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Central Asia Report: August 22, 2002

22 August 2002, Volume 2, Number 32

KYRGYZ AUTHORITIES SLAM NEW OPPOSITION GROUP... The Movement for the Resignation of President Askar Akaev and Reforms for the People -- a new opposition grouping launched on 14 August -- had a rocky first week. The government immediately fired a warning shot across its bows. But the movement was also criticized by some leading opposition figures who might have been expected to sympathize with its aims.

The movement was founded by representatives of 22 opposition political parties, public organizations, and NGOs, including the Communist, Erkindik, and Asaba parties, the "Kyrgyzstan" bloc of deputies in the Legislative Assembly (the lower chamber of parliament), the Kyrgyz Committee on Human Rights, and others, Kabar news agency reported on 15 August. General Ismail Isakov, a lawmaker who serves as chairman of the parliamentary security committee, was elected to head the movement. As its spokesmen made clear at an inaugural press conference in the capital Bishkek on 14 August, the movement owes its origins to two so-called People's Conferences held earlier this year. They were organized as public forums to discuss the 17-18 March antigovernment riots that left six dead in the country's southern Aksy Raion, Djalalabad Oblast. The first was held in April, the second in July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 April, 19 July 2002). On both occasions, participants called on Akaev to step down.

As its name proclaims, the president's resignation remains the movement's primary objective, which its members say is widely shared by the populace. "We have been in our districts and saw that more than 80 percent of the people demand Akaev's early resignation, since they don't trust him," said deputy Adakham Madumarov of the "Kyrgyzstan" parliamentary group, as quoted by AP on 21 August.

The movement's plan, according to its leader Isakov, is that Akaev should quit, his duties should temporarily be shouldered by the prime minister, and a coalition government should be formed pending new presidential elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 August 2002). The movement's broader objective is to press for reforms in the power structure. To this end, it has created a council charged with drafting changes to the constitution. The changes are aimed at devolving some of the executive branch's many powers to the parliament, AP reported.

In a statement released on 14 August, the movement emphasized that it would work within the law, fighting for its goals "through peaceful and constitutional means." But it had barely unfurled its sails before the government threatened to sink it. On 15 August, the day after it was launched, Deputy Prime Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov said the movement was an illegal formation, with no legal basis, and contravened the Kyrgyz Constitution, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. Osmonov added that the authorities were considering taking legal steps against the group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 August 2002).

The government elaborated its position on 21 August in a statement carried by AKIpress. The statement said that the executive, as guarantor of the constitution and defender of "social order and security," was taking every measure to stabilize the situation in the country after the Aksy incidents. Hence it must act when stability is threatened or the constitution is in danger, and it indicated that Movement for the Resignation of President Askar Akaev was a menace on both counts. It reiterated that Osmonov was expressing the government's position in his remarks about the fledgling movement. Moreover, it commented dryly that if the deputy prime minister's words were "not to the taste of certain leaders," then that proved again that the opposition forces' support for the rule of law in the republic was "only words."

...BUT ITS AGENDA PLAYS WELL IN THE SOUTH. Meanwhile support for Akaev's resignation seemed to be mounting, notably in the south of the country where the March tragedy took place. At two separate meetings in Djalalabad Oblast on 16 and 18 August, participants backed the new movement's call for the president to quit, adopting resolutions that accused him of tribalism, implementing a corrupt cadre policy, and "selling" Kyrgyz territory to China. They set an ultimatum of 1 October for him to step down (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 August 2002).

A report by Kyrgyz Infocenter News on 19 August added to perceptions that tensions between the north and south of the country were growing, as it discussed possible successors to Akaev and named six men, all but one whom was from the southern Naryn and Osh regions. From the Naryn clan, it mentioned parliamentarian Turdakun Usubaliev, Deputy Justice Minister Tashtemit Aytbaev (Usubaliev's protege), and Naryn's Governor Askar Salymbekov as the people to watch. From the Osh clan, the report spotlighted the current governor, Naken Kasiev, and former Osh Governor Temirbek Akmataliev. Akmataliev, who went on to become interior minister, has been reviled by human rights activists who say he gave the order for police to fire into crowds in Aksy. Last week he was appointed to be a departmental head in the presidential administration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 August 2002).

Yet the movement also came in from some criticism from unexpected quarters last week. In an interview with the independent newspaper "Moya stolitsa" on 19 August, jailed former Vice President and opposition Ar-Namys party leader Feliks Kulov argued that calls for a campaign to impeach Akaev were unrealistic. Kulov said that rather than demand Akaev's resignation, the opposition People's Congress of Kyrgyzstan of which he is president would demand that those officials responsible for the deaths of demonstrators during the 17-18 March clashes be brought to justice (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 August 2002). On the following day, Omurbek Tekebaev, chairman of the socialist party Ata Meken, told Interfax that the president's resignation would only complicate the political circumstances in the country.

An International Crisis Group report on the situation in Kyrgyzstan, released on 20 August, also argued that Akaev "is unlikely to resign voluntarily, and the result of such a strategy is likely to be more confrontation." The report recommended that the opposition, instead of aligning itself into public movements, focus on creating credible political parties to contest the 2005 elections. It stressed that free and fair elections were the only route to a peaceful transfer of power. Kyrgyzstan's ruling elite was enjoined to make a genuine effort to allow more power sharing in politics and business in order to limit the possibilities for more unrest and "ensure that future political struggles remain within the constitutional framework."

A redistribution of power between the presidency, which many regard as excessively strong if not unbridled, and the legislature is also one of the new movement's goals. But in fact, as IWPR reported on 16 August, Akaev did begin to relinquish some of his authority to parliament earlier this month -- agreeing, for example, to share his power to appoint the judiciary, and his hitherto total control over the creation and dissolution of administrations. According to IWPR, his opponents have perceived the surprise concessions as a desperate bid to save his career, "to divide his opponents and stave off calls for his resignation."

BRUTAL ATTACK ON JOURNALIST IN ALMATY. Artur Platonov, a TV journalist who hosts a popular political analysis program, was badly beaten up on 16 August by three retired Interior Ministry officers as he sat in his parked car outside his home in Almaty, Khabar news agency and Interfax said. Platonov was hospitalized in serious condition with a concussion, a broken nose, and missing teeth. CNA and the BBC reported on 19 August that Platonov had received a number of threats before. His program, titled "Portrait of the Week," airs nationally on the privately owned KTK television channel, and has been highly critical of the country's security organs, especially Almaty police.

The trio of former police officers, arrested on 17 August, were soon released, Khabar reported on the following day. They maintained that Platonov himself provoked their assault by responding with obscene remarks to their attempts to alert him to his "inappropriate" driving (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 August 2002). Another version is that he attacked them with pepper spray. Meanwhile Platonov told RFE/RL that he was the target of a deliberate and organized attack, as the men chased his car into the yard of his apartment block and started beating him up as he sat at the wheel. He characterized the attack as payback for his criticism of Kazakh law-enforcement bodies. Interior Ministry officials denied any involvement in the attack and said that an ongoing investigation would help clarify what actually took place.

In the meantime, the deputy head of the ministry's Almaty branch, Nauryzbai Qydyrgozhaev, told journalists on 20 August that the three policemen were being regarded merely as "witnesses" to a possible crime since they protested their innocence so adamantly, Khabar reported. There was no basis in the criminal code to detain them, Qydyrgozhaev added, and he implied that it would be unnecessarily cruel not to let them go home. "After all," he said, "they have children, they have grandchildren."

Furthermore his boss, Kalmukhanbet Kasymov, told Khabar TV on 21 August that the case could not proceed until Platonov was well enough to leave hospital and identify his attackers in a lineup. Until that time, the investigation was on hold and the three policemen would remain at liberty, he said. Hospital doctors said they expected Platonov's recovery to take up to three weeks. Perhaps frustrated by police inactivity, a group of independent journalists founded their own team to look into what they called official crimes and human rights violations by special police units in Kazakhstan, AP reported on 21 August.

Another vocal critic of the authorities in this case was Dariga Nazarbaeva, the president's eldest daughter who chairs the Khabar news agency. "Such inactivity causes harm to the image of the republic and increases the number President [Nursultan] Nazarbaev's opponents," she said as quoted by Reuters on 21 August. Her intervention -- and that of Khabar, which made the assault on Platonov one of its top stories -- was all the more striking since she has rarely addressed previous attacks on journalists in Kazakhstan. Her decision to raise her voice now suggested to some analysts that Platonov's beating might be connected to ongoing power struggles in the uppermost echelons of Kazakh politics. Dariga's husband Rakhat Aliev, who used to hold a top position in the country's National Security Committee until he was forced out, has been locked in a long-standing power struggle with the Interior Ministry. Although he is currently serving as Kazakhstan's ambassador to Austria, he still wields domestic influence through a media holding that includes the KTK television station that broadcasts Platonov's "Portrait of the Week." On this reading of the situation, KTK's attacks on the Interior Ministry were one prong of Aliev's play for power, while the attack on Platonov reflected an attempt by the security organs to strike back at Aliyev (see "Kazakhstan: War Against Media May Be About More Than Journalism,", 20 August 2002).

JAPAN RAISING ITS PROFILE IN TURKMEN HYDROCARBON SECTOR. A delegation of Japanese businessmen, led by the chairman of the Itochu Corporation, Minoru Murofushi, met President Saparmurat Niyazov in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat on 18 August, ITAR-TASS and local news sources reported. According to a Foreign Ministry press release on the following day, both Itochu and Komatsu Ltd. said they intended to investigate ways "in which we can support the construction of the trans-Afghan gas pipeline." But AP reported on 20 August that Itochu was the only Japanese company to express willingness so far to participate in the trans-Afghan project, alongside the Asian Development Bank and the governments of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The 1,500-kilometer (938-mile) pipeline is being designed to transport up to 30 billion cubic meters a year from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. Murofushi declined to give any details about what form Itochu's participation might take, AP said.

However, the Turkmen government did sign eight-year cooperation agreements with both Itochu and Komatsu to provide machinery for the construction of oil and gas pipelines and highways, and build a network of some 20 small factories, each of which is to produce annually some 70,000-100,000 cubic meters of liquefied natural gas (LNG) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 August 2002). Turkmenistan currently has three LNG plants which produced 111,200 metric tons of LNG in 2001. The government plans to double that quantity of production this year.

Meanwhile Turkmenistan's Oil and Gas Ministry said on 21 August that it was raising the price at which it was prepared to sell natural gas to the Russian company Gazprom. Gazprom is bidding to purchase 30 billion cubic meters per year of Turkmen gas over a 10-year period, for $32-33 per 1,000 cubic meters, Interfax reported. Ashgabat said it would be charging $44-45 per 1,000 cubic meters, however, bringing the price in line with what Itera now pays for Turkmen gas. Turkmen Oil and Gas Minster Gurbannazar Nazarov said that its prices were going up because "Turkmenistan has already invested over $1 billion in pipeline infrastructure in the country, therefore at the moment the cost of Turkmen gas, including transportation to the border, amounts to $37-$38 per 1,000 cubic meters," Interfax reported. Anyway, Nazarov said, Russia sells its gas on European markets for thrice as much.