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Central Asia Report: December 13, 2001

13 December 2001, Volume 1, Number 21

POWELL VISIT HINTS AT LONG-TERM INTERESTS, SHORT-TERM TRADE-OFFS IN POST-TALIBAN CENTRAL ASIA. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made his first tour of Central Asia last week, visiting Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan as part of an eight-day, nine-nation, coalition-building exercise that also included stops in Romania, Turkey, Belgium, Russia, Germany, France, and Great Britain. (A scheduled stop in Kyrgyzstan was canceled at the last minute due to bad weather.) Whereas the Clinton administration's interest in the Central Asian states was narrowly focused on oil and gas pipelines, and the Rumsfeld Pentagon has been cultivating regional governments for immediate strategic advantage in the campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, this visit by America's top diplomat suggested to many observers that the Bush administration is now looking to craft a more rounded, long-term approach toward the region, AFP said on 6 December.

Powell arrived in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, on 7 December and held talks with Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov, Defense Minister Qodir Ghulomov, and President Islam Karimov the next day, Western and Russian news agencies reported. At a joint press conference with Karimov following their meeting, Powell stated that U.S.-Uzbek relations had been brought to a "qualitatively new level" and that American interests in Uzbekistan were long-term and broad-based, encompassing closer cooperation not only in political and security matters but in economic development and human rights, Interfax reported. Furthermore, "our interests in this region should be permanent and these relations will continue after the [Afghan] crisis," Powell said. In a letter he delivered to Karimov, read aloud on Uzbek TV on 8 December, U.S. President George W. Bush continued the theme of "developing a long-term partnership with Uzbekistan" that went beyond "the joint fight against terrorism and regimes supporting terrorists." Bush wrote that he intended to triple the amount of aid to support political and economic reforms in Uzbekistan, and invited Karimov to Washington in the coming months.

Ever since the original talk of a "qualitatively new relationship" between Washington and Tashkent with the signing of a security pact on 7 October, officials from both sides have refused to comment on widespread speculation that Uzbekistan has been expecting political and financial pay-offs for its cooperation in the military campaign against the Taliban, chiefly by making the air base at Hanabad in the south of the country available to some 1,500-2,000 U.S. troops. Thus the reference in Bush's letter to a tripling of the amount of assistance was illuminating. Moreover, on 6 December the Uzbek newspaper "Narodnoye slovo" printed the alleged text of an inter-governmental memorandum, signed 30 November, whereby Washington pledged to Tashkent $100 million in "additional economic and humanitarian aid and assistance in the security sphere." A further $50 million in credits was promised through the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank of the United States to support Uzbek small and medium-sized businesses.

The document's preamble assessed highly the "qualitatively new long-term relations developing between the two states" and the need for "consistent implementation of democratic and market reforms in Uzbekistan." While in Central Asia, Powell reminded journalists traveling with him that America would embrace nations "looking for their place in the sun" on condition of democratization and economic liberalization, Reuters reported on 8 December. However, as Powell admitted at the press conference in Tashkent, he and Karimov had disagreed over the slow pace of democratization in Uzbekistan yet acknowledged that closer bilateral cooperation would proceed apace nonetheless, Interfax reported on 8 December.

FRIENDSHIP BRIDGE OPEN TO AID CONVOYS. The most tangible result of Powell's talks with Karimov was an agreement to reopen the Friendship Bridge on the Uzbek-Afghan frontier, Uzbek and Western news sources reported. The 1-kilometer bridge has been closed since 1996, when Taliban military gains in northern Afghanistan impelled the Uzbeks to block off the route over the Amu Darya River due to security concerns.

Since the Northern Alliance's recent recapture of the key Afghan stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif, international relief organizations have been lobbying urgently for the bridge to be made available for deliveries of food and medical supplies that hitherto have had to be transported inefficiently by barge, CNN and "The New York Times" said on 9 December. On the same day the bridge, still heavily guarded by Uzbek soldiers in flak jackets, was finally opened after a ceremony in the Uzbek border city of Termez. The first train in years took 15 wagons of aid from the UN World Food Program from Termez to the Afghan town of Hairaton, some 65 kilometers from Mazar-i-Sharif, and was guarded on the Afghan side by ethnic Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, "The Guardian" reported on 10 December. UN agencies estimate that about 7 million Afghans could require food assistance this winter.

Meanwhile, the Tajik government decided on 8 December to reopen the border checkpoint at the Nizhnii Pyanzh river port for ferries carrying humanitarian cargoes, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. The crossing had been shut in September 2000 out of security worries after Taliban fighters came near to the frontier. The first convoy in over a year crossed on 9 December carrying 200 metric tons of food, medicine, and winter clothes destined for Kabul and Kondoz, the news agencies said.

'MAYBE' TO KAZAKH BASES, 'NO' TO A TRANS-IRAN PIPELINE. Powell flew directly from Tashkent to the Kazakh capital, Astana, on 8 December, skipping a planned stopover in Kyrgyzstan due to bad weather, Interfax said. After meeting his Kazakh counterpart, Yerlan Idrisov, Powell spent two hours behind closed doors with President Nursultan Nazarbaev on 9 December and offered few details of their conversation at a subsequent joint press conference, according to Khabar TV. After noting that he was conveying an invitation to Nazarbaev to visit Bush in Washington on 21 December, Powell told journalists that the possible role of Kazakh air bases, military infrastructure, and technical personnel to expedite the transport of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan had been discussed, the television reported. But he did not indicate whether Washington was going to take up Nazarbaev on his offer, made last month, to host foreign troops on Kazakh soil for the duration of the operations in Afghanistan. The Kazakh president had still received no definite request as of 9 December, Reuters reported. Kazakhstan has opened its airspace to military over-flights since September.

While Powell and Nazarbaev underlined their agreement on antiterrorism measures, questions about the best pipeline routes to transport Kazakh oil to Western markets brought out their differences. Powell asserted that Kazakh crude would be of "critical importance" for supplying Western energy requirements in upcoming years, Reuters reported on 9 December. And after meeting American businessmen in Astana Powell said that he was "particularly impressed" with the size of investments planned in the local oil sector, "in the range of $200 billion over the next five to 10 years," according to the Kazakh Embassy in Washington's news bulletin of 11 December. But he reiterated that Washington would contemplate only two of the three possible export routes most commonly discussed for Caspian oil: the Caspian Pipeline Consortium pipe, officially opened last month and stretching 1,530 kilometers from Kazakhstan's Tengiz field to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk; and a pipeline still on the drawing board that would run from Azerbaijan to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. The third possibility, a pipeline running through Iran, remains unacceptable to Washington on political grounds, "and I see nothing in the post-September 11 that suggests we should rethink that," said Powell as quoted by Reuters.

By contrast Nazarbaev, while saying that he supported the Baku-Ceyhan route, maintained that a pipe through Iran would be "most expedient," Interfax and AFP reported. He stressed that it was not merely his opinion: "Our investors engaged in the oil business reckoned the most profitable route was through Iran and the Persian Gulf," the president said, adding, "We are interested in multiple routes."

In fact, the political stabilization of Afghanistan could open a fourth route toward the sea for Central Asia's landlocked nations. Nazarbaev noted as much on 8 December, when he told a meeting of senior staff at the Ministry of Defense that a peaceful Afghanistan would be a great boon for their country since it "has a very convenient location allowing Kazakhstan access to the world's oceans," and added, "We will be working on this," Khabar TV reported.

UZBEK PRESIDENT MANEUVERING TO EXTEND HIS TERM -- TWO YEARS TO LIFE? The seventh session of the Uzbek parliament, which functions essentially as a rubber-stamp for President Karimov, ended on 7 December having formally debated bills on credit unions and insurance companies; passed a state budget plan for 2002; and, most importantly, overwhelmingly voted to hold a referendum next month on extending the president's term by two years, Interfax and Uzbek news sources reported.

Karimov, whose current term began in 2000 when he gained over 92 percent of the vote in an election that democracy watchdogs called a sham, was due to step down in 2005. But the parliament voted unanimously, barring only two abstentions, to hold a referendum on 27 January with two questions on the ballot, Interfax said. The first would be, "Do you agree that next time a bicameral parliament should be elected?" At present Uzbekistan has a unicameral parliament with 250 members. By the new plan, Karimov told delegates on 6 December, members would be elected to the lower house as a standing body -- rather than, as now, meeting twice a year while holding other jobs for the rest of the year, an arrangement modeled after Soviet parliamentary practice. Meanwhile seats in the upper house would be distributed equally, or according to a quota, to representatives of the national provinces, the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakistan, and the city of Tashkent, Uzbek TV said.

The second question on the ballot would be, "Do you agree to changing the constitutional term of presidential powers from five to seven years?" Parliamentary Speaker Erkin Halilov defended the proposal on the grounds that it would make government more effective and promote democracy, the television reported. Since experience proves that two years of a democratically elected president's term in office are wasted -- the first year is spent getting his administration in place, while the last year is spent preparing for the next round of elections -- delegates concluded it was "logically correct and scientifically grounded" to add more two years to the presidential term. Halilov went further, however, and proposed that Karimov be made president for life -- an idea that he claimed had been endorsed by many citizens' letters, and that drew sycophantic applause from the assembled parliamentarians.

Currently the only Central Asian leader to have been made perpetual president is Turkmenistan's Saparmurat Niyazov. The Uzbek Constitution limits the president to two consecutive five-year terms. Karimov was elected president in 1991; in 1995 a referendum extended his term to 2000. In 2000 he was elected again, seemingly to a second and final term. But he is likely to argue that the 1991 election, because it was held before the new Uzbek Constitution was ratified, did not count. In short, the January referendum (whose result is a given) positions Karimov to run for a seven-year term in 2007, which he will probably claim is only his second term, although he will then have been in power in independent Uzbekistan for 16 years.

As noted by a EurasiaNet report of 7 December, the timing of Karimov's crude move to grab two extra years of power -- the day before Colin Powell arrived in Tashkent to discuss bilateral cooperation on human rights and democratization -- almost appeared designed to embarrass the U.S secretary of state. At any rate, it showed a certain defiance on Karimov's part, or else confidence that he is so indispensable to the U.S. war effort that he can flaunt democratic norms with impunity.

MOSCOW REAFFIRMS ITS FOOTHOLD IN TAJIKISTAN. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov made a brief but high-profile visit to Tajikistan on 7-8 December, significantly timed to coincide with, and in a sense compete with, Colin Powell's excursion into a region long regarded by Moscow as falling under its own sphere of influence. It was Ivanov's second visit to the country in a month and a half.

The future status and functioning of the Russian 201st Motor Rifle Division, based in Tajikistan, were high on the agenda in meetings with Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Khayrulloev and President Imomali Rakhmonov, with discussions focusing on the upgrading of the division's combat readiness, weaponry and equipment, and the possibility of legally designating the division's barracks in Tajikistan as a Russian military base abroad, Russian news agencies reported. Such a juridical status, which is presently being negotiated under the aegis of the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, would materially affect questions of ownership of property and financial responsibility for military infrastructure, Ivanov told ITAR-TASS on 6 December.

It would also send a powerful political signal about turf to Western powers that have secured temporary basing agreements from the Tajik government. Some 1,500 international troops and 35 warplanes and helicopters, including American F-18 bombers, C-130 transport planes, and French Mirage jets will be stationed at Kulyab, some 300 kilometers south of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, ostensibly for humanitarian and search-and-rescue missions in Afghanistan only, Interfax said on 9 December. That said, the airfield is in a very poor state, and Italian experts looking to base their Tornados there told the newspaper "Corriere della Sera" on 7 December it would probably be impossible. Nevertheless, the first Western military aircraft are expected to arrive in Kulyab in 10 days' time, dpa quoted the Tajik deputy premier as saying on 10 December. Meanwhile Ivanov was at pains to stress that, although the Western newcomers will make a contribution to regional stability, the ultimate guarantors of peace and security during recent years have been Russian forces. According to him, the 201st division has played a crucial role since the early 1990s as regional peacekeepers, RIA-Novosti reported on 7 December, and continued to undertake special and indispensable duties in the region; Ivanov told ITAR-TASS that Russian guards on the Tajik-Afghan border had confiscated over five metric tons of hard drugs this year, including two tons of heroin.

Meeting the Afghan provisional government's foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah, in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, on 7 December, Ivanov publicly promised to entertain positively any requests for military training, materiel, or humanitarian aid, RIA-Novosti reported. It is likely that he also reminded Abdullah privately that it was thanks to Russian arms deliveries through Tajikistan this autumn that the Northern Alliance was able to drive back the Taliban, and that consequently Ivanov warned the new Afghan government against imagining that Americans would be dislodging Russia as the dominant power in the region anytime soon. Meanwhile, Ivanov and Rakhmonov expressed a common position of support for the Afghan interim government at a press conference in Dushanbe and said both their countries would be actively involved in establishing a stable post-Taliban order in Afghanistan, Iranian radio reported on 8 December.