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Central Asia Report: August 3, 2001

3 August 2001, Volume 1, Number 2

TURKMEN-AZERBAIJANI TALKS ON CASPIAN GAS AND OIL 'UNPRODUCTIVE.' Three-day talks in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat between Azerbaijani Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov and Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister Gurban Muradov, aimed at rescheduling Baku's debts from 1993-94 for Turkmen natural gas and resolving disputes about ownership of Caspian oil fields, ended in acrimony on 30 July with each side accusing the other of intransigence and being "unconstructive," Reuters and Dow Jones International News reported.

Financial negotiations failed after the two sides presented widely divergent figures for the debt: $59.6 million according to the Turkmen, $26.7 million according to the Azerbaijanis. Meanwhile, Ashgabat angrily rejected Baku's claims to three fields called Chirag, Azeri, and Sharg by Azerbaijan (Osman, Khazar, and Altyn Asyr by Turkmenistan) that are presently under development by an international consortium led by British Petroleum PLC, which has an $8-9 billion contract with Baku to develop the Azeri-Chirag complex and an Azerbaijani license to explore the Sharg concession. Repeating earlier tough-worded warnings in Turkmen diplomatic notes this year against "unilateral" exploitation, the most recent on 27 July, Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister Yelly Gurbanmuradov said in a press release on 30 July that exploration or development of these areas is illegal since the sectoral division of the Caspian shelf still remains unresolved between the five littoral states after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Reuters reported. The following day Khoshgeldi Babaev, Turkmen chairman of the State Enterprise for the Caspian Sea, told RIA Novosti that Turkmenistan plans to refer the ownership issue to an international court of arbitration. He added that a summit of the Caspian littoral states in Ashgabat to discuss outstanding issues has been scheduled for 26-27 October. Given the prevailing atmosphere analysts have doubted whether a summit could yield any concrete results.

The meeting in Ashgabat followed an incident last week when an Iranian gunboat confronted a geological ship operated by BP and licensed by Azerbaijan to explore the Sharg complex. The gunboat ordered the exploration ship out of the oil-rich area, which Iran also claims and calls the Alborz block. Reuters quoted a BP spokesman on 30 July as saying that it was too early to predict when the consortium would resume activities in the area.

In an interview with the Azerbaijani newspaper "Ekho" on 28 July, Abbasov commented on the previous day's Turkmen note expressing concern at Azerbaijani development of "disputable" oil fields: "I do not only think but am convinced that the Turkmen government's note is in tandem with Iran's actions," he said. The same day, Azerbaijani TV station ANS paraphrased Rustam Mammadov from the Azerbaijani presidential executive staff: "Turkmenistan has long been trying to carry out the idea of laying a new gas pipeline through Turkmenistan, Iran, Armenia, Turkey and Europe instead of implementing the idea of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline... Therefore, these actions by Iran and Turkmenistan could have been predicted." The BP-led international consortium plans that the Azerbaijani and Chirag oil fields will be carried by a Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

Turkmenistan delivered 2.2 billion cubic meters of gas to Iran pipeline during the first half of 2001, doubling the amount delivered during the same period last year, reported the official newspaper "Neutralniy Turkmenistan" cited by Agence France Presse on 2 August. The goal by the end of 2001 is to pipe 6 billion cubic meters south to Iran, the newspaper continued. Turkmenistan presently sends the lion's share of its gas north into Russia.

SECURITY OFFICIALS DOWNPLAY REPORTS OF ISLAMIST INCURSIONS IN KYRGYZSTAN, UZBEKISTAN... Continuing to downplay the threat of attacks this year by Islamist militants into southern Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyz Defense and Interior Ministries denied reports of an armed clash near the village of Chuvai in Batken Province on the night of 30-31 July, Interfax reported. The attack by a band of about 10 men on a TV relay station in the mountains 40 kilometers from the Kyrgyz-Tajik border had originally been reported to local media by two Kyrgyz officers on the scene. The denial from the capital Bishkek flatly contradicted a confirmation of the incident by the deputy governor of Batken Province, Abdymajit Abdrakmanov. Last week Bolot Dzhanukzakov, head of the National Security Service, suggested that an attack on a military outpost in the same region had been staged not by terrorists from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) but by drug dealers.

Meanwhile Agence France Press, quoting an anonymous Uzbek security official, reported on 31 July that earlier in the month Uzbek troops had killed a band of 12 rebels believed to belong to the IMU during training exercises in southern Uzbekistan's mountainous Surhandaryo Province. However, a Defense Ministry spokesman denied knowledge of the incident.

On 1 August, Kyrgyz police reported a further exchange of fire with attackers at a police post about 35 kilometers from the city of Kyzyl Kia near the border with Uzbekistan (see "RFE Newsline," 1 August 2001). Confirming the incident, Batken regional Interior Ministry chief Sheishenbek Baizakov said the group might be IMU rebels.

...BUT BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY. Kyrgyz authorities evacuated a team of geologists working in the Batken region and several families of shepherds for their own protection, while security at local factories has been increased, Kyrgyz-Press reported on 1 August. In Uzbekistan, the process of forcibly evicting ethnic Tajiks from their villages in the south of the country and herding them into camps has been going on since last year, the Russian newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" said on 31 July. Local people accused of collaborating with the IMU have had their houses burned, according to the newspaper.

Meanwhile thousands of people in economically-depressed southern Kazakhstan are voluntarily fleeing to the relative safety and prosperity of cities in the north of the country in part from apprehensions about Islamist invasion, said an IWPR website report on 27 July. Crossing frontiers has got much harder after the temporary introduction of an intensive control passport regime between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz national news agency Kabar reported on 30 July. Uzbeks trying to enter Kazakhstan are being held up as much as five hours while their luggage and persons are meticulously searched and sniffed by police dogs for weapons or drugs, AKIpress website said on 25 July.

REBEL FORCES ARE BANDING UP AGAINST CENTRAL ASIAN STATES... The leader of anti-government insurgents in Tajikistan, Rahmon Sanginov, nicknamed "Hitler," has come to a preliminary agreement with IMU commander Juma Namangoniy to join forces in an attack on Kyrgyzstan and is moving his detachments to northern Tajikistan's Mastchoch district, near the Kyrgyz border, to rendezvous with IMU military formations there, said the Kyrgyz newspaper "Slovo Kyrgyzstana" on 24 July, citing military intelligence sources. Sanginov's group and its allies have been the target of a massive, ongoing military operation begun last month by the Tajik authorities. On 25 July, Tajik Security Council Secretary Amirkul Azimov hotly denied that there were any IMU militants on Tajik territory.

In the same article "Slovo Kyrgyzstana" sourced "secret agents" for the further information that Namangoniy and the co-leader of the IMU, Tohir Yuldoshov, had met with the commander of a militant Uighur separatist group (seeking independence for the Uighur minority in western China) in Tajikistan's Tavildara District and planned a joint two-pronged attack through mountain passes into Kyrgyzstan. Buttressing the story, the newspaper noted the recent discovery by Kyrgyz border guards of a cache of 500 kilograms of Chinese-made ammunition which was hidden at the Telbe Pass.

Additional evidence that the IMU's international alliances are strengthening was suggested by RIA Novosti on 1 August, citing a report by the Pakistani newspaper "Nation" that Taliban authorities have appointed Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden, whom the Taliban are sheltering in Afghanistan, the country's de facto defense minister and that Namangoniy has become his number two charged with conducting military operations against the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

...WHILE CENTRAL ASIAN STATES BAND UP AGAINST THE REBELS. In contrast to the Central Asian states' lack of military coordination last summer when hundreds of IMU rebels invaded Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan, various recent developments indicate that closer international cooperation against terrorism and drug-running has become a priority this year. Kyrgyz Security Council Secretary Misir Ashyrkulov met with Tajik security officials in Bishkek at which both sides agreed to establish a wireless communication system between their border posts, Kabar news agency reported on 3 August. Earlier in the week Ashyrkulov took an inspection tour of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border region with a Tajik delegation led by Saidamir Zuhurov, deputy prime minister for defense and security. The Tajik border and guard posts along other routes that might be used by IMU forces have been reinforced with 500 additional servicemen of the State Border Protection Committee, according to Zuhurov as quoted by Asia Plus-Blitz on 31 July. The development complements a decree signed by President Imomali Rahmonov on the creation of a permanent new frontier brigade, to be stationed in Penjikent in northwestern Tajikistan, to guard the country's borders with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, as reported by Kabar news agency on 26 July.

On 28 July Uzbek Deputy Interior Minister I. Sidikov similarly met with his Kyrgyz counterpart in southern Uzbekistan to coordinate anti-terrorist strategies, Kabar reported on 1 August. A senior Uzbek official from the Defense Ministry told ITAR-TASS reporters on 26 July that Uzbekistan is offering its military support to Kyrgyzstan in case of an invasion. The previous day, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev had also specifically pledged his country's military support at a press conference in Bishkek after signing with Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev a joint political declaration promising cooperation to preserve their countries' independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, Kabar news agency reported on 25 July.

The Russian combat-readiness in Tajikistan has also been beefed up with a new anti-guerrilla battalion -- made up of members of the 201st Motor-Rifle Infantry Division -- being added to the rapid deployment force already stationed along the Tajik-Afghan frontier, Interfax reported on 31 July. Russia already maintains about 1,500 soldiers to patrol the border.

NEW CIS COLLECTIVE FORCE STARTS FUNCTIONING IN BISHKEK. In the most concerted action to date to address terrorist threats in Central Asia on a region-wide basis, a CIS collective rapid reaction force established by four members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia), with its permanent task group headquartered in Bishkek, began operating on 1 August, RIA Novosti reported. Joint staff meetings and military counterinsurgency exercises are due to start in early August, it noted. It was agreed at a meeting of the CIS Collective Security Council in Bishkek in early July that 20 percent of the funding for the collective forces would be contributed by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with Russia and Kazakhstan bearing the rest of the financial burden, "Slovo Kyrgyzstana" had reported on 12 July.

A CIS Collective Security Treaty has been in force since 1992 but the treaty was revamped in May of this year when the four founding countries of the collective force, together with Armenia and Belarus, agreed to work together militarily to oppose threats from radical Islamists, the AVN military news agency web site noted on 25 July. With each of the six countries contributing a battalion each, the force could comprise up to 1,700 military personnel according to a 24 July commentary on the website of the global intelligence company Stratfor.

KYRGYZ NGO's PROTEST MEDIA RESTRICTIONS IN FACE OF LEGAL SETBACK. Efforts in Kyrgyzstan to contest tighter government regulation of mass media suffered a defeat on 30 July when the arbitration court of the city of Bishkek refused to consider two suits against the Ministry of Justice brought by Aleksandr Kim, editor of the new newspaper "My Capital City," which was registered with the ministry on 11 June, and Bakyt Jamalidinov, the founder of three more independent newspapers which were registered in mid-May (see "RFE/RL Kyrgyz News," 30 July 2001). According to a ministry decision taken 5 April, all registered media had to re-register by 1 July. Over a month after the amendments to the laws regulating public organizations (including media) were made public, on 20 June the ministry unexpectedly announced a new provision to the amendment of which no public mention had been made -- that new media outlets were forbidden to register until existing ones had re-registered, thus annulling the permission it had already granted to 16 new media outlets including the two plaintiffs' newspapers. On 18 July the government took a resolution to introduce a draft law that would confirm the amendments.

Eighteen NGOs had signed an appeal to President Akaev by the end of July, expressing their concern about the law. NGO representatives believed that the law would allow the authorities to criminalize any unregistered organization at will and help suppress anti-government views in contradiction to the constitution and international conventions on human rights, Kabar news agency reported on 30 July. On the same day, UN Secretary-General for Human Rights Heaney Jelaney arrived in Bishkek for a week's stay, during which she planned to meet representatives of the Ministry of Justice, the Constitutional Court, and the Prosecutor General's office.

In a separate development, Kyrgyz prosecutors have charged opposition politician Feliks Kulov with embezzling millions of dollars' worth of state funds in the 1990's during his tenures as governor of Chu Province and mayor of Bishkek, AFP reported on 31 July. Kulov is already serving a seven-year sentence in a maximum security prison for abuse of office. His supporters have described the charges against him as politically motivated.