"RFE/RL Central Asia Report: Turkmen Election Special"Plus, see RFE/RL's English-language website for continuing coverage as news and results come in.
Polls Closed In Turkmen Presidential ElectionASHGABAT, February 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen elections officials are saying that more than 95 percent of eligible voters in the country cast ballots by 1700 local time (1300 Prague time) in today's presidential election. That was one hour before the polls closed.
RFE/RL correspondents in Turkmenistan, however, contradict this turnout information, reporting light turnouts in the capital Ashgabat and in the eastern Lebap Province.
Six men are officially competing for the presidential post in the first multicandidate election in the country's history.
Avdy Kuliev, a former Turkmen foreign minister and now a leader in Turkmenistan's opposition-in-exile, said today in Norway that the election cannot be considered legal since the candidates were all chosen by the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council), not by voters.
"If there were anything to note about these elections then it would be that these elections are not legal, they are not elections by the people," he said. "In my opinion, in order for Turkmenistan to get on a democratic path, within a year or less new, genuine elections should be carried out."
High Or Low Turnout?
The CEC reports that as of 1200 local time (0800 Prague time) -- just four hours after polling stations opened today -- some 66 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots. Two hours later, the CEC said some 85 percent of voters had voted.
A man who had just voted appeared on Turkmen state television.
"I came to cast my vote in the morning to elect our new president," he said. "I cast my vote in favor of my favorite leader. After listening to the speeches of all of the candidates I cast my vote in support of a leader who can continue the way of Turkmenbashi. Praise to God that the election will go well and it will be completed smoothly."
Images of voting that were broadcast on the state-owned Altyn Asyr (Golden Age) channel showed mainly members of the armed forces dropping ballots into transparent voting boxes that appeared to be less than half full.
In the eastern Lebap Province, RFE/RL correspondents report a light turnout despite the fact officials reportedly warned the population there that they would not receive their monthly ration of six kilograms of flour if they failed to vote. Officials report a turnout in the province of 85.87 percent -- though reports on the ground indicate a very low number of voters.
Questioning The Election
One man in Lebap who did vote said this election looked like previous parliamentary and local administration elections. He also indicated he did not feel the voters are really deciding who will be the next Turkmen president.
"I just voted for the candidate I chose [to be the best]," he said. "I don't believe the promises candidates made before the election. If we talk about the organizational part of the election then there are no differences this time [as compared to previous times]. Having six candidates run for the presidential post is just a cover up. The results were already known before the election -- it was known who will become president. Even so, I attended the election in order to fulfill my duty as a citizen."
One woman in Ashgabat indicated she did not have "such great hope" that a new president will make a big difference.
"I participated in an election for the first time [today]," she said. "A lot of people came to vote, lots of old and young folks. We don't have such great hope, but we still have some hope that this candidate will become a real president. It would be great for us. Therefore we came and voted."
Gifts For Voters
Turkmen media were promising first time voters and the elderly that they would receive a gift if they turned out to vote. In an example of this shown by state television, a young man received a copy of former President Saparmurat Niyazov's book "Rukhnama" for casting his ballot.
Acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is widely predicted to win today's election. Berdymukhammedov emerged from obscurity after Niyazov died in late December.
Citizens of Turkmenistan living outside the country were unable to vote in the presidential election and opposition candidates living in exile unable to run as candidates.
No Outside Participation
Turkmen embassies in Uzbekistan, Russia, and Europe did not make any arrangements for Turkmen citizens to cast their ballots.
Ogiljan is a young Uzbek woman who married a Turkmen and lived in Turkmenistan for eight years until she was deported by Turkmen authorities last year. She lives in Uzbekistan near the Turkmen border now and she told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that she hopes the next Turkmen president will work to reunite her and others like her with their families in Turkmenistan.
"First, I want a fair president who will help establish good relations between the two peoples, [Turkmen and Uzbeks]," she said. "It would be great if Turkmen who live in Khorezm, [Uzbekistan], could go to Turkmenistan and visit their relatives and could see their parents."
Turkmenistan's CEC says it will have preliminary results from the presidential election by this evening. Polls close in Turkmenistan at 1800 local time (1400 Prague time).
(RFE/RL's Turkmen and Uzbek Services contributed to this report.)
Could Turkmen Presidential Vote Open New Chapter?
While the outcome is all but assured, foreigners are scrutinizing the election process for clues to Turkmenistan's future course.
About half of Turkmenistan's 5 million people are eligible to vote in this election. Many will be voting for a president for the first time in their lives.
The country has no history of participatory democracy, notwithstanding an implausibly high record of official voter support for its leadership.
The last presidential election was held in June 1992, when the late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov ran unopposed and received 99.5 percent of the vote.
The most recent elections in Turkmenistan were the 2004 parliamentary elections. Three of four eligible voters cast ballots in that election, according to official figures. Not surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of the legislature's 50 seats went to the country's only registered political party -- the renamed Communist Party, now called the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan.
'Six Of One...'
Voters this time are being asked to choose from among six candidates who until Niyazov's death in December were relatively unknown even inside Turkmenistan.
Anna Sunder Plassman, a researcher on Georgia and Turkmenistan for the London-based rights organization Amnesty International, says it is regrettable that only candidates approved by the regime can compete in this presidential campaign.
"No opposition parties were able or are able to participate in the elections," Plassman says.
The Turkmen government is hopeful of a high turnout. Election authorities are trying to entice voters -- new and old -- to come to the polling stations. Turkmen state television has been broadcasting a sweetener for first-time voters and the elderly.
"Anyone coming to vote for the first time, young people or the elderly -- will receive a gift," goes the announcement.
The Official Favorite
The favorite to win is acting President and former Health Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
He is competing against a provincial deputy governor (First Deputy Governor of Dashoguz Province Amanyaz Atajykov), a gas and minerals deputy minister (Deputy Minister of the Gas Industry and Mineral Resources Ishanguly Nuryev), a provincial leader (Mukhammetnazar Gurbanov, who is head of the Karabekaul district, in Lebap Province), and two incumbent mayors from outside the capital (Abadan Mayor Orazmyrad Garajaev and Turkmenbashi City Mayor Ashyrniyaz Pomanov).
Although Berdymukhammedov publicly called for all candidates to be granted equal media time and equal access to voters, the acting president has received the lion's share of media attention.
More astonishingly, the head of the country's Central Election Commission has vowed publicly to work to see that Berdymukhammedov is elected president.
What The Future Holds
Many democratic governments and international rights organizations have urged Turkmen authorities to seize this presidential election as an opportunity to change the country's image by pursuing more liberal, democratic policies than in the past.
Candidates have issued some interesting promises -- including greater public access to the Internet, private land ownership, and a lifting of restrictions on travel abroad.
This election could provide an early indication of whether Turkmen authorities intend to ease controls in one of the most rigorously controlled societies in the world. But few outsiders will be on hand to scrutinize the process.
No foreign observers are monitoring Sunday's election, not even CIS observers.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has deployed an election-support team, which that group says will "follow the election process" and -- in the OSCE's words -- "familiarize themselves with election-related issues." But the OSCE noted that "the team is [neither] observing nor monitoring the election," , citing "time constraints," and it won't issue a public report.
Turkmen election authorities are expected to issue preliminary election results on February 12.
(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)
Sorting Out Turkmenistan's Presidential Candidates
All six of the candidates were forwarded as candidates at a session of the country's highest legislative body -- the Halk Maslahaty, or People's Council -- on December 26 at which the date was set for the presidential election.
All are identifying specific targets for change -- in hopes of raising their profiles for voters -- while pledging to continue most of the so-called Turkmenbashi's (literally, "the head of the Turkmen") policies. Those policies made Turkmenistan one of the most isolated countries in the world, known abroad mainly for its riches of fossil fuels and the eccentric practices of its late president.
Niyazov's death in late December could mark the end of that era.
The candidates have been on the campaign trail for more than a month now, trying to win voter trust in a country where public dissent has been virtually wiped out.
The clear favorite is acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who stepped into the vacuum in the hours following the death announcement. He is a dentist by training who was health minister in Niyazov's cabinet and spent nearly a decade in the senior ranks of government.
Forty-nine-year-old Berdymukhammedov has vowed to restore Turkmenistan's educational system, undoing "reforms" that included cutting the length of mandatory schooling, reducing enrollment at the country's scarce universities, and dismissing many teachers.
"In our country's universities, the curriculum will adhere to international norms," Berdymukhammedov said. "If need be, we will bring teachers, scientists, and specialists from the best schools in the world to come and teach our students."
It is unclear from Berdymukhammedov's comments whether he plans to reduce or eventually abandon the mandatory study of late President Niyazov's book, "Rukhnama" (Book of the Soul).
Berdymukhammedov is also promising more and better housing and greater attention to the physical well-being of the country's youth.
Berdymukhammedov enjoys a number of advantages over the rest of the field. As acting president, the state-owned media has focused far more attention on Berdymukhammedov than the other candidates.
Central Election Commission Chairman Murat Karryev appeared to confirm observers' worst fears by saying publicly that he would "do everything" to ensure Berdymukhammedov's victory.
One Turkmen analyst noted coldly that, of the other five candidates, "no one knows them except their relatives."
None of those other men is a "top-level" official. But still they are out in public, campaigning.
Ashyrnyaz Pomanov is arguably the best known of Berdymukhammedov's five challengers, simply because he is the mayor of the Caspian coast city Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk). Turkmenbashi city is one of the few major urban areas in Turkmenistan, with a population of more than 200,000. Forty-four-year-old Pomanov has been mayor since 2005. His platform includes boosting tourism.
"I have been working as a mayor of Turkmenbashi city for two years," Pomanov said. "Year by year, the number of travelers in summertime to this place is growing. Improving conditions for them is the state's obligation. Foreigners can travel here. The tourism industry must be developed. It should be tourism that brings revenues to the state."
But increasing tourism may not have much appeal for the average Turkmen voter. Niyazov's government fostered suspicion of foreigners, and security forces were ordered to keep close watch on the activities of foreign nationals when they visited Turkmenistan. Turkmen citizens were also discouraged from contact with outsiders.
Forty-six-year-old candidate Orazmyrat Garajaev has been the mayor of Abadan, a city of 40,000 people outside the country's capital, since 2005. Garajaev studied engineering and served in the ideological department of the Communist Party under Soviet rule. He subsequently focused on production and industry -- and has pinned his hopes on an appeal for economic liberalization.
"All measures will be taken to develop the market economy, [and] private businesses," Garajaev said.
Fifty-one-year-old Ishanguly Nuryev has been a deputy minister of the gas industry and mineral resources since December 2005. He has campaigned on pledges to improve the economy and decrease Turkmenistan's economic isolation.
"I will concentrate my attention on supporting the private production of goods, joining the national economy to the global economic system, raising hard-currency reserves, working out a highly profitable budget with no deficit, and providing a high exchange rate for the national currency," Nuryev said.
Amanyaz Atajykov, the first deputy governor of Turkmenistan's northern Dashoguz Province, is the oldest candidate at 59 years of age. He is promising something that could have broad appeal in Turkmenistan, where nearly 60 percent of the population is rural.
"Once and for all, giving private land ownership to farmers, protecting the farmers' interests [and] opening the doors for businesses will be the main direction of my program," Atajykov said.
Other candidates have made reference to land reform, as well.
Forty-nine-year-old Mukhammetnazar Gurbanov is a head of a district (Karabekaul) in the eastern Lebap Province. He appears to be targeting the country's youth, vowing to provide them jobs and a healthier environment:
"One of our main tasks will be concern for youth welfare," Gurbanov told a campaign audience.
The election will inevitably fall short of Western democratic standards, as have all of Turkmenistan's elections since independence in 1991. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has deployed an election team to Turkmenistan but will issue no official assessment.
Albert jan Maat is the Dutch chairman of the European Union's Interparliamentary Delegation to Turkmenistan and a European Parliament deputy. He argues that the February 11 presidential poll is not a "real" election and might not be cause for optimism.
"These elections, only with candidates from the former government -- you can't call them real elections, and that is not a [good] start for a more open society," jan Maat said.
Former Turkmen parliamentarian Halmurat Soyunov is now part of the country's opposition-in-exile. He claims the entire process should be considered illegitimate because the Turkmen people played no part in nominating candidates.
"All candidates in the February 11 presidential election are nominated by the leadership of the government, but not by the people," Soyunov said. "Here we see a violation of the constitutional [right] of the citizens to vote and elect [their representatives]."
Preliminary results from Sunday's election are not expected until at least February 12.
(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)
Central Asian, Iranian Recordings Compete For 'World Music' Grammy
But most traditional music from outside North America and Europe is grouped into a Western marketing category known as "World Music." Thus Central Asian "maqam" is competing in the same category as a South African gospel choir, classical Hindustani musicians, a Scandinavian-styled trio, and a live recording of Iranian and Armenian masters.
It was September of 2003 when Iranian lute virtuoso Hossein Alizadeh teamed up with Armenian duduk master Djivan Gasparyan for a live outdoor concert at Tehran's Niavaran Palace.
Persian And Armenian
This year, a recording of that show is one of five Grammy Award nominees for "Best Traditional World Music Album." It is being marketed in the west under the title "Endless Vision: Persian and Armenian Songs."
Alizadeh is a renowned composer and a master of the "tar." He also is a master of other traditional instruments in the Persian lute family. But ironically, the Tehran concert that earned him and Gasparyan a Grammy nomination was far from traditional.
Instead of the Iranian tar, Alizadeh plays a new kind of Iranian lute called a "shurangiz" -- an instrument that he has helped design.
Meanwhile, Alizadeh's collaborations with Gasparyan explore new artistic territory by blending classical Persian music and poetry with Armenian and Azeri melodies and lyrics sung by Gasparyan.
Two women -- Afsaneh Rasaei and Khourshid Biabani -- also sing as part of Alizadeh's otherwise all-male Hamavayan Ensemble.
And Gasparyan adds his instrumental mastery on the duduk -- a cylindrical wooden flute made from the root of an apricot tree.
Born in the the village of Solag near Yerevan, Gasparyan was honored in 1973 by the Armenian government with the title of "People's Artist of Armenia." But he is perhaps best known in the West for his performances on major motion-picture soundtracks like "Gladiator" and Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ."
Another Grammy nominee this year for "Best Traditional World Music Album" is a project that documents attempts by Tajik and Uzbek musicians to revive "shashmaqam" -- a style of court music that flourished centuries ago in Central Asia.
The album is called "Invisible Face Of The Beloved: Classical Music of the Tajiks and Uzbeks." It is part of a project by the Agha Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia that has been distributed by the Smithsonian Folkways label.
Documentary filmmaker and Central Asian music expert Simon Broughton says Shashmaqam is gaining popularity among Westerners. But he says listeners must be educated about the music to appreciate its depth.
"Within the Asian region, I think Central Asia is attracting some attention," Broughton says. "They've got to work a little bit in bringing their music across. There are aspects of Central Asian music, like the Sashmaqam tradition -- the classical music tradition of Bukhara and Samarkand -- which is a very erudite tradition. It is one that you really do need to get accustomed to in order to find your way through it."
Educating Western listeners is exactly what the Grammy-nominated album attempts to do with its detailed, 44-page booklet and documentary film on a bonus DVD.
The music on the album is performed by students from the Academy of Maqam in Dushanbe. Abduvali Abdurashidov, the school's founder and director, explains the history of the music.
"Maqam was performed at the court of the ruling emirs," Abdurashidov says. "Generation after generation, for hundreds of years, it was transmitted from master to disciple. It went through many changes on the way to acquiring its present form. Maqam music doesn't have a composer. Its composer is the people."
'Seeking To Achieve Truth'
Abdurashidov says that when he opened the music academy in 2003, it was modeled on ideals of Islamic learning that are even older than Shashmaqam. Those standards make the study of music inseparable from the study of poetry, rhythmic verse, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics.
"Our maqams have a meaning that is mystical and Sufi," Abdurashidov says. "Maqam seeks to achieve truth. This perfection is an aim. We have to go through hundreds of levels and difficulties to reach it. In a maqam, these levels are represented by various stages of musical development. It is like a person's movement toward spiritual perfection. A feeling that grows little by little toward a culmination. And it arrives at the 'awj' -- the highest culmination. It is a moment when the meaning of poetry and music arrives at a supreme point and bursts through to create a particular spiritual state."
The students at the academy have delved deeply into the relation between poetry and musical rhythm -- studying the tuning, the structure of maqam compositions, and the overall form of the song cycles. In this way, Abdurashidov says, the students are able to perform Sashmaqam in a way that hasn't been done since the 19th century.
The three other albums nominated for "Best Traditional World Music Album" feature music from Asia, Africa, and Europe.
"Hambo In The Snow" features a Washington-based trio that styles its performances after ancient Scandinavian music.
"Blessed" is an album from South Africa performed by the Soweto Gospel Choir.
"Golden Strings of The Sarode" is a collection of Hindustani classical music performed by Aashish Khan on Sarode and Zakir Hussain on tabla.
Are Kazakh Banks Getting In Over Their Heads?
The growth of Kazakhstan's oil-drenched economy has combined with international trading in Kazakh bank stocks to raise those banks' profiles above those of their Central Asian neighbors.
The financial publications "Financial Times" and "The Banker" organized the London gathering, and Kazakh banks were footing the bill.
But financial analysts' enthusiasm appears to be fueled by hardy economic growth and predictions of more of the same. The Kazakh economy has grown from $18 billion in 2000 to nearly $80 billion, and Fitch Ratings agency has predicted a doubling of the economy over the course of seven years.
About $40 billion in foreign investment has already poured into the country, which is the wealthiest of Central Asia's five postcommunist republics.
Lord Renwick, vice chairman of investment banking for JPMorgan Europe and vice chairman of JPMorganCazenove, was among the panelists in London. He sang the praises of a few Kazakh banks at the London gathering, particularly those that are exposing themselves to the scrutiny of international investors.
"Within Kazakhstan, there are at any rate three or four banks which have very good standards by international standards. And that is why the IPOs [initial public offerings] of, for instance, Kazkommertsbank and Halyk Bank, have been very successful to date," Lord Renwick said. "Clearly, Bank TuranAlem is in the same category. It's a very large and well-run bank, very successful, and we think that if it comes to the market next year -- as it may do -- they will be a very successful IPO."
Lord Renwick stressed that he couldn't speak for all 34 of Kazakhstan's banks. But a decade of consolidation has weeded out more than 150 banks, and Renwick insisted the "best examples" now are increasingly well managed.
The sector has been helped by a thriving local stock exchange, by regional standards, and the full convertibility of the Kazakh currency, the tenge. Add to that the relative strength in the region of Kazakhstan's financial laws and recent regulatory improvements, and investment bankers see a brighter future for at least the sector's best performers.
"Today, Kazakhstan's banks are operating close to international standards, and they are absolutely ready to accept international laws completely," said Kairat Berikov, who specializes in financial institutions at ATF Bank, one of Kazakhstan's five largest. "When opening an account and during any operation made by a client, Kazakh banks follow all international standards. It is possible to say that our banking system has achieved fantastic results."
Present And Accounted For
Banks like ATF say they are holding themselves to international accounting standards, and their risk-management systems and international reporting practices are not far behind.
Berikov and his Kazakh colleagues acknowledge that without greater disclosure, their banks don't have a hope of attracting foreign investors to their shares or global depositary receipts (GDRs), which represent domestic shares but are traded on foreign exchanges.
Sadyr Shaguzhaev heads the debt capital markets division at Kazakhstan's Bank TuranAlem. He said he is pleased that Kazakh banks are being praised, but he also thinks they should be seizing on the growth potential among other CIS states.
"We see that the Kazakhstani banking market will saturate in the nearest future because of [the] limited nature of the economy and the limited number of population," Shaguzhaev said. "So [the] impressive growth which we have seen in the past years will stop in two, three, [or] five years in the future. In order to sustain such a reliable growth for our shareholders, we have to look at the opportunities which arise and exist in the other neighboring countries -- such as Russia, for example."
Martin Kimming, a portfolio manager for the International Finance Corporation (IFC), stressed to the London conference that healthy growth depends on the strength of some fundamental indicators.
Kimming noted that foreign debt in the Kazakh banking sector of over 40 percent, wage growth, and consumer-driven inflation of about 8.5 percent that makes for a "dangerous situation."
He called it the "darker side of Kazakhstan's success story."
"The system is under stress," Kimming said. "Credit proceeds versus the assets booked are not the same quality of assets typical in any country where you have this type of credit growth. On top of that, credit growth is typically accompanied by significant real-estate appreciation. And the real estate is typically the security for credit growth. Obviously, the banks have to be very cautious."
Even President Nursultan Nazarbaev has warned that Kazakh banks are dangerously exposed in the area of corporate loans. And many analysts have warned that the Kazakh economy risks overheating at its current pace.
Anvar Saidenov, the governor of the Kazakh National Bank, acknowledged challenges for regulators and monetary policymakers, but he rejected the bleakest assessments.
"I would not call it 'dangerous,' because in a way this credit growth is linked very much to the growth of the general economy -- and we are experiencing more than 10 percent GDP growth," Saidenov said. "So I would say more like...it 'gives certain concern' for the central bank and for the supervision agency."
With rumors of another Kazakh bank considering a dive into the international waters in the form of an IPO, there is little doubt that investment bankers will be ready. But can they persuade investors that the Kazakh banks themselves are sufficiently prepared?
Uzbek Rights Activist, Presidential Candidate Face State Harassment
A Familiar Pattern
Shosalimov, an Uzbek rights activist and presidential candidate, cancelled his planned press conference today following the brief detention of his wife on January 31.
Shosalimov is not the only Uzbek rights defender facing problems. Independent journalist Umida Niyazova is in detention after traveling to neighboring Kyrgyzstan to interview witnesses to the bloody government crackdown in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May 2005. She may face charges of involvement in a banned religious group.
Shosalimov this week published an article complaining that Uzbekistan's Constitutional Court had violated his rights by naming the date for presidential elections without allowing the public to participate in the process.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov's term in office officially expired on January 22, exactly seven years after his inauguration for a second and final -- according to the constitution -- term in office. But the Constitutional Court referred to amendments from a 2002 referendum that said presidential elections would be held in December of the year the president's term expired.
Public Criticism Prevented
Shosalimov said the court's decision without any attempt to include the public violates Article 32 of the constitution which guarantees citizens the right to participate in the political process.
Shosalimov's complaints about the constitutional court were made public on January 30. He planned to discuss his criticism of the court at a press conference today, but on January 31 Uzbek authorities moved in to stop the event.
Veteran rights activist Yelena Urlaeva, who has been harassed numerous times by Uzbek authorities -- including being jailed and committed to a psychiatric hospital -- reported on the situation on January 31.
"Today (January 31), literally one hour ago, [other activists] called us at the office and said that the police burst into the home of the wife of Jahongir Shosalimov and forcibly took her from the home," she said.
Shosalimov searched all over Tashkent for his wife but could not find her. "Today at 11 a.m. the head of the antiterrorist unit of the Uch-Teppe district, headed by Zamon Ruziev, took my wife away to the closest police station and then they took her by car to different places," he said. "I don't know where she is. I have been to several police stations [looking for her]."
Uznews.uz later cited Urlaeva as saying Shosalimov finally found his wife at a police station, at which time the police told Shosalimov to cancel the planned press conference in exchange for his wife's freedom. Urlaeva also told RFE/RL that Shosalimov's family is being harassed.
"After the article was published pressure was put on the family of Jahongir Shosalimov, there were threats [made against him and his family]," she said.
Niyazova was originally detained in late December as she returned to Uzbekistan from Kyrgyzstan where the 32-year-old independent journalist was interviewing witnesses to the violence in the Uzbek city of Andijon in May 2005.
The Uzbek government claims 189 people were killed when security forces and soldiers fired on crowds to suppress what the Uzbek government says was an attempt to overthrow the government. Other sources put the death toll much higher, saying several hundred people -- the majority being peaceful protesters -- were killed.
Niyazova had a computer that contained interviews with witnesses, including relatives of alleged members of Akromiya, the banned Islamic group that the Uzbek government says was behind the alleged coup attempt.
Niyazova was released from custody but authorities kept her computer and discs. In late January, Umida suddenly disappeared. Andrea Berg of the U.S.-based organization Human Rights Watch spoke with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service several days after Niyazova was last seen leaving her home.
"We are very concerned about the situation of Umida Niyazova," Berg said. "It's the fourth day now that we do not know about her whereabouts, the family does not know where she is and her lawyer does not know where she is and we are afraid that she is [being] held at MVD (the Interior Ministry) or SNB (the Security Ministry) or that somebody just kidnapped her."
Niyazova was, in fact, in detention again. She spoke with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service from where she was being detained.
"The investigation is under way and apparently they are going to hold me in detention," she said. "Well, we will see what happens next. Oh, it seems I am not suppose to talk for long."
This week, Uzbek authorities started preparing charges against Niyazova. Her lawyer, Abror Yusupov, spoke about the charges.
"Now [the Uzbek authorities] are starting to connect her (Niyazova) and charging her with being part of Akromiya," he said. "They are charging her under a contraband law, Article 246, section 1 [of the criminal code]. On the computer that was confiscated from her there was information about Akromiya and interviews with family members of Akromiya supporters."
Being a rights defender has never been easy in Uzbekistan, but since this is a presidential election year and -- constitutionally -- President Karimov should leave office at some point, the examples of Niyazova and Shosalimov are likely to be repeated many times.
(Shukrat Babajonov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)
Why Aren't Uzbek Voters Electing A New President?
Instead of launching the country in a new direction, January 22 signaled that -- for the next 11 months at least -- it will be business as usual.
President Karimov was elected to his second -- presumably final -- five-year term seven years ago. A contested referendum two years later -- on January 27, 2002 -- extended his term from five to seven years. January 22 marked the end of that disputed seven-year term.
But Uzbek media made no mention of the expiration of Karimov's term. That is perhaps unsurprising, since critics would argue that Karimov has led Uzbekistan with an "iron fist" throughout its 15 years of independence.
The Uzbek state has a firm grip on the media, and leadership change does not appear high on its list.
But some -- like Shahida Yakyb, chairwoman of the Uzbek Initiative Group of London and a member of the Committee for the Salvation of Uzbekistan -- argue that the situation leaves the president in legal and constitutional limbo.
"From January 22...every single decree or law issued by the government and the president is illegitimate."
"From January 22 to December 23 -- when allegedly the elections in Uzbekistan are announced -- [Karimov] and his government are going to be totally illegitimate, and therefore every single decree or law issued by the government and the president is illegitimate as well," Yakyb said.
But the Uzbek government does not appear to regard the term's expiration as problematic.
RFE/RL's Uzbek Service spoke with Bakhtiyor Mirboboev, the deputy chairman of Uzbekistan's Constitutional Court, to find out why.
"There is a decree by the [parliament] on this issue," Mirboboev said. "As you know, we had a referendum [on January 2002] that resulted in the extension of the president's term to seven years. After that, the [parliament] adopted a decree that answers the question about when the elections should be held. It says that the elections are held on the first Sunday of the [last 10 days] of December in the year that the president's term expires. So the elections will be held on the first Sunday of the [last 10 days] of December 2007 -- which is December 23, 2007. So that means the [parliament] decreed holding elections on December 23, 2007."
RFE/RL pressed Mirboboev on the specifics of the presidential election law that allow Karimov to remain in office.
"Karimov's term is not considered to be expired, and this is explained in the constitution," Mirboboev said. "If you look at Article 117, it says that the next presidential elections are to be held on the first Sunday of the [last 10 days] of December of the year when the [president's] term has expired."
Mirboboev suggested that parliament could clarify the situation.
RFE/RL contacted Sobir Jobarov, the deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on judicial affairs. "I cannot answer this question," Jobarov said. "Ask Bakhtiyor Aka [Mirboboev]."
Whence The Confusion
Some articles of the presidential election law were amended in 2002, providing for a presidential election at the end of December. As that date approaches, many might be waiting anxiously to see what President Karimov does.
Under the constitution, Karimov, who is nearly 69, is obliged to step down after two terms in office. But Karimov has twice extended his terms, through referendums in 1995 and 2002. He could conceivably seek to do so again, given his tight grip on the country.
Karimov could also seek to amend the constitution to allow for a third term -- or opt to change the language of the constitution to permit him to stay on until death. That was the case with the late Turkmen president, Saparmurat Niyazov, who died of heart failure in December.
Karimov could go a different route by following the example of Russia's Boris Yeltsin, who hand-picked Vladimir Putin to avoid a succession battle and -- critics argue -- protect himself from future prosecution.
As December draws closer Central Asians and outsiders will be watching Uzbekistan carefully. There have already been leadership changes in Kyrgyzstan, in March 2005, and Turkmenistan, which is in the process of formalizing a change of leadership.
But Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia and borders each of the other four Central Asian states. So whatever changes occur in Uzbekistan will necessarily affect the entire region.
(Farruh Yusupov and Shukrat Bobobjonov of RFE/RL Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)
Grassroots Is Path To Power For Kazakh-Born Minister In Czech Republic
For the Kazakh-born Dzamila Stehlikova, it has been an arduous journey from her childhood there to her new job as a minister in the Czech government. Appointed on January 9 as a minister without portfolio, Stehlikova is now the Czech cabinet's top official in charge of minority issues and human rights.
As a young girl living in Kazakhstan in the 1960s, Stehlikova never dreamed that she would one day be a member of the Czech government.
Her path to power has taken her through medical school in Moscow, work as a doctor and a psychiatrist, and grassroots politics as an environmental activist in the coal-mining regions of northern Bohemia.
Although Stehlikova and her family lived in the city of Alma-Ata -- now Almaty -- when she was a young girl, she says her earliest memories are of a small village in Kazakhstan.
"For me, it was very important every year to visit a small village, Karakorum, which is in the border area of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan," Stehlikova says. "My grandfather -- the father of my father -- was born there. My roots are there. I was born in Alma-ata, but I remember my friends [in Karakorum], riding on horseback, and playing childhood games there. So if we speak about where the path of my life began, it was at this village on the border of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan."
Stehlikova's family sent her to Moscow at a young age to study. As a Moscow medical student, she focused on general medicine. She also worked as a psychiatric researcher -- living among minorities from across the Soviet Union -- until 1988. That's when, at the age of 26, she married a Czech man and moved to the northern part of what was then communist Czechoslovakia.
"My journey into politics was very down-to-earth," Stehlikova says. "I traveled to [Bohemia] from Moscow, where I had studied and started working. I arrived in a small town in northern [Bohemia.]; I was surprised how people in that region treat nature and cultural heritage. In north [Bohemia], there are coal mines, and the coal is exploited in open strip mines. So whole villages and towns with historical monuments are simply destroyed. For me, it was such a shock that I spontaneously decided to fight against it. We organized several demonstrations, but I understood that they had no effect. Even after the Velvet Revolution [in 1989], the villages were still being destroyed. Churches and houses were destroyed. People were moved to other towns. Then I understood that if I wanted to influence what happened around me, it was necessary to go into politics."
Early Local Activism
Stehlikova says it was her work as a psychiatrist that gave her direct exposure to the psychological impact of large-scale coal mining on the people of northern Bohemia. That, combined with her grassroots activism, brought her into local politics as part of the country's fledgling Green Party.
"It is said that a citizen can do something in a small town," Stehlikova says. "I entered the municipal government and joined the Green Party. Later, the path continued like this. Other members of the Green Party entered the local administrations in the region where the coal is exploited. Our voice became louder. People could hear us. They followed us. People don't want to move and see the houses of their ancestors torn down. They don't want to abandon the cemeteries where their ancestors lie."
Stehlikova says she never considered politics as a career. But she remained active in the Green Party while continuing her work as a physician and psychiatrist through 2006. She also taught at the University of Jan Evangelista Purkyne in the Czech town of Usti nad Labem until 2006. She credits Czech voters' environmental concerns for her rise to a government ministry post:
"The biggest success was that, when we entered the government, it was proposed that the next governments should start to deal with this problem -- that the country was being destroyed in order to mine coal," Stehlikova says. "So from helpless citizens, I got into the local administration because I had a goal. My goal wasn't to have a career in politics. My goal was a concrete issue. And I understood that people around me showed their solidarity. They helped me."
As one of four ministers from the Green Party appointed to the new Czech government in early January, Stehlikova says she has several important goals on her agenda.
In the field of human rights, she wants to prepare Czech anti-discrimination legislation similar to the laws of most other European Union countries -- and rally political will to push the legislation through parliament.
She also wants to create an agency that deals with the social exclusion of minorities in the Czech Republic -- especially the Romany community.
Stehlikova also wants the government to move more quickly on purchasing a pig farm at the Czech town of Lety. The farm lies on the site of a Nazi-era concentration camp for Roma. Once the land is purchased from its private owner, she wants a proper memorial there for Romany victims of the Holocaust.
Finally, Stehlikova wants to improve access for the handicapped to public buildings and transportation in the Czech Republic.
(Contributors to this story include Abdigani Zhiyenbay of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service; Ainura Asankojoeva and Janyl Chytyrbaeva from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service; and Indira Biktimerova from RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service.)