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Central Asia Report: March 28, 2002

28 March 2002, Volume 2, Number 12

KYRGYZ GOVERNMENT AND OPPOSITION TRADE ACCUSATIONS OVER KILLINGS. In the aftermath of the riots on 17-18 March in southern Kyrgyzstan's Djalalabad Oblast, at which police reportedly fired into crowds of supporters of parliamentary deputy Azimbek Beknazarov leaving six dead and over 20 injured, the authorities, offering no apologies, continued to maintain they had acted in self-defense and that the disturbances were orchestrated by ruthless and irresponsible oppositionists trying to destabilize the country. The tone was set by President Askar Akaev, who took the offensive in a speech devoted to the Norouz holiday (the vernal equinox) in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. He repeated the line he had taken on 18 March when first reacting to the news, saying that the public disturbances were caused by "a small group of provocateurs and demagogues." In fact, he implicitly supported the police's violent response by telling the throng of Norouz holidaymakers that if the police had not acted firmly when they did, the situation in the country might have spiraled dangerously out of control (see "RFE/RL Kyrgyz News," 21 March 2002).

The following day Beknazarov himself, whose trial was temporarily adjourned and who is currently at liberty (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 21 March 2002), accused Akaev of deliberately misleading the public by trying to scapegoat the opposition. He told a session of the Legislative Assembly (the lower house of the Kyrgyz parliament) that the government alone was responsible for turning the demonstrations into a massacre, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported on 22 March. Deputy Interior Minister Keneshbek Duishebaev hit back on 25 March, accusing Beknazarov of fomenting trouble and twisting the truth himself. The story, according to Duishebaev, was that the crowd began attacking the police with stones; the police held their fire; but when someone opened fire on the police they were forced to respond in kind. The deputy minister claimed that 74 policemen had been wounded in the fracas, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau said.

Charges and countercharges continued. Mamasadyk Jakishev of the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights basically called Duishebaev a liar on 26 March and said that, as many witnesses could testify, the demonstrators in Djalalabad were unarmed. Beknazarov returned to the fray on 26 March when he appealed to Akaev to stop disseminating "government propaganda" that distorted the circumstances surrounding the bloodshed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 March 2002). Beknazarov was responding, in part, to a decree issued the day before by Interior Minister Temirbek Akmataliev. The decree instructed the leaders of governmental bodies throughout the country, all the way down to town administrators and village headmen, to urgently undertake "ideological" and "explanatory work among the populace" to inform them of the true nature of the Djalalabad incidents, Kabar news agency reported on 25 March.

Meanwhile, the New York-based watchdog organization Human Rights Watch called on Akaev to initiate an independent investigation of the killings. No sooner had they done so than First Deputy Prosecutor General Kurmantai Abdiev told RFE/RL on 22 March that a special group of the Security Council would be undertaking a full investigation. Yet Akaev chaired a meeting of the Security Council on 23 March where they reviewed the national military doctrine and the Djalalabad incidents were not even discussed. A separate parliamentary committee was also set up to investigate the riots. It ran into trouble immediately, as one deputy accused the committee chairwoman of hiding a videotape showing pictures of the corpses and interviews with witnesses (see "RFE/RL Kyrgyz News," 22-23 March 2002).

Calls for Akaev to resign mounted. On 23 March the Ata-Meken, Ar-Namys, Erkindik, Asaba, Republican, Communist, and People Parties said at a meeting in Bishkek that the president and his government should resign and hold new elections this autumn or in spring 2003, AKIpress reported. The Erkin Kyrgyzstan Party issued a statement on 25 March saying that the country's leadership had forfeited the people's trust and thus there should be a change in government.

DUSHANBE PROTESTS TRANSPORT BLOCKADE. The Tajik government appealed to unspecified international organizations last week with official protests against recent measures taken by Kazakhstan to prevent Tajik nationals from traveling through its territory, Kazakh Commercial Television reported on 23 March. In recent years Tajik migrant laborers have fanned out through the ex-Soviet states in search of work as a result of their country's economic collapse, which is associated with the 1992-1997 civil war and the last three summers of severe drought in Central Asia. Russia has been the most popular destination. But as the television noted, Kazakhstan banned the transit of Tajik trains to Russia last year, on the grounds that the Dushanbe-Moscow railway was a major drug-smuggling route. That ban was eventually lifted after Moscow complained to the Kazakh authorities that a large number of Tajiks had been stranded in Russia with no way of getting home. However, Astana subsequently convinced Moscow that the ban was necessary and last week the rail route was suspended again "indefinitely," Kazakh media reported on 19 March. Dushanbe says the Kazakh ban is in violation of interstate agreements. Meanwhile, Tajik railway authorities have implored their Russian counterparts to reconsider their position and pressure Astana to reopen the route, but no official response is expected from Moscow until next month, KTV reported on 23 March.

Adding insult to injury, Kazakh border police have begun stamping the word "Deported" in Tajiks' passports as they return home from Russia, the Tajik newspaper "Sughd" reported on 20 March. Anyone caught re-entering Kazakhstan with that stamp faces large fines, the newspaper said. About 400 people now have the stamps, which effectively make them prisoners in Tajikistan, Kazakh TV reported on 23 March. The closing of the rail route together with the illegal passport stamps amounts to a "transport blockade," according to Dushanbe, which therefore has called on international bodies to impose punitive sanctions on Kazakhstan.

BELATED APOLOGY FOR 'BEGGARS AND TAJIKS' SLUR. In a parallel development, which may signal that Russia is beginning to view Tajikistan's plight more sympathetically, the chairman of the Russian Federal Assembly, Sergei Mironov apologized on 25 March to the Tajik government and people for recent statements made by "certain shortsighted politicians," Tajik TV reported. The reference was to disparaging remarks made last month by Russian President Vladimir Putin's envoy to the Duma, Aleksandr Kotenkov. Complaining about the influx of immigrants to Russia, he asked rhetorically, "What, is Moscow full of intellectuals? It's full of beggars and Tajiks!" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2002). The Tajik government duly protested -- although only after almost two weeks had passed (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 5-6 March, 2002). The fact that it was so timid and hesitant about challenging a clear insult from the mouth of President Putin's representative is one possible measure of Dushanbe's subordination to Moscow and its dependence on the 20,000 Russian troops stationed on its territory. At the same time, growing strains in the relationship -- not improved by Kotenkov's slur and then the Russian leadership's failure to apologize for it -- have encouraged speculation that Dushanbe would welcome closer engagement with the United States at Russia's expense. The Pentagon's interest in establishing an air base in Tajikistan gives Dushanbe some leverage over Moscow. Thus Mironov belatedly tried to mend fences on 25 March by praising the two countries' close cooperation, friendly ties, and mutual understanding, Tajik TV reported.

Despite Kotenkov's impolitic phrasing, in fact Western and Russian media have commented on the panhandlers on Moscow's streets and noted that many of them are Tajik women and children driven to extremes by poverty at home. Furthermore, as the newspaper "Sughd" commented on 20 March, impoverished Tajiks are looked down on as vagrants and frequently fall victim to violence on Russia's streets, beaten and robbed of their "hard-earned wages" doing menial jobs.

KARIMOV DECREES RAISE IN SALARIES, BENEFITS... In his annual address on the occasion of the Norouz holiday (21 March), President Islam Karimov said that improving living standards in Uzbekistan was his top priority and that his life's work was to build a peaceful and stable society that was not inferior in any respect to those of the West, Uzbek radio reported. Predicting "beautiful times on the horizon," Karimov announced that all government employees would receive pay rises on 1 April, and that these would be accompanied by increases in the minimum wage, pensions, student grants, and other social benefits. He promised a second round of increases on 1 July, and a third one sometime thereafter if the budget allowed it, remarking that he was doing this in order "to make the people happy." On 26 March, Karimov signed the decree mandating the first set of increases on 1 April, Uzbek radio reported. The average salary of government workers and various social benefits rose by 15 percent. The minimum wage was set at 3,945 sums per month (about $3 at the black market rate) and minimum pension at 7,800 soms per month ($6). The decree explained that the increases would be paid for with funds from the state budget and an extrabudgetary pension fund. Private organizations were also ordered to increase wages in line with the government raises. As for how they would pay for the increases, the decree told them that it would be done by "increasing productivity and cutting production costs" (not something the government ordered itself to do). Meanwhile, Tashkent has not indicated how these new expenditures square with the IMF economic reform plan that it unveiled last month (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 14 February 2002).

Complementing Karimov's promises to raise wages, the cabinet of ministers issued a decree instructing all enterprises and organizations in Uzbekistan, whether budget-funded or privately owned, to ensure that employees' salaries are paid in full and on time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2002). The decree did not specify the punishment for noncompliance, but merely recommended trade unions to work with ministries to come up with suitable penalties, according to an Uzbek News Agency report on 20 March. Nor did the decree provide for bankruptcy procedures if firms cannot pay on time. It only said that commercial banks must issue loans as needed, secured with "highly liquid assets." Moreover, the decree banned the payment of wages in the form of goods, except for food products, and then only if employees provide written agreement to such payment.

...WHILE BISHKEK STRUGGLES WITH PAYMENTS. In the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, a session of the council on economic policy chaired by Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev also addressed the question of timely payment of salaries, and talked about raising living standards within in the framework of the government's poverty elimination program, Kyrgyz radio reported on 25 March. Quizzed by Bakiev whether the government had fallen behind in paying wages, Deputy Finance Minister Sabyrbek Moldokulov confidently replied that any shortcomings in that regard would be settled by the end of this month, the radio said. Nonetheless, it was announced that the government owed citizens 182 million soms (about $3.8 million) for back pensions and an additional 28 million soms ($585,000) for other social benefits (see "RFE/RL Kyrgyz News," 25 March 2002). The council further acknowledged that it owed 88 million soms ($1.83 million) in welfare payments to citizens living below the poverty line. Since the poverty elimination plan budgets about $1.25 million per month in payments, that means the state owes over a month of support to its neediest citizens. Moldokulov implicitly admitted that Bishkek lacked the cash to pay them when he proposed that those eligible for handouts should be given grain instead from the state.


By Hooman Peimani

Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai addressed a gathering of Afghanistan's provincial governors in Kabul on 10 March. The event reflected the interim government's efforts towards the establishment of a stable and fully-functional central government. Apart from attempts by regional and non-regional states to influence the pace of events in Afghanistan, the interim government is facing at least five formidable challenges to its government-building efforts that a successor will inherit in June when it receives its mandate from the Loya Jirga.

Undoubtedly, the ongoing war against the remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda is the major security challenge, although they are not a long-term threat to the current and future Afghan governments. Among other factors, they lack a significant social base and an attractive ideology to ensure their durability. However, their continued fighting with the coalition forces, although currently confined to eastern Afghanistan, is a threat to the country's stability. While exhausting the interim government's limited resources, the fighting could expand to other parts of Afghanistan if the coalition forces fail to uproot the Taliban/Al-Qaeda networks throughout the country. The removal of this threat will be a major factor in strengthening the Afghan government's authority, apart from its importance for the elimination of Afghanistan-based terrorism.

The strength of the warlords and the tribal leaders is another challenge. In the absence of a strong central government, they are practically independent rulers of their respective territories. This phenomenon is both an indication of and a contributing factor to ethnic and religious division and rivalry in Afghanistan. Prior to the fall of the pro-Soviet regime in 1992, fear of domination by rival ethnic groups contributed to the hegemonic aspirations of the mujahedin groups each representing mainly one specific ethnic and/or religious community. Such aspirations prevented them from establishing an ethnically broad-based government when that regime fell. Their dissatisfaction with their share of power and its manipulation by foreign powers initiated a new round of civil war that lasted until the Taliban's fall. That development removed a fanatical force from the political scene whose objective of establishing a Pashtun-dominated state in a multiethnic country denied the Afghans a prerequisite for peace and stability, i.e., a government reflecting Afghanistan's ethnic diversity. Years of civil war have worsened interethnic hostility. The situation is now ripe for the resumption of civil war along ethnic lines, an avoidable scenario if the interim government and its successor secure the legitimate interests of all the major ethnic groups. Their failure in this regard will postpone the creation of a stable government for a long time.

Severe economic problems are yet another challenge. The prolonged instability has damaged the limited industries and the inadequate infrastructure of Afghanistan, while devastating its main economic activity: agriculture. In the absence of a viable economy, massive unemployment and poverty have created a very harsh situation for the majority of Afghans. Not only has this situation had a severe social and economic impact on their country, it has created a fragile political situation conducive to instability. This fragility poses a serious security threat to the interim government and its successor. Unless the Afghan economy is revitalized, the existing popular discontent with the dismal situation will create grounds for the resumption of civil war with obvious negative effects on the Afghan government.

International drug trafficking is also a serious challenge. Afghanistan became a center for the production and trafficking of narcotics in the early 1980s. However, the Taliban regime turned it into the largest producer of opium and heroin. The drug "industry" became its main source of revenue, while economic devastation and rampant poverty made opium cultivation the only profitable agricultural activity for many Afghan peasants. In 2000, international pressure forced the Taliban to impose a partial ban on opium cultivation, only to be ignored in the post-Taliban era. Afghanistan is now re-emerging as the largest producer of opium from which heroin is extracted. There is little, if any, doubt that international drug trafficking will remain a major "industry" in Afghanistan if its central government fails to restore law and order throughout the country and if its economy remains paralyzed. The continued operation of drug traffickers will erode the government's authority.

Finally, the inevitable return of millions of refugees in the near future will also be a major challenge. Having hosted millions of Afghans for over two decades, Iran and Pakistan have announced the voluntary repatriation of the refugees in the near future. If the situation remains reasonably calm and stable and if the international community honors its pledge to assist Afghanistan, there will not be a strong case against their gradual repatriation under UNHCR supervision. Nevertheless, the inflow of the refugees, even at a slow pace, will only increase the economic burden of the Afghan government, which is currently unable to meet the basic needs of its nationals. The predictable economic and social impact of such inflow will slow down the consolidation of the Afghan central government

The Taliban's fall removed a major obstacle toward ending the Afghan civil war and the creation of a stable government, but it left other obstacles intact. Given the existing challenges, government-building will be a long and difficult process which could be hijacked by destabilizing internal and external forces. Hopefully the numerous evils of the prolonged instability in Afghanistan will motivate all who have suffered from them, the Afghans and non-Afghans alike, to cooperate towards restoring peace and stability. The latter requires a fully functional and ethnically inclusive central government, a project that the interim government has already embarked on.

Hooman Peimani is an independent consultant for UN agencies in Geneva and does research on the Persian Gulf, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent.