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Central Asia Report: September 13, 2002

13 September 2002, Volume 2, Number 35

UZBEK, KAZAKH PRESIDENTS SIGN BORDER TREATY. Uzbek President Islam Karimov made a one-day visit to the Kazakh capital Astana on 9 September, during which he and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed a bilateral agreement finalizing the border demarcation between their countries. In November 2001, a document was signed defining 96 percent of the 2,440-kilometer frontier. The other 4 percent remained in limbo until last week. Protests by villagers in the disputed area, frustrated by the uncertainty of their national status, and patently fearful of being awarded to Uzbekistan, have caused both governments considerable embarrassment over the last eight months -- especially when the two most vocal villages, Baghys and Turkestanets, attracted international attention by symbolically declaring sovereignty last December (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 10 January 2002). They advertised their preferred nationality by naming their short-lived country the Kazakh Republic of Baghysstan. Villagers continued to stage protests throughout the year over their unresolved status (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 September 2002).

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported the terms of the new agreement on 9 September. Kazakhstan receives Baghys (with 1,059 ethnic Kazakhs) and a section of the Arnasai reservoir, including the dam and five settlements. Uzbekistan receives the village of Turkestanets, and three villages in the Karakalpak district of Kazakhstan's Qyzyl-Orda Oblast. These three settlements are named Nsan-1, Nsan-2, and Baymurat. According to Nazarbaev, they are mainly populated by ethnic Uzbeks, Interfax reported. "Given this, a decision has been made to hand these settlements to Uzbekistan," Nazarbaev told journalists in Astana.

The most controversial point, however, was the decision to award Turkestanets to Uzbekistan. Nazarbaev ingenuously told the press conference, "we know that a certain number of Kazakh families live in the Turkestanets settlement." In fact, its population of about 1,000 people is predominantly ethnic Kazakh. Furthermore, its inhabitants have made their feelings about being joined to Uzbekistan abundantly clear during the last eight months of sporadic demonstrations. Both presidents seemed aware that the announcement would prompt the village's residents to abandon their homes and apply en masse for Kazakh citizenship. Nazarbaev promised that villagers would get help with repatriation, immigrant status, and financial support by the Kazakh government, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau reported. Karimov, in turn, promised that the delimitation treaty "does not mean that barbed wire will be on the border," Interfax-Kazakhstan said. Karimov added that a total of 1.1 million ethnic Kazakhs lived in Uzbekistan, and he claimed that "there are no restrictions whatsoever for those wishing to move from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan." Whether he and Nazarbaev abide by their promises of freedom of movement across the border remains to be seen.

Karimov called the agreement "the result of a wise compromise that was reached after the two states' interests had been thoroughly discussed," Interfax reported. But to many of those affected by it, the problem with the treaty was precisely that it reflected states' interests rather than people's interests, while the high-handed manner in which the presidents negotiated the fate of a handful of border villages accurately reflected their undemocratic style of rule. On the day after the border agreement was signed, numerous political figures and ordinary citizens telephoned RFE/RL's bureaus in Kazakhstan to register their dissatisfaction with it. Callers argued that a referendum should have been held to determine which country the residents of the disputed villages would prefer to be citizens of (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 September 2002). Other matters discussed by the presidents included construction of a highway between Kungrad in western Uzbekistan and the Kazakh port of Aqtau, the arms trade, and the price Kazakhstan is to pay for natural gas from Uzbekistan, Interfax reported on 9 September.

ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT ON TOP KYRGYZ OFFICIAL. Political tensions have simmered all summer in Kyrgyzstan, but the political temperature shot up last week following an assassination attempt on Misir Ashyrkulov, who is secretary of the Security Council and acting chief of the presidential administration. Returning home at about 10 p.m. on 6 September in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, Ashyrkulov had stepped out of his chauffeur-driven Mercedes to open the gate of his house when three grenades were thrown at him by an unidentified assailant, RFE/RL and local news sources reported. One of the three grenades failed to explode. Ashyrkulov was wounded in the chest, arm, and leg by shrapnel from the first blast. His driver dragged him into the car and rushed him to hospital, where doctors said his condition was stable and his life not in danger.

Speculation abounded as to who might be responsible. Presidential adviser Bolot Dzhanuzakov told journalists on 7 September that the attackers were unknown. Nevertheless he stated definitively, "This was a clear terrorist act of political character," AP reported. He thus ruled out the possibility of a private vendetta and insisted that the attack on Ashyrkulov was an attack on the government. "This terrorist act could only have been committed and organized by those who don't like and don't want the stabilization of the sociopolitical situation," Dzhanuzakov said, according to Kyrgyz radio on 7 September. Dzhanuzakov did not specify whom he meant, but it is worth noting that government officials regularly accuse the opposition of trying to destabilize Kyrgyzstan's sociopolitical situation.

Opposition spokesmen were quick to deny any connection to the assassination attempt. Some suggested the government itself was responsible. Parliamentary Deputy Tursunbai Bakir Uulu said on 7 September that security officials could have staged the attack themselves to create a pretext for an authoritarian clampdown, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported. The bureau also quoted Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan Chairman Tursunbek Akunov as saying that Ashyrkulov may have incurred the disapproval of other senior Kyrgyz officials by his recent efforts to promote reconciliation between the authorities and the opposition. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an opposition figure similarly suggested to Reuters that "it looks like internal bickering" within the government. He also suggested that the banned Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir might have been responsible (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 September 2002).

Islamists made obvious candidates to blame for the attack. Ashyrkulov himself suggested from his hospital bed that religious extremists might have been responsible, according to Interfax. National Security Service Chairman Kalyk Imankulov agreed. He indicated to a press conference on 7 September that Islamists were prime suspects. By way of circumstantial evidence, he claimed to have information that extremists had planned a series of bomb blasts in the southern Djalalabad region that his department had recently foiled, Kyrgyz Radio reported. On 5 September, Imankulov had told the parliament that the greatest threat to domestic political stability was posed by religious extremism, specifically Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was about to launch destabilizing actions such as antigovernment rallies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 September 2002). But on 9 September, Imankulov warned of a new Islamist organization threatening the region, called the Islamic Movement of Central Asia (IMCA), Interfax reported. IMCA is allegedly headed by Tohir Yuldashev, the political leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and is composed of the IMU merged with "Islamic separatists" from Tajikistan and Chechnya, and Uighur separatists from western China's Xinjiang Province. Imankulov said the new movement had its base in Afghanistan's Badakhshan highlands, and aimed to create an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia.

Meanwhile, Imankulov's deputy, Boris Poluektov, announced that Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service was asking specialists from Moscow for help in the investigation because it lacked sufficient expertise of its own, the newspaper "Delo N." reported on 11 September.

HARASSED, HUNGRY, AND THREATENED WITH BANS, PROTESTORS MARCH ON TOWARD BISHKEK. On 6 September, approximately 400 protest marchers set off from the southern Kyrgyz town of Tash Komur for Bishkek, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. They demanded the resignation of President Askar Akaev and the punishment of those responsible for the March clashes in Aksy District which left five dead (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 5 September 2002).

By 7 September, 500 marchers arrived in the village of Razan-Sai, where government representatives met them and told them to turn back. Evidently they refused. By the following day, some 600 people had reached Karakul in Djalalabad Oblast. According to the Kyrgyz Committee on Human Rights (KCHR), the authorities were harassing the marchers by denying them access to food and water. KCHR Chairman Ramazan Dyryldaev told RFE/RL on 6 September that even before they left Tash Komur, law enforcement officials took away their vehicles that were loaded with provisions. Subsequent KCHR bulletins said that police forced food stores and restaurants situated along the protestors' route to close. Furthermore, the KCHR reported that residents of Karakul, once the march arrived in the town, were being closely watched by police to ensure that they did not feed, help, or join the protestors. "Marchers are in a very bad mood because their food provisions were recently confiscated by security forces and now stores are being closed," the KCHR said on 8 September. But within a few days the authorities apparently relented, and local residents were reported to be providing demonstrators with food and accommodation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 September 2002).

Instead the government turned to tougher tactics. On 9 September, Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev submitted to the Legislative Assembly (the lower chamber of parliament) a bill imposing a three-month moratorium on all public marches, meetings, and rallies, Kabar and AP reported. Ata-Meken Party Chairman Omurbek Tekebaev and Ar-Namys Party Deputy Chairman Emil Aliyev protested that the draft bill violated the constitution and the right to assembly. Tanaev said that local officials and public figures from across the country were in Karakul trying to persuade marchers to call off their protest -- but he warned that whether they agreed or not, they would not be allowed to reach Bishkek, Kabar and reported. That said, Tanaev added that the police would use only truncheons, and not firearms, to prevent them from doing so. First Deputy Prime Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov said the proposal was drawn up "to protect the constitution and ensure social security in the republic," AP reported. Meanwhile National Security Service First Deputy Chairman Boris Poluektov warned parliament deputies that "if the protest march arrives in Bishkek, there may be...provocations that could result in bloodshed" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 September 2002). While Tanaev said that the proposed three-month ban on meetings and demonstrations was intended to thwart the activities of Islamist radicals, Osmonov drew a direct connection between the ban and the protest march in the south of the country

Opposition parliament Deputy Adaham Madumarov said on 10 September that 1,500 participants were going to proceed to Bishkek despite the three-month ban, Interfax reported. On the same day, some 700 local officials and public figures from the town of Karakul met twice with protestors but apparently failed to dissuade all of them from continuing their march to Bishkek. Interior Minister Bakir Subanbekov said that police were making no attempt to halt the marchers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 September 2002).