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Central Asia Report: May 23, 2002

23 May 2002, Volume 2, Number 20

KYRGYZ CABINET STEPS DOWN. After 13 days of antigovernment activities throughout Kyrgyzstan that included unsanctioned rallies, acts of civil disobedience, hunger strikes, pickets of government buildings, and a blockade of the main Bishkek-Osh highway by thousands of protesters, the Kyrgyz government resigned on 22 May, RFE/RL reported. Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev, who had held the post since December 2000, stepped down, saying that, "people in the government who are responsible for the tragedy have not made the decision to resign. While the demonstrations are continuing, I want to force these people to resign" (see "Kyrgyzstan: Government Resigns Following Protests Over March Violence,", 22 May 2002). The entire cabinet duly followed Bakiev's lead and stepped down with him.

The underlying cause for the public's outrage remained the 17-18 March clashes in Aksy Raion that left six people dead after police fired on citizens protesting the trial of parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov, and the government's subsequent refusal to take responsibility for the tragedy. The proximate cause that triggered the latest spate of demonstrations that brought down the government, however, was the ratification of the controversial 1999 Sino-Kyrgyz border treaty on 10 May by the lower house of the Kyrgyz parliament (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 16 May 2002). One week later, the upper house also voted to ratify the treaty, which cedes some 95,000 hectares of disputed territory to China, after two previous failures to muster the required two-thirds majority (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 May 2002). Demonstrators' demands that the government take responsibility for the Aksy bloodshed, that it annul the ratification of the border treaty (which oppositionists say was signed illegally by Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev), and that it close the criminal case against Beknazarov (who they say is being politically persecuted for criticizing Akaev for signing it) have become complementary and interchangeable insofar as they each spring from a common source: popular indignation at what is seen as highhanded and authoritarian behavior by the Kyrgyz president.

The state commission formed on 9 April to investigate the Aksy incidents submitted its report to Akaev on 17 May, Kabar news agency reported. It blamed government authorities on all levels and law-enforcement bodies for "political shortsightedness" in their failure to recognize the rising political temperature in Aksy Raion as Beknazarov's trial proceeded. At the same time, it said that "tendentious coverage" of the trial by state television and radio "aggravated the sociopolitical situation" in the region. It criticized the Aksy administration for forbidding pro-Beknazarov rallies, which, it implied, would have provided a safety valve for people's passions rather than letting them reach boiling point. Finally, it stated that the police's use of live ammunition to control the crowds was illegal. By way of recommendations, it called for a reassessment of how the local authorities and police work, a revision of the operations of state television and radio, and "the swiftest-possible examination of the criminal case against Beknazarov" by Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court. It also named a list of local officials suspected of acting unlawfully, foremost among them the former prosecutor of Djalalabad Oblast, Zootbek Kudaibergenov (see "RFE/RL Kyrgyz News," 18 May 2002). Kudaibergenov will face trial for sanctioning inappropriate administrative measures and the use of force against demonstrators, Reuters and ITAR-TASS reported on 20 May. However, a separate, harsher report prepared by Chairwoman of the Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights Oksana Maleanaya recommended that Akaev dismiss Prime Minister Bakiev, State Secretary Osmonakun Ibraimov, head of the presidential administration Amanbek Karypkulov, and Prosecutor-General Chubak Abyshkaev, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported the same day.

Meanwhile, demonstrations were growing in Bishkek and elsewhere. On 16 May, Beknazarov and members of the Ar-Namys party led about 200 activists in a picket of the parliament building in the capital, AP reported. Police dragged and kicked demonstrators, breaking the ribs of one 16-year-old participant, and arrested 87 protesters in all, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau said. Three international human-rights organizations -- the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, the Paris-based Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, and the Geneva-based International Organization Against Torture -- all immediately issued statements condemning the arrests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 May 2002). Human Rights Watch wrote Akaev a strongly worded letter the next day, while the organization's executive director for its Europe and Central Asia division, Elizabeth Andersen, asserted that "Kyrgyzstan is going down the road of intolerance and brutality." Three people were hospitalized as a result of the crackdown, 11 people were fined, and the rest were let go with warnings from the police (see "RFE/RL Kyrgyz News," 20 May 2002). But the next day, police in Bishkek arrested another 70 people, according to the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights Chairman Ramazan Dyryldaev. On 20 May, 30 more protesters demonstrated in Bishkek's Panfilov Park but were quickly cordoned off by police, RFE/RL said. Meanwhile, near Tash-Komur in Djalalabad Oblast, an estimated 8,000 people blocked the Bishkek-Osh highway, AP reported on 20 May. They maintained the blockade for eight consecutive days until 21 May, demanding that the border treaty be scrapped, the case against Beknazarov dropped, and those responsible for the bloodshed in Aksy be punished (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 May 2002). Secretary of the Security Council Misir Ashirkulov appealed to the lower house of parliament on 20 May to allow law-enforcement officials to open the Bishkek-Osh highway by force, but deputies voted against the idea by a large margin, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported.

As late as 20 May, when Akaev addressed the country on national television, the president was putting the blame for the disturbances in Kyrgyzstan on oppositionists intent on destabilizing democratic society for their ends. Without the "illegal actions" and "calls for insurrection" made by forces "trying to split society," Akaev said, there would have been no bloodshed in Aksy, Interfax and RFE/RL reported. He had adopted this approach at least twice before in the days immediately following the Aksy clashes, accusing "a small group of provocateurs and demagogues" of instigating violence and trying to undermine a government that was fighting back to maintain order (see "RFE/RL Kyrgyz News," 21 May 2002). But on 22 May, at a closed meeting of the presidential Security Council to discuss the state commission's report on the clashes, Prime Minister Bakiev handed in his resignation, automatically triggering the resignation of the entire cabinet, Russian and Western news agencies reported. The head of the presidential administration, Amanbek Karypkulov, tendered his resignation at the same time. The country's top prosecutor also stepped down and several top police officials were fired, AP said on 22 May. First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev was named acting prime minister until parliament confirms a replacement, and he was charged with forming a new coalition government including opposition representatives, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. On the same day, Security Council Secretary Ashirkulov told journalists that the situation was well on the way to being normalized: "The protesters' demands have been fulfilled," he said. Not so, oppositionists said, not as long as the top demand is still outstanding: the resignation of President Akaev himself (see "Kyrgyzstan: Government Resigns Following Protests Over March Violence,", 22 May 2002).

BELARUSIAN STRONGMAN VISITS AUTOCRAT OF ASHGABAT. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka concluded a two-day state visit to Turkmenistan on 17 May, his first trip to the country, ITAR-TASS and AFP reported. Turkmen television commented on 17 May that his meetings with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov represented a strengthening of political and economic ties between two fraternal countries. But independent analysts were more inclined to view the bilateral agreements signed by the presidents, including a Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation, as a partnership by default between two otherwise largely friendless countries whose regimes, generally deemed to be the two most repressive in the former Soviet Union, are increasingly treated as pariahs by the international community.

The treaty-signing ceremony in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat was followed by a joint press conference, at which Lukashenka said that Turkmenistan would supply the Belarusian textile industry with 50,000 tons of cotton in 2002, Turkmen television reported. Lukashenka added that, since Minsk had failed to secure regular shipments of Uzbek cotton, he hoped Turkmen imports would prove more reliable and help to keep Belarusian mills running, which he described as a socioeconomic necessity for his country (and noted in passing that most of the textile factory workers were women). Meanwhile, it was announced that Turkmenistan will purchase 2,000 tractors from a Minsk factory each year until 2010 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 2002). Further documents provided for other sorts of Belarusian agricultural machinery and automobiles to be delivered to Turkmenistan, a bilateral criminal extradition treaty, and a regulatory framework for tax issues, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service said on 17 May.

There was vaguer talk about Belarus helping to build an instrument-engineering plant or a high-precision optics factory in Turkmenistan, Belarusian radio reported on 17 May, while Niyazov mentioned the possibility of cooperation in the oil-and-gas sector. But Niyazov also stated that the purchase of advanced precision weaponry from Belarus, which he said "possesses an up-to-date military-industrial sector," was a priority area for bilateral cooperation, ITAR-TASS and Turkmen television reported. "A sovereign and neutral state, just like any other country, must be able to defend itself. It is for the purposes of defense that we intend to provide the army with the most up-to-date hardware and draw on the latest achievements in this respect," the Turkmen leader said. He told journalists that officials from the Defense Ministry would go to Belarus to see what its defense industry had to offer, and that the delegation would also be attending military exercises to identify what areas of training the Turkmen military most needed, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reported on 17 May. Niyazov himself is due to visit Minsk but no date has been set yet, Turkmen television said on the same day,

In addition to his meetings in Ashgabat, Lukashenka traveled to the regional centers of Turkmenabad and Turkmenbashy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 2002). Summarizing his visit to Turkmenistan, he said on 17 May that his "brightest impressions" were of the country's industrial sector and of Niyazov's agricultural policy, which, according to Lukashenka, allows farmers to own land and enjoy the fruits of their labor since "they know who they can buy from, who they can sell to, and who furnishes them assistance and support," Belarusian radio said. Niyazov reportedly paid his guest a compliment in turn by remarking, in effect, that he had learned how to run a country after spending several days in Minsk some 10 years ago, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service said on 18 May.

PRISON WOES OF KAZAKH OPPOSITIONISTS. The former governor of northern Kazakhstan's Pavlodar Oblast, Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, who was arrested last month on charges of abuse of power and financial crimes, was rushed to an emergency room in a Pavlodar clinic shortly past midnight on 18 May after losing consciousness following an eight-hour interrogation, AP and RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau reported. Zhaqiyanov, a co-founder of the opposition movement Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan (DVK), turned 39 on 8 May. DVK members told a press conference on 18 May that prison doctors had warned earlier in the interrogation that Zhaqiyanov urgently required medical treatment for heart problems, but the investigator did not act until the detainee passed out, Interfax said. "It has been done on purpose and the target is clear: to drive the political prisoner to death," AP quoted Yevgenii Zhovtis, chairman of the Kazakhstan Human Rights Bureau, as saying on 18 May. Spokesmen for DVK and other parties in opposition to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev maintain that the charges against Zhaqiyanov are politically motivated.

Three days later, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau said that Zhaqiyanov had been moved from the emergency room to a normal hospital ward on 21 May, after Interfax had reported on the previous day that his condition was "serious but stable." Before being hospitalized, Zhaqiyanov was being held in barracks belonging to the PavlodarSol Company, in contravention to a written commitment by the government to Western diplomats that he would be kept under house arrest in Almaty while his case was being investigated (see "RFE/RL Kazakh News," 20 April). On 22 May, leading figures from various opposition organizations, including the Republican People's Party, the Pokolenie (Generation) Movement, and the Communist Party, gathered in the city center of Semey (former Semipalatinsk) to demand that Zhaqiyanov be released from custody forthwith, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau reported.

Meanwhile, on 16 May, another leader of Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan, former Minister of Trade and Industry Mukhtar Abliyazov, also celebrated his 39th birthday in jail, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau noted. He is accused of embezzlement, a charge that Kazakh oppositionists say is politically motivated. His lawyers told a press conference on 15 May that the authorities' investigation of his alleged crimes had been concluded the previous week and that they were now studying the prosecution's case against their client. One of Abliyazov's lawyers, Marat Alzhekeyev, told journalists that the trial would probably be held behind closed doors, RFE/RL reported on 15 May.

RAKHMONOV SURRENDERS TERRITORY IN BORDER DEAL WITH CHINA. Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov arrived in China on 16 May for a three-day official visit that encompassed talks in Beijing and stops in Hong Kong and the eastern coastal city of Xiamen. Rakhmonov was accompanied by Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov and Economy and Trade Minister Hakim Soliev, Asia-Plus said. Rakhmonov's trip was preceded by leaked reports that he was intending to surrender some Tajik territory to China as part of a border deal. The news gave an extra dimension to his visit, coinciding as it did with last week's political explosion in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, whose roots can be traced in part to popular dismay at Kyrgyz President Akaev's also signing a treaty that surrendered land to China.

Rakhmonov met Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Beijing on 17 May for talks that focused on the potential for expanding bilateral relations, the situation in Afghanistan, and the role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in promoting stability in Central Asia. On the same day, he also held talks with Prime Minister Zhu Rongji to discuss economic cooperation and the success of Sino-Tajik joint ventures (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 May 2002). China gave Tajikistan a no-strings grant worth 10 million yuan ($1.2 million), Tajik television reported on 18 May. It added that the two presidents, following their summit, signed documents on energy cooperation, information exchange, and demarcating the Sino-Tajik frontier. About this last agreement, however, the television offered no details. A joint statement by Rakhmonov and Jiang, reported by Xinhuanet on 17 May, was slightly more forthcoming. It referred to a "comprehensive resolution of border issues between the two countries left over from history, offering still wider prospects for the expansion of bilateral ties in the new century." The communique also contained an affirmation that Tajikistan would continue to support Beijing's One-China policy, and a promise that the sides would cooperate in the fight against "terrorism, separatism, and extremism."

The government in Dushanbe waited until 20 May to confirm details of the border agreement signed in Beijing. Only then did presidential spokesman Zafar Saidov announce that Tajikistan would be handing over some 1,000 square kilometers of disputed territory to China, Reuters and RFE/RL reported. The land is mountainous terrain in Tajikistan's eastern Murghab region, unpopulated and "of no great value to Tajikistan," according to Saidov, who added that both governments were satisfied with the agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 May 2002). Nevertheless, it was not clear what benefits Dushanbe expected to get from China in exchange for its concession. Meanwhile, on 19 May, Russian guards responsible for patrolling the Sino-Tajik frontier said that they would turn the responsibility over to Tajiks at the end of June, RFE/RL reported.