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Central Asia Report: March 11, 2007

Is Tashkent's Foreign Policy Going Multivector?

By Daniel Kimmage

Uzbek President Islam Karimov (file photo)

March 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The mood in Tashkent was outwardly buoyant when Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov on March 7 as the two men praised their nations' dynamic ties, hailed new deals, and touted billions of dollars of incoming Russian investment.

Yet Fradkov's visit carried hints that the ardor between Moscow and Tashkent may be cooling amid signs that Uzbekistan is seeking a rapprochement with the West.

Since Uzbekistan's grand falling-out with the West in 2005 over Andijon, Tashkent has looked primarily to Moscow, which has gratefully looked back.

The pendulum of Uzbek-Russian-Western relations, which has swung through a number of cycles in recent years, appears to be poised for yet another shift.

Tighter Ties After Andijon

In November 2005, the two countries signed a treaty that established allied relations and even provided for military assistance "if an act of aggression is committed against one of the sides by any state or group of states."

Subsequent high-level meetings have unfailingly sung the praises of the Russian-Uzbek alliance, and Fradkov's visit to Tashkent unfolded in a similar spirit. After receiving Fradkov, President Karimov noted that Russian natural gas company Gazprom and oil company LUKoil are in the process of investing $2.5 billion into Uzbekistan's energy sector, and that bilateral trade rose 42 percent year-on-year in 2006 to $3 billion, the official Uzbek news agency UzA reported.

Boris Aleshin, the head of Russian industrial agency Rosprom, told journalists in Tashkent that Russia and Uzbekistan have signed an agreement to set up an aviation joint venture called UzRosAvia in which Russia will hold a minimum 51 percent stake, Interfax reported. And Konstantin Romodanovsky, the head of Russia's Federal Migration Service, announced that the two countries will conclude agreements in a month and a half to regulate labor migration from Uzbekistan to Russia, where as many as 1.5 million Uzbeks work.

Yet a number of disagreements bubbled to the surface of what should have been a carefully scripted visit. Andrei Sharonov, deputy Russian minister of economic development and trade, admitted that Uzbek officials are miffed that state-controlled Russian gas company Gazprom has invested only $30 million of the $300 million it was supposed to have invested by this time in the development of new gas fields in Uzbekistan, reported.

Signs Of Unhappiness?

Meanwhile, Sharonov said that Russia is unhappy that Uzbekistan exported 67,000 cars to Russia in 2006 while importing only 3,500 vehicles from Russia, Vek reported. And Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak described upcoming talks on Uzbekistan's $700 million debt to Russia, which Tashkent has not serviced since 1998, as "very complex" in light of disagreements between the two sides, Prime-TASS reported.

As Uzbekistan-based observer Sergei Yezhkov noted on on March 8, journalists who were present at the meeting between Fradkov and Karimov wondered why the Russian premier spent three and a half hours in a plane for a visit that produced such mixed results. "Either the tasks the Russians wanted to carry out were blocked by the Uzbek leadership, or there were no tasks to carry out in the first place," Yezhkov commented. He concluded: "The first option, it seems to us, is more likely."

Even as clouds are appearing on the Russian-Uzbek horizon, signs have emerged that Uzbekistan wants to prop up its sagging ties with the West.

On February 22, the official newspaper "Pravda Vostoka" ran an article by Rafik Saifulin -- a former adviser to President Karimov and now the head of a think tank in Tashkent -- praising recent attempts at dialogue between Uzbekistan and the European Union, United States, and Japan.

Looking To The West

Attributing Uzbekistan's strained ties with the West to the latter's penchant for "criticism and allegations," Saifulin argued that "it is necessary to think jointly about ways to create new, promising opportunities for cooperation and to modernize traditional relations." He concluded: "A majority of the representatives of leading analytical structures abroad, and in Uzbekistan, support this view and hope that this will lead to positive political, economic, and other types of changes in relations between our states and people in the near future."

If Saifulin's article signals a possible shift in the Uzbek official line -- which has been harshly critical of the West -- it also reflects limited overtures on the other side.

While EU foreign ministers decided on March 5 to postpone a review of sanctions against Uzbekistan until May, EU representatives voiced hope for improvement, RFE/RL reported.

Germany has managed to keep a small military facility running in the Uzbek city of Termez despite Tashkent's eviction of U.S. forces at the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in 2005. And it was German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, speaking after the EU foreign ministers' meeting on March 5, who pointed to an Uzbek promise of further talks about the May 2005 killings in Andijon and the plight of rights activists in Uzbekistan as positive signs.

EU Is Hopeful

Steinmeier said: "This shows that there are openings that must be developed, and it remains to be decided in May in what way we proceed with the EU's current policy towards Uzbekistan, [and] if any changes are possible."

Evan A. Feigenbaum, assistant to the U.S. state secretary for South and Central Asia, struck a similar note at a March 2 news conference in Tashkent to wrap up a three-day visit to Uzbekistan, reported.

Feigenbaum said that "the Uzbek authorities signaled their interest in a restoration of relations with the United States not long ago. We in turn have always stood for close cooperation." He added: "There may be some differences on some nuances but the United States does not want these differences to interfere with cooperation between our countries. My visit here is an attempt to decide exactly what cooperation may be established in the nearest future."

Moving To Multivector?

Taken together, the slight chill in Uzbek-Russian relations, the appearance of an article in a major Uzbek government mouthpiece urging better ties with the West, and stated Western willingness to engage Uzbekistan suggest that a multivector moment is beginning in Uzbekistan's foreign policy.

The example of Kazakhstan, which has skillfully used a multivector foreign policy to maintain solid ties with Russia, the West, and, increasingly, with China, likely provides added incentive for President Karimov, whose sense of rivalry with his oil-rich northern neighbor is no secret.

Uzbekistan's room for multivector maneuvering remains considerably smaller than Kazakhstan's, however. Tashkent has shown no sign that it will accede to Western demands for an independent investigation of accounts that Uzbek security forces massacred demonstrators in Andijon in May 2005.

Arrests of rights activists continue in Uzbekistan, as indicated by the recent case of Umida Niyazova. And Uzbekistan's commitment to its relationship with Russia -- which presses no rights or reform demands on its partner -- remains strong. Nevertheless, the pendulum of Uzbek-Russian-Western relations, which has swung through a number of cycles in recent years, appears to be poised for yet another shift.

Debate On Legalized Polygamy Come Up Again In Kyrgyzstan

By Bruce Pannier

Kyrgyz government ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir uulu, an observant Muslim, supports making polygamy legal (file photo)

March 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The debate on legalizing polygamy has returned to Kyrgyzstan. The issue has come before the parliaments of all the Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- and has always been rejected.

Polygamy is practiced in all parts of Central Asia. For centuries Islamic law dictated how societies in this region behaved and polygamy was a traditional part of life for many.

Soviet authorities could not totally eradicate the practice during the Communist era and, since the fall of the USSR in 1991, polygamy has crept back into practice.

"But in the case of polygamy there are two issues: a husband must be able, physically and materially, to satisfy all of the wives. If he can meet both those requirements he can have [more than one wife], but he must be fair to all of them."

Tradition Revived

This is especially true -- though not exclusively -- about Central Asia's rural areas. The highest officials in Central Asia have at one time or another come out against the practice but the idea of legalizing polygamy still comes up.

Most recently the issue has appeared in Kyrgyzstan, and this time the legalization of polygamy has a strong advocate: Justice Minister Marat Kayipov.

"There is a definition for crime," he said recently. "It is something that is dangerous for society. Is a man who has two or three wives and takes care of their children, dangerous? If the government would arrest the man who takes care of those two or three families -- this would be detrimental to the state because then the state should take care of those families, and the state would have to take care of the man arrested as well. Is that useful for society?"

But those that oppose polygamy seem to have one strong ally, President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

President Opposes Polygamy

Dosaly Esenaliev, the head of the president's press service, gave Bakiev's opinion on the issue to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

"President [Bakiev], during a meeting in Kant, has expressed his critical opinion of the practice of polygamy, a topic that is being discussed in our society," he said. "[The president said that] we live in the 21st century, our people are very well educated, and intellectual. And he added that it's sad that some people are raising this issue, as if there are not more important problems [to be concerned about]."

Those who support the position of Justice Minister Kayipov on legalizing polygamy -- and that includes ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir uulu -- point to the massive migration of Kyrgyz men to Kazakhstan and Russia to work as migrant laborers.

Kyrgyz officials estimate that some 800,000 men leave Kyrgyzstan for at least several months every year to find employment outside the country. Some do not come back to Kyrgyzstan for years or at all. Supporters of polygamy claim that it is the wives and families of those men who do not return who could benefit from polygamy.

Illegal But Practiced

Legal or not, polygamy is practiced in Central Asia and is rarely prosecuted. Kyrgyz director Nailya Rakhmadieva filmed a documentary -- "Elechek" -- about the sad case of a woman whose husband took a second wife, causing the first wife great emotional, financial, and societal difficulties.

In Prague last year to promote her film, Rakhmadieva said the resurgence of polygamy in Kyrgyzstan inspired her to make the movie.

"Polygamy is becoming a typical and widespread occurrence and society is already accepting this as normal and for [most of] the people it is not considered a problem," she said. "It is interesting that people become accustomed to [polygamy] and don't even try to fight against it. For that reason the idea occurred to me because many people I know have fallen into this situation although they are completely modern people -- civilized and educated people -- but for some reason this has happened to them."

Kalyicha Omuralieva of the Kyrgyz Jeri (Kyrgyz Land) Party says that if supporters of polygamy are serious in their claims about polygamy's benefits for society, then there should be some rules that go along with its legalization.

Polygamy Positives?

Omuralieva told RFE/RL that the men calling for the legalization of polygamy seem to be thinking about younger women as candidates for a second, third, or fourth wife. The men practicing polygamy are not typically marrying older women with children, but rather very young women.

Omuralieva suggested that if officials are serious in their statements that polygamy can be beneficial for widows and help eradicate prostitution that there should be a rule: "first, they should marry only widows older than 36, and those with children."

Omuralieva followed this by saying "[the initiators of the move to legalize polygamy] say it might reduce prostitution, so let's write in this law that those men who will marry a prostitute will be given a special medal."

Galina Kulikova, the coordinator of the My Country party, seemed concerned that the idea of polygamy is receiving the kind of support that it is.

Islam Allows Polygamy

"[Supporters of polygamy] were given the chance to speak, especially our respected Justice Minister Marat Kayipov, who is actively fighting for polygamy in open letters," she said. "The ombudsman of Kyrgyzstan has taken this [issue] up with both hands. Our government is initiating similar legislation. There is an attack on the gains reached in our country since the years of the Soviet Union."

Jamal Frontbek-kyzy is the leader of the Kyrgyz Muslim women's NGO Mutakalim. She said that while polygamy is permitted under Islam, there are conditions a man must meet if he enters into multiple marriages.

"Islam permits polygamy and it could be allowed [in Kyrgyzstan, because] the Koran says that a man can have two, three, or four wives," she said. "But in the case of polygamy there are two issues: a husband must be able, physically and materially, to satisfy all of the wives. If he can meet both those requirements he can have [more than one wife], but he must be fair to all of them."

With the backing of people like the justice minister and the country's ombudsman, the debate on polygamy will probably go further than it did when the idea was first raised. But even if legalizing the practice is rejected again it is becoming clear that there will always be some in Central Asia who favor the idea and those who will engage in the practice whether it is legal or not.

(Venera Djumataeva from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)

Central Asia: Controversy Brews Over Islamic Headwear In Photos

By Bruce Pannier

Uzbek refugees in Osh

March 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Islamic women in Kazakhstan were victorious last month when the government agreed to allow women to be photographed with headwear for their identification documents. But the issue is still causing controversy in some Central Asian countries.

Many Muslim women in Kazakhstan considered it a great victory when the Justice Ministry indicated last month that it will no longer enforce a regulation that women cannot wear anything on their head -- including traditional Islamic headwear, the hijab -- when their official photo is taken for identification cards or passports.

The wearing of headwear by women in official photographs is allowed in most cases in Tajikistan, but is not permitted in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.

That regulation traced its origins to Kazakhstan's days as a Soviet republic.

Although there are more than 100 different ethnic groups in Kazakhstan, the country is generally regarded as a Muslim nation. Because of that, one might expect that the laws would accommodate matters of traditional Islamic dress, such as wearing head scarves for photos for passports or any other kind of official document.

But such accommodations were only made in February.

Zhanar Kozhahmetova, chief of the document issuance department in Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the decision to stop enforcing the prohibition against the hijab came after appeals.

"It doesn't mean that everyone is allowed to take pictures with hats, for example," she said. "It's mainly females who, due to their religious convictions, do not remove headwear. It's connected with the fact that many requests were addressed to the Justice Ministry about those kind of photos."

Practicality, Security Considerations

Ninel Fokina, the chairwoman of the Almaty Helsinki Committee in Kazakhstan, said the prohibition against being photographed while wearing Islamic headwear was never based on the country's laws, and she questioned why the matter concerns the Justice Ministry.

"This is not an issue of the constitution," she said. "It's not a legal issue and in those documents there is no word about regulations on photos issued for IDs. These are only internal instructions of the Interior Ministry. They do not have the status of law. In general, it's difficult to understand why the Justice Ministry is involved. Maybe because the passport services were transferred to the Justice Ministry, but in this case the ministry is just engaging in a fruitless effort."

Dos Koshim, the chairman of an NGO called Nation's Destiny, suggested that while it is important to observe a person's basic rights, it shouldn't necessarily be done at the expense of practicality or security.

"To start, we have to point out two issues," Koshim said. "The first is to respect a nation's religion and faith. The second is the practical side, will it be difficult in the issuance of passports and IDs and for control services after that or not? I think we have to focus on these two issues."

Some opponents of allowing Muslim women to wear headwear in official photos argue that it is easier to hide someone's identity in a photo if your hair and part of your head is covered.

Ban Challenged In Kyrgyzstan

The wearing of headwear by women in official photographs is allowed in most cases in Tajikistan, but is not permitted in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.

But the issue has also been in the news recently in Kyrgyzstan, where it is disallowed.

In October, the Muslim women's NGO Mutakalim sent a letter to then-Prime Minister Feliks Kulov asking for permission to have their passport photos taken while wearing their Islamic headwear.

Last month the group said it had gathered some 40,000 signatures supporting such a right.

But Mutakalim leader Jamal Frontbek-kyzy said authorities told her that officially she needs 300,000 signatures to have the issue considered.

Government officials have also told Mutakalim that dropping the ban on wearing a head scarf or hajib for photographs intended for official documents is not in the interests of national security.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service and Venera Djumataeva of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)

EU Gets Rights Pledges From Taskent

By Ahto Lobjakas

Frank-Walter Steinmeier with Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Tashkent in November

BRUSSELS, March 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- EU foreign ministers today decided to postpone until May a review of the sanctions currently in force against Uzbekistan. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in Brussels that there are indications Uzbekistan is prepared to meet some of the EU's human rights demands.

Germany, which currently holds the EU's chair, expressed cautious optimism today over what it believes may be signs that Uzbekistan may be willing to meet some of the bloc's human rights concerns.

Cautiously Optimistic

Steinmeier, at today's monthly EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels, told his colleagues that Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov has promised further talks on Andijon and the government's treatment of human rights activists.

Uzbekistan's intentions will be tested in the last week of March, when Germany will hold a meeting with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian countries in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

After the meeting, Steinmeier told journalists he will now pursue "cautious" efforts to probe the limits of Uzbekistan's willingness to cooperate.

"This shows that their are openings that must developed, and it remains to be decided in May in what way we proceed with the EU's current policy towards Uzbekistan, [and] if any changes are possible," he said.

Steinmeier said the possible Uzbek concessions would involve granting the International Committee of the Red Cross access to prisons; holding a further round of talks with EU experts on the events that took place in Andijon in May 2005, where hundreds of protesters died after clashes with government troops; and launching a human rights dialogue allowing the EU to raise individual cases.

All three are key EU demands if the bloc is to ease its current sanctions against Uzbekistan. Those restrictive measures currently include an arms embargo and a travel ban on officials held directly responsible for the Andijon events, the prosecution of their alleged perpetrators, and the absence of a subsequent independent inquiry.

International Inquiry For Andijon

The EU's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said before today's meeting that the Uzbek concessions discussed thus far will not cause the EU to give up its call for an independent international inquiry into the Andijon events.

"Of course, this does not replace an international inquiry, but it shows a greater openness than we have seen before," she said.

It appears that the EU is prepared to reconsider the extent of the sanctions in May -- when the visa ban is set to expire. The arms embargo will then run for another six months.

An anonymous EU official told RFE/RL that Steinmeier told his EU colleagues in their meeting that he believes the concessions floated by Tashkent may be genuine, although Berlin will wait for written confirmation. The official said a few EU member states had intervened in the debate and of those, all had been supportive of Germany's pragmatic approach.

Signs Of 'Movement'

Ferrero-Waldner was also keen to emphasize a hopeful message today.

"Although we remain very worried, of course, by the human rights situation in the country, the Uzbeks have shown new signs of movement in the right direction."

Ferrero-Waldner's words echo a declaration adopted by the EU foreign ministers today that expresses "serious" concerns, but limits its calls to a human rights dialogue and a second round of expert-level talks on Andijon.

Uzbekistan's intentions will be tested in the last week of March, when Germany will hold a meeting with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian countries in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

The meeting will give Germany the opportunity to acquaint the five capitals with the key precepts of the EU's first-ever strategy for Central Asia, which it is currently drafting. The strategy is expected to be adopted by the EU's heads of state and government at their June summit in Brussels.