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Central Asia Report: August 8, 2002

8 August 2002, Volume 2, Number 30

TAJIK CLERICS QUIZZED ON ISLAMIC DOGMA, STATE CONSTITUTION. Religious authorities in Tajikistan launched the annual process of examining Muslim clerics and lecturers at Islamic schools and universities on their knowledge of the canons and rituals of Islam, RFE/RL and Asia-Plus reported on 6 August. The tests are administered by the government's Committee for Religious Affairs (KD) and Council of Religious Scholars. State officials presented the tests as a straightforward exercise in quality control to ensure the level of instruction was properly maintained. KD Chairman Said Akhmedov told Asia-Plus that some 250 mosques and 20 religious schools would undergo appraisal and that the examinations were a regular event. He told RFE/RL that imams were tested systematically "to be sure that they have the minimum required Islamic knowledge" (see "Tajikistan: Government To Vet Islamic Clerics,", 7 August 2002). In addition to imams, Friday preachers and muezzins, who call the faithful to prayer, will also sit the tests.

But the ostensibly benign examination process sounded alarm bells in some quarters, due partly to recent developments in Tajikistan and partly to specific details of the tests themselves this year. For the first time, clerics' familiarity with Tajikistan's legislation relating to religious practices will also be tested (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 August 2002). In particular, according to KD Deputy Chairman Ikromiddin Nematov, clerics must prove their awareness of the law regulating the activities of religious organizations, Asia-Plus said. Under Tajikistan's Constitution, the clergy are strictly prohibited from participation in any political organizations. The government recently demonstrated that the law had teeth when 10 clerics in Tajikistan's northern Isfara Raion, Sughd Oblast, were banned from preaching on the grounds that they were members of the Islamic Renaissance Party (HNI), the main opposition party in the country, RFE/RL reported on 2 August. The KD has denied that the decision was a politically motivated blow against the opposition or in violation of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of religious believers. But some observers have seen the government's action, closely followed by its new insistence that clergy effectively declare their apolitical status through examinations, as harbingers of an Uzbek-style crackdown on Muslim opponents of the regime.

Feeding these suspicions is the fact that the examination commission is to concentrate this year on clerics in Sughd Oblast, described by Akhmedov on 16 July as the base for the majority of activists of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir party (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 18 July 2002). Visiting the region last month, President Imomali Rakhmonov strongly criticized the construction of unsanctioned mosques and the activity of militant Islamist groups there, prompting speculation that he might be considering a ban on the HNI (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2002). Admittedly, HNI leader Said Abdullo Nuri himself has been backing the government's line, and has agreed that the involvement of clerics in politics is a mistake, RFE/RL reported on 7 August. But the focus on Sughd Oblast may suggest that there are malcontents representing a more radical wing of the HNI who feel that more energetic opposition to the government is required than what the HNI leadership is providing.

Meanwhile, Rakhmonov visited the Rasht Valley in central Tajikistan on 7 August to acquaint himself with the social and political situation there, Asia-Plus reported. There he described Islam as a positive element in society, unless it was abused. "Many people consider Islam to be a destabilizing factor, which is far from true," the president said as cited by the news agency. He added that Islam, like any religion, was a pure and sacred thing -- unless it interfered in state policy.

MILITARY EXERCISES IN NORTHERN CASPIAN. On 7 August, Kazakhstan launched large-scale tactical exercises in western Mangystau Oblast on the shore of the Caspian sea, Khabar Television and RIA-Novosti reported. The drills, dubbed Sea of Peace -- 2002, involve 3,000 servicemen from all branches of the armed forces stationed in the country's Western Military District, including rapid-deployment paratroopers, air-defense troops, and combat engineers who set up a base camp, a field hospital, and firing positions along the sea coast. Shooting will start under the supervision of Kazakh Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev on 14 August, the television station said, when for the first time Kazakh missile and artillery units will use shells with radio detonators to target mock enemy ships at sea. Altogether, the exercises will employ some 400 pieces of military and special equipment ranging from armored vehicles and artillery systems to helicopters, transport planes, and fighter jets, RIA-Novosti reported on 7 August.

The Kazakh drills are being carried out partly in conjunction with Russia, which began huge exercises on the Caspian Sea on 1 August, involving more than 60 combat ships and 10,000 marines (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2002). Joint Kazakh-Russian maneuvers are planned where the Kazakh Air Force will provide air support to Russian naval troops as they take over a beach, CNA reported. According to a Kazakh Defense Ministry spokesman, the purpose in assembling so much firepower is to practice antiterrorism operations and enhance the security of the northern Caspian region. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesmen gave an almost identical explanation for his country's Caspian exercises (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2002). Many analysts have concluded that an intimidating demonstration of power in an oil-rich area whose ownership is still in dispute was a more likely reason. Azerbaijani warships are also participating alongside the Russian Navy, while Iran has sent observers.

Meanwhile, in a statement released on 6 August, Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov said that as a neutral state, Turkmenistan would not be participating in these or any future military exercises in the Caspian region. The press release added that Turkmenistan regarded exercises in the area as "pointless," noting that "none of the littoral countries save for Russia has major naval forces in the Caspian."

SIX-MONTH PROGRESS REVIEW IN ASTANA. Top officials of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's cabinet convened in the Kazakh capital Astana on 7 August for an extended meeting to review the government's progress during its first six months, as well as the country's overall economic and social development for the first half of 2002, local news sources reported. The present administration of Prime Minister Imanghaliy Tasmagambetov was appointed on 28 January after the previous government stepped down (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 31 January 2002).

Nazarbaev said that he was impressed by Tasmagambetov and his team, Khabar Television reported on 7 August. But the president pointed out many shortcomings in Kazakhstan, beginning with the lack of an industrial policy to drive decisions about which enterprises should be supported and which ones had no future. He also slammed poor progress in developing transport infrastructure, focusing on insufficiencies in air routes and highways, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. In the airline sector, fabulous sums are being spent on new aircraft and technology, yet the money -- mostly spent in nontransparent ways -- has done little to improve service, traffic, or choices for customers, the president said. He added that he was particularly displeased by the delays in constructing the Astana international airport. As for highways, he remarked that many of them, including the Astana-Burabay road, were in a dilapidated state, although funds had been disbursed to fix them, a fact he attributed to theft and corruption among transport officials with the connivance of law-enforcement agencies, Interfax-Kazakhstan said. Transport and Communications Minister Kazhmurat Nagmanov was given one month to report on the true situation regarding roads and airlines, and three months to design measures to improve it.

A further source of presidential dissatisfaction was illegal migration "from the south" -- presumably from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Nazarbaev complained that there were over half a million migrants currently in the country without permission, and suggested that more stringent agreements with Kazakhstan's neighbors should be signed "to make everything cut and dried," Khabar Television said. The low level of internal investment was also cited as a problem, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. When the state itself allocated minimal budget funds for domestic investment projects -- and even those allocations were used inefficiently -- how could it hope for significant foreign investment, the president asked rhetorically.

AKAEV IN MALAYSIA AND INDIA. Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev paid a state visit to Malaysia between 5-7 August, preceded by his two-day participation at the so-called Langkawi International Dialogue 2002, Kabar and AKIpress news agencies reported. The dialogue, held annually since 1995 on Langkawi Island under the auspices of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, brought together some 500 representatives from the spheres of government, business, and the media to facilitate contacts among developing countries in Asia and their integration into the global economy. The Kyrgyz-Malaysian experience in conducting joint economic research was cited as an example of successful cooperation between developing countries, AKIpress said.

The official visit of the 50-strong Kyrgyz delegation commenced on 5 August with its arrival in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, where Akaev was received by Malaysian King Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin and Prime Minister Mahathir, Kyrgyz television reported. Akaev announced his support for establishing a forum for dialogue between the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in order to address frequent misunderstandings between the West and Muslim countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 August 2002). The OSCE comprises 55 countries and the OIC comprises 57. Thus AP commented on 5 August that such a dialogue would be connect the world's largest grouping of Muslim countries and Europe's biggest security forum. Mahathir is taking the helm of the OIC, the news agency added.

Kyrgyzstan and Malaysia also pledged to collaborate on combating terrorism and stemming the regional trade in drugs. But expanding bilateral economic cooperation topped Akaev's agenda in meetings with officials, with especial attention paid to projects in the spheres of information technology, hydraulic-power engineering, mining, and tourism, Kyrgyz television and radio said on 6 August. That Akaev energetically pitched Kyrgyzstan as a good prospect for investments, a place where market reforms were well under way, and "a bridge to the Central Asian market." Documents signed included an accord on interstate payments between the Kyrgyz National Bank and Malaysia's Negara Central Bank and a cooperation agreement between Malaysia's chamber of commerce and its Kyrgyz equivalent, AKIpress reported on 7 August.

Akaev continued to New Delhi for a two-day visit, during which he paid a courtesy call on new Indian President Abdul Kalam, AP said on 7 August. Following discussions with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the two sides agreed to establish a joint group against terrorism and other international crimes, the news agency added. Furthermore, a joint statement by the two leaders said they would cooperate in developing their information-technology and food-processing industries.