Turkmenistan: Journalist Recounts Harassment Of His FamilyASHGABAT, May 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The following was written by Halmyrat Gylychdurdy, an RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat. RFE/RL correspondents have experienced widespread harassment, threats, detentions, and jail terms since Turkmenistan gained independence in 1991. One correspondent, Ogulsapar Muradov, died in unexplained circumstances last year while jailed in Turkmenistan.
I had surgery on my eye at the end of July 2004. The patch was removed from my eye the following day. While I was leaving the hospital, employees of the National Security Ministry forced me into a car and drove off.
I was locked in a prison cell for four days, and was interrogated several times each day. They accused me of reporting for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and they demanded I sign a letter admitting that I was a traitor to the motherland. I did not sign it.
"If you don't sign, we will take your house away from you, send your children off into the desert, and sentence you to 20 years in prison," they said. I replied, "If the law permits you to do these things, then do as you wish."
They brought that letter to me, changed it three or four times each day, but I still refused to sign it. I began a hunger strike the day I was put in prison. I had no idea how many days I would be kept there. Night and day they were asking me difficult questions. But I would not give them the answers they wanted.
In the hope that they would give me the eyedrops I needed after my surgery, I gave them the doctor's prescription. They took it from me, but did not pass it on to my children. They did not even tell my children where I was. When my children asked about me the authorities said they didn't have me.
During my fourth night of captivity they put me in a car and drove me home. On the way home they suggested that I not tell anyone how I was pressured, if I was to be asked by someone in Prague or London.
When I came home my daughter Oguljennet was crying. I asked why and she said: "I was fired from my job because they said that my father works for Azatlyk [Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty]."
After that Oguljennet looked hard for another job, but no one would hire her. One month passed. Then the Sixth Department of the Internal Affairs Ministry invited Oguljennet for an interview, saying that they might have a job for her. When she went there they informed her that a criminal case had been opened against her. An employee from the Sixth Department demanded that Oguljennet write a letter saying that her father is a traitor of the motherland. Oguljennet refused.
That Sixth Department employee then called and ordered the officials with Oguljennet to take her to prison. When told about this, Oguljennet asked, "According to what article of the law am I to be put in prison?"
"I'll discuss that with my boss right now," an official answered. Oguljennet took this opportunity to escape the office, and ran outside where she saw me on the sidewalk. I immediately took her home by taxi.
Less than an hour later the complaining employee from the Sixth Department was at our home. "You don't need to open a criminal case against Oguljennet because of me," I told him. "Take me away instead."
He then left without saying a word. Since my daughter could not find work anywhere, she entered a school to study English for a year. I was able to speak with the U.S. ambassador and my daughter was eventually hired by the American Embassy, where she still works.
In March of this year Oguljennet got sick, and I wanted to send her to Moscow for treatment. However, her name is on a black list, and the authorities did not allow her to leave for Moscow, intervening at the Ashgabat airport.
Doctors in Ashgabat are afraid to treat her. They have likely been threatened by employees of the security service. The U.S. Embassy has sent a request to the Foreign Ministry asking for permission for Oguljennet to leave the country for medical treatment in Moscow. There still has not been a response.
We were recently planning the wedding of my son, Kakamyrat. Once time Kakamyrat and his fiancee were visiting a friend and some security service officers came to the house and forced them into a car and took them to the police station. The officers told the friend that they had been following my son and his fiancee for two months.
The couple was kept at the police station for nearly eight hours, only being released at 11 pm. Kakamyrat and his fiancee were each told to pay 3 million manat (about $577 at the official exchange rate) through an administrative court for being morally corrupt.
When they were first brought before the court, the judge asked the attending policeman: "Did you finish all your other work? Don't you have anything better to do than this?" The policeman was ashamed and didn't know how to answer. Since the security service is capable of exerting so much pressure on the police, they have no choice but to obey.
Although administrative measures had been taken against Kakamyrat and his fiancee, judge Arslan Charyyarov called them in once again and began asking them questions. He asked them why they were going to visit that friend and with what intentions.
Judge Charyyarov also threatened them with jail time. He then warned them not to do the same thing again or he would jail them. The couple did not understand -- at first -- why they were being harassed.
Later, when my future daughter-in-law found out that I worked for Azatlyk Radio, she was somewhat relieved. Her relatives also understood then that the reason our family was being harassed was because of my affiliation with Azatlyk Radio.
Currently things are calm. But I do not know why. We anticipate some similar type of repressive behavior from Turkmen authorities, and we are ready to fight.
RFE/RL Analyst Looks Ahead To Turkmen-Kazakh MeetingAhead of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's trip to Kazakhstan on May 28-29, Kazakh media termed it "a historic visit" and reported that several agreements aimed at boosting mutual cooperation will be signed. RFE/RL's Central Newsroom asked the radio's Central Asia analyst, Daniel Kimmage, whether he regards the trip as in line with Berdymukhammedov's energy policies.
RFE/RL: Turkmenistan was isolated under [the late President Nursultan Niyazov,] Turkmenbashi, but Berdymukhammedov has been pursuing a more active foreign policy. How does the visit to Kazakhstan fit in with this?
Daniel Kimmage: This visit to Kazakhstan is a logical continuation of the foreign policy he's been pursuing since he became president as he is consolidating his powers as the president -- which is to reach out to along the lines of energy initiatives. Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia recently signed an agreement to build a new pipeline along the shore of the Caspian [Sea], so the visit makes sense in that context. And it's part of a more active attempt to reach out from Turkmenistan -- for now, primarily to regional countries. Berdymukhammedov has been also to Moscow; he isn't going to be in Paris and Washington any time soon, but he is certainly been reaching out much more than his predecessor did. His predecessor essentially ignored regional organizations and very rarely visited neighbors. Berdymukhammedov is integrating Turkmenistan more into the region, but for now primarily along the lines of cooperation in the energy sector.
RFE/RL: The visit comes as Berdymukhammedov appears to be consolidating power in Turkmenistan, and Nazarbaev gained the right to run for president against in 2012. Is there any connection?
Kimmage: I'm not sure there is a direct logical connection. On the other hand, these are both reflective of some important trends in the region: the first, looking at Berdymukhammedov's consolidation of power, where he became president -- he was the active president after Niyazov died in late December 2006 and he won the presidential election essentially with no real alternatives in February this year. There were numerous predictions, speculation, unease that there might be a power struggle in Turkmenistan. But for now he seems to be consolidating power fairly effectively. The lesson, I think, we should draw from this is that some of these superpresidential systems -- Turkmenistan, of course, had the most super presidential system in Central Asia -- are fairly long-lasting or robust in that there is continuity and there is -- once power has been transferred -- someone who can stay in control. So you see that in Turkmenistan. And in Kazakhstan, it's a slightly different situation, of course; it's a different political system. But Nazarbaev, in the course of a number of recent political reforms that are intended to expand the power of parliament -- and you can argue about how meaningful that is, given the presidential parties dominate parliament -- but one of the recent amendments to the constitution that was passed removes term limits for the first president. Nazarbaev, if he chooses, can run again in 2012; essentially he can continue to rule as long as possible. Broadly what we see is that is a trend toward the deepening and consolidation of the existing political systems. I'm not sure there is a direct logical connection between Berdymukhammedov's consolidation of power and Nazarbaev's gaining the right to run in 2012, but I'd say they're broadly indicative of this trend.
RFE/RL: Turkmenistan is Central Asia's most repressive and isolated country, while Kazakhstan is its most progressive. Does this create any difficulties in relations between the two countries?
Kimmage: Given the type of cooperation that is now serving as the basis for the relationship -- and the advance press for Berdymukhammedov's visit to Kazakhstan focuses on energy cooperation -- differences between most and least progressive [and] most and least repressive don't seem to be a huge obstacle on the level of energy cooperation, in terms of building pipelines and signing agreements on energy transit and transport. But there certainly are differences that are creating difficulties. If they were to really step up the level of cooperation -- and we have to remember that Turkmenistan was very closed under Niyazov -- there might be areas in which Kazakhstan's more liberal environment than Turkmenistan's could create some disparities in the way the countries interact -- where in Turkmenistan the media is completely subordinate to the state, completely controlled; and Kazakhstan, while it's not a free press by Western standards, there's certainly more wiggle room and more leeway. The disparities are there, but with the current format for cooperation -- which really looks like it's going to be energy -- those sorts of disparities are a bit less important.
RFE/RL: Many analysts see Central Asia as a place where the so-called great powers have competed for influence since the "Great Game" of the 19th century. Do visits by Central Asian leaders within Central Asia matter? And where do Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan stand today in relation to the great powers?
Kimmage: The situation is different today than it was during the 19th century. There is great-power involvement in Central Asia; there is Russian involvement; there is U.S. involvement; EU involvement; Chinese involvement. But these are sovereign nations, and they often have things that the world wants a great deal -- which is certainly true in the case of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and their oil and gas. So it gives them leverage in their dealings with the great powers. So I would argue yes, that these visits matter -- and this one in particular, because Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan do have the largest resources that the outside world wants. Recently, only two or three weeks ago, there was this agreement with Russia to build a new pipeline along the Caspian that will feed into the Russian pipeline and expand also the existing natural-gas-pipeline system that runs through Uzbekistan to Russia. So it will be interesting to see whether there are any agreements or statements coming from this visit that underscore that Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan want to diversify the export routes for their resources and not be entirely dependent on Russia.
They could send either a powerful signal or perhaps even unveil a new agreement. There is an agreement between Turkmenistan and China to build a natural-gas pipeline -- supposedly by 2009 -- for exports of Turkmen natural gas to China. And potentially you could have an announcement that Kazakhstan will be the transit country for that, we don't know. But these visits do matter in that Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan can send a strong signal about how they are going to interact with great powers. For one, there are more great powers involved -- there are other regional powers, such as Pakistan, that are increasingly involved in Central Asia. And the Central Asia countries themselves do have leeway and leverage, so I think these visits do matter and it will be interesting to see what comes out of the visit on May 28.
East: Poison, Politics, And Speculation In Former Soviet Republics
Atambaev said after his reemergence recently he has no "concrete" suspicions about who may have poisoned him. But he insisted he was poisoned, and said there are "many aggrieved" parties in Bishkek who would want to kill him.
"They tried to poison me on May 11," Atambaev said. "They gave me water, and I drank the water in my office. I was unconscious for two days. I know that it was a case of poisoning. For two weeks, they have been cleaning my blood, and now, as you can see, I can walk and talk."
Atambaev's allegations have not been confirmed. But he is just the latest on a list of prominent, politically active figures from former Soviet republics who have said they were poisoned.
Britain announced on May 22 that it will seek the extradition of ex-Russian agent Andrei Lugovoi for the murder of Litvinenko -- an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin has denied Litvinenko's deathbed claims that Putin ordered his poisoning. Lugovoi says Britain's accusations are politically motivated.
Nevertheless, that case has fueled speculation that the Kremlin may have been behind politically motivated poisonings in other former Soviet republics.
Some Russian newspapers have speculated that the death of Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov in December may have been a murder. Those newspapers link Niyazov's death to his decision to review Turkmenistan's natural-gas contracts with Russia.
Turkmenistan's tightly controlled state media has neither published nor broadcast such unconfirmed allegations. But RFE/RL's Turkmen Service has confirmed that there are rumors among Turkmenistan's ruling elite that Niyazov was murdered.
Boris Volodarsky, a London-based former Soviet intelligence officer, insisted that Litvinenko was poisoned by former Russian security agents because of his criticism of Putin.
Volodarsky stressed that he has no information about the Niyazov case or Atambaev. He also warned that it is irresponsible to suggest Kremlin involvement in any specific poisoning case without solid evidence.
"You have to know all of the circumstances about what happened," Volodarsky told RFE/RL. "They can be his personal opponents. They can be members of his family. They can be anybody. They can be local police. Whatever. One has to know very well how and what happened -- what kind of poison was used, if any. Then one can make conclusions."
Still, Volodarsky said speculation about the Kremlin is the understandable result of fears that stem from a long history of using poison against political enemies.
"Poison has been used in the geopolitics of the Kremlin as a weapon against the Kremlin's opponents since 1917," Volodarsky said. "I have [noted] at least 21 cases of Russian-Soviet poisonings abroad that happened during a period of 85 years. So we're talking about approximately one serious poisoning abroad, which has caused a huge international scandal, approximately every four years. These are the statistics. Russia and the Kremlin have been using poison. And they will continue to do that. And that's their important weapon in their struggle with the opposition and with their enemies."
Volodarsky said there are many possible explanations for the alleged poisoning of Kyrgyzstan's prime minister that do not implicate the Kremlin.
Atambaev was named as Kyrgyzstan's prime minister in March as a moderate opposition politician who could ease tensions between President Kurmanbek Bakiev and his opponents. Atambaev said his alleged poisoning will not stop him from trying to achieve that goal.
"Now, I will not resign because I don't like when someone tries to scare me," Atambaev said. "I probably have many enemies now."
Kyrgyzstan has been struggling to achieve political stability since President Askar Akaev was overthrown in a street revolt in 2005. Since then, the country has been plagued by political unrest, contract killings, and organized crime.
Three of 75 parliamentary deputies elected in 2005 have since been assassinated. Another member of parliament was shot a year ago after winning his murdered brother's seat in a by-election.
But all four also are reputed to have been directly involved in major illegal business ventures.
There also has been growing public concern about President Bakiev, who has come under fire from critics who accuse him of cronyism and collusion in criminal activities.
Caspian: Russia Urges OSCE To Probe Energy Firms
Oleg Mitvol, one of Russia's representative at the OSCE's Economic and Environmental Forum being held in Prague this week, said one measure of the environmental damage caused by oil and gas exploration and transportation in the Caspian Basin is the local seal population.
Mitvol, deputy director of the Federal Service for the Oversight of Natural Resources, said the body count of dead seals in the sea has already hit 10,000 this year alone.
"Our scientists believe that these [seal] deaths are caused by oil production," he said. "There are transnational corporations working on the Caspian [continental] shelf, and I believe the OSCE, which has an interest in the economic and ecological development [of the region], can take charge of joint control over this situation."
Effects Of Oil And Gas
Russia in the past has opposed on environmental grounds Western efforts to build a pipeline under the Caspian to transport gas to Western Europe. Last week, in an accord that effectively put to rest the Western initiative, Moscow reached a deal with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to build a pipeline to carry gas along the Caspian to Russia.
Last fall, Russia also used environmental arguments to revoke approval for a gas project on the Pacific island of Sakhalin led by Royal Dutch/Shell. The move was widely interpreted as an attempt by Russia to wrest back control of its natural resources from Western oil companies.
Today's panel discussion at the Czech Foreign Ministry in Prague brought together representatives from the OSCE countries that border the Caspian: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Russia.
All argued that their governments are doing everything they can to improve the environment around the Caspian. The sea has been hard-hit in recent years by pollution tied in particular to the gas and oil industries.
Kazakh Deputy Environment Minister Alzhan Braliev said his country was strongly behind Russia's proposal for the OSCE to look into and monitor energy firms that may be responsible for Caspian pollution.
"Russia and Kazakhstan have been working for a long time to set up infrastructure for jointly monitoring the Caspian Sea, with the participation of all the Caspian countries," he said. "Therefore, I think it will be very important for such a system to be created at last, so that it works for all the [Caspian] countries and with their participation."
Problems With The Neighbors
The discussion also appeared to bring into the open ongoing disputes between states in the Caspian region.
For example, Ramiz Rzayev of the Azerbaijani Environment and Natural Resources Ministry, said that while Baku is trying hard to develop initiatives to protect the Caspian environment, some of its neighbors are hindering those efforts.
"We're still experiencing problems of transit water pollution coming to our country from the neighboring countries of Georgia and Armenia," Rzayev said.
While the Caspian Sea is often thought of purely as a source of natural resources, the Turkmen representative said Ashgabat would like to develop the area for tourism.
"There are plans to build modern hotels, recreation centers, and leisure centers for children in an area where there is currently a large processing plant, in the city of Turkmenbashi," said Mukhammet Nepesov, the head of the Laboratory for the Monitoring of Desertification, at the Turkmen Ministry of Nature Protection.
If such a recreation zone is be developed, the government intends to invest funds in environmental-protection facilities at this processing plant," he added.
The panel discussion was part of a three-day OSCE conference on economic and environmental activities across its 56 member states from Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and North America.
Attended by some 300 experts and officials, the forum is expected to produce recommendations and plans for OSCE follow-up action to counter environmental threats.
Eurasia: Europe Urged To Diversify Oil, Gas Supplies Away From Russia
The warnings follow an agreement between Russia and resource-rich Central Asian states Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to build a new pipeline to carry natural gas to Europe via Russia.
Adding to the concern is the perception that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev might be leading his country back into the Russian sphere of influence.
U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said the gas-pipeline agreement signed by the presidents of Russia, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan on May 12 is "not good for Europe."
The tripartite deal involves building a new pipeline to carry Turkmen natural gas to Europe via Kazakhstan and Russia. It therefore continues the virtual monopoly of Russia over the movement of Turkmen gas, and stymies Western hopes to gain direct access to the Turkmen gas fields.
Speaking in Paris at a meeting of the International Energy Agency on May 14, Bodman said Europe needs to diversify its energy sources. There are perceptions in the West that the Kremlin is prepared to use its control over energy supplies to exert political and economic pressure on dependant customer states.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey touched on the same theme.
"Our goal ought to be -- as the [Group of Eight industrialized countries] described it -- a diversification both of sources and routes of transport for energy, not only in Europe but throughout the world," Casey said. "And certainly, we also want to see deals made based on what are commercially viable means and methods rather than for any kind of political considerations."
'The Right Time'
Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze issued a separate caution in remarks she made at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague on May 14.
She said it is important for Europe to avoid dependence on a single source for energy, and she urged Europeans to develop alternative delivery pipelines that bypass Russia in favor of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey.
"Today is the right time for Europe to think about energy security, to think about diversification of energy resources, because we, Georgians, know the price of [being without] energy independence," Burjanadze said.
However, the just-ended trip of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan produced other bad news for the West.
'Committed' To Russia
Putin in Astana heard an assurance from Nazarbaev that Kazakh oil will continue to be piped through Russia.
"Kazakhstan is absolutely committed to transporting most of [its oil], if not all of it, through Russian territory," Nazarbaev said.
Previously, the Kazakhs had espoused a U.S.-backed plan to route an oil pipeline under the Caspian Sea to Baku in Azerbaijan, and then westward. But both Russia and Iran opposed that pipeline ostensibly on environmental grounds, and the scheme now seems dead.
Another sign of the increasing coziness between Russia and the veteran Nazarbaev is the accord signed by officials on May 10 under which Russia and Kazakhstan will jointly develop a uranium-enrichment plant in Irkutsk.
Kazakhstan will supply uranium for the project, which is envisaged as supplying the material in enriched form to other countries for use in civilian nuclear energy projects. The idea is that such countries -- like Iran -- would thus not have to develop their own enrichment processes, which could tempt them to find military applications for highly enriched material.
The results of the Putin trip have raised the question of whether Nazarbaev is leaning toward Russia in the struggle for influence in Central Asia between Russia, China, and the Western powers.
Eurasia expert at Jane's strategic publishing group, Matthew Clements, said he sees the Kazakh president's stance as mainly pragmatic.
"Nazarbaev has been playing a very pragmatic foreign-policy tune for the last five or six years, which basically has involved trying to get the best deal for Kazakhstan through its energy deals, whether that be from Europe through the Caspian, or from Russia, or from China," Clements told RFE/RL. "He has engaged all these countries, and the recent deal with Russia is a clear statement that he is going to take whatever offer suits him best."
Clements did not rule out, however, that Kazakhstan under Nazarbaev could adopt a long-term policy to align itself with one of the major powers contending for regional influence.
Tajikistan: Soviet-Era Monuments Quietly Disappearing
The removal of monuments has attracted little attention -- unlike in Estonia, where the recent relocation of a Soviet war memorial from the center of the capital, Tallinn, provoked violent protests and diplomatic furor. But in contrast to Estonia, World War II memorials in Tajikistan have been left untouched.
In the southern Tajik city of Kulob, authorities have decided to remove statues of two Red Army commanders, Efim Shatalov and Nikolay Tomin. Those two Russian generals came to Tajikistan in the 1920s to fight locals and foreigners who opposed the creation of a Soviet government in the region.
Ahmad Ibrohimov, a Kulob resident and an informed observer of social affairs, told RFE/RL that most local residents make no issue of the removal of such memorials -- they simply accept it as reflective of historical change.
"The statues of Tomin, Shatalov, and many others have been removed because they have run their historical courses," Ibrohimov said. "This is not vandalism or breaking the law -- but, incidentally, it should not be seen as any kind of heroic act, either."
Of the many monuments removed from Tajikistan since the Soviet collapse in 1991, the greatest number were of Vladimir Lenin, the first head of the Soviet Union. Other Soviet leaders and commanders, like Mikhail Frunze or Cheslav Putovsky, have also quietly disappeared.
Many of those statues were replaced by memorials dedicated to historic Tajiks, including poets and scientists. Some were simply replaced by fountains.
In at least a few cases, statues have been removed, only to reappear inexplicably in the same location a few months later.
But all across the country, authorities have left untouched the many memorials to World War II -- or the Great Patriotic War, as Tajiks and many other former Soviet citizens call it.
It appears that few even notice them, much less question their existence.
Salomat, a Dushanbe resident, expresses the kind of apathy with which many appear to regard such public adornments. She says she cares little whether the public is honoring Russian revolutionaries or 11th-century Persian scholars like Avicenna, also known as Abu Ali Sina.
"It makes no difference to me. It's up to the government to remove or keep the them. To me, it makes no difference whether it's Lenin's monument or Avicenna's," she said.
A routine change
Many Tajiks seem to regard the removal of the old statues and the unveiling of new ones as a normal component of major political change.
Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a Lenin statue on Dushanbe's main square was demolished during an antigovernment demonstration.
When civil war broke out in 1992, statues of National Front commanders were erected in areas where majorities backed the central government. But they were removed just as quickly once the warring sides signed a comprehensive peace accord to end the fighting in 1997.
In Tajikistan's eastern Rasht Valley, where support was strongest for the largely Islamic opposition during the civil war, local warlords demolished nearly all monuments, Russian and Tajik alike.
Muzaffar Azizi, the head of the Culture Ministry's Department of Culture and Protection of Architectural Monuments, says warlords in Rasht acted thoughtlessly when they attacked monuments like the one to the 1930s government leader Nusratullah Makhsum, or the Hoit Mother Memorial, dedicated to the victims of a 1949 earthquake.
"In the Rasht district, the statue of Nusratulloh Makhsum was blown up," Azizi said. "The opposition even blew up the Hoit Mother Memorial, which had nothing to do with politics -- that was built in the memory of victims of a tragedy."
More recently, Tajik national identity and debate over so-called Aryan descent have become increasingly popular in official speeches and in the media. As a result, dozens of new monuments to historic personalities have sprouted up in Tajik cities and towns.
A huge monument to Ismoil Somoni, a 10th-century Tajik king, has replaced the Lenin statue in Dushanbe's central square.
But Lenin statues still stand in many places across Tajikistan. Authorities have suggested that they, too, will eventually be removed.
Their sheer numbers suggest that discarding all of Tajikistan's Soviet-era monuments -- apart from those dedicated to World War II -- could take some time.
(RFE/RL correspondent Sayof Dostiev contributed to this story from Dushanbe)
Turkmenistan: New President Sacks Long-Serving Security ChiefMay 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In one of his most assertive actions since his swearing-in three months ago, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has sacked a top security official who helped build and maintain the oppressive regime of his presidential predecessor.
Turkmenistan's state television reports that Akmurad Rejepov, the head of the presidential security service, has been removed from office by presidential decree.
It said Rejepov was being transferred to "another job," which was not specified. Nor was a replacement announced.
"[This could be] an attempt by the present leadership -- namely the president, the defense minister, and the interior minister -- to protect themselves against any surprises from [Akmurad] Rejepov," says regional expert Artem Ulunyan, who is a professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Universal History. "And his transfer [to a different post] could be, not so much a promotion, but in fact a demotion to an insignificant and purely pompous post, as is customary in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes."
Rejepov served the late President Nursultan Niyazov loyally for most of his 21 years in office, during which Niyazov built up a bizarre personality cult and ran the country with unrelenting oppression.
By some accounts, Rejepov's power reached well beyond his official position as head of a 2,000-strong presidential bodyguard service, and he might have been able to influence Niyazov himself.
No explanation for Rejepov's dismissal has been given. But senior regional analyst Svante Cornell, of Sweden's Uppsala University, describes Berdymukhammedov's decision as bold.
"It is definitely a very daring step if the security chief's power is as extensive as has generally been assumed to be the case," Cornell says.
Cornell explains that it is widely thought that Berdymukhammedov was able to take office after Niyazov's death in December because of the backing he received from the security services led by Rejepov, which were the real power behind the throne.
If the new president has now moved against Rejepov, it would be in order to build up his own power base and prevent the security chief from functioning as an alternative power center.
Since becoming president in February, Berdymukhammedov has moved to bring more openness to the secretive style of government to which Turkmenistan's public became accustomed. Cornell says Berdymukhammedov has tried to express both change and continuity.
Among the first things that he did was to distance his government from some of the worst excesses of Niyazov's later rule. But at the same time, he has not moved to dismantle the late leader's personality cult.
"Turkmenistan being a Muslim society, there is a certain need to be respectful of the deceased ruler," Cornell says. "And we must remember that [Soviet leader Nikita] Krushchev's denigration of [Josef] Stalin came only several years after the death of Stalin. So it's going to be a gradual process, but in general we are seeing a visible inclination towards change which is nevertheless going to be very gradual."
There are also mounting indications that Berdymukhammedov will end Turkmenistan's isolation from the outside world, which was a prominent feature of the Niyazov era.
(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)
Kazakh Media Ownership Leaves Little Room For Independence
That's not necessarily because the government is running the country so well that everyone is completely satisfied. The lack of criticism of the government is the result of a process that has been under way for 15 years.
With the exception of a few independent newspapers and television and radio stations, the media in Kazakhstan is firmly under the control of people who are either loyal to or related to President Nursultan Nazarbaev. That situation has existed for years and was noted in 2001 by Emma Gray, who was working for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
"The most striking feature of media in Kazakhstan is the way in which Nazarbaev and his family and business associates have taken control of all of the most influential organs of the media in the republic," Gray said at the time. "Television, newspapers, radio -- [Nazarbaev] controls pretty much all of the most important, the most powerful and influential media in his country."
Relatives and friends of Nazarbaev started acquiring media outlets shortly after Kazakhstan became independent in 1991. The most visible example of this was Nazarbaev's daughter Darigha, who at one time was the head of the state news agency, Khabar. Darigha stepped down as head of the news agency when she formed her own political party in 2003, but she retains great influence there.
Independent media suffered a further setback when Kazakhstan's economy started to blossom thanks to rising oil exports. Many of the influential businesspeople in Kazakhstan are friends and allies of the president and they used their new wealth to buy stakes in television and radio stations and formerly independent newspapers.
One example is the weekly newspaper "Karavan" and the KTK television station, which during most of the 1990s were among the many media that carried reports criticizing the government.
A media group led by Darigha's husband, Rakhat Aliev, bought both the newspaper and the television station in 1998. (The Prosecutor-General's Office suspended operations at both organizations on May 24, after criminal charges were filed against Aliev.)
Other media outlets have experienced similar fates, being bought by wealthy friends and relatives of the Kazakh president in what some term a "soft" crackdown on the media.
This "soft" crackdown would not be possible, though, were it not for the much harsher tactics employed by the state when there were many independent media that often ran reports critical of the government and Nazarbaev.
These tactics included the harassment of independent journalists, some of whom were beaten and even killed under suspicious circumstances. Independent media offices were also vandalized, one example being the "Karavan" office, which was fire-bombed in 1995, days before a referendum that extended Nazarbaev's term in office.
Now the few independent media outlets that exist in Kazakhstan face a different threat -- fines or closure by the courts, as Tamara Kaleeva, the head of the Kazakh media-freedom group Adil Soz, told RFE/RL last year.
"We have a serious problem with judicial persecution of the media; these are criminal cases and the biggest obstacle we see from year to year is the civil and administrative cases [against the media], mainly accusations of insulting the honor and dignity [of government officials] and the crazy, astronomical fines imposed for moral damage," Kaleeva said.
The fines Kaleeva mentioned are often exorbitant enough to cause the closure of independent media. Unpaid taxes or irregularities in the media company's registration are also given as reasons for shutting down independent media.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhanov contributed to this article.)
Tajikistan: Conference Highlights Lake Sarez Risk
In 1911, a strong earthquake in eastern Tajikistan triggered a massive landslide that became a natural blockage that is now known as the Usoi Dam.
The resulting lake, perched more than 3,000 meters above sea level, is now 60 kilometers long and as deep as 500 meters. It holds an estimated 17 cubic kilometers of water.
Scientists and local populations fear that another powerful earthquake could rupture the dam or trigger a huge wave that could cascade down the mountain.
Local resident Gelos Mamadloikov tells RFE/RL that the scenario is a genuine possibility.
"On August 22, 1987, a huge rock fell into the lake 12 kilometers from the Usoi Dam," Mamadloikov says. "The 18-million-cubic-meter rock fell into three pieces, creating a wave of 16-17 meters all sides of the lake. The level rose 3 to 4 meters [at the location] where the geological station stands. At the Usoi [Dam] and the Sangtuda hydropower plant, [the wave] reached 2 meters."
Dushanbe will host the International Conference on Sarez Lake on May 22-23 to discuss results of recent scientific researches and long-term solutions to the threat. The previous such gathering took place in 1997.
The event is organized by Tajikistan's Committee for Emergency Situations and Civil Defense and the UN Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR).
Gulsara Pulatova, a senior adviser for the UN/ISDR Central Asian office in Dushanbe, tells RFE/RL that one of the long-term options could be to gradually lower the water level at the lake.
"For example, one could drain [water] through a tunnel so that the lake is kept in a normal condition and no longer presents a danger," Pulatova says. "The drained water could be used for peaceful purposes -- such as electrical-power generation or maintaining the balance in the Amudarya and Panj rivers."
Tajikistan and the international community have already provided more than $4 million in the past 10 years to closely monitor the dam, create an early-warning system, and implement other projects aimed at avoiding a major human catastrophe.
...And Local Anxiety
In April, residents of the Bartang Valley received training in emergency procedures in the event that the Usoi Dam were to break.
Local resident Sarkor Davlatmamatov tells RFE/RL that he was surprised that some 200 villagers -- including women, children, and elders -- could leave the danger zone in just 25 minutes.
"People left the danger zone very quickly in an organized way," Davlatmamatov says. "If a real [catastrophe] happens, people will be able to leave the danger zone without problem."
But observers suggest that resources will be key to reducing the threat.
Tajikistan's budget does not allow the government to provide the major investment required to completely eliminate the threat caused by Lake Sarez.
That is likely to leave Tajik authorities, residents, and interest groups looking to the international community for the kind of financial support that might help avert a disaster in the shadow of Tajikistan's Pamir Mountains.
(Iskander Aliev from RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)