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Central Asia Report: August 10, 2001

10 August 2001, Volume 1, Number 3

WAR OF WORDS OVER CASPIAN PARTITION CONTINUES. Disputes over dividing resources in the Caspian Sea continued to fester this week as both Turkmenistan and Iran issued strong warnings against developing offshore oil fields in sectors which they claim as their own.

Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister Yelly Kurbanmuradov told Reuters on 8 August that the Azerbaijani state oil company SOCOR had no right to the Serdar oil field (called "Kyapaz" by Azerbaijan) or to start developing that field's Geigel structure, saying that it was much closer to Turkmenistan's Caspian shore than Azerbaijan's and that its development "was not a matter for discussion" with Baku because "beyond the slightest doubt it is Turkmen." The stern warning from Ashgabat follows others issued last week when an Azeri delegation to the Turkmen capital failed to make progress on outstanding questions of Caspian ownership. On 9 August an unnamed senior official dismissed Kurbanmuradov's accusations and denied that Azerbaijani plans were afoot to develop the Kyapaz/Serdar field, Reuters reported. However the official did not explicitly address the issue of who owned the field.

Meanwhile, on 5 August Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi issued his own warning against encroachments on Iranian-claimed areas of the Caspian, saying, "We will firmly react to firms which work in the Islamic republic's 20 percent share of the [Caspian Sea] waters," AFP reported. Implicitly he threatened reprisal for a 23 July incident in which an Iranian gunboat drove two Azerbaijani geological exploration ships, leased to British Petroleum, out of waters that Tehran says belong to it. Iran holds that the five littoral states should divide the sea into equal shares of 20 percent each. However Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan have jointly adopted a plan which would leave Iran with only a 13 percent share of the Caspian shelf -- and one that is relatively hydrocarbon-poor, to boot. The trilateral plan, uniting two previously separate bilateral agreements, was announced at the 2-3 August summit of CIS leaders in Sochi, where Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev said the three countries had come to a general agreement about dividing the Caspian along a median line, RIA-Novosti news agency reported. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov did not attend the summit.

Whether Ashgabat sides with its three CIS partners states or with Iran on the legal principles for partitioning the Caspian remains unclear. Expansion of the Iranian sector would cut into its own portion of the seabed, yet Ashgabat and Tehran have been widely suspected of coordinating their recent diplomatic and political efforts to put pressure on Baku. Turkmenistan rejects the idea proposed at the CIS meeting of a Caspian summit between the four littoral states that are CIS members while excluding Iran, the Internet newspaper website reported on 3 August. It quoted presidential press-secretary Kakamyrat Ballyyev saying that President Niyazov wanted the heads of all five littoral states to attend a Caspian summit scheduled for October in Ashgabat to discuss the legal status of the sea.

KAZAKH-TURKISH ANTI-ISLAMIST COOPERATION STRENGTHENS... A representative office of the Turkish armed forces General Staff opened in Astana on 3 August, and Turkey has pledged $10 million in military aid to Kazakhstan over the next 10 years including defense hardware and communications equipment, Interfax-Kazakhstan and AFP reported. It is the first such foreign mission to open in Kazakhstan. Last month in the Turkish capital Ankara, Kazakh Chief of General Staff Colonel General Alibek Kasymov met Turkish Defense Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu, who was quoted by the newspaper "Turkish Daily News" as promising that his country "will continue to support Kazakhstan, one of the important countries of the Turkic world, in all areas, particularly in the military."

Speaking at the opening ceremony in Astana, carried by Kazakh Khabar TV, Kasymov said that Turkey had already supplied Kazakhstan with two patrol boats and typographical and map-making equipment, while special combat vehicles will be delivered in the next two months. He further noted that Turkish instructors were training Kazakh soldiers in anti-terrorist methods.

Closer military relations with Turkey come on the heels of large-scale antiterrorist exercises held this summer by the Kazakh army, which has also beefed up border forces in anticipation of Islamic incursions from the south. Astana's decision to reach out to Ankara for a security partnership is significant given Russia's growing military influence in the region. Turkey for its part has a security interest in the region as it hopes that Kazakh oil will flow through a projected pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan on Turkey's Mediterranean coast -- an interest shared by Israel, which has also been forging defense and intelligence links with Caspian and Central Asian states, and enjoys an informal military alliance with Turkey, "Jane's Intelligence Review" pointed out on 1 August. The magazine discussed the recent allied Turkish-Israeli-U.S. "Anatolian Eagle" military exercises in Turkey in the context of the alliance's efforts to strengthen Central Asia's military security and economic development.

...WHILE U.S., RUSSIA DISCUSS MILITARY ASSISTANCE TO KYRGYZSTAN. Officials of Kyrgyzstan, whose territory was invaded twice by Islamists in the past two summers, have also been discussing foreign military assistance to combat terrorism. President Askar Akaev, vacationing in the Kyrgyz town of Cholpon-Ata, received a U.S. Congressional delegation primarily to discuss regional security issues and the possibility of additional U.S. military assistance, RIA Novosti reported on 8 August. After the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan's attacks in 1999 and 2000, the U.S. supplied Kyrgyzstan with about $3 million of equipment to strengthen its borders, and American military instructors are training Kyrgyz troops in the country, according to the report. The leader of the American delegation indicated after the meeting that more military-technological assistance was in the cards. The next day in Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov met his Kyrgyz counterpart, Esen Topoev, also to consider Russian military cooperation with the Central Asian republic with a view to fighting dangers posed by terrorists, Interfax reported.

RUSSIAN RAPID-REACTION BATTALION EXERCISES IN TAJIKISTAN. The regional headquarters of the new collective rapid reaction force dedicated against Islamist terrorism in Central Asia started functioning in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz news agency Kabar reported on 7 August. The core force consists of four national battalions from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia. The first three are stationed on their own territories while the Russian battalion is in Tajikistan. On 9 August a Kyrgyz Defense Ministry spokesman said that the first joint command-staff exercises would be held in Kyrgyzstan on 22-24 August. Meanwhile the Russian battalion has already begun 10-day military exercises at the Liaur firing range, 30 kilometers southwest of Dushanbe, RIA Novosti reported on 7 August. Major General Valentin Orlov, commander of the Russian 201st Motorized Rifle Division in Tajikistan, is in charge of the exercises, in which troops will practice combat missions on both mountainous and desert terrain. To date, the only clashes between government forces and Islamist terrorists have occurred in mountains.

ALMATY SLATED TO BECOME REGIONAL FINANCIAL CENTER. The Kazakh government has approved a plan to develop the country's ex-capital Almaty into a regional financial hub, laying out a schedule of steps to be taken in the next two years, Kabar news agency reported on 3 August. One of the steps is to study how to improve the working on the National Bank of Kazakhstan. The idea of focusing on Almaty as a major financial center is logical given President Nursultan Nazarbaev's decision to transfer the capital to Astana in 1998, which was partly inspired, he said at the time, by the American model of having the country's political and financial centers separate in Washington and New York.

Meanwhile the Kazakh banking system was rated the most progressive in the Commonwealth of Independent States by the international financial publication Euromoney, Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency reported on 3 August, with the commercial bank Kazkommertsbank (KKB) judged the best bank in the country this year. Holding assets of over 124 billion tenge (about $843 million) it posted a net profit of over 4 billion tenge in the year 2000, the news agency said on 9 August. The KKB's primary competitor is the National Bank of Kazakhstan.

Both reports come in the wake of last month's announcement by Astana that over $400 million that had illegally been transferred abroad had been returned to Kazakh banks as part of a controversial capital amnesty. Kazakh opposition leader Akezhan Kazhegeldin said in a recent interview that the authorities have exaggerated the true figure by at least 10 times. Astana justified the amnesty by saying that the returned money will be invested within the country and stimulate the economy, although some observers have doubted this (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 August 2001).

KYRGYZ SET TO SELL THEIR WATER. Kyrgyz Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Water Resources, Barataaly Koshmuratov, announced on 8 August that special commissions would soon start drafting regulations for charging Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for the water that they receive from Kyrgyz reservoirs. So far mountainous Kyrgyzstan has been bartering the water resources that it inherited after the Soviet break-up, and which its downstream neighbors rely on for crop irrigation, for coal or gas. But President Akaev signed a law on 23 July making water a commodity that could be sold, provoking a protest the following day from Kazakh President Nazarbaev, who said that such water-pricing contravened international norms. Nazarbaev also warned against spoiling relations with his country and Uzbekistan. Bishkek says that maintaining the reservoirs costs around $25 million annually and that its neighbors, as beneficiaries of the water, should be paying their share (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 August 2001).

POT CALLS KETTLE BLACK. At a cabinet meeting on 6 August, Turkmen President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov sternly chided senior officials for enriching themselves at the expense of the nation. "There are some leaders among us who are concerned first and foremost with the interests of themselves and their nearest and dearest, and not the state," Reuters quoted him saying on 7 August. Calling on them to fight nepotism, Niyazov made an example of Deputy Prime Minister and Central Bank Chairman Seyitbay Kandymov by fining him one month's salary for promoting "people without merit" in the banking sector and not preventing embezzlement of state funds as described on Turkmen TV. Niyazov accused Kandymov of making a certain man head of department at a state bank as a favor to the man's brother, Deputy Prime Minister Berdimyrat Rejepov. Kandymov's confiscated wages will go into the state budget.

Presidential press spokesman Kakamyrat Ballyyev was similarly fined a month's wages recently after his boss caught him smoking. Niyazov himself was obliged to quit after a heart operation in 1997.

THEME OF THE WEEK: DRUGS AND DROUGHT EXACERBATE CENTRAL ASIAN HEALTH WOES. A high-level meeting in the northern Tajik city of Khujand to address the alarming spread of HIV in Tajikistan brought together senior health officials, including Health Minister Alamkhon Ahmadov, local government officials and law-enforcement representatives, the Asia-Plus news agency reported on 8 August. Ahmadov said that the official tally of 33 AIDS suffers in Tajikistan, 25 of whom live in the country's northern Sughd Province, was a gross underestimate. He also criticized the lack of screening at blood-transfusion stations, saying it contributed to the problem. (The UNICEF office in the capital Dushanbe says that 1,055 drug addicts have been registered in the Sughd Province.) Deputy Prime Minister Nigina Sharopova told the meeting that increasing unemployment, prostitution, migrations, and drug addiction were all behind the spread of HIV.

As indicated by Sharopova's remarks, and by the composition of participants at the meeting, spread of HIV in the region has gone beyond being merely a medical problem -- or a moral problem among "anti-social elements." That was essentially the position of the Soviet authorities, whose secretive practice of hiding true HIV and drug-addiction figures remains the norm in Central Asia today. According to a EurasiaNet report of 7 August, Dushanbe admits to about 2,400 drug addicts on its territory while health experts put the true figure much higher. Tajik officials privately worry about a national opium- and heroin-addiction crisis after the interception of more than 3.5 tons of illegal drugs already this year, including 2.2 tons of raw poppy products seized in a single day on 15 July on the Tajik-Afghan border, the report says.

On 7 August a Kazakh commercial TV broadcast noted a recent publication by the UN International Committee for Combating AIDS predicting an upsurge of the disease in Central Asia. The broadcast claimed that over 300,000 people in the region are HIV-positive and criticized local governments for vastly downplaying the numbers. Due to widespread criminal activities and depressing socioeconomic conditions, over 50 percent of Central Asians take drugs, the broadcast said.

Meanwhile a 41-year-old man died of bubonic plague in southern Kazakhstan's Qzyl-orda region while his gravely ill 13-year-old son was hospitalized with plague symptoms, Reuters reported on 6 August. Local media speculated that they had been bitten by fleas from sheep, cattle, or camels, which are commonly bred commercially in this nation of ex-nomads. Interfax-Kazakhstan reported the following day that 44 villagers who had come into contact with the plague sufferer were being examined by Kazakh doctors, adding that the State Agency for Emergencies was taking unspecified prophylactic measures against the disease spreading into the country's Aral Sea region. No further cases of plague have been reported yet.

Also in southern Kazakhstan, two men with anthrax symptoms were taken to the hospital for infectious diseases in the regional capital Shymkent, Reuters said on 6 August. Anthrax is an often-fatal disease of sheep and cattle that can be transmitted to humans. One of the sick men had been selling anthrax-infected sheep carcasses in Shymkent market, and the meat may have infected more than 11 people, according to local newspapers. A dozen people in the region have already been hospitalized with anthrax this summer, Interfax-Kazakhstan noted on 8 August.

Commenting on the anthrax outbreak in a press release on 6 August, the Erk Democratic Party of Uzbekistan pointed out the dangers of airborne anthrax from the once-secret Soviet biological weapons station abandoned on Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea, where Russian scientists experimented with anthrax. With the retreat of the Aral Sea, Vozrozhdeniya is no longer an island but a peninsula connected to the shore.

Nor has southern Kazakhstan been spared cholera, with a Reuters report on 6 August that a 56-year-old had died of the disease in Ordabasinsk district about a week earlier. It was Kazakhstan's second official cholera death this year. Reuters quoted a senior specialist at the state epidemiological service suggesting that the man's death sprung from the ignorance of relatives who had tried to treat him at home and thus "lost precious time."

However, probably more to the point are the public health hazards posed by Central Asia's crumbling water-supply infrastructure as the area faces its second year in a row of serious drought. Cholera, a water-borne disease usually resulting from poor sanitation, also claimed the lives of over 40 people last week in Afghanistan's Paktika Province near Tajikistan. In July and August various sources reported severe water shortages in Dushanbe, Karakalpakistan and Uzbekistan's Khorezm Province, where residents have taken to drinking out of buckets filled from ditches or polluted canals. Some southern Tajik towns with as many as 20,000 inhabitants lack access to potable water, said a EurasiaNet report of 16 July.

Worried about cholera and other infectious diseases spreading to Uzbekistan, Prime Minister Utkir Sultanov chaired an extraordinary session of a state anti-epidemic commission, Interfax reported on 9 August. It mandated checks on potable water sources and public bathing spots and put sanitation inspectors on the country's borders on alert. A week earlier, the commission had met to look into water problems in Khorezm and Karakalpakistan and acknowledged that a water crisis existed there with health and epidemiological ramifications but blamed it on the negligence and "lack of initiative" of local authorities, the Uzbek government newspaper "Halq so'zi" reported on 1 August. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has already declared a state of water emergency in both regions. Unable to cope with the situation itself, Tashkent has appealed for foreign aid. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) responded with $25,000 to dig 50 pump-assisted wells in Karakalpakistan's Halqobod area to provide water for about 1,500 people, the newspaper "O'zbekistan Ovozi" said on 30 July, adding that 10,000 Halqobod residents currently lack reliable access to potable water. Earlier in the month the Asian Development Bank approved a $2.5 million grant to provide emergency relief to Uzbekistan's water-poor areas.

Due to a post-Soviet collapse of the medical system and the disintegration of physical infrastructure, Central Asian governments are increasingly dependent on foreign donors to ward off health crises in their countries, where state health funding ranges from 10 cents (in Tajikistan) to about $3 (in Uzbekistan) per capita per year. On 7 August it was announced in Dushanbe that the World Bank is providing a $5.5 million credit to continue a pilot project to reform primary medical care in Tajikistan, supplemented by a $300,000 grant from the Swiss Cooperation Office, Asia-Plus news agency said. The project was launched last August and is scheduled to go on three more years. On the same day, an anti-anemia campaign, sponsored by USAID, started up in Uzbekistan's Ferghana region, where 80 percent of local women and children have been diagnosed with anemia, "Halq so'zi" newspaper reported. The campaign's centerpiece is a new TV show called "Simple Truths" offering information on how to avoid anemia by eating a healthy diet.

The perils of an unhealthy diet were also highlighted on Kazakh commercial TV, which reported an outbreak of trichinosis in the republic's Kostanay Region on 8 August. Five people were hospitalized after eating shish kebabs which were later discovered to be made of dog meat.