Kazakhstan: U.S. Firm Pleads Guilty In Bribery Case
One-quarter of the fine covers Baker Hughes' activities developing the huge Karachaganak natural-gas field in northern Kazakhstan.
In the criminal complaint, the Houston federal court alleged that officials of a Baker Hughes subsidiary in Kazakhstan paid $4.1 million in bribes from 2001-03 to an intermediary, who in turn transferred money to a high-level executive of KazakhOil, the state oil company at the time.
Additionally, the complaint says, in the period of 1998-99, kickbacks of more than $1 million were paid to a KazTransOil executive. The U.S. agency that regulates financial markets, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), said that in addition to Kazakhstan, Baker Hughes admitted to bribing officials in oil-related industries in Russia, Uzbekistan, Angola, Indonesia, and Nigeria.
SEC Reveals Charges
It has been known since 2004 that the SEC was conducting an investigation related to Baker Hughes' operations on the Karachaganak project. But until last week, the magnitude of the charges was unknown.
Christopher Conte, the associate director of the SEC's division of enforcement, said that the commission is trying to keep ongoing investigations as confidential as possible. He says only the charges related to Baker Hughes' Kazakhstan activities were filed as criminal charges, all others were filed as civil charges.
"The [U.S.] Department of Justice made the decision to charge certain conduct as criminal after they pursued their investigation," Conte said. "The [SEC] can only bring civil charges. Any criminal charges that are brought are basically the complete decision of the Department of Justice."
The Kazakh state officials involved in the alleged bribery schemes were not named in the complaint. The investigation indicates that the bribes were wired to two separate individual bank accounts -- one in Zurich and the other in London. Swiss and British authorities assisted in the investigation, the complaint says.
The SEC also accused Roy Fearnley, a former Baker Hughes manager in Kazakhstan, of being the main facilitator of the bribery schemes. According to the complaint, Fearnley told his supervisors that unless a specific agent for KazakhOil was retained as a consultant, Baker Hughes could "say good-bye to this and future business" in Kazakhstan.
After bribes were paid, Baker Hughes was awarded an oil-services contract in a Karachaganak field that generated $219 million in revenues from 2001 to 2006.
No Kazakh Officials Named
The SEC's Conte said that the names of individuals that may be implicated in an investigation are only disclosed if those people are named as defendants. The Kazakh officials involved in this investigation are only considered accomplices and their anonymity is protected.
"We don't, as a matter of general practice, include the names of other individuals who may be part of the story. So, there was no deal, there was no arrangement, there was no anything like that," Conte noted.
The SEC "as a matter of practice includes the names of those individuals who are the defendants and otherwise doesn't typically disclose the names of other individuals," he adds.
Roman Vassilenko, who is the press attache at the Kazakh Embassy in Washington, said that he is not familiar with the case and cannot comment on the credibility of the charges involving Kazakh officials.
He said, however, that there is an anticorruption law in Kazakhstan and that several high-level Kazakh officials have been prosecuted under this law.
Donald Zarin, a Washington-based lawyer who wrote a book on the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), under which Baker Hughes was prosecuted, said that the U.S. government views bribing foreign officials as a serious criminal offense.
One of the reasons for that, he said, is that bribing foreign officials stifles the competition in the country and thus negatively affects its economic development.
"Fundamentally it's a bribery law. And it prohibits U.S. companies and U.S. citizens from paying or authorizing the payment of any monies or anything of value to foreign officials to obtain or retain business," Zarin said.
The FCPA "essentially says that U.S. companies cannot bribe foreign officials. It also says that U.S. companies cannot give any money to intermediaries, like consultants, if they have knowledge that the purpose of that, [is for the] consultant [to attempt] to pay foreign officials to obtain or retain business," he added.
Baker Hughes Chairman Chad Deaton said on April 26 that the employees and agents believed to be involved in the Karachaganak bribery scheme have been fired. The SEC complaint acknowledges that the company has been cooperating with the investigation.
The news about the settlement was perceived as a positive development by investors, who pushed the Baker Hughes stock price up on April 26-27, where it closed at $81. The company is rated a "10 of 10" by some stock-rating agencies, the highest-quality stock grade.
Similarities To 'Kazakhgate'
Baker Hughes' settlement resembles the so-called "Kazakhgate" case, another bribery case in the United States involving Kazakh officials, which continues to move at a snail's pace in the federal courts of New York.
The Kazakhgate complaint alleges that U.S. businessman James Giffen funneled tens of millions of dollars in the 1990s to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and former Prime Minister Nurlan Balgimbaev in exchange for lucrative licenses for Western oil-companies.
When Kazakhgate was initially disclosed in 1999, it caused a huge embarrassment to the Kazakh government and hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent in the West on a public-relations campaign to counter the allegations.
But after a string of successful legal moves by Giffen's defense team and the five consecutive postponements of the beginning of the trial, the interest in Kazakhgate seems to be waning.
Turkmenistan: Still Waiting For Berdymukhammedov's Thaw
In particular, they hoped President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov would break away from years of repression and pardon political prisoners jailed under his predecessor.
However, the much-awaited amnesty has not happened and nothing indicates that it will. Although engaged in economic and social changes, Berdymukhammedov has given confusing signals as to whether he is a political reformist.
Observers have contrasting opinions of Berdymukhammedov.
To some, especially among the exiled opposition, the new Turkmen leader is a product of the political system inherited from late President Saparmurat Niyazov and no real democratic reforms should be expected from him.
But to others, Berdymukhammedov could enter history as the Turkmen equal of Nikita Khrushchev, the architect of Soviet de-Stalinization, also known as the "thaw."
"Will the 20th session of the Halk Maslahaty turn into a kind of 20th congress of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]?" read the rhetorical headlines of an analytical paper posted on the ferghana.ru website before Turkmenistan's supreme legislative body convened in the southeastern city of Mary.
The author argued that despite the similarity in ordinal numbers, it would be illusory to expect any radical political reforms from that assembly, if only because the freshly elected president was too busy consolidating his power.
Berdymukhammedov has started delivering on the pledges for social and economic reforms he made in the run-up to the February 11 polls, focusing his attention on Turkmenistan's agriculture, education, and health systems -- which were left in shambles by Niyazov's destructive policies.
No Real Political Changes
But there have not yet been any political reforms. With the exception of a few cosmetic adjustments, Niyazov's personality cult remains largely untouched.
If Turkmenistan's media have become more informative, they still operate under strict government control and censorship.
Berdymukhammedov -- who rose to power through conspiratorial methods and an election that offered no real choice to voters -- remains impervious to the notion of political pluralism and keeps Niyazov's exiled political opponents at bay.
The New York-based nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch says in an April 12 report that "the only sign of possible political reform" the new leader has given so far is a promise to make the Internet more accessible to Turkmen.
Yet, even this announcement remains largely symbolic.
The two government-sponsored Internet cafes that have opened in Ashgabat are charging their clients up to 60,000 manats ($11.50) per hour, an exorbitant fee by local standards.
Restricted Internet Access
The presence of soldiers at the doors -- at least in the days following the February opening -- and the obligation to show one's passport prior to using a computer are likely to further dissuade potential customers.
Reports that authorities are considering hiring Chinese experts to help keep electronic communications under strict control are yet another indication that Turkmen may not have free access to the Internet for a long time.
In the field of human rights, the situation is equally disheartening.
In January, a Turkmen court freed Andrei Zatoka, a Russian environmentalist who had been arrested a few days before Niyazov's death on charges that were fabricated. This judicial decision eventually proved a red herring.
First, because the move was clearly meant to accommodate the Kremlin, which had demanded Zatoka's release. Second, because the defendant left the courtroom with a three year-suspended prison sentence.
In the days that immediately followed his election, Berdymukhammedov ordered the creation of a state commission to review individual complaints against law enforcement agencies.
Liberalizing Move Or Infighting?
The initiative -- which Berdymukhammedov described as "a step toward developing democratic principles in the functioning of state and society" -- led many, both inside and outside the country, to believe it heralded the end of Turkmenistan's years of repression.
Less than two months after the commission was set up, Berdymukhammedov sacked Interior Minister Akmammed Rakhmanov, blaming him for the corruption, drug trafficking, racketeering, and black marketing he said had become a trademark of Turkmen police.
The Turkmen president told Rakhmanov's successor, Khojamyrat Annagurbanov, to "efficiently protect individual rights and freedoms," the official TDH news agency reported on April 9.
It's unclear whether Rakhmanov's removal should be interpreted as a harbinger of liberalization or the result of infighting among the top political leadership.
Between the February presidential election and the Halk Maslahaty session, there was widespread speculation that Berdymukhammedov would inaugurate his term with a broad political amnesty.
Those hopes were prompted by news that authorities had started dismantling the infamous Ovadan-Tepe prison colony, where Niyazov had kept his political opponents and most former government officials who had fallen into disfavor with him.
Information received by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service indicates Ovadan-Tepe inmates have been either put under house arrest or transferred to other detention facilities. Among them is former Prosecutor-General Gurbanbibi Atajanova who, according to the Vienna-based Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TI), is now in a women's prison colony in the northwestern city of Dashhowuz.
RFE/RL's Turkmen Service reports former Deputy Prime Minister Yolly Gurbanmuradov -- who was sentenced to 25 years in jail in 2005 on charges of misappropriating state funds -- is believed to be under house arrest. Yet his whereabouts are unknown and the TI says his wife remains in Dashhowuz prison.
The Oazis website reported on March 28 that Geldy Kyarizov -- the former head of Turkmenistan's state horse farms (Turkmenatlar) who is serving a six-year prison sentence -- remains in jail despite being "in a state of complete exhaustion."
Independent reports posted on various opposition websites say Berdymukhammedov has turned down requests for amnesty filed by relatives of more than 50 political prisoners. The reasons for his refusal are unclear.
Meanwhile, the specter of the Niyazov-era repression continues to hang over the country.
Despite the extradition denial by the Varna City court earlier this month, Ashgabat is still seeking the return of Annadurdy Khajiev, an opposition leader and former Central Bank deputy chairman who has been living in Bulgaria since 2001.
In February, the Turkmen Supreme Court sentenced former parliament speaker Ovezgeldy Ataev five years in jail on charges of driving his stepson's bride to suicide.
Ataev, who should have constitutionally succeeded Niyazov as interim leader, was arrested on December 22 and was kept incommunicado until his closed trial.
The TI reports that Ataev's wife also received a jail sentence and was sent to Dashhowuz. The group says this shows that the practice -- widespread under Niyazov -- of collectively sentencing members of the same family continues.
The talks that Louise Arbour, the UN high commissioner for human rights, will have with Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat on May 3-5 will be a benchmark to measure his democratic credentials.
Perhaps more important than the talks themselves will be how the visit will be covered by Turkmen state media.
Central Asia: Strategist Wants U.S. To Make Fresh Start In Region
RFE/RL: Democracy in Central Asia appears stalled at first base. How do you assess prospects for improvement?
Bruce Jackson: Clearly we've stumbled in Central Asia in the last several years; perhaps [the United States] got off on the wrong foot, emphasizing military bases rather than basic standards of democracy and interaction. There have been [other] missteps, small bureaucratic slips, like [when the U.S. State Department] transferred Central Asia to the South Asia [desk], and away from Europe, while our intent should be the opposite. So I think we are in a period of regrouping, and hopefully we will see reengagement begin.
RFE/RL: If democratization fails in Central Asia, could the region see an increase in Islamic extremism?
Jackson: I don't think Islamic extremism is the only danger. It's one danger, there is pressure on Central Asia from all sides; Russian economic interests are establishing monopolies and strangling supplies and markets, there's pressure from Chinese encroachment, and there is certainly a possibility of radicalization of people as a response to isolation of the region. There is not yet a path for these governments, and there is not yet a place for these governments in international institutions.
RFE/RL: What can the United States do to help? Does Washington need to develop a coherent strategy towards the Central Asian region?
Jackson: One of the problems of our [U.S.] Central Asian strategy is that we are still in the early phase of articulating an energy policy, which would require an engagement with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan; our policy on Russia is effectively on hold until after the Russian [presidential election next year], and not having those two components -- the Eurasian energy corridor and an effective and viable policy on Russia -- it makes it very difficult to have the foundation with which to develop a policy on Central Asia.
RFE/RL: Does the region deserve more attention from the United States than it is getting? Why?
Jackson: That's precisely what my organization has been advocating. We believe there is a link; one of the U.S. assistant secretaries [of state] referred to a corridor of potential liberalism stretching from the near shores of the Black Sea as far as China, on the same "silk" roads along which spices once ran, so that one could see democracy and markets, and essentially Western ideas flowing back and forth. So I think it's a hugely important thing. We were disappointed that initial outreach [failed] such as when Kazakhstan showed an interest in competing for the chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; they were rebuffed and told they were not allowed to compete. I'm not sure they were qualified in terms of human rights, but they should have been allowed to compete. So I think these policies need to be reviewed.
RFE/RL: The European Union is now developing a comprehensive strategy toward Central Asia. Should a U.S. policy complement the EU's or are their interests different?
Jackson: This is not only a deficit in our policy to Central Asia but also to the entire Black Sea region and countries like Ukraine and Moldova. What was called the...cooperation between the EU and the United States in the Balkans over the past decade, has not yet been found in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This kind of [U.S.-EU] cooperation is absolutely essential. The EU has begun to work on a neighborhood policy, free trade, feasibility studies, all these are the beginning of a cooperative approach, but the dialogue seems to be in the early stages; our organization was delighted to see that these topics are beginning to be raised at venues like the upcoming summit between the EU troika [leadership] and the president of the United States.
RFE/RL: There are some fears among rights activists that the EU will downplay human rights violations in favor of engagement with Central Asian governments. How should Washington handle this balance?
Jackson: I don't think the criticism can be restricted only to the European Union. I think there were some elements of U.S. policy which seemed to suggest we would look the other way on human rights. This was a flawed beginning, [because] a sacrifice of human rights and political values as a basis for a policy is unsustainable and, to a certain extent, both the U.S. and Europe were perceived as cynical and perhaps unreliable, and that's not the reputation we want to have in Central Asia, so I would expect a renewed emphasis and clarity about our values as a precondition to the engagement.
Tajikistan: Are Concerns About 'Islamic Extremism' Justified?
Authorities justify the crackdown as a prevention of religious extremism in the country. But the U.S. State Department -- in its Annual Human Rights Country Report -- expressed concern over pressure against religious freedom in Tajikistan.
Raid On Schools
The latest moves by Tajik authorities against conservative Muslims appear to target the younger generation.
Ordinary Tajiks express mixed feeling about the government's hard stance on religious issues.
The Interior Ministry teams carried out raids on April 23-24 on places in the capital, Dushanbe, where children learn the Arabic alphabet and basic Islamic teachings. Several children were questioned on-site but released after a few hours, as their parents did not allow the police to take the youngsters away.
Shamsullo Mahmudov, the head of the Interior Affairs Department in Dushanbe's Sino district, was in charge of some of the raids. He accuses the teachers of beating the children.
"During our special search operation on Jabbor Rasulov Street we found several underage children who have been studying religious teachings behind closed doors," he said. "When we entered the house, the place was in such an appalling state. The children were kept in difficult conditions and they were hungry. Apparently, their teacher -- whose identity is not known to us -- tortured the kids."
Just a few weeks ago, Islamic head scarves were outlawed at Tajikistan's schools and Universities.
Education Minister Abdujabbor Rahmonov branded the head-scarf-wearing girls as "followers of Islamic movements who seek to promote their agenda in educational institutions."
Ordinary Tajiks express mixed feeling about the government's hard stance on religious issues.
Some of them say the government's concern for threats from Islamic extremists in Tajikistan are exaggerated and misplaced.
"You cannot call those places 'madrasahs' or 'schools,'" says a Dushanbe resident, who did not want to give her name. "We send our children to our local mullah to learn the basics of Islam." She says that since young people are more vulnerable to "bad habits" such as abusing drugs, by sending her children for the Islamic lessons she wants to protect them from such problems. "Islam is a better [option] that could prevent the children from straying into corruption or prostitution."
But some Tajiks are more cautious about the mosques and madrasahs, saying some of these religious institutions go beyond just organizing prayers or teaching about Islam.
Muhayo, a 22-year-old student in Dushanbe, describes herself as "a peaceful follower of Islam." Muhayo says that she was once given a compact disk in a Dushanbe mosque. She said it was propaganda that encouraged girls to wear the Islamic hijab.
"The distribution of such disks should be prohibited," she said. "Do you understand how many young people will be sent in the wrong direction by such things? I know some people among my own friends who were turned into fanatics [by such things]. Fanatics!"
Muhayo says she prays five times a day herself, but would not approve of sending young children to a person who runs a school behind closed doors. "If you want to learn about Islam there are many other options," says Muhayo, "such as borrowing a book from a library or getting proper classes in a registered madrasah with an educated teacher."
(RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondent Mirzo Salimov contributed to this report.)
Photographer Offers Window On A 'Dying Sea'April 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Czech-born photographer Radek Skrivanek escaped Soviet clutches in 1987, when he fled his homeland for Austria and eventually the United States. But he has refused to turn his back on the tragic aspects of the Soviet legacy. Skrivanek's attention for the past two years has been focused on this series of black-and-white photos that he calls "The Aral Tengizi, Story Of A Dying Sea." RFE/RL asked him about what he set out to document.
RFE/RL: Why did you decide to take pictures of the Aral Sea?
Radek Srkivanek: I was born and raised in Eastern Europe under the same communist regime that governed over the then-Soviet Central Asia -- where the Aral Sea lies -- although the regimes in Eastern Europe always had a bit more of a "human face" than the one in the USSR. I think I have a unique perspective on the plight of the people in the Aral Sea region. I have always known -- was taught at school -- about the bold and monumental projects that the USSR was undertaking, whether to improve the lives of its citizens or to gain international prestige. These projects, when failed, were equally monumental in their consequences; and the effects of these failures will linger for decades or centuries to come.
I also think that the issues of water -- quality or simply availability of it -- will be [a problem] that the world will be faced with in this century. The Aral Sea disaster is the largest man-made catastrophe, the most unreported in the media. And I think that in many ways the images I share with you could be a preview of things that the future holds for us all.
RFE/RL: How much time did you spend there?
Skrivanek: The Aral Sea's watershed stretches across a large part of the Asian continent. In my project, I decided to loosely follow this water on its journey from its source [among] the glaciers of the Tien Shan and Pamir mountains down to the immense Central Asian steppe, through the agricultural areas and on towards the sea. I usually travel for four to six weeks at a time, covering certain portions in various seasons. So far, I have visited the Aral Sea on three occasions and was able to explore some of the areas once covered by the sea's water. I have also visited the agricultural regions at the time of cotton harvest, as well as the cascade of dams constructed upstream on the rivers supplying water to the Aral Sea.
RFE/RL: How would you describe the situation there?
Skrivanek: It is a complex problem, and no single event or person is responsible. It all started, as many other enterprises do, with good intentions: to create jobs, provide income, to put bread on the table of fellow citizens, to use the available natural resources for some visible benefit...
The Aral Sea is technically a lake, a large body of water comparable in size to Lake Superior (which has a surface area of more than 80,000 square kilometers). It is completely landlocked in the midst of the Asian continent. There is strong evidence that the Aral Sea fluctuated in size throughout prehistory and antiquity. Various geological and other forces of nature played a part in this process over many millennia. The present recession of the sea is caused by man alone, and in just a few decades.
Water from the Aral Sea is supplied by two major rivers of this region, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. These two rivers were heavily tapped for water to supply the irrigation schemes producing rice and cotton that were to turn Central Asia into an agricultural giant, feeding and clothing the Soviet empire. The growing demand for water had strangled the sea's water supply. In fact, the Amu Darya, for the most part, no longer reaches the sea. At the height of the irrigation season, the Syr Darya, near its delta, is said to flow backwards. In addition to the agricultural use of the water, upstream countries are using the water to generate electricity to fuel their economies. Cascades of dams are collecting the water from the summer thaw, holding it until the winter, when electricity is most needed, and [then] releasing it well before the growing season starts in the downstream countries.
The break-up of the Soviet Union actually further complicated the situation because as the central authority disintegrated, five independent states struggled to survive and to rebuild their shattered economies. Water is used as a bargaining chip. The Aral Sea disaster is the largest man-made catastrophe on earth, in the making for four decades. I see the Aral Sea disaster as a perfect metaphor for the struggle of men against nature.
RFE/RL: You said that the fate of the sea is a metaphor of our attitudes toward the environment and the conflict between man and nature. Could you elaborate?
Skrivanek: One of the photographs in this selection is a two-panel panorama of a mural displayed in the waiting room of a train station. This mural commemorates arguably the brightest moment in the existence of the city of Aralsk (the largest port on the Aral Sea). In the early 1920s, there was a famine in Russia, and the fishermen of the Aral Sea rose to the occasion and sent a train filled with fish to help the starving. As a gesture of gratitude, Lenin himself wrote a letter of thanks to the town for their effort. The reading of this letter to town's people is depicted in the mural.
Some 30 years later, the same government has sent engineers who built the canals that killed the sea where the fish came from. It is as if we believe that our sole purpose here is to figure out some new rocket that will help us to benefit from the world around us. Such ideas are pitching us into a conflict with nature, which we feel compelled to alter, control, or manage for the greater good. I fear that in this struggle, we are often shortsighted and ultimately we will be the casualties.
RFE/RL: Did you see any signs that the sea is recovering?
Srkivanek: I don't think that rebirth or recovery is something that is happening at all. The cultivation of cotton and rice continues, and new dams are constructed upstream. In the southern region of the former sea, oil reserves have been found and are currently being exploited, which pretty much kills any real attempt for reviving the sea in the future. Most of the conservation efforts are limited to the flooding of areas near populated centers in an attempt to moderate the local climate. A much-publicized effort in the northern region of the sea may result in the creation of a lake perhaps 1/8 the size of the former sea, with questionable ability to sustain the native species of fish. This effort is more like putting bandages on sores rather than treating the disease.
RFE/RL: You met some of the people who are living by the sea. How have their lives changed as a result of the demise of the sea? As a result, many have obviously lost their source of income.
Skrivanek: The obvious and immediate losses were the complete disintegration of industries tied up to the very existence of the sea -- such as fishing, shipping, canneries, etc. -- together with income for the people who live on the former shores of the sea. The more profound losses may, however, be the change in the climate caused by the absence of the sea, which used to cool the local climate during summer and keep temperatures mild in the winter. Now both seasons are longer, with more extreme temperatures, threatening the cultivation of the very crops that caused the problem in the first place.
Another potentially catastrophic aspect of the desertification of the Aral Sea is the fact that agricultural fertilizers and defoliants that were washed into the sea over the many decades of intensive agriculture in the Aral Sea basin and watershed are now left behind by the receding sea. Together with salt, they are stirred up into the air by wind and become toxic dust storms [that are] driven through the region and pose serious health hazards for the population and contaminate soil regionally.
RFE/RL: What did they tell you about the situation of the sea? Do they remember the good days of the sea?
Skrivanek: There is no one left who remembers the days when the fishing fleet was sailing the sea and cargo moved between its two major ports. Most people who worked as fisherman or sailors left shortly after the industries perished. Today they are most likely retired somewhere in Russia or dead. People do remember the sea, though. You often meet residents who tell you that in the summer of 1980 they used to swim right on the town's beach. And today the beach is nothing but a stretch of sand on the edge of the dry harbor littered with the rusting hulls of ships.
RFE/RL: What are the hopes of the residents for the future?
Skrivanek: There is a certain finality about the fact that life as it once existed on the shores of the Aral Sea will never exist again. There is not much to return to, much less to resume. I was always struck by the irony that while children walk past rusting ships, most of them have never seen the sea, which once was in the center of their town. Now, their families cannot afford the cost of the 60-mile trip to visit the current shoreline, certainly not for the simple pleasure of it.
RFE/RL: Your work is currently being exhibited at the Peer Gallery in New York. Are you also planning to display your photos in the Aral Sea region?
Srkivanek: Yes, the work is currently on display at the Peer Gallery in New York, until May 12. It is part of a show curated by John Bennette called "After." The show explores the aftermath of such events as the demise of the Aral Sea or the events that happened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This is a three-person show and includes work by Wyatt Gallery and Will Steacy.
The photographs will also be exhibited as a part of the ULISphotoFEST in Istanbul. That will be later on this spring. Their central theme this year will be water and issues relating to it.
Uzbekistan: Government Increases Its Blocking Of News Websites
Since truly independent newspapers, radio, and television stations are almost nonexistent in Uzbekistan, the government has turned its attention to the Internet, blocking news websites and creating pro-government sites that cover events from the government's viewpoint.
Banned List Grows
The Russian-language website portal-credo.ru is the most recent addition to the list of the many political, opposition, and news websites that the Uzbek government is keeping users in Uzbekistan from seeing.
"Closing down the Internet is a foolish idea. You cannot close it. The person who tries to shut down the Internet is a complete fool." -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov
While control of the independent media and free speech by Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government has long been criticized by local and international observers, the censorship of independent sources of information intensified after the bloody crackdown on protests in the eastern city of Andijon in May 2005.
An Internet user in the city of Namangan, who did not want to give his name for security reasons, told RFE/RL that he tried but could not access many international websites.
"For instance, it is impossible to enter Ozodlik Radio [RFE/RL's Uzbek Service] website," he said. "Firstly, as soon as you type the word 'Ozodlik' the Internet shuts down. Secondly, access to the Birlik site or other websites that cover human rights issues, is barred. For example, sites such as fergana.ru or centrasia.ru have been blocked."
Observers say the government is particularly wary of regional news -- such as information about the recent antigovernment protests in neighboring Kyrgyzstan -- reaching an Uzbek audience.
Alisher Soipov is an editor at the regional news website fergana.ru, which is being blocked in Uzbekistan along with uzmetronom.com, centrasia.ru, bbc.co.uk/uzbek, and many other local, regional, and international websites.
"The [Internet] censorship in Uzbekistan is being strengthened," he said. "The Internet is full of calls for revolution and is full of information that casts doubt on the country's 'great future' as well as over the leader of the country's wisdom, power, and abilities. The Uzbek government would not want to lose its credibility in front of its people [by them getting such information on the Internet]. It could be the reason why they block [the Internet]."
Oleg, an Internet cafe owner in Tashkent, tells RFE/RL that access to many websites has been blocked for many years.
Paris-based Julien Pain is the head of the Internet Freedom Desk at Reporters Without Borders. He blames the Uzbek security services for barring the news sites.
"The security services in Uzbekistan are very involved in controlling the Internet and putting pressure upon the Internet Service Providers [ISPs], so they blocked the opposition websites," Pain said.
The Internet is not yet hugely popular in Uzbekistan, but like the other Central Asian countries, the number of Internet users -- private computer owners as well as Internet cafes -- has been growing rapidly in recent years. According to official figures, some 1.5 million of Uzbekistan's 27 million people have access to the Internet.
The Uzbek government says it wants to develop Internet access in the country. Karimov has on several occasions even criticized the idea of trying to block the Internet.
"The Internet is like a big shop," the president said. "When you enter the shop, you buy the goods you desire. Closing down the Internet is a foolish idea. You cannot close it. The person who tries to shut down the Internet is a complete fool."
Daniel Kislov, the Moscow-based chief of ferghana.ru, says the Uzbek authorities who apparently see some websites as their political enemies have not only barred those sites in Uzbekistan, they have also tried to establish their own websites to counter the independent flow of information.
"[The Uzbek authorities] think they are taking part in some kind of information war," Kislov said. "If it is so, this war has been announced against us or against the whole enlightened world by the authorities themselves."
It appears as though Internet users in Uzbekistan are caught in the middle of this conflict.
However, some Internet cafe owners say that many of their visitors -- especially the young ones -- do not show much of an interest in the political websites, and they are mostly visiting entertainment sites to play games or to just chat with their friends.
(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)
EU: Ministers Discuss Strategy For Central Asia
The strategy was first floated by Germany less than a year ago. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, speaking for the current holder of the EU Presidency, said after today's "orientation debate" that the road should now be clear for the strategy's adoption by EU heads of state and government in June.
"We have today talked about the most important building blocks [of the strategy] that we can still add to it in the coming weeks," Steinmeier added.
Senior EU officials discussed the plans with their counterparts from the five Central Asian countries in the Kazakh capital, Astana, in late March.
More 'Coherent' Strategy
Speaking today just before the start of the EU foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg, the bloc's external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the Central Asian strategy will build on a mutually recognized need to build closer ties.
In March, "there was a great interest from the Central Asian countries to strengthen relations with us, with the European Union, and it is also in our interest that we strengthen our relationship" with Central Asia, she said.
Ferrero-Waldner said the EU is seeking to give greater coherence to its Central Asian policy and better coordinate its cooperation programs with the countries.
Central Asia's huge gas and oil reserves are making the region increasingly more attractive to the EU as relations with Russia -- Europe's leading external energy supplier so far -- have cooled.
But Ferrero-Waldner today also highlighted the EU's interest in helping the Central Asian countries to develop their economies, better protect their environment, and improve their security and stability.
The EU also insists that democratization, the rule of law, and respect for human rights remain high on its agenda.
Ferrero-Waldner today repeated recent EU praise for Uzbekistan for having agreed to two rounds of expert talks on the events in the eastern city of Andijon in 2005. Tashkent has so far refused to allow an international inquiry into the deaths of the hundreds of civilians who were killed by government troops in Andijon.
Ferrero-Waldner also lauded what she said is the Uzbek government's acquiescence to launch a regular human rights dialogue with the EU "in the very near future" that she said, "will be very important because it is the first time ever such a human rights dialogue takes place."
...But Is It Enough?
However, sources in Brussels have told RFE/RL that some EU member states feel praise for Uzbekistan is premature. The expert talks on Andijon are said to have been limited to presentations of Tashkent's version of the events. The human rights dialogue will only convene once a year and involve low-level officials.
There have been suggestions the EU's German presidency could use both as a pretext for easing the sanctions against Uzbekistan imposed in the wake of Andijon. Selected officials linked to Andijon are under an EU visa ban and there is an arms embargo.
Uzbekistan is Central Asia's most populous country, and also has significant gas, oil, and uranium reserves. It's approval is crucial for the EU's Central Asian strategy.
Similarly, Kazakhstan, the largest country in the region and also rich in energy sources, has been placated by EU support for its bid to chair the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) in 2009.
Responding to a question posed by RFE/RL, Ferrero-Waldner appeared to confirm that the EU sees "engagement" with the region as vital -- for fear of losing it to other suitors.
"I think it is highly important to engage with Central Asia -- if you think of the other big players there, it is Russia and China," she said. "I think these countries have a strong interest in Europe and we have to engage with them and use this interest to also bring them closer to Europe."
Reaching Out To Region
The EU meeting today will adopt a declaration marking the first discussion of the Central Asian strategy, saying it should be adopted by EU leaders in June.
The declaration will also contain a number of observations about individual countries in the region.
Ferrero-Waldner today said the EU will encourage Kyrgyzstan's government to pursue a dialogue with the country's civil society.
"On Kyrgyzstan, we encourage the government and all political sides in Kyrgyzstan to follow the path of political dialogue," she said. "The European Union is of course ready to support the government in its efforts to strengthen a system of rule of law and also improve the social system."
The EU draft declaration also describes as "promising" steps taken by the new Turkmen government to initiate reforms in the education and social systems. Absence of progress in those two fields prompted the European Parliament last year to block an interim EU-Turkmen trade accord to replace the existing Soviet-era agreement.
Central Asia will also be on the agenda on an EU meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov scheduled to take place in Luxembourg later today.
EU: Drive For Central Asia Strategy Could Shape Uzbekistan Policy
But critics in Brussels fear the drive to bring coherence to the EU's approach to energy-rich and strategically important Central Asia could come at a high cost.
Some officials have told RFE/RL that they specifically fear the EU might be forced to ease the sanctions imposed on Uzbekistan in the wake of a bloody security crackdown in Andijon in 2005. Uzbekistan is the region's most populous country, and its cooperation is vital to the success of the EU's wider Central Asia strategy.
European Commission spokeswoman Christiane Hohmann told RFE/RL today that EU member states will begin to hammer out the details of the Central Asian Strategy on April 23.
"During Monday's [General and External Affairs Council meeting,] the member states will have [their] first discussion, a first round of discussions, on the draft for the EU's Central Asian Strategy, which we hope will then be adopted by the June [EU summit]," she said.
All 27 EU member states agree that closer links with Central Asia are desirable.
A meeting in the Kazakh capital, Astana, in late March between EU representatives and senior Central Asian officials produced a broad agreement on the need for such a strategy.
The EU has often recognized the region's enormous potential in contributing to meeting the bloc's energy needs. The EU is also interested in playing a greater role in the region and offers assistance in a wide range of fields.
A draft of the declaration the EU intends to adopt on April 23 provides a comprehensive list of EU priorities. These include cooperation on a long list of areas that include the rule of law, human rights, democratization, and security.
Attached to the declaration is a list of observations relating to the situations in some of the countries of the region. On Uzbekistan, the EU ministers are expected to "note" that a second round of EU-Uzbek expert talks on the Andijon events took place in Tashkent on April 2-3. The draft declaration also announces the launch of " a regular and result-oriented human rights dialogue" between the two sides, and says the first round of the dialogue should take place "as soon as possible."
Dialogue On Rights
Spokeswoman Hohmann says the EU has already secured Uzbekistan's agreement on such a dialogue.
"We are concerned about the situation in Uzbekistan, and you also know that we are hoping for a [prompt] human rights dialogue -- which the Uzbek government has [already] agreed to," she said.
An EU source who requested anonymity said there is dissatisfaction among some member states over Germany's attempts to launch an immediate human rights dialogue with Tashkent before the bloc can debate the future of the Uzbek sanctions.
The sanctions at this point consist of a visa ban on select officials associated with the Andijon events and an arms embargo. They are due to be reviewed by EU foreign ministers in May.
During discussions among EU ambassadors on April 17, Britain and Sweden were said to have been particularly concerned about Uzbekistan's continuing dismal human rights record.
Paving The Way?
A regular human rights dialogue and an international inquiry into the events in Andijon are the two key EU conditions for lifting sanctions. Some member states in Brussels now suspect that in the interest of the success of its broader Central Asian strategy, Germany may be attempting to smooth Uzbekistan's path to meeting the two conditions.
There is little to indicate that Uzbekistan can achieve genuine compliance with either condition. One EU official today conceded that the human rights dialogue would only take place once a year between low-level officials in a subcommittee dealing with justice and domestic-affairs issues. Within the framework of that dialogue, Uzbekistan can raise issues about the human rights situation in EU member states. A similar arrangement the EU has with Russia has become a forum for tit-for-tat comments.
The two rounds of EU-Uzbek expert talks on the Andijon events have left EU members thoroughly frustrated. EU officials questioned by RFE/RL limited their appraisals of the meetings to "satisfaction" at the fact that they took place at all. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, has not given any indication it is prepared to discuss the Andijon events with any outside organization.
On November 8, 2006, Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov told reporters after a meeting with EU officials that the purpose of the talks would be limited to "explaining" to EU experts the Uzbek view that the events in Andijon were "pre-meditated terrorist acts."
EU officials said today that the situation in Central Asia will also be raised at talks that EU representatives will hold with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the bloc's foreign ministers' meeting on April 23.
Turkmenistan: Ashgabat Evictions Take Human Toll
Shirin-daiza, or Auntie Shirin, is nearly 70. She lives with her three orphaned grandchildren in a rented space in Sumbar, one of Ashgabat's poorest neighborhoods.
Shirin-daiza has no home of her own, she cannot read or write, and she receives no state pension. She survives from the kindness of others -- begging in the streets to feed herself and the children. She says her rent is paid "in the name of God" by a pious man who she says has taken pity on her.
Shirin-daiza gave interviews to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service in which she talks about her plight. She subsequently told us that since her story was broadcast in early April, she has grown weary of visits by police and wants nothing so much as to leave the city that has brought her so much grief.
'A Jackal Wouldn't Set Foot There'
Like many other mud homes in southern Ashgabat, Shirin-daiza's old house on "March 8" street was demolished two years ago.
Government leaders decided in the mid-1990s to rebuild and renovate southern Ashgabat by replacing many traditional-style mud homes with luxury apartment blocks, office buildings of glass and marble, and green parks.
Today, the renovated areas are indeed immaculate. And as far away for Shirin-daiza as her three dead sons.
She says city authorities paid her no financial compensation when her house was demolished. Instead, she and her neighbors were allotted parcels of land in a wasteland outside Ashgabat, called Choganly.
"I was given a plot of land far away -- 18 kilometers north of Choganly cemetery," Shirin-daiza says. "[The authorities] said a nomad village would be built there. [But] a jackal wouldn't even set foot there, let alone a human being."
Shirin-daiza says the Ashgabat mayor's office told her she could build a new home for herself and her family if she liked. But there was no offer of money or building materials.
"I didn't get anything," Shirin-daiza says. "But they offered me a tent. They said I should go and live in that tent. How can I live in the desert with my three grandchildren?"
RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondents tried unsuccessfully to confirm the number of residents who lost their homes to the city's renewal project. They estimate the number at several thousand.
Turkmen authorities do not comment publicly on the issue.
Like Shirin-daiza, many of those who lived in the traditional houses for generations had no documents proving property ownership. That has made it easier for officials to reject their complaints.
Shirin-daiza says she and her neighbors have appealed many times to city authorities for some kind of compensation. But each time, they have been sent away empty-handed.
Shirin-daiza says that on one occasion she was "insulted and threatened" by officials who told her to "go away because [her] presence would embarrass them in front of foreign visitors."
"Finally, they told me to come back the following day," Shirin-daiza says. "I went back the next day, hoping they would give me a place to live. But instead, three or four policemen told me to get into a car. They said, 'You have lost your mind, [so] we are taking you to a mental hospital in the Dashogus area.' My grandchildren were there, too, and they started crying. In that sense, [my grandchildren] saved me from being sent to a mental hospital."
Ashgabat residents complain that their city is divided by railroad tracks into two different worlds. The north is home to the poor, who live in aging apartments or mud houses. Meanwhile, the city's development plan has focused on the southern districts, making the north-south gap increasingly obvious.
Even the most modest of flats in northern Ashgabat are out of reach for people like Shirin-daiza.
She's not comfortable living on her benefactor's handouts; and she fears a move to a tent in a barren region outside the capital, with no schools, and no running water or electricity.
For two decades, until his death in December, the late President Saparmurat Niyazov dominated virtually all aspects of Turkmen life. His populist pronouncements belied the extreme hardship that his administration imposed on the public. He insisted villagers needed no libraries or hospitals because they "can't read and they can always visit clinics in the city if they need a doctor."
Desperate For Help
Some of those evicted from their homes are placing hope in the country's new leadership.
The new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has outlined a rural development plan that could eventually reach areas like Shirin-daiza's parcel outside Ashgabat (Choganly).
Officials have vowed to begin its phased implementation in 2008. If that happens, it could signal genuine change in one of the most depressed and isolated of the former Soviet republics. But even then, it is a long time for evictees like Shirin-daiza and her grandchildren to have to wait.
(RFE/RL Turkmen Service director Oguljamal Yazliyeva contributed to this report.)
Kazakhstan: Authorities Search For Missing Journalist
Oralgaisha Omarshanova (also known by the name Zhabagtaikyzy) is a 39-year-old reporter for the Russian-Kazakh weekly newspaper "Law And Justice," based in the Kazakh capital, Astana.
She traveled to the Almaty region at the end of March to cover a story on recent clashes between Kazakhs and ethnic Chechens in the villages of Malovodnoye and Kazatkom. Omarshanova reportedly secured a ride on March 30, but she never arrived and has not been heard from since.
Fellow journalist Mukhit Iskakov told a press conference in Almaty on April 18 that Omarshanova had taken threats against her life seriously.
"Oralgaisha told me that she had received several threats by telephone," he said. "After that, she got a license and bought a Winchester rifle in Qaraganda. She officially registered it in Astana, and then we moved to Almaty together."
Omarshanova had already begun publishing articles about the billiard-room brawl that eventually led to the death of five people and shocked her ethnically diverse country.
Omarshanova's stories were about one of the ethnic-Chechen families involved in those clashes, including their alleged links to organized crime. The articles also alleged that the family had connections to some government officials and businesses.
After her disappearance, friends and relatives searched in vain before turning to others for help.
Kazakhstan's press freedom organization, Adil Soz, finally made public the news of Omarshanova's disappearance on April 17. Lawmakers have since called on prosecutors, the Interior Ministry, and the National Security Committee to take control of the case and intensify the search.
Kazakh Interior Ministry spokesman Bagdat Kojhakhmetov told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service on April 18 that the search for the missing journalist is under way. But he said it has so far yielded no clues.
"We have been looking for her for many days," Kojhakhmetov said. "We don't have any information on her whereabouts yet. As soon as we have something, we will let the public know."
Adil Soz suggests that Omarshanova is the first journalist to have disappeared in Kazakhstan.
(RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merkhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report.)