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Central Asia Report: September 5, 2007

Uzbekistan: Protests Said To Erupt In Ferghana Valley

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Ferghana Valley region

September 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Residents of the Oltiaryq district in Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley reportedly took to the streets on September 3 to protest rising prices.

The rally follows similar demonstrations in other cities in the country's vulnerable eastern region.

Some reports say security measures have been tightened in parts of the Ferghana Valley with police, army, and security forces put on high alert.

The demonstrators in Oltiaryq were said to be angry primarily over price hikes for basic necessities -- particularly meat, flour, and vegetable oil.

Meeting With Officials

Dozens of residents marched from the Yangi-arab village to the Oltiaryq district administration building and proceeded to the Ferghana regional government building.

Abdusalom Ergashev, a human rights activist from Ferghana, says that local officials met with the demonstrators.

"Residents of Oltiaryq organized a protest demonstration," Ergashev said. "Some of them went to the Ferghana regional administration. Officials from the administration met with [demonstrators], spoke to them, calmed them down, and sent them back to Oltiaryq."

Rumors Abound

Similar incidents were reported in other parts of eastern Uzbekistan.

The independent website reported on September 3 that larger demonstrations have taken place in the cities of Andijon, Namangan, and Ferghana in the Ferghana Valley.

A kilogram of flour now costs about 15 percent of the official minimum monthly salary.

Rumors of mass unrest in Andijon -- with serious clashes between the local population and security forces -- have spread recently in the capital, Tashkent.

But such reports could not be verified. RFE/RL has tried unsuccessfully to contact several Andijon residents.

No reports have appeared in local media about any unrest. But in mid-August, when the first rumors of problems in Andijon appeared, state television channels broadcast a documentary about Andijon that pictured life there as happy and peaceful.

Margilan Tense

Another independent website,, reported today that authorities will impose a curfew in the Ferghana Valley city of Margilan, effective from September 5. quotes local rights activists as saying there has been instability in Margilan in recent weeks.

It also claims the public discontent stems from authorities' decision to limit the use of old automobiles, like the Russian-made "Zhiguli" and "Zaporozhets." Authorities reasoned that the old cars do not meet technical standards.

But local activists and residents allege that the real motive behind the new regulation is to boost the sale of cars produced in Ferghana Valley.

Cars produced by an Uzbek-Korean joint venture, UzDaewoo, are out of reach for most Uzbeks. A new "Nexia" costs $15,000 in a country where the minimum monthly salary is $12.

The website suggested in a report today that a September 7-8 visit by President Islam Karimov is behind the tight security measures in Margilan. Karimov will reportedly attend celebrations of Margilan's bimillennium.

Widespread Displeasure

Sergey Ezhkov, an independent journalist who runs website, said people all over the country are unhappy with prices for staple goods and low wages.

"The situation in other cities is the same," Ezhkov said. "But people in Oltiaryq have apparently more solidarity with each other."

A kilogram of flour now costs around 1,200 Uzbek sums, or a little less than $1 -- or about 15 percent of the official minimum monthly salary.

(Shukhrat Babajanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report)

Uzbek President Hints That He May Stay On

Islam Karimov -- another Central Asian president-for-life? (file photo)

September 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbekistan marked Independence Day on September 1, with many inside and outside the country expecting President Islam Karimov to speak about the biggest question in Uzbekistan this year -- the presidential election.

At the ceremony marking 16 years since Uzbekistan became independent, Karimov lauded the accomplishments the country achieved during "this very short time."

But most of Karimov's speech was devoted to the future, a future that -- according to the Uzbek Constitution -- should see citizen Karimov resting in retirement while the second president in Uzbekistan's history runs the country.

But Karimov did not sound like a man preparing to retire in a few months.

"Important and pressing tasks stand before us that demand the effective use of the potential we have developed in the recent [postindependence] period, the mobilization of all the forces we possess for the realization of our good intentions and efforts," he said.

"Speaking about this, I believe it is necessary to draw attention to the following: first, critically assessing our successes and progress -- and not allowing ourselves to fall into euphoria -- we need to set for ourselves lofty goals and long-term aims, foremost among these tasks that are at the center of our fixed attention has been and will remain increasing the standard of living and well-being of the people," Karimov added.

Karimov Staying On?

While that portion of the speech could be viewed as exhorting the population and future leadership to continue reaching for new heights, the next part of Karimov's speech was more specific and could be interpreted as indicating he plans to remain in office beyond the scheduled December presidential election.

"The priority for [improving living standards] should be providing for the dynamic and stable growth of the economy, the implementation of strong social policies, supporting young families, increasing wages, services, pensions, social benefits, and stipends by two to 2 1/2 times over the course of the next three years," he said.

So President Karimov was looking at least three years into the future.

An Election Too Far

Technically, Karimov's current term as president ended in January. Karimov is in his second presidential term which -- according to the constitution -- should be his last.

He has already extended his term in office through referendums held in 1995 and 2002. The loophole that Uzbek officials found that allowed Karimov to stay on after January this year was a line in the constitution setting the third Sunday of December (December 23 this year) as the date of presidential elections.

But there has been no evidence of any preparations for such an important election and again -- according to the constitution -- an announcement of a presidential election must be made three months before the election day, so by September 23.

So far this year, no one in Uzbekistan has said he or she wants to run in the election that should be held in December.

Later in his September 1 speech, Karimov also included a topic that has recently helped several politicians appeal to the people: the topic of security and, by implication, the need to preserve the system that has so far helped protect the country.

"Thirdly, the current complicated and alarming era demands of us not to forget about the existence of various threats to humanity; to work to strengthen peace, harmony, and stability in the country," Karimov said. "Not allowing our sharp attention and vigilance to falter, and keeping our gaze toward guarding our frontiers, capably resisting any dangers, and increasing our power and strength."

Karimov did not say whether he would seek to stay in office, or specifically mention the election in any way during his speech on independence day. The last presidential election in Uzbekistan was held on January 9, 2000, and the announcement for that election was made on August 19, 1999.

(Alisher Sidikov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)

Turkmenistan: U.S. Commission On Religious Freedom Says Progress Is Not Seen

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov

WASHINGTON, September 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A team from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that has just returned from a weeklong trip to Turkmenistan says it heard encouraging things from the government on how it will handle religious worshippers in the future. But commission members also heard from religious and human rights leaders that things have yet to change on the ground.

The commission is a bipartisan U.S. government agency, which gives policy recommendations to the White House, State Department, and Congress. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher interviewed the commission's chairman, Michael Cromartie, who says President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's six-month-old government is saying the right thing but the approach hasn't "trickled down" to the policy level.

RFE/RL: Whom did you meet with during your week in Turkmenistan?

Michael Cromartie: Well, we met, first of all, with the president [Berdymukhammedov]. Our first meeting in Turkmenistan was with the president, and that was good because what that did was signal to the other ministries and government agencies that we were there and that the president had met with us so that the others should also. And so we met with the Culture Ministry and the Education Ministry -- we were in meetings the whole time. I mean, we hardly had time to get over jet lag. And you know, I think we must have met with seven or eight government agencies.

RFE/RL: So everyone you met with was part of the government?

Cromartie: Well, no, no. Then we met with NGOs and we met with religious leaders -- both registered and unregistered -- which was, you know, wonderfully helpful because you get one story from the government about what their plans are and their hopes are and their reforms are. And then you get with the people who are really living there and they give you a different story altogether. So it's a great check on any attempt by any government, wherever we visit, to keep them honest.

RFE/RL: In your meetings with human-rights and religious leaders, what did you learn? If you could have met with Berdymukhammedov again at the end of your trip, what would you have told him?

"Please keep pressure on our government, please make all the sounds and noises that you can -- that there are people here of religious faith who feel oppressed, harassed, and persecuted."

Cromartie: Well, we would have said for instance, "Mr. President, you have a religion law [from] 2003 in need of desperate reform and rewriting. And while we met with some people in your government who say that 'we are now going to expand religious freedoms to all faiths in Turkmenistan,' what we found in practice, sir, is that a lot of people still feel harassed, they still have their private worship services interrupted, they still are harassed by police and military agents who don't seem to appreciate people of other faiths, or of the nontraditional faiths, or minority faiths. And we, sir, without mentioning names, have met many of these people -- and they feel quite persecuted and constrained. And we need to let you know that no matter what you've done to the constitution, the word has not gotten down to others that this is the new policy in Turkmenistan."

RFE/RL: These groups you met with who gave you the ground-level, reality view of how their human rights and religious freedoms are still being abused, did they ask you specifically, or the United States, or the international community, to do anything to try and change the situation in Turkmenistan?

Cromartie: All they said was "We're so thrilled that you're here, we're delighted that you came, we want you to come back. Please keep pressure on our government, please make all the sounds and noises that you can -- that there are people here of religious faith who feel oppressed, harassed, and persecuted."

So you know, they didn't know quite what the U.S. government could do, but they said, "whatever you can do, please do it." So they said, "Let the word go out that there's not religious freedom in Turkmenistan and despite any promises that may be coming out from the top, the word hasn't gotten to the street yet."

RFE/RL: How far have those promises from the top actually made it? Did the officials you met with in the ministries give you any specifics about ways they had perhaps been instructed to change their existing policies on religious expression or human rights?

Cromartie: Almost every agency we met with wanted to brag about plans they had and things they were going to do and things that they had set in motion. For instance, there is a real attempt at reform in Turkmenistan at the educational level. In Turkmenistan, people used to go to school just through the ninth grade; now they've extended it through the 10th grade. There is more emphasis on education in Turkmenistan. They made a really strong effort to let us know that reforms like that across the board are beginning to occur. We often had to remind them that we are a religious freedom commission, and we were not there to talk education policy.

RFE/RL: How did they react when you brought the conversation back to religion?

Cromartie: The one positive thing I'll say about the government of Turkmenistan is that they received us warmly. There wasn't a meeting [which] they said, "You can't have [that meeting]." They were not particularly defensive; they were friendly and gracious.

But those weren't the only meetings we had. We met with a lot of people who were both in registered and unregistered churches who had a lot of complaints. In fact, I think one of the surprising things for me was to find oftentimes you go, and if you're able to meet with unregistered religious groups, they are stronger in their criticism than say, registered religious groups. What we found was in this case, the registered groups were just as critical as the unregistered. In fact they said, you know, we're registered but it took 10 years, or, we're registered but it still doesn't help us any.

RFE/RL: Where does Turkmenistan fall on the rankings of countries that restrict religious freedom?

Cromartie: Turkmenistan, I mean, is not Saudi Arabia. It's not North Korea. Those are countries that are -- in one case, North Korea, which is a totalitarian state, which squashes all freedoms, not just religious freedoms; Saudi Arabia, which wants to impose Shari'a law on everyone and in fact not only persecutes minority religions, but in Saudi Arabia you have Muslims persecuting other Muslims and it's very repressive.

In Turkmenistan, you still have a repressive situation, but you at least have some signals that the government is aware of that and wants to do better. But their feet have to be held to the fire and it must be measure over time -- that if those intentions are real, we'll see evidence of them. We heard the words, but we didn't see the evidence.

Tajikistan Scraps Contract With Russia's RusAl

By Bruce Pannier

Tajikistan has immense untapped hydropower potential (file photo)

August 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Tajikistan has canceled a contract with Russian aluminum giant RusAl for the construction of a hydroelectric power station.

Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon's office said in a statement on August 29 that "the agreement on long-term cooperation between the government of Tajikistan and Russian Aluminum has been annulled."

RusAl's office in the Tajik capital has declined to comment on reports that the $1 billion deal is off.

The reason appears to be disagreement about the height of the Rogun dam and the materials that should be used to construct it.

Agreement 'Fell Apart'

Construction of the dam, some 110 kilometers east of Dushanbe, started when Tajikistan was a Soviet republic in the mid-1970s. Work was halted shortly after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, and only during Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Tajikistan in 2004 was the plan revived. Putin then pledged Russian companies would invest some $2 billion in Tajik projects.

A spokesman for Tajikistan's Trade and Economy Ministry, Ghaffurjan Rasuli, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that most of those agreements have been fulfilled and that the RusAl project is an exception.

"Of those agreements that were signed when Putin visited Dushanbe, many of them were realized -- especially the agreement on construction of the Sangtuda-1 hydroelectric power station, and other objects," Rasuli said.

"But the agreements that were signed between the Tajik government and RusAl were not realized for various reasons, and therefore -- it seems to me -- the agreements were unilaterally canceled after they fell apart," he added.

Dispute Over Height, Materials

The plan was for the dam to supply electricity to a new aluminum plant that RusAl would build as well as an existing Tajik aluminum plant in the western city of Tursunzade in which RusAl hoped to acquire a stake. Earlier this year, the Tajik government announced it would not privatize that aluminum plant, making RusAl's acquisition impossible. RusAl has not begun any work to build the second plant mentioned in the deal.

Neither has RusAl started work on the Rogun dam -- mainly because of a disagreement over the height and the construction materials to be used.

RusAl wants to build a concrete dam some 285 meters high, which would allow the facility to produce about 2,400 megawatts of electricity annually. The Tajik government says the dam should be built of earth and rock -- which would be safer in this seismically active area -- and reach a height of 355 meters.

The added height would allow it to generate an extra 1,200 megawatts of electricity, for a total of 3,600 megawatts per year.

But Tajik political analyst Qosim Begmuhammad says the Russian government viewed the agreement as a political agreement from the start -- and that RusAl had purely its own interests in mind when it signed the deals with the Tajik government.

"Unfortunately, the Russian government used this agreement as a lever to extend its regional policies in Central Asia," Begmuhammad says. "The company RusAl only pursued its own economic interests. They [RusAl] wanted to privatize one aluminum plant and build another plant and use the electricity from the hydroelectric station for that [to power the two plants]."

Concern For RusAl?

President Rahmon warned in June that Tajikistan was prepared and capable of taking on the Rogun project without RusAl's help. The government in Dushanbe said on August 29 it would create a joint-stock company to take over and complete the dam.

RusAl's initial statement said the company was unaware of the Tajik government's cancellation of the contract. The company added that RusAl was prepared to honor all its commitments to projects in Tajikistan.

The Russian daily "Vedomosti" quoted economic analyst Denis Nushtaev as saying the breaking of the Rogun contract was no major loss for RusAl, as the project was not so much in the interests of the company.

Vladimir Zhukov, a senior analyst with Alfa-Bank in Moscow who follows RusAl and its metals and mining competitors, agrees. He says RusAl has many other strategic projects closer to home, in Russia, that make the Rogun project largely irrelevant.

Zhukov says he didn't expect a Tajik cancellation to affect RusAl, even with the metals giant preparing to issue shares on capital markets through an initial public offering (IPO).

"Well, from my perspective I don't think this deal is essentially material for the forthcoming RusAl IPO," he says. "The company is quite a solid player anyhow, and so far it's retained the position of the largest aluminum producer in the world. Obviously, the cancellation of that deal in Tajikistan doesn't really affect in any form or fashion current RusAl positioning."

The many rivers of mountainous Tajikistan could conceivably make it one of the biggest producers of hydroelectricity in the world. Little has been done so far to develop that potential, and indeed Tajikistan is currently unable to supply even its own relatively low energy requirements.

A project like Rogun could allow it to meet all its own energy needs and export electricity to neighboring countries like China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

(Tohir Safarov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)

President Nazarbaev Dismisses Another Son-In-Law

By Bruce Pannier

Timur Kulibaev in a 2003 photo

August 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has made a number of senior-level personnel changes this week.

Kazakhstan now has a new deputy prime minister, Umirzak Shukeyev, and a new energy minister, Sauat Mynbaev, who was previously the head of the powerful Samruk holding company.

But the biggest news was Nazarbaev's unexplained decision to relieve one of his sons-in-law, Timur Kulibaev, of his seat on the board of Samruk, which manages state assets in the energy and industrial sectors.

No reason has been given for Nazarbaev's decision to dismiss Kulibaev. But the move has prompted reactions from many Kazakh political figures.

Nazarbaev "wants to position a just president who can even sack his own son-in-law if necessary."

Kulibaev is the second of Nazarbaev's sons-in-law to lose his state position since May.

The president's eldest daughter, Darigha, divorced businessman Rakhat Aliev in May after he was charged with kidnapping and financial wrongdoing. Before the publication of those charges, Aliev had been recalled as Kazakhstan's ambassador to Austria, and responded with a quick announcement of his intention to run for the Kazakh presidency in 2013.

An Austrian court has rejected Kazakhstan's request for Aliev's extradition, but Kazakh authorities are expected to renew that appeal.

Away From The Public Eye

Kulibaev is married to Nazarbaev's second daughter, Dinara. He is not reported to be facing any charges and -- unlike Rakhat Aliev -- has kept a low profile as he ascended the political ladder in Kazakhstan.

Kulibaev was appointed deputy chairman of Samruk shortly after the company's launch in early 2006.

Serikbolsyn Abdildin, the chairman of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and a long-time presidential opponent, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that he thinks Kulibaev is being sacrificed for the sake of Nazarbaev's image.

Nazarbaev "wants to position himself as a just person maintaining a just direction, showing himself as a just president who can even sack his own son-in-law if necessary," Abdildin said. "I don't think there have been any changes that could bring anything good to either the state or the people."

Amirzhan Kosanov, a member of the opposition Social Democratic Party, also saw the decision to dismiss Kulibaev as somehow pursuant to Nazarbaev's own interests. But he added that it might prove to have been in Kulibaev's best interests, as well.

"Currently the scandal around Nazarbaev's former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev, is becoming very high-profile in the country and elsewhere. With that in mind, Nazarbaev is probably trying to do everything possible to keep his second son-in-law in the shadows," Kosanov said.

No Political Threat

Andrei Chebotarev, an Almaty-based independent political observer, said that Kulibaev seems to have no political ambitions that Nazarbaev might regard as a threat to his own hold on power -- unlike Kulibaev's former brother-in-law, Rakhat Aliev.

Kulibaev is instead "a depoliticized individual [who] just takes part in managing some sectors of Kazakhstan's economy. But generally he keeps himself loyal to the president. There are no reasons for Nazarbaev to expect from Kulibaev the same demarche that was performed by Rakhat Aliev, I believe," Chebotarev said.

That perceived contrast with Aliev is likely to translate into a future state post for Kulibaev to keep his family financially secure -- but also to keep him out of the public eye. Kulibaev has more than 10 years of experience working in Kazakhstan's banking and oil and gas sectors.

The youngest of Nazarbaev's three daughters is Aliya. Her husband, Daniyar Khasenov, is currently head of the state railroad company, Temir Joly.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report)

Kazakhstan: Criminal Scandal Widens Around Ex-Ambassador Aliev

By Bruce Pannier

Kazakhstan might again seek Rakhat Aliev's extradition (file photo)

August 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh authorities are piling up the evidence in the case against Rakhat Aliev, a former ambassador to Austria and an influential businessman.

Arrest warrants are being issued for others in the inner circle of this once-powerful man, who was recently divorced by the Kazakh president's oldest daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva.

Aliev is already wanted in Kazakhstan on charges of abducting and assaulting two Nurbank executives, both of whom are still missing. A Vienna court has already turned down one extradition request for Aliev, saying he would not receive a fair trial in Kazakhstan.

Aliev is also sought on charges of financial wrongdoing.

"The authorities want to scare Rakhat Aliev. They also barred his father from going abroad... They are trying their best to stop Rakhat Aliev from testifying in the 'Kazakhgate' trial."

Early this month, the body of a television reporter who'd been missing for three years was found in an unmarked grave in southern Kazakhstan. Aliev knew the woman, Anastasiya Novikova, and now he and some of his associates have been implicated in her death.

Connected Crimes

At a news conference on August 27, Interior Ministry spokesman Bagdat Kozhakhmetov drew a connection between the kidnapping of the Nurbank bankers and the murder of the television reporter.

"So far the investigators have managed to discover that one of the major suspects who might have been involved in the bankers' kidnapping, Vadim Koshliyak, was in Beirut, where he met with Anastasiya Novikova. It is currently believed that Vadim Koshliyak might have been involved in the murder of Anastasiya Novikova and is considered a major suspect in that case," Kozhakhmetov said.

Koshliyak is reportedly in Austria. But Kozhakhmetov said there are other suspects with ties to Aliev.

"The Interior Ministry has started searching for Alnur Musaev, who also, as it turns out, might be involved in the abduction of Nurbank officials Zholdas Timraliev and Aibar Khasenov. The investigators' group has found that this person could have been involved as well," he said.

Alnur Musaev headed Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) from 1997 to 2001 -- and, for a brief period during 2001, Rakhat Aliev was his first deputy. Musaev's current whereabouts are unknown.

Kozhakhmetov further announced that illegal weapons were found during a search at the home of Rakhat Aliev's father, Mukhtar. Mukhtar Aliev attempted to fly to London on August 21 but was prevented from leaving by officials at Almaty Airport.

Mukhtar Aliev on August 26 published an open letter to President Nursultan Nazarbaev. In it, the elder Aliev begged the president to forgive him and his son for any wrongdoing they may have done. Mukhtar Aliev wrote that "events related to opening a criminal case" against his son have "impacted" the older man's health and his family.

Key Witnesses

Zauresh Battalova, a former opposition member of parliament, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that former National Security Committee head Musaev and Mukhtar Aliev are at least partly responsible for creating their current problems.

She also thinks officials are eager to prevent the influential Rakhat Aliev from testifying in an ongoing scandal over kickbacks from Western oil interests, known as "Kazakhgate."

"Alnur Musaev and Mukhtar Aliev have held several gatherings and press conferences recently [criticizing the government] -- that is one thing. Second, I think that with such a step, the authorities want to scare Rakhat Aliev," Battalova said. "They also barred his father from going abroad. By doing that, they are trying their best to stop Rakhat Aliev from testifying in the 'Kazakhgate' trial and to prevent the appearance of Alnur Musaev at that trial."

The "Kazakhgate" scandal involves allegedly illegal payments by Western oil companies to Kazakh officials in exchange for lucrative contracts in Kazakhstan's huge oil industry. President Nazarbaev's name has been mentioned among the officials who might have been involved, and his former son-in-law might be able to shed light on the allegations.

Rakhat Aliev remains in Austria, insisting that he has done nothing wrong and is a victim of political persecution. He was sent to Austria in February, after the scandal broke over the abduction of the Nurbank executives. By May, Aliev had been dismissed. Shortly afterward, the president's daughter Darigha Nazarbaeva divorced him. He remains free in Austria on bail of 1 million euros.

Kazakh authorities have publicly protested the Austrian court decision not to extradite Aliev. The new charges against Aliev's associates appear to signal official Kazakh intent to make another extradition request for Aliev and his friends in Austria.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service director Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report.)

Tajikistan/Afghanistan: Road Bridge Opens With Aim Of Strengthening Trade

The new bridge connecting Tajikistan and Afghanistan

NIZHNY PYANJ, Tajikistan; August 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The presidents of Afghanistan and Tajikistan inaugurated today a new bridge linking the two countries.

Tajikistan's Emomali Rahmon and Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai said the new structure over the Pyanj River, which was financed by the United States, will strengthen trade in the region.

The 700-meter structure straddles the Pyanj River between the ports of Nizhny Pyanj on the Tajik side and Shir Khan Bandar in Afghanistan.

The Tajik head of state, Emomali Rahmon, told those gathered for the ceremony in Nizhny Pyanj that the "bridge of friendship" will first of all "strengthen the old and vital relations of two countries and two peoples."

But he also expressed concern that Tajik and Afghan authorities need to prevent the bridge from facilitating "all kinds of inadmissible activities, such as human, drug, and weapons trafficking."

Karzai said the bridge will not only link "brothers and sisters." He said if proper regulations are established, "without any doubt that bridge will serve for the prosperity of our people."

Afghanistan and Tajikistan have agreed to create free economic zones on both sides of the bridge and ease customs and visa regimes to promote trade, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported.

The ceremony was also attended by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, who said the bridge will become the "widest connection" between Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and the rest of the world.

Gutierrez welcomed the opening of the bridge, saying, "it will be opened 24 hours a day with customs and border facilities on both sides, and the capacity to handle 1,000 vehicles every day."

There was only an intermittent ferry service across the river previously.

The United States provided most of the funding and know-how for the $37 million project. Other contributors include Norway, Japan, and the European Union.

Customs infrastructure is expected to become operational later this year.

Kazakhstan Threatens To Halt Major Oil Venture

August 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A foreign-led consortium appears close to being thrown out of a project to develop one of the largest oil finds in the last 30 years. Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov has warned a consortium led by Italy's Eni that Astana might suspend its work in the north Caspian Sea's Kashagan oil field because of environmental damage.

Earlier this week, Environment Minister Nurlan Iskakov also warned the consortium that ecological damage could lead to a suspension of its contract.

For the Italian group Eni, a subsidiary of Agip, it is a warning that must be taken seriously.

Kazakhstan's Kashagan oil field in the northern Caspian Sea is thought to hold the largest oil reserves to have been discovered in the last 30 years -- as much as 10 billion tons of oil, by some estimates.

Some observers feel the warnings about environmental damage reflect a desire to meet production targets and deadlines.

But Kazakh officials are blaming Eni for a rash of Caspian seal deaths and a drastic reduction in the number of fish, and warning that the work at Kashagan might be stopped completely.

'A Serious Warning'

Kazakh economist Kanat Berentaev downplayed the threat of a total stoppage in comments to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. But he said Eni needs to pay attention to what officials like Iskakov are saying.

"This is not a threat, but it is a serious warning that they might pull the plug on Eni and look for another operator who works under the conditions that Kazakhstan is setting," Berentaev said. "So I think that Nurlan Iskakov, in this regard, is absolutely correct to warn these companies working in Kashagan that it is necessary to fully meet the terms of contracts."

Oil-industry expert and former Kazakh parliamentarian Nurpeis Mukashev told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that it is unlikely that work at Kashagan would be stopped or that Eni would lose its contract.

"I am 100-percent sure that the operation will not be stopped," Mukashev said. "There is so much of Kazakhstan's infrastructure involved. Every foreign company working there has a workforce that is 20-30 percent from Kazakhstan. Just recently, a half year ago, Agip announced its decision to move offices from The Hague to Atyrau [in Kazakhstan]. They have already bought land and had a groundbreaking ceremony [for offices]. Taking all that into consideration, there is no reason for panic."

Environment Or Money?

Mukashev says there are still questions about whether Eni was responsible for environmental destruction in the Kashagan area.

"I think here there are pure economic motives at work," he said. "They say there are real ecological issues, but there's no proof. Yes, seals are dying and fish numbers are decreasing. But who can prove this is because of Agip's seven facilities? They have their own environmental experts and expertise. Even the foreign laboratories are not able to prove a connection, whatever the speculation is."

There is speculation that the complaints of environmental damage are not the real reason -- or at least not the entire reason -- for this week's warnings. Eni originally said development of Kashagan would start in 2005, but that date has been postponed several times. Earlier this month, Eni again revised its time frame for production from 2008 to 2010 and said the project would now cost $136 billion, more than double the original estimate of $57 billion.

Kazakh political analyst Dosym Satpaev said that could be the biggest reason Kazakh officials are pressing Eni.

"Kazakhstan has been forced to reduce its forecasts for the amounts of oil production leading up to 2015," he said.

Kazakh officials had planned to be producing some 115 million tons of crude oil annually for the period 2010 to 2015. Those plans are now being revised downward to take into account the delay at Kashagan.

New Partner?

Economist Berentaev said he believes a compromise will be reached. But he did not rule out the project slipping out of Eni's grasp.

"They will find some kind of compromise with the contractor and some fine will be paid and the situation will calm down," Berentaev said. "But there are two points to keep in mind here -- one is the financial loss, and why Kazakhstan should suffer from this is difficult to understand; the second is the environmental damage. So there are two violations here, and tearing up the contract could still be possible."

Eni is not the only foreign-led consortium being warned about ecological damage in Kazakhstan. An oil project at western Kazakhstan's Tenghiz oil field, led by Chevron Oil, was also warned this week, as was a daughter company -- CNPC-Aktobemunaigaz Company -- of China's National Petroleum Corporation.

As with Eni, some observers feel the warnings about environmental damage reflect a desire to meet production targets and deadlines.

Eni's consortium includes the French company Total, Royal Dutch/Shell, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Japan's Inpex, and Kazakhstan's state-owned KazMunaiGaz.

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

Kyrgyzstan: Rights Groups Sound Alarm Over Torture Deaths

By Bruce Pannier
August 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- International and local rights groups in Kyrgyzstan have expressed alarm over the suspected use of deadly torture tactics by law-enforcement officers in northern Kyrgyzstan.

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) and Kyrgyz human-rights group Kylym Shamy (Torch of the Century) said in a press release on August 22 that law-enforcement officers in the city of Naryn appear to have tortured at least three detainees to death. The Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights has also expressed concern about the deaths.

IHF Executive Director Aaron Rhodes says that his organization is investigating several cases of alleged abuse in which detainees have died in police custody.

"If these perpetrators are brought to justice and punished, others will be much more careful in the future...That's why we hope our report will be a catalyst toward an investigation by the national authorities" -- IHF's Aaron Rhodes

"The evidence points very strongly to them having been tortured," Rhodes says. "And in one case, there was an investigation and the police officers involved were acquitted. There was another case in which an individual reportedly hanged himself during predetention circumstances, and an independent commission was formed which concluded that this was not a suicide. So this appears to be, according to this independent commission, a death that has been the result of ill treatment by the authorities."

In a third case, on August 13, Rhodes says that another detainee was beaten to death, reportedly by a senior investigator for the city's law enforcement.

No Response To Complaints

The IHF says that one of the victims, Kurmanbek Kalmatov, died this month as a result of a beating by a security officer in July. His sister, Mira Kalmatova, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that she went to visit her brother soon after the July beating. She said she went to the Naryn City police station within days to file a complaint and seek an investigation.

Her actions led nowhere, Kalmatova said. No one visited the hospital to investigate, and no official complaint was registered at the police station.

The head of rights group Kylym Shamy, Aziza Abdyrasulova, says she went to Naryn to visit the pretrial-detention center and meet with officials. But she said she encountered other signs of police abuse.

"When we arrived, four teenagers between 14 and 15 years of age showed us their hands, with slash wounds. They complained that the police officers had forced them to wear gas masks -- the police officers hit and kicked them and forced them to take the blame for thefts that they did not commit," Abdyrasulova says.

The IHF's Rhodes says such cases are only the tip of the iceberg -- not only in Kyrgyzstan, but elsewhere in Central Asia.

"There are many, many cases of police brutality and these problems exist in almost every country in fact, but the difference is what happens afterwards," Rhodes says. "Here you have this acquittal, and you have to wonder if the courts have really done their job acting as an independent body to thoroughly investigate and fairly judge on the matter."

Losing Faith In The System

Rhodes says the failure of the court system to convict officials or law-enforcement officers for exceeding their authority will inevitably erode public confidence in the justice system.

"In Kyrgyzstan or anywhere else, the best antidote against these tragedies is justice -- so if these perpetrators are brought to justice and punished, others will be much more careful in the future," he says. "That's why we hope our report will be a catalyst toward an investigation by the national authorities. The minister of the interior [and] the minister of justice in Kyrgyzstan have to go to Naryn, have to take up these cases -- because if they don't, the citizens are just going to continue to lose confidence in the state."

Such a loss of confidence was evident in comments from Urmat Akunov. Naryn police claim that Akunov's father, Bektemir, hanged himself in his detention cell. Bektemir Akunov was a member of the opposition United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan and a regular participant in antigovernment rallies.

Urmat Akunov says he doubts his family can expect justice for his father's death, especially after hearing that two officers on trial for beating another detainee to death were acquitted.

"The Naryn city judge, [Japar] Ermatov, was also presiding in our father's case. Now, after his verdict, after seeing his approach to the facts, I think we would distrust him," Akunov says.

The IHF, Kylym Shamy, and the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights are vowing to continue their close monitoring of events in Naryn. They are also urging officials there and in the capital, Bishkek, to launch proper investigations into all of the cases mentioned in their report.

(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service director, Tynchtykbek Tchoroev, and correspondent Jarkyn Ibraeva contributed to this report)

Kazakhstan: Opposition Left To 'Find Whatever Space Is Possible'

Christopher Walker (file photo)

August 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Experts say the August 18 elections that created a one-party parliament in Kazakhstan could affect Astana's bid to chair the OSCE in 2009 and harm the country's image as a Central Asian leader. But, the director of studies at Freedom House, Christopher Walker, told RFE/RL correspondent Farangis Najibullah there is still a significant role for the political opposition to play in Kazakh society.

RFE/RL: Some experts say the outcome of the Kazakh elections reflects the Kazakh people's will and shows that voters have no confidence in the opposition.

Christopher Walker: I think the larger issue in the Kazakh context is whether all of the key elements that are ingredients for fair and open elections were present in the Kazakh case. That is to say, over the course of the election process, were there opportunities for all of the parties to have access to mass media in a balanced and equal way? Were there also limits on state-administrated resources that didn't give the dominant, incumbent power unfair advantages? I think in these cases -- as in previous elections -- there were very serious questions raised about these sorts of critical issues by, for example, the OSCE and other observers.

"I think the fact they did not meet [international election] standards makes it clear that -- at least at this time -- Kazakhstan should not hold the OSCE chairmanship."

So it is really a larger question of whether voters in the country are able to make an informed choice and have no real restrictions on their on their choices -- and I don't believe that is the case in Kazakhstan.

RFE/RL: Is there any role left to play for the Kazakh opposition between now and the next election campaign?

Walker: I think there certainly is. The opposition in Kazakhstan should be playing a meaningful role in scrutinizing the performance and the activities of the ruling powers in the country. This becomes increasingly difficult under the current circumstances. I think, at this point, they have to find whatever space is possible there to play this rightful role. But there is no question that has become increasingly difficult and, naturally, to the detriment of ordinary Kazakh citizens.

RFE/RL: Would the Kazakh election results that created a one-party system in the country affect Astana's bid to win the OSCE chairmanship in 2009?

Walker: I think it is fair to say that if these elections had met international standards, they would not -- in and of themselves -- have argued for the OSCE chairmanship for Kazakhstan. I think the fact they did not meet these standards makes it clear that -- at least at this time -- Kazakhstan should not hold the OSCE chairmanship.

RFE/RL: Could the way Kazakhstan conducted the parliamentary elections have any impact on the rest of Central Asia?

Walker: I think the challenge in the immediate region and for a number of other post-Soviet republics is that the parliaments are not playing the sort of role they could and should be. And, as I mentioned earlier, I think the role for parliaments in these highly controlled presidential systems, where the executive power is so dominant, is to open the door for political space through a parliamentary setting. And already in many of the countries in Central Asia, you have a situation where the parliaments are unable to play a meaningful role in having an independent voice and scrutinizing the actions of the executive. This is to the detriment of these countries' developments.

I think to the extent that Kazakhstan has been looked to as a leader in the region by the outside world, this is a disappointment in terms of having no voice whatsoever in the new parliament for any opposition parties.