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Central Asia Report: August 16, 2007

Summit Shows Growing Interest In Shanghai Cooperation Organization

By Bruce Pannier
August 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The presidents of the six members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan will meet outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, on August 16 for their annual summit.

The SCO member presidents will be joined by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (his second summit) and Mongolian President Nambaryn Enkhbayar as well as Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri and Indian Oil and Gas Minister Murli Deora, all representing countries that have "observer" status in the SCO.

High-Level Attendees

In addition, Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- a regular at SCO summits since 2004 -- and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov as well as UN Undersecretary-General Lynn Pascoe will be at the summit.

"I think the key thing to remember with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a whole is that this is one region where close cooperation is not really building deeper trust between the countries involved."

The list of dignitaries testifies to the SCO's growing influence in Asian affairs. SCO summits have already drawn international attention, such as the 2005 summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, when SCO leaders called for the United States to set a timetable for the departure of its troops stationed in Central Asia.

U.S. troops were using a base in southern Uzbekistan for operations in Afghanistan in 2005, but relations between the United States and Uzbekistan plummeted after Uzbek troops violently suppressed demonstrators in the Uzbek city of Andijon just weeks before the summit. Backed by the SCO's call for a U.S. timetable to leave Central Asia, the Uzbek government told Washington to remove its troops, which it did a few months later.

This year's summit also promises to bring some big announcements. Stephen Blank, a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute who has written extensively on the SCO, gave RFE/RL an idea of what could be on the agenda for the Bishkek SCO summit.

Possible Agenda

"I think that they're going to try to expand the membership and write a new charter for the organization," Blank said. "I think that they're going to want to bring Turkmenistan into the operation if it wants to join. Second, I think they are going to write a new charter that will probably be even more anti-American than before. I'm not sure that India, Iran, Pakistan, or Mongolia will become members. If you take India, they are going to have to [accept] Pakistan, that would have to be a compromise. Iran is another question altogether, and I'm not sure that Iran is going to be admitted as a member, although Iran certainly wants it. But I would concentrate on three things: One is the membership; one is the new charter; and I'd also expect the Russians to push the idea of an energy organization, the gas cartel, which [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has been pushing throughout the year. I think that he's going to make a major effort to push that further at the Bishkek summit as well."

The invitation for Turkmenistan to participate in the SCO -- and Berdymukhammedov's acceptance -- is already one of the big stories of the Bishkek summit. Berdymukhammedov only became Turkmen president in February, two months after the eccentric Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov died.

A New Policy For Turkmenistan?

Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan practiced a foreign policy of "positive neutrality" that prohibited it from joining any organization with a military or even counterterrorism facet to it. Turkmenistan is the only one of the 12 Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to have only "associate" status in the CIS.

But Blank and others have noted that under Berdymukhammedov Turkmenistan has a more "robust" foreign policy that has already led to new gas deals with Russia and Kazakhstan and brought about a rapprochement with Caspian rival Azerbaijan.

If Putin is indeed going to seek a gas cartel similar to OPEC during the SCO summit, then it makes sense to include Turkmenistan, home to some of the largest deposits of natural gas in the world. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Uzbek President Islam Karimov, whose countries have significant gas reserves, will be attending the summit.

The Kremlin said today that the creation of an "energy club" among SCO members would be on the agenda.

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Almazbek Atambaev (left) meeting with Chinese President Hu Jinato in Bishkek today

Fitting into that issue nicely was a request by Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev to Chinese President Hu Jintao to consider using Kyrgyzstan as a transit route for natural gas exports to China.

"[The Chinese] are saying that they want to transit the Turkmenistan gas," Atambaev said. "We have asked them to transit the pipeline through our [country] because then we would not be looking at just one gas supplier. Then, both Uzbek and Turkmen gas would be available to us from both sides."

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon may be making the same proposal for his country to Hu at the Bishkek summit.

Seeking SCO Membership

Admitting Turkmenistan to the SCO could be more difficult. Mongolia, Pakistan, and India have been requesting full membership for years and Iran was not far behind in asking for membership. Those four are "observer" countries and, prior to the Bishkek summit, officials in Russia and China -- the SCO's prime movers -- have repeatedly said there will be no new members admitted in Bishkek on August 16.

Most recently, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov told the Russian daily "Vremya Novostei" in an interview today that relations between current members still need to be strengthened. But in the same interview, Denisov said that "in principle" Turkmenistan could ask to join the SCO and that the SCO has "an objective interest in Turkmenistan as a state in the region."

The most likely route for Turkmenistan would be receiving observer status as Uzbekistan did in 2000 before becoming a full member the following year.

Reports from Iran indicate that Ahmadinejad is going to Bishkek to convince the SCO to admit his country as a full member.

The Problem With Admitting Iran

Blank noted Iran's desire to join the SCO but he also said the SCO's mutual-defense treaties are a main reason why Iran's membership in the SCO is not likely to happen anytime soon.

"Iran would probably use this as an attempt to invoke the treaty charter for self-defense if an American or some other attack came against it and the Russians have already made it clear that they would be neutral; they would not intervene in an American military attack on Iran, although they oppose it strongly," he said. "So taking Iran into the organization creates some difficulties on a very significant level."

Afghan President Karzai's personal attendance seems likely to be rewarded with a call to hold an international conference on Afghanistan under the aegis of the SCO.

The summit is also expected to result in a joint statement pledging continued friendship among SCO countries. On August 17, the six SCO leaders are due to fly to Russia's Chelyabinsk region to watch the closing stage of the SCO's "Peace Mission-2007" counterterrorism exercises, which have been under way since August 9.

SCO countries cooperate in many spheres, including cultural, communications, economics and banking, judicial, security, and others. But it is the SCO's growing cooperation in the military sphere that has made some apprehensive.

Is the SCO the "rising beast in the East" -- an Asian counter to NATO? Some analysts question how solid the ties are that bind the SCO members and others question whether the organization is useful to all of its members.

'Fundamental Distrust'

Duncan Innes-Ker is an analyst on China at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit. He told RFE/RL there are suspicions among SCO members.

"I think the key thing to remember with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a whole is that this is one region where close cooperation is not really building deeper trust between the countries involved," he said. "There is still, at the root, a fundamental mistrust among the members of the cooperation group and that mistrust about the intentions of Russia -- of China particularly -- amongst the smaller members of the group is really the key flaw in this organization."

China has occupied a place in Central Asia's history for thousands of years and it has not always been a place Central Asian historians have recorded fondly.

Russia is a relatively more recent arrival in Central Asia but is the country that has exercised the greatest influence over the region for the last two centuries. The Central Asian states are in alliances with Russia, the CIS for example. But other groupings within the CIS are perhaps the greatest rival to the SCO when it comes to the loyalty of the Central Asian states that are also SCO members.

Dosym Satpaev is the director of the Almaty-based Risks Assessment Group and he explained to RFE/RL that the SCO is something of a redundancy for Central Asia.

"The SCO now is coming unwound, because in the military sphere the SCO has competition from the CSTO (the CIS's Collective Security Treaty Organization) and -- in the economic sphere -- also the SCO has competition from the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC)," he said. "Therefore the SCO needs to propose something new and interesting to interest the countries of Central Asia."

Shanghai's Competition

The four Central Asian countries that are SCO members are also members of the CSTO, along with Russia, Armenia, and Belarus, and the four are also members of the EEC along with Russia and Belarus.

It is unclear, for example, if a large terrorist attack took place in Central Asia, would the CSTO or the SCO have jurisdiction in aiding the affected country? If the SCO does agree to emphasize controls over producing and exporting energy resources, like natural gas, how does that affect Belarus, a country in the EEC that is not a SCO member?

There is another concern specific to Kyrgyzstan and President Kurmanbek Bakiev, whose country has always been viewed as the most democratic in the region.

Bakyt Beshimov is currently a professor and the vice president of the American University in Central Asia, located in Bishkek and formerly Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to India. Beshimov told RFE/RL that Bakiev needs to make clear that Kyrgyzstan's domestic reforms cannot be influenced by other SCO members.

"At present, among the members of the Shanghai Forum only Kyrgyzstan is regarded as an open state with a path of democratic development," Beshimov said. "That is why Kyrgyzstan's political leadership has to openly and precisely state Kyrgyzstan's achievements and its fundamental path towards democracy during such summits."

The SCO is likely to continue to grow, in terms of membership and in terms of influence in Asia and the wider world. But it also seems likely that serious cracks in the organization will become more visible at the same time.

Central Asia: Banned Islamic Group Hizb ut-Tahrir Continues To Gain Members

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Hizb ut-Tahrir literature in Kyrgyzstan in 2006

August 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Authorities in Central Asia say membership in the banned Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir (the Liberation Party) has been on the rise in recent years despite it being illegal and many of its members prosecuted and jailed.

Analysts say the main reason is that the group serves as a way for people to express dissent in countries whose governments don't tolerate opposition. Also, the group's tactics -- or means of propaganda -- seem to play a significant role in its popularity.

Persecuted And Prosecuted

Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) is a highly secretive organization with a well-organized structure and strict hierarchy.

"They have attracted many members of parliament, well-known businessmen and government officials and thus [they have] gained financial, moral, and other support for their activity."

In Central Asia, where hundreds of the group's members have been harshly prosecuted in recent years, HT members are generally cautious to speak to outsiders. But in some areas of Kyrgyzstan where HT's popularity is fairly high group, members are becoming bolder in expressing their opinions publicly.

The creation of an Islamic state -- or caliphate -- is the group's proclaimed goal. It officially denounces violence and says the goal should be achieved through peaceful means.

Hizb ut-Tahrir was first created by Palestinians in the early 1950s and the philosophy of the group does not seem to have significantly evolved even as its influence has spread into regions like Central Asia.

Though the HT in Central Asia seeks the overthrow of the region's secular regimes in order to establish a caliphate, HT members are usually unable to articulate any program for governing the people who are outside of the imposition of Shari'a.

No Real Plan To Govern?

For example, HT members cannot explain what their agricultural or health-care policies would be if the group came to power. The group generally shows intolerance toward other religions and indeed other sects of Islam, which would be a great problem for them in Central Asia today as there is a significant Christian population and some Shi'ites (notably in eastern Tajikistan).

Official statistics in Kyrgyzstan (the government's Institute for Strategic Studies, published at put HT membership as high as 10,000 in that country alone.

The group's activists claim they have tens of thousands of members and many sympathizers in Central Asia.

Studies have shown that HT works as a network organized into cells. Each cell is called a "halqa" and comprises between four and seven people. Only the halqa supervisor knows the next level of leadership, but he does not know the whole hierarchy. Such a structured organization prevents the domino effect of prosecution or imprisonment in case of a member being detained and interrogated.

Observers also say HT members take an oath when they join the party. It is not clear whether there is a formal procedure for leaving the party. Former members, if there are any, have apparently not sought publicity.

Lectures And Seminars Spread Ideas

Maksat Sabirov ( name has been changed to protect his identity), 33, is a Hizb ut-Tahrir member. Speaking to RFE/RL from the southern Kyrgyz town of Karasuu, he admits he also took oath when he joined the group 10 years ago.

Sabirov says he would comment on political issues or explain HT's goals and political positions (including HT's view of the upcoming Bishkek summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization). But he is reluctant to talk about the group's means of propaganda.

However, Sabirov admits that lectures and seminars -- or "lessons" as he calls them -- are the group's most used means of attracting new members.

"Hizb disseminates ideas. It organizes lessons for interested people and teaches them in cells, halqa," he said. "Those satisfied with the ideas join it. That's all."

Sabirov adds that group gatherings are held in accordance with Shari'a, or Islamic law, which requires that men and women be segregated.

HT also disseminates its ideas through leaflets, books, and magazines. Advanced technology, often with computers and with printers, has made printing easier and cheaper than it previously was.

Critical Of The West

HT distributes a newspaper called "Ong -- Al-Waie" (Awareness) in the Uzbek language. Each member has to buy every issue. For potential members and interested parties, the newspaper is distributed for free, Sabirov says.

HT sends "Ong -- Al-Waie" to media organizations and embassies. The newspaper's coverage is not limited to issues of faith and Islam. It also addresses a wide range of political issues and is usually highly critical of the West, especially the United States. It also puts harsh criticism on local governments and their leaders, and calls Uzbek President Islam Karimov a Jew (HT also calls Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf a Jew).

That these methods are effective is clear since HT members give standard answers to basic questions -- seemingly memorized from the same texts -- and share a pessimistic view of the future under secular governments. Central Asian government officials have called such uniform indoctrination to be brainwashing.

In recent years, the group has resorted to the Internet as its penetration slowly and steadily grows in Central Asia.

Different Means Of Promotion

In rural areas, where there is virtually no access to the Internet, HT uses different tactics.

"Hizb ut-Tahrir has existed [since 1953]," Sabirov said. "It uses the Internet wherever there is access to it. If there is no Internet, we distribute leaflets, for example. You know, there are gatherings in villages, when people get together and eat rice pilaf, for example. We distribute ideas there. The means of distribution are not important. Ideas are important. For different places, we have different ways to disseminate them."

Lately, audio and video equipment have been added to HT's arsenal. Shavkat Kochkorov of the Kyrgyz National Security Service addressed journalists in the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad earlier this month.

"They have means of transportation [and] the best video and audio equipment," Kochkorov said. "They come to places where Muslims -- elders and imams -- gather and propagate their ideology among the people. They openly say: 'There's little time left until we will have a caliphate, and then in the caliphate you all live very well, your life will improve and you will have freedoms.'"

Sabirov says that HT distributes audio and DVDs in the cities as well as in villages.

Nowadays, a simple DVD player is affordable for many Kyrgyz or Uzbek families at the price of $30-$50.

Gaining Prominent Supporters

Sabirov says that HT collects membership fees like any other political party. Each party member is expected to pay 10 percent of their income to the party.

Toigonbek Kalmatov, who heads the Kyrgyz governmental agency on religious affairs, said last week that many prominent people are HT members.

"They have attracted many members of parliament, well-known businessmen and government officials and thus [they have] gained financial, moral, and other support for their activity," he said.

Analysts say ethnic Uzbeks from the Ferghana Valley make up the group's core membership.

However, one-fifth of HT's members are representatives of nonindigenous ethnic groups such as Russians, Tatars, Chechens, Meskhetian Turks, Kurds, and others.

In recent years, mostly women, youths, and former convicts have been behind HT's membership growth, with those aged 18-35 being the generation mainly joining HT.

Most Central Asian officials insist that HT is a militant group and must be eliminated. Kalmatov said that weapons were found in recent raids of HT places in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Violent Or Peaceful

"They have changed their tactics," Kalmatov said. "They aim to change the constitutional system with force; not through peaceful means, but by taking up arms. Weapons and ammunition, bullets and grenade launchers were found [in HT members' houses]. They are using all kinds of methods in order to achieve political power."

HT has denied accusations that it seeks a violent overthrown of the current political systems in Central Asia.

Sabirov says his party is able to achieve its goal through peaceful means and added that there is no need to take up arms.

For him, the secret of HT's success is obvious: "We speak with people in their language," Sabirov says.

"A representative of Uzbekistan's Fidokorlar once said: 'Hizb ut-Tahrir's members [go to the cotton field] on a bike and pick cotton with farmers, sit at computer desks with an IT specialist, play computer games together, and meanwhile disseminate their ideas. But our Fidokorlar members go to meetings with cotton-growers in Mercedes Benzs wearing white suits. [HT members] are inside the society and [Fidokorlar members] are outside [of society],'" he said. "Yes, I recall him saying so once. And it is absolutely true."

(RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Elmurod Jusupaliev contributed to this report from Bishkek.)

Kyrgyzstan: Politicians Underline Pro-Russian Stances Ahead Of SCO Summit

By Venera Djumataeva

A billboard in Bishkek showing the presidents of the six members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (file photo)

August 10, 2007 (RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service) -- Bishkek will host the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit beginning on August 16, and the main street of the Kyrgyz capital is already decorated with a huge portrait of the presidents of the SCO member countries -- Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

The billboard replaced a cheery portrait of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which served as a symbol of Bishkek's pro-Russian foreign policy.

Two leading Russian-language newspapers in Kyrgyzstan -- "Vecherniy Bishkek" and "Delo No." -- recently published similar articles suggesting that the United States might have organized a June espionage scandal in Bishkek, in which parliament employee Jypargul Arykova was arrested after being accused of spying for China. The articles claimed that Washington might have an interest in damaging relations among SCO members ahead of the summit.

"...To have [such relations with Moscow] while damaging or creating a difficult situation [with other countries] is the wrong thing, it's a folly."

Indeed, the espionage accusations against Beijing clearly will not have improved Kyrgyz-Chinese relations, but many wonder why these largely pro-Bakiev newspapers are looking for the organizers of this scandal in Washington.

Kyrgyz presidential spokesman Nurlan Shakiev said he had not seen the Russian-language articles.

"The National Security Service is working on the case, [and] they can answer your question," Shakiev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service when asked about the reports. "Since I haven't read those articles, I guess it's not good if I comment on them."

Rumors Abound

Oleg Panfilov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES), says it's strange to look for an outside provocateur in the espionage case because the suspected spy was arrested by the Kyrgyz state security service, and it must have serious legal reasons for making such an arrest and connecting it to China.

Panfilov suggests that if official Bishkek is not aware of the accusations in the Kyrgyz newspapers then maybe the idea to blame Washington for the scandal comes from Moscow.

"Actually, such an impression [about a Moscow link to the accusation of U.S. involvement] exists," Panfilov says. "I don't know about these [two] newspapers, but we know that in Central Asia the so-called Russian Foundation of the Institute for Democracy has contracts with several Tajik newspapers [publishing in Russian] and I know there are such cases [of such connections] in Kyrgyzstan, also. And really, when they publish their articles you can read in most of them the same propagandistic ideas that you usually see in the newspapers in Russia."

But the "anti-U.S." articles contradict very little with Bishkek's general foreign policy.

Kyrgyz Path

Kyrgyz President Bakiev had been trying hard to show President Putin and the other leaders in Central Asia that he didn't come to power during the Tulip Revolution in a movement backed by the West, as some claim.

A desire to distance himself from such a link to the West may also be why he has often publicly raised the question of increasing the rent payments for the U.S. air base at Manas, outside of Bishkek.

Edil Baisalov, a prominent Kyrgyz politician and political analyst, says Bakiev has been actively trying to show that he is not to be grouped with the leaders of other "color revolutions."

"Bakiev and his administration have been trying hard to prove that it wasn't a revolution prepared by the United States," Baisalov says. "That's why in 2005-06, and even now, he says 'I'm not [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili, and I'm not [Ukrainian President Viktor] Yushchenko.' He is trying very hard, we all see it."

Though the issue of U.S. rent payments for Manas Air Base was a big issue, the matter of Moscow paying for the use of its air base at Kant was not an issue.

Kyrgyz parliament speaker Marat Sultanov said at a press conference in Bishkek after visiting Moscow in May that Kant is not a Russian base at all, but "ours [Kyrgyz]," so the question of asking for rent does not exist. He added: "our friends in Moscow say we should decide about the U.S. air base by ourselves."

The future of U.S. troops at Manas is not on the official agenda of the SCO summit in Bishkek. But that doesn't mean it won't be an issue.

At its summit in July 2005, SCO leaders called on the United States to set a timetable for its withdrawal from military bases in Central Asia, as the issue of U.S. troops in the region was discussed in terms of a regional security problem.

On the ground in Bishkek, it was noted that Kyrgyz police broke up a small demonstration at the U.S. Embassy on July 30 in support of keeping U.S. forces at Manas. The picket was organized by the Kyrgyz nongovernmental organization Democracy, and one of its activists, Alisher Islam, was detained by police for three days.

Meanwhile, well-organized protests against the American presence at Manas -- with some demonstrators being brought in on buses -- have been held several times in recent months and were not disturbed by the police.

Cozy With Moscow

Yet the strongest pro-Russian statement came from former Prime Minister and current opposition leader Feliks Kulov, who returned from a Moscow visit this spring calling for Kyrgyzstan to join a confederation with Russia. His opposition movement is now collecting signatures so that a referendum can be held on the issue.

It is not clear how much support exists for such a confederation. There are, however, hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz working in Russia and, as the Kyrgyz State Migration Committee reported recently, some 50,000 of them received Russian citizenship in the past year.

But many of those interviewed by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service say they would actively work against any attempt to cede Kyrgyzstan's independence to a confederation. Several of them -- like Bishkek-based political analyst Bakyt Beshimov -- are not happy with Kyrgyzstan's current foreign policy and its strong orientation towards Russia.

"It would be right to say that nowadays the foreign policy of the Kyrgyz government is very obscure," Beshimov says. "Because they are mainly quietly following whatever Russia says, that is their policy. On the one hand, Russia is a strategic country for us; we should have good, proper, and fruitful relations with Russia. But on the other hand, to have [such relations with Moscow] while damaging or creating a difficult situation [with other countries] is the wrong thing, it's a folly."

(RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Zeinep Altymyshova contributed to this report from Bishkek.)

Turkmen President's Pardons Include Former Chief Mufti

Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov in February

August 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov pardoned 11 prisoners on August 9 -- including a prominent cleric -- and said several such pardons will take place every year.

President Berdymukhammedov announced the pardons at a cabinet meeting.

"You have listed 11 people in your request," he told cabinet members. "I have some suggestions on this issue. As you know, we used to pardon convicts on the eve of [the Night of Forgiveness]. We pardoned at least 8,000 people, or 11,000-12,000 people at most. What do you think if we issue similar amnesties several times a year from now, on the eve of holidays?"

"This is a very positive development and many innocent people are imprisoned in Turkmenistan on purely political grounds, and we hope that the commission will not stop with this initiative."

Cleric Released

The most prominent of those released is cleric Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, who served as the chief mufti of Turkmenistan from 1996-2003. Ibadullah -- like the other releasees who spoke on Turkmen state television after their release -- had ample praise for Berdymukhammedov.

"In the remaining part of my life I will work and serve [as much as I can] our people, our country, our homeland, and our President [Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov]," he said.

Ibadullah is an ethnic Uzbek from Turkmenistan's Dashoghuz region, which borders Uzbekistan. He is thought to have been imprisoned for dissent, as he is reported to have objected to former President Saparmurat Niyazov's insistence on using passages from his book "Rukhnama" in mosques. He also angered Niyazov for his opposition to death sentences for people tried secretly for purported involvement in the alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov in 2002.

Accused Of Treason

Ibadullah, who is 60 years old, was sentenced to 22 years in jail in 2004 on treason charges, allegedly for involvement in the assassination attempt. Ibadullah expressed thanks to the new president for his release.

"People have lost their way and committed big sins and then repented -- I applaud the president who gave the chance for [the prisoners] to repent and to be accepted -- [I am] thankful to the president who accepted our repentance," he said.

Felix Corley is an editor for the Forum 18 news service, a Norway-based group that closely follows issues of religious freedom. Corley spoke to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service today about the prisoner release.

"This is very good news but it should not be forgotten that the [Turkmen] government for a long time refused to make public the charges against [Nasrullah Ibn Ibadullah], would not tell anyone the circumstances of why he was imprisoned in the first place, and many people believe he should never have been imprisoned, and this is impossible for outsiders to tell because the government refuses to make [the charges] public," he said.

Praising Human Rights Record?

Corley added that despite the good news of the release, he still questioned the reasons for their imprisonment. Corley views Ibadullah and some individuals' imprisonment as religious persecution.

"Even if people are then amnestied once they are imprisoned, it does not remove the problem that these sorts of people should never be imprisoned or charged in the first place," he said. "People should, in Turkmenistan, be free to practice their faith freely, meet freely for worship, build places of worship, publish religious literature."

Another prisoner, former Justice Minister Yusup Haitiv, was particularly effusive in his praise of the president. He also expressed appreciation for what he called the country's "protection of human rights," despite Turkmenistan being heavily criticized for its poor human-rights record by international rights groups.

"I am Yusup Haitiv," he began. "Today I was pardoned and freed by the decree of the esteemed president. He created special groups that monitor law enforcement agencies that are to protect human rights. We are thankful for the work of these groups, and we thank our president."

Many Still Imprisoned

Nine other prisoners were released. All had been sentenced between 2003 and 2004 -- most reportedly on charges related to the alleged assassination attempt. There was one woman among the prisoners, Olga Prokofeva.

Aaron Rhodes is the executive director of International Helsinki Federation (IHF) for Human Rights. He warned against assigning too much importance to the pardons.

"The IHF thinks that this is a very positive development, and many innocent people are imprisoned in Turkmenistan on purely political grounds, and we hope that the commission will not stop with this initiative and will also recommend that those who are imprisoned for nothing but political grounds can also be recommended for release," he said.

The prisoners who were released were being held in at least two separate prisons -- in the Caspian Sea town of Turkmenbashy and in the Ovadan Depe prison in Karakum.

(RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Oguljamal Yazliyeva and correspondents Muhammad Tahir and Guvanch Guraev contributed to this report.)

U.S. Security Expert Talks About SCO Exercises, Summit

By Bruce Pannier

Stephen J. Blank

August 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Stephen Blank is a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute who has written extensively on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). RFE/RL spoke with Blank about the SCO military exercises currently under way in China and Russia and the upcoming SCO summit in Bishkek.

Stressing that his comments did not necessarily reflect the opinions of the U.S. Army War College or the U.S. Department of Defense, Blank questioned the stated goals of the SCO's Peace Mission 2007 counterterrorism exercises, and he provided some insight into what could happen when the region's leaders gather in Kyrgyzstan on August 16.

RFE/RL: Representatives from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have repeatedly said the organization's military cooperation is not aimed at any third country or party, yet the military exercises seem to be growing in size. Wouldn't this trend naturally be a cause of concern for the U.S. or NATO?

Stephen Blank: Certainly it would be. But although the SCO's representatives always say that it's not aimed at a third country or party, if you look at their communiques going back to 2001 -- and even before that to the Sino-Russian communiques and the formation of the six-party border agreements -- their communiques have always been full of coded anti-American foreign policy statements. So for Russia and China, it's aimed at American interests. And the size of these exercises is growing, and many experts do not believe that they are confined only to so-called antiterrorist activities, or even just to Central Asia. The August 2005 Sino-Russian exercises, which were conducted under the auspices of the SCO, were so large and [they] so thoroughly combined arms and major-theater conventional warfare in their approach, that people believed these were aimed as much at Taiwan and Korea as they were at any potential Central Asian contingency.

RFE/RL: Though the military exercises are always drills in counterterrorism, to date (eds: so far) not one of the countries in the SCO has ever requested help by invoking mutual assistance agreements. Are there any grounds for believing any of the SCO countries would ever make such a request, and if so, what sort of circumstances could you foresee that would lead to such a move?

Blank: At least hypothetically, there are grounds for thinking that something like that could happen; I think it would happen if you had an uprising against the government. And I think what galvanizes this on the part of China and Russia is that they were not able to do anything on behalf of Kyrgyzstan in 2005 (March 2005, when President Askar Akaev was ousted) and they've resolved never to be caught short again. And in Russia's case, they've established air bases; and a contingency whereby they gain access to the air base at Navoi [in central Uzbekistan] would appear to be an insurgency against the [Islam] Karimov government. So hypothetically one may think that the possibility of a state calling for help would be either if there's a massive popular insurgency -- which could happen in a succession crisis, I suppose -- or if a government loses control of a situation. Or if there was a major terrorist attack, which I think is quite an implausible scenario anytime soon. What's more, the size of these operations clearly suggests that they are intended for something beyond Central Asia.

RFE/RL: Chinese media are reporting the Chinese forces involved in the Peace Mission 2007 exercises represent the largest deployment of Chinese forces abroad for a peacetime military exercises. What does China gain from such involvement?

Blank: First of all, [the Chinese] get the experience of maneuvers and exercises, which is invaluable for a military. Second, they get to see Russian weapons in action and to test their own weapons and their own command structures. So you get all these operational benefits. And when you talk about large forces, you get to see how well you can handle large forces and combined forces in an operation of major size. Third, they continue to demonstrate their power and influence in Central Asia and to promote the SCO as a viable security organization.

RFE/RL: Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan [but not Uzbekistan] are reportedly sending units to participate in the Peace Mission 2007 exercises. What do the Central Asian countries get from this participation?

Blank: To the extent that they participate, they get the same benefits that the Chinese do -- they get to see the quality and capability of their military forces and learn about new trends in operational command and control of forces and the tactical benefits of doing these kind of operations. As far as the political benefits, it reinforces the certainty that if the scenario they're discussing -- which is if a terrorist takeover of a country -- takes place, that they will not be left in a lurch -- although, as I said, there's not much likelihood of a takeover.

RFE/RL: What does Russia get?

Blank: [Russians] are constantly obsessed with proving that they're a big power. As one of my colleagues said, it's a "phantom empire syndrome" [in which] they have to constantly tell themselves that they're a great power and that they're taken seriously and that they're a real power and demonstrate this to everybody. So that's important to them. They get all the operational benefits that everybody else does. And third, it's an attempt to convince everyone that they are the main player north of the border (north of Central Asia).

RFE/RL: What about the size of the military exercises? There will be some 6,500 troops and 80 aircraft involved. Isn't that a bit much for a counterterrorism exercise?

Blank: I think the size of these [exercises] indicates that these are not -- strictly speaking -- antiterrorist operations, although they're billed as such. They are clearly, in the Russian and perhaps in the Chinese mind as well, operations that they think they may have to carry out against larger forces than just terrorists. And I think that -- like in 2005 (joint exercises), where they were looking at a Taiwanese scenario and perhaps a Korean scenario, either a state collapse in North Korea or even a U.S. invasion, which they were afraid of -- I think that they're thinking about the possibility of a contingency in Asia where they might have to contend with the threat of an American intervention.

RFE/RL: So the numbers of troops and equipment seem excessive for a counterterrorism exercise?

Blank: That's ridiculous; that's not a counterterrorist operation, that's a full-scale theater operation. And this is an exercise. So if we were dealing with a real contingency, you can imagine how many forces they would have -- multiple of those numbers.

Bishkek Summit

RFE/RL: What do you think will be the biggest accomplishment or agreement to come out of the SCO summit in Bishkek next week?

Blank: I think that they're going to try to expand the membership and write a new charter for the organization. I think that they're going to want to bring Turkmenistan into the operation if it wants to join. Second, I think they are going to write a new charter that will probably be even more anti-American than before. I'm not sure that India, Iran, Pakistan, or Mongolia will become members. If you take India, they are going to have to [accept] Pakistan, that would have to be a compromise. Iran is another question altogether, and I'm not sure that Iran is going to be admitted as a member, although Iran certainly wants it. But I would concentrate on three things: One is the membership; one is the new charter; and I'd also expect the Russians to push the idea of an energy organization, the gas cartel, which [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has been pushing throughout the year. I think that he's going to make a major effort to push that further at the Bishkek summit as well.

RFE/RL: But won't there be 'hurt feelings' from India, Iran, Pakistan, and Mongolia because they have been trying to get into the SCO for years and Turkmenistan suddenly is invited to the summit and admitted so quickly?

Blank: I think that there might be hurt feelings, but politically it's very difficult. There has to be a trade-off. India and Pakistan coming in means that Russia has to agree to Pakistan and China [has to agree] to India. Maybe they will, but it's still a tough compromise that has to be worked out. Mongolia, I think, presents fewer problems and might be brought in. Iran is altogether a different issue, because the Iranians want to get in there because the centerpiece of Iranian foreign policy has been an attempt to enlist Russia and China on their side -- and to a considerable degree they have succeeded. But now the Russians have shown this year that they are increasingly suspicious of Iranian ambitions and aims. And last year, [Russian Defense Minister and First Deputy Prime Minister] Sergei Ivanov talked about the question of Iranian membership in very disparaging terms. Iran would probably use this as an attempt to invoke the treaty charter for self-defense if an American or some other attack came against it, and the Russians already made it clear that they would be neutral -- they would not intervene in an American military attack on Iran, although they oppose it strongly. So taking Iran into the organization creates some difficulties on a very significant level.

RFE/RL: Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is attending the summit. What role if any could Turkmenistan play in the SCO? Do you see any possibility that Turkmenistan would someday be admitted as a member, and, if so, what would that mean for the countries that have been trying to receive full membership (India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan)? What would Turkmenistan's membership mean for the Turkmen government's official policy of "positive neutrality"?

Blank: The new government led by Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is much more vigorous in its foreign policy activities. It's conducting a much more robust foreign policy, and it's already been announced that [Berdymukhammedov] will be attending and that he was invited to the meeting. I don't think he would be invited unless something was going to come down, so I do think that there's going to be some movement on Turkmenistan at this session.

RFE/RL: The summit is in Bishkek, and there are both a U.S. and Russian (technically CSTO) military base in Kyrgyzstan. Do you think some attention will be devoted to the U.S. presence in Kyrgyzstan, perhaps a repeat of calls from the 2005 summit that preceded the U.S. withdrawal from the base in Uzbekistan?

Blank: I don't expect there to be a public attack on the base, because the compromise that appears to have been reached is that the Kyrgyz would not threaten the status of the (Manas) base as long as the situation in Afghanistan is unstable; and in 2005 the Russians were saying, "There's no problem in Afghanistan; it's all over but the cheering." But [now] that's certainly not the case. The Russian and the Chinese have been bringing enormous pressure on the Kyrgyz to push the U.S. out of there, but the Kyrgyz will keep the base there I think as long as the Afghan situation is unstable. Privately, I suspect there will be some tough discussions about that, but I don't expect this to be reflected in the public documents at the conference. I do expect the Russians and Chinese to keep pushing to get the United States out of Central Asia, which of course raises the question of just how committed Russia is to supporting the U.S. in the war on terrorism.

Uzbekistan: U.S. Business Ventures Provide Valuable Lessons

By Alisher Sidikov
August 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Business has traditionally been a weak aspect of the Uzbek relationship with the United States, an association that has failed to flourish in the absence of significant economic and political reforms in Uzbekistan -- reforms that are nearly unthinkable under the authoritarian administration of President Islam Karimov. Those relations have recently worsened.

There were notable aspects of U.S. engagement with Uzbekistan from September 2001 until 2004, when Karimov allowed U.S. forces to use the Karshi-Khanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan as a hub for U.S.-led coalition missions in neighboring Afghanistan. In a span of two years, Uzbekistan saw visits from then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (three, in fact), Secretary of State Colin Powell, and nearly 80 U.S. Congressmen.

U.S. concern over widespread poverty and human rights abuses in Uzbekistan was in evidence in May 2005, after Karimov cracked down on violent antigovernment unrest in the eastern city of Andijan, killing hundreds of unarmed protesters.

See the RFE/RL Uzbek Service's Uzbek-language website

Washington responded with criticism and demanded an international investigation. Uzbek officials subsequently ordered U.S. forces to vacate the Karshi-Khanabad air base, and they have since banished U.S. nongovernmental organizations and media.

Fool's Gold?

The largest U.S. business venture in Uzbekistan also fell victim to Karimov's anti-Western campaign.

Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corporation's $250 million venture with Kazakhstan's Zarafshan operates the largest open-pit gold mine in the world, at Muruntau, in Uzbekistan's Qyzylqum Desert. It was the first major joint venture by a Western mining company in the former Soviet Union. One year ago, Uzbek authorities seized gold and other assets from the venture and lodged tax claims against it. Authorities gave the company three years -- until 2005 -- to pay those back taxes. Zarafshan-Newmont eventually filed for bankruptcy, and a yearlong dispute over the joint venture concluded in July. The result forced the Americans from the country and eliminated any hope that they could run the mine on their own.

Uzbekistan might appear distant and unimportant in economic terms to U.S. observers. But American business in neighboring oil-rich Kazakhstan is thriving.

Newmont has already written off a large part of the investment. The company was forced to turn to international arbitration in Stockholm. Fearing such litigation and the prospect of an international ruling, Uzbek officials approached U.S. officials with a dispute-settlement proposal. Under the terms of that proposal, Newmont will reportedly transfer its stake in the joint venture to Uzbekistan and receive one-third of what it invested during 13 years of operation.

Lessons Learned

The U.S. investor in Coscom -- an Uzbek-U.S. joint venture that is Uzbekistan's third-largest mobile operator -- has been forced out of the country. The company agreed to sell outstanding shares to TeliaSonera, the Nordic-Baltic telecommunications group.

Asked about U.S. business interests in Uzbekistan during a visit to Tashkent in 2006, Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state and top U.S. official for Central Asia, suggested that investors will draw their own conclusions based on the actions taken in specific cases.

A meeting in June of Uzbek officials with representatives of the American Chamber of Commerce underlined the obscurity of Uzbek-U.S. economic cooperation. At that Washington meeting, Uzbekistan's minister for foreign economic relations, Elyor Ganiyev, offered up Uzbek investment possibilities. But he added that it is mainly Russia and his country's Asian neighbors who exploit them. Trade turnover with the United States is low enough that the Uzbek minister offered a total for the past five years in a single figure of $500 million. By comparison, bilateral trade between Uzbekistan and Russia grew in 2006 by an annual 51 percent, to some $3.1 billion.

Uzbekistan, which plays a key geostrategic role in Central Asia, might well appear distant and unimportant in terms of economic cooperation to U.S. observers. But American business in neighboring oil-rich Kazakhstan is thriving.

Much Potential

Uzbekistan has unique potential for natural resources and other raw materials. The total mineral and raw-material potential of the country is estimated at some $3.5 trillion. Uzbekistan is in the top 10 on a list of global producers of copper and resource uranium. It also possesses enormous opportunities and potential in the area of gold mining: Uzbekistan is the world's 9th largest producer of gold, and the second largest among 15 former Soviet republics; it is the group's biggest per-capita producer of gold. The gold-mining industry is among the most attractive in Uzbekistan for foreign investors.

The government in Tashkent prefers the country's traditional route for gas exports, which is through Russia. Its oil resources can only meet the needs of domestic consumption, if they are managed well. The United States previously had a stake in gold mining, the construction of the oil and gas infrastructure, and farming machinery, but most of those ties have disappeared.

On the other hand, Uzbekistan could well become a key U.S. ally and economic partner in the region. It enjoys an important geostrategic location, and its population of 27 million makes it Central Asia's largest potential market. It is little wonder that, in the mid-1990s, U.S. companies like Procter & Gamble initially located their regional hubs in Tashkent -- until the Uzbek government limited its currency's convertibility and diverted many investors out of Uzbekistan into Kazakhstan.

The most recent assessment of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) describes the political risk in Uzbekistan as extremely high. Although Uzbekistan is starving for investment, EIU Uzbekistan analyst Ann-Louise Hagger says the investment environment there is currently especially unfavorable for Westerners.

Russia, China, and Southeast Asian countries are getting used to the environment, however.

The new U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan, Richard Norland, is expected to take up his post at the embassy in Tashkent soon. Economic cooperation with Uzbekistan looks to be one of his main challenges.

Kazakhstan: Vienna Court Rules Not To Extradite Aliev

By Bruce Pannier

Rakhat Aliev in Vienna in April

August 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A court in Vienna ruled on August 8 that Austria will not extradite former Kazakh Ambassador Rakhat Aliev back to Kazakhstan, saying the former son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev would not receive a fair trial in his home country.

Aliev has long been a controversial figure in Kazakhstan and a person with great knowledge of the workings of the government's inner circle. The Viennese court's decision will surely not be welcomed by Kazakh authorities.

No Fair Trial

Aliev stands accused of corruption, assault, and kidnapping in Kazakhstan. But the Austrian court decided Aliev would not be given a fair trial if he were returned to Kazakhstan, as Kazakh authorities have requested.

"This is a huge blow to the security of President Nazarbaev himself and his circle because Rakhat Aliev has already made it clear he is prepared to cooperate with certain agencies to provide information connected with Kazakhgate and other cases of corruption."

That is something that even some in Kazakhstan -- like Maria Pullman of he Kazakh Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law -- are willing to concede is true.

"Unfortunately we live in a state with a collapsed system of justice," Pullman says. "Providing an impartial, objective, and full investigation of the case is not possible here."

Andrei Chebotarev, an independent analyst, says the current situation in Kazakhstan surrounding Aliev also raises suspicions about a fair trial in Kazakhstan taking place.

"[There are] numerous articles published against Rakhat Aliev from representatives of the authorities and media loyal to the authorities," he says. "This shows that things are going the way they went when there was repression against those who were deemed enemies of the people. This has apparently alarmed Western societies."

But for many in Kazakhstan this is not a case of a political figure escaping an unfair justice system, according to Amirzhan Kosanov of the opposition Social Democratic Party.

Looking For Answers

"In any case, the issue is not about whether to extradite [Aliev] or not," Kosanov says. "Kazakh authorities use all the resources on an international scale and an internal scale to do what they can to portray Rakhat Aliev and the people around him as thugs and criminals. What we need, we need his answers to those accusations. From the human point of view, those whose loved ones were beaten or are missing of even killed need answers. That's why he [Aliev] has to come here and tell them what is black and what is white."

Aliev has been accused of serious crimes and there are people in Kazakhstan who feel he is the only one who can answer the questions that they so desperately want cleared up.

One is Armangul Qapasheva. Her husband is Zholdas Timraliev, once a top official with Kazakhstan's Nurbank who had a conflict with Aliev in January. Qapasheva told RFE/RL at that time what her husband said the last time they saw each other in January, after Timraliev disappeared for a day.

"He said that he was handcuffed all night to a weight machine and not allowed to sleep while Rakhat Aliev personally beat him," Qapasheva said.

Timraliev has not been heard from since late January and Qapasheva believes Aliev knows something about her husband and she plans on going to Austria to try to ask Aliev some questions.

Will He Talk?

"I will go to Austria," she said. "I am waiting for my visa. Surely I will go. In this case [in which Aliev will not be extradited], there is an even greater need for me to go. I want to at least meet with him and ask him concretely [about my missing husband]."

Dosym Satpaev, analyst and director at the Risks Assessment Center in Kazakhstan, also notes that for some in the Kazakh government, especially the Kazakh president, it would be better if Aliev was in Kazakhstan and not roaming free in Europe.

"This is a huge blow to the security of President Nazarbaev himself and his circle because Rakhat Aliev has already made it clear he is prepared to cooperate with certain agencies to provide information connected with [the alleged kickbacks to officials from oil sales known as] Kazakhgate and other cases of corruption," he says. "Taking into consideration that Rakhat Aliev has a gigantic amount of compromising information, his presence on the territory of Europe and -- if no one hands him over -- his long-term presence there represents a constant threat to the president, to his circle and to his family."

The Kazakh Embassy in Austria decline to comment to RFE/RL. Kazakhstan's Interior Ministry said it did not have enough information to comment and spokesman Bagdat Kozhakhmetov could only offer the following.

Possible New Charges

"We don't know anything ourselves," he said. "We didn't get any official documents on this decision. As soon as we get them, I'll let you know. I'll call you myself."

Aliev has just this week been mentioned as possibly having links to the disappearance of a female television journalist whose body was recently found after she went missing in 2004.

But even if murder or some other charges are brought against Aliev and Kazakhstan again requests his extradition, that would not necessarily mean that Aliev would be coming back to Kazakhstan any time soon.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan and correspondent Danabek Bimenov contributed to this report.)

Authorities Impose Religious Tests On Imams

By Farangis Najibullah

Tajikistan's grand mufti, Amonullo Nematzoda in 2006

August 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of local imams in the mosques of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, have been ordered to take a special test of religious knowledge to prove their fitness for the job.

The office of the mayor, Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev, has said that any imam who fails the exam will lose his post.

The head of the religious-affairs department in the Dushanbe mayor's office, Shamsiddin Nuriddinov, told RFE/RL that mosque leaders who fail to pass the exam will be sacked and replaced with other clerics.

Nuriddinov says Tajikistan's Council of Clerics has set up a special commission that is expected to complete the tests by the end of August.

"The officials from the city government and Dushanbe districts might also take part in the exam, if the Council of Clerics requires them to do so," Nuriddinov says.

Public Impetus?

Dushanbe authorities cite complaints from city residents about their local imams' lack of religious knowledge and competence.

But some imams say the test is yet another way for the government of a staunchly traditional, and predominantly Muslim, society to pressure religious institutions.

There are some 300 mosques in Dushanbe. Most of the buildings are used as community centers for many types of social gatherings, as well as for prayers.

Habibkhon Azamkhonov is the imam of Dushanbe's Sari Osiyo mosque. He calls the whole idea of forcing imams to pass a test an insult to him and his fellow clerics.

"I can't accept it. I've been working as an imam for 30 years," Azamkhonov says. "People felt very uncomfortable about this decision. This was supposed to be a democratic [society], but pressures are increasing."

It is not the first time mosques have come under government scrutiny in Tajikistan. Authorities have closed several Dushanbe mosques in the last three years, after criticizing them for operating without registrations. At the same time, all imams in Dushanbe and other cities were told they were no longer allowed to use loudspeakers to call the faithful to prayer (azaan).

Community Centers

The term "mosque" is sometimes used loosely in Tajikistan, with communal venues acquiring the label. Some clerics, in turn, have sought to appropriate such places for their own preaching and prayer groups.

An unregistered "mosque" in Dushanbe's Sino district that was destroyed by authoritiesin late July (RFE/RL)

Last week, two mosques were destroyed in Dushanbe's Sino district for operating without a license.

Imams, whose "job description" includes leading people during the prayers, often gain broad influence among the locals -- particularly since so many people gather at mosques at least once a day.

Attendees frequently stay on after evening prayers to discuss religious and social issues with imams.

Azamkhonov says such discussions are the real target of the mayor's decision to impose the religious tests.

He says the government wants to replace some clerics with others who are regarded as more loyal, or with close ties, to the authorities.

Captive Audiences

Some imams who have ventured beyond religious or social issues during such conversations have come under government and other official scrutiny.

Nuriddin Qahhorov, a prominent imam in a Dushanbe suburb known as Vahdat, is widely regarded as a critic of the government, and he has come under pressure in the past month.

In May, the State Committee for National Security confiscated recordings of Qahhorov's conversations from stores. Committee officials said the imam's statements posed a threat to Tajikistan's stability.

Some Dushanbe residents say imams with sufficient religious knowledge have nothing to fear from the compulsory testing. But official involvement in nonstate affairs raises suspicion in a country like Tajikistan, where the perception is widespread of corruption and bribery in exchange for official sinecure.

But 32-year-old Abdullo Naimov is critical of officials, saying it is an attempt to "sell" posts. "In our society, people struggle a lot to get any position, because there are very few jobs for people to earn a decent income for themselves and their families," Naimov says.

It remains unclear what questions the Dushanbe imams will be asked in the tests, which have already been postponed twice since they were announced in late July.

(RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondent Mirzo Salimov contributed to this report.)

Kazakhstan: Journalist's Traffic Death Recalls Past Tragedies

By Bruce Pannier
August 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Saken Tauzhanov was a hard-hitting journalist who criticized both the opposition and the government in his native Kazakhstan.

His frequently caustic online articles made Tauzhanov more than a few enemies, which is why his death on August 2 raised many suspicions.

Skeptics are questioning the official account of Tauzhanov's death.

Kazakh authorities declared that when 37-year-old Tauzhanov was run over by a large truck as he crossed a street in downtown Almaty on August 2, it was a tragic but routine traffic accident.

No evidence has emerged to contradict such that account. But some people who have seen other Kazakh journalists die in the same manner are suspicious.

Other Traffic Deaths

Rozlana Taukina, who heads the Kazakh nongovernmental group Journalists in Trouble, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that Tauzhanov's death is not unique among journalists. She notes that seven other journalists have died under similar clouds of doubt.

"The cause of all these deaths is always some sort of [mishap involving a vehicle], according to the versions given by our law enforcement agencies," Taukina says. "But too often it is these traffic accidents that cause the deaths of journalists who oppose the authorities."

Taukina lists journalists who have been killed in traffic accidents since 2002, all but one of them struck by vehicles as they were walking on foot: "Starting with journalist Aleksei Pugaev (2002), who died in a car accident, he published the 'Eurasia' newspaper (2002); Nuri Muftakh (aka Moftak) (2002) was run over by a bus in the bus station parking lot; Askhat Sharipzhanov was hit by a car (2004); Yuri Baev in Uralsk, the chief editor of the newspaper 'Talap,' when he started to write reports about Kazakhgate (eds: an oil kickback scandal), he also was killed when he was struck by a car (2004); Batyrkhan Darimbet was killed in a car crash (2005), and we all know he was a former correspondent for Radio Free Liberty/Radio Liberty and was head of the newspaper 'Azat.' Saken Tauzhanov, known for his recent articles that clearly opposed the authorities, was also hit by a vehicle. It seems like too many accidents involving vehicles."

Friends And Enemies

Tauzhanov's articles were published on the online newspaper.

Gimran Ergaliev, a colleague at the same publication, notes that Tauzhanov had a blunt manner that could offend people.

"I worked together with Saken for one year," Ergaliev says. "He was the type of guy who was able to express his opinion candidly, in a straightforward kind of way. He was a real citizen; his articles were sharp and he was able to very skillfully raise the issues relevant to contemporary life. We are all in mourning."

Kazis Toguzbaev, another reporter, agrees that Tauzhanov did not shy away from highlighting politicians' shortcomings, including the powerful long-time president.

"[Tauzhanov] hit out at everyone in his articles -- at officials in Nazarbaev's regime and at Nazarbaev himself."

Tauzhanov's last article for was posted on July 28, five days before his death. It drew a comparison between President Nazarbaev's administration and the animated fairy-tale exploits of "Shrek." Tauzhanov criticized President Nazarbaev, the ruling Nur-Otan party that was founded to ensure Nazarbaev's reelection, and the upcoming early elections to parliament -- now less than two weeks away.

The troubling fates of some of Kazakhstan's most fearless reporters are not limited to traffic deaths.

Journalist Oralgaisha Omarshanova wrote for the Russian-Kazakh weekly newspaper "Law and Justice" until her disappearance on March 30. She went missing after her departure from the Kazakh capital, Astana, to pursue a story about clashes between ethnic Kazakhs and Chechens in southern Kazakhstan.

Four months later, family and friends are still desperately hoping for her return.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh Service director, Merhat Sharipzhan, contributed to this report)

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister On SCO Summit And Regional Relations

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Karabaev (file photo)

BISHKEK, August 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service spoke today with the country's foreign minister, Ednan Karabaev, about a range of issues. Topics included the August 16 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, relations with Beijing, and border squabbles.

RFE/RL: Kyrgyzstan plans to host the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit beginning on August 16. What are the main topics that will be considered during the summit?

"Kyrgyz-Chinese relations are developing. The 'espionage-mania' will not be an obstacle."

Ednan Karabaev: Of course, the heads of six member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will attend the summit. They are Kyrgyzstan, Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan -- there will also be presidents of observer countries Iran and Mongolia, as well as the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan. There will be many other guests, the president of Afghanistan, [Hamid Karzai,] among them. For the first time, Turkmen President [Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov] and the deputy head of the UN chairman on policy issues will arrive upon the invitation of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev. As far as the agenda of the summit is concerned, [there are] issues of strengthening and deepening cooperation between participating states. Several agreements will also be signed, including an agreement on long-term friendly neighbor relations. And also, an agreement on information security will be signed.

RFE/RL: As you know, during the last Shanghai [Cooperation Organization] meeting in Astana, the issue of the U.S. air base at Manas Airport was very sensitive for Kyrgyzstan. And it is expected that this issue will be raised again at this summit -- [presumably] due to strained relations between Iran and the United States. There are rumors in the local media that if relations worsen, then the United States might use Manas Air Base for military operations against Iran. Could you please express your opinion on this issue?

Karabaev: I think our colleagues perfectly understand the role of [Manas] air base in the reconstruction process for Afghanistan. If such an issue arises, it'll be used only for counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. Generally speaking about the [Manas] air base, Kyrgyzstan is a member of the international coalition against terrorism and we are therefore providing Manas airport as our contribution to operations against terrorism. According to the agreement, [Manas Air Base] cannot be used for conducting any [unrelated] military operations. Regarding possible bombardment of Iran, I can only say that many words have already been spoken. We all understand that Iran's leadership is looking for diplomatic solutions to the current situation.

RFE/RL: Kyrgyzstan recently saw an espionage scandal [when] the Kyrgyz security service arrested [on June 19] a citizen of the People's Republic of China -- the biggest member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. If the charges are true, how will it impact Kyrgyz-Chinese relations? What are the reasons for these scandals? How will it affect Kyrgyz foreign policy?

Karabaev: As far as I know, [the alleged Chinese agent] supposedly received a draft constitution. But I think this information -- about the draft constitution and about the work of parliament -- is not secret information. Needless to say, Kyrgyz-Chinese relations will not be changed. For example, when this so-called "espionage scandal" arose, the foreign minister of the People's Republic of China was visiting Kyrgyzstan. I discussed many issues with my Chinese colleague in the areas of economic development and trade relations after the visit of our president to China. It is a realization of the biggest projects -- such as construction of a railroad, construction of highways, and construction of big trade complexes near the [Kyrgyz-Chinese] border. On August 15, the [president] of the People's Republic of China, Hu Jintao, will arrive in Bishkek to pay a working visit. Kyrgyz-Chinese relations are developing. The "espionage-mania" will not be an obstacle.

RFE/RL: There is a good Kyrgyz motto that it is better to have a good neighbor nearby than a distant relative far away. How is the border issue with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan being addressed? The fact that border issues have not been resolved has resulted in some difficulties for Kyrgyz citizens; you may be aware of this process. What problems have already been resolved?

Karabaev: At the present time, the process of settling border issues is ongoing. The root of the problem appeared in 1924. At that time, demarcation of borders was often subject to change. Therefore, many changes were not approved legally. Names of many places were changed in many documents. One place used to have several names. At present, the biggest parts of disputed territories with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have been determined. The most important thing is that we understand the importance of this process and are ready to seek a compromise. The security of each country in the entire region depends on the completion of this process.