Kazakh Government Expands Protection Of Steppes
The Irgiz-Turgay project safeguards habitat for the rare saiga antelope and endangered bird species. But environmentalists say it is part of a much larger initiative to create a system of protected areas of more than 6 million hectares in Kazakhstan's steppes.
The Kazakh government established the Irgiz-Turgay nature reserve earlier this year over more than 760,000 hectares in the steppes of northwestern Kazakhstan.
Most of the area will become protected pastures for the odd-looking saiga antelope.
The Irgiz-Turgay area, which includes steppe, semidesert, lakes, and wetlands, has long been affected by overgrazing, agriculture, and commercial fishing.
Olga Pereladova, who heads the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Central Asia program in Moscow, tells RFE/RL that such activities will be prohibited completely on part of the reserve -- such as the saiga antelope's breeding grounds -- and limited on the remainder.
"Sustainable use of nature resources will be allowed, including grazing," Pereladova says. "But it will be obligatory for the land users and resource users to take into consideration nature conservation goals. Anti-poaching control will be very strict, and the number of livestock will be [restricted] so that they are not competing with saiga."
The nomadic, herding saiga antelope is found primarily in Kazakhstan and Russia's Republic of Kalmykia, but can also be seen in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Over the last decade, its numbers have declined from more than 1 million to some 30,000 -- mainly due to poaching for meat and horns, combined with habitat destruction.
The Irgiz-Turgay reserve also includes important wetlands for some 100 species of waterbirds.
National Important Bird Area Coordinator for the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan Sergei Sklyarenko tells RFE/RL that such species include two globally threatened birds -- the Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus) and the white-headed duck (Oxyura leucocephala).
"Last year, our Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity [in Kazakhstan] organized two special surveys at the lakes [of the lower Irgiz and Turgay river basins] and found more than 300 pairs of Dalmatian pelicans [and] more than 300 [specimens of] white-headed ducks," Sklyarenko says. "And the total number of waterbirds in summer 2006 was about 250,000. In autumn [2005 they were] about 200,000."
The Dalmatian pelican's breeding grounds include Central Asia, South Caucasus, Russia, Ukraine, and Iran. Following massive declines, its population is believed to have stabilized at up to 20,000 individuals.
White-headed ducks breed primarily in Russia and Kazakhstan, but also Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Armenia. Their numbers are believed to have declined to some 10,000.
The Irgiz-Turgay reserve is expected to become fully operational this year, when the Kazakh government allocates funds and appoints staff.
It will border the existing Irgiz-Turgay sanctuary, which covers some 300,000 hectares.
Conservationists say the creation of the Irgiz-Turgay reserve is an important step in achieving the goal of creating a system of protected areas of more than 6 million hectares.
The Kazakh government has included the implementation of the Altyn Dala Conservation Initiative to its plan of protected areas development for 2007-09.
The initiative is made up of a coalition of international nongovernmental groups that includes the Frankfurt Zoological Society, Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the WWF, and Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan's Environment Ministry and the Committee for Forestry and Hunting of the Agriculture Ministry cooperated with the project.
Pereladova says the Altyn Dala system of protected areas will take decades for completion. But she says the Kazakh government is committed to create new protected areas and provide funds for their operation.
"Kazakhstan is increasing [its] financial allocations for [a] protected-area system more seriously than any other of the former Soviet Union countries," Pereladova says. "What they're doing now [is] reserving land for future creations of protected areas. That means that nothing can be built or established on these areas and some control in nature conservation is already going on. And, step by step, some nature conservation areas of different status are [being] established."
Pereladova says the effective creation of new protected areas could be accelerated dramatically if international donors provided financing for the initial costs -- including land allocation, infrastructure, and equipment.
Sklyarenko says strong economic growth has allowed Kazakhstan to allocate more money into protected areas development than its Central Asian neighbors.
He says the Committee for Forestry and Hunting is eager to keep important areas for biodiversity far removed from the current process of land privatization.
Central Asia: Name Debate Reflects Region's Mixed History
The announcement -- along with Rahmon's call for all Tajiks to follow suit -- prompted accusations in the Russian media of aggressive "nationalism."
Russian papers responded with irreverent humor to Rahmon's choice to de-Russify his surname.
One paper characterized it as a presidential "circumcision." Another played on the Russian surname Kozlov -- strictly translated as "son of a goat" -- asking whether the name should be simplified to "goat."
Aleksei Malashenko, an expert on philosophy and Islam from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, predicts that Tajikistan will do more to break with its Soviet past and pursue stronger ties with neighboring Iran and Afghanistan -- which essentially share a common language with Tajikistan.
"If this 'traditionalization' continues in Tajikistan, I don't think it will be the best alternative for the country," Malashenko says. "Tajikistan should think about modernization of society rather than returning it to ancient values, as some have been trying to do. Instead, they have to try to make [Tajik] society more open, more adapted to progressive societies. As we all know, Tajikistan -- no offense [intended] -- is not the most advanced country in the world."
Just The Start...
Malashenko speculates that Tajikistan's next move might well be to change its official alphabet -- introducing Arabic script instead of Cyrillic.
The alphabet issue has long been the subject of heated debate among Tajik scholars and politicians.
Malashenko regards this as part of a trend of "traditionalization" among former Soviet republics.
But the retreat from Slavic-sounding surnames does not appear to be gaining significant momentum in the rest of Central Asia. The name change was popular after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when many writers, journalists, and others among the so-called "intelligentsia" opted for the move.
...Or Losing Steam?
All the Central Asian countries permit the name change. But in reality, many people find the procedure time-consuming and thus discouraging.
In Uzbekistan, sociologist Bakhtiyar Isabekov tells RFE/RL that he tried to remove the Russian suffix from his surname. But he abandoned the effort in the face of exhausting legal obstacles.
"If you want to drop the '-ov' suffix from your surname and in its place add other [Uzbek] suffixes -- like '-zoda' -- you would have to provide a lot of documents," Isabekov says. "It's a very complicated procedure."
In Kazakhstan, not many people bother to revert to pre-Soviet surnames. But many register their newborn babies with traditional surnames because it requires no additional paperwork or fees.
Twenty-year-old Kazakh student Isatay Korganbaev says he could not care less about his surname.
"It doesn't matter if you have '-ov' or '-ev,'" Korganbaev says. "You can have your surname in any form, it makes no difference. I don't care too much about it. What's the big deal here? Well, I would probably change it in future if I have to, but now… Who cares? The [Kazakh] president is himself Nursultan Nazarbaev."
At the same time, some ethnic Kazakhs resettling from China or Turkey have added Russian suffixes to their names -- apparently trying to blend with the locals.
In Turkmenistan, some writers and journalists use more traditional surnames as pen names, while keeping their Russian-style names unchanged in their passports.
In Kyrgyzstan, some men who swapped Russian for Kyrgyz suffixes -- like "-uuly," "-qyzy," or "-tegin" -- in the 1990s are restoring the Soviet-era endings.
Try To 'Sound More Tajik'
Since seasonal work in Russia is a key source of income for hundreds of thousands of Central Asians, many have found it easier to register their documents in Russia with Russian surnames.
Even in Tajikistan, not everyone is looking forward to "sounding more Tajik," as President Rahmon describes it.
Shokirjon Hakimov, a Tajik lawyer and politician, says such a move presents many hurdles. He says it could also overwhelm Tajikistan's creaky bureaucracy.
"Many of those officials who work within the passport and registration system have yet to learn how to deal with the issue," Hakimov says. "Apart from that, the government will use it as a reason to make some money for its budget."
Rahmon has also urged parents not to include the Russian suffix when they register their newborn babies.
But the legal and financial hurdles may well discourage many Tajiks from returning to pre-Soviet surnames.
Moreover, in a country where more than half the population lives below the poverty line, "exploring cultural roots" might come well down most ordinary Tajiks' list of priorities.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services contributed to this report. Editor's note: RFE/RL style has been changed to "Emomali Rahmon" in light of the Tajik president's announcement and RFE/RL's own scrutiny of its transliteration style; we formerly referred to him as "Imomali Rakhmonov.")
Central/South Asia: The Silk Road Runs Through It
London's Asia House and the British Council organized a recent forum that asked whether Central Asia's heritage can help better inform outsiders about a frequently misunderstood region.
References to the Silk Road inevitably bring to mind the former glory of the great cities along this ancient trade route.
"Hundreds of years ago, the countries of Central and South Asia were very well known to the imaginations of people elsewhere in the world -- really because of the import and export of goods along this network of trade routes that went from China all the way to eastern Mediterranean, from the Far East to Europe," says Emily Campbell, the British Council's head of design and architecture, who chaired the March 29 gathering. "Since then, these countries have fallen into obscurity or the perception of those countries among people in the West has become very skewed."
Uzbek academic Faizullaev argues that an important aspect of all Silk Road nations is that their specific identities can be explained by what he calls "crossroadness."
Campbell says inaccessibility and political obstacles have contributed to the region's isolation. Many of the old Silk Road countries were under Russian or Soviet rule until 1991.
Word Travels Fast
Campbell says those countries have now emerged from that situation.
In an age when information travels so much faster than cargo, visual cues for distant lands can be important. The region is flush with them -- from the 4,000 intricately woven pieces of Kazakhstan's "Golden Man" suit, to the Persian blue tiles reminiscent of lapis lazuli, or the carpets of Bukhara. Architectural treasures include Samarkand's mausoleum of Tamerlane (Timur) the Citadel of Herat, and countless others.
But can such imagery translate into tourism and trade revenues?
Observers say the concepts of a modern identity and how to project it outside the region are a hot topic in Central Asia.
Alismer Faizullaiev, a professor at Tashkent's University of World Economy and Diplomacy, calls elements of national identity -- like national heroes, languages or linguistic mixes, and common history -- "identifiers."
He points out that identity is a social constant and can be chosen, altered, or even manipulated by political regimes. But he says there is also a need for modern identifiers.
"We are very proud of our history, culture, and identity," Faizullaiev says, "but at the same time it's important to go [forward], not just look back. And I believe that [in] the branding of [the] Uzbek nation -- or any other nations, like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, etc. -- it's important to bring together two parts -- something from the past and something from the future."
Faizullaev argues that an important aspect of all Silk Road nations is that their specific identities can be explained by what he calls "crossroadness."
The term recognizes former trade-nation status -- including being shaped, in part, by their constant trade contacts.
The British Council's Campbell agrees that there is a need for modern identity "pointers." She says they can be based on tradition -- for example, typical ornamental patterns in textile design or in applied arts and crafts.
Campbell called architecture one of the most "visible" new identity pointers. Well-preserved ancient buildings, palaces, or mosques hold great attraction. But she says there are also striking modern buildings, for instance in Kazakhstan.
"Sir Norman Foster, one of our own architects, has just built this Center for World Peace in Astana, which is an astonishing building," Campbell says. "Architecture will undoubtedly be part of our campaign. And I anticipate that some of that will be to do with the idea of regeneration -- the idea of making the old into something new, into some kind of contemporary proposition, which Britain and indeed many countries in Europe are very, very good at doing."
Rory Stewart is a best-selling travel writer and director of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation to preserve local buildings and traditional crafts in Kabul. He has walked extensively in the Silk Road region -- including tracing the Afghan exploits of the founder (Babur) of India's Moghul Empire for his widely praised book, "The Places In Between."
Stewart agrees that the term "Old Silk Road" remains the best identity pointer for the region and should be revived. He points out that in the old days, it was the cities that mattered most on the old route.
"The idea of nationhood there is relatively recent," Stewart says. "The distinction between these countries was really the distinction between cities, not between states. Afghanistan itself, of course, largely came into being in the late 18th century."
Stewart describes Kabul as an old trading city that desperately needs more investment to become an identity symbol, but he remains hopeful that much can be accomplished.
In Bukhara in southwestern Uzbekistan, for instance, the number of visitors has doubled to 420,000 a year. That rise owes much to investment attracted over the past six years due to the fame of the Old Silk Road.
EU In Tashkent For Intensive Talks On Human Rights Situation
The talks come ahead of an EU decision over prolonging sanctions against Uzbekistan following Tashkent's refusal to allow independent investigation of the bloodshed when security forces opened fire on demonstrators in 2005.
The talks are going forward in Tashkent under a cloak of silence from both the European Union and the Uzbek government.
The EU has sent a high-powered delegation consisting of representatives of its "troika" from the German EU Presidency, the European Commission, and the secretariat of the ruling Council of Ministers.
They are meeting Uzbek officials from the Foreign and Justice ministries, state prosecutors, lawyers for some detained activists, and some detainees themselves.
There is no word on the atmosphere at the talks, which started on April 2 and continued today.
Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov said in the Kazakh capital, Astana, recently that his government does not intend to "explain ourselves to anyone." He has said the situation cannot be that of a "pupil and a lecturer."
During that Astana meeting between EU officials and senior Central Asian representatives, Norov also called for noninterference in the internal affairs of countries.
"In our opinion, it is crucially important to build relations on the basis of equal rights, mutual respect, noninterference in internal affairs, pragmatism, [and respect for] the vital interest of the parties without bringing ideology into the matter," Norov said.
The EU's special representative to Central Asia, Pierre Morel, has adopted a more conciliatory tone. He commented on Norov's statements in an interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.
"He expressed a predictable line from Uzbekistan, but I would not say it was especially harsh," Morel said. "We have had this type of exchange before; we...had them in November at the time of the [EU-Uzbek] cooperation council."
Morel, who was speaking after the same meeting in Astana, noted that Norov attended that gathering and participated fully in its activities.
"He could have abstained, he could have sent somebody else, but he was there himself," Morel said. "And we discussed all these questions, and we mentioned the problems, and we had a bilateral [meeting] with him -- we discussed these questions with him. So he has been participating fully in the process."
Choice For Brussels
On the basis of the present talks, the EU will be deciding in May whether to renew the limited sanctions it imposed on Uzbekistan in the wake of Andijon, to lift them, or to strengthen them.
Brussels is preparing a long-term strategy on developing ties with Central Asia. The region is important for Europe because of its rich resources of oil and natural gas, and some commentators fear the EU may be willing to dampen its demands for the observance of human rights in order to secure these resources.
EU officials deny that rights issues will be taking a back seat to economic considerations.
Kyrgyz Opposition Bloc Rejects Coalition Government ProposalApril 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- One of Kyrgyzstan's two biggest opposition blocs today rejected proposals to join a coalition government.
The proposals were made by President Kurmanbek Bakiev and the new Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev.
In a meeting today, the For Reform movement said it wants constitutional reforms first, giving some presidential powers to the Kyrgyz parliament.
Omurbek Abdyrakmanov, a member of the bloc, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the movement is still open to negotiations with the president on political reforms.
Another opposition bloc, the United Front for the Worthy Future of Kyrgyzstan, is preparing several protest actions to force the government to organize early presidential elections and constitutional reforms.
More than 80 members and supporters of the United Front said they will launch a hunger strike on April 5 and mass rallies on April 11.
Central Asia: Has IMU Reached The End Of The Line?
The cause, death toll, and final outcome of the clashes involving Uzbeks and tribesmen were all unclear more than a week after the violence began. Accounts by international news agencies and Pakistani media agreed that the fighting started on March 19 near Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, the southernmost of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas; it pitted a group composed largely of IMU-affiliated Uzbek militants against local Pashtun tribesmen.
Most sources linked the outbreak of fighting to the death of an Arab affiliated with a local Pashtun leader named Mawlawi Nazir. Pakistan's "Dawn" newspaper, for example, described Nazir as the leader of "local Taliban" and painted a picture of mounting tension between pro-Taliban local tribes and Uzbek militants after Uzbeks killed an "Al-Qaeda-linked Arab" (identified as Saiful Adil). But AFP reported that clashes broke out "after ex-Taliban commander Mullah Nazir, who backs President Pervez Musharraf's moves to expel foreigners from the area, ordered followers of Uzbek militant [and IMU leader] Tahir Yuldashev to disarm."
Whatever lit the fuse, the official death toll continues to climb.
Reports this week suggested a local cease-fire, but at the same time fierce fighting was reported just a few kilometers away. And reports emerged of overnight fighting in South Waziristan on March 29-30.
A tribal elder and opponent of the Uzbek presence in the region, Haji Khannan, has cautioned that "the only durable solution to the problem is to ask Uzbeks to leave the area." He claimed that Uzbeks' "continued presence would cause friction with the local tribes."
The official death toll now stands at around 170, with most of the dead ethnic Uzbeks affiliated with the IMU. Local sources told a Pakistani newspaper, "The News," that the fighting had claimed far fewer lives, with casualties split evenly between local tribes and Uzbeks.
A journalist in North Waziristan, Saylab Mas'ud, estimated to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on March 21 that "there were "about 2,000 to 2,500 Uzbek militia in the [immediate] area."
The highest estimates to have emerged are of more than 10,000 "foreign" fighters in the Tribal Areas, although there is little evidence to support such claims.
The confused chain of events makes more sense if one considers in turn the three groups of actors involved -- Pakistan's central authorities, local tribesmen in South Waziristan, and the IMU -- and the interests they are pursuing.
'Government Tribesmen Strategy'
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has been pressed by the United States to do more to contain militant activity in the tribal provinces bordering Afghanistan, and he has faced hostile demonstrations after his suspension of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Against that backdrop, he is eager to claim success for his policy of encouraging tribal leaders to deal with the problem of foreign militants. A Pakistani military spokesman recently described tribal leaders in South Waziristan as "patriots" for their efforts to evict IMU fighters, Pakistan's "Daily Times" reported on March 27. As early as March 20, Pakistani military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad called the fighting "a success of the government tribesmen strategy," Reuters reported. The spokesman claimed "the tribesmen are fed up with [foreign militants] because they and their activities adversely affect their lives and business."
Nevertheless, comments by the leader of a local family described by "IThe News" as supporting the eviction of Uzbek fighters from South Waziristan hardly inspired confidence that the central government's policy will do much to reduce the militancy that is fueling violence in neighboring Afghanistan. Haji Sharif vowed that his people would "continue [their] jihad [in Afghanistan] if that is against America, the Russians, British, or India as long as [they] have souls in our bodies." Sharif shrugged off the fighting with the Uzbeks as a distraction from the larger conflict in Afghanistan. He said his group's "activities across the border have been affected by [the] crisis with the Uzbeks," adding, "We have enemies in our home."
What's more, Pakistan's army may have taken sides in the recent clashes in South Waziristan, although Pakistani military spokesmen have consistently denied any involvement in the fighting. "The Asia Times Online" on March 28 quoted "independent sources" as saying that Pakistani special forces aided Pashtun leader Nazir in clashes against Uzbek forces and carried out raids in an attempt to arrest the IMU leader, Yoldosh. Reuters reported on March 22 that local residents said "some shelling aimed at Uzbek positions appeared to be coming from a military base."
According to "The Asia Times Online," the involvement of the Pakistani military "pits the 'coalition' of Nazir's Taliban and the Pakistani military against the leaders of the 'Islamic State of Waziristans.'" The latter refers to leaders in North and South Waziristan who are bitterly opposed to central government involvement in the tribal regions and support the presence of foreign militants.
As for the local tribesmen, a former British military attache in Islamabad, Brigadier Johnny Torrence-Spence, told a briefing in Washington on March 26 that Pashtuns in Pakistan's tribal regions are not a "single, homogenous group because they are divided along distinct tribal lines," the "Daily Times" reported. Reports from the region confirmed this, suggesting that some tribesmen object to the Uzbek presence in South Waziristan and are amenable to central government inducements to evict the Uzbeks, while others stand with the Uzbeks. "The News International" noted, for example, that Haji Sharif supports the eviction of the Uzbeks while his brothers, Haji Omar and Noor Islam, have been fighting alongside the Uzbeks.
Caught In The Middle
Where does this leave the IMU? Reports in Pakistan's press indicate that they have both supporters and enemies among local tribesmen. Pakistan's central authorities publicly oppose the Uzbeks' presence. Most estimates put the Uzbeks' strength at around 1,000, although some, such as the journalist quoted above, say they could number as high as 2,000, and a March 26 report in Britain's "Daily Telegraph" spoke of 10,000 Uzbek fighters led by Tohir Yoldosh.
The "Daily Telegraph" reported that Taliban leaders in Afghanistan have offered the Uzbek force a way out of its problems in South Waziristan in the form of "safe passage" to Kunar, Paktia, or Helmand in Afghanistan to take part in a spring offensive against NATO troops. In comments to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Colonel Tom Collins, dismissed the report as "Taliban propaganda" and said that there is no evidence IMU militants are headed for Afghanistan.
But experts queried by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service were less skeptical. Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who has written extensively on the Taliban and IMU, told RFE/RL that the ongoing events are difficult to interpret. But Rashid noted that "in order to deal with a difficult situation in Waziristan, foreign fighters may go to the south, to Afghanistan." The editor in chief of Pakistan's "Daily Mail," Makhdoom Babar, told RFE/RL that with conditions in Pakistan becoming less and less hospitable, he thinks the Uzbek force "will leave for Afghanistan." But Robert Birsel, a Reuters correspondent in Pakistan, suggested that Uzbek militants might be able to hammer out a truce with the local tribesmen in whose midst they have now lived for years.
Interestingly, the fighting in South Waziristan also drew comment from the global jihadist media apparatus. One group that regularly posts statements from jihadist insurgent groups in Iraq to pro-Al-Qaeda Internet forums, Al-Fajr Media Center, put out a press release in Arabic on March 21 on "what is happening in Waziristan." It claimed dismissively that "the Pakistani Army, its crusader overlords, and their apostate allies over the past five years have been unable to stand up to the holy warriors, whether in North or South Waziristan." Charging that the recent clashes were inspired by Pakistani intelligence agents, the Al-Fajr Media Center claimed that "the fighting is taking place between exiled holy warriors and their allies and some pro-government tribes, or the Pakistani army and intelligence services dressed as tribes." It argued that the combat does not pit Uzbeks against "tribes," as some are saying.
In sum, reports from Pakistan's tribal areas indicate that while the IMU retains some fighting strength, it is now a bit player in a complex game far removed from the organization's origins in Uzbekistan and its onetime goal of unseating Uzbek President Islam Karimov and establishing an Islamist state in Central Asia's most populous country. Trapped for now in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the IMU is caught up in the shadowboxing between Pakistan's central authorities and the leaders of Waziristan's various Pashtun tribes-- and in the larger efforts of global jihadists to continue their fight in and around Afghanistan.
It may not be the end of the road for the IMU, but it is a road that has led far from home, with few prospects for a return in the foreseeable future.
Kyrgyzstan: Political Future Uncertain As Premier Steps Down
Today there was another example of how complicated the democratic process can be.
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Azim Isabekov announced his resignation this morning after only two months in office, and it was quickly accepted by President Kurmanbek Bakiev.
Although no reason for the resignation was immediately given, a major rift opened between Isabekov and Bakiev on March 28 when the prime minister dismissed seven ministers, seemingly without consulting the president.
Within hours of the dismissals, Bakiev said publicly that he thought the sacking of the ministers was a bad idea and refused to accept the dismissals.
'A Political Corpse'
Bakiev quickly accepted Isabekov's resignation today and nominated opposition leader Almaz Atambaev to be the new prime minister. That Bakiev would choose Atambaev is an indication of how complicated political alliances in Kyrgyzstan are these days.
Atambaev, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, was until recently a member of the opposition For Reforms movement, which has been pressuring Bakiev to implement constitutional reforms for nearly a year.
Ahead of a massive rally in Bishkek late last year to demand those reforms, Atambaev was clearly not a supporter of the president, saying there was no point in holding talks with Bakiev.
"Why should we hold negotiations with a political corpse?" Atambaev said at that time. "He is a political corpse. A person who sits as the head of state and constantly lies to the people -- this is a political corpse."
Atambaev now seems destined to be the next prime minister. His appointment, should it come, could prove to be of immediate help to Bakiev, as former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva, of the new political group For a United Kyrgyzstan, pointed out.
"Atambaev is a compromise figure and a representative of the opposition," Otunbaeva said. "I believe he will try to resolve all the major issues on our agenda. Right now, we say that the main thing is to establish a coalition government while, at the same time, carrying out constitutional reforms."
Atambaev and Otunbaeva were among several prominent opposition leaders who this week formed the new political bloc For a United Kyrgyzstan. That group is calling for constitutional reforms, but wants Bakiev to stay in office until the end of his term in 2010, unlike the United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan movement. That group was formed last month and is currently organizing rallies to call for Bakiev to resign.
Protests To Proceed
Azamat Kalman of the United Front said Atambaev's possible appointment makes no difference to plans for protests to force early presidential elections.
"[Bakiev] believes in Almaz Atambaev," Kalman said. "Apparently, Atambaev made him believe that he can stop the rallies on [April 11]. He is deeply mistaken. The planned rallies, set for April 11, will be held. They will be. Our demands are the same -- carrying out an early presidential election."
Atambaev's former group, the For Reforms movement, has not officially commented on today's changes, but Asiya Sasykbaeva, one of the movement's leaders, said Atambaev is a good choice for prime minister.
"I think Atambaev's entering the [government] is not a bad step," she said. "He is a worthy, dynamic, proactive, and pragmatic figure in our country. However, I cannot tell you about a formation of a [possible coalition] executive power, so far. Today we, the For Reforms Movement, will hold a meeting to decide about our stance on that."
Legacy Of The 'People's Revolution'
For those hoping to see democracy take hold in Central Asia, the difficulties Kyrgyzstan is experiencing are a bad sign. Neighboring governments did not support Kyrgyzstan's 2005 so-called People's Revolution that ousted long-time President Askar Akaev. The unspoken fear in countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan at the time was that the revolution in Kyrgyzstan could foment the idea that overthrowing entrenched leaders is a path to a better life.
However, Kyrgyzstan has seen a series of political crises over the last two years, and protesters have come out on several occasions to demand greater change from the government.
Kyrgyzstan's fragile political situation also sparks regional security concerns. The government is currently unable to devote much attention to the growing influence of Islamic extremist groups in the country's south. This has direct implications for neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
It also has implications for Washington and Moscow. Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia where the United States and Russia each have military bases designated for counterterrorism operations.
(Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of the RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)
Pakistan: Crackdown Could Pose Threat To Central Asia
The Pakistani government is calling the fierce fighting in its South Waziristan tribal area between local tribesmen and foreign militants a successful example of Islamabad's controversial policies there.
But not everyone is convinced the Pakistani government's version of events in Waziristan is the whole story. And in Afghanistan and the neighboring Central Asian countries, the fighting in Waziristan is of great concern as it could soon affect the security situations in those countries.
Government Agreement Backfires
"The government has very little control [in Waziristan] now," Pakistani journalist Haroun Rashid explains. "For two or three years, the Pakistani military has been staging operations in that area against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, but they did not succeed so they then resorted to [an] agreement -- and they have reached two agreements in [South Waziristan] with the main two tribes. After that the Pakistani government just withdrew...and [wherever] the vacuum was the militants came in and they took control."
Those agreements made tribal leaders responsible for expelling foreign fighters, who include supporters of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). It is the IMU that is causing problems now. Latif Afridi, a Pashtun tribal leader and former member of parliament from Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, tells RFE/RL that an unlikely mediator, the Taliban, is trying to end the hostilities.
"I have heard that [Taliban] are all trying to make peace between these two rival groups," he says. "But in my opinion, as long as these Uzbeks do not stop attacking the honor of these people -- their rules and their traditions -- there will be no peace."
Reports from Waziristan say violence started because the Uzbeks killed some local leaders suspected of spying for the Pakistani or U.S. governments, and also some of the Uzbeks have become involved with local women. Local leaders then reportedly called on the Uzbeks to surrender their weapons. That offer was rejected.
Central Asian Militants
The IMU first appeared in 1999 when some 1,000 militants appeared in southern Kyrgyzstan. The group's stated goal was to overthrow Uzbekistan's government.
Kyrgyz forces kept the IMU in the mountains along the Tajik-Kyrgyz border, but the next summer they returned to southern Kyrgyzstan and eastern Uzbekistan. Their attacks were repelled and, by the summer of 2001, the IMU was fighting in Afghanistan alongside Taliban forces. They fought mainly in northern provinces not far from their homes in Central Asia.
U.S. bombings in November 2001 damaged the IMU. But apparently the survivors found a place to hide and regroup in Pakistan, in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. That is the same place where many believe Al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri have found refuge.
Fighting With Taliban
The Pakistani government says its policy of relying on local leaders in Waziristan to rid the region of foreign fighters is paying off. Ahmed Rashid, author of the book "The Taliban," says that is not entirely accurate.
"I think the situation is more complicated than the way the Pakistan government is presenting it," he says. "The fact is that the local militants who are attacking the Uzbeks are also Taliban and are also linked to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban leadership and this is an internal fight I think between the extremists."
Rashid had also heard the Taliban are involved in negotiating a settlement. "There are already reports that Jalaladdin Haqani, the former Taliban minister, is negotiating a cease-fire between them, and perhaps Mullah Dadullah will be coming up from [Afghanistan's] Helmand [Province] to also help negotiate a cease-fire between them and it's possible that the Uzbeks may be removed from south Waziristan and taken south into Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban as a way of lessening the tensions in south Waziristan," he says.
An article in the Pakistani daily "Dawn" on March 25 said some 10,000 armed Uzbeks will move to Helmand Province to help fight NATO-led troops and Afghan government forces.
Rashid said the number is lower but noted that the Uzbeks' situation is now desperate, as there is no longer an option to disarm and live among the people of Waziristan.
"There is no way that [the Uzbeks] will be disarmed," Rashid says. "The fact is that they are a very powerful group. There are perhaps as many as 1,500 to 2,000 Uzbeks there. They know that if they are disarmed they will be wiped out by the locals, by the Pakistani Army, or by the Americans."
Frying Pan Or Fire?
Some say there are less than 1,000 armed Uzbeks in Waziristan. However many there are, the Uzbeks' choices now seem to be to stay in Waziristan and be killed, or to leave. But will they really go to Afghanistan to help the Taliban fight NATO-led forces?
Tom Collins, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), said NATO is aware of the Taliban claims but rejected their accuracy.
"I would say that it's probably part of the Taliban's propaganda effort," Collins says. "We see very few foreign fighters in this country and I'm not going to speculate on what their latest claim of sending 10,000 foreign fighters into Afghanistan might mean."
Pashtun leader Afridi says that going to Afghanistan would be difficult for the Uzbeks and maybe worse than staying in Waziristan.
"If they leave Pakistan and enter Afghanistan, they will not have any friends there. First of all, they will face NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. And they will be decimated. They cannot survive. And if they go to Afghanistan, they will not receive help like they got in Pakistan. Nobody will protect them there as they were protected in Pakistan," Afridi says.
"It means they will face great dangers in Afghanistan," he adds. "And that is the reason why they say they don't want to go to Afghanistan -- the reason they insist that they will make 'jihad' only in Uzbekistan."
Ready To Go Home?
Uzbekistan, or at least Central Asia, may be the only place for these Uzbeks to run and, as RFE/RL Afghan analyst Amin Tarzi says, there is a known path back to that region.
"If the Uzbeks want to travel from South Waziristan north to Tajikistan they have a fairly straight way along the FATA, the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas, where the Pakistani government does not have much control constitutionally and it's a very mountainous region. That's where basically Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and other people are still there, so [the Uzbeks] have ways to go through those places," Tarzi says.
"Then they hit one area that is in Swat and Chitral, which have some of the highest mountains in Pakistan. That connects them to the Pamir area, which is the panhandle of Afghanistan. Crossing that you are right in the Pamir region of Tajikistan, which is the most inaccessible region of Tajikistan where [the Uzbeks] can regroup," he concludes.
The IMU is still active in Central Asia -- a fact shown by the number of its members still being arrested in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan -- and the number of IMU members there may increase if the Uzbek militants in Waziristan decide to stop fighting in Pakistan and return home.
(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service and Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this article.)
Central Asia: EU Seeks Energy, Presses On Rights
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier today told the Central Asian foreign-ministry officials that the EU wants to build stronger energy ties with the region.
Energy cooperation between resource-rich Central Asia and the energy-hungry European Union was the focus of the delegation's visit to the Kazakh capital, Astana.
EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner spoke about the EU energy hopes for Central Asia ahead of today's meeting.
"We will also speak about the corridors," she said. "I've said that we want to link up Kazakhstan with the Caspian Sea region, with the Black Sea region, with Ukraine toward the European Union. This is indeed a cooperation that will be there for many, many years to come."
What Ferrero-Waldner said about Kazakhstan is more generally true about Central Asia, where Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan both have substantial oil and natural gas resources.
Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohkhon Zaripov acknowledged the EU interest in energy resources but hinted there is room for other cooperation.
"We realize that Central Asia can be the object of serious interest for the whole world in the economic and other areas only as one whole [region], therefore I think meetings of this format will help us join our efforts in the future in uniting Central Asian countries and reaching the international arena," he said.
Zaripov added that security is a topic of interest for both the EU and Central Asia. The Central Asian states are now on the front lines of the battle against international terrorism and international narcotics trafficking.
Terrorism has hit Central Asia several times already and groups operating in the region have long-established ties with international terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda.
Narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan through Central Asia has become a common event. Annual narcotics seizures by governments in the region are measured in tons. Most of these drugs are intended for sale in Europe.
At the press conference following today's meeting it was unclear what progress was made toward bringing Central Asian natural gas and oil to markets in the EU.
Turkmenistan, which has some of the largest supplies of natural gas in the world, was the only Central Asian country not to send its foreign minister. Turkmen Deputy Foreign Minister Vepa Khajiev attended instead but was not at the press conference.
That may be due to the second focus of the EU delegation's visit: human rights. There have been accusations that the EU is ignoring rights violations in Central Asia in order to improve its chances of receiving energy exports.
This issue was obviously raised at the meeting between EU and Central Asian representatives, but in the case of Uzbekistan it appears the message was not well received.
Our Kind Of Democracy
"As for our cooperation in developing democracy and strengthening civil society, we have also agreed that it is necessary to take into consideration the countries' national traditions, history, and the mentality of our peoples," Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov said at the press conference. "Hastiness in this matter, of course, can cause harm."
The EU still has sanctions on Uzbekistan because of the government's crackdown on protesters in May 2005. The Uzbek government still claims the protest turned into a coup attempt and the harsh measures employed by government troops were necessary.
Witnesses and rights groups say Uzbek security forces fired indiscriminately on the crowd of demonstrators, killing hundreds of them.
Norov implied that the EU does not know enough about Central Asia to comment on how the region should be governed.
"Unfortunately, in assessing the situation in Central Asia, it is still believed [in Europe] -- wrongly, in our opinion -- that the development of the state and law in the countries of the [Central Asian] region requires special efforts supposedly because of the absence of a tradition of the rule of law," Norov said. "It is widely known that civilizations flourished on the territory of Uzbekistan and other regional countries for thousands of years that were based on law, reason, and moral norms."
In the case of Kazakhstan, the EU has more leverage. Kazakhstan hopes to receive the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009. Ferrero-Waldner noted this and said the implementation of democratic reforms was the key for Kazakhstan's hopes.
Kazakhstan And OSCE Chairmanship
"President [Nursultan Nazarbaev], in his speech recently, has mentioned that a lot of reforms will take place, but now we want to see those reforms and I think this would be a very important step forward and then I think there is a very good chance to see also the first Central Asian country in the chairmanship of the OSCE," she said.
Rustam Khaidarov, a political analyst from the Friedrich Ebert Fund in Tajikistan, said the EU is perhaps the best partner for Central Asian states and he gave reasons for this.
"The European Union is the only force -- the only geopolitical force -- that does not have economic, geopolitical, or geostrategic interests in the region," he said. "Russia and China come [to Central Asia] to protect their geopolitical interests and at any time they can look at what is happening and change their stance no matter what the situation is in the region."
He continued: "But the European Union cannot simply defend the interests of an individual country, therefore every government that is a member of the EU tries to base its cooperation in the direction of economics, security, and the fight against terrorism. They work with the countries of Central Asia. As concerns Tajikistan, this government should work with these [European] states that do not have geopolitical interests."
Ferrero-Waldner said there are more, albeit lower-level, EU-Central Asian meetings coming, some as soon as next month.
(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and Normahmad Kholov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)
EU Takes Its Case To Astana
The foreign ministers of all five Central Asian republics and other senior officials are expected to be on hand in Astana today for meetings that culminate on March 28 when Steinmeier -- representing the current EU Presidency -- will unveil the first draft of the EU's first-ever combined strategy for the energy-rich region.
The new EU strategy for Central Asia will primarily focus on energy cooperation, but will also offer significant increases in aid money and enhanced political contacts.
The German Foreign Ministry also announced that the delegation will raise the issue of human rights while in Astana.
Berlin has long indicated it wants the EU to upgrade its ties with Central Asia, which it regards as strategically vital.
The EU currently imports half of its energy needs, and the bloc's dependence on external sources is expected to climb to 70 percent by 2030. It is estimated in Brussels that the Caspian Sea region -- which encompasses Central Asia, Azerbaijan, and Iran -- could provide up to one-quarter of total EU energy needs.
However, Central Asia with its huge gas and oil reserves has so far languished in relative obscurity in EU foreign policy.
Germany, the EU's biggest member state, clearly thinks the time has come to change that approach.
Speaking in Brussels on December 19, Steinmeier tacitly acknowledged the EU fears being sidelined in the region by its big neighbors -- Russia and China.
"Despite its location in the immediate vicinity of Russia and on the Chinese border, a monopolization by both big neighbors is not desired [there]," Steinmeier said. "There are many in the region who are looking toward Europe with the expectation that Europe will take an interest in this Central Asian region."
Apart from energy cooperation, the new EU strategy will also hold out the prospect of closer political contacts with the five Central Asian countries, as well as increased development aid. EU contributions are expected to total some 700 million euros ($929 million) from 2007-13.
The EU's bid to develop direct energy links with the Central Asian countries is likely to be seen in Moscow as an unfriendly step.
Keith Smith, a former U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania and currently a senior associate in the Europe Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told RFE/RL that the stakes are high for Russia, too. Smith said Russia needs its current near-total dominance in transiting Central Asian gas to meet its own delivery obligations to the EU.
"Unless they [that is, Russia] can control the Central Asians, they're going to have a hard time supplying themselves -- I mean supplying their contracts with Western Europe -- this is of course one of the reasons why they control Central Asia," Smith said.
Smith said that without being able to buy up Central Asian gas relatively cheaply Russia would be forced to raise domestic prices, and open up and reform its energy sector to attract Western investment.
The EU delegation to Astana includes EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and the EU's special representative to Central Asia, Pierre Morel.
The timing of the meeting appears auspicious for the EU.
Turkmenistan recently lost its eccentric strongman president, Saparmurat Niyazov. And the new leadership in Ashgabat is now mulling its options. Turkmenistan's gas exports are under contract to Russia's Gazprom until 2009.
Kazakhstan has been courting the EU for support for its bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009. It is the second leading gas exporter in the region and has recently indicated it wants to diversify its export routes to the West, currently monopolized by Russia.
Uzbekistan, the third country in the region with significant gas reserves, is currently subject to EU sanctions owing to alleged human rights violations. However, the EU is due to review those sanctions in May, and Tashkent indicated recently that it may be prepared to meet some of the bloc's central demands.
Meanwhile, the EU's relations with Russia are on ice. Moscow refuses to ratify an existing multilateral energy treaty that would compel it to open its infrastructure to Western companies. Talks on a new EU-Russia strategic partnership are being blocked by Poland over a farm-trade dispute between Warsaw and Moscow. Russia currently supplies one-quarter of the EU's gas consumption -- 40 percent of the bloc's total gas imports.
EU-Azerbaijani Energy Cooperation
Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Azimov recently told European parliamentarians in Brussels that his country -- a key transit country and a potentially significant gas exporter in its own right -- is asking the EU to clearly declare its interest in an alternative transit corridor bypassing Russia.
"We signed last year a memorandum on energy partnership with the EU," Azimov said earlier in March. "But I'm talking now about the further extension of this. It is not only between Azerbaijan and [the] EU. It is between Azerbaijan, [the] European really interested consuming nations, [the] European transit nations, and Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan -- [the] trans-Caspian link."
Central to efforts to diversify EU gas imports is the projected Nabucco pipeline, running from Turkey to Austria. Scheduled to become operational in 2011, its capacity could rival that of the Russian-German Nord Stream pipeline in the Baltic Sea. However, Nabucco's commercial viability is in doubt after Hungary signed a separate pipeline deal with Russia in March.
There is little unity within the EU on external energy policy. But the dividing lines are less clear-cut than they initially appear. Germany, one of Russia's closest backers, is now spearheading the Central Asian initiative with its focus on diversifying energy-import sources and routes. France and Italy, also considered close to Moscow, are less dependent on Russian imports due to their proximity to North Africa with its huge gas reserves.
It is Russia's fiercest critics in Eastern Europe, paradoxically, that remain the most dependent on its energy supplies.