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Central Asia Report: April 11, 2002

11 April 2002, Volume 2, Number 14

FIGHT TERRORISM BY FIGHTING POVERTY, LEADERS TELL ALMATY SUMMIT. The two-day Eurasian Economic Summit -- dubbed the mini-Davos, as it was held under the auspices of the Davos World Economic Forum -- opened on 8 April in the Kazakh city of Almaty, RFE/RL and local news agencies reported. On the agenda were both overtly economic issues such as developing market economies in the region, achieving macroeconomic stability, investment strategies, and tax reform and more general topics such as the geopolitical scene, Central Asian security, and promoting regional cooperation. Among the 500 participants from 40 countries were Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, and the event's host, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev. Uzbekistan was represented by Prime Minister Utkir Sultanov, and Russia by Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko. The previous Eurasian Economic summit was held in April 2000, also in Almaty.

The World Economic Forum's director, Masha Levinsohn, told Khabar TV on 7 April that the forum, drawing on the expertise of the politicians and economists in attendance, planned to elaborate a five-year forecast of regional development that could help Western companies with their investment strategies for Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Nazarbaev addressed the summit's plenary session on its first day and spelled out the connection between security and economic development, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau and RIA-Novosti reported on 8 April. Saying that large-scale investments and reliable energy transportation routes require stability in the region, the Kazakh president called for resolute measures to rebuild Afghanistan. He promised that his own country "will take part in this and do what it can," and he ringingly proclaimed, "By helping the Afghan people we are helping ourselves." Raising the level of the Afghan economy in order to eliminate sharp disparities between neighbors in Central Asia is imperative, Nazarbaev said, or else illegal immigration and other serious problems will continue to grow, RIA-Novosti reported. By "other serious problems," he particularly had drugs in mind and reminded his audience that some 80 percent of the heroin smuggled into Europe originates in Afghanistan, ITAR-TASS said on 8 April.

(Meanwhile, the Tajik newspaper "Crime Info" reported on 5 April that police seized 188 kilograms of heroin in Tajikistan during the first three months of 2002. On the same day, another 32 kilograms of heroin was seized in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, while a group of smugglers were caught with 6 kilograms of heroin in their car near the Tajik-Kyrgyz border, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported on 5 April. On 8 April, over 8 kilograms more of heroin was intercepted at Qalai Humb on the Tajik-Afghan frontier by Russian border guards, Tajik radio reported.)

Nazarbaev further touched on one of the themes of the summit when he averred that poverty leads to instability, RIA-Novosti noted on 8 April. Consequently, according to Nazarbaev, poverty reduction is a form of security measure: "The fight against terrorism does not merely imply a military operation. First and foremost it is a fight against poverty, which is the medium that feeds terrorism." Akaev's speech mirrored Nazarbaev's in this regard. The Kyrgyz president also said that poverty breeds terrorism, and therefore in order to defeat terrorism and establish lasting peace it is necessary to eliminate poverty and "social injustice," Kabar news agency and RFE/RL's Kyrgyz bureau reported on 8 April. Tajikistan's Rakhmonov took the same line in his speech. He said that poverty provides "fertile ground" for terrorism and there is "no higher task for human civilization" than reducing poverty so that people can enjoy the benefits of the modern world such as education and health care, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported.

The three leaders' congruence of views was notable because it reflected the latest take on Islamist militancy by Central Asian governments, which is to blame it on economic factors. Uzbek President Islam Karimov set the trend last year when he belatedly acknowledged that antigovernment movements were arising because of the "disastrous socioeconomic status of people, demographic problems in some troubled regions, mass unemployment, and economic insecurity, especially among young people" (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 27 July 2001). Akaev has also alluded to the rampant poverty in the south of Kyrgyzstan on several occasions by way of accounting for the antigovernment riots in Aksy Raion on 17-18 March. Official recognition that social discontent and political violence are fed by poverty and despair is a positive step on the part of Central Asian regimes and better than automatically blaming opposition on hooligans and drug addicts. But explaining away terrorism, Islamist disaffection, and antigovernment demonstrations as symptoms of poverty is still a convenient way for the regimes to direct attention away from the role of autocracy and political repression in fomenting popular discontent.

In fact, Akaev told the summit that Kyrgyzstan has reduced poverty by 9.4 percent since 1999, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported on 8 April -- although Akaev failed to explain why, if poverty is dwindling, the number of disaffected Islamists in the county is growing. He attributed Kyrgyzstan's success in battling poverty to its compliance with the complex program for economic development proposed by World Bank President James Wolfensohn, the Comprehensive Development Framework program for 2001-10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 April 2002). Wolfensohn, who was in the audience in Almaty, was also praised by name by Rakhmonov, who added that Central Asian states "would not be able to resolve the problem of poverty without aid for donor countries and international financial institutions," RIA-Novosti reported.

WORLD BANK HEAD TOURS REGION. World Bank President Wolfensohn attended the Eurasian Economic Summit as part of a scheduled eight-day tour of Central Asia, from 5 to 13 April, including stops in all five countries in the region. Wolfensohn met President Nazarbaev in private on the eve of the summit, ITAR-TASS reported on 7 April. The bank will be extending $700 million-worth of low-interest loans to Kazakhstan over the next three years, intended to support the development of small and medium-sized businesses, agriculture, and public education and medicine, the agency said. Nazarbaev told journalists that between 1994 and 2000 the World Bank lent the country $1.7 billion, which went toward pension reforms and underwriting the national budget. Wolfensohn went on to meet with Kazakh Prime Minister Imanghali Tasmaghambetov, who suggested that the World Bank develop a program for reconstruction in Afghanistan whereby Kazakhstan would supply its war-torn neighbor with domestically-produced cement, mineral fertilizers, or grain (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 April 2002). Interfax-Kazakhstan reported that Wolfensohn also visited Atyrau Oblast in western Kazakhstan, where the bank is funding a water-supply project, and where he met officials from the Agip Kazakhstan North Caspian Operating Company, which is exploring for oil in the Caspian Sea.

On 9 April, Wolfensohn's delegation arrived for two days in Kyrgyzstan, where the World Bank has already extended credits worth $620 million since 1993, according to AKIpress. Now a further 15 projects worth a total of $40.3 million are to be implemented in the country following an agreement struck in Bishkek between Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev and World Bank Vice President Johannes Linn, Kabar reported on 9 April. The bank currently invests in Kyrgyz agriculture, energy, finance, health care, and public transport, the agency said. In fact the bank is presently supporting two health-care projects in Kyrgyzstan, one of which -- the Mandatory Medical Insurance Fund -- claimed Wolfensohn's attention when he went to visit the fund's office in Bishkek together with Akaev. The bank chief expressed his concern about the alarming spread of tuberculosis and AIDS in the country, Kabar said. Akaev noted that Germany and Sweden recently promised more aid to help combat these diseases.

UZBEK LAWMAKERS RUBBERSTAMP REFERENDUM RESULTS. The eighth session of Uzbekistan's parliament, the Supreme Assembly, convened on 4-5 April in the capital, Tashkent, where the major points of business were to confirm the results of the nationwide referendum on 27 January, local media reported. According to the official results of the referendum, which watchdog organizations condemned as a sham, over 90 percent of the Uzbek electorate voted to extend the president's term of office from five to seven years and to establish a two-chamber, standing legislature to replace the current unicameral parliament. Both provisions were adopted by the deputies enthusiastically, the newspaper "Halq so'zi" reported on 6 April.

Many details about their implementation remain murky, however. For instance, the deputies voted to hold presidential elections on the last Sunday in December 2007 and parliamentary elections on the last Sunday in December 2004, Uzbek radio said on 5 April. But the authorities have made much of the fact that elections for the presidency and the lower house of parliament should be held simultaneously �- a point reiterated by President Karimov in his opening speech, carried by Uzbek radio and TV. Karimov said the advantage to such an arrangement is that it will "make for balance and coordination among the legislative and executive branches, stop them duplicating one another's work, and ensure that each branch fulfills its own duties." Yet it was unclear whether parliamentary elections would also be scheduled to coincide with the presidential election in 2007.

Hitherto it was uncertain whether the mandate to extend the presidential term would apply to Karimov's present term or not. According to the opposition "Birlik" website on 5 April, Karimov previously denied that it would, saying "this referendum has nothing to do with my presidential term in office. This is being done for future presidents." Yet clearly Karimov was either being deceptive then or has changed his mind since. Furthermore, as Reuters noted on 5 April, scheduling the presidential vote on Sunday, 23 December 2007 actually means that Karimov's current term will not last seven years but a few days short of eight years, since it began in January 2000.

It emerged from the session that the revamped, bicameral legislature will consist of a Senate (upper house), with 100 members, and a Legislative Chamber (lower house), probably with 120 deputies. To constitute the Senate, each of Uzbekistan's 12 regions plus Karakalpakistan and the city of Tashkent will contribute six senators. The remaining 16 will be appointed by the president personally. Karimov said the Senate will not be a lawmaking body but will only be empowered to approve or reject bills sent to it from the lower house. Moreover, unspecified powers presently enjoyed by the executive will be devolved to the Senate.

Karimov proposed that the Legislative Chamber should have 120 deputies but said the exact number has not been fixed and that he welcomes suggestions and criticisms, both from legislators and from the public at large, Uzbek TV reported on 4 April. Karimov explained the figure of 120 deputies by asserting it is the "minimum number of deputies needed for the Legislative Chamber of the parliament to work properly." At the same time, he said that there should not be too many deputies, because the more there are, the greater the number of conflicting and irreconcilable opinions there will be. Presumably, this would run counter to the spirit of democracy, in Karimov's opinion. All in all, publicly revealed plans for the new legislative structure remain vague. It is a safe bet, however, that it will remain a powerless rubber-stamp institution.