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Central Asia Report: March 27, 2003

27 March 2003, Volume 3, Number 13

COMMONPLACES OF SPRING: UZBEK PRESIDENT BUCKS TREND WITH ATTACK ON HYPOCRITES, PACIFISTS. In spring, say the poets, a young man's thoughts turn to love. Meanwhile in Central Asia the thoughts of presidential speech writers turn to platitudes and shopworn metaphors as the Navruz holiday (the vernal equinox on 21 March) annually gets co-opted as a symbol for their independent nations' alleged political, socioeconomic, and moral regeneration.

On this wonderful holiday, "the New Year by [traditional] eastern reckoning, when winter is over," Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev told his people on Kazakh TV, "our national economy is reviving and growing, our people's standard of living is increasing...." In Tajikistan, President Imomali Rakhmonov said that this Navruz was accompanied by a renewed sense of patriotism and civic responsibility for the fate of the homeland, ITAR-TASS reported. Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akaev was in a philosophical mood this year. He contended that the Navruz celebration was part of "centuries-old Eastern wisdom, involving the deepest admiration of the ungraspable nature of the Universe." Akaev further commented that the holiday carried a special meaning in 2003, designated the 2,200th anniversary of Kyrgyz statehood, Kabar news agency said.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov's Navruz address was no less replete with uplifting words about nature's bounty and national destiny. But in contrast to other regional leaders, he also came down to earth with some topical allusions to "today's restless world." Although he did not explicitly mention the war in Iraq, he nonetheless stressed the need for "vigilance" and for swift action to counter international terrorism and any forces prepared to resort to the use of weapons of mass destruction. He also referred to America's role in removing the threat posed to Uzbekistan's security by the "evil forces on our southern border," meaning the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 March 2003). Karimov enjoined his listeners to draw "the correct conclusion" after noting which countries "in reality made a decisive contribution to ensuring security in our country" -- and, by implication, which countries had only offered words without deeds. The United States fell into the former category. Karimov made it clear that the correct conclusion was, therefore, for Uzbekistan to base its policy on "cooperation with strategic partners, their power and support." The reference, again, was to the U.S., with which Uzbekistan contracted a strategic partnership in autumn 2001 in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Karimov made it equally clear which countries fell into the latter category -- the hypocrites and stay-at-homes that preferred talk to action. "Don't disturb me and I won't disturb you: this is the policy of rich Europe," Karimov scoffed in a press conference on 21 March, carried by Uzbek radio. "Some of the great powers in Europe have various interests in Iraq. They don't let on about it.... All of them have now converted to pacifism."

But the worst offender was Russia, a country whose policies and promises were not to be trusted. In evidence, Karimov recounted a key incident when Russia supposedly failed Uzbekistan. He said that the Taliban at an unspecified date (but presumably in the second half of 2001) had marshaled 50,000 militants along the Afghan-Uzbek frontier near the town of Termez in preparation for a strike northwards against Bukhara and Samarkand. He alleged that they also planned to seize the Tajik capital Dushanbe. (Karimov added in parentheses that he did not make this information public at the time "because I did not want to frighten our people." In fact, in 2001 his government consistently slammed reports by Western news agencies that Taliban troops were concentrated near Uzbekistan's borders as malicious falsifications aimed at spreading panic.) Since the danger was pressing but the West's attention was not yet focused on Afghanistan, Karimov explained that Uzbekistan had no choice but to turn to Russia for help. In vain: "We asked Russia not just one time but a hundred times to send us a railway carriage with ammunition for missile systems," Karimov said on 21 March. "The ammunition they promised has still not arrived."

And Moscow was comporting itself just as reprehensibly with regards to Iraq, Karimov went on. In order to undermine the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein's regime, he said, Russian state media was inventing scare stories and predicting disaster. "There is no need to blow up such stories and broadcast them every day.... There is panic, and words to the effect that World War III is supposed to have started, that history will never forgive the United States."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has come out strongly against the invasion of Iraq, calling it "a political mistake," while Karimov has adopted a bullishly pro-American stance. The contradiction led an Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) commentary on 25 March to ask how much longer Karimov would tolerate Russian television broadcasts in Uzbekistan, which offer "views that are diametrically opposed to Karimov's." The question is especially pointed since Uzbekistan itself has unofficially but effectively imposed censorship in response to the military operation in Iraq, so that only the pro-American viewpoint (which is also Tashkent's viewpoint) is being expressed in the media. Critical perspectives, such as those identified with Russia, France, and Germany, are no longer aired in Uzbekistan. Global antiwar demonstrations are also studiously ignored. Foreign Minister Sodyq Safaev is said recently to have summoned the editors of major media outlets and instructed them not to report on the war from a pro-Russian point of view, but exclusively from the U.S. position (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003).

Strangely, Turkmenistan, which on 19 March suspended daily two-hour broadcasts of Russia's Channel 1, resumed them after a six-day break, AP reported on 25 March. No explanation was offered either why they were taken off the air, or why they were brought back. Russian programming offers almost the only information about the war in Iraq (or foreign news altogether) available to Turkmen citizens. Last week Turkmen mass media offered extensive coverage of the Navruz holiday (which lasted three days, 20-22 March, by presidential decree), with folklore troupes and song festivals, but were generally silent on military operations in the Persian Gulf.

DATE SET FOR TAJIK REFERENDUM. On 19 March in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, the Majlisi Namoyandagon (Assembly of Representatives, or lower chamber of Tajikistan's parliament) adopted a resolution establishing 22 June as the date for a national referendum on controversial amendments to the country's constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003). According to Asia-Plus, the question to be put to the people will simply be, "Do you support making changes and additions to the constitution of the Republic of Tajikistan?"

The parliamentary commission responsible for vetting proposed amendments began sitting on 6 March (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 13 March 2003). Since then, it has received 246 suggestions, of which it has accepted 129 and partially approved 32, Tajik radio reported on 19 March. The changes include an end to the guarantee of free higher and vocational education, and the abolition of free health care, the radio said. But the key change would be to Article 65, which bars a president from serving two consecutive terms. President Imomali Rakhmonov is currently serving the fourth year of a seven-year term under new constitutional provisions passed in 1999. Amending Article 65 would pave the way to extending Rakhmonov's term in office. In fact it would permit the president to run for re-election two more times after his present term expires in 2006, conceivably keeping the 50-year-old incumbent in office until 2020.

In the opinion of some observers, this is the whole point of the referendum exercise, with the other amendments merely serving as window-dressing to disguise what is essentially a power grab. Said Abdullo Nuri, leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party, teased out the implications of the referendum, circumspectly but succinctly, in remarks quoted by the newspaper "Najot" on 14 March. "We do not see any social or political grounds for altering the president's mandate," Nuri said. "To replace one individual occupying this post with another individual would be a progressive step for the country and the nation." Nuri has gone on record as saying the constitution, revamped only three years ago, should not be modified again for at least 10 years.

The referendum was one of the matters of concern raised by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari during his visit to Tajikistan on 24-25 March, Interfax and Asia-Plus reported. Ahtisaari was recently appointed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)'s chairman-in-office, Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, to be the latter's personal envoy for Central Asia. Ahtisaari met Rakhmonov, Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov, and other senior officials. In addition to the referendum, Ahtisaari discussed the fight against narcotics smuggling, the rights of Tajik labor migrants, the need to modernize the country's media legislation, and the desirability, from the OSCE's point of view, of Dushanbe's introducing a moratorium on the death penalty. Concerning the last point, the death sentences handed down last month to 11 convicted members of a Tajik rebel group in Tajikistan were commuted last week (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 27 February 2003 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March 2003).