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Central Asia Report: August 30, 2001

30 August 2001, Volume 1, Number 6

TRIAL AGAINST KAZHEGELDIN ENDS; VERDICT EXPECTED NEXT WEEK. The Supreme Court in the Kazakh capital Astana on 29 August heard closing arguments from both prosecution and defense in the trial of opposition leader Akezhan Kazhegeldin, accused of abuse of power, extorting bribes, tax evasion, and illegal arms possession during his tenure as prime minister from 1994 to 1997. The trial is being held in absentia, since the defendant lives in self-imposed exile in the West. State prosecutors Gharifolla Otebaev and Aleksandr Baikov called on the court to sentence Kazhegeldin to 12 years in jail. Defense attorney Aleksandr Tarabrin said the prosecution had not met its burden of proof and called for acquittal on all charges. Judge Bektas Beknazarov retired to consider his verdict, which is not expected before 3 September.

Over 70 witnesses testified at the trial, many of them prominent industrialists and high-ranking government officials from Kazhegeldin's term in office. Many observers feel that the prosecution failed to build a strong case against the defendant. In particular, the charges of tax evasion and illegal arms possession seem flimsy. Officials of the Almaty Tax Department testified on 22 August that Kazhegeldin did pay $23,000 of income tax in 1998, albeit belatedly, on $100,000 in royalties that he received for a book. The same day the ex-governor of the Western Kazakhstan Region and his deputy confirmed that a Stechkin-Abramov revolver in the defendant's possession had been presented to him as a gift in 1996 during an inspection tour of a military factory in the town of Oral. Accusations of corruption and bribe-taking from companies seeking to benefit from the privatization of state assets under Kazhegeldin may be more substantial, although defense lawyer Tarabrin argued that many of the prosecution's witnesses were as culpable as his client, since they knew about the underhanded dealings (see "RFE/RL Weekly Magazine," 24 August 2001).

The trial, which was mostly conducted in open court, moved behind closed doors on 23-24 August, since some of the testimony apparently touched on state secrets. However unconvincing the prosecution was during the public portion of the trial, some analysts have suggested that if a guilty verdict is handed down it may rely heavily on these two days of confidential testimony. If found guilty, Kazhegeldin will be barred automatically from running for public office. There is no appeal of the Supreme Court's verdict.

Kazhegeldin, who leads the Kazakh Republican People's Party from abroad and is regarded as President Nazarbaev's chief political foe, has repeatedly maintained that the trial is politically motivated and instigated against him by Nazarbaev, whom he has suggested should face trial himself for accepting multimillion-dollar bribes from Western oil companies (see RFE/RL Kazakh News, 17-23 August 2001). At a press conference on 23 August in Almaty, Kazakh democracy activists condemned the court proceedings against Kazhegeldin and circulated a statement calling the trial "reminiscent of the terrible year of 1937," a reference to Stalin's show-trials.

Minister of Justice Igor Rogov implicitly criticized journalists for doubting the legitimacy of trying Kazhegeldin in absentia, noting that "two or three" such trials in absentia have already been held in the country, "just nobody paid attention to that," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 27 August. Rogov defended the practice, saying that at least 20 known criminals have escaped to countries with which Kazakhstan has no extradition treaty and that the state cannot bring them to justice except in absentia. He added that Kazakhstan has had trouble extraditing its citizens even from some countries that have signed such a treaty.

The Kazakh newspaper Ekspress-K reported on 17 August that a Kazakh delegation of law-enforcement officials is visiting the United States to press for an extradition agreement between the Kazakh General Prosecutor's Office and the U.S. Justice Department.

CASPIAN SUMMIT POSTPONED AGAIN; NIYAZOV, KHATAMI ADOPTING COMMON STANCE. The summit meeting of the five heads of the Caspian littoral states, planned for October in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat, has been postponed until November or December, President Saparmurat Niyazov announced on Turkmen television on August 27, noting that he had consulted with his Iranian and Russian counterparts about the decision. The summit, called to discuss the Caspian's hotly disputed legal status and division of its hydrocarbon reserves, has already been postponed twice this year. Many analysts have doubted that a summit can achieve much progress given the Caspian states' divergent positions, dramatized on 23 July when an Iranian warship drove an Azeri oil-prospecting vessel from disputed waters.

Complementary reports of a telephone conversation on 23 August between Niyazov and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, cited by the Iranian state news agency IRNA and the Turkmen government newspaper "Neutralnii Turkmenistan," confirmed that Tehran and Ashgabat were closely coordinating their positions on the eve of the expected summit. Khatami stressed the importance of "cooperation and understanding among the five coastal states" and of "a just and collective agreement," IRNA reported, while the Turkmen newspaper said both presidents agreed that "all work on the exploitation of disputed areas of the Caspian should be stopped" until the legal principles behind partition have been resolved. Iran insists that the Caspian be divided into five equal sectors, but Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia have united around the concept of national sectors, which would leave Iran with less than 20 percent of the sea. The Turkmen stance has been unclear. Russian presidential envoy Viktor Kalyuzhnii, quoted by ITAR-TASS on 10 August, expressed confidence that Ashgabat shared the Azeri-Kazakh-Russian position albeit with a few reservations; but on the same day, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani held talks with Niyazov in Ashgabat and stated that the Turkmen and Iranian positions "are close." This week's developments strengthen the impression that Niyazov is resolving to side with Tehran. Khatami promised Niyazov on the telephone that his first foreign trip since his recent re-election will be to Turkmenistan.

Although the summit of presidents has been postponed, Azeri President Heydar Aliyev said that experts from the five states will convene in Astana on 18 September to discuss the Caspian's legal status, Interfax reported on 27 August. Aliyev is due to visit Iran in mid-September.

KAZAKHS DEMAND CEASE-FIRE AFTER RUSSIAN MISSILE ACCIDENT. In a note to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Kazakh diplomats demanded a halt to live-fire exercises at the Ashuluk military test site in Russia's Astrakhan Region, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 24 August, two days after a 5B55R surface-to-air missile from an S-300 launcher went astray and hit Kazakhstan. The missile exploded 12 kilometers from the village of Balkuduk in western Kazakhstan's Atyrau Region, leaving a 14-meter-wide, 5-meter-deep crater. No casualties were reported.

Ashuluk is one of five training grounds being used for this year's annual CIS joint air-defense exercise, Combat Commonwealth 2001 -- three in Russia, the Saryshagan missile range in Kazakhstan, and the Zhaslyk ground in Uzbekistan. The exercise's main phase is due to be staged on August 30 at Ashuluk, however, with the participation of attack aircraft and rocket forces from Russia, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Belarus, including a Belarusian S-300 air-defense brigade which has been blamed for firing the errant missile in the Russian media. Belarus has denied it, saying that the missile was launched by Russian specialists. The accident has been attributed to "technical failures" and an easterly wind.

Astana called for an inquiry and bilateral talks with Moscow to establish legal mechanisms to deal with such incidents, pointing out in its diplomatic note that this was not the first time Russian missiles have landed in Kazakhstan; in fact, Kazakh Commercial Television said on 27 August while commenting on the Defense Ministry's "surprising calmness" about the incident, "It seems that our military officials regard the fall of Russian missiles as nothing extraordinary." The most notorious case of Russian hardware falling on Kazakhstan occurred in 1998, when a Proton rocket launched from the Baykonur space port exploded over the central steppes, spraying the Karaganda Region with toxic heptyl fuel.

Coincidentally the Russian and Kazakh finance ministers were due to meet on 23-24 August in Moscow to discuss Baykonur, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The launching site, which is situated in south-west Kazakhstan, has been leased to Russia since 1994 for $115 million a year, but Moscow only started paying in 1999. Beyond the payment issue there have been other spats in recent years over the transparency of the Russian operation at Baykonur, with the Kazakhs complaining about Russian reluctance to share information about launch preparations and safety procedures.

SPOTLIGHT ON PAST AND POSSIBLE FUTURE OF SEMIPALATINSK. A host of international figures assembled in Almaty this week for a two-day conference on 29-30 August called "The 21st Century: Towards a World Free of Nuclear Weapons," commemorating the tenth anniversary of the closing of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test ground in north-east Kazakhstan, Reuters reported. After the Soviets conducted 456 tests from 1949 to 1989 at the site, over half of them in the atmosphere, President Nursultan Nazarbaev garnered international praise when he shut the site in 1991 and gave up over 1,000 SS-18 missile warheads, eschewing nuclear status for his independent country. Ex-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, ex-Turkish President Suleiman Demirel, and ex-Indian Premier Inder Gujaral, ex-Iranian President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were among those attending the festivities, which included the presentation of Nazarbaev's new book, "Epicenter of Peace."

At a press conference on 28 August the Kazakh president addressed the controversial idea of burying radioactive waste at Semipalatinsk, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Two weeks previously, the research director at Kazakhstan's National Nuclear Center (the new name for the ex-test site) told journalists that spent BN-350 nuclear fuel and radioactive waste from the Mangyshlak atomic power station in the country's western Mangistau region, as well as radioactive waste from abroad, could be disposed of at a storage facility on the territory of Semipalatinsk. Nazarbaev said the plan should not be dismissed too quickly and that he relied on the advice of experts at the national Kazatomprom (Kazakh Atomic Industry) agency. Kazatomprom estimates that Kazakhstan could bring in up to $40 billion over the next three decades by receiving other countries' radioactive waste for disposal.

Gorbachev told reporters the same day that he doubted the wisdom of such a move. Rumors that Semipalatinsk might be revamped as a radioactive dumping ground already stirred considerable reaction earlier this month in the Eastern Kazakhstan Region, where environmental degradation and an appallingly high incidence of cancer and birth defects are part of the Soviet nuclear legacy.

Opening the conference on 29 August, Nazarbaev appealed to foreign donors to help alleviate that legacy of disease and destruction, saying that it would require $1 billion to address the problems.

SWEEPING AMNESTIES IN HONOR OF TENTH-ANNIVERSARY INDEPENDENCE CELEBRATIONS. The Mazhlisi Milli (upper chamber) of the Tajik parliament unanimously passed a draft law "On General Amnesty" submitted by President Imomali Rakhmonov, Interfax reported on 28 August. The bill had been approved unanimously by the Mazhlisi Namoyandagon (lower chamber) five days earlier, when Rakhmonov told the session that the amnesty would affect over 19,000 prisoners, including pregnant women and mothers with large families, minors, World War II veterans, invalids, deserters, foreign nationals, and about 1,000 convicts ill with tuberculosis. Within six months of the president's signing the bill into law, 12,000 prisoners should be released from jail completely. A further 7,000 will receive reduced sentences. The amnesty will not apply to terrorists, murderers, rapists, repeat offenders, or those guilty of crimes against the constitution. It is the largest amnesty in Tajikistan since May 1999, when about 5,000 Islamist rebels were set free in connection with the 1997 peace accord that formally ended the five-year civil war between government and Islamist forces.

Nevertheless, three days after initial parliamentary approval of the amnesty the Tajik police arrested seven Islamists near the capital Dushanbe, AFP reported on 27 August. All seven were members of armed rebel groups, and four were thought to be terrorists who had trained in Afghanistan, police said.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov announced a similar but even bigger amnesty that will affect the sentences of over 50,000 prisoners, more than half of whom will be released from jail forthwith, the Uzbek newspaper "Halq s'ozi" reported on 23 August. Most female convicts, invalids, persons suffering from serious diseases, men over 55, foreign nationals, and persons who were minors when convicted will be eligible for release, with the exception of those guilty of terrorism, drug trafficking, or treason. However Karimov, speaking on Uzbek television on 22 August, said that even "members of terrorist and extremist organizations" would be reprieved if they had "chosen the path of repentance, as confirmed not only by their appeals but also by appeals from their parents and members of the public in their particular village and district. I do not see, and do not want to see, people as enemies of myself or our society."

The newspaper "Halq so'zi" noted that amnesties have become an annual tradition in Uzbekistan on the eve of Independence Day (1 September), but this year's was more sweeping than any to date, a fact the newspaper attributed to progress "in all areas of social life, primarily in liberalizing the judicial and legal systems," adding that Karimov's decree "is a display of the highest humanity by our society and state."

Some analysts have suggested more prosaically that the amnesty was partly aimed at relieving jail overcrowding. Karimov confirmed on television that there are 64,500 prisoners in Uzbekistan; Uzbek Interior Ministry sources have indicated that Uzbek jails were built to accommodate a maximum of 54,000. Prisons in Tajikistan are reportedly no less overcrowded and rife with tuberculosis. In recent years, Karimov has also released inmates before anti-Islamist crackdowns, apparently to make room for anticipated new convicts.

CIS FORCES PRACTICE 'CRUSHING' TERRORISTS... Two-day command-post and staff exercises of the new CIS Collective Rapid Reaction Forces (CRRF) ended in Kyrgyzstan on 24 August and achieved all their principal objectives, CRRF commander Major General Sergei Chernomordin told a press conference in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, where command headquarters are situated. Interfax and the Kyrgyz national news agency Kabar reported that the approximately 30 officers from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan participating in the "Dostuk [Friendship]-2001" exercises went to Kyrgyzstan's southern Batken Province to familiarize themselves with maps and terrain, and to rehearse various military tactics involving multinational units such as establishing roadblocks and coordinating systems of cipher communication, with a view to "crushing international terrorist groups in Central Asia," in the words of a Kyrgyz Defense Ministry spokesman. Batken has been the site of heavy fighting in the previous two summers and experienced some minor skirmishing this year, as militants of the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan have staged incursions into Kyrgyzstan from bases in the Tajik mountains.

Also speaking in Bishkek on 24 August, Kyrgyz Security Council Chairman Misir Ashyrkulov partly credited the CRRF for the lack of any major terrorist attacks this year, calling it a "deterring factor." The CRRF would not launch preemptive strikes on terrorist bases, Ashyrkulov said, since most were located in Afghanistan and the CRRF would not operate outside the CIS.

Somewhat surprisingly, Kazakh Khabar TV said on the same day that the CRRF's main potential enemy was not Islamist terrorist formations, but "the forces of the Taliban." The job of fighting extremists on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border belonged to Kyrgyzstan's Southern Group of Forces and the Interior Ministry troops of the respective states, it said. However, General Chernomordin told the program that a Taliban assault on Tajikistan would activate the CIS Collective Security Treaty and CRRF battalions would be deployed to repulse the attack.

The core force of the CRRF, founded in May, consists of four national battalions from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan; the Russian battalion is stationed in Tajikistan, and the other three are stationed on their own territories. The CRRF's next major exercises, which will involve officers, ordinary troops and military equipment, are tentatively scheduled for October in Kyrgyzstan.

...BUT AKAEV SAYS ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD. In an interview with the Russian newspaper "Izvestiya" on 27 August, Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev acknowledged that Islamic extremism was growing in his country but said that economic improvement, and not force, was the best weapon to fight it. The low standard of living was driving people to embrace radical solutions, he admitted. Uzbek President Karimov made a similar admission in July but said nothing to qualify his regime's tough stance on stamping out Islamist radicalism by force.

Akaev signed a decree on 27 August creating a National Council to oversee a 10-year Comprehensive Development Framework program, sponsored by the World Bank, aimed at reforming state management and social policies to improve living standards in the country, Interfax reported. In July, Akaev launched a major 10-year program of social and economic development specifically for Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan. That program is slated to cost 3.5 billion soms (about $73 million), paid for by grants from various foreign donors including the World Bank. Osh has emerged as a stronghold of the banned, radical Islamist party Hezb-e Tahrir.

According to a survey reported by the Kabar news agency on 26 July, the average monthly salary in Osh Region is 866.7 soms (about $18). More recently the Kyrgyz newspaper "Delo No" website reported a study concluding that 88 percent of Kyrgyz citizens live below the poverty line; a majority of those polled estimated that they needed at least 1,000 soms a month to get by.

Meanwhile six more Hezb-e Tahrir members were arrested last weekend in southern Kyrgyzstan's Dzalal-Abad Region. More than 100 leaflets calling for the establishment of an Islamic state and an illegal firearm were confiscated from them by the police. Over 60 party members have already been arrested in Kyrgyzstan this year.