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Central Asia Report: July 27, 2001

27 July 2001, Volume 1, Number 1

CYCLE OF VIOLENCE IN TAJIKISTAN CONTINUES. Karim Yuldoshev, the 60-year-old special adviser on international and political affairs to Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov, was gunned down at midday on 17 July on the stairwell of his apartment building in the Tajik capital Dushanbe by three unidentified men, Interfax news agency reported. Hundreds of mourners attended the funeral the following day, according to the BBC correspondent in Dushanbe. The assassination, widely seen as an attempt to destabilize the country politically, was condemned by the presidential office as "a terrorist act," and blamed by Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov on "Tajikistan's enemies" who "did not want peace in the country." The leadership of the Islamic Rebirth Party concurred in a statement received by Asia-Plus on 19 July identifying the crime as an attempt "to undermine the prestige of Tajikistan and its leadership in the eyes of the international community."

An unnamed Russian military official in Tajikistan, quoted by Interfax on 20 July, said that Yuldoshev had been murdered on the orders of Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden as part of a campaign of "subversive activities" involving "terrorist acts against prominent Tajik statesmen who want Tajikistan to become closer to Russia" -- a campaign for which bin Laden had earmarked $1 million, the source claimed. The Russian newspaper "Kommersant" noted on 18 July that Yuldoshev had actively urged Rahmonov to forge close military ties with Moscow and had been instrumental in the establishment of a Russian military base in Tajikistan.

Yuldoshev's murder is only one of the violent incidents marring the fourth anniversary of the June 1997 peace accords that officially brought the Tajik civil war between militant Islamists and pro-government troops to an end. On 20 July, Mansur Muaqqalov, the 28-year-old leader of an Islamist group that had held five Tajik policeman hostage to protest the authorities' alleged failure to respect the peace accords, was killed near Dushanbe along with three supporters in a massive operation launched in June against the rebels by government ground and air forces, ITAR-TASS reported. Muqqalov, an ex-UTO (United Tajik Opposition) field commander during the war who subsequently refused to disarm in accordance with the peace agreement, was accused by the Tajik authorities of trafficking arms, kidnapping and committing 270 murders together with another renegade leader, Rahmon Sanginov, according to Agence France Presse. Leadership of the rebel group now falls to Sanginov, who is still at large, and the government's "anti-terrorist operation" continues.

KAZHEGELDIN SERVED KAZAKH SUBPOENA WHILE ON CAPITOL HILL. In an incident reminiscent of Feliks Kulov's woes, in Washington, D.C. on 18 July an attempt was made by Kazakh Consul Berik Sadykov to serve former Kazakh Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin with a court order to face accusations of abuse of power, corruption, illegal weapons possession, and tax evasion in Kazakhstan, media reported. Kazhegeldin was prime minister from 1994 to 1997 and the first criminal cases were leveled at him in 1998. Kazhegeldin, once seen as President Nursultan Nazarbaev's major political rival, is now emigre leader of the opposition Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan. The attempt to deliver the subpoena disrupted a congressional hearing which Kazhegeldin was attending where Kazakh opposition activists were testifying about the state of democracy, human rights, and press freedoms in Kazakhstan. Two of those invited to testify, Amirzhan Kosanov of Kazhegeldin's RPPK and Yermurat Bapi, editor of the independent newspaper "SolDat," were briefly detained at Almaty airport by agents of the Kazakh Security Committee (KNB), Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency report, and thus missed the scheduled hearings. KNB leaders later denied issuing any such instructions, apologized to the RPPK for the incident as a "technical mistake" and punished the officials responsible, according to the Kazakh newspaper "Respublika 2000." Further apologies were forthcoming from Kazakh embassy officials to U.S. committee members and to Kazhegeldin for serving the subpoena in the hearing chamber, according to the Kazakhstan 21st Century Foundation; they were unaware of Kazhegeldin's mailing address, Kazakh officials explained.

In an allied development, on 24 July the Kazakh independent TV and radio broadcaster Channel 31 announced that it would be conducting an interview with Kazhegeldin in London by television linkup, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported.

LATIN SCRIPT FOR KAZAKH LANGUAGE? The Kazakh Ministry of Education and Science is looking seriously at a new proposal to adopt a Latin-based alphabet to replace the modified Cyrillic script presently used to write the Kazakh language, the Kazakh state news agency Khabar reported, quoting the remarks of Vice Minister Edil Ergozhin at a press conference on 23 July. The language, which was written in Arabic script until 1925, was twice changed (to Latin and then Cyrillic) during the Soviet era. Ergozhin cited easier use of computers as a particular advantage of a Latin script. Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan began phasing in newly-designed Latinate alphabets for their national languages in the mid-1990's, largely to distance themselves from the Russian sphere of influence. The vice minister's announcement follows an article by Kazakh journalist Berik Dzhilkibaev in "Megapolis" newspaper earlier this month in which he bemoans the nationalist trend to deprive future generations of Kazakhs of easy access to Russian language and thought, which he believes "would be to throw them back into the Middle Ages." Through the Russian language and Cyrillic alphabet, Kazakhs "receive broad-based knowledge and various sources of information," he said.

THEME OF THE WEEK: IS THE OSH DEVELOPMENT PLAN A STRATEGY FOR UNDERMINING MILITANTS? Given Kazakhstan's and Kyrgyzstan's similar political trajectories and the close working relationship between the countries' presidents, confirmed in a series of agreements relating to trade and security during President Nazarbaev's state visit to Bishkek from 23-25 July, it is tempting to see parallels between Nazarbaev's decision to move the Kazakh capital from Almaty to Astana in the Russian-dominated north of the country in 1998 and President Akaev's decision last October to designate Osh, which is situated in a region with a high concentration of ethnic Uzbeks, Kyrgyzstan's southern capital.

To bolster its new role, on 20 July Akaev launched a major program of social and economic development for Osh over the next 10 years, "Vecherniy Bishkek" newspaper reported. The program will cost 3.5 billion some (about $73 million), presidential aide Amanbek Karypkulov said at a briefing in Osh. Costs will be offset by grants from various foreign donors, including $84 million from the World Bank and help from the Islamic Development Bank to refurbish Osh airport. Infrastructure-development plans involve an upgrade of the Bishkek-Osh highway, to be completed by 2003, and a new road linking Osh to Irkeshtam on the Chinese border via Osh will be started, Transport and Communications Minister Kubanychbek DzhumAliyev told the briefing. This will complement the construction of a Kyrgyz-Chinese electrified railway, toward which China was intending to put up $800 million and which would cost Kyrgyzstan $1 billion, said Dzumaliev. A further $15 million telecommunications project aims to expand television and radio broadcasting throughout the Osh region.

Since at least 1991, ethnic Uzbeks in and around Osh have been seen by the Kyrgyz authorities as posing a separatist threat -- a threat that has grown in tandem with resident Uzbeks' disgruntlement at perceived discrimination, since few are admitted to local administrative positions and virtually none are serving in the regional judiciary or law-enforcement bodies (see "Eurasianet Report" 26 March 2001). They also suffer from the region's general economic depression, exacerbating interethnic tension and competition as the economic pie gets smaller and, Kyrgyz worry, encouraging them to look to Uzbekistan for support. One significant motivation for Nazarbaev to transfer the Kazakh capital to Kazakhstan's economically depressed northern steppe bordering Russia was to head off any such separatist tendencies on the part of the ethnic Slavs who heavily populate that area. Establishing the new capital there not only re-anchored the region to Kazakhstan but stimulated economic development intended, in the long run, to diffuse sources of ethnic tension and feelings among Slavs that they were being treated as second-class citizens within the new state. Is Akaev pursuing a comparable strategy in southern Kyrgyzstan?

Socio-economic development may be a powerful way to reduce the appeal of militant Islamic groups operating in the area who promise radical solutions to perceived political injustice and feed off the atmosphere of social resentment -- groups such as Hezb-e Tahrir, which is primarily attracting ethnic Uzbeks who lack most other outlets for political participation. That also happens to be China's strategy toward its Uighur minority in Xinjiang province, where Uighur political separatism is taking on an increasingly Islamic-militant character. Economic investment into the area, Beijing believes, will improve the lives of Uighur and Han alike, and the Uighur struggle for political liberation will be replaced with the glorious struggle to get rich. Akaev may be taking a page not only out of Nazarbaev's book but out of Jiang Zemin's, especially since last month's launch of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that yielded a Pact on Combating Terrorism, Separatism, and Religious Extremism. With the possibility of more Islamic incursions into southern Kyrgyzstan in upcoming weeks, and no foreseeable end to the dangers of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism in the region, Akaev's socio-economic development program for Osh and environs may be the most potent weapon he has to fight them.

FELIKS KULOV TO REMAIN BEHIND BARS. Feliks Kulov, leader of the Kyrgyz opposition Ar-Namys (Dignity) Party and widely regarded as President Askar Akaev's chief political rival, on 19 July lost his appeal to Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court against a seven-year prison sentence handed down by Bishkek's military court in January, the Kyrgyz news agency Kabar reported. Kulov had been found guilty of abuse of office, including illegally tapping telephones, while minister of national security in 1998. However the Supreme Court overturned the previous court's decision to confiscate his property. Further trials await Kulov, Interfax news agency noted: The country's prosecutor-general brought additional charges against Kulov even before the appeal hearing was concluded, notably forgery and "large-scale embezzlement of public property" amounting to about $635,000 during Kulov's tenures as governor of Chu Province 1993-1997 and mayor of Bishkek 1998-1999. A conviction could lead to an additional 15 years behind bars.

A statement released by the Ar-Namys Party called the conviction politically motivated, while a member of the opposition Erkindik (Freedom) Party commented forthrightly that the Kyrgyz authorities were seeking to banish Kulov from politics permanently. (If he served two full terms, Kulov would be in his early 70's when released from jail.) Kulov faced trial in 2000 on the same abuse-of-power charges and was acquitted by the Constitutional Court, but that verdict was overturned by a military review board after Kulov announced his candidacy in the presidential race against President Akaev, thus opening the way to Kulov's conviction at a second trial last January (see "RFE/RL Features," 19 July 2001).

NEW REBEL INCURSIONS INTO SOUTHERN KYRGYZSTAN... Kyrgyz soldiers skirmished twice this week with unknown rebels in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan's Batken region near the Tajik border, Kyrgyz National News Agency Kabar reported on 26 July. In the first incident on the night of 24 July, two Kyrgyz servicemen were wounded during an attack on an army outpost at a roadblock 12 kilometers north of the Gemush pass. The following attack occurred 24 hours later at Joo-Pai, closer to the pass. The incidents coincided with a meeting that began on 23 July in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek of representatives of CIS Foreign Ministries to discuss joint approaches to international terrorism, drug trafficking and other security issues with a focus on the Central Asian region.

The attackers are widely presumed to belong to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has staged incursions of several hundred men into southern Kyrgyzstan for the two previous summers. However the chairman of the Kyrgyz National Security Service, Bolot Dzhanuzakov, commenting on 25 July on the first attack, said that he thought it was most likely carried out by a gang of drug dealers, AKIpress website reported.

Kazakh Khabar TV had reported on 19 July that IMU leader Juma Namangoniy had already taken up positions with a number of IMU detachments in the Jirghatol District of Tajikistan, suggesting that an IMU incursion into Kyrgyzstan was imminent, but officials from Kyrgyz security services have confidently denied the report. Speaking to Kyrgyz Radio on 22 July, Interior Minister Tashtemir Aitbaev said that he expects no invasion this year by Islamic militants thanks to heightened preparedness of Kyrgyz troops and border guards: "[But] if they do, it will be types of small attempts to infiltrate through our territory, and these will be repulsed very resolutely."

Learning from last year's mistakes when they were taken by surprise, the Kyrgyz military has been taking preventive measures against a terrorist attack. A meeting of Kyrgyz army commanders and representatives of the security services, chaired by Defense Minister Esen Topoev, was convened in the town of Batken to review combat readiness and coordinate defensive tasks such as roadblocks and blocking mountain passes, the Kyrgyz newspaper "Vecherniy Bishkek" reported on 18 July. Meanwhile both the Uzbek and Kazakh armies have been training intensively to repel putative terrorist incursions, with Kazakhstan mounting the most extensive military exercises in its post-Soviet history involving 4,500 infantry and airborne troops as well as skiers, hunters and shepherds used as local guides, the Russian newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 14 July. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have all increased their military budgets this year, the newspaper went on to say. In a related development, China pledged $900,000 in military aid "to continue to assist Kyrgyzstan in fighting international terrorism and religious extremism" in an agreement signed on 16 July, ITAR-TASS news agency reported, noting that Beijing has already given the Kyrgyz army $2 million in the last two years.

... BUT HOME-GROWN PROBLEMS ARE CONTRIBUTING TO ISLAMIC MILITANCY. In stark contrast to Defense Minister Topoev's confidence about defending Kyrgyzstan from Islamic radicalism by military means, AKIpress website on 14 July carried separate remarks by Talant Razzakov, head of the Kyrgyz National Security Service, and Tursunbay Bakir Uulu, a prominent member of parliament and previously the president's special representative for human rights, indicating that religious extremism was a local phenomenon on the rise within southern Kyrgyzstan. Razzakov noted a recent increase in arrests of the banned Hezb-e Tahrir party and in the numbers of their leaflets circulating that call for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the Ferghana Valley. Bakir Uulu, while controversially maintaining that Hezb-e Tahrir is a peaceful organization albeit with an anti-establishment message, related its growing popularity to the declining economic situation in the country and loss of faith in the government. "It is foolish and futile to combat ideas with just the rifle and military operations. Only a better life, confidence in the future, and honesty and openness on the part of the authorities can assail the promises of peace and social justice with which the Islamic extremists are armed," the AKIpress report concluded.

Bolstering that view, a Eurasianet report on 24 July quoted recent remarks by Uzbek President Islam Karimov in the Uzbek newspaper "Narodnoye slovo" acknowledging that Islamic militants were able to find recruits because of the "disastrous socio-economic status of people, demographic problems in some troubled regions, mass unemployment, and economic insecurity, especially among young people." The report added that Karimov has decreed a roughly 40 percent rise in the minimum wage and in pension benefits effective 1 August.