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Central Asia Report: January 24, 2007

Turkmenistan: Interim Leader Looks Cautiously To China

By Daniel Kimmage
January 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Under the watchful eye of the late Turkmen President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan emerged as a crucial link in the chain of gas suppliers to Europe, and initial speculation in the wake of Niyazov's death (announced on December 21) focused its implications for European energy security.

But the situation has remained calm, with Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov carrying out what appears to be a smoothly choreographed succession. A presidential election is scheduled for February 11, and Berdymukhammedov -- who survived countless purges to rise to the post of deputy prime minister -- has taken pains to reassure the international community that Turkmenistan will honor all of its existing natural-gas contracts.

Berdymukhammedov said Turkmenistan would "strive to deliver energy resources, especially natural gas, to world markets, adhering to the existing contracts and looking for new partners."

Looking To Diversify

And by all accounts, gas has continued to stream northward to Russia and, in lesser quantities, southward to Iran. At the same time, the acting president has suggested that Turkmenistan may seek to diversify its current export options, currently all dependent on Russia with the exception of a single pipeline to Iran.

Berdymukhammedov's strongest hint at a commitment to diversification came at a meeting with voters in mid-January (in Lebap Province on January 17, NewsCentralAsia reported the next day). Referring to an April 2006 agreement to supply China with 30 billion cubic meters of gas a year beginning in 2009, Berdymukhammedov vowed that Turkmenistan would meet its obligation ("from the right bank of Amudarya") to Beijing. In televised comments, he added that the country would "strive to deliver [Turkmenistan's] energy resources, especially natural gas, to world markets, adhering to the existing contracts and looking for new partners," AP reported.

Discussing The Routes

The comment is striking in light of a report in Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" within days of Niyazov's death in late December. The paper reported that a preliminary agreement might have emerged on the precise route for a planned Turkmenistan-China pipeline -- a massive undertaking that would span thousands of kilometers and could cost up to $10 billion.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev visited China in late December. According to the Russian newspaper, a source told Interfax that in the course of Nazarbaev's visit, talks touched on the choice between a pipeline only through Kazakhstan or through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The source reportedly said that "preference was given to the Kazakhstan option, although the details weren't discussed."

How probable is it that Turkmenistan's new leadership -- if it succeeds in consolidating its power -- will move on the China pipeline? When the framework agreement was signed during Niyazov's trip to Beijing less than a year ago (April 2006), experts greeted the project with skepticism. They pointed to the geographic and political obstacles, and high costs. Some viewed the proposed pipeline as a bargaining ploy in negotiations with Russia, which could stand to lose out if Turkmenistan began shipping gas to China without boosting production. And indeed, later in 2006 Ashgabat secured a hefty price increase from Moscow.

Still, Berdymukhammedov's public emphasis on the pipeline project to China is noteworthy. And the possibility that Kazakhstan might have agreed to be the transit country is plausible. Russian opposition to a Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline is a near certainty. Moreover, Uzbekistan's international isolation and close ties to Russia render it an unlikely choice as a transit country for a pipeline project that Moscow would like to scupper. Kazakh President Nazarbaev, on the other hand, is the regional master of multi-vector foreign policy, and he recently appointed a Chinese-speaking prime minister, Karim Masimov.

None of this renders the expensive, complex pipeline probable. But it edges it closer to the realm of the possible.

Turkmenistan: Presidential Campaign Reflects Latent Social Tensions

By Daniel Kimmage

The presidential palace in Ashgabat

January 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Initial speculation in the wake of Turkmen President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov's death, announced on December 21, focused on the possibility of instability and its implications for European energy security.

But the situation has remained calm, with Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, a former dentist and longtime Niyazov insider, stepping into the departed Turkmenbashi's extravagant shoes in what appeared to be a smoothly choreographed succession. A presidential election is scheduled for February 11, and Berdymukhammedov -- who survived countless purges to rise to the post of deputy prime minister -- seems poised to triumph over five little-known competitors.

Nonetheless, there are indications of growing public discontent in the isolated country and even that this discontent is influencing the presidential campaign.

Berdymukhammedov made a number of statements in January promising reforms. These included the extension of secondary-school and university education, a review of pension payments, heightened attention to the agricultural sector, and broader access to the Internet.

With the exception of the sole civil-society initiative -- easier access to the Internet, which is currently heavily restricted -- all of these reforms seem eminently probable for the simple reason that they are aimed at reversing the deceased president's most onerous initiatives and reducing social tension.

"It is not the opposition based abroad that [officials] fear, but domestic protests," one Turkmen activist in exile noted.

Increasing school education from nine to 10 years, and university education from two years in a classroom plus two years of on the job training to five years, could give young people a greater sense of opportunity. Reviewing the pension system, which Niyazov curtailed in early 2006 despite reported protests, could benefit the most vulnerable sectors of society.

Agriculture-Sector Reform

The agriculture sector is a special case. Niyazov had spoken of the need for reform -- and sacked a number of officials for allegedly falsifying crop statistics -- shortly before his death amid unofficial reports of grain and bread shortages. Recent information is contradictory. Deutsche Welle reported on January 15 that despite daily Security Council meetings led by Berdymukhammedov and aimed at remedying the situation, supplies of seed and fertilizer remain inadequate, and bread and flour are still scarce in some regions.

But Farid Tukhbatullin, a representative of the Vienna-based Turkmenistan Initiative group told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) on January 13 that "there used to be problems with bread deliveries, and people would form long queues to buy it." But he added that his group has "information from Ashgabat, Lebap, and other regions that the shops are full of bread."

A grocery store in Ashgabat (public domain)

If his information is accurate, it might not indicate a fundamental improvement -- the regime could have tapped reserves to create a temporary surplus. But the overall emphasis on limited social reform points to high-level concern with the situation on the ground. An unidentified human rights activist now living outside Turkmenistan confirmed this in a comment to IWPR, saying that the authorities' "concern is that if something sparks protests, it will immediately blow up into a conflagration."

"It is not the opposition based abroad that [officials] fear, but domestic protests," the activist noted.

But the remainder of the January 13 IWPR report indicates that the authorities' knee-jerk reaction to the danger of social protest has been to step up surveillance of the populace by Turkmenistan's formidable security services. This is why -- despite the probability of limited reforms to reduce latent social tensions -- any significant relaxation of the country's numerous restrictions on civil society -- including access to information -- appears, for now, less than probable.

CIS: Freedom House Sees Further Democracy Decline

By Nikola Krastev

Moscow demonstrators in June 2006 protest the government's "information blockade"

NEW YORK, January 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Systematic efforts to control media in countries of the former Soviet Union have intensified in 2006 indicating further erosion of civil liberties. That's the conclusion of the new "Freedom In The World" report by Freedom House, a U.S.-based organization that promotes democracy.

The survey shows that the percentage of countries regarded as "free" has failed to increase for almost a decade, leading to a trend the authors label "freedom stagnation." The report notes the entrenchment of authoritarian rule in the majority of countries of the former Soviet Union, and gives moderately positive marks only to Georgia and Ukraine.

One of the troubling developments in 2006, the report says, is a "growing pushback against organizations, movements, and media that monitor human rights or advocate for the expansion of democratic freedom."

A systematic effort to weaken or eliminate pro-democracy forces, the report says, is most prevalent among authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union.

'Cleaning the Media Slate'

Russia is a stark example. Christopher Walker, one of the report's authors, says Russian authorities are showing creativity in their approach to stifle whatever is left of independent media.

Walker says in 2006 the Kremlin turned its attention to the print media, an area that in previous years it didn't bother to deal with, deeming it not really significant for public opinion.

"Over the course of 2006, there was significant attention to the print media which in large measure had been the last remaining media, albeit the weakest, to have an opportunity to talk about issues in the alternative from the Kremlin's position," Walker said. "This was one of the features of the media landscape in Russia in 2006 where papers such as "Novaya gazeta", "Nezavisimaya gazeta," and "Kommersant" all came up against, in one fashion or another, either management or ownership takeovers with Kremlin-friendly entities."

With parliamentary elections coming late in 2007 and a presidential election in early 2008, the Russian government, Walker says, is "cleaning the media slate" and has made in the past year a number of preemptive strikes to limit the freedom of expression.

Targeting Cyberspace

"One of the worrying developments in one of the areas that had at least until recently been left unmolested, is in the cyber sphere," he says. "We saw in late 2006 a Kremlin-friendly company take over the Russian-language portion of 'Live Journal,' which was the most heavily used blogging platform in Russia. [This] has only had a negative impact on blogging activity in the country, which is very serious and very negative development."

Even blogs have come under Russian government scrutiny (ITAR-TASS file photo)

According to some reports blogging -- particularly blogging related to political issues -- has significantly decreased in Russia over the course of 2006 because bloggers are concerned that their activities may have been secretly monitored by authorities.

As the most formidable player from the former Soviet Union, Russia sets the tone for many of the CIS countries some of which are closely following in Moscow's footsteps to quash dissent, Walker says.

"The focus on the media sector in most of the former Soviet Union has been very systematic and very intense over the last cycle," Walker says. "They've really been fine-tuning the control using legal, economic, and political means to control the media. And this is one of the features of the current wave of control and denial of freedom in the region."

The survey ranks countries according to how free they are in terms of political rights and civil liberties, giving them a score of one -- the best -- to seven, the worst.

Central Asian Police States

At the bottom of the list, as in the last few years, are Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which along with North Korea, Cuba, and Libya get the lowest possible marks for political rights and civil liberties.

The situation in Uzbekistan, Walker says, did not change significantly from 2005.

"Uzbekistan's trajectory over the last several years has eroded in large measure because the regime there has become much more repressive," he explains. "This is emblematic or at least symbolized by the 2005 events in Andijon. Uzbekistan is a highly repressive police state whose control has only increased and more negatively affected an already extremely difficult environment."

Flushed with oil money Kazakhstan fares relatively better than its more repressive neighbors in Central Asia, Walker says, but the country is clearly "not free" and has a long way to go.

"Kazakhstan certainly has the advantage of enormous energy wealth," Walker says. "Despite that energy wealth the country still is extremely restrictive in terms of political rights it affords its citizens, certainly in terms of the basic quality of the elections it holds and the opportunity for alternative political forces or voices to participate in a meaningful way, in terms of its control of the news media which is significant and also renders the news-media in the country to be not free."

The only country in Central Asia which holds the rank of "partly free" is Kyrgyzstan, but the country is going now through tumultuous political changes and the final outcome remain uncertain, Walker says.

"As a general matter what we've seen in Kyrgyzstan over the course of the last year has been a real wrestling to advance reforms," Walker says. "And on the heels of the events of spring 2005 [change of government] there's been a very unsteady effort to try to advance reform in the country. So, in a basic way the powers that have asserted themselves there have been looking to advance a host of reforms. They've met these challenges with very limited success."

Belarus is the lowest-rated country in Europe with a distinctively repressive regime, Walker says, that denies any political rights to its citizens.

"In Belarus, likewise, you have extremely difficult conditions for the citizens of the country, chiefly because they're denied any meaningful political participation," Walker says. "We've seen in response to the pushback from democratic reformers in that country, even more focused repression from the regime there, which in some ways signals their own sense of insecurity."

Afghanistan is unchanged in the listing compared to 2006, barely making the cut for a "partly free" country in the 2007 survey.

Both Iraq and Iran are considered "not free." But Iraq has fallen one step lower in 2007 -- from 5 to 6 -- in the ranking for civil liberties.

Georgia, unchanged from 2006, is ranked as "partly free," while Ukraine, also unchanged, is considered "free."

On a global scale, the report says, the state of freedom in 2006 changed little from 2005. The number of countries judged "free" in 2006 stood at 90 and represented 46 percent of the world's population.

There were 58 qualifying as "partly free" with 17 percent of the world's population. The number of countries considered "not free" stood at 45 with 37 percent of the world's population.

Central Asia: EU Commissioner Seeks Closer European Ties

External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner (file photo)

January 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, has said the union is working toward closer ties with the Central Asian region despite the human rights failings there. In comments on January 15, Ferrero-Waldner warned that neglecting Central Asia would merely drive the region toward Russia and China.

In highlighting relations with the region, the European Commission has adopted the initiative of Germany, which has long sought to focus Europe's attention on energy-rich Central Asia.

Ferrero-Waldner said the commission is working closely with Germany -- which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency -- and other union members to create a common strategy toward the region.

Winning Friends...

She said failure to do so would leave Russia and China in a position to draw the five Central Asian republics further into their spheres of influence.

In seeking to avoid such a scenario, Ferrero-Waldner said the EU is not simply acting only out of self-interest.

"If we don't engage with these countries, these countries will turn eastwards and turn to Russia and China."

"I think it's not a matter of securing the energy resources only -- it's really a matter of engaging with these [Central Asian] countries," Ferrero-Waldner told Reuters. "If we don't engage with these countries, these countries will turn eastwards and turn to Russia and China. And I think it's highly important that [Central Asians] also look very strongly towards Europe."

Human rights activists fear that the EU's quest for alternative energy sources might prompt it to sacrifice promotion of human rights and democratic reforms in Central Asia.

The search for alternatives to Russian oil and gas has become particularly acute in the past year, when supplies to EU states have twice been reduced because of Moscow's energy rows with Ukraine and Belarus.

...And Influencing People

Ferrero-Waldner said she understands those concerns about human rights.

"I, of course, completely understand the concerns that there are there [in Central Asia] by some human rights groups," Reuters quoted her as saying. "I myself have been chairperson-in-office of the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] in the year 2000, and then -- for the first time ever -- the focus was put [on] Central Asia. But I think we also cannot let these countries go and just slip back to other partners."

She said it is "highly important" for the EU to work with the Central Asian states -- including to speak up on questions of human rights -- and use this relationship to improve the climates in those countries.

Regional specialist Matthew Clements, of Jane's strategic information organization, told RFE/RL recently that the Western powers have lost their focus on Central Asia.

"The Western efforts in the area [so far] have been disunified," Clements said. "I think the United States has become less interested in the region as the insurgency in Iraq has gone on. The point is, there has not really been a unified EU policy. It would be very interesting to see what the proposal would be, what kind of aspects it would take on."

Ferrero-Waldner's comments came in Brussels ahead of a trip to China, where she will open talks on an EU partnership and cooperation pact with China covering trade and energy ties.

Think Tank Says U.S. Aid Helped Afghanistan, Not Uzbekistan

By Golnaz Esfandiari

An Afghan policeman in Kabul. The report says U.S. aid has helped the country's fledgling police force

January 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The RAND Corp., a leading U.S. think tank, says in a report that Washington's security assistance to states that are transitioning from conflict to democratic systems -- like Afghanistan -- has been more effective than assistance to governments that remain repressive, such as Uzbekistan.

The RAND study evaluates U.S. assistance to security forces in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and El Salvador since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, examining if human rights and police performance improved. RFE/RL spoke to Olga Oliker, a senior international policy analyst at

RAND and one of the authors of the report.

RFE/RL: In your report you evaluated U.S. security assistance to four countries, including Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Could you first briefly tell us about the main conclusions of the report?

Oliker: What we were trying to do with study is begin the process of evaluating the extent to which U.S. assistance -- specifically to internal security forces in countries that are undergoing transitions or that are repressive -- is effective in improving the capacity of these structures to respond to the security threats facing these countries, and also the capacity of these structures to become more accountable, to become more respectful of human rights. One of the things that we found is that these are interlinked; that improving accountability, transparency, respect [for] the people actually does make the security structure -- we feel -- more effective against a variety of security threats in the broad, long-term sense. What we found is that the current programs that are under way are not terribly effective, A, and B, what we found is that oversight of these programs may be insufficient, that we are not doing enough to measure and assess and determine what works and what doesn't work and, as a result, we are potentially not improving these programs or potentially not ending things that don't work, we are potentially overlooking possibilities to make this effort more effective because we're continuing a program that may not be working.

RFE/RL: As you said, you selected countries that have repressive regimes and countries that are undergoing transition, including Afghanistan, where the report says U.S. aid has brought positive results and has helped improve the human rights practices of the Afghan police. In what way? Could you give us an example?

Oliker: The Afghan police were built from scratch so to say improving that is a bit of misnomer because that would suggest that there was something to start with -- there wasn't. But we do find that while there are a great many human rights abuses that continue in Afghanistan, these don't implicate the police forces that were built. They predominantly implicate warlords and factions in Afghanistan; those are the people who are responsible for carrying out the vast majority of abuses. So with the Afghanistan case and also the El Salvador case it suggests that if you start from scratch in a postconflict society it is certainly possible to build responsible, accountable internal security structures.

RFE/RL: But at the same time the report says -- regarding Afghanistan -- that the country's internal forces are still not very effective. Does it mean that the programs have not been able to increase both respect for human rights and effectiveness?

Oliker: The problem with Afghanistan and El Salvador is the question of effectiveness: can you build them to be effective and, at the same time, the problem with some of this is that it just takes so long, you certainly have a much bigger window, much more capacity to influence a country that is in transition from conflict, that has depended on foreign assistance, where you are starting from the beginning, but this takes time. It takes a great deal of time to train up a force that's effective and capable as well. So the result on both El Salvador and Afghanistan is that you can do some good but even with these programs we did not feel that it was an unmitigated success; while there was progress it was not sufficient. In Afghanistan it built up some capacity within internal security forces but so much of what's going on still depends on warlords and regional commanders who continue to persist in human rights abuses -- that isn't sufficient.

RFE/RL: Regarding the situation with Uzbekistan, the report says that U.S. assistance was not successful in fostering reforms [there]. Is this because the U.S. did not have enough oversight or is it because the U.S. did not pay enough attention to human rights issues?

Oliker: The U.S. did pay attention to human rights issues but did not have sufficient oversight of the programs that it was implementing to make sure those programs were effective and actually promoting human rights. One of the anecdotes that we heard, when we did this research, was for instance in the legal-reform efforts. A great many Uzbek judges went through programs that taught them how to run a fair trial, how to ensure that everybody was heard, how to protect the rights of suspects, and yet conviction rates in Uzbekistan remained at the 99.98 percent rate, which it's just not possible that all these people committed all these crimes. These were judges who had their certificate, they'd had gone through the U.S. program and they learned how to answer the questions appropriately: that yes I will respect human rights and whatever else but that wasn't actually reflected in their actions and the program was deemed successful because somebody could count so many judges went through this program, so many attorneys went through that program, but the actual impact on the criminal justice system was minimal, if any.

RFE/RL: So do you think the U.S. should suspend its aid to Uzbekistan or reevaluate it?

Oliker: It depends on the area and it depends on the program. For instance the drug enforcement agency has a program with Uzbek law enforcement and that program, in our view, has not had sufficient oversight to assess how effective it is. So in programs that continue, one of the questions that has to be asked is "are they helping, do they help, whom do they help?" And there are programs that seem to be useful, some of the export controlling programs, the nonproliferation program for example. The problem with Uzbekistan is that from the U.S. side there wasn't enough of an effort made to develop programs that would work and oversee them to make sure they would work. From the Uzbek side, there wasn't a high-level commitment to these concepts of transparency and accountability -- there was a fundamental disagreement on the part of the Uzbek government on what would contribute to security. The senior leadership of the Uzbek government actually felt that more [repression] and less transparency contributes to security, whereas what the U.S. was trying to do was increase security by increasing accountability. At the present I think the programs that are continuing need to be reevaluated and if they're not working they need to be stopped.