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Central Asia Report: September 19, 2007

Kyrgyzstan: President Sets Referendum Date On New Constitution

By Bruce Pannier

Bakiev addresses the nation in Bishkek

September 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev gave his annual address to the nation today amid a growing conflict between the country's parliament and the Constitutional Court.

After several months of relative calm in Kyrgyzstan, a new crisis began when the Constitutional Court last week ruled that amendments to the constitution approved last November and December were illegal because they were passed without following the correct processes. The court decided that the acting constitution of the country is the February 2003 version, a decision parliament almost immediately rejected.

Bakiev said that the decision to overturn the two sets of amendments "means only one thing: the constitutional reform has reached a deadlock."

"I will speak frankly; it was hard for me to hear this news," he said. "We sent a protest to the Constitutional Court over the virtual abolition of the constitution. However, having studied the materials and conclusions provided by the Constitutional Court, we have no choice but to accept the rule of law."

'The Demand Of The People'

President Bakiev seems to have resolved that issue today by announcing that a national referendum on a new constitution will be held on October 21.

"The establishment of a democratic political regime is impossible without revising the previous [2003] constitution and making it more democratic," Bakiev said. "This is the demand of the majority of the people, civil society, and public and political figures. Essentially, the March [2005] revolution was carried out precisely under these slogans. And I intend to meet this demand of the people."

Bakiev also announced that the new constitution would contain changes to the way parliament is elected, providing for the formation of the parliament -- the Jogorku Kenesh -- on the basis of party lists.

That change was already part of the amendments passed in 2006 that did away with single-mandate districts -- but that version of the constitution was ruled invalid by the Constitutional Court last week.

Bakiev also hinted he would form a new political party.

Opinions on Bakiev's move today varied. Former Foreign Minister Alibek Jekshenkulov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the referendum is the correct move. "If the president creates his own party, and elections to parliament are held according to party lists, this would be a great step forward for the new political structure of Kyrgyzstan," he said.

Lawmaker Melis Eshimkanov told RFE/RL that Bakiev's decision is an important step toward ending a long political fight. Bakiev "doesn't have any other alternative," Eshimkanov said. "Bakiev today put an end to the political fights of the last two years on the streets very well. But this is only the beginning."

The chairman of the presidential administration's commission on human rights, Tursunbek Akun, reluctantly accepted Bakiev's plan, saying that he will have to follow the decree regardless of his personal opinion. "As I've told the presidential chief of staff already, I'm against holding a referendum. In general, it's a dangerous action. If we hold a referendum, some 90 percent of the people will support it. And we will be criticized for using administrative resources. All local governors will be working hard on it. We'll have one of Akaev's referendums and it will create a presidential state," Akun said.

Too Many Issues, Too Little Time

Lawmaker and former parliament speaker Omurbek Tekebaev told RFE/RL that Bakiev's plan to hold a referendum takes a page from the era of former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, who held several referendums during the 1990s and in 2003 that gradually increased presidential powers.

"This is a stab in the dark," Tekebaev said. "In just a month a referendum will be held. People won't be able to grasp the full measure of this document in one month. In my opinion, this is like the time of Akaev, a referendum with manipulations and serious violations. And meanwhile these two laws are declared to be adopted."

Tekebaev was joined in this view by parliament deputy Iskhak Masaliev, the head of Kyrgyzstan's Communist Party, who is also regarded as a Bakiev ally.

"Frankly speaking, taking this kind of major law to the referendum was the wrong idea from the beginning. Because you have to give one answer: 'yes' or 'no'. There could be 100 questions, and if I support 99 of them except one, I can still only say 'yes' or 'no'" to all the points, Masaliev said.

That was certainly true of Akaev-era referendums when citizens were asked to vote "yes" or "no" on a package of issues like private land ownership and increasing the powers of the executive branch.

This October's referendum will have two questions: "Do you accept the law on the new version of the constitution?" and "Do you accept the law on the new version of the electoral code as proposed by the president for referendum?"

Bakiev's announcement that he will form his own political party will likely spark a flurry of political bargaining among the country's more than 90 registered political parties and movements.

Deputy parliament speaker Kubanychbek Isabekov responded to Bakiev's speech by saying parliament could be dissolved.

But if the new constitution is passed, there will definitely have to be new parliamentary elections. Bakiev indicated he is not content with the means by which many of the current deputies obtained their seats in parliament.

Bakiev said the single-mandate system of electing deputies had failed and that the 2005 parliamentary elections and subsequent by-elections to fill empty seats were characterized by problems "connected with buying votes, pressuring election commissions, and even seizing judicial facilities."

Bakiev noted that in some cases armed conflict had broken out between supporters of rival candidates and, as a result, "deputies of parliament owe allegiance to no one and are beyond control."

Analysts are already predicting new parliamentary elections in early 2008 due to the referendum on a new constitution.

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

Kazakhstan: Aliev's Bodyguards Return To Testify Against Him

By Bruce Pannier

Rakhat Aliev faces yet more accusations (file photo)

September 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Two men wanted by Kazakh police voluntarily returned on September 17. The two were, until recently, bodyguards for Rakhat Aliev, once one of the most influential people in Kazakhstan and President Nursultan Nazarbaev's son-in-law.

Aliev had many business interests and has held several government posts, most recently as Kazakh ambassador to Austria.

Introducing the two men to journalists, Interior Ministry spokesman Bagdad Kozhakmetov said they "expressed their desire to voluntarily cooperate fully with the investigation" of Aliev.

Former Bodyguards Ready To Denounce Aliev

The return of Bektybaev and Koshlai is potentially very bad news for Aliev, who faces charges of abducting bank officials and assaulting them, as well as abuse of office. Aliev may also be connected to the killing of a television reporter three years ago.

Kazakh investigators are certainly hoping Bektybaev and Koshlai can provide more details about Aliev's alleged illegal activities.

In reading a statement on behalf of himself and Koshlai, Bektybaev sounded ready to help the investigators by denouncing their former employer.

"We were chosen by destiny to provide security for Rakhat Aliev. Unfortunately we only now clearly realize that we should have better assessed the situation much earlier; [a situation] that was formed due to the unrestrained deeds of Rakhat Aliev," Bektybaev said. "And [we should have] taken all the necessary measures not to allow any kinds of unlawful activities. We also declare that of our own free will we left our obedience to Rakhat Mukhtarovich Aliev and we used our own chances and operational experience to return to our country."

Bektybaev added that Aliev had tricked the two bodyguards and Austrian officials. "Only now do we clearly understand that when we were in Austria we received only information that was to the advantage of Rakhat Aliev," he said. "He deliberately led astray not only us but also the judicial and law-enforcement agencies of Austria, hiding [from us] the real situation. In order to achieve this, [Aliev] used his official and personal ties in Austrian circles, including those among influential businessmen."

Charges Against Aliev Grow

Aliev remains in Austria where he has been since he was stripped of his ambassador's post in May. He is being investigated in Austria on charges of money laundering and is free after posting a 1 million-euro ($1.4 million) bail.

Kazakh authorities have already tried to have him extradited but an Austrian court ruled that Aliev would not receive a fair trial if he returned to Kazakhstan.

Aliev's name has also come up in the investigation into the murder of television reporter Anastasiya Novikova. She disappeared in 2004 and was last reported to be in Lebanon on vacation. But her body was discovered in an unmarked grave in southern Kazakhstan in early August and some Kazakh media suggested that she and Aliev were once romantically involved.

Aliev has maintained his innocence from the beginning and said he is a victim of political persecution.

Elite Want Aliev Returned

Analysts say Aliev's close connection to the president's family and inner circle have given the former son-in-law intimate knowledge of the workings of the Kazakh government and possibly knowledge of its corrupt practices.

Such analysts believe Kazakh authorities want Aliev back in Kazakhstan before he talks to the international media or an international court.

Interior Ministry spokesman Kozhakmetov was cautious in estimating how much Aliev's bodyguards can help in the investigation into Aliev's activities. "Maybe they can shed some light [on the case]. Maybe," he said. "We're hoping."

Even if the two former Aliev bodyguards cannot provide exactly what Kazakh investigators are looking for, it seems clear the Kazakh authorities are gathering all the evidence they can before they make another attempt to have Aliev extradited.

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

Kyrgyzstan: Parliament Rejects High Court Ruling, Votes No Confidence

By Bruce Pannier

Kyrgyzstan's Constitutional Court is under fire from the parliament

September 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Kyrgyz parliament today passed a vote of no confidence against the country's Constitutional Court after it ruled last week that constitutional amendments passed last year are illegal.

The parliament said the matter is beyond the Constitutional Court's competence for it to make such a decision.

There was a heated emergency session in parliament as deputies laid the foundation for a showdown with the Constitutional Court, and probably also with President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

The debate first centered on the Constitutional Court's ruling that new constitutions adopted in November and December last year were illegal, a decision that restored the 2003 constitution as the governing document.

But since the approval of the 2003 constitution, the "revolution" of March 2005 took place, driving the president out of office. At a massive demonstration in the capital, Bishkek, last November, protesters demanded -- and seemingly received -- a new constitution.

Lawmakers at today's emergency session of parliament criticized the court's decision to declare the 2003 constitution superior to the later constitutions, and passed a measure of no confidence in the court.

Parliament also unanimously approved a measure calling on the president to name new candidates for the court within two weeks.

Deputies Versus Justices

Deputy Iskhak Masaliev lashed out at Constitutional Court Chairwoman Cholpon Baekova, saying she was present when the November 2006 constitution was signed and she approved of it at the time.

Parliamentarian Sadyr Japarov had more critical comments about Baekova, calling her "unfaithful." "I can say that she has brought shame on all Kyrgyz women," Japarov said.

There was also criticism of the two deputies -- Melis Eshimkanov and Kabai Karabekov -- who called on the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of the 2006 constitutions.

Deputy Akhmatbek Keldibekov spoke of the thousands of people who demonstrated for a new constitution in Bishkek last November. Keldibekov said Eshimkanov and Karabekov had "spent a lot of money to bring those people [to Bishkek] from regions around the country and now they have caused the efforts of those people to be for nothing."

Speaker Marat Sultanov announced that parliament also voted to form a commission that would review all the activities of the Constitutional Court since 1993. "The preliminary assessment is: how can we accept the decision on the basis of the [2003] suspended constitution?" Sultanov asked.

There were some deputies who called for returning to the 1993 constitution, a document that equally distributed power between the three branches of power but was drastically altered by referendums in 1994, 1996, and 1998 that increasingly gave more power to the executive branch of government.

Parliament today also passed a law on referendums that President Bakiev vetoed in 2005.

Parliament's actions today may cause trouble for the deputies. On September 17, Justice Minister Marat Kaiypov warned that the Constitutional Court's decision is irrevocable and a matter that is beyond debate or discussion.

'No Right' To Question The Court

"There is no way to complain about the Constitutional Court's decision. And no state institution has the right to discuss or annul it," Kaiypov said. "All government officials and state institutions must implement the Constitutional Court's decision on time. If they don't implement it then they should be brought to court."

At today's parliamentary session, Deputy Kanybek Imanaliev suggested that the president and parliament resign and "accept responsibility together" for the current mess with the constitution. Imanaliev said that mess is because decisions on the constitution were not based on law but were instead made for political reasons.

President Bakiev is scheduled to address the nation on September 19. Under the authority of the 2003 constitution that gave his predecessor huge powers, Bakiev has a range of options available to him.

The president could side with parliament or with the Constitutional Court; he could call for a referendum on a new constitution or simply move to dissolve parliament and call for new parliamentary elections.

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

Uzbekistan: Presidential Hopefuls Emerge As Election Date Announced

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Uzbeks voted in 2002 to extend Karimov's term in office. Another such referendum may be in the works

September 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Uzbek officials announced today that the country will hold its next presidential election on December 23, ending months of uncertainty about the vote.

Qochqor Togaev, a deputy head of the Uzbek Central Election Commission, confirmed the date of the election to RFE/RL.

Observers say incumbent President Islam Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989, will try to stay in office -- even though the current constitution forbids him from seeking another term.

Election campaigning is due to start on September 21, and several candidates have already announced their intention to run for president.

An unregistered group, the Alliance of Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan, earlier this year nominated three men by Internet for the top post. The three are Jahongir Shosalimov and Abdullo Tojiboy Ogli, from Tashkent, and Ahtam Shoymardonov, from the town of Chirchiq near the capital. All three are human-rights activists.

The other declared candidate is Suhbat Abdullaev, a professor and medical doctor from the western city of Khorazm.

They all have yet to submit their applications to the Central Election Commission. All four men claim they can easily gain enough support among the electorate to become registered as presidential candidates.

Under current legislation, an Uzbek citizen can be nominated for president either by a political party or an initiative group of 300 people. They also need to collect the signatures of 700,000 eligible voters and submit an application to the CEC.

The three human-rights activists protested last month against the requirements. They said that listing the names and personal information of an independent candidate's supporters could allow those people to be persecuted, and could thus prevent some potential candidates from running for president.One of them, Tojiboy Ogli, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that when collecting signatures, "I have to put information about the signatories' addresses, passport number, their names, and place of birth. This opens them up to the possibility of persecution."

Ineligible To Run

Some opposition groups have also said their candidates will vie for the presidency. The leaders of two opposition parties -- Abdurahim Polat of Birlik and Muhammad Solih of Erk -- told RFE/RL in recent months that they intend to run for president as well.

However, neither Polat nor Solih is technically eligible to run for the post. Current legislation requires that a candidate should have lived in Uzbekistan for at least 10 consecutive years prior to the election. Both men have lived in exile for more than a decade.

Muhammad Solih is running even though living in exile makes him technically ineligible

But Polat and Solih say they were forced to leave their homeland due to harassment and prosecution, and that therefore their eligibility should not be questioned.

Sanjar Umarov, a leader of another unregistered opposition group, Sunshine Uzbekistan, ended up in jail because of his presidential ambitions.

Umarov, a wealthy businessman with ties in the United States, is serving 7 1/2 years in prison on charges that Sunshine Uzbekistan says were fabricated after he criticized Karimov's government following the May 2005 killings in Andijon.

Umarov was convicted in March 2006 on charges of embezzlement, tax evasion, and money laundering. He is reportedly in poor health and not allowed visitors.

Nominees Under Threat

Observers say Karimov -- who has ruled the country with an iron fist for the past 18 years -- will not give up power voluntarily. Anyone challenging his authority or even expressing dissent has been brutally suppressed and has either ended up in exile, in jail, or dead.

Nominees for the presidential post say they have already been under government scrutiny and even attacks.

Candidate Shosalimov said his wife, Gulchehra, was detained and released by police in late January after receiving threats against her husband.

Abdullaev, a doctor by profession, sees little chance of defeating Karimov

Another candidate, Abdullaev, told RFE/RL that his daughter was recently attacked by a group of unknown women in a local market. He said he believes the act was part of the authorities' attempt to silence him.

Analysts say Karimov will attempt to remain in office either by amending the constitution or arranging a referendum in which people will "ask" him to continue leading the country. To date, Uzbek elections have never been recognized as "free and fair" by Western election monitors.

Abdullaev admits that he has no chance of winning in the polls against Karimov. "I have zero chance because Uzbekistan's election system is buffoonery. Everything, including the Central Election Commission, is in Karimov's hands. I can't be free in such political games. There will be political games and tricks anyway. There will be very serious attempts to prevent us from gaining the presidency," Abdullaev said.

So why do the candidates persist in running quixotic election campaigns? Abdullaev defends the undertaking, even if it has little chance of success. "Who knows, maybe it's good to be like Don Quixote in this kind of process. Of course, it will be difficult. But we have to try and overcome these difficulties. Someone has to be the first," Abdullaev said.

Abdullaev says that regardless of the outcome of his current attempts, the very fact that someone is challenging the incumbent president and openly criticizing his policies is important for Uzbek citizens, especially for the youth. "It will change their mindset," Abdullaev said.

Trying To Reach The Public

It is hard to estimate how many people in Uzbekistan know about Abdullaev and the other nominees for presidency.

Conducting independent surveys is virtually impossible in Uzbekistan. Local media remain tightly controlled by the authorities. It is not yet known whether the independent candidates will have access to Uzbek media during the campaign, as Uzbek law stipulates.

Foreign broadcasters like RFE/RL as well as the Internet remain the only avenues for expressing alternative views. But Internet penetration is low in the country, and web users are concentrated mostly in big cities. Some 60 percent of Uzbekistan's population lives in rural areas.

A random phone call to Tashkent's old town district brought this result: a woman on the line said she knew nothing of either an upcoming election or presidential candidates. But she was sure about one thing: she will not vote for Karimov in any case.

"Everything is getting more and more expensive. In bazaars, you can't even find vegetable oil. They sell old oil with an old expiration date. Everything is so expensive," the woman said. "We don't eat enough and stay half-hungry. Some days we can cook, but other days we go without a hot meal. How can I want such a person to stay [as president]? Of course I don't want that."

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

Kyrgyzstan: Court Ruling Restores 2003 Constitution

By Bruce Pannier

The latest changes restore lost powers to President Kurmanbek Bakiev

September 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan's Constitutional Court ruled on September 14 that two packages of amendments to the country's constitution that were adopted late last year are illegal.

The court ruled that the functioning constitution of Kyrgyzstan is the document adopted in a national referendum in 2003.

Kyrgyzstan's parliament is now set to hold an unscheduled session September 18 to discuss the country's constitution. Kyrgyz parliament speaker Marat Sultanov today told journalists that parliament is working furiously to interpret what the Constitutional Court's ruling means.

"We have already referred the matter to lawyers. They have to consider everything, do research, and prepare all their conclusions by tomorrow," Sultanov said. "Imagine, for instance, that we are passing several drafts today, and tomorrow they say these laws contradict the constitution. That could lead us to a dead end."

Reviving A Confrontation

Early last November, thousands of people demonstrated in Bishkek demanding a number of constitutional changes. Foremost among them were amendments that took powers from the executive branch and transferred them to the legislative branch.

It appeared the demonstrators succeeded when President Kurmanbek Bakiev signed a hastily amended new constitution on November 9 saying, "There are no losers here." But that version of the constitution only lasted until December 30, when pro-presidential lawmakers approved another amended version that restored some of the presidential powers lost in the November document.

After the September 14 decision by the Constitutional Court, all that activity in November and December can now be seen as a waste of time. The confusion that preceded the adoption of those two versions of the constitution is quickly returning.

On September 16, Justice Minister Marat Kaiypov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the Constitutional Court's decision is irrevocable and no person or body -- including parliament -- could even discuss it.

"There is no way to complain about the Constitutional Court's decision. And no state institution has the right to discuss or annul it," Kaiypov said. "All government officials and state institutions must implement the Constitutional Court's decision on time. If they don't implement it then they should be brought to court."

Opposition leader and former parliament speaker Omurbek Tekebaev pointed out that some of the appointments made -- including appointments to the Constitutional Court -- since the start of this year are now void since they were made under constitutions that have been ruled invalid.

"Three members of the Constitutional Court were elected for 15 years according to the December constitution, and according to the 2003 constitution they are only elected for 10 years," Tekebaev said. For that reason, the three court members' mandates "automatically lose their force, and the activity of the Constitutional Court is therefore invalid. The chairperson of the Central Election Commission is also illegitimate, and four members of the Election Commission are also illegitimate because they were not named by parliament."

Illegitimate Prime Ministers?

Other opposition figures have gone farther, saying any decisions taken this year are invalid because they were made under an invalid constitution. Opposition deputy Temir Sariev has even questioned whether the appointments of new prime ministers in January and March were legitimate.

Aziza Abdrasulova, the leader of the nongovernmental organization Kylym Shamy, told RFE/RL that it seems as though Constitutional Court Chairwoman Cholpon Baekova is trying to satisfy everyone and -- in so doing -- has satisfied no one.

"There are some mullahs who can find [permission] for everything in Shari'a law," Abdrasulova said. Constitutional Court Chairwoman Baekova "found a way for a third presidential term for Askar Akaev, and then she found a way for the legalization of a revolution. Then she found a way for the legalization of constitutional changes in November, then on December 30. And now she has found a way to reject all these changes. The Constitutional Court should be a court of principle. Because of the political decisions they make, now we are facing this situation."

But opposition lawmaker Kabai Karabekov agreed with the Constitutional Court's decision. Karabekov and another opposition lawmaker, Melis Eshimkanov, were the people who appealed to the Constitutional Court to overturn the 2006 constitutional amendments. Karabekov said now there is not only an opportunity to get it right, but also a chance for all Kyrgyz citizens to participate in the adoption of a new constitution.

"Now an opportunity has opened, a complete opportunity for everyone, for the political structure, for all those who support the [Kyrgyz] White House, for the opposition, for political parties, for the nongovernmental sector, for civil society to be included in a normal political process," Karabekov said.

President Bakiev has already announced that he will address the country on September 19, and his aides say the Constitutional Court's recent ruling will be one of the topics of that address. Analysts have not overlooked the fact that under the 2003 constitution, Bakiev has the power to call for a referendum without needing any approval from parliament or any other body in the government.

(Tynchtykbek Tchoroev and Venera Djumataeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)

Central Asia: Soaring Bread Prices Give Rise To Domestic Solutions

By Farangis Najibullah

Buying bread at a market in Dushanbe

September 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Prices for bread and other wheat products have been rising in Central Asia to record highs over the past three months, causing hardship for many people. Experts say the reasons behind the surging prices are not local, and that prices have gone up worldwide. Some Central Asian governments, however, are trying to find a solution to the problem inside their countries.

The start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan this year has coincided with soaring prices for bread, flour, and wheat in Central Asia. The increase in the cost of a staple like bread has caused severe problems for many people in the poverty-stricken region, where many have already cut down on other staples such as meat and butter.

Rahmatullo Saidov, a Dushanbe resident who came to the city market to buy flour, found the price has gone up by almost 60 percent since the beginning of September. Saidov says his family usually buys flour to make bread at home because it is cheaper than buying bread. However, Saidov says he is no longer able to pay for all of the flour he needs.

"I can't believe that during one week the flour price goes up from $20 [per 50-kilogram sack] to $32," Saidov says. "Do we have any law or government that could do something about it? Our salaries are not enough for flour anymore. My family needs three sacks of flour every month. My income is about $22 a month. I don't know what we are going to do."

Regionwide Crisis

People in the rest of the region -- including Kazakhstan, which is the main exporter of wheat in the region -- are facing similar crises with steep price increases reported in the other four Central Asian countries. But it is far from being a local problem.

On September 13, a "pasta strike" was held in Italy to protest the sharp increases in the price of pasta there. In fact, prices for wheat, flour, and other grains used to make bread and other foods have gone up all around the world. For the first time, the price of a bushel of wheat has reached $9 on world markets. One bushel is enough to make about 70 loaves of bread.

The growing worldwide demand for wheat and severe droughts in some important grain-producing areas -- such as Australia -- have contributed to higher wheat prices.

Part of the increased demand on grains is for their use in making biofuels, an idea that is growing fast in an attempt to reduce the world's dependence on oil and cut down on global warming. And the forecast for the world wheat market does not have a rosy outlook. Canada -- another of the world's major producers of wheat -- predicts its harvest next summer will be its lowest ever.

Record Kazakh Harvest

However, Kazakhstan, which is the main wheat exporter for Central Asia, expects it will actually have a record harvest this year of some 20 million tons.

"Our salaries are not enough for flour anymore. My family needs three sacks of flour every month. My income is about $22 a month. I don't know what we are going to do." -- Rahmatullo Saidov, Dushanbe resident

Galina Alekseyeva, an analyst at the Almaty-based Institute of Economy and Rural Development, says Kazakh wheat producers are raising the price of their wheat despite having an expected abundant harvest.

"There are no compelling reasons for such a rapid rise in the price of bread," she says. "Electricity and fuel have become slightly more expensive. But that only affects 10 percent of the cost [of bread]. The rest is just an anticipation of higher prices [on the world market]. [The wheat producers] are anticipating that the new harvest will enter the market with a higher price."

High prices have brought the residents of some Uzbek towns to the streets, and have caused a media frenzy in Tajikistan and angered consumers there and in Kyrgyzstan.

Domestic Solutions

In an attempt to prevent greater public discontent over the already high food prices, Central Asian governments are struggling to find a solution to the crisis from within their countries.

The Uzbek government has put pressure on private businesses not to increase bread prices. The measure has made some vendors close down at the prospect of losing money.

Turkmenistan has even tried to begin growing its own grain. However, the domestic wheat is hugely unpopular with consumers, who complain about its extremely low quality.

Kyrgyzstan is desperately trying to solve the problem, too. Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev has asked the parliament to approve additional funds to import more flour. "The new bill asks for 600 million soms (nearly $16 million) to buy grain and flour from Kazakhstan," Atambaev said. "Also, 150 million soms are needed to buy agricultural products from Kyrgyz farmers."

Hoji-Mohammad Umarov, an analyst at the Center for Economic Studies, a state-run think tank in Dushanbe, says Tajik farmers should shift their focus from growing cotton to producing grain. But according to Umarov, that is something that cannot happen overnight. Umarov said the soil that has been used for decades to grow cotton would have to adapt to growing a new crop. And Umarov predicts it would not be easy persuading private farmers to switch from growing the more profitable cotton to producing wheat.

With so many people in Central Asia having already cut their consumption of many foods because of rising prices, they will have nothing else to cut back on if bread prices keep going up.

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

Kazakhstan: Nazarbaev's Regional Tour Shows Growing Economic Influence

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Kazakhstan's Nazarbaev (left) and Turkmenisatan's Berdymukhammedov signed an agreement on a gas pipeline to Russia

September 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan has for years wanted to be the flagship country in Central Asia. It now seems to be realizing that ambition.

With its vast hydrocarbon resources, Kazakhstan has achieved nearly 10 percent annual economic growth in recent years, mostly due to its oil industry. Rising oil revenues have also allowed Kazakh companies to invest in neighboring countries.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev visited both Turkmenistan and Tajikistan this week, holding talks focused mostly on economic issues. The visits are seen as the latest moves in Kazakhstan's increasing economic expansion in the region.

Reaching Out To The Region

In Dushanbe, Nazarbaev promised on September 13 to provide Tajikistan with grain -- a timely offer for a country where prices for bread and flour have risen sharply in recent weeks.

Nazarbaev and his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, agreed to set up a joint investment fund, with Kazakhstan providing 80 percent of the money. "We agreed to establish a special investment fund of $100 million," Nazarbaev said. "The Kazakh side will contribute its significant part. The fund will work for the benefit of the Tajik economy. I believe it will be a good support."

Nazarbaev also said that Kazakhstan is ready to finance the construction of the Nurobod hydroelectric power plant in northern Tajikistan.

Rahmon said Kazakh-Tajik trade has increased 57 percent in January-July 2007 compared to the same period last year.

Economic issues were also at the center of Kazakh-Turkmen talks in Ashgabat on September 12. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said economic cooperation with Kazakhstan is a "priority aspect."

Nazarbaev and Berdymukhammedov also discussed the construction of a gas pipeline that would deliver Turkmen gas to Russia via Kazakh territory. Kazakh energy companies have expressed interest in investing in the development of Turkmenistan's oil fields, too.

The two sides also discussed the railroad project going through Uzen-Gyzylgaya-Bereket-Etrek-Gorgan -- stretching from Kazakhstan to Iran via Turkmen territory.

But Kazakhstan's regional economic aspirations are not only limited to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. In recent years, Kazakh companies have made significant investments in Kyrgyzstan's economy, with the banking sector leading the trend.

Leaving Traditional Rival Behind

Sergei Luzynanin, a professor at the Moscow Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), tells RFE/RL that Nazarbaev's recent trips to neighboring countries are part of Astana's policy to establish itself as a regional leader.

"All this proves that Astana wants to be a center of influence -- actually it has already become one. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are willing to cooperate [with Kazakhstan]. They have received Kazakh loans and investments. They have gained some advantage" from the cooperation, Luzynanin says.

"But others, like Uzbekistan, are cautious about Astana's initiatives. There's been some rivalry and jealousy [between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan]," he adds. "Tashkent has often criticized Astana's actions. It demonstrates an old, traditional antagonism."

Uzbekistan is Kazakhstan's rival for regional leadership, but it lags behind Kazakhstan in economic development. Astana introduced free-market economic reforms shortly after gaining independence in 1991, whereas the Uzbek economy remains state-controlled and still bears resemblance to the Soviet command-administrative economic system.

Luzyanin says Uzbekistan could strengthen its position in the region in a decade or more. "But Kazakhstan undoubtedly has taken a leading position in Central Asia for the time being," he says.

Russia, China Also Look To Move In

But it is not only officials in Astana who aim to develop economic ties with its neighbors. Kazakh companies -- state-owned as well as private ones -- have shown the interest and financial capacity to invest in neighboring countries' energy sectors, construction businesses, and general services. Luzynanin says the political will of the authorities has coincided with the companies' pragmatic interests at present.

Kazakhstan is not the only country expanding its economic presence in Central Asia. Russia has had a strong economic position in its former "soft underbelly." The Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom has been the major foreign partner of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Russia is also Tajikistan's biggest trade partner.

In recent years, China has also greatly strengthened its economic position in the region. Many Central Asians have even expressed fears of China's "creeping expansion."

Turkmenistan has reached an agreement with Beijing on the construction of a gas pipeline that is expected to start transporting Turkmen gas to China by 2009, while Russia's Gazprom also has an agreement to export Turkmen gas.

Will these developments produce a clash between the economic interests of Astana and those of Moscow and Beijing in Central Asia? Luzyanin is optimistic that they will not.

"Undoubtedly, there are contradicting [interests]. But Astana, Moscow, and Beijing are bound by dozens and even hundreds of bilateral contracts, agreements, and treaties as well as big institutional projects, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO]," he says. "The SCO summit in Bishkek [in August] proved that -- at least in the energy sector -- China, Russia, and Kazakhstan are interested in settling those contradictions on Turkmen gas."

As the gap deepens between the rich and poor in all Central Asian countries, there are also growing discrepancies between Kazakhstan, on the one hand, and poor countries like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan on the other. Luzyanin says that this makes regional stability more vulnerable.

He adds that Kazakhstan "should help its neighbors by investing not only in, let's say, the gas sector, but also build hospitals, schools, and roads."

Central Asia: People Left To Cope With Miserable Salaries

By Farangis Najibullah

Some Central Asians supplement low salaries by selling produce or working second jobs

September 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Even though some Central Asian countries increased public-sector wages this month, the average salary in the region -- less than $100 per month, with the exception of oil-rich Kazakhstan -- is still barely enough to buy basic foodstuffs.

The meager wages contribute greatly to the widespread corruption and bribery that exists in Central Asia.

Ziyodullo Razzoqov, a school teacher in Uzbekistan's Jizzakh region, says that with his salary -- around $80 a month -- he can only afford the most essential foodstuffs such as bread, oil, and vegetables, as well as essential clothes for his family of five.

But the family has to cut down on many other things. Razzoqov's children attend school, and "they need food, clothing, and school supplies. But we cannot afford all those expenses. Our salary is not enough for those clothes and the other stuff they sell in the market," he said.

Razzoqov's situation is not unique in Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia. Most public-sector workers in the region struggle to make ends meet with their miserably low wages.

Average official monthly salaries in the countries, excluding Kazakhstan, range from around $35 in Tajikistan to about $96 in Kyrgyzstan.

Higher Wages, Without Great Changes

The Tajik government has promised to increase public employees' wages by 50 percent next month, while teachers in Turkmenistan will receive a 40 percent pay raise with their September salaries.

Kyrgyzstan started to gradually increase public wages earlier this year.

During independence day celebrations in Uzbekistan on September 1, Uzbek President Islam Karimov announced that his government is considering major increases in pay for state workers. "In the next three years it has to be our duty that our workers' and public-service employees' wages, as well as pensions and student stipends, will be increased 2 to 2 1/2 times," Karimov said.

However, many people in Central Asia do not believe that such salary increases will change their lives dramatically.

People complain about the disproportionately high prices compared to their incomes.

Schoolteachers in Kyrgyzstan earn between $40-$70 a month. This salary can buy 20 kilograms of beef or 10 kilograms of butter.

In Tajikistan, where doctors officially make around $35 a month, the price of a liter of vegetable oil is $1, and a kilogram of beef costs $4.

Often when governments announce plans or even intentions to increase wages, merchants in local bazaars raise their food prices.

In addition, many teachers and doctors -- especially in rural areas -- do not receive their wages on time and sometimes get paid only after a two- or three-month delay.

People try to find solutions elsewhere. A young woman who lives in a Turkmen village and did not want to give her name told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that many people who have full-time jobs have to find additional sources of income.

"It's hard to earn a living. [Many] people have to do gardening and sell fruits [and vegetables] in the markets. This is how they manage to live," she said.

Seeking Work Abroad

Miserable salaries have forced hundred of thousands of men -- professional doctors, engineers, and teachers among them -- to spend several months a year as migrant laborers in Russia.

Many women in Central Asia have learned new skills, such as dressmaking and hat-making.

Orchards, vegetable farms, and livestock have become additional sources of income and food for many families.

Merime, a 62-year-old Bishkek resident, recently retired after almost three decades working as a doctor. Merime says Central Asian family traditions have helped many people survive the economic hardships.

She says Central Asian families are usually large and everyone -- including children and pensioners -- try to take part in earning their families' living. Elderly people count on their children's and relatives' support.

Merime sells vegetables in a Bishkek market to supplement her meager pension. "As a former doctor my monthly pension is nearly $25. This money is hardly enough to pay for utility bills. If I didn't have children and didn't earn some extra money, I wouldn't survive," she said.

Bribery Expected

Experts say low wages have contributed to the widespread bribery and corruption in the region.

Even teachers routinely charge their students for every test and exam, citing their small wages.

While medical treatment is officially free in public hospitals, it is a common practice in Central Asia that patients give money to doctors for services performed.

Police -- including traffic police, customs officials, airport workers, and tax authorities -- almost all over the region have become notorious for extorting money.

Transparency International (TI), a Berlin-based group that fights corruption worldwide, placed four Central Asian countries -- Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- among the 20 most-corrupt countries in the world in its 2006 report.

Shokirjon Hakimov, the head of the Law Department at the University of International Relations in Dushanbe, told RFE/RL that bribery has become an everyday reality -- a part of the region's culture.

Hakimov says that if the situation does not change in the next few years, the four poorest Central Asian countries could further plunge into corruption, with people completely losing faith in their governments and leaders.

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

Tajikistan: Is President Rahmon's Government Anti-Islamic?

By Farangis Najibullah

President Emomali Rahmon (file photo)

September 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- More than 300 makeshift mosques have been closed recently by authorities in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, with some of those sites subsequently turned into beauty salons or police offices. These and other clampdowns follow a government ban on Islamic head scarves -- hejab -- in schools, compulsory tests for clerics, and a ban on the fundamentalist Mavlavi religious group.

Government scrutiny of mosques and religious activities has intensified all over the predominantly Muslim republic of Tajikistan.

Authorities in the northern Sughd region have set deadlines for the operators of 350 mosques to get proper licenses or face closure.

Registration Hampered By Bureaucracy

In the eastern Vanj district, authorities have banned the fundamentalist Mavlavi Islamic group, whose practitioners have been accused of harassing locals.

Officials in the southern town of Kurgon-teppa have ordered 13 mosques there to present their registration documents to local prosecutors for checking.

"The authorities are worried about the fact that many people gather every evening in mosques. Because when so many people -- from different parts of society -- get together regularly, it is impossible [to imagine] that they would never discuss the country's political, social, and economic issues."

Kalandar Sadriddinov, an imam in a Kurgon-teppa mosque, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that authorities have introduced a complicated procedure to register mosques. He said operators must get official permission from many offices -- from the fire department to environmental authorities -- before even applying for registration.

"We have to get permission from 12 agencies," said Sadriddinov. "And people in those agencies get suspicious and nervous as soon as you mention 'mosque registration.'"

Sadriddinov said it took him more than seven months to finally register his mosque.

Mosques Converted Into Hair Salons

More than 300 unregistered mosques have been closed down in Dushanbe in the past two months.

The city mayor's office says some of the old makeshift mosques will house hair salons, public baths, or community centers. The office says that there are just 57 registered mosques in the city, which has well over 500,000 inhabitants.

At least two of the unregistered mosque locations have been destroyed.

The mosque destructions were followed in late August by compulsory testing for clerics which resulted in the expulsion of at least four imams who failed to pass the written exams.

Some prominent religious leaders in Tajikistan have criticized the official measures as "anti-Islamic," and warned they could bring public discontent and unpredicted consequences.

But not everyone in Tajikistan shares that view.

Firuz Umarov is an expert on social and religious affairs at a state-run think tank, the Center for Strategic Studies in Dushanbe. Umarov told RFE/RL that the government merely wants mosques to be registered properly, like any other public institution.

Umarov says hundreds of mosques have been built illegally all over the country, and are ignoring basic safety guidelines.

Umarov accused some politicians -- particularly the leaders of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) -- of trying to link "everything" to politics.

"The main reason behind the registration of the mosques is that the government wants all existing rules and laws to be obeyed," said Umarov. "Besides, the land is state property, so they should consult with the authorities before building a mosque on that land. That's the reason behind the registration."

It is believed that there are more than 3,000 mosques in Tajikistan, and authorities say most of them operate without a license.

Fear Of Fundamentalism Or Fear Of Dissent?

Some Tajik experts say the increased scrutiny of mosques and imams is part of a battle against extremism and possible threats to security.

But Hikmatulloh Saifullozoda, the head of the Dushanbe-based think tank Dialog, disagrees. He tells RFE/RL that the authorities tougher stance has nothing to do with any fear of religious extremism or terrorism.

Saifullozoda argues that the Tajik government is simply afraid of any type of regular public gathering, regardless of people's religious beliefs.

"The authorities are worried about the fact that many people gather every evening in mosques," says Saifullozoda. "Because when so many people -- from different parts of society -- get together regularly, it is impossible [to imagine] that they would never discuss the country's political, social, and economic issues."

In Dushanbe, the mosque re-registration and compulsory tests for imams have not been universally criticized, even among clerics themselves.

Many imams regard the measures as insulting and unnecessary. But others have said the government's decision is to some extent "understandable," because imams deal with hundreds -- if not thousands -- of people on a daily basis.

Qori Shamsiddin, the imam of one Dushanbe mosque, says that as many as 4,000 people at a time come to his mosque for prayers.

Many people stay on after evening prayers, listening to their imams' lectures or sermons. Some discuss personal problems with their local imams, or seek other kinds of guidance.

Shamsiddin says it is "a responsible job to be an imam," and he argues that "the authorities have to make sure that only people with the proper education and knowledge get the job."

Kazakhstan: Premier Warns Eni About Failures At Caspian Oil Field

By Bruce Pannier

Karim Masimov said 'friendly talks are now under way to resolve the situation' (file photo)

September 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov today warned the Eni-led consortium operating the Kashagan oil project that delays and cost overruns are taking on a "systematic character" and that the government is having doubts about the ability of the consortium to complete the project.

Located in Kazakhstan's sector of the Caspian Sea, the Kashagan field is believed to be the largest oil field discovered in the world since the 1960s.

Eni is a subsidiary of Italy's Agip oil company. The consortium Eni leads originally promised to start production at Kashagan in 2005, but has revised that date several times.

The latest revision came in early August when the consortium announced it would not be able to meet a 2008 date for production and would instead start in the second half of 2010. Eni also announced that the cost of the project would be $136 billion instead of the original $57 billion.

Government Moves In

The Kazakh government late last month ordered activity at the field suspended for three months, citing environmental concerns, as well as repeating its dissatisfaction with delays and increasingly higher costs for production.

While mentioning the Kazakh government's doubts about Eni's ability to meet deadlines and keep within budget, Prime Minister Masimov also said the government is considering revising the deal with Eni to give the state oil company, KazMunaiGaz, a larger share in the Kashagan project.

"We think the economic balance has been broken to the disadvantage of the Kazakh government," Masimov said. "Relevant demands have been made and friendly talks are now under way to resolve the situation."

KazMunaiGaz currently has only an 8.3 percent share in Kashagan, one of the smallest shares among the partners in the project. Masimov said KazMunaiGaz should be a "joint operator" on the Kashagan oil field, though he wouldn't say what kind of stake KazMunaiGaz should have.

Masimov also said the Kazakh government has a "plan B" in case a deal cannot be reached with Eni, but that he is not prepared to talk about that just yet.

Recouping The Costs

The Kazakh government intends on September 7 to present Eni with a bill for production delays and cost overruns that reportedly will total some $10 billion.

Masimov said today that the Kashagan production delays and cost overruns "threaten Kazakhstan with serious socioeconomic consequences," such as the inability of the government to build new schools, hospitals, roads, and implement other large-scale economic projects.

Masimov said a candid negotiation process is under way with Eni representatives and there is still hope for a quick solution to the problems.

But he warned today that anyone who violates Kazakhstan's laws will "bear full responsibility in accordance with the law and with international standards."

Estimates are that Kashagan has a minimum of 7 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

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