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Central Asia Report: November 29, 2001

29 November 2001, Volume 1, Number 19

CENTRAL ASIAN STATES OFFER BASES FOR EUROPEAN, CANADIAN WARPLANES. Government sources in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, confirmed on 26 November that President Imomali Rakhmonov agreed, during talks with visiting French Cooperation Minister Charles Josselin three days before, to allow French warplanes to use a Tajik air base in connection with operations in Afghanistan, ITAR-TASS and dpa reported. The base in question was Kulyab in southern Tajikistan. French Mirage jet fighters or bombers would be stationed there, although no details about the estimated size or arrival date of the French military contingent were available, the news agencies said.

Previous press reports of the discussion had emphasized the meeting's economic agenda and said nothing about a burgeoning new Franco-Tajik security relationship. According to Tajik radio and Asia-Plus news agency, Rakhmonov on 23 November blandly declared his interest in attracting French investors and noted that French engineers had helped build the giant Tajik Aluminum Plant, which is one of the mainstays of the republic's economy. Josselin referred vaguely to a mutual agreement to "hold a more intensive political dialogue next week."

In a routine that has become familiar in the last few months, Tajik Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov immediately denied reports that a Western military presence in Tajikistan was imminent. At a press briefing on 26 November, reported by the Tajik news agency Varorud, Nazarov stated that there had been no discussions about the deployment of French fighters or bombers on Tajik territory, which in any case could be used by members of the U.S.-led coalition "only for humanitarian and rescue purposes." A flurry of similar denials and qualifications from Dushanbe followed reports on 3 November that it would be opening one or more of its aerodromes to the U.S. air force. Meanwhile, another American military delegation arrived in the Tajik capital on 26 November to discuss basing rights, Interfax reported, noting that a 12-man Pentagon team has already been in the country for weeks inspecting Kulyab. Although Kulyab airport is a sprawling facility, and was a key launching pad for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, it is questionable whether it could simultaneously accommodate U.S. bombers and transport planes, French jets, and ongoing commercial air traffic that now includes Russian Emergencies Ministry planes carrying humanitarian cargoes destined for northern Afghanistan, according to Asia-Plus on 20 November.

In Uzbekistan, too, Europeans appear to be negotiating separately from Washington for the use of military facilities. While the Pentagon has secured the rights to use Hanabad air base near the southern Uzbek city of Qarshi, Western media have reported a military build-up by non-American coalition forces at Shahrisabz, about 100 kilometers from Qarshi. Both French and British inspectors recently visited Shahrisabz, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting noted on 21 November. In fact, on the same day, Minister Josselin flew to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent to address the problem of some 60 French paratroopers who were apparently stranded in Shahrisabz on their way to the Afghan town of Mazar-i-Sharif, where they had orders to secure the airport. They had been stuck in southern Uzbekistan for two days awaiting permission from the Northern Alliance to enter Afghanistan, Reuters and dpa reported. Uzbek radio said that Josselin met Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov on 22 November, presumably to ask him to intercede with Northern Alliance forces, many of whom are ethnic Uzbeks and at least partially susceptible to Tashkent's influence.

Josselin was less successful in persuading the Uzbek leadership to speed up humanitarian aid deliveries to Afghanistan -- which at the time of his visit had been held up for 11 days -- by opening the kilometer-long Friendship Bridge over the Amu Darya River marking the Afghan-Uzbek border. The bridge has been closed since 1998 due to Uzbek security worries, forcing aid agencies to transport supplies across the frontier slowly and inefficiently by barge. Nevertheless, the bridge will remain closed until Afghanistan is stable, an Uzbek Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated on 22 November, according to IRNA. Two barges carrying 250 metric tons each of food, tents, and winter clothes cross the river daily, Uzbek TV said on 25 November, adding that 1,500 tons of cargo had been dispatched so far and that plans called for almost 16,000 tons of aid supplies to be shipped across the Amu Darya by the end of 2002.

Paris further requested permission from Kyrgyzstan to deploy Mirage warplanes at a Kyrgyz air base, ITAR-TASS reported on 24 November. On 28 November, Security Council Deputy Secretary General Askarbek Mameev revealed that Italy and Canada, as well as France, had asked for use of Kyrgyz aerodromes and that the Kyrgyz leadership would be showing foreign experts a base at Kant, near Bishkek, and another near Osh in the south of the country, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz bureau reported. But Mameev warned that the bases were in a dilapidated condition, with no modern equipment.

Officials in Bishkek reacted defensively to reports that, in exchange for military basing rights, the French government had promised to help it restructure its debts to the Paris Club. It has been widely suggested that Washington, as part of its own deals to use Central Asian air bases, pledged tens of millions of dollars to Dushanbe and promised to exert leverage with international financial institutions on behalf of Tashkent. But a Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry representative denied reports of a deal with Paris, Interfax said on 26 November. On the same day, a joint statement by the Finance Ministry and the National Bank acknowledged that Bishkek was intending to apply to the Paris Club for debt restructuring, but stressed that it had not done so yet. The country's foreign debt amounted to $1.4 billion at the start of October, and $110 million is due for repayment this year, according to Kabar on 26 November. About $350 million of the total foreign debt is owed to Paris Club creditors, RFE/RL Kyrgyz News said on 27 November.

A NEW STANDARD-BEARER FOR THE KAZAKH OPPOSITION? With political analysts still striving to assess to the fall-out from last week's political clashes in Kazakhstan -- and differing over such basic issues as whether Rakhat Aliev's position has been strengthened or weakened -- perhaps the major consequence of the power struggle was to focus a spotlight on 38-year-old Galymzhan Zhaqiyanov, who was fired from his post of governor of Pavlodar region by Aliev's father-in-law, President Nursultan Nazarbaev (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 22 November 2001). Zhaqiyanov, whom Aliyev accused of orchestrating the campaign that led to his resignation from the National Security Committee two weeks ago, seems also to have provided the main impetus behind the formation on 18 November of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK) political movement that Nazarbaev acted swiftly to eviscerate. By 22 November, some DCK leaders were already bleating that their party's aims corresponded with the president's and did not seek "confrontation" with his administration -- and had become so docile that Nazarbaev, rather hypocritically, even praised the party and its democratic goals, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Zhaqiyanov was replaced last week by First Deputy Prime Minister Danial Akhmetov, who had been Pavlodar governor from 1994 to 1997. But since being sacked, Zhaqiyanov has done two things that suggest he might be thinking of positioning himself as Nazarbaev's long-term main opposition in place of Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who, after being sentenced in absentia in September to 10 years in prison for abuse of power, cannot maintain his political viability indefinitely from self-imposed exile in London.

On 22 November, Zhaqiyanov announced that he would not be abandoning politics, nor would he renounce the political principles and opinions that had motivated him to co-found the DCK, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported -- in particular, his view that democratic reforms must be accelerated in the country and that regional executive officials should be elected locally rather than being appointed by the central government. Thus the ex-governor said that he would never again accept a post to which he was appointed, but only if he were elected, "which implies the confidence of the people," the news agency reported.

Moreover, on 24 November Zhaqiyanov announced that he intended to sue Prime Minister Kasymzhomart Toqaev for attacking his "honor, dignity, and professional reputation" -- a reference to televised remarks by Toqaev on 20 November in which he severely criticized the governor's economic stewardship of Pavlodar region and called for him to be sacked by Nazarbaev (which he was). According to Zhaqiyanov, his dismissal "was obviously clearly politically motivated and was basically an attempt to suppress dissent," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 24 November. Significantly, many analysts have suggested that Toqaev's statement was delivered on Nazarbaev's orders. Zhaqiyanov was suggesting as much himself, saying on 22 November that Toqaev "was forced to make it" and concluding, "The root of this lies deeper." In suing the prime minister while hinting that he is the president's puppet, Zhaqiyanov may obliquely be trying to retaliate against Nazarbaev himself.

Meanwhile in Kyrgyzstan, a libel suit brought against President Askar Akaev by his erstwhile main political rival Feliks Kulov, the jailed leader of the opposition Ar-Namys (Dignity) Party, could begin in Bishkek next month, the newspaper "Res publika" reported on 26 November. Kulov has accused the president of insulting his honor and dignity in his book "The Memorable Decade," published in August, in which Akaev said his ex-vice president was power-hungry, "lacking moral principles," and collaborated with local mafias. Kulov is serving a seven-year prison sentence after being found guilty of various charges, including abuse of power, which he says were politically motivated.

NOT ALL QUIET ON THE SINO-KYRGYZ FRONT. A scheduled debate in Kyrgyzstan's People's Assembly (the parliament's upper chamber) on the constitutionality of the Sino-Kyrgyz border treaty -- in the form in which it has been presented to the parliament for ratification -- had to be postponed after the government failed to provide deputies with the relevant documents and maps, RFE/RL Kyrgyz News reported on 22 November. The current parliament is unhappy about two agreements signed by President Akaev and Chinese Chairman Jiang Zemin in 1996 and 1999 delineating their nations' frontiers, because they call for Kyrgyzstan to cede approximately 125,000 hectares of disputed territory. Deputies have refused to ratify the 1999 agreement, and some factions have noisily accused Akaev of selling out Kyrgyz territorial interests to Beijing in exchange for trade or security concessions, and of trying to bulldoze a flawed treaty through the legislature without due process. Akaev's position has been that the 1999 agreement is merely an extension of the 1996 treaty, and thus does not require further ratification. Last week's failure to provide parliamentarians with necessary documentation can only deepen suspicion of Akaev's motives; the Chairman of the Interparliamentary Affairs Committee of the Legislative Assembly (the parliament's lower chamber) had to ask the government five times before it would show him a map of the areas Kyrgyzstan would surrender to China under the 1999 agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 November 2001). The Chinese parliament ratified the treaty in April.

According to Kabar news agency on 26 November, the Kyrgyz parliament will revisit the border issue in the 2002 spring session. Upper chamber Speaker Altay Borubaev said that most deputies accepted the idea of sharing disputed areas with China. Eighty percent of the Khan-Tengri Mountains will belong to Kyrgyzstan, while the Uzengu-Kuush Gorge, which was a bone of contention under the USSR, will be divided 70 percent to Kyrgyzstan and 30 percent to China, Kabar said.

Resolving border disputes once and for all would be conducive to friendly bilateral relations, Xinhua news agency said on 25 November, while it noted that the outstanding problems did not prevent Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Muratbek Imanaliev, who was in Beijing to meet Chinese counterpart Tang Jiaxuan, from signing a joint communique pledging closer cooperation against terrorism within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The SCO, which in recent months has increasingly focused on coordinating government positions against regional terrorist and secessionist movements, evolved from precursor organization formed explicitly to delineate China's borders with newly independent Central Asian states.

On 23 November Bishkek began addressing an even trickier border issue -- involving Tashkent's position that the Uzbek military can violate its neighbors' frontiers as it considers necessary to pursue Islamist terrorists -- when the Kyrgyz Legislative Assembly opened a debate on the bombing of the Kyrgyz village of Kara-Teyit in the south of the country in August 1999 by the Uzbek air force. That incident left three civilians dead and 28 wounded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 November 2001). Kara-Teyit had been occupied by militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) as part of an incursion into Kyrgyzstan's Batken region from Tajikistan. Bishkek has never demanded any compensation from Tashkent for the raid. Nevertheless, the office of the Kyrgyz prosecutor-general said a criminal investigation in the Kara-Teyit incident would be resumed, Kabar reported on 23 November. The case had been suspended in March 2001, ostensibly for lack of proof that the bomber-planes were Uzbek, but a parliamentary commission has now established that they were two Uzbek TU-24s, the agency said.

In a comparable development, Varorud reported on 27 November that Uzbek border guards have shown no respect for the boundary with Tajikistan's northern Panzhakant district and have effectively appropriated 700 hectares of Tajik land, driving local people off it and planting the area with mines. The district's commandant has complained to the Uzbek authorities to no avail, the agency said.