Turkmenistan Pushing North-South 'Trade Corridor' With IranPRAGUE, June 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The issue of transport routes between Central Asia and Iran was the focus of talks between Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and Iranian leaders in Tehran on June 15-16.
Plans for such a transport corridor have been around for decades, but a lack of coordination and political infighting among countries have hampered the effort.
Fresh impetus to begin working on a transport corridor from Iran's seacoast to Central Asia was given during Turkmen Berdymukhammedov's trip to Tehran, where he discussed such plans with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders.
Getting The Plan Started
"We have many suggestions regarding the communications system, especially regarding the railway project that the two brotherly countries would build together and [that would] reach second and third countries [beyond Turkmenistan]," Berdymukhammedov said.
Russian news agencies reported that the regional transport routes will be discussed at an upcoming meeting of the representatives of the Caspian littoral states in Tehran.
While Iran has access to the sea, the Central Asian's lack of proper transport links to Iran is one of the major problems hampering their economies.
All five Central Asian countries are landlocked and depend on neighboring Russia and China to import and export goods.
Afghanistan is a potential way to link the Central Asian transport routes to a seaport, by way of Pakistan. However, the ongoing security risks in the country have ruled out Afghanistan as an option for the foreseeable future.
The Central Asian leaders have sought various alternatives, such as reviving the route of the ancient Silk Road. However, none of the various projects that have been proposed have been implemented.
Many experts see the North-South project through Iran -- a so-called trade corridor -- as the best answer to Central Asian transport problems.
And political support seems to be slowly building. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev supports the Turkmen-Iranian agreement to include Iran in a regional railway project, the Turkmen President's Office said on June 18.
Buri Karimov is the head of the administrative department at the CIS Road Construction Council, which deals with the North-South project in the former Soviet countries.
Karimov tells RFE/RL that the North-South corridor that currently links Russia and Kazakhstan to the European transport routes could be further extended towards the other Central Asian countries.
An Old Project
He adds that the project aims to build several transport routes -- including roads and railways -- that would connect Central Asian countries to at least two southern seaports: Bandar Abbas in Iran and Karachi in Pakistan.
"[Kazakhstan also] wants to connect the corridor -- through Astana -- to the Trans-Siberian route on one side and through a new 'Kazakhstan-Western China' project to western China on the second side," Karimov said. "The other Central Asian countries also want to extend the corridor towards Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan by building a new link from Tashkent -- or Bishkek -- and crossing Tajikistan."
The project has been around since the 1990s but, like many other regional plans and agreements, it has yet to be implemented.
During the various meetings, Central Asian leaders have pointed to the strategic and economic importance of the regional transport routes and the necessity of bilateral and multilateral cooperation to build roads and railway links.
In reality, however, the countries present more problems to each other than assistance and cooperation.
For instance, from time to time Uzbekistan -- mostly, without prior warning and with no explanation -- closes its borders to Tajikistan's transport vehicles and trains. Kyrgyzstan's southern regions face similar problems with Uzbekistan during the winter.
A visa regime between some of the Central Asian countries and the lack of cooperation between the customs systems creates additional problems. As a result, the countries try to use alternative -- usually less convenient -- routes to bypass each other's territory.
The shortest bus route from the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, to the country's Ferghana Oblast, passes through Tajikistan. Uzbekistan discontinued the bus route between Tashkent and Ferghana in early 1990s, citing security reasons.
Rahman Alshanov is an economy professor and the head of Turan University in Almaty. Alshanov told RFE/RL that the Central Asian countries have failed to restore order in their existing regional transport routes.
"All of the different kinds of money extortion have to stop," he said. "All those unnecessary customs and police posts should be taken away. Nowadays, every person who has a police stick runs to the roads and tries to stop a cargo vehicle [in order to demand some money]. And drivers try to avoid the main roads. There were some 25 traffic police stations along the Almaty-Tashkent route. They were removed. Every unnecessary post has to be moved away decisively."
Realizing The Importance
The neighboring countries usually argue and disagree over the exact path of the transport routes, similar to their differences over other regional issues, such as water and energy supplies.
Buri Karimov says that each of the five Central Asian countries has a different idea about the potential railway that would be built between Russia in the north and Afghanistan in the south, crossing through Central Asia. Each country wants the main railway to pass through its own territory in order to get the maximum transit route benefits.
Despite the existing problems, however, it seems that the countries have realized the great importance of the trade corridor and the negative impact of further delays in implementing the project.
Karimov said transport officials in all the Central Asian republics have agreed to set up a special body that would deal with the coordination of the North-South project.
It is perhaps the first step in the eventual realization of the project.
(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)
Kazakhstan: Early Elections Coming As Lower House Of Parliament Dissolved
"I'm making the decision to dissolve the Mazhilis and call early elections," he said. "The early elections of Mazhilis members by party lists are to be held on August 18, 2007."
Changes Bring New Elections
Lawmaker Nurbakh Rustemov said that the move was coming. He was among those speaking at a press conference on June 19 just after 50 of the 77 Mazhilis deputies approved requesting the president dissolve the Mazhilis.
"We asked the president to dissolve [the parliament] in order to make the changes possible," he said.
Those changes include increasing the number of seats in the Mazhilis from 77 to 107, all of which must be filled by party lists. Under previous law only 10 of the 77 members were chosen on the basis of party lists.
Under a ruling from Kazakhstan's Constitutional Council on June 18, the Mazhilis cannot vote to dissolve itself -- only the president can take that step.
That is an interesting ruling considering that Article 63 of the constitution says the following: "The president of the Republic of Kazakhstan may dissolve parliament in these cases: the expression by parliament of a vote of 'no confidence' in the government; two refusals from parliament to give consent to the appointment of the prime minister; a political crisis resulting from insurmountable differences between the chambers of parliament or parliament and other branches of state power."
Another Mazhilis deputy, Erasyl Abilqasymov, who elected in 2004 as an independent, said that early elections are needed to give parliament a voice in the country's affairs.
"The dissolution [of the parliament] is necessary for sure," Abilqasymov said. "The major reason is the fact that it turned into a puppet parliament. It is not able to utter a single word against what the government says. There is no intention to solve the real issues that the population face. Whatever those above it say, it implements with no objection. Unfortunately we have forgotten the people."
Only one candidate from an opposition party (Ak Zhol) won a seat in the 2004 parliamentary elections. That candidate, Alikhan Baimenov, later split the party and threw his support behind the president.
These early elections were predictable not long after the 2004 parliamentary elections. Then, Darigha Nazarbaeva, the eldest daughter of the Kazakh president, said on several occasions that there should be more seats in parliament.
Nazarbaeva founded the Asar party (in January 2004) which last year merged with the Otan party, created to support her father. That party is now called Nur-Otan and has nearly 1 million registered members in a country of just over 15 million people.
A more recent signal that an early parliamentary poll was coming was parliament's decision on June 18 that parties cannot form electoral blocs. That was precisely what the opposition Social Democratic Party and Naghyz Ak Zhol Party announced was their intention on June 11. A successful union of the two parties would have a created a new party that the party's leadership said would have more than 100,000 members.
Social Democratic Party leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, who ran for the presidency in 2005 and before that was the Mazhilis speaker, told RFE/RL correspondent Danabek Bimenov it contradicts previous policy.
"Previous laws allowed political parties to participate in elections in blocs," he said. "Now [the authorities] are trying to prevent that with the new law explicitly showing that they are scared of such situations and they are trying to prevent them."
Registration rules for political parties in Kazakhstan require a party have at least 50,000 members. There are currently 10 registered parties of which only the Social Democratic Party and Naghyz Ak Zhol could be considered opposition parties.
Tuyakbai said today's announcement of early elections seems designed to leave the opposition little time to prepare for the poll.
"It is possible to say -- especially taking into account all the wide advertisement activities of Nur-Otan party that started a long time ago -- that the decision to hold early parliamentary elections so quickly, on August 18, has only one goal -- not to give the opposition parties any chance to get ready and launch their election campaigns in full scale," Tuyakbai said.
For candidates who won seats running as independents, the new election system heralds the end of their tenures in parliament. One such person is Bolat Abishev, who said this after Mazhilis deputies asked the president to dissolve the lower house.
"I do not see any reason [for the dissolution]," he said. "No one is thinking about the voters or people's interests at all. I think they are thinking about [the politicians] interests. Tomorrow, when the new [parliamentary] elections are held, they want to get on the list to show that they are loyal to the power holders. As for the people, they are off the agenda."
According to the constitution, new elections must be held within two months from the time parliament is dissolved. Only the Mazhilis is affected since members of the Senate, the upper house of parliament, are selected for their seats, not elected.
(Merhat Sharipzhan, the director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, contributed to this report.)
Uzbekistan: UN, Czech Efforts Reunite Andijon Refugee FamiliesPRAGUE, June 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Three refugee families who fled a deadly clampdown in eastern Uzbekistan more than two years ago have been reunited with their young children, thanks to the efforts of Czech and UN officials.
The parents were among hundreds resettled to the Czech Republic and other Western countries after Uzbek security forces fired on a large public demonstration in Andijon in May 2005 and many residents fled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan.
Four of the six children, from the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon, hadn't seen either of their parents for more than two years. The other two were traveling with their mother to join their father.
Family members gathered at Prague's international airport to meet the new arrivals. The reunion was an emotional event both for the parents -- who have been living as refugees in Liberec, in the northern Czech Republic -- and the children, who had been left behind to live with their grandparents.
These families' two-year wait was capped by a risky seven-day odyssey that took the children and lone mother from their homeland to their new home.
Czech authorities cited a lack of success "on a diplomatic level" ahead of the children's escape and subsequent reunion.
The director of the Czech Interior Ministry's department for asylum and migration policy, Tomas Haisman, was interviewed by Czech Television once the families were together. He said the Uzbek authorities' closure of local operations by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) made it impossible to request the reunions through any "official path."
No Simple Task
The woman and the children had to find their own way to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where the Czech Interior Ministry and UNHCR could offer help. Those groups organized the children's trip to Prague, providing them with travel documents to Europe.
They were flown from Bishkek to London, and then took another flight to Prague. One of the children, a young girl, told reporters that she didn't know whether her parents would be waiting at the airport to meet her.
Europe and other Western contacts with Uzbekistan's government entered a frosty period after strongman President Islam Karimov rejected international pleas for an independent probe into the events at Andijon. Uzbek officials insist that fewer than 200 people died -- most of them criminals in an attempt to overthrow the government, and security troops. But rights groups and eyewitnesses have accused authorities of killing many hundreds of peaceful demonstrators.
Czech Interior Minister Ivan Langer announced that he was "proud" of the Czech role in reuniting these refugees and their families, whom he described as "persecuted" in their home country.
Haisman stressed that there was a delicate operation behind the children's arrival in the Czech Republic.
"At any time, a problem could have arisen that might have ruined the entire operation," Haisman told Czech Television.
Marta Miklusakova, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Prague, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the reunion was "not an easy thing to do."
"It is not an easy decision to make for the people concerned -- be it the refugees who already came to the Czech Republic in 2005 asking their family members to come, or the family members in Uzbekistan making the decision to go and follow their husbands or wives," Miklusakova said. "But governments, in general, do not assist their own refugees. On the contrary, many try to make their lives very difficult -- even after these people flee abroad."
Others Wait...And Hope
Hundreds of residents left the city of Andijon for neighboring Kyrgyzstan in the days following the violence. Some were granted asylum in Europe, the United States, and Canada. Some returned to Uzbekistan.
The Czech Republic initially took in 15 Andijon refugees, and the children of other Uzbek refugees in Liberec remain in Uzbekistan.
Some of them said that rather than bringing their children to the Czech Republic, they hope someday to return to their homeland without risk of persecution.
One of them, a woman who did not want her name used, recently gave birth to a baby boy. She said she and her fifth child have had no contact with her other four children, whom she left with their grandparents in Andijon.
"All my [other] children are there. All of them are there -- all four children," she told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.
She said she hopes that one day her baby boy, Abubakr, is able to return to Andijon to see his homeland and to meet his siblings.
(This piece was compiled from reports and interviews by RFE/RL's Uzbek and Kyrgyz Services.)
Czech Republic: Central Asian Asylum-Seekers IncreasingPRAGUE, June 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Prague, along with thousands of refugees now living in the Czech Republic, celebrate World Refugee Day on June 20. Refugees from Central Asia are among the thousands of who have left their homes and appealed for asylum in Central Europe. RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Venera Djumataeva spoke about their situation with Marta Miklusakova, a UNHCR public information officer in Prague.
RFE/RL: It is only recently that Central Asia has become a region from which refugees have been coming to the Czech Republic. There are different reasons why people leave their homes in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Could you explain some of the main reasons that these people are making that difficult decision?
Marta Miklusakova: Leaving one's country and seeking asylum abroad -- especially in a country which is far, far away from your country of origin, not only geographically but also culturally or religiously -- is an extremely difficult decision to make. However, refugees do not make such decisions voluntarily but are forced to flee due to the well-founded fear of persecution. And such persecution can be based on the refugee's religion, race or nationality, political opinion, or belonging to a particular social group. Especially when coming on an individual basis, contrary to situations of mass influxes -- let's say, from countries which may face war conflicts, etcetera -- the reasons of each refugee may differ tremendously. In general, however, we may expect mixtures of all the reasons -- meaning persecution based on a person's either religion, nationality, political opinion, or, in some cases, race or belonging to a social group.
RFE/RL: So there are no refugees from Central Asia coming for economic reasons?
Miklusakova: Should there be refugees or asylum seekers coming purely for economic reasons, then the asylum procedure would actually point that out. And such an application would most likely be rejected, because asylum is not meant for people with economic reasons -- whether or not they can be considered legitimate. But in cases of economic reasons, people need to seek other ways to legalize their stay in the Czech Republic. Not asylum. So the people granted asylum, it can be said, these people have been granted that status based on persecution in the country of origin....
RFE/RL: How many of these new Central Asian refugees were fortunate enough to be granted political asylum in the Czech Republic?
Miklusakova: For a long time, the Czech Republic has been known for its low recognition rate -- which is actually the proportion between the number of people seeking asylum and people obtaining asylum after all, at the end of the asylum procedure. In 2006, the situation changed. And actually, for the first time, we saw quite a significant increase of the proportion in favor of the people granted asylum, which increased to some 10 percent of all the applications. But speaking about the Central Asian post-Soviet Muslim countries, in concrete numbers, the Czech Republic in 2006 registered over 230 new applications from Kazakh asylum seekers, while at the same time, the Czech Republic granted asylum to some 30 applicants coming from Kazakhstan. Speaking of Kyrgyzstan, there were 85 new applications lodged in 2006, while only five Kyrgyz applicants managed to receive asylum. At the same time, we saw two applicants from Turkmenistan newly applying for asylum last year, and one asylum seeker from Turkmenistan was granted asylum. We also saw 25 new applications from Uzbeks, while two persons from Uzbekistan were granted [asylum]. And you know statistics can be very tricky, so these numbers should not be read like "two out of 25" or "30 out of 230" because the people granted refugee status last year had applied long before then. These numbers need to be read carefully, but I think they can provide a rough idea of the numbers.
RFE/RL: The number of refugee applications from Kazakhstan is surprisingly high. That is a country which is considered to be comparatively politically stable. And economically, it is more or less a successful country. What is the most common reason for their decision?
Miklusakova: In the past five or six years, the numbers of applicants coming from Kazakhstan have been much higher than from the other countries. And actually, many of them may be coming as family members of people who have already been granted asylum. So these may be people coming for the purpose of family reunification, actually. This may make some change in the numbers. But also I would say, in general, that if people spread around the good news of finding safe haven in a certain country in Europe or anywhere else, it may be also the reason why more people are likely to come here because there is already a well-established Kazakh community in this case.
RFE/RL: You just mentioned the issue of family reunions. Two weeks ago, your organization helped to reunite [three] Uzbek families. After two years of being separated, these Uzbek refugees finally were able to see their children, their wives, or husbands again. How do you cooperate with the Central Asian governments in human rights matters? Are they cooperative or do they completely resist recognizing these people as refugees?
Miklusakova: Regarding the family reunification, we are very glad that in close cooperation with the Czech Interior Ministry as well as the International Organization for Migration, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees managed to have these families reunited after, actually, more than two years. As you can imagine, this is not an easy thing to do. And also, it is not an easy decision to make for the people concerned -- be it the refugees who already came to the Czech Republic in 2005 asking their family members to come, or the family members in Uzbekistan making the decision to go and follow their husbands or wives. But governments, in general, do not assist their own refugees. On the contrary, many try to make their lives very difficult -- even after these people flee abroad. Moreover, UNHCR has not had any representation in Uzbekistan since April 2006, when we were actually asked to close down the office [there] -- which makes cooperation in the field of human rights very hard. We remain concerned about the numerous refugee communities remaining in Uzbekistan, for example, because there are still some Tajiks but also some Afghans who would otherwise fall under our mandate. And they are staying in Uzbekistan. And we can't really assist them. So, since April 2006, it is the UN Development Program providing basic assistance to the people instead of UNHCR. But the cooperation [with the government of Uzbekistan] is extremely difficult.
RFE/RL: According to the UNHCR's information, there are already more than 100 citizens from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia who have found a new home in the Czech Republic. How do you help these new refugees to integrate into Czech society?
Miklusakova: By the end of 2006, the Czech Republic provided protection -- really gave asylum -- to some 130 refugees coming from the post-Soviet Central Asian republics. Applicants from these countries are a rather new phenomenon of the past few years. We saw only a very few of them in early 1990s. They only started coming from, let's say, 1999 or 2000 on. But once granted asylum, these people are treated the same way as all the other refugees -- which actually means they have access to the so-called state integration program run by the Interior Ministry and which aims to facilitate the refugees' access to housing, employment, and Czech-language training. However, this program still has some serious gaps, and its practical implementation faces serious shortfalls. So we are actually glad the [Czech] government reviews the program on an annual basis and is more or less open to introduce changes. As of July this year, the number of hours of Czech-language training has been radically increased to 650 hours of classes of Czech -- which should satisfy any refugee. But besides the assistance provided by the state administration, the refugees are also regularly assisted by numerous local nongovernmental organizations which, also with UNHCR assistance, can provide social and legal aid to all of them on an individual basis.
RFE/RL: Before joining the EU, the Czech Republic had one of the lowest rates of granting asylum to refugees -- around 1 percent of all applicants. The Czech government also has been criticized in regard to the living conditions for refugees. Have there been any changes in the situation since the Czech Republic became an EU member?
Miklusakova: We saw some substantial changes for the first time last year, in 2006. Because for a long time, the Czech Republic has been known for [having a] very low recognition rate -- meaning a very low number of asylum seekers who actually really succeed in the procedure and obtain asylum. For many years, the recognition rate was, according to some estimates, between 1 and 2 percent -- which is very low, especially in comparison with other EU countries, where the recognition rate is usually estimated to be something in between 10 and 15 percent. But last year the situation changed, and for the first time we saw an increase to 10 percent in terms of asylum; and more people were granted other forms of international protection, especially the subsidiary protection. So the Czech Republic is on track.
EU: Ministers Approve Bloc's Central Asia Strategy
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described it best when he said Central Asia has been "like a blind spot in the EU's field of vision."
The region commands immense reserves of oil and gas, provides a land bridge between Europe and Asia, and also straddles major drug-trafficking routes emanating from Afghanistan. Yet it has been the only major global region to so far lack an official EU strategy.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner observed after the Luxembourg meeting that global powers are increasingly interested in Central Asia, and the EU must act quickly not be left behind.
"If we see the necessities to work with these countries and not only have them cooperate, for instance, with China, with Russia, with Japan, there is a great chance also for us [the EU] to take them on," Ferrero-Waldner said.
The German blueprint approved by the EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg today is virtually certain to be endorsed unchanged by an EU summit on June 21-22.
The strategy will address a wide field of issues ranging from democracy and human rights to trade, energy cooperation, migration, and inter-cultural dialogue.
The EU's overriding interest has so far been trying to secure independent access to Central Asian oil and gas reserves in order to reduce its dependence on Russia.
But Steinmeier said that the EU intends to adopt a broader strategic view as well.
"Economic links, energy-trading links can be one basis [for EU engagement with Central Asia], but it is just one among many," he said. "We are also very concerned about political stability in this context, which, as you know, is threatened by instabilities in the southern neighborhood, be it Afghanistan [or] be it Iran."
Diplomats say the focus on Afghanistan is a recent development, inspired by concerns about growing instability in that country.
The bloc's Central Asian strategy has in recent months come under intense criticism from human-rights defenders, who say the EU downplays human rights concerns -- in particular in its relations with Uzbekistan -- in order to secure a positive response to the strategy in the region.
Kazakhstan: As Economy Booms, People Care Less About Politics
"We are not into politics," some say, "all we care about is how to make money and improve our living standards." But some experts describe the phenomenon as public skepticism, not as a sign of economic stability.
As the economy flourishes in Kazakhstan, more and more people in the oil-rich Central Asian country say they are less and less interested in the country's politics and politicians.
Even when the Kazakh parliament paved the way for Nazarbaev to be president for life, the move went largely unnoticed by many ordinary Kazakh citizens. There were only a few, small public protests -- mostly by independent journalists -- who took to the streets on their own to criticize the parliament's decision.
People seemed equally indifferent to all the presidential and parliamentary elections that were roundly criticized by foreign observers for falling short of democratic standards.
Many Kazakhs, especially the young, say that politicians -- the authorities and the opposition alike -- play no role in their everyday life.
Galimzhan, 28, runs his own private business, an Internet cafe and copy shop in Almaty. Galimzhan tells RFE/RL he is satisfied with the political stability and business opportunities available in Kazakhstan.
Business Is Good
"There are great opportunities to do business in Kazakhstan now," he said. "Ninety percent of my profit comes from my own business, and I think 80 percent of the population is aware of what private business means. The legislation to do business in Kazakhstan is there and it is very good. If you know the laws, it's easy to set up any business here."
Nazarbaev, who has exercised autocratic rule over the country since 1989, is seen as a sign of stability for many Kazakh people.
Living standards in Kazakhstan -- especially in urban areas -- are indeed better than the rest of Central Asia.
According to World Bank figures, Kazakhstan's $2,390 per capita Gross National Income (GNI) is the highest in the region. The GNI in neighboring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, for example, are $510 and $440 per capita, respectively.
Unemployment is rampant in the rest of Central Asia and hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Tajiks make their living from seasonal jobs in Kazakhstan.
While the oil money in Kazakhstan has created super-rich oligarchs and a political and business elite in Kazakhstan, many ordinary Kazakhs have thrown themselves into small and medium-size private businesses.
With a growing income and increase in living standards, there is also a greater number of Kazakh tourists appearing in luxurious holiday resorts around the world.
So, too, is the number of Kazakhs buying property abroad and the number of Kazakh families sending their children to study in Western schools and universities.
There were numerous public demonstrations in Kazakh cities during the 1990s, with pensioners demanding their overdue payments from the government.
Nowadays, however, the pensioners receive their money on time from ATM machines, a relevantly new experience in the region.
With a growing number of new buildings -- offices, banks, hotels, and private homes -- Kazakh cities, especially Almaty and the capital, Astana, have been transformed beyond recognition.
However, far from the luxurious buildings and flourishing businesses in big cities, the picture is much gloomier in Kazakhstan's rural areas.
There are fewer job opportunities in the villages and many young people are leaving their homes in the small towns and villages to search for a better life in the cities.
With property prices skyrocketing, not every Kazakh -- especially those who come from the villages -- can afford to buy or even rent a flat in the main cities.
Aben, a 45-year-old Almaty resident, says apartments and houses in bigger cities are beyond the reach for many ordinary people like him.
"Well, look at it yourself, please," he said. "Nowadays an old, one-room apartment costs more than $40,000. To save $40,000 you have to earn at least $1,000 a month and to refuse eating and drinking for four or five years to cover that cost."
Nevertheless, according to Nurlan, a 35-year-old resident of Almaty, it is unlikely that Kazakhs would go as far as staging protests and or starting a campaign to change things by shaking up the political system.
Just Being Cynical?
"Unfortunately, the people in our country are politically passive," he said. "We do not see any activity in political terms among our people and it does not look like it will change any time soon."
Alex Vatanka, the editor of Jane's Intelligence Digest in Washington, tells RFE/RL that it is a sign of broad public cynicism that people do not trust their politicians and public servants.
Even so, Nazarbaev is a known entity to the Kazakhs, Vatanka says, and they would not easily risk trying to change the system in favor of the unknown and untested alternatives.
Apparently, it is not only Kazakh citizens who are seemingly indifferent to their country's politics.
Despite many criticisms by international observers about the widespread corruption, nepotism, human rights abuses, and election frauds in Kazakhstan, Western investment has been pouring into the country.
It seems that foreign investors -- like so many of the citizens -- also do not care much about the political practices in the energy-rich country.
(Merhat Sharipzhanov, the director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)
Central Asia: Presidential Families Reach Dizzying Heights
The recent scandals surrounding former Kazakh presidential son-in-law Rakhat Aliev has highlighted the influential and powerful first families of Central Asia. The fact that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's family -- his daughters and son-in-laws -- accumulated enormous wealth during his reign is not extraordinary.
Public discontent over the grand fortunes of longtime Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev contributed to his demise in neighboring Kyrgyzstan in 2005. The family and friends of his successor, Kurmanbek Bakiev, were targeted two years later, in April 2007, when thousands of demonstrators accused Bakiev's administration of nepotism and corruption. Government critics insist it is still a critical issue.
Human rights activist Edil Baisalov accuses Bakiev family members of trying to take control of domestic media, including television stations Pyramida and Channel 5. Baisalov claims that some of president's brothers have a strong voice in senior political appointments and court decisions.
"Even now, it is believed that the president's brother controls one of provinces or regions. The second brother is said to have control over the law-enforcement agencies. He apparently has a huge influence on top officials' appointments, up to the appointment of ministers. His third brother -- despite living abroad -- is interested in the justice system, and many court decisions are made through him."
Free To Criticize?
In Kyrgystan at least, the political opposition and independent media can freely criticize their president over such suspicions.
In neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, however, few would dare to publicly challenge presidential families' business practices or their extravagant lifestyles.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov's daughter, Gulnara Karimova, is dubbed the "Uzbek Princess." Widely viewed as an extraordinarily rich businesswoman, she is also tipped by many as a possible successor to her father. Reports in the Western and Russian media quote critics claiming that Karimova has extensive influence over several sectors of the Uzbek economy -- including, energy, gas, and cement. They say her assets include millions of dollars in jewelry, investment holdings in Dubai and Geneva, a retail network, nightclubs, and holiday resorts.
Uzbek media portray Karimova as a successful entrepreneur and caring mother to two presidential grandchildren, Islam and Iman.
Karimova has publicly denied the allegations, and claims a majority share in Uzbekistan's main mobile-phone operator is her only lucrative holding.
She says jewelry design is a hobby that doesn't contribute much to her income.
In 2006, Karimova debuted a new hobby -- music -- with the release of a music video under the stage name GooGoosha. The Western media quoted observers -- including former British Ambassador to Tashkent Craig Murray -- saying it was a part of a campaign to promote Karimova as a potential successor to her father.
In neighboring Tajikistan, some of President Emomali Rahmon's nine children, as well as his brother-in-law, Hasan Saadulloev, are said to have built vast fortunes by exploiting family connections. Officially, the president's daughter, Tahmina, owns a supermarket in the capital, Dushanbe, and her uncle runs a bank, Orienbank.
But Moscow-based journalist and Tajik government critic Dodojon Atoulloev says the presidential family avoids registering businesses under the family names, while in reality its members control many companies, stock markets, broadcasters, and banks.
Critics acknowledge that the presidents' family members have a right to run businesses and make money -- like other citizens. But they question the first family's business practices and criticize its members for exploiting presidential power for financial benefit and to pressure business rivals.
Atoulloev accuses President Rahmon's family of "turning the country into one big family business" -- putting people like Rahmon's brother-in-law, Hasan Saadulloev, above the law and beyond reproach.
"There is an article in the Tajik law on bank activities which says that only a person who has worked in a banking system for at least five years has a right to be appointed the head of a bank," Atoulloev says. "As we know, Hasan Saadulloev, who had never worked in any bank -- even for one day -- has been appointed the head of Orienbank. Soon after that, many important state companies -- such as Tajik Airways and [Tajik] Railways -- abruptly transferred their bank accounts from the National Bank to Orienbank."
Passing The Buck
While being a member of the presidents' family might bring financial gains, cutting presidential ties could mean far more than just a broken heart.
When Mansur Maqsudi, a U.S. businessman and the Coca-Cola representative in Tashkent, divorced Gulnara Karimova, the bottler's operations in Uzbekistan were effectively halted and Uzbek authorities ensured that the company left most of its local assets in the country. Authorities say the decision had nothing to do with the marriage break-up.
Journalist Atoulloev says that when Tajik President Rahmon's daughter, Tahmina, divorced her husband, her ex-husband's father, Yormuhammad Gulov, lost his position atop the State Food Company.
In the meantime, Atoulloev says, new presidential in-laws are winning senior posts and new businesses.
According to Michael Hall, the International Crisis Group's Central Asia project director, there is no easy way out in Tajikistan -- at least for the foreseeable future. Hall says that after five years of the civil war in the mid-1990s, many Tajiks consider Rahmon a symbol of stability and would be reluctant to take to the streets to challenge his family's activities.
But Hall says the situation might be different in Uzbekistan, where Gulnara Karimova could face hostile political and business elites once her father exits politics:
"Certainly, Gulnara Karimova, I think, may see herself as a possible successor to her father," Hall says. "But the fact that she has made -- at least, as rumor has it -- so many potential enemies among other members of the political and economic elite, I think, would make that very difficult for her."
But Hall and other experts also warn that the extensive -- and virtually unchecked -- power and wealth of the presidential families in this poverty-stricken region could eventually backfire in the form of political and social unrest.
Central Asia's Child Workers Shoulder Heavy Burden
"When I go home, I'm already exhausted," Dona says. "My mom tells me to eat my food, but sometimes I can't eat because I'm too tired and can't manage to stay awake. I fall asleep. My legs hurt. Early in the morning the next day, I go back to the market. When there are no customers, then we play games of tag."
Those few hours -- when Dona and other working children play kids' games -- are the only time of the day when they say they can have fun. They have no vacations, no holidays; for the most part, they get no proper education, and they don't know anything about their rights as minors.
Tens Of Thousands
International labor officials estimate that there are tens of thousands of children throughout Central Asia -- some as young as seven years old -- working to support themselves and their families.
Many of them are employed in unskilled jobs -- pushing carts, washing cars, or selling plastic bags, vegetables, or other goods in markets or on the street. In rural areas, many children work alongside their parents in cotton fields or vegetable farms, helping them tend and harvest crops.
Some Kyrgyz families take their underage children with them for seasonal work on tobacco farms in neighboring Kazakhstan.
Twelve-year-old Ulukbek was sent by his family to make a living in the big city. Ulukbek is from Kyrgyzstan's southern Osh region, but now he sells shoes in a Bishkek market.
"I earn about 50 soms [$1.50] a day," Ulukbek tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. "Sometimes what I earn during the day is barely enough for my own food. I save 25 soms a day and send it to my village in Osh. I have hard times during the hot season and also during winter. Sometimes customers refuse to pay -- they argue, steal, or cheat me. I live in such hardship. I miss Osh."
In Uzbekistan, the authorities close secondary schools in the fall so they can send children to harvest the country's massive cotton crop.
Legislation And Reality
In most of Central Asia, the legal working age is 18. But children are allowed to work at part-time jobs -- with parental consent -- at the age of 16.
Tajik and Turkmen labor laws in some circumstances allow children as young as 14 or 15 years old to work.
The laws clearly state that children may only be given jobs that help "broaden their knowledge" and do not harm their health or development. Children are prohibited from working long hours or night shifts. And employers are not supposed to expose their workforce to "hazardous jobs" or excessive lifting.
Legislation across the region also requires that all children get a formal education. But the reality is different.
It is virtually impossible to get reliable estimates of the number of Central Asia's children who leave school in their early teens for low-paying jobs in which they are frequently overworked.
Governments and nongovernmental groups in the region say they have been trying to tackle the problem in a number of ways.
The Turkmen government recently opened a summer camp in Gekdere, a mountainous resort outside the capital, Ashgabat, where about 1,300 children can spend the holidays. But in a country of more than 4 million, demand for the camp's swimming pool, sports and entertainment centers, and Internet connections is likely to outstrip supply.
In Tajikistan, dozens of Soviet-era leisure camps have been renovated. Labor unions have sought to help, contributing up to 70 percent of the price to help bridge the gap between the cost of those camps and the means of poor families who want to send their children there. Some nongovernmental groups organize special leisure and educational summer centers, where orphans and children from deprived families can stay free of charge.
Similar summer centers operate in Kazakhstan, Kyrgzystan, and Uzbekistan.
Finding A Way Forward
Judita Reichenberg is regional adviser on child protection for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). She emphasizes that summer camps alone cannot solve the problem.
"Schooling, education, making sure that every child has access to quality [and] good education, and that after school there is a possibility also for creativity, for activities that are stimulating for child development, in addition to helping those families that are falling under the poverty line -- a combination of these three minimum aspects might be a way forward in addressing child labor," Reichenberg says.
It might take some time for governments in the region to tackle the problems associated child workers.
In the meantime, thousands of young boys and girls -- with little or no say in the matter -- will spend their childhoods on farms and in markets, trying to help their parents to make the ends meet.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services contributed to this report)
Central Asia: A Search For New Integration Models
Earlier this year, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev once again suggested creating a regional economic bloc modeled after the European Union or South America's Mercasor free-trade agreement. A few weeks later, Kyrgyzstan's former prime minister and opposition leader Feliks Kulov proposed merging his country into a confederation with Russia.
Each plan stems from a specific political agenda; neither appears realistic.
Meeting with journalists at his presidential palace in Astana, Nazarbaev on April 9 said all conditions were met for the five Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to unite.
The long-time Kazakh leader claimed that "God himself orders us to unite" before he enumerated what makes such a project viable. He said those factors include an absence of linguistic barriers, complementary national economies, and an abundance of natural resources.
He wondered aloud "why [Central Asians] can't...build such a union."
Addressing a conference on June 5, Bulat Sultanov, the director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank close to the presidential administration, said Nazarbaev's plan envisaged an "evolutionary" integration model. He said the scheme would involve the successive creation of a free-trade zone, a customs union, and a common economic space.
Nazarbaev first floated his proposal in a national address two years ago. Last year, he appeared to drop the idea, simply advocating greater economic cooperation among regional states.
But changes nearby in Ashgabat -- where a new president appears to be seeking an end to Turkmenistan's isolation -- might have convinced Nazarbaev that the time has come to revive what some regional experts have described as a utopian scheme.
Bishkek On Board?
So far, only Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev has responded favorably -- and rather unambiguously -- to the Kazakh initiative. Bakiev said after talks with Nazarbaev in Bishkek in April 26 that "Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are ready for such a union." He added that "we must therefore consolidate [that union] without waiting until the idea comes to maturity in all [Central Asian] states."
One month later, Bakiev's main political opponent presented his own post-Soviet integration proposal. In televised comments on May 30, ex-Prime Minister Kulov suggested that his country team up with Russia in a confederation -- open to other CIS states -- "that would respect the statehood and national sovereignty" of all its members.
Kulov vowed to initiate a campaign to collect 300,000 signatures to force Bakiev's administration to agree by June 20 to hold a national referendum on Kulov's confederation project. Kulov threatened to demand the dissolution of parliament and early presidential polls if Bakiev refused.
Kulov has offered many justifications for his proposal, including that thousands of Kyrgyz migrants have left to seek jobs in Russia and have therefore "voted with their feet in favor of a union."
Pro-government and opposition politicians alike have met his confederation bid with skepticism. Critics have accused Kulov of allowing his personal resentment toward Bakiev -- who recently ordered a police crackdown on government opponents -- to overshadow his concern for Kyrgyzstan's national interests.
Mum In Moscow
Russia, whose efforts to form a viable union with neighboring Belarus have met with little success, has not reacted to Kulov's proposal.
The only official to have publicly responded is Ivan Makushok, a Russian nationalist and an aide to Russia-Belarus Union State Secretary Pavel Borodin. Makushok told Russia's "Kommersant" on June 1 that Kyrgyzstan is welcome to join the existing union state.
Whether entering into a confederation with a distant, impoverished country plagued with chronic political instability would serve Moscow's interests is a question. Some Russian commentators believe Kulov intends to secure Kremlin support in anticipation of renewed confrontation with Bakiev.
Russia is the driving force behind the CIS and a number of sub-groupings that bring together Central Asian and other states.
Those blocs include the Eurasian Economic Community -- which succeeded the Central Asian Cooperation Organization in 2004 --, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Regional observers believe Moscow is unlikely to support any plan to foster new regional alliances without its participation. They argue that any attempt at integrating Central Asian economies outside existing groupings would be perceived by the Kremlin as a bid to challenge its influence in the region.
The real obstacle to Kazakhstan's regional ambitions, however, comes from within Central Asia itself.
Not all Central Asian capitals are ready to subscribe to what they believe would be an attempt at consolidating Kazakhstan's economic predominance in the region.
Kazakhstan is the leading foreign investor in Kyrgyzstan. It has invested more than $100 million into the Tajik economy, and is now considering developing industrial projects in Turkmenistan's energy sector. Kazakhstan also has stakes in dozens of Uzbek-based joint ventures.
Relations between oil-rich Kazakhstan and the region's other big energy producer, Turkmenistan, a have significantly improved since the death in December of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. Both countries agreed earlier this year to coordinate their energy policies, and they have teamed up with Russia to build a gas-export pipeline along the Caspian Sea's eastern shore. Nazarbaev and Niyazov's successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, signed an agreement in May to boost bilateral trade, economic, cultural, and scientific ties until 2020.
Russia's "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" and "Kommersant" newspapers both speculated on May 30 that the new Turkmen leader might soon lend support to his Kazakh counterpart's Central Asian union plans. But for that to happen, Berdymukhammedov would have to abandon Turkmenistan's official policy of nonalignment and check his own regional ambitions.
Tashkent And Dushanbe
The situation is more clear regarding Central Asia's two other republics: Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
While Kazakhstan possesses the largest territory and the strongest economy in Central Asia, Uzbekistan is home to its biggest population. It also has an industrial potential that might easily translate into ambition for a leading role in the region.
Both countries have long been vying for primacy in Central Asia, and Uzbekistan's relations with Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have been traditionally tense.
In a May 25 piece in an Uzbek government-controlled electronic newspaper, "Uzbekistan Today," the director of the Tashkent-based Regional Policy Foundation, Saifiddin Zhuraev, ridiculed Nazarbaev's past and present union initiatives. Zhuraev called them ill prepared and built on sand. He also suggested that such grand integration projects are aimed at "stating loudly once again that their authors are regional 'leaders'" and at fulfilling other public-relations goals.
Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zaripov pledged in May that Dushanbe would "carefully" study the Kazakh proposal, ferghana.ru reported on May 10.
But it seems doubtful that Tajikistan -- Central Asia's only Persian-speaking country -- would agree to enter a union dominated by Turkic countries.
In a national address on April 30, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon made it clear that he was satisfied with the current level of regional integration -- achieved through the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
President Rahmon also said he intends to continue his "open-doors foreign policy" and further develop bilateral ties with Iran, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, China, and the United States.
Given the chaotic relations that have been developing among Central Asian states since 1991 and the lack of political will among some of the region's leaders, it might be some time before Nazarbaev's scheme could begin to take shape.