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Central Asia Report: July 11, 2002

11 July 2002, Volume 2, Number 26

ONGOING HARASSMENT OF KAZAKH INDEPENDENT MEDIA. Last week in Kazakhstan, independent journalists continued to suffer harassment by the authorities or mysterious figures of whom the authorities disclaimed all knowledge, though there were no reports of acts of violence as crude as those perpetrated against nongovernment media in May. The editorial office of the newspaper "SolDat" was ransacked by unidentified attackers on 21 May. On the following day, the Almaty editorial office of the opposition weekly "Delovoe obozrenie-respublika" was firebombed before dawn with Molotov cocktails (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 30 May 2002). Both newspapers have reported widely on corruption in Kazakhstan and financial scandals at the very highest echelons of government, including accusations that more than $1 billion are being held in Swiss banks under President Nursultan Nazarbaev's name. The president has denied he has any money in foreign bank accounts, and the authorities blame hooligans for the acts against independent media outlets.

On 4 July, the editor of "Delovoe obozrenie-respublika," Irina Petrushova, was sentenced to 18 months in jail for alleged tax violations and illegal business activities, AP and Interfax reported. The case was opened against Petrushova, who carries a Russian passport, by the tax police on the grounds that she was working in Kazakhstan without official permission, AP said. Although found guilty of "illegal entrepreneurial activity," Petrushova will not be imprisoned, however, since the court ruled that she qualified for an amnesty. Nevertheless, she intends to appeal her sentence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 July 2002). AP added on 4 July that Petrushova's lawyer said the charges against her client were politically motivated and intended to intimidate her.

On 8 July, the chief editor of the independent periodical "Altyn Orda," who also heads the local branch of the opposition Republican People's Party, told RFE/RL that 12 policemen arrived in his editorial offices with a warrant to confiscate his newspapers, but took with them all the newspaper's equipment as well, worth more than $5,000. Apparently no official explanation has emerged for the police's actions (see "RFE/RL Kazakh News," 10 July 2002).

On 9 July, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau reported that Muratbek Ketebaev, the brother of one of the founders of "Delovoe obozrenie-respublika," was approached by two unknown men on the street in Almaty. They claimed that they were arsonists whom he, Muratbek, had hired to burn down the newspaper and demanded $8,000 for their work. When Muratbek tried to shake them off, more unidentified men appeared, followed immediately by two policemen who hauled everyone off to the police station. At the station, the two claiming to be arsonists allegedly confessed to the authorities that Muratbek had instigated the firebombing, as a result of which investigations have been opened against him, although he was released from custody but forbidden to leave town. Both his brother, Baqytzhan, currently editor at the opposition TAN-TV station, and the editor of the newspaper "DevSol," Ermurat Bapi, called the case ridiculous and incredible. Nonetheless, there is a real fear that Muratbek will face a kangaroo court in an attempt to intimidate the opposition, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau said.

Also on 9 July, an independent journalist, Sergei Duvanov, who wrote an article titled "Silence of the Lambs," published at on 6 May, accusing President Nazarbaev of having private bank accounts with state money in them, was interrogated about the article for three hours by the National Security Committee (KNB). His home and office were searched and some of his papers were confiscated (see "RFE/RL Kazakh News," 10 July 2002). Following the interrogation, he was placed under house arrest for insulting the president (see "Kazakhstan: Independent Media Feeling Under The Gun,", 10 July 2002.)

On 5 July, Nazarbaev told a press conference in the Kazakh capital Astana that independent media were not being targeted, and that they were free to criticize the authorities without risk of reprisals, Interfax reported. "Ninety percent of our media is independent. There is no censorship. Open any of our newspapers, look at our television [channels]. There is a lot of criticism about all structures of power," Nazarbaev said.

AQTAU SUMMIT DISCUSSES SECURITY, DRUGS, OIL, AND GAS. The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan convened in the Caspian seaport of Aqtau in western Kazakhstan for an informal, "no-neckties" meeting on 6 July to discuss regional security and economic cooperation, particularly in the oil and gas spheres, Russian and Western news agencies reported. Russian President Vladimir Putin also briefed his Central Asian counterparts on the outcome of the recent G-8 summit in Canada, where energy-stability issues featured prominently on the agenda, according to Interfax. No documents were adopted at the end of the Aqtau meeting.

As host of the event, Kazakh President Nazarbaev told his guests that with international attention focused on their area, the Central Asia states were assuming global importance and that it behooved them "to move closer together," boosting political and economic ties in the face of regional dangers and challenges, Reuters and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Much hinged on the post-war rebuilding of Afghanistan, Nazarbaev said, and he encouraged summit participants to work together toward that country's financial rehabilitation. Meanwhile, the Kazakh president expressed alarm at the "unusually rich crop" of opium poppies in Afghanistan this year, presaging a corresponding rise in heroin smuggling through the region that Russia and the Central Asian countries would have to combat together, Reuters reported. (Meanwhile the commander of the Russian border guards patrolling the Tajik-Afghan frontier, Lieutenant General Konstantin Totskii, warned on 9 July that his forces needed far more support from the international community to address narcotics smuggling properly, AP reported, adding that 1,741 kilograms of drugs had been seized on the border during the first six months of 2002 -- and that the true amount of drugs crossing the border was probably 10 times as much. Totskii complained his forces lacked basic equipment such as night-vision goggles, radios, and vehicles, AP said.)

But perhaps the topic of discussion with the most ramifications for regional development was cooperation in energy policy and hydrocarbon use, as participants returned to the idea of an alliance of Eurasian gas-producing countries. At a meeting in March at the Chimbulak ski resort near Almaty, the Russian, Kazakh, Turkmen, and Uzbek presidents adopted a joint communique pledging to work together in order to develop the gas reserves, elaborate import-export and investment policies, and protect their resources (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 7 March 2002). In Aqtau, the presidents reviewed progress in implementing the principles contained in that joint statement, ITAR-TASS said on 6 July. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, one of the original signatories to the agreement, was also invited to Aqtau but failed to attend the gathering. Nazarbaev told journalists that he could not account for Niyazov's absence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 July 2002). Nazarbaev went on to praise Astana's burgeoning cooperation with Moscow, referring to joint development of Kazakh hydrocarbon reserves and of the necessary transit routes to transport them westward across Russian territory, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He added that his country would join the North-South transit corridor, which presently involves Russia, India, and Iran, and an important point in the regional transport system envisaged by that project would be Aqtau, the news agency said.

PENTAGON TO USE ALMATY AIRPORT FOR 'EMERGENCY SITUATIONS.' On 10 July in the Kazakh capital Astana, Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev and U.S. Ambassador Larry Napper signed a memorandum whereby military aircraft participating in Operation Enduring Freedom may use the Almaty international airport in case of emergency, AP and Interfax reported. The signing ceremony, originally scheduled for 9 July, had been delayed a day "for technical reasons" -- possibly to upgrade Kazakhstan's participation, since Deputy Foreign Minister Qayrat Abuseitov had earlier been slated to sign the agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 July 2002). Napper also met with President Nazarbaev on 10 July to discuss bilateral cooperation against international terrorism, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau said.

By way of explaining under what circumstances coalition airplanes would be allowed to touch down in Almaty, Toqaev said, "when both sides recognize the situation as an emergency," adding that the airport could also be used for refueling, AP reported. Kazakh officials said that the agreement had been mooted in December when President Nazarbaev met with U.S. President George Bush in Washington, the news agency noted. But it was only announced four months later, during an April visit to Almaty by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, at which time three Kazakh airfields -- Chimkent, Lugovoi, and Almaty -- were mentioned for use in emergency situations (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 2 May 2002). Napper told journalists on 10 July that the future use of other Kazakh airports was still a possibility but stressed that this agreement applied solely to the airport in Almaty, AP reported. Moreover, although it could apply to air forces participating in the antiterrorism coalition other than the Pentagon's, it was primarily intended for American planes, Toqaev said.

A comparison of statements over time about what could constitute an emergency triggering permission to use of Almaty airport suggests a change in attitudes in the thinking behind the agreement. In April, the talk was of American planes touching down in case of bad weather or if requiring repair. But last week the emergency situations foreseen were not problems with aircraft, but were associated with a sudden worsening of the regional security situation. As examples of an emergency, on 10 July Toqaev proposed an outbreak of fighting in Afghanistan or the appearance of terrorist formations on Central Asian territory, AP said. It is unclear, especially in the latter instance, what role American forces might be expected to play and why their mobilization would necessitate use of Almaty airport. Kazakhstan has made its airspace available for Western warplanes and aid flights since last year. Toqaev was adamant the new agreement did not mean that the U.S. was establishing a military base in Kazakhstan, AP said on 10 July.

Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan agreed on 3 July to put a second airfield at the disposal of the international antiterrorism coalition, ITAR-TASS reported. The aerodrome in the town of Kant is 25 kilometers east of the capital Bishkek. There is already a sizable U.S. presence at Bishkek's Manas international airport, which military aircraft from some 11 other countries also use (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 July 2002).