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Central Asia Report: June 7, 2007

Kazakhstan: Arrest Of Presidential Son-In-Law Could Open Pandora's Box

By Bruce Pannier

Rakhat Aliev (file photo)

June 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan's recently recalled ambassador to Austria, Rakhat Aliev, is awaiting possible extradition to his home country to face charges of abduction and, possibly, illegal business activities.

Reports in Kazakhstan's independent media paint a picture of Aliev as a premier bad boy of Kazakh politics for nearly a decade. The son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbaev and a physician by training, Aliev has served as a senior tax official, a deputy security chief, a two-time ambassador to Austria, and a deputy foreign minister. He has also headed Kazakhstan's national Olympic committee and was the country's special representative to the OSCE.

Kazakh independent media have for years questioned Aliev's business practices, including alleged intimidation and even possible connections to the murders of opposition leaders and journalists.

Now the 44-year-old Aliev faces charges of abduction and assault against two senior bank executives. Aliev is also likely to face charges of illegal business activities, since the abductions were allegedly intended to force those bank officials to sell their shares in a building.

Some, including Aliev, are convinced that there will be no extradition. Aliev told Russian newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that there is no extradition agreement between Kazakhstan and Austria.

Whose Interest?

But others in Kazakhstan feel it simply is not politically expedient for Kazakh authorities to bring this seemingly errant son back home.

"It is not likely that [Rakhat] will return [to Kazakhstan]," says Serik Kapparov, a leader in the unregistered opposition party Naghyz Ak Zhol. "If he comes back, there will be a lot of issues raised here. There are so many people inside the president's circles who are not interested at all in his return."

Former Senator Zauresh Battalova, now a coordinator for a political discussion club in Kazakhstan called Polyton, echoed Kapparov's skepticism. "Rakhat has a lot of facts and information about the president and family members," Battalova said. "I think that a political trade is going on now in order to keep Rakhat far away from his homeland, so that he keeps his mouth shut."


Aliev is married to Darigha Nazarbaeva, the Kazakh president's eldest daughter. He has enjoyed a privileged life and been privy to workings within the Kazakh president's inner circle.

His testimony in a Kazakh courtroom could prove devastating for the some of the country's leading politicians and entrepreneurs, according to John MacLeod, a senior editor at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

"The whole framework in which he operated and is alleged to have done these various things is ultimately a product of the system which is the creation of his father-in-law," MacLeod said. "In other words, [it is] this hierarchical system where individuals are granted political and commercial favors by virtue of their particular position."

MacLeod speculated that if Aliev returned to face charges, any trial process would probably confine itself to charges of abduction and assault.

"I think the authorities would try to keep [the trial process] strictly within the confines of the accusations that have been made and not allow Aliev -- or others, for that matter -- to make political statements," MacLeod said. "[Authorities] would try to run a sort of very professional trial and keep it to the matters at hand, so that it didn't become a public affair. And if they do that, then I think they will be able to manage it."

No Easy Exit

Serikbay Alibaev, the chief of the opposition Social Democratic Party's branch in Astana, also believes there are things Aliev knows that could negatively affect some people if he spoke out.

"I do not think that [Rakhat] will say everything he knows, because he was himself involved in some issues," Alibaev said. "If he decides to speak up, he will choose what to say in order to avoid further accusations against himself. But he will certainly not say everything."

MacLeod of IWPR said that would likely lead to Aliev being portrayed as simply an exception in Kazakhstan -- a person who misused his positions and the opportunities presented to him by virtue of holding public office.

"The line will be that there's one bad egg and he's sort of cast out from the system by his righteous peers," MacLeod said. "That's the sort of damage-limitation exercise that will be carried out."

Aliev's legal predicament presents other difficulties for the Kazakh regime, as well. Independent media in Kazakhstan and media outside Kazakhstan referred to Aliev's alleged misdeeds for years. When he was first sent to Austria in 2002, there were stories in which opposition leaders accused Aliev of involvement in schemes to topple his father-in-law. Independent media also questioned his business practices, including alleged intimidation and even possible connections to the murders of prominent opposition leaders and independent journalists.

MacLeod said most of these stories -- like the illegal payoffs in the 1990s from U.S. businessmen to Kazakh officials for shares in oil fields, known as "Kazakhgate" -- have long been in the public domain. But a highly public trial of Aliev at home in Kazakhstan might well remind some people of allegations that have been made against other Kazakh officials.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)

Battle Of The Clans
Kazakh politics are dominated by a few powerful clans with varying ties to President Nursultan Nazarbaev. more
The Other Son-In-Law
Timur Kulibaev, who is married to President Nazarbaev's second daughter, Dinara, is head of the huge KazMunaiGaz energy concern. more

Kyrgyzstan: U.S. Defense Secretary Seeking Support For Air Base

By Bruce Pannier

Kyrgyz President Bakiev (left) and Robert Gates in Bishkek today

June 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew to Kyrgyzstan -- the only country in the world to host both U.S. and Russian military bases -- to discuss the continued U.S. use of the Manas Air Base to support operations in Afghanistan.

Gates' visit comes at a sensitive time in U.S.-Kyrgyz relations. U.S. troops have been using part of Bishkek's Manas International Airport to supply troops in Afghanistan since 2001.

But since late 2005 some government officials have been questioning whether the U.S. government is paying a fair rent for the base, which was some $2 million per year but was increased last year to several times that amount after prolonged negotiations.

Gates' presence in Kyrgyzstan has symbolic value as U.S. influence in Kyrgyzstan -- and Central Asia in general -- is waning while Russia, with its hefty oil revenues, reasserts its interest in the region.

Looking To Stay

Gates met today with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, Defense Minister Ismail Isakov, and other officials to discuss the continued use of the air base.

Opposition to the U.S. presence at the Kyrgyz base increased last year when a U.S. serviceman shot and killed an airport employee who the soldier believed was a threat to the base's security.

Last month several parliamentary committees drafted a letter calling on parliament to demand that the U.S. set a time frame for its departure from Manas.

And last week there were small protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek demanding the United States withdraw its troops from Manas.

Gates and Bakiev said after their meeting that the level of cooperation between the two countries is good but said that the situation in Afghanistan continues to be a concern. There was no immediate comment on talks about the air base.

Aiding Afghanistan

Before meeting with Bakiev, Gates portrayed the stationing of U.S. troops at Manas as part of Kyrgyzstan's contribution to an international struggle.

"What is important for the people of Kyrgyzstan to understand is that our use of Manas is in support of a larger war on terror, in which Kyrgyzstan is an ally of virtually every other nation on earth," he said. "We are all working to try and prevent a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and our use of Manas is one way in which Kyrgyzstan can play a very important and constructive role."

Gates' visit and comments come at an important time for the U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan. A small crowd demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek on June 1 holding signs that read "Yankee Go Home" and "No to the Air Base."

Their protest was fueled by recent reports about Marina Ivanova, the widow of the airport employee who was shot dead by a U.S. soldier in December.

The serviceman, Zachary Hatfield, claimed that the employee was wielding a knife. U.S. troops at Manas enjoy immunity from Kyrgyz investigation or prosecution, part of a deal reached when U.S. troops first deployed at Manas.

A subsequent offer of U.S. compensation to the widow kept the issue in the public spotlight. Ivanova has been cited in articles as complaining that the approximately $50,000 offered by the U.S. was too small. Ivanova wants to take the matter to an international court. Many in Kyrgyzstan also want the U.S. serviceman's immunity lifted to he can go on trial in Kyrgyzstan.

Differing Views

The issue elicited these comments from Kyrgyz parliament speaker Marat Sultanov on June 4.
"However, I suppose we need to assess the agreement [with the United States on the use of Bishkek's Manas airport] from all sides and investigate it scrupulously," he said. "I think we need to hold negotiations on the air base. I think we need to strengthen civic control [over the base] and remove the so-called diplomatic status [for U.S. personnel stationed at the base]."

But public opinion about the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan remains divided, as deputy parliament speaker Erkin Alymbekov showed in comments to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service today when he was asked whether U.S. troops should leave Kyrgyzstan.

"No, if we would close the American air base [at the Manas airport] and let them go, it would be a political mistake, because the United States has been supporting us with humanitarian and other kinds of massive aid," he said. "The existing political situation [in our country] is also against closure in the way Uzbekistan did with the Khanabad [air base]."

Gates' presence in Kyrgyzstan has symbolic value as U.S. influence in Kyrgyzstan -- and Central Asia in general -- is waning while Russia, with its hefty oil revenues, reasserts its interest in the region.

Gates (left) with Kyrgyz Defense Minister Isakov today in Bishkek

The Manas base is a mere 40 kilometers from Kant, where Russia maintains a base as part of the CIS Collective Security Treaty. The Kant base is being enlarged with more troops and military aircraft gradually being added. Russian media, as much and maybe more than the Kyrgyz media, has chronicled U.S. problems at Manas.

When the five Kyrgyz parliamentary committees recommended demanding a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Manas they referred to a 2005 call from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for the U.S. to make clear when it intended to leave the bases it is using in Central Asia.

The Uzbek government, facing fierce international criticism over its handling of protests in Andijon that ended in great bloodshed, used the SCO call as a pretext for asking the United States to vacate the base it was using in Uzbekistan.

Gates described his meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart Isakov as "positive."

Gates visit gives the United States more time to work out its problems with the Kyrgyz government. Kyrgyzstan is hosting the SCO summit in August and, as that date approaches, the voices of those saying "Yankee Go Home" may become louder.

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

Turkmenistan: Emerging From 'An Obsession With Personality'

A golden statue of former Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat

June 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Paul Theroux, the noted American novelist and travel writer, has been to many exotic places, but perhaps none so unusual as the one he details in the May 28 issue of "The New Yorker" -- Turkmenistan.

After numerous attempts, Theroux finally obtained a rare visa to travel around the closed Central Asian nation, before the death in December of President Saparmurat Niyazov. In his article, "The Golden Man: Saparmurat Niyazov's Reign Of Insanity," Theroux refers to Niyazov as "one of the wealthiest and most powerful lunatics on Earth" and describes the capital, Ashgabat, as "an example of what happens when absolute political power, money, and mental illness are combined." Oguljamal Yazliyeva, the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, recently spoke with Theroux about his impressions of this mysterious country and its people.

RFE/RL: In your article, you mention the name Ogulsapar Muradova, who reported for RFE/RL and who died in Turkmen custody in September 2006. You point out in your article that you know this case from international sources, and it's true the case was widely covered by the international media, including our radio station. And I'm wondering, what did the people you met in Turkmenistan know about the case, or what did you learn about Muradova's case from sources that you might have spoken to during your trip? Or was your only learning about her from the outside?

"Think of all the money they have and how easy it would be to solve the simple problems of roads, communications, housing, hospitals in Turkmenistan. That's the really horrible thing about Niyazov -- he took all this money and used it for himself."

Paul Theroux: Her name was mentioned to me when I was in Turkmenistan -- Muradova. But I didn't find any details until I came back to the [United] States. And even then, there are not many details. She died in mysterious circumstances. It's impossible to know because so little information was released about whether she was killed or whether she died because of neglect, or whether she was tortured. But I think you can assume she was very badly treated. She was alive one day and dead the next. And she was not an unhealthy woman. All the information, this sort of detail, came from outside. I never got any information [in Turkmenistan].

RFE/RL: As is seen in your descriptions, you were greatly impressed by the golden sculptures portraying the late President Saparmurat Niyazov that bore witness to his great personality cult. As in other dictatorships, Turkmenbashi announced himself to be a writer, and his books were published. Government officials in the country usually kept them in their offices and homes as a sign of loyalty to the leader. His book "Rukhnama" was the main book that should be taught at all schools. There is an interesting fact that foreign businessmen used it for their own benefit by translating "Rukhnama" into their own languages. Niyazov and his ministers stated that it is the people of Turkmenistan who glorified his personality cult. My question is, who is to blame here? Only the Turkmen people or the international community, as well, who for their own benefit let the personality cult flourish and the dictatorship strengthen. What's your opinion on that?

Theroux: That's a good question.... He's leader of the country, so how he goes on being the leader of the country is, of course, the responsibility of lots of people. Everyone who does business with him, in fact.

Paul Theroux (AFP file photo)

As far as the book goes, his book is silly. If you read it, if you're a writer, as I am -- I read the book and I say, this is pure silliness. The history is inaccurate. The opinions are silly. The autobiography is also inaccurate. It's pure self-glorification. And his cult of personality wasn't just personality. He saw himself as a hero. As a hero of the Turkmen people. And he presented himself as a hero. So who kept him in power? I mean, he died in power, so he wasn't deposed, although there was an assassination attempt. The businessmen who translated his books into their language, I heard that this was done. I don't have any examples of it, and I'd be interested to know who did it.

RFE/RL: I know in the Czech Republic, one of the businessmen translated the book into the Czech language. And we never saw the book in the shops in Prague. It was just translated for the purpose of presenting Niyazov some copies of the book and presenting it to the leader and to show that it was translated into the Czech language.

Theroux: Yes, that's ridiculous, isn't it? It's ridiculous, but it's a way of gratifying Niyazov's ego. It doesn't keep him in power. I mean, a businessman who translates the book isn't helping him stay in power. He's just flattering him. The people who are keeping him in power, of course, are the people who are doing business with him. People could refuse to buy the natural gas, or they could refuse to sell him parts. Or they could forbid their workers to work on the natural-gas pipeline.

What interested me about Turkmenistan is that the Turkmen people are very rarely involved in the technical areas of natural-gas exploration. Most of those [people] are from other countries. They're from Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines. A lot of them are from England, from Great Britain. So if you're looking for people who are propping up the regime, it would be everyone who does this essential work. If there was an embargo on natural-gas workers, the country would fail. So it's a place where the technical workers that I saw come from outside the country and, of course, the money comes from outside the country.

But the responsibility for his being in power, the ultimate responsibility, lies with the people. You can't really have another country.... Although people talk about regime change, I think it would be a big mistake if another country went in and said, "Well, this man is a fool and an egotist and he's insane, let's get rid of him." If that were the case, there would be a lot of people on Earth to get rid of.

But as far as the "Rukhnama" goes, I think the book is merely a symbol of his stupidity and insanity. It's a symbol of his weak mind. I'm sure you've read it. You can see there's nothing in it. The more you look at it, the less you see. It's strange that people had to memorize it. It's a silly book.

RFE/RL: What do you think the West should know most of all about Turkmenistan?

Theroux: The main thing that the West should know about Turkmenistan is that it exists. Most people have no idea that it exits. They know where Turkey is, vaguely, but Turkmenistan is an unknown place. They simply don't know it.

[Before] my piece appeared in "The New Yorker" magazine, lots of people said, "Where is it?" So I explained in the piece where it is, as you can see. And what people need to know is that it exists, that it's a huge place, that it's potentially a very rich place, and that the people are extremely hospitable and they're also very welcoming. Ninety percent are Muslim, but they're not the stereotyped Muslims of the American demonized imagination. I found them very mild, very soft tempered, very good to each other, very hospitable. The food is good. The countryside is rugged, but the people have found a way of living in it. The history is very dramatic. Everything about it I found worthy of interest.

Late President Saparmurat Niyzaov in 2005

Americans are extremely ignorant of world geography. I've been a traveler for 45 years. I've written about places for 45 years. And my conclusion is that [when] I write about a place, no one knows where it is. And it's not only Turkmenistan, it's many other places. They have no idea of what the world is like. So what they need to know, in a way, about Turkmenistan, is what they need to know about the world, which is that Turkmenistan is not like any other place. It is itself, and the people have an interesting language, they have a rich culture, they have a glorious history. And this one man [Niyazov] has, more or less, well, for a while, hijacked it.

So if I write a piece like this -- this is a very long piece in a magazine that's read by millions of people. So that helps. It helps. Not that I'm putting [Turkmenistan] on the map, but it makes it more interesting. When it was a Soviet republic it was just a neglected place. But also Turkmenistan has to be a place that welcomes people there. It's very hard to get a visa [to go] there. It was just such a lot of trouble to get a visa. I was turned down repeatedly. And I'll probably never be invited back.

You've been to the [United] States. When you were in America, I'm sure people said to you, "Jamal, where do you come from?" And you said, "Turkmenistan." And their next question is...

RFE/RL: "Where is that?!" I had an experience in Texas. I tried to explain to a student that Turkmenistan borders Iran, and the next question was, "Where's Iran?" I thought that Iran was better known than Turkmenistan because of its nuclear issues and some others but...

Theroux: You see, America is the center of the world, or so we think. So people don't trouble to find out. But anyway, that's why I'm a writer, to help people understand. I was very interested in the reaction of Turkmen people who had studied in the [United] States -- what they thought of America, where they went. And a very common theme is that people talked about the families. The family is a very strong unit in Turkmenistan. In America, it's not so strong. The respect within the family is unusually strong in Turkmenistan and, as you know in America, and also in Europe, the family is not a very strong unit.

RFE/RL: Did you have enough time to meet various Turkmen professionals, like writers, journalists, or even students?

Theroux: Yes, I did. I met more writers and students than I did other people, [such as] farmers, which I would have liked to have met -- farmers and, you know, horse breeders and other people. But not enough time. But I met plenty of students. I met very nice students. And I should say that I felt very sorry for people who lacked so much information, who were so cut off from the world. And that was the other thing that Niyazov did. He cut people off. And he cut off the flow of information. So that's something that [RFE/RL is] helping to correct.

RFE/RL: My last question, please. What is your vision of Turkmenistan in 10 years, let's say?

Theroux: That's a hard one. That's a very hard one. But I would say that it all depends on the leadership. If you asked me what I think about this country, about the United States, or the Czech Republic, or Germany, or England, or India, it would all be how are they governed. So if Turkmenistan is fairly governed.... Think of all the money they have and how easy it would be to solve the simple problems of roads, communications, housing, hospitals in Turkmenistan. It would be so easy because they have so much money.

That's the really the horrible thing about Niyazov -- he took all this money and used it for himself. The money is still flowing in. There's no end to it, because there's an almost unending supply of natural gas. If someone responsible who cares about the people of Turkmenistan, who really cares about their welfare -- education and health -- spends the money to help them, it would be simple.

The family mausoleum of President Saparmurat Niyazov in his hometown, Kipchak (AFP file photo)

Most countries that I traveled in, most countries, are badly governed. Most countries have bad governance. By that I mean they have governments that really do not serve the people. Even the American government, we've spent $500 billion in Iraq -- $500 billion. And I live in a town where the library needs money, the roads need to be fixed, lots of things like that. But we've spent $500 billion in Iraq. That's not serving the American people.

But it's not only that. Burma is an example. Laos is an example. China doesn't have an elected government. They're involved in a lot of things. So China does what they want. The Sudan. You name a country. Even the best ones are not particularly well governed. So you have to think of Turkmenistan like that. Turkmenistan is very badly governed, but so are so many other countries.

And they're not even the countries like Zimbabwe, [which], of course, is badly governed, or Kenya, or Zambia. Of course, they are badly governed. But also other countries -- Venezuela. And I think the United States. We have a very unpopular president who does things his own way.

So it's wrong only to think of Turkmenistan as a strange place. Many places are strange in somewhat the same way. One of the biggest mistakes that can be made in any country is to name an airport or name a river or name something after a living person. This is something that Niyazov did. So Turkmenbashi this and Turkmenbashi that. But we do that in America. I was recently in Houston, Texas, and the airport in Houston, Texas, is the George H.W. Bush -- that's [U.S. President George W.] Bush's father -- the George H.W. Bush Airport. Well, to me, that's a bit like Niyazov. Maybe not as crazy as Niyazov, or as cruel as Niyazov, but that's a bit of the same thing.

So you can't criticize Niyazov too much. You have to see that he's part of a tendency. That's a tendency. And the people who criticize him have also to look at places like the George Bush Airport and say, "Well, what's the story with that?" Or in his lifetime, [former U.S. President] Ronald Reagan -- there was Reagan airport and Reagan this and Reagan that and the Reagan Library. They were also named after him. So I'm against that. And I also think that that's also part of, maybe not a cult of personality, but that's an obsession with personality. You should name it after dead people, people who are dead, and people who are really great -- writers, thinkers, scientists -- not politicians.

Central Asia: Writing Books Popular With Region's Leaders

By Farangis Najibullah

Karimov is just one Central Asian leader who likes to write (file photo)

June 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- As graduation-exam season approaches in Uzbek universities, books authored by President Islam Karimov are in high demand in libraries and bookstores. That's because Uzbek graduates are required to past tests on the president's books before receiving their diplomas.

A Tashkent librarian, who did not want to give his name, tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that at this time of the year, Karimov's books -- including their new CD versions -- are popular with Uzbek students.

"We have electronic versions of the books in 11 volumes," he says. "Mostly students use them. Older customers who ask for those books are usually people who want to do research for their work."
"Less than 6 million copies of Lenin's works were published in Uzbekistan. We have 31 million copies of [Karimov's] books."

Uzbek high-school graduates who want to attend university also have to pass exams about President Karimov's books.

Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989, has authored dozens of books on Uzbekistan's domestic and foreign policies, history, economy, and culture.

In one of his books, "The Uzbek People Will Never Depend On Anyone," Karimov gives his own detailed account of the bloody Andijon events in May 2005.

Regional Trend

But Karimov is not the only Central Asian leader who has published numerous books and articles.

In neighboring Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbaev claims authorship of dozens of scientific research papers and a couple of books, such as "The Strategy Of Independence" and "In The Heart Of Eurasia."

In Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon has published several books, mostly focusing on the Tajik people's history and their so-called Aryan roots.

After just four months in office, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov published his first book as Turkmenistan's leader on the health-care system. In it, the former dentist and health minister discusses the past, present, and future of the Turkmen system.

The first Turkmen president, the late Saparmurat Niyazov, published many books, including books on poetry and his all-important "Ruhnama."

Required Reading

Niyazov turned "Ruhnama" into a kind of national Bible and spiritual guidebook for Turkmen, making it an essential part of school and university programs.

But Berdymukhammedov has so far not ordered his new book to be included in school or university curriculums.

However, Turkmen media say Berdymukhammedov's book, "The Scientific Foundations Of The Development Of Health Care In Turkmenistan," will be widely discussed among students and teachers.

During Niyazov's rule, Turkmen officials were required to pass annual tests on "Ruhnama" in order to keep their jobs.

In Tajikistan, most government officials keep President Rahmon's books on the shelves in their offices and even in their homes to show their loyalty to the president.

"However, Tajik officials are not required to actually read the presidential books yet," says Rahmatullo Valiev, the deputy leader of Tajikistan's Democratic Party.

"We have not yet reached the point that every government official is required to own and thoroughly study Emomali Rahmon's books," he notes. Reading the books "is not forced on the people here."

Copies For All

Presidential books in Central Asia are usually printed as a glossy hardback on expensive paper.

Uzbek journalist Abdurakhmon Tashanov says the government spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to publish President Karimov's large number of books. Tashanov says Karimov has published more books than Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, whose works were abundantly available in every bookstore and library in the former Soviet Union.

"According to my calculations, if each of Uzbekistan's 27 million citizens got one copy of [a Karimov] book there would still be another 4 million copies left" Tashanov says. "According to the Uzbek Soviet Encyclopedia, less than 6 million copies of Lenin's works were published in Uzbekistan. We have 31 million copies of [Karimov's] books, which is five times more than Lenin's works. It's more copies than [former Soviet leader] Leonid Brezhnev published. These books would fill 123 railway cars."

But no matter what personal opinion Central Asian officials or students have about their presidents' books, statements, and speeches, no one would think of criticizing the books publicly.

People in Central Asia have witnessed many leaders who have turned themselves and their books into national icons. But once the leaders died or disappeared from the political scene, their books seemed to follow them.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek, Turkmen, Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh services contributed to this report.)

Central Asia: Top UNDP Official Considers Development Challenges

June 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL recently about development challenges in Central Asia with UN Assistant Secretary-General Kori Udovicki, who is also assistant administrator of the UN Development Program and director of the Regional Bureau for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). What follows are excerpts from that May 31 interview, which was conducted by RFE/RL Turkmen Service broadcaster Muhammad Tahir.

RFE/RL: What are the major developmental challenges that Central Asian countries are facing today?

Kori Udovicki: The major challenges for human development are indeed that now [that] the growth has picked up in most of these economies, it needs to be a growth that includes the poor, and it needs to be a growth that respects the environment, and it needs to be a sustained growth. Working backwards from that, we believe that for sustained growth it is a very high priority for the region to work on its own integration and its integration with the rest of the world. Because from an economic perspective, the biggest obstacle to the region's development is its distance from the major world's market. Now, at this moment, its immediate neighbors are growing really well, and it's an opportunity for them to hitch on that wagon; but it is important that they remove the barriers to trade, etcetera. So that's in terms of long-term growth. And the next very big challenge is the environmental damage that has occurred in the past and the challenges of managing the existing endowment -- especially the energy and water resources -- in a cooperative manner. Because this is the only way to ensure security in the region and, again, growth. And, third, we go to the fact that this is a region that has suffered an enormous impoverishment in the early 90s; and while poverty rates declined quite substantially once the growth picked up in the late 90s, they're still extremely high. And usually this is forgotten. We are all aware that Africa has high poverty, but so does Central Asia. And it is necessary to implement policies that will bring the benefits of growth to all.

RFE/RL: You recently had meetings with Turkmenistan's leadership. What impression did you get from the current Turkmen administration?

Udovicki: My impression is that the Turkmen authorities will need to study their options carefully and move gradually. We certainly see an openness. We have, for example, receive the assurances that we will work more together -- cooperatively and openly -- on the gathering and analysis of data necessary for economic decision-making and on data necessary for the realistic monitoring of the welfare of the population and the effects of policies. These are now things to be tested through time. So, as I said, we believe there is an openness to hear and to see, but we have to see how far that will go in terms of action and in what direction exactly.

RFE/RL: In recent years, the international community and human rights groups have criticized human rights violations in Turkmenistan -- including deaths of journalists in prison. Why has the United Nations remained silent?

Udovicki: The UN is not silent on these issues. As I say, [UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour] has spoken about it very openly to the authorities as well. But the UNDP's mandate is on development, and we believe that there are many levels of violation of human development -- which includes also the right to free democratic speech, but it also includes other rights. And we work on those with the governments that we work with that we can positively affect. We keep a presence so that when there are openings, we promote them.

RFE/RL: Where do you see the Central Asian region in 10 years?

Udovicki: That's a hard question. I think that to some extent, of course -- and to a large extent -- it's in the hands of these governments themselves. I believe that the positive economic environment right now is going to help positive processes in all of these countries. But I think it is also very important that the world understand the needs and the structures inherited by the people of Central Asia, and that one measure and one logic cannot fit all. It is necessary to work to build partnerships and understanding -- both within the Central Asia countries, among them and between them and the big important players or neighbors that surround [them who] pretty much cover the entire world.

Kyrgyz Doctors Say Prime Minister Was Poisoned

Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev in Bishkek in March

BISHKEK, May 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan's presidential medical department says Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev was poisoned with an unknown toxin, supporting Atambaev's earlier claims that he nearly died of poisoning.

According to the medical report, Atambaev underwent medical tests on May 14 at the clinic used by government officials. He was diagnosed with an "acute form of toxic hepatitis of unknown origin," which the report said proves that unidentified toxins had entered his blood.

Atambaev spoke to journalists about the medical report.

"It is not good that he got the medical report from doctors working for a government-controlled clinic."

No Investigation

"As you know, there are lots of different opinions regarding my health," he said. "Some people say 'Atambaev made up all of this to promote himself.' That's why I got this medical report. It says 'Atambaev was poisoned.' It's not good when somebody poisons a prime minister in the [Kyrgyz] White House. But the general prosecutor and the security services do not care."

During a parliament session on May 22, Atambaev said he was poisoned on May 11 in his office. Atambaev said he was given a glass of water that he drank and which left him hospitalized and "unconscious for two days."

Questionable Source?

An opposition politician and practicing doctor, Tashbolot Baltabaev, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that a special parliamentary commission should be created to investigate the incident. The former member of parliament said that if the allegation is confirmed, "it would be a serious political issue."

"If the prime minister was poisoned in his own office and was unconscious for two days, it would be an emergency situation, right?" he asked. "But it is not good that he got the medical report from doctors working for a government-controlled clinic."

Shortly after Atambaev's claims last week, Kyrgyz parliament speaker Marat Sultanov announced that the parliament will conduct an investigation into the alleged poisoning attempt.

However, Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service has officially said that it is not investigating the case.

Possible Motive

Atambaev says he does not know who would have poisoned him. However, news agencies quote him saying earlier that he had received death threats connected with the government's decision to nationalize a giant silicon-producing plant in the southern Jalalabad region.

The plant -- which was built during the Soviet era was turned into a government-controlled, joint-stock company in the mid-1990s -- was taken over by the government last April after a failed attempt to auction it.

Atambaev supported the plant's nationalization. He has said the plant, which produces silicon for computer hardware, will be turned into the "Kyrgyz Silicon Valley."

Atambaev, who is the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, was approved as premier by the parliament in March in an attempt to resolve an ongoing political crisis in Kyrgyzstan.

The impoverished Central Asian state, which hosts both Russian and U.S. military bases, has been plagued by political unrest since the March 2005 ouster of longtime leader Askar Akaev.

Tajikistan: President Seeks Limits On Wedding, Funeral Spending

By Farangis Najibullah

A wedding in Tajikistan (file photo)

May 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Tajik parliament has been given three months to discuss legislation that would ban lavish weddings, funerals, and other private ceremonies. The ban is the idea of President Emomali Rahmon, who initiated the legislation after criticizing increasingly expensive private gatherings in his country.

Rahmon's initiative to officially ban large and lavish private ceremonies has evoked mixed reactions in Tajikistan.

Some criticize the move as a restriction of a civil liberty, and argue that people should have the freedom to decide how to conduct their private lives. But others welcome the proposed ban, saying it is time to end the tradition of increasingly unaffordable parties and ceremonies, which have left many families in serious debt.

Some hope that the tradition of high-priced weddings and unaffordable funerals will die out by itself once people realize that in many cases they are using their life savings just to compete with their neighbors.

Too Many Parties?

During a meeting with some 4,000 representatives from Tajik society on May 24, Rahmon harshly criticized those who spend thousands of dollars on such things as a wedding or a circumcision party, which can last for days.

"A wedding ceremony today includes several parties, such as asking for the bride's hand, an engagement party, the sending of chests [as a gift], and even an exhibition of the bride's wedding outfits, in some districts; also there is 'hen night,' 'stag night,' official registration, the religious ceremony, a party in a restaurant, welcoming parties for the bride, the bridegroom, and their in-laws, and many other unnecessary and unaffordable gatherings," he said.

The president criticized government officials, businesspeople, and religious figures for "showing off their wealth" by throwing elaborate parties and thereby setting a standard for others who try to appear wealthy by holding a large party despite having only modest incomes.

Peer pressure and comparisons with neighbors are indeed key factors in holding lavish ceremonies in a country in which almost half of the population lives in poverty. When someone spends $2,000 for a wedding, a neighbor will usually try to spend the same or even more money for their ceremonies.

Funeral Costs

Even funerals and the subsequent 7th-, 20th-, and 40th-day anniversaries of someone's death cost thousands of dollars for the family of the dead. According to the modern funeral tradition in Tajikistan, during each of those anniversaries the family is expected to organize separate ceremonies for male and female guests, spending considerable amounts of money on food and beverages for dozens or even hundreds of people.

Funeral ceremonies have become similar to wedding parties in their lavishness. "The only thing missing is the music," some Tajiks say.

Rahmon said on May 24 that Tajiks spend some $1.5 billion on private ceremonies each year, while the country's annual budget is only around $1 billion.

Many young Tajik men spend a year working as a migrant laborer in Russia to earn enough money for their own or a sibling's wedding.

Thus, the new legislation restricting the cost of a wedding ceremony, the length, and the number of guests, is welcomed by many Tajiks.

Welcomed By Some

Suhrob, who lives in the capital, Dushanbe, told RFE/RL that the legislation will allow people to use their money to improve their standard of living instead of wasting it on parties.

"The implementation of this decree has to be closely followed," he said. "They usually issue a decree, but do not control its implementation. Once the spending on weddings is reduced our people's living standards will go up because they will spend money on the family's everyday life."
Wedding ceremonies are equally extravagant -- if not more so -- in other Central Asian countries.
Throughout the region many low-income families save money for many years in order to have a big party that will match the scale of the ones their neighbors hold.

Emomali Rahmon

In Kazakhstan, wedding parties can last up to seven days and sometimes cost tens of thousands of dollars.

A "chapan," a traditional overcoat that Kazakh families are expected to present as a gift to their new in-laws, costs about $5,000.

In Kyrgyzstan, excessive spending on weddings has been the subject of many debates in the local media.

In Uzbekistan, the government tried but failed to break the tradition of holding costly weddings.

Failed Attempt

The late Turkmen president, Saparmurat Niyazov, had ordered citizens to minimize spending of private ceremonies.

Michael Hall, a representative of the International Crisis Group in Central Asia, told RFE/RL that people should be able to decide themselves what kind of a lifestyle they want to have.

"In areas such as this -- such as culture and conducting of events, such as weddings and funerals, fundamentally, people ought to have the right to decide for themselves, and to judge for themselves what ways are the most appropriate to conduct them."

The Tajik president's latest initiative is dubbed by some local journalists as a "new cultural revolution." However, many Tajiks says they do not believe that Rahmon will be able to change his people's culture and traditions with a new law, no matter how costly and unreasonable the tradition is.

Some hope that the tradition of high-priced weddings and unaffordable funerals will die out by itself once people realize that in many cases they are using their life savings just to compete with their neighbors.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)

Kazakhstan/Turkmenistan: Resource-Rich Central Asian Duo Seeks Cooperation

Presidents Nazarbaev (left) and Berdymukhammedov in Astana on May 28

May 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The presidents of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Nursultan Nazarbaev and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, have held talks that both sides hope will lay the basis for close cooperation between their resource-rich Central Asian countries.

Berdymukhammedov, who was inaugurated in February, appears to be pushing for a renewal of contacts with the outside world, after the long isolation imposed by his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.

Nazarbaev and Berdymukhammedov are an unlikely pair in many ways. The first is a political veteran and survivor who has held a tight grip on his country for many years. The other is a former dentist and new leader whose policies so far are largely unknown.

But it is clear they want to intensify economic relations between their two countries, which are the region's superpowers in natural resources.

At a press conference in Astana on May 28, Nazarbaev spoke along those lines. "Both Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are countries that possess enormous deposits of energy resources -- oil and gas -- and cooperation gives us big mutual benefits," Nazarbaev said.

Hand In Hand

Nazarbaev added that he and Berdymukhammedov discussed in detail the role of Kazakh companies in developing Turkmen resources.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service correspondent in Astana, Baurzhan Shayakhmet, says the leaders discussed various other development projects, largely in general terms.

"The two presidents said that there will be a new road from Zhetybai (Kazakhstan) to Turkmenbashi City, a distance of 237 kilometers," Shayakhmet says. "This will part of the international corridor from Astrakhan (in Russia) to Atyrau and Aktau and on to the border of Turkmenistan. That will provide a land route from Turkmenistan to Russia. Also, besides the automotive route, they plan to reconstruct the railway link that will also, as the two presidents said, allow the transportation of Turkmen goods through Kazakhstan and Russia on to Europe."

A New Tone

Speaking on his arrival in Astana on Monday, Berdymukhammedov indicated that he wants to lessen the isolation imposed on Turkmenistan by his late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov. He told journalists that he wants his country to take a more active role in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The late President Niyazov downgraded relations with that organization from full membership to associate membership.

There is speculation about how far Berdymukhammedov plans to go in opening up Turkmenistan to the world again. However, a clue that he may be planning to dismantle Niyazov's personality cult comes from the eastern Turkmen city of Turkmenabat.

Out With The Old

The Turkmen opposition website "Khronika Turkmenistana" reported on May 28 that a statue of Niyazov has been taken down, and many of Niyazov's portraits there have also disappeared.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service asked Farid Tukhbatullin, of the Vienna-based Turkmenistan Initiative group, what this means.

"Obviously this [order to dismantle a Niyazov statue] comes from the high echelons of power, because it is not likely that local officials would make such a move independently," Tukhbatullin said. "I supposed that now, quietly, many more monuments [to Niyazov] are going to be dismantled. There are many of them throughout Turkmenistan."

There are other indications that the new leadership in Turkmenistan plans to ease the isolation. It has moved to restore passenger flights to Kazakhstan and to Russia, and it has promised to improve communications with the outside world.

In addition, on May 23, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mamedyarov traveled to Turkmenistan in the first visit by an Azerbaijani foreign minister in a decade. Relations between the two countries have been poor for years, largely because of a dispute over ownership of a Caspian Sea oil field.

Kazakhstan: Critics Question Presidential Son-In-Law's Volte-Face

By Farangis Najibullah

Rakhat Aliyev (file photo)

May 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan's ambassador to Austria and the president's son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev, is being sought by the Kazakh Interior Ministry for suspected kidnapping.

Aliev -- who is married to President Nursultan Nazarbaev's influential eldest daughter, Darigha -- denies the charges. He says he's being punished for his presidential ambitions and for challenging Nazarbaev's recent move to secure himself president-for-life status.

Critics in Kazakhstan suspect that Aliev is cynically exploiting democratic slogans to further his own career.

An influential 44-year-old businessman and politician, Aliev is accused of kidnapping two senior bank officials in January -- one of whom subsequently disappeared.

In a statement published on the "Kazakhstan Today" website, Aliev rejects the charges and blames them on presidential ambitions that he says he confided in Nazarbaev earlier this year.

More recently, Aliev last week criticized amendments to the Kazakh Constitution that allow Nazarbaev an unlimited number of terms as president.

Bona Fides

But opposition credentials could prove elusive for a man who has benefited so greatly from Kazakhstan's close-knit, post-Soviet administration.

Many observers in Kazakhstan say Aliev's criticism of his father-in-law is driven by personal animosity. In a country where clan and family connections play a major role in political and business life, opposition leaders accuse both Nazarbaev and Aliev of nepotism and corruption.

Amirjan Qosanov, the deputy head of the Social Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that Aliev's case shines a bright light on how politics work in this hydrocarbon-rich former Soviet republic.

"What we have now reflects the true situation in Kazakhstan's political structure," Qosanov says. "In civilized countries, any political decision is reached through the parliament, a party, elections, and NGOs. Here, the system is based on family relations. [Aliev's] statement criticizing his father-in-law, the president, sounds very political, because here politics is the family."

Shooting Star?

Aliev claims to have told Nazarbaev "a few months ago" that he "had decided to run for the presidency in the next elections in 2012." Aliev says that shortly after that conversation, he was accused of abducting senior managers of Nurbank, a mid-sized Kazakh bank that Aliev is said to control.

In late May, Kazakh authorities suspended two major media outlets believed to be controlled by Aliev and his wife, Darigha Nazarbaeva -- KTK television and the weekly publication "Karavan."

Nazarbaeva is a powerful figure in her own right in Kazakhstan (ITAR-TASS file photo)

Aliev condemned that move as a "return to the totalitarian past" aimed at silencing the president's critics.

While the media suspensions were criticized by rights activists, Kazakh observers say that Aliev's self-styled role as a defender of democracy is a tough sell.

Dos Koshim, the chairman of the nongovernmental Network of Independent Observers and longtime critic of the current administration, says that he finds it difficult to believe Aliev's claim that his political stance changed after his "work with international organizations" and meetings "with prominent European politicians."

"When [Aliev] writes about democracy, higher values, and democratic principles, it makes me laugh," Koshim says. "If this person was fighting for democracy, then why was he silent during his days as [Kazakhstan's] representative to the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe]? I saw [the way he behaved] in Vienna during forums dedicated to free and fair elections."

The Interior Ministry announced that it has sent a special delegation to Vienna, led by the country's deputy prosecutor-general. In the meantime, the Kazakh Embassy in Vienna says Aliev has disappeared and cannot be reached by telephone.

In his statement, Aliev maintains that he "will always stay in politics" and do "everything [he] possibly can" to prevent the country from "returning to its totalitarian past."

Critics of Kazakhstan's current administration might well argue that the country has not fully emerged from that past. And they are almost certainly asking whether Rakhat Aliev is the best spokesman that they have for greater freedom and rule of law.

(The director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Merkhat Sharipzhanov, contributed to this report.)