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Central Asia Report: January 10, 2002

10 January 2002, Volume 2, Number 2

U.S. SENATORS ON DIPLOMATIC, FACT-FINDING MISSION TO TASHKENT... A bipartisan delegation of nine American senators, mostly from the Armed Services Committee and led by Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut) and John McCain (R-Arizona), were received by top officials in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on 6-7 January, AP and Russian news agencies reported. The visits marked the middle stretch of a week-long trip that began on 3 January and also included stops in Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Oman. Uzbek President Islam Karimov hosted the delegation on 6 December in Tashkent for talks that Karimov hailed as "historic," Uzbek TV reported. Lieberman merely called them "productive," according to AP. Their purpose was to assess the two countries' partnership in the antiterrorist coalition against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and to map out further areas of bilateral cooperation in the future, particularly the postwar reconstruction of Afghanistan, local news sources said. Furthermore, Uzbek TV on 7 January hinted that the lawmakers' visit presaged new American investments, saying that U.S. senators had the power to "endorse certain financial operations" back home.

Lieberman told a press conference in Tashkent that delegation members had expressed their gratitude to the Uzbek president for his support of operations in Afghanistan, AP and Interfax reported. Karimov has permitted the Pentagon to use the Uzbek air base at Hanabad, in the south of the country, although he has stated repeatedly that it may only be used for humanitarian and search-and-rescue missions. Hitherto it has generally been reported that there were 1,500 U.S. servicemen in Uzbekistan (and a few hundred in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan); however Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine and an Armed Services Committee member, let drop in an interview with the "Portland Press Herald" that "in Uzbekistan, [she] learned that 3,000 American troops are working side-by-side with soldiers in the former Soviet Union," the newspaper said on 7 January.

Meanwhile, Lieberman predicted that the U.S.-Uzbek relationship would expand beyond a narrowly military one to encompass political and economic ties, telling journalists in Tashkent that, "Our interest in this region post-11 September is going to be permanent and, I believe, constructive both to economic development and the spread of democracy." He said Washington was willing to assist the ex-Soviet nation to improve its business climate and bring in more foreign investment, with a view to establishing a "long-lasting, constructive, mutually beneficial relationship with the nations and people of Central Asia which we feel will be in the interest of stability and security and freedom." But Lieberman added a proviso: "The state of democracy and human rights matters to us, and unless Uzbekistan continues to move in that direction there will be limits on the support that we can give." This last statement was not reported in Uzbekistan's government-controlled media. Meanwhile, Kazakh Khabar TV, rather gloatingly, gave it a lot of play on 8 January, reporting that "the U.S.A. would limit its economic assistance to Uzbekistan if the human rights situation did not improve." It said that 150 people had been arrested in Uzbekistan for political reasons in the last three months, and 7,000 in the last three years.

Lieberman may have been seeking to reassure critics of Karimov's authoritarian regime -- and critics of Washington for getting too cosy with the Uzbek ruler in the aftermath of 11 September -- that Congress is sensitive to their concerns, and that further American support to Uzbekistan will be conditional on democratic progress. But international human rights watchdogs are dubious, according to a EurasiaNet report of 7 January. It pointed out that there are now an estimated 7,600 political prisoners in Uzbek prisons, while Washington has already signed off on an economic-stimulus package for Uzbekistan. The intergovernmental memorandum, signed in November, promises Tashkent $100 million in economic and humanitarian aid, and $50 million in credits for small and medium-sized businesses (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 13 December 2001). Lieberman said that Karimov admitted Uzbekistan's human rights shortcomings to the senators but asked for understanding and patience, since his country has only been independent for a decade and is at an early stage of national development, according to EurasiaNet. Another member of the delegation, Jack Reed (R-Rhode Island), called the president "adroit, realistic, and a survivor" and said Karimov impressed senators with his openness to democratization and market reforms, AP reported on 7 January.

Meanwhile, plans to hold a nationwide referendum on 27 January that would extend Karimov's term by two years are going ahead. Neither the endorsement of that country's legislators nor the experience of Uzbek referendums in the past suggests that much democracy will be in evidence when the proposal is inevitably adopted (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 13 December 2001). Uzbek radio reported on 3 January that the country's Central Electoral Commission was convened to organize the logistics and to draft regulations on the participation of foreigners observing the referendum. The senators apparently raised no concerns about it. The bottom line may well be that American business-related interests in Central Asia will trump concerns about democratic backwardness. As Lieberman told NBC's "Meet the Press" on 6 January, speaking from Tashkent, "This is a very important part of the world with extraordinary natural resources, including particularly gas and oil."

The delegation also met Chairman of the Uzbek Supreme Assembly Erkin Halilov (a major proponent of the referendum idea), who encouraged closer ties between Uzbek parliamentarians and American legislators, acting Foreign Minister Sodyq Sofoev, and Defense Minister Qodir Ghulomov. According to Uzbek radio, the senators talked with Ghulomov about coordinating the delivery of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. But it has long been clear that Washington is relying heavily on Uzbek military intelligence to help prosecute the war in Afghanistan; and indeed one of the senators, John Edwards (D-North Carolina), who is a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told AP on 3 January that, "This entire war has been intelligence-driven." More of the fact-finding component of the delegation's mission became apparent when Edwards revealed to the "Fox News Sunday" program that senators met Uzbek military intelligence officials in Tashkent and were given a briefing on the possible whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. "They [Uzbek officials] are of the belief that he has now gone into Pakistan," Edwards told the television on 6 January. McCain said the same to NBC's "Meet the Press."

In Tashkent on 7 January, senators visited Mufti Abdurashid Bahromov, head of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Uzbekistan, and admired the 7th-century Koran of Osman kept there, Uzbek TV said, adding that the careful guardianship of the ancient manuscript was symbolic of how the Uzbek nation had preserved its spiritual values. The station neglected to mention that several pages of the manuscript have been stolen of late, smuggled past customs, and turned up at international auctions abroad.

Other senators comprising the delegation were: Jean Carnahan (D-Missouri), Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska), Bill Nelson (D-Florida), and Fred Thompson (R-Tennessee).

...PROMISE MORE GEOPOLITICAL AND ECONOMIC ENGAGEMENT IN TAJIKISTAN. Passing through the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, on their way to visiting American servicemen in Afghanistan, the delegation of U.S. senators met Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov on 7 January for talks about bilateral cooperation during and after the ongoing antiterrorism operation in Afghanistan, and about how to stabilize Afghanistan internally (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 January 2002). The senators had come to Tajikistan, Lieberman said, "to express our appreciation for the support and cooperation that has been extended to the United States and our allies in the war against terror," Tajik radio reported. Lieberman said Washington was grateful for Rakhmonov's "principled" stance against terrorism following the September attacks. Meanwhile, McCain told journalists in Dushanbe that, "Tajikistan recognized the dangers that were represented by the Taliban before, unfortunately, the United States did."

Improving aid deliveries to Afghans was also on the agenda, AP reported. Tajikistan is potentially an important conduit for humanitarian assistance to its southern neighbor, although the overland routes through the mountains are said to be nearly impassable at the moment. On 8 January Asia-Plus news agency reported that since the humanitarian operation began, 43 convoys, comprising 1,365 vehicles, have passed the Ishkoshim checkpoint leading into Afghanistan. Those convoys, belonging to the Emergency Situations ministries of Russia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, have delivered 2,785,050 kilograms of flour and 4,045,879 kilograms of wheat to northern Afghanistan, the agency said, citing statistics from the press center of the Russian Federal Border Group, which is responsible for patrolling the Tajik-Afghan frontier. Iranian radio reported on the same day that Dushanbe and Moscow are coordinating a new special transportation unit, consisting of 38 trucks outfitted with up-to-date communications equipment, to take humanitarian assistance into Afghanistan.

As in Tashkent, Lieberman asserted to his Tajik audience that American geopolitical and economic cooperation with Central Asia "should be preserved for a long time after victory over the Taliban and the terrorists." But he noted that, "We, of course, understand that there are many ways of cooperating and providing aid, both in the economic and political sphere," AP and Tajik radio reported. Rakhmonov, in turn, spoke to that point when he requested that the U.S. de-emphasize humanitarian aid to Tajikistan and shift its support instead toward "fundamental trade and economic relations," AP said.

SCO CALLS FOR END TO 'DOUBLE STANDARDS' IN COMBATING TERRORISM. An extraordinary meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was held on 7 January in Beijing, where the foreign ministers of the six member states discussed expanding its role in combating international terrorism and raising its profile as a regional security organization. At the same time, member states (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) strengthened their hands as they seek ways to crack down on their own domestic dissidents and opponents with impunity. The conference adopted an approach to terrorism that explicitly linked it to separatism and Islamist extremism and, in a joint communique, justified that approach by analogy with the U.S.-led coalition's campaign against Afghanistan.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov captured the tone of the conference when he told participants that the SCO should expand its activities in the international arena to become an "essential structure to the region's security and development," ITAR-TASS reported on 7 January. The SCO, hitherto a loose forum of states that before 11 September was increasingly focused on economic integration, is due to constitute itself formally with a charter and formal treaty at a summit in St. Petersburg in June. "The adoption of these documents will make the SCO a pillar organization for the maintenance of stability in Asia," said Ivanov, quoted by AFP on 7 January. According to the Russian minister, the SCO's position on Afghanistan is that it should become a neutral state so that it can respect its international commitments and the rights of its citizens, RIA-Novosti reported on the same day. Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov went further, calling for the complete demilitarization of Afghanistan as a necessary condition for the nation's internal stability, the news agency said. Uzbek President Karimov has harped on this theme in recent months and asked UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a letter last week to bring the demilitarization issue to the Security Council's attention.

Crucial to the notion of a neutral Afghanistan is that no outside power should be allowed to interfere with its internal development. In the words of the joint declaration, the SCO opposed "any kind of administration forced on Afghanistan, or a scheme to influence it," which, it said, would entail "a new crisis for Afghanistan and the surrounding region," AP reported on 7 January. Some analysts saw in this wording a veiled warning to Pakistan. Others saw it as primarily directed against the U.S., whose growing political and military presence in the region is a particular source of concern to both Moscow and Beijing. As the "South China Morning Post" pointed out on 31 December, Russia and China are drawing closer together than they have been for 50 years, largely in response to what they perceive as an alarming expansion of American power and influence, and the SCO provides a key framework to test their cooperation. Soon they might collaborate on joint operations planning and military technical assistance, while Beijing even agreed last year to joint military exercises with other SCO members, the newspaper said. Meanwhile, the six foreign ministers agreed to set up a regional counterterrorism agency, to be made official in June but expected to be headquartered in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, and to establish an emergency-response mechanism, intended to allow the states to coordinate their positions in a crisis and formulate a joint program of action, Reuters and AFP reported on 7 January.

The pledge by SCO member states, contained in the joint communique, to expand their role in the U.S.-led antiterrorist coalition could be seen as unexceptional in itself, even positive. But its insistence that "the fight against terrorism should be carried out on all levels -- globally, regionally, and nationally -- free of bias and with no double standards" may have disturbing overtones. Its ramifications become clearer when coupled with remarks by Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan's on 7 January. He said that all six SCO member states are "supportive of the positions and efforts respectively of China concerning East Turkestan [Uighur] terrorists and of Russia concerning Chechen terrorists, and regard these efforts as part and parcel of the international fight against terrorism" (see "Conference Participants Pledge To Combat Terrorism," in "RFE/RL Weekly Magazine," 8 January 2002). The bias and double standards alluded to relate, presumably, to the West's (particularly America's) penchant for criticizing Russia and China for their use of force and summary justice to crack down on their own home-grown terrorists, while the U.S.-led coalition has allegedly acted in identical fashion against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In fact, the joint declaration deliberately drew an analogy between the conflict in Afghanistan and the presence of "terrorism, separatism, and extremism" within the SCO nations, AFP said. In short, the communique uses the logic of Western intervention in Afghanistan to argue for giving Eurasian nations a free hand in suppressing renegades at home without outside interference.

Western human rights organizations sent notes to SCO delegations in Beijing reminding them of their commitments to uphold their citizens' individual freedoms under international law and as members of standard-setting organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Observers have expressed concern that SCO governments, especially in Moscow, Beijing, and Tashkent, are trying to give themselves (and one another) carte blanche to brand disgruntled minorities or political opponents as terrorists and use that as a pretext for neutralizing them.

TALE OF TWO VILLAGES TURNS POLITICAL IN KAZAKHSTAN. Protesting the long delay by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in finalizing their border demarcation, the villages of Baghys and Turkestanets, whose national status remains uncertain, symbolically declared sovereignty just before the New Year, AFP and Interfax reported on 4 January. About 500 of the 2,000 inhabitants of the two villages, which are predominantly ethnically Kazakh, rallied to announce their independence, elect a 10-strong parliament, and choose an elderly schoolmaster as president. This exercise in local democracy was quickly broken up by Uzbek police, AFP said. A curfew has since been imposed on both villages.

According to a 4 January press release by Kazakhstan's United Democratic Party (UDP) -- a coalition of the opposition Azamat Party, the People's Congress, and the Republican People's Party -- there had been no mention of the villagers' actions and arrests by Kazakh media, with the single exception of a special correspondent of Radio Azattyk ("Freedom"). But Kazakh TV on the same day said that the Foreign Ministry in the nation's capital, Astana, in response to press reports about the incident, issued a statement that border negotiations with Tashkent were proceeding smoothly and warned that stunts like the one at Baghys/Turkestanets could only hinder progress with the Uzbek side.

A treaty of 16 November 2001 established 96 percent of the border between the two countries. Three sections of the frontier totaling 60 kilometers have been left in limbo -- the two villages and the Arnasai region -- on which officials have said that agreement should be reached by this summer. According to some local Kazakh news sources, the villagers' publicity-grabbing protests were prompted less by vague frustration at the slow pace of talks on border delineation than by a very real fear that they might become a part of Uzbekistan. The UDP press release of 4 January tried to explain why this border delineation was such an emotive issue. It noted that in 1956 Nikita Khrushchev awarded Uzbekistan a large slice of southern Kazakhstan as a gift, amounting to 200,000 hectares and including the two disputed villages, which the Uzbeks used as a military training ground. That act of caprice would be matched by a similarly irresponsible act, UDP suggested, if Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev decided to let the Uzbeks keep the disputed territory without any public discussion or transparency in decision-making. Consequently, the UDP called on the Kazakh parliament and international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to participate in the negotiations.

The mass gathering at Baghys and Turkestanets on 28 December was organized by Oral Saulebay, one of the leaders of Kazakhstan's Azat movement and chairman of Committee on Protection of Kazakh Land. He used the occasion to publicly criticize the Kazakh and Uzbek presidents, saying the border demarcation should have been completed long before. He was duly arrested on 30 December by Uzbek police, held in the Tashkent Region Internal Affairs Department jail, and charged with "organizing an unsanctioned mass gathering" under Chapter 154 of the Uzbek Criminal Code. To this was later added the charge of insulting the dignity and honor of the Kazakh and Uzbek presidents. Interrogated by Uzbek officials, Saulebay began a hunger strike on 1 January to demand that Kazakh representatives be present at the interrogations.

On 4 January, leaders of Kazakhstan's UDP gave a press conference at which they urged the Uzbek authorities to release Saulebay and demanded a meeting between Presidents Karimov and Nazarbaev to resolve the border issue as quickly as possible. The previous evening, a group of about 20 persons calling themselves the Committee for the Release of Oral Saulebay picketed the Uzbek Embassy in Almaty.

Saulebay was finally extradited to Kazakhstan on 4 January, AP reported the following day. But instead of being released, as expected, he was being held in custody in an undisclosed location by officers of the Kazakh National Security Committee (formerly KGB). As of 8 January, his precise whereabouts were unknown (see "RFE/RL Kazakh Report," 2-4, 8 January 2002).

Saulebay's saga is curiously and depressingly similar to the parallel, ongoing case in Kyrgyzstan against detained parliament Deputy Azimbek Beknazarov, who has criticized Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev for trying to force through an unpopular border delimitation treaty with China (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 January 2002).