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Central Asia Report: August 29, 2003

29 August 2003, Volume 3, Number 29

KYRGYZ OPPOSITION CONGRESS TAKES AIM AT GOVERNMENT... On 23 August, opponents of President Askar Akaev congregated in the town of Kerben, in Kyrgyzstan's southern Aksy Raion, to attend the Third National Kurultai (Congress) of opposition groups. Their objective was to review the current political and economic situation, and discuss strategy for the presidential election scheduled for 2005.

The congress was organized by the opposition Movement for the Resignation of Akaev and Reforms for the People, an umbrella movement that unites the Asaba, Erkindik, Erkin Kyrgyzstan, Jangy Kyrgyzstan, and Respublika parties, as well as a number of nongovernmental organizations. Opposition parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov, who heads the Bishkek branch of the Asaba Party, told journalists on 23 August that the congress was attended by delegates from across the country including representatives of 10 political parties and NGOs, 12 human rights defenders, and observers from the UN Development Program and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). However Klara Ajybekova, leader of the Communists of Kyrgyzstan, acknowledged that many opposition leaders had stayed away, without specifying which ones.

Beknazarov added in remarks to journalists that government representatives had been invited, including Akaev himself, but none responded. The opposition claimed 1,200-1,500 people attended the kurultai. The Aksy Raion authorities put the number at 200-300.

The organizers had originally planned to hold the congress in Bishkek, but municipal authorities in the capital and other large cities refused to grant them permission (see "Kyrgyzstan: Embattled Opposition Mulls Election Strategy,", 25 August 2003). However, the regime's influence is circumscribed in Aksy Raion, which emerged as an opposition stronghold after the March 2002 clashes when police fired into crowds of demonstrators, leaving six dead.

Underscoring the symbolism of the location for the kurultai, opposition activist Tolekan Ismailova called Aksy "the Mecca of democracy" in Kyrgyzstan, AKIpress reported on 28 August, citing the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). In an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on 22 August, jailed opposition leader Feliks Kulov said that Aksy was the only region left in the country where government opponents could meet freely. Nevertheless, according to Beknazarov, the authorities sprung a lot of dirty tricks to try to undermine the congress. In the south of the country the price of petrol suddenly shot up, buses to Kerben were mysteriously canceled, and malicious rumors were circulated that the kurultai had been postponed, he alleged.

The congress adopted 14 resolutions. One blamed Akaev for the "political and socioeconomic crisis" in the country. In the words of Erkindik Party Chairman Topchubek Turgunaliev: "Akaev's regime made Kyrgyzstan an unhappy country. Now about 90 percent of people are poor. Akaev [and his ministers] admit themselves that about 55 percent-60 percent of the population are poor. But they understate [the real figures] by at least half." Another resolution called for the government to step down. A third demanded that Kulov be released from prison. On 15 August Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court refused to overturn his 10-year prison sentence, which his supporters believe was politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 and 20 August 2003).

Some of the resolutions raised a few eyebrows among observers. For example, the kurultai nominated the people of Aksy for the Nobel Peace Prize in view of their contribution to the development of Kyrgyz democracy. Delegates further demanded that Kyrgyzstan's prosecutor-general open a criminal case against Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev for ordering, on 11 August, that an imposing Soviet-era statue of Lenin be moved from Bishkek's central square to a spot in front of the parliament building. The decision has caused a rumpus, with the Communist Party demanding the government's resignation and Tanaev mounting a PR campaign to win public support (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 27 August 2003). The kurultai also passed a vote of no confidence in the head of the OSCE center in Bishkek, Aidyn Idil, accusing his office of passivity or collaboration in the face of government assaults on oppositionists, human rights defenders, and independent media.

Opinions were divided whether the kurultai actually advanced the opposition's cause or not. Edil Baysalov, head of the NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, said the congress had made no positive decisions, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported on 24 August. Baysalov declared that he was "against the fact that Beknazarov and TurgunAliyev are co-opting for themselves ['privatiziruyut'] the Aksy events.... Unfortunately there was nothing new at the kurultai, and I don't regard it as representative of the whole nation."

Meanwhile Tursunbek Akunov, a prominent human rights activist, said this meeting was the most constructive of all the opposition congresses he had attended, although he acknowledged that many attendees had criticized the opposition "because we are divided and don't have a joint candidate for president," AKIpress reported on 28 August. Beknazarov, too, in addressing the delegates on 23 August had deplored the fact that Kyrgyz opposition forces were not united and urged them to close ranks. In fact, most of the delegates end up calling for the formation of a common opposition bloc of candidates for parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 August 2003.)

...BUT LANDS FEW HITS. The government either dismissed the congress as unimportant or attacked its organizers as provocateurs. Deputy Prime Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov took the former approach. "I do not consider the events taking place in Aksy to be legitimate and I don't take their resolutions seriously," he told IWPR. He added to RFE/RL on 24 August that he considered opposition criticism of the government's social and economic policies unfounded. "Everything is OK, including agriculture and other spheres," he said. As for calls by opposition forces for him to step down, Osmonov retorted, "The government is not going to quit because of their demands."

Presidential Press Secretary Abdil Segizbaev represented the second approach. "This kurultai can't even be called a kurultai," he sniped to journalists on 23 August. "This event can be called an open attempt at destabilization, an attempt to bring disorder to society." And on 22 August, even before the kurultai got started, AKIpress reported that the government had declared the Movement for the Resignation of Akaev unconstitutional. The grouping has suffered such broadsides since practically the day it was formed (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 22 August 2002). Last week's declaration asserted that, while the executive branch was doing everything in its power to foster stability in the country by building political consensus, the opposition was determined to seek power by "uncivilized" methods (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 August 2003).

The kurultai's most important act, according to Beknazarov, was its election of 21 delegates to participate in the Second World Congress of Kyrgyz. This gathering of some 300 Kyrgyz from over 20 countries opened in Bishkek on 28 August. It is due to continue in the resort town of Cholpon-Ata on Issyk-Kul Lake and end on 31 August, which is Kyrgyz Independence Day. The World Congress is part of the celebrations commemorating the 2,200th anniversary of Kyrgyz statehood (as the year 2003 has been declared). Its public program consists primarily of cultural events, visits to historical sites, and unveiling of monuments.

The World Congress is not a completely apolitical gathering; it is also due to adopt a Democratic Code for Kyrgyzstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 August 2003). But according to Beknazarov, the seemingly innocuous congress is preparing to drop a political bombshell. He alleged in Aksy that it has been secretly prepped to call on Akaev, in a show of "spontaneous" enthusiasm, to extend his term in office to 2010. "Who will propose, who will second the motion on holding a referendum -- the scenario has been known for a long time," Beknazarov told IWPR in a report carried by AKIpress on 28 August. "We will not permit it," he added. Akunov was quoted as saying, "Moreover, [ethnic] Kyrgyz from abroad are not citizens of our country and have no right to interfere in matters of domestic politics." Hence the importance of electing 21 oppositionists to participate in the World Congress, in order to thwart such an initiative.

But on 26 August, Bolot Januzakov, head of the presidential administration's department of security and defense, torpedoed the idea of opposition representatives. Delegates selected in Aksy would not be allowed to participate in the World Congress, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Januzakov maintained that the kurultai had no legal right to choose who could attend, and that the list of participants had been already been finalized by the government in conformity with procedures set out in a presidential decree.

If the claims by Beknazarov, Akunov, and their cohorts are true, and the World Congress of Kyrgyz comes out in favor of extending the president's tenure, then 30-31 August is shaping up to be a sensational weekend for Kyrgyz political junkies. If their claims prove to be false, they may simply expect to pass it off with a shrug and a wink. They should not be let off so easily. Government complaints that opposition leaders are more interested in being provocateurs than politicians might deserve a more sympathetic hearing.

ISLAMISTS REPORTEDLY STEPPING UP ACTIVITIES. Security worries by Kyrgyz officials about a recrudescence of the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) have been voiced throughout the month. They culminated in an announcement by Prime Minister Tanaev on 27 August that the country was reinforcing its border defenses in connection with Independence Day celebrations on 31 August.

On 13 August Sadyrbek Kachkynbaev, an authority on religious groups from Kyrgyzstan's southern Djalal-Abad Oblast, warned that extremist organizations were stepping up their activities, Interfax reported. He noted that discoveries of new caches of extremist leaflets, books, and magazines during the first half of 2003 had led to1,500 people being put under observation by law-enforcement agencies. A week later in Bishkek, First Deputy Prime Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov, who doubles as justice minister, told an international conference titled "Society Against Crime and Terrorism" that Hizb ut-Tahrir wanted to seize power in Kyrgyzstan and had been expanding what he called "its spying and propaganda activities" to achieve this goal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 August 2003). The group was recruiting mostly young people and trying to discredit the government by presenting its members as "prisoners of conscience, persecuted by the authorities for their religious beliefs," he said as quoted by Interfax.

He asserted the illegal party had also partnered with the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and unspecified Uighur separatists, who were now working together to spread radical ideas, terror, sabotage, and subversion. Even more sensationally, Osmonov announced, "The Hizb ut-Tahrir party is establishing links with some human rights activists and opposition members in Kyrgyzstan," the newspaper "Vechernii Bishkek" reported on 22 August. These dangerous developments had been allowed to happen, he inferred, because "our legislation is too liberal and our security agencies are too poorly coordinated for the activities of religious and extremist organizations to be curbed effectively." The solution flowed with deceptive ease from his definition of the problem: Tighter control and more efficient security organs.

Hizb ut-Tahrir's support base in Kyrgyzstan has traditionally been in the southern regions. Therefore reports that Islamists were gaining a foothold in the north were mentioned by Osmonov as significant evidence that the group was stepping up its activities. Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service (NSB) fleshed out the minister's allegations on 23 August when it revealed that, during the first half of 2003, 18 suspected activists had been arrested in the country's northern Chui, Issyk-Kul, and Talas regions. Ten of the detainees were reportedly facing criminal charges for distributing leaflets calling for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 August 2003). According to the NSB last week, about 2,000 Kyrgyz citizens are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Previous special service estimates have been closer to 5,000.

Meanwhile in northern Tajikistan, a Sughd Oblast court sentenced a Hizb ut-Tahrir activist named Zainiddin Abduvahhobov to 11 years in prison, Asia-Plus reported on 21 August. The regional prosecutor's office said that 40,000 leaflets and 30,000 books and magazines with extremist content had been confiscated from Abduvahhobov and his associates, as well as several photocopying machines and computers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 August 2003).

It was against this background that Prime Minister Tanaev said on 27 August that Kyrgyzstan would boost its defenses along its frontiers in response to reports that a group of armed militants might be trying to enter the country. He made reference to reports that in early August a group of 15-20 militants, including eight Kyrgyz citizens, had tried to cross the Afghan border into Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, which borders on Kyrgyzstan. Defense Minister Colonel General Esen Topoev said the measures to reinforce the national borders would probably be left in place for a month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 August 2003).

SHIELD OR SIEVE? TAJIKISTAN REVIEWS TACTICS IN THE WAR ON DRUGS. Viktor Cherkesov, chairman of Russia's State Committee for Drug Control, arrived in the Tajik capital Dushanbe on 26 August for a two-day visit that concluded with the signing of a memorandum of understanding with Tajikistan's Drug Control Agency (DCA). Both sides pledged to step up joint efforts to combat drug trafficking, and to rethink the way those efforts were conducted.

Cherkesov held talks with a broad range of Tajik officials including DCA Director Rustam Nazarov and Interior Minister Khumdin Sharipov, Asia-Plus reported on 27 August. Sharipov told his guest that between January and June 2003 Tajik police, with the help of Russian troops stationed on the Tajik-Afghan border, seized more than 2 tons of narcotics, of which over 375 kilograms were heroin.

On 27 August Cherkesov was received by President Imomali Rakhmonov. Discussions focused on how, by strengthening Tajikistan's border regimes and interdiction methods, the country could become "a shield in the path of drug trafficking to Central Asia, Russia, and Europe," in Rakhmonov's words -- rather than a sieve, which is a rather better description of how Tajikistan currently stands up to the torrent of narcotics coming out of Afghanistan. Rakhmonov acknowledged that for the foreseeable future Afghanistan would remain the world's main "factory" for the production of raw opium -- hence heroin -- but argued that his country was actually coping quite well in blocking its export: 85 percent of the opium and heroin seized in Central Asia was seized on the territory of Tajikistan, the president said as cited by Khovar news agency on 27 August. While focusing on the successful confiscations, Rakhmonov significantly chose not to speculate about the percentage of the drugs crossing Tajikistan that were never detected and confiscated. However, international antidrug agencies, as well as Tajik officials, estimate that only 10 percent of the heroin traffic gets intercepted en route, "The Wall Street Journal Europe" noted in its 22-24 August edition.

The president also complained that international media regularly implied that Tajikistan itself was part of the drug-smuggling problem in the ex-Soviet space. Presidential spokesman Zafar Saidov insisted to journalists that this was not true. "According to data from the Russian Interior Ministry, out of 130 criminal cases for drug-related crimes during the first half of 2003, less than 0.5 percent were instituted against citizens of Tajikistan," Saidov said, as quoted by Khovar on 27 August.

Whoever was responsible, Rakhmonov and Cherkesov concurred that the present tactics of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) law-enforcement agencies and special services to fight narcotics smuggling were ineffective, obsolete, and needed to be rethought. Those who were being targeted and caught were small fish, carriers and street pushers. The organized criminal groups who oversaw the business and laundered the big money had gone practically unpunished. To this end, Rakhmonov proposed that the scope of the net should be enlarged. A representative office of the Tajik DCA should be opened in Moscow, as well as other Russian towns located along the main trafficking routes such as Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg, and St. Petersburg, he said. The president also pushed for the creation of a broad international counternarcotics coalition combining the efforts and expertise of the global community as a whole, RIA-Novosti reported. Cherkesov promised to consider both ideas. The two sides also signed a joint memorandum on exchanges of information and experience in the fight against drugs, scientific collaboration, and cooperation in training drug-agency officials, the news agency added.

Meanwhile "The Wall Street Journal Europe" argued last week that Russia could be doing much more to curb drug smuggling from Afghanistan if it wanted to. "The drug laboratories and trafficking gangs are mostly based in the northern Afghan area that is largely controlled by elements of the Moscow-backed Panjshiri faction of the Northern Alliance in the Kabul government," the paper wrote. It quoted the commander of the Russian Border Force in Tajikistan as saying recently that suppressing the drug traffic was entirely feasible "if those across the border were interested."

As if in confirmation of his words, on 28 August his men intercepted a 250-kilogram consignment of heroin on the Tajik-Afghan frontier, the border force's press service reported. A routine patrol spotted 10 men trying to sneak across the border and opened fire. The smugglers fled, abandoning one Kalashnikov submachine gun and six sacks containing 260 separate packets of heroin. It was the largest single haul since the border force was stationed in Tajikistan in 1992.