 10 largest cities in early March by the Kazakh Association of Sociologists and Political Scientists, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. The poll found that 83.5 percent of respondents opposed the war and only 2.6 percent supported it. About half of the respondents said Washington's real motivation for attacking Iraq was to control its oil. A quarter said U.S. President George W. Bush was launching the war to reinforce his position as leader of the world's superpower. Less than 5 percent believed the war was connected to the struggle against international terrorism. Over one-third feared their country could be in danger if it permitted American planes to use its airfields, thereby making it a direct participant in the conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2003).

Although it is debatable whether Nazarbaev heeds domestic public opinion, his position on Iraq has been broadly in line with the popular sentiment. In late January he summed up his attitude regarding the disarmament of Iraq by saying, "The UN Security Council must issue authorization to handle such questions," ITAR-TASS reported. To that extent Nazarbaev's position reflected that of Russia and most of the European Union countries. He may have genuinely shared some of those nations' principled concerns over the justice of a preemptive war and the precedent it was setting. But Nazarbaev also revealed more down-to-earth concerns when he hinted at the possibility of renewed terrorism and retribution from religious militants: "A one-sided war in Iraq would be a great mistake. In their hearts and souls the peoples of Islamic states are absolutely against this war that can only bring about integration of the world extremist forces," he said.

Less creditable motives for Nazarbaev's stance were also suggested. As commented on 18 February, his opponents sneered he was edging away from Washington and placing himself in the EU/Russian camp partly for personal reasons, linked to the ongoing investigations in New York and Switzerland into allegations against him of corruption and bribe taking. On this reading, Nazarbaev decided to cultivate extra friends in Russia and Europe as a hedge against the growing scandal that could drag his name through the American courts.

During recent months Nazarbaev has closely shadowed Russia's anti-American position concerning Iraq. On 17 March, he discussed the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the telephone and confirmed once again that he shared the latter's views, Interfax reported. On the same day, Putin said in Moscow that a U.S.-led war against Iraq would be a "mistake with the most serious consequences" that would lead to the destabilization of the international situation. He added that Russia would veto any UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Baghdad, RFE/RL reported on 17 March.

However, given that Washington had already decided to circumvent the UN Security Council, such anti-American defiance was looking more and more like empty posturing. It must have seemed so to Nazarbaev, who, as soon as the die was cast -- Bush issued Iraqi President Saddam Hussein a war ultimatum later that same evening on 17 March -- immediately took steps to reingratiate Kazakhstan with the Bush administration. Washington was clearly the main intended audience for a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry in Astana on 18 March. The document rehearsed, regretfully and almost apologetically, the reasons why it had misplaced its hopes in multilateralism as embodied by the Security Council. The council was the world community's "main collective body," yet it had failed its supporters by being unable "to adopt a coordinated decision aimed at the political settlement of the Iraqi situation." The Foreign Ministry went on to explain why Kazakhstan had backed UN weapons inspectors even though Hussein thwarted them. "Having voluntarily given up its nuclear arsenal -- the fourth most powerful in the world," Kazakhstan was bound to actively support efforts to disarm Iraq, the statement said.

After this string of self-justifications and semi-apologies for backing the wrong horse, the Foreign Ministry set about wooing Washington as if it were wooing an estranged lover. Kazakhstan "values highly" the key role played by the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition in bringing stability and security to the Central Asian region, it cooed. Kazakhstan "joined the coalition from its early days and remains an active member." Kazakhstan "cooperated productively" with the U.S. on nuclear nonproliferation issues. Finally, Kazakhstan "remains devoted to the basic principles of strategic partnership with the United States of America and looks forward to the further development of equal and mutually beneficial relations with the country."

UZBEKISTAN. By contrast, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has been the most forthright leader in the region about supporting America's approach towards Iraq. Having signed a strategic partnership agreement with the U.S. in the wake of 11 September 2001, Uzbekistan has stayed loyal to its superpower patron. It has been amply rewarded for that loyalty with political support, military assistance, and about $160 million in U.S. financial aid in 2002. If many governments reacted with skepticism to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the UN Security Council on 5 February (when he shared "undeniable" proof that Iraq was violating its disarmament obligations), Uzbekistan's then-Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov supported Washington. Powell's address "reinforced the U.S. call for more decisive and dramatic steps to exclude any possibility of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction or resources and technologies for their production," Komilov said at the time as cited by Karimov even chided America's critics, telling journalists in Tashkent on 7 March, "We are concerned that some European countries aren't holding firm to the position they committed to when they launched the antiterrorist operation [in Afghanistan]," Interfax reported. "Nobody on earth can say definitely that Iraq does not have chemical or bacteriological weapons."

Economically speaking, Uzbekistan does not stand to gain or lose by war in Iraq. It exports relatively little oil. Skittish foreign capital may fly out of the region due to fears of international instability, but Uzbekistan's essentially unreconstructed economy has too little foreign investment as it is to make much difference.

Karimov himself stands to lose by the war, however, if he manages to further upset and alienate Muslim believers amidst the population, many of whom regard America's assault on Baghdad as a Muslim-bashing exercise. The government-controlled media has duly redoubled its efforts during the last week to turn public opinion against Iraq and particularly against Iraq's president, demonized as a ruthless tyrant. "Saddam Hussein's authority is based on keeping people in fear. Thousands of people have gone missing during his years as president, and his brutality has not abated," Uzbek TV reported on 15 March. (There might seem be certain pitfalls to taking this approach in a country with democratic problems of it own, not to mention a possible boomerang effect, but Uzbek media carried on regardless.) Hussein has sought to develop nuclear weapons since 1972 and runs a regime reminiscent of Stalin's, the television added. Moreover, Hussein derives great satisfaction from watching his enemies being tortured. In fact, shockingly, torture is regularly used on inmates in Iraqi jails to extract information and confessions.

(A case of the pot calling the kettle black: In response to a draft report by the UN's special rapporteur on torture, Theo Van Boven, who described torture as "systematic" in prisons in Uzbekistan, the Uzbek authorities issued a statement on 19 March saying they "are making no secret of the gross violations to human rights committed in prisons and are working to put an end to this practice," Interfax reported. However, the statement continued, "In strongly denouncing such actions, we want to stress that these incidents are not systematic.")

In a roundtable carried by Uzbek TV on 18 March, three Uzbek political commentators made the case for war by claiming to have concrete information that Baghdad possessed weapons of mass destruction and had direct links with terrorists. "It is a well-known fact that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. Its Al-Sumud and Al-Fatah ballistic missiles are capable of causing unspeakable disaster for humankind. Just imagine this dictator and despot, Saddam Hussein, passing on such weapons to Osama bin Laden or his henchmen!" said one Qobilbek Karimbekov. He continued: "It is Saddam Hussein's regime that is currently sheltering those members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda who fled Afghanistan.... Incidentally, there is ample proof that dozens of suicide bombers in the Middle East are receiving financial aid from Iraq."

Thus he allegedly presented the Uzbek audience with the smoking gun, or at least more certain evidence than the White House or Downing Street have been able to provide to their skeptical constituents, despite the clamor for proof of their governments' claims and suspicions. The commentators also dismissed notions that the America was aiming to control Iraq's oil -- "If the U.S. wants oil, it could buy it. It has billions and billions of dollars" -- and explained that Russia and France were spoilers because "Russia and France are the countries that have invested the most money in Iraq."

Underscoring American appreciation for Karimov's assistance in the war against terrorism, Bush sent his Uzbek counterpart a letter last week thanking him once again for opening the military air base at Hanabad to U.S. troops to support operations in Afghanistan, while asserting that today's global challenges against terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction would require the continued involvement of the international community (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2003).

At the same time, former Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov, now a state advisor to the president, said on 18 March that Uzbekistan would not take part in any military campaign in Iraq but would participate in reconstruction efforts after the fighting was over, RFE/RL reported. This is a way of having one's cake and eating it too that Tashkent has successfully exploited before. By stressing that it backs U.S. efforts to disarm Iraq, the government publicly declares its stalwart support of its most powerful ally. But by simultaneously backtracking and distancing itself from the operation itself, it defends itself against disgruntled Muslim believers ready to accuse Karimov of complicity in attacking and killing their brothers and sisters in Islam.

TURKMENISTAN. True to its declared policy of Permanent Neutrality, Turkmenistan expressed no official reactions to the prospect of war until early March. On 11 March, reported that President Saparmurat Niyazov had spoken out against a conflict in Iraq during a state visit to the Iranian capital Tehran. "We are against a war, because it brings devastation to nations and mass destruction to peaceful populations," Niyazov said. He added, in remarks ostensibly about Iraq, but probably more relevant to the continuing disagreements over dividing the resources of the Caspian seabed, that Turkmenistan was always in favor of solving regional and political problems by negotiation, not force.

Caspian delimitation is high on the list of Niyazov's concerns; war in Iraq is not. The latter will have little effect on Turkmenistan economy, with any losses from declining oil prices being easily recovered by increasing natural-gas exports to Russia, as the Jamestown Foundation's "Russia and Eurasia Review" commented on 4 March. Given Russia's importance to Turkmenistan's energy strategy, and the support President Putin has offered Niyazov in the wake of the November 2002 assassination attempt, Ashgabat can be counted on to follow Moscow's political lead regarding the campaign against Iraq, the review said.

KYRGYZSTAN. The government in Bishkek has also echoed the Russian stance about the war. As late as 18 March, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aytmatov told a meeting of foreign diplomats that the crisis must only be resolved through peaceful means, ITAR-TASS reported. The previous week, Aytmatov had distributed a statement backing the position of France, Germany, and Russia on a peaceful solution to the crisis.

In part, Kyrgyzstan's distaste for the U.S. position has been due to President Askar Akaev's public support for UN mechanisms, including the Security Council, which has been stronger and more consistent than that of any other Central Asian leader. Furthermore, support for the war among the local population, particularly in rural areas, seems to be low. In the capital Bishkek on 14 March, 400 antiwar protestors marched under the auspices of the Association of Nonprofit and Nongovernmental Organizations, the Committee for Soldiers' Mothers, and the Victor Foundation, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The Kyrgyz government is also distressed at the prospect of foreign aid being redirected from Central Asia to Iraq. Foreign assistance makes up some 17 percent of Kyrgyzstan's GDP.

Worries that war in Iraq will enrage and mobilize Islamist opponents of Akaev's regime is also discernibly underlying the government's apprehensions about Washington's aggressive approach. On 13 March, AP quoted a Kyrgyz intelligence official as saying that members of the radical Islamic Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) had grown more active as war grew nearer. A recent message from the group charged, "This is a real war declared by the United States of America against Muslim countries," according to National Security Service spokeswoman Chinara Asanova. "If you don't want to become slaves, call for jihad against every American. It is the duty of every Muslim," the message added, as reported by AP. Foreign Minister Aytmatov acknowledged on 18 March that military action in Iraq "may become a seriously destabilizing factor," escalating religious extremist sentiments throughout the region, ITAR-TASS reported.

TAJIKISTAN. Finally, Tajikistan's viewpoint on the war is very close to Kyrgyzstan's. It is a small country, heavily dependent on foreign handouts (foreign aid constitutes about 15 percent of Tajik GDP) and nervous that the world's attention may wander away from Central Asia. It is threatened by a recrudescence of Islamic radicalism, sparked by perceptions that the West has launched a new crusade against Muslims. In northern Tajikistan, the local leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), Ubaydullah Fayzulloh, gave an interview to the newspaper "Sughd" on 12 March in which he deplored the move towards war, averring that his party stood for peaceful negotiation and democratic change.

Asked about the IRP's views on Hizb ut-Tahrir and its aspirations to see the existing secular regime of President Imomali Rakhmonov replaced by an Islamic caliphate, Fayzulloh denounced the group and its program. Hizb ut-Tahrir was a nonregistered, illegal party in Tajikistan, so the IRP condemned its activities on those grounds alone, he said. Furthermore, Fayzulloh added, the group's ambitions to replace the government were fundamentally misconceived: "In my opinion, it is impossible to establish to new form of state by means of force," he said. So much for regime change.