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Central Asia Report: March 14, 2002

14 March 2002, Volume 2, Number 10

MR. KARIMOV GOES TO WASHINGTON. Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov on the second day of a four-day visit to the United States was received by U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House on 12 March, AP and Reuters reported. The presidents' 45-minute meeting took place amid intense scrutiny and pressure on the Bush administration from watchdog organizations not to ignore the Uzbek dictator's poor democratization record while rewarding him for his key role in the international antiterrorism coalition. Meanwhile, the administration has repeatedly said it fully appreciates such concerns and will balance the security and human dimensions of Washington's relationship with Tashkent. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell offered reassurance again on 12 March when he told a congressional hearing, "Karimov has been a solid coalition partner," but added, "At the same time, there are problems with respect to human rights in Uzbekistan, and we will not shrink from discussing them," "The Washington Post" reported.

The United States Helsinki Commission sought to pressure Karimov directly by issuing an open letter addressed to him, signed 7 March but released five days later, expressing serious concern over "systematic abuses by Uzbek authorities against Muslims," extrajudicial executions, and other human rights violations. At the same time, Uzbek officials preparing the ground for the president's visit in America sought to allay such negative impressions of the regime. Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov, leading the advance team, reminded journalists that independence is only 10 years old and a decade is too little time to perfect democracy, but that Karimov is fully committed to political reform and an open society. Deputy Foreign Minister Sadyk Safaev argued in an interview on 7 March that Uzbekistan has opened its prisons to inspections by the Red Cross, allowed its citizens to travel freely, and sent many students to be educated in the West -- all of which "shows both the tendency and the commitment to a secular democracy," Eurasianet reported on 11 March. Karimov himself told Uzbek radio on the eve of his departure from Tashkent that his firm aim is to turn Uzbekistan into a democratic state.

At his meeting with Karimov on 12 March, Bush mixed praise with criticism, according to Reuters. While he thanked Karimov for his support during the war in Afghanistan and "agreed that security cooperation, especially on counterterrorism, has opened a new chapter in U.S.-Uzbekistan relations," Bush did not neglect to emphasize the importance of market reforms or of progress in human rights to the future growth and strength of Uzbekistan and to U.S.-Uzbekistan relations," a White House spokesman said. Bush also noted to Karimov that the Pentagon has no ambitions of establishing permanent military bases in Central Asia but wants to ensure access in the future to local bases, AP said. Strangely, neither Karimov himself nor his spokespeople offered any immediate comment on the meeting with Bush.

On 12 March, Secretary of State Powell and his Uzbek counterpart, Abdulaziz Komilov, signed a five-point "Strategic Partnership" agreement encompassing military, political, legal, humanitarian, and economic partnership, as well as cooperation against nuclear proliferation, "The Washington Post" reported. According to the agreement, Washington pledged to "regard with grave concern any external threat" to Uzbekistan, while Tashkent committed itself to "intensify the democratic transformation of its society politically and economically." The two sides further agreed to collaborate on improving press freedom in Uzbekistan and the judicial system.

Lastly, the U.S. Export-Import Bank extended a $55 million credit guarantee to small and medium-sized businesses in the ex-Soviet republic on 12 March, Reuters reported. Washington has promised to triple assistance to Uzbekistan in 2002 over last year to $160 million. Speaking of the prospects for U.S. aid and investment, Karimov told Uzbek radio on 11 March that "we are pinning great hopes on this visit." Western assistance was crucial to the country's democratization and economic reforms efforts, he said: "To build a new life, big money will definitely be required," the radio reported.

On 13 March, Karimov was set to meet Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and tour the site of Ground Zero in New York.

MASS FIRINGS OF TURKMEN SECURITY OFFICIALS... A move by Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov last week to assert his authority over the National Security Committee (the KNB, Turkmenistan's successor to the KGB), when he accused its officers on live television of abusing their power and participating in the drug trade, turned into full-scale purge as he proceeded to fire almost two dozen members of his security apparatus.

Niyazov started the ball rolling on 4 March at a cabinet meeting following his television performance, when he demoted KNB Chairman Mukhammed Nazarov from four-star general to lieutenant general and fired him from his post as the president's chief legal adviser. The humbled Nazarov -- reputedly the second-most-powerful man in the nation -- remained head of the KNB. Simultaneously, Niyazov fired two of Nazarov's deputies (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 5 March 2002). Interior Minister Poran Berdyev, Prosecutor-General Gurbanbibi Atajanova, and Supreme Court officials also weighed in against Nazarov at the cabinet meeting. Berdyev depicted the KNB as a rogue organization whose officers "conducted illegal searches, planted narcotics, tortured prisoners, and even killed police officers," RIA-Novosti reported.

Two days later, Niyazov fired Colonel Gurban Annadurdyev and Colonel Bayramguly Hudaygulyev, KNB regional chiefs in Balkan and Mary provinces, respectively. Accused of making arbitrary arrests, taking bribes, torturing detainees, and conducting searches without warrants, they were stripped of their military ranks and decorations, the newspaper "Neitralnii Turkmenistan" reported on 6 March. The head of the KNB's special corps, Allamurat Allagulyev, was similarly charged and punished at the same time. The newspaper said the abuses were exposed following a report submitted to the president by Nazarov.

On 7 March, Turkmen radio reported that more heads rolled. Three KNB lieutenant colonels and four majors were disgraced and discharged for unspecified "grave shortcomings" in the work and flagrant disregard of the law.

Next to go were two captains: On 10 March, Niyazov fired the KNB department heads from Wekilbazar District (near the city of Mary) and from Govurdak, a town near the Afghan border, Turkmen TV reported. The two men were said to have engaged in illegal searches and interrogations. According to the television, both men had been reprimanded and punished several times in the past for violating the law.

On 11 March, the president turned his attention north to Dashoguz Region and dismissed the head of its KNB department, Colonel Nurmuhammet Yusubov, for "failure in his official duties," Turkmen TV said. Additionally, Yusubov was accused of "covering up the misdeeds" of his former boss, KNB Deputy Chairman Khayyt Kakaev, who had been fired on 4 March. Four more officers were fired at the same time as Yusubov. After reading out the president's decrees to this effect on 11 March, Turkmen TV announced that a special committee had been empowered by Niyazov to examine the work of the KNB. It further reported, as news, that the investigation had turned up evidence of abuse of power by KNB officials who had "committed misdeeds."

....INDICATE NIYAZOV'S SENSE OF INSECURITY, SAYS OPPOSITION LEADER. The veil of secrecy behind which the Turkmen government operates and the erratic nature of Niyazov's rule make it difficult to determine precisely what has motivated the spate of firings of security officials. Former Turkmen Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliev, now an opposition leader based in Moscow, said the purge is a sign that Niyazov is feeling insecure and represents an attempt to eliminate potential threats to his power, "Asia Times" reported on 9 March. Kuliev suggested that the demotion of KNB Chairman Mukhammed Nazarov, whom some had slated as Niyazov's successor, shows that Niyazov is rejecting "the Putin scenario," whereby a handpicked security chief moves to the top job. Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB officer, succeeded Boris Yeltsin as Russian President in 2000.

Political opposition to the Ashgabat regime has recently become more visible, abroad if not domestically, as a number of top government officials have declared themselves dissidents and gone into exile (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 24 January 2002). The most recent defector was former Central Bank Chairman and Deputy Prime Minister Khudaiberdy Orazov, who joined the opposition camp in February. Details of the criminal case subsequently brought against him by the Prosecutor-General's Office were revealed on 11 March, Interfax and reported. The most serious charge was that he embezzled part of the $120 million in loans that Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank allocated to Turkmenistan in 1997 to develop its agricultural sector. According to a source in the Prosecutor-General's Office, Orazov partially admitted this charge in April 2000 and returned $100,000 to the state, Interfax said. Orazov has said that the accusations against him are false and politically motivated.

There are rumors that Niyazov has been badly shaken by the emergence of a vocal opposition-in-exile, so Kuliev's contention that the president is mounting a pre-emptive strike against potential opponents at home is credible up to a point. Yet it seems unlikely that all the officials recently sacked by Niyazov actively threatened his rule. On 11 March, the president fired off a decree dismissing a city court judge in Dashoguz who slightly injured a traffic policeman's left leg with his car and then urged the policeman not to press charges, Turkmen TV reported. A second edict on the same day disbarred another judge in Mary Region for socializing with a defendant in a trial he was presiding over and getting drunk together, the TV said.

Optimists among the human rights community have suggested an alternative explanation for the last 10 days of dismissals, noting the timing of the 4 March cabinet meeting. The fact that Niyazov's reprimand of Nazarov, which kicked off the revelations of widespread violations of human rights and elementary legal procedure in Turkmenistan, coincided with the release of the U.S. State Department's annual "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices" offers hope to some that the events were related. The idea that Niyazov was stung into action by the report's criticisms is speculative, however. The report said the Turkmen government's human rights record "remained extremely poor," although it added that "there were some minor improvements" in 2001. As for the KNB -- whose primary job is "to ensure that the regime remains in power through the tight control of society and the suppression of dissent" -- the report noted "widespread credible reports that security officials frequently beat criminal suspects and prisoners and often used force to obtain confessions."

NEW ROADS, POWER LINES, AND PIPELINE TO KNIT NEIGHBORS ACROSS 'BORDER OF ETERNAL FRIENDSHIP.' Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov received the head of Afghanistan's interim government, Hamid Karzai, in Ashgabat on 7 March. The state visit, originally scheduled for two days, was cut to one after an earthquake in the Hindu Kush Mountains rocked northern Afghanistan the previous weekend, killing 150 people, Interfax reported.

Resorting to Soviet-era terminology, Niyazov said the Turkmen-Afghan 960-kilometer frontier should become "a border of eternal friendship and good-neighborliness," RIA-Novosti reported. Karzai in turn praised Turkmenistan's policy of permanent neutrality, which he said underpinned security in the region. He further thanked Turkmenistan for opening its air and land corridors to transport humanitarian aid to its neighbor. Although most media attention has focused on aid crossing into Afghanistan via the Uzbek city of Termez, largely due to Uzbek President Islam Karimov's early intransigence about opening the Friendship Bridge spanning the Amu Darya River (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 13 December 2001), the lion's share of assistance to northern Afghanistan this winter passed quietly through Turkmenistan.

Moving on to business, the two sides issued a joint declaration and signed a series of agreements. The communique, read out on Turkmen TV, proposed that an international conference on regional economic and trade cooperation be held in Ashgabat and attended by representatives of all the major Eurasian powers, including those as far afield as EU countries, as well as Japan and the United States. It also stressed the importance of constructing a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to South Asia across Afghanistan. Furthermore, it was announced on 7 March that this project will be discussed in detail in the near future at a tripartite meeting between Niyazov, Karzai, and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Reuters reported. Niyazov told journalists the pipeline will foster regional stability, while Afghanistan will benefit from job creation and receive one-twelfth of the pipeline's overall profits, the news agency added. (However, AP reported Niyazov as saying that Afghanistan will receive one-twelfth of the pipeline's overall gas capacity.) According to original plans elaborated in the mid-1990s and abandoned in 1998, a 1,500-kilometer gas pipeline would run from the Dovletabad-Donmez field in Turkmenistan to Multan in Pakistan with an annual capacity of 15 billion cubic meters, ITAR-TASS noted.

The two sides signed agreements on building new roads between their countries, and on Ashgabat linking northern Afghan towns into the Turkmen electricity network within a year and extending the grid to Kabul within two years, Reuters reported. Interfax added details on 11 March, saying the Turkmen Ministry for Power Engineering and Industry has contracted, as the first stage, to build and restore power lines to Mazar-i-Sharif from the Turkmen town of Mary. Eventually 200-megawatt lines will stretch from Mary to Kabul and to Kandahar, at an estimated cost of $500 million. But the Turkmen State News Agency said on 7 March that there was still no agreement on how much Ashgabat will charge for electricity.

Other joint accords provided for training Afghan students in Turkmen schools to study agriculture and opening Turkmen hospitals in border areas to treat Afghan citizens for free, Turkmen TV said on 7 March. On 11 March, local media announced that Turkmenistan will be opening an embassy in Kabul.