Afghanistan's Ring Road Completion Would Benefit Entire Region
The Ring Road was conceived in the 1960s as a highway that makes a giant circle within the country to link its major cities. Secondary roads are meant to link provincial capitals and smaller towns to the Ring Road -- much like the spokes of a bicycle wheel.
But despite its name, the Ring Road has never been a proper ring. War broke out in the 1970s before the northern section of the Ring Road was built. And in the decades of fighting that followed, large stretches of the existing 3,000-kilometer highway fell into disrepair or were destroyed.
A main focus of internationally backed reconstruction since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001 has been to repair the existing highway and finish building the remainder of the Ring Road.
But it wasn't until October 2 that a loan to finance the final section of unbuilt highway was announced by the Asian Development Bank -- a stretch passing though mountainous terrain in northwestern Afghanistan near the border with Turkmenistan.
"We're providing $176 million, along with the government of Afghanistan, which is also contributing $4 million," says Brian Fawcett, the Asian Development Bank's country director for Afghanistan:
"And this will be for the road from Bala Murghab to Leman, which is 143 kilometers," he adds. "This section of road will almost complete the Ring Road. The government of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Development Bank will do [the financing for the 50-kilometer section] from Leman to Amalick. And then the complete Ring Road will be finished."
Still Much To Do
The bank describes the Ring Road as the "backbone" of Afghanistan's transportation network, and its completion will be a major milestone for internationally backed reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.
But Fawcett tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan it is unlikely the work will be finished by the proposed deadline in the Afghan National Development Plan, a strategy that was approved at a conference of international donors in London in April 2006.
"First, the [Afghan] government has to recruit the consultant for the project. And then, after the consultant finalizes the design of the road, then the contractor will be recruited," Fawcett says. "So I think that the work will start, perhaps, in the first quarter of 2008. And the work will take 2 1/2 years to complete."
Fawcett says the security of consultants and construction workers is a concern that the Asian Development Bank has raised with the Afghan government. He says the Interior Ministry has responded by sending additional police to Badghis Province and the northeastern part of Herat Province, where the work is to take place.
Regional Economic Impact
Niklas Swanstrom is a specialist on Central Asia and director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, an independent think tank in Stockholm, Sweden. He says that the completion of the Ring Road will be a major benefit not only to Afghanistan but also to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
Map courtesy of Asian Development Bank. Click to enlarge. "The reason why it hasn't been completed is, first of all, financing. It's tremendously difficult to get good finances. And then, of course, the political situation has been very unstable. So even if you had financing, you would have a problem securing the actual construction of the Ring Road," Swanstrom says.
"The consequences of this have been very negative," he says. "Afghanistan has been a crucial factor in the whole economic equation of Central Asia. There have been estimates, for example, that the impact of [completing the Ring Road along with] all the regional network of trade would be 771,000 full-time jobs. It would be immense. It would be very positive."
Swanstrom sees the Afghan Ring Road within the larger scope of infrastructure and transportation projects aimed at improving trade ties in the entire region.
"Financially, it will be very important if Afghanistan can act as a link for the Central Asian states toward" a seaport like Karachi in Pakistan, he says. "Trade could increase tremendously. I don't think the impact will be that large in the initial stage.
"You have to connect Afghanistan with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and, more importantly, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- because that's really where the economy comes from. Then you have the Persian-speaking crescent [of Iran, northern Afghanistan, and Tajikistan]. For the Iranians, I don't think we should exaggerate the geopolitical impact of this network. On the contrary, I think the Iranians will struggle very hard to actually get the same benefits as many other countries."
Other Infrastructure Still Needed
Swanstrom says that with no railroad network in Afghanistan, completion of the Ring Road will aid Afghans enormously. But he says there are other benefits than simply making overland travel within the country easier.
"Afghanistan's exports will increase by 54 percent over the next five years," Swanstrom says. "Very much of that is through agriculture. And you will see quite substantial job creation -- long-term employment. It is also an increase in freight. Transit trade. Cotton going from Uzbekistan into Afghanistan and shipped all over the world. And, of course, if you can have oil and gas transit through Afghanistan, that's where the major gains will be made for Afghanistan in particular. "
But although Swanstrom says the development of transit corridors is "all good," he says there is one potentially negative aspect of completing the Ring Road and tying it into the highway networks of neighboring countries -- the possible strengthening of organized criminal groups in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
"With this new infrastructure development, it will be much easier for the Afghani drug lords to transport heroin and opium from Afghanistan to the rest of the region. That's something that needs to be dealt with because it's going to be very, very difficult to handle it," he says.
"We need to construct new institutions -- legal institutions. We have to strengthen the police, the military, the drug-enforcement agencies. We have to make sure that judges and political leaders are uncorrupt," he adds. "That's a huge commitment not only from Afghanistan and the Central Asian states, but also from the international community. And we haven't done much. We're looking at the restructuring of much of the Afghan institutions. That's fundamental."
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ayaz Barhar contributed to the story from Kabul.)
CIS, CSTO, GUAM...Making Sense Of Post-Soviet Alphabet Soup
GUAM, which groups Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova, is just one of the myriad alliances that arose from the ashes of the Soviet Union and are now vying for control of the region.
The GUAM youth summit comes just days after a gathering in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, of officials from the 12 former Soviet republics that form the Commonwealth of Independent States, or CIS.
The CIS summit featured sideline meetings between additional regional groupings. The six-member Eurasian Economic Community, or Eurasec, held talks. The Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO, signed an important agreement to pool resources.
The dizzying assortment of regional alliances -- together with their perplexing acronyms -- is one of the legacies of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Some of these groupings, like the CIS, followed in the immediate wake of the USSR; others in the late 1990s. Some are concerned with security and defense, while others focus mainly on economic development.
Only close observers are likely able to recite the membership and official aims of all of the groups. But Alexandre Rondeli, the head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategy and International Studies in Tbilisi, makes it simple. All of these organizations, he says, can be roughly split into two camps.
"Some countries try to defend themselves and form alliances to counter Russian threats and even Russian economic pressure," Rondeli says. "Other alliances and groups are created by Russia, or Russia's close allies, to restore a post-imperial space under Russian domination."
Under that model, GUAM -- which stands for the name of its four members, Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova -- would fall into the first category. Although its leaders insist the group is not directed against any other state, the westward-leaning ambitions evident in varying degrees in its members have contributed to its reputation as an anti-Moscow alliance.
Lately, GUAM has focused on extending an oil pipeline from Brody in Ukraine to the Polish city of Gdansk, which would enable Azerbaijan to pump oil directly to Western Europe, bypassing Russia.
The leaders of Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, and Lithuania are expected to discuss the project today at an energy summit in the Lithuanian Baltic Sea town of Klaipeda.
Also high on GUAM's agenda are plans to create a multinational peacekeeping force that would replace the Russian contingent currently deployed in the Moscow-backed separatist regions of Transdniester in Moldova, and of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia.
Expectedly, Russian officials have consistently accused the alliance of being anti-Russian and denounced it as an instrument used by the United States, a GUAM sponsor, and other Western nations to try to undermine Russia's clout in the region.
"The geopolitical context of this organization is definitely anti-Russian," says Konstantin Zatulin, the head of the CIS Institute in Moscow and a State Duma deputy for the country's Unified Russia ruling party. "Some are making use of the unfulfilled ambitions or internal problems of certain countries which, for a number of reasons, do not or cannot work with Russia like others. The West needs this organization to compensate for Russia's influence and revival, to contain it."
Others, like Rondeli in Tbilisi, say Moscow is simply riled by the efforts of GUAM member states to break out of Moscow's orbit.
"Russia has always seen GUAM as a menace," Rondeli says. "Any alliance or organization that doesn't include Russia or that isn't dominated by Russia is considered an enemy, hostile. [Russia] is trying to destroy it by influencing certain countries, for example [former GUAM member] Uzbekistan and Moldova."
The pro-Western presidents of Ukraine and Georgia, Viktor Yushchenko and Mikheil Saakashvili, both swept to power after mass protests that toppled Moscow-friendly regimes. Both are at loggerheads with the Kremlin.
While Moldova also leans increasingly westward, Azerbaijan has retained a more conciliatory position, avoiding confrontation with Moscow.
All four heads of state have called for increased cooperation between GUAM and NATO and the European Union.
Yushchenko's rise to the presidency has also poured cold water on Moscow's hopes of creating a common economic space comprising Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
Instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced last week during the Dushanbe CIS summit that Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan will launch a customs union in 2011 within the framework of Eurasec. He said the union may later grow to embrace the three other Eurasec members -- Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
Three of the four GUAM members -- Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova -- have meanwhile threatened to desert the CIS altogether. Many Commonwealth member states have aired frustration with what is seen as Moscow's domineering role in the group. A number of policy watchers have seen the deepening rifts within the CIS as signs heralding its disintegration.
But Alexander Rahr, a CIS expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, says shifting alliances are only natural in the context of transition.
"One thing has changed. In the 1990s, post-Soviet countries were poor; they were dependent on the West or on Asia for resources. Today, the situation has dramatically changed," Rahr says. "These countries have reached unexpectedly high levels of economic growth, so they will develop their own interests in each other, their own way of building the future together."
Rahr nonetheless upholds the view that shifts within the CIS are crystallizing into two camps, with GUAM countries increasingly setting their sights on the West. The result, he says, is that Russia is rallying allies in the East.
"Russia has understood that it has no future building a new reintegration model with countries like Ukraine or Georgia, which are heading westward," he says. "So Moscow is moving toward the east, toward the Central Asian states, which are eager to have some kind of alliance with Russia. I think the idea of a gas cartel that would include this region's energy-rich countries is something that Moscow is envisaging for itself in the near future."
Still, there are other regional groupings that bring Moscow and some of its dissenters to the table. The Black Sea Economic Cooperation group, or BSEC, brings together 12 countries, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine, with the expressed aim of fostering stability and integration in the Black Sea region.
There is also the informal grouping of the Caspian Sea littoral states, which comprises Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. Tehran is due to host the next Caspian Sea summit on October 16.
Tajik Region Bans Youths From Attending PrayersOctober 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Authorities in southern Tajikistan have instructed local mosque leaders not to allow school-aged boys to attend prayers.
Authorities in the region of Khatlon suggest the ban on young boys going to mosque is an effort to boost school attendance.
But its timing -- in the wake of recent crackdowns on religious dress, unregistered mosques, and the clergy -- has government critics accusing officials of "using any pretext" to put pressure on mosques.
Local neighborhood leaders in the city of Kurgonteppa in Khatlon this week urged imams to comply with the ban.
The head of the religious affairs in the Khatlon governor's office, Hussein Shokirov, said educational authorities made the decision at "parents' and local imams' suggestion" in light of complaints of poor attendance at schools.
But Kurgonteppa resident Usmon Tuychiev rejected that reasoning, claiming that parents' complaints had nothing to do with the ban.
Tuychiev accused the authorities of double standards, and told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that the authorities regularly cancel lessons to enlist children's help harvesting cotton.
"Some people have apparently been worried by the fact that students miss their lessons -- for an hour or two -- when they attend Friday prayers," Tuychiev said. "On the other hand, our students spend three to four months in cotton fields and don't have any lessons during that period. But apparently no one is concerned about that problem."
Enforcing The Ban
Dushanbe city authorities issued a similar order in 2006, and police officers reportedly raided mosques in the capital last year to enforce the prohibition.
Some reports suggested that similar raids took place at Khatlon mosques this week, but local authorities have denied those rumors.
RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Abubakr Faizali reports that local school officials in Khatlon's Bokhtar district have warned schools that "their teachers will be punished if pupils attend prayers."
Participation in mosque prayers is uncommon among Tajik schoolchildren. But during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends on October 12, children frequently accompany their parents for what are called "Tarobeh" prayers. Tarobeh is performed along with evening prayers during Ramadan.
Tajik authorities earlier this year ordered imams to register all places of worship, and have shut down and even destroyed some makeshift "mosques."
Kalandar Sadriddinzoda, the head of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party's office in Khatlon, says the new ban undermines existing legislation, including a 2007 law on the "regulation of traditions and private functions" that was initiated by President Emomali Rahmon.
"Not a single law -- even the law on traditions that has been created most recently -- says that people cannot go to mosque," Sadriddinzoda said.
Tajikistan's Council of Clerics has in the past barred women from attending Friday prayers, although very few women in the country go to mosques.
Tajikistan Hopes To Avoid Another Winter Of Power Shortages
But many ordinary Tajiks say they do not have high hopes for better conditions this winter, because an earlier, similar energy agreement with Kyrgyzstan was never realized.
At the beginning of October, Tajikistan began a winter schedule for electricity distribution, under which households and offices receive electricity for only two periods a day, in the mornings and evenings, totaling six to eight hours.
The authorities have announced that exceptions are made for the main hospitals, government offices, and "strategically important sites."
Gulchehra Dehqonova, a university professor who lives on the outskirts of the northern Tajik city of Khujand, says she cannot properly prepare for her classes because of the shortage of electricity.
"As a professor I need to prepare for my lessons. I need to write my lecture and read additional materials for that; I need to watch the news to get up-to-date information before entering the class and facing the auditorium," Dehqonova says. "Under the current circumstances it has become almost impossible."
Ironically, Tajikistan has a greater hydroelectric power capacity than any other country in Central Asia. It reportedly has the potential to produce more than 300 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year.
Yet Tajikistan is the only country in the region that faces a severe power shortage for more than half the year -- every year -- leaving entire towns and villages without power for long periods and sometimes for several days.
Mirzosharif Isomiddinov, the head of the Tajik parliament's Committee on Energy, Industry, and Communication, says that up to 50 percent of the electricity in Tajikistan is consumed by an aluminum plant. That is the main reason why Tajikistan -- despite its natural energy resources -- cannot provide enough electricity for its people, he says.
Last winter was one of the most difficult; power was cut off even in the city center of the capital, Dushanbe, for weeks. Officials claimed that important engineering work at a power plant, as well as low water levels in major rivers, caused the energy shortage.
Tajik officials have promised that the country will have a better situation this winter.
President Emomali Rahmon announced on October 4 that Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have agreed on the supply and transmission of Turkmen electricity to Tajikistan. According to the new agreement, Tajikistan will import 1.2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually from Turkmenistan for the next three years.
Many ordinary Tajiks, however, have been very cautious in welcoming the news. There were similar talks last year about importing electricity from Kyrgyzstan through Uzbekistan. Some Tajiks had hoped that their long and dark winter nights would finally come to an end with the influx of Kyrgyz electricity. But their dream of a Kyrgyz solution to their energy problem was not realized.
Tajik officials never fully explained to people why the plan was not put into action. There were reports that Uzbekistan did not have the capacity to transmit its neighbors' electrical power in the first place.
Lawmaker Isomiddinov says that Turkmenistan definitely generates enough power for export, and that Uzbekistan has started repairing its energy transmission networks to transfer the Turkmen electricity to Tajikistan.
Besides, Tajikistan is improving its own energy-producing infrastructure, Isomiddinov said.
"In December the first block of the Sangtuda-1 hydropower plant will start producing power. It will produce electricity of up to 4 million kilowatt-hours," he says. Another plant, the Yovon power station, "is being renovated and will start producing power in mid-November. The capacity of the Dushanbe power plant is also being expanded."
Tajikistan has several hydropower plants that currently produce some 17 billion kilowatt-hours annually.
A large facility is under construction in Roghun, in eastern Tajikistan. At a height of 335 meters, the hydroelectric dam would be the tallest in the world. However, after disagreements between Tajik and Russian investors, little progress is being made at the site.
Two other moderately large plants -- Sangtuda-1 and -2 in the southern part of the country -- are being built with Russian and Iranian financing. Several smaller hydroelectric facilities under construction elsewhere in the country, including in the eastern Pamir and Garm valleys.
A 'Bright Future'
Tajik leaders use every opportunity to mention that in the near future, Tajikistan will be exporting electricity to almost all its neighbors.
While Tajiks are used to media reports and government speeches about their homeland's vast electricity resources and "bright future," they are still dealing with the prospect of a dark winter with limited electricity supplies.
Conditions are better for their Central Asian neighbors, who have less resources. Kazakhstan has not had trouble with power shortages since 1999. Households in Turkmenistan receive most of their electric power free of charge.
Kyrgyzstan exports electricity to some countries -- including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- and has not experienced severe power shortages in recent years. This year, however, Kyrgyzstan is predicting some difficulties due to the low level of water in the Naryn River, where the Toktogul power station is located.
The situation in Uzbekistan -- especially in rural areas -- is to some extent similar to Tajikistan. Although Tashkent has not introduced a winter electricity-distribution schedule, power is regularly cut off without warning for several hours a day.
As winter approaches, the prices for stoves, coal, and wood have been going up in Tajik markets. Saodat, who sells stoves in a Khujand market, says that people install wood- and coal-burning stoves in high-rise apartments and use them both for heating their flats and cooking food. "There is no electricity, no gas," Saodat says. "This year people have to use stoves even on the ninth and 10th floors. It would be freezing cold there, otherwise."
Many well-to-do Tajiks buy special power generators that produce enough electricity for one household. Those who cannot afford a foreign-made generator usually opt for a homemade device -- ignoring electricians' and fire departments' warnings about safety risks.
Long-forgotten oil lamps have returned to Tajik markets once again, and candles -- long used only for romantic dinners -- are back in fashion for a different reason.
People say they are used to getting prepared for the dark and cold winter ahead, and are not holding too much hope that their government leaders will keep their promises and solve the problem for them.
Central Asia: Solana Visit To Focus On Energy, Drug Trade
The October 8-10 visit will take Solana to Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.
Solana's visit will look inject new life into the European Union's relations with Central Asia after the relative lull that has followed the adoption of the EU's first ever strategy for the region in June.
"The best way to signal that the region is important for us and that we want to deepen this strategic dialogue is to pay a visit," Solana's spokeswoman Christina Gallach told RFE/RL. " And [Solana] has chosen [the] three countries for several reasons -- he already saw the ambassador of Uzbekistan in New York, so that is a point, and he has been in contact, well, regularly with the Tajik president. Therefore we think it's a good selection because the timeline is not long."
The substance of the talks will revolve around two main issues: energy cooperation and the fight against drug trafficking.
The EU is interested in establishing direct links with energy-rich Central Asia, which is also being wooed by other major actors, among them Russia and China.
The bloc's ambitions, however, have so far not been matched by action. Plans for a trans-Caspian gas pipeline from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan remain on the drawing board. The EU is also struggling to build a vital gas transit link between hubs in Turkey and Austria.
Central Asia is also one of the main corridors for drug traffic between Afghanistan and Europe. Opium extracted from Afghan poppies supplies more than 90 percent of the heroin sold on European streets.
Addressing the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on October 3, Solana said the Central Asian countries were also an important factor in Western efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.
"[I will] visit the countries at the border [of Afghanistan] in order to see how we can organize or mobilize, to be more cooperative on the traffic[king] of drugs," he said. "A country with the problems that Afghanistan has, [of] security, [of] lack of control of the whole country by the central government -- if on top of that you have the money that is produced [with] drugs, and the capacity for corruption [that] that money has, it will make all our tasks much more difficult. Therefore to fight against that is a fundamental of an exist strategy for the stabilization of Afghanistan."
Solana also said poppy cultivation was spilling over Afghanistan's borders into neighboring countries, though he did not elaborate.
Solana's decision not to visit Uzbekistan on his visit reflects growing concerns within the EU that its attempts at a dialogue with President Islam Karimov's government have reached a dead end.
Turkmenistan, on the other hand, is fast becoming one of the EU's better partners in the region. Gallach said Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov would visit Brussels later this year.
Security Alliances Led By Russia, China Pool ResourcesDUSHANBE, October 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A Russian-led defense alliance of former Soviet states and a regional security body headed by China have agreed to broaden cooperation.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) signed the deal today on the sidelines of a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.
The head of the CIS's Collective Security Treaty Organization, Nikolai Bordyuzha, insisted that the agreement did not challenge NATO, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported.
"We don't see NATO as a rival, and certainly not as an enemy," Bordyuzha said. "As you know, we have offered our cooperation to NATO in many areas, including [combating] illegal drug trafficking. So I think it is a mistake to say that the document we signed today on systematic cooperation between the CSTO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is an attempt to rival or counteract NATO."
Topping the summit's agenda is a draft proposal on broad guidelines for CIS development as well as a declaration on a coordinated migration policy.
CIS leaders are also expected to replace Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, whose nation currently holds the grouping's rotating presidency, and also choose a new executive secretary.
The CIS comprises Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan is an associate member.
All are being represented by their heads of state except Ukraine, which has sent its foreign minister.
Kazakh, Russian Leaders Discuss Transport CorridorOctober 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Ahead of the CIS summit in Dushanbe this weekend, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Russia -- who meet frequently -- met again in the Russian city of Novosibirsk to attend the Forum of Leaders of Border Regions.
Foremost among the issues discussed October 4 was energy cooperation, specifically new export routes for shipping Turkmen and Kazakh natural gas and oil via Russia, something the presidents of those three countries agreed to in May.
"[Russian President] Vladimir Putin and I discussed today a long-term project to establish a Caspian transport corridor," Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev told the forum. "Kazakhstan is already building a modern structure in the Caspian zone that will become the central element in the establishment of an international Caspian energy and transport corridor from north to south, which follows up the agreement reached by Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan to build a gas pipeline."
The new corridor allows the export of gas and oil not only to energy-hungry European countries but also brings the possibility of eventually shipping energy supplies south through Iran to the Persian Gulf -- where ships could take it to Asian nations such as India.
The Iranian part of the corridor has not received much attention from the Kazakh, Russian, and Turkmen leaders yet but Turkmenistan does have a natural-gas pipeline connecting it with Iran, which serves as a modest model of what could come.
Nazarbaev said work has already started in his country to prepare for this new energy-export corridor. Nazarbaev's comments envisage shipping energy supplies via numerous means: pipeline, ships, and even roads.
"In its first stage, the [Caspian transport] project includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, aiming to connect the Persian Gulf on one end and the Baltic Sea on the other," he said. "The Caspian project envisions the creation of a high-tech system that includes railroads, highways, power transmission lines, gas, and oil pipelines."
Russian companies are ready to invest in building Kazakhstan's largest port at Kuryk on the Caspian.
Nazarbaev also again raised the possibility of constructing new canals to link "the basin of the Caspian Sea and the basins of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov," which would "immeasurably enhance the geopolitical importance of that [energy-export] system."
Nazarbaev and Putin also discussed the legal status of the Caspian Sea ahead of a summit of Caspian Sea littoral states scheduled later this month in Tehran.
Both Russia and Kazakhstan (as well as Azerbaijan) have been active in developing their sectors of the Caspian Sea's energy resources despite the fact there is no agreement on the legal status of the Caspian and the distribution of its resources.
The agreements currently governing the Caspian date back to 1921 and 1940 when the Soviet Union and Iran signed documents on its status.
The issue -- especially for Iran -- is whether the Caspian should be defined as a lake or a sea. If the Caspian is officially defined as a sea then each of the five countries washed by its waters (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan) would have national sectors and would be free to develop resources individually in their own sectors. If it is a lake then the Caspian would fall under a "condominium" status and all five would equally share the resources and the profits. Defining the Caspian as a sea leaves Iran with about 13 percent of the Caspian and preliminary exploration of that sector show it contains less gas and oil than the other four countries' sectors.
Putin and Nazarbaev also discussed border issues. Both presidents lauded improvements in curbing illegal narcotic trafficking and illegal immigration along the two countries' 7,540-kilometer border.
Vladimir Pronichev, the deputy director of Russia's Federal Security Service, said security efforts along the Kazakh-Russian border have improved dramatically in recent years and predicted the addition of 35 new border posts in the next few years would practically curb illegal immigration.
Nazarbaev called for Russian help in making such improvements along Kazakhstan's borders with its Central Asian neighbors to further stem illegal narcotics and immigration.
Nazarbaev and Putin also raised the issue of using water from transborder rivers. Both presidents pointed to China's plans to divert water from the Irtysh River to construct massive irrigation systems for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. China is developing its own vast oil fields there and sending tens of thousands of new workers to the region, rich in oil but practically barren of water.
Both Putin and Nazarbaev expressed concern about the plan and said there was a need to consult with Chinese officials about use of Irtysh River water so that the part of the Irtysh that flows into Kazakhstan and Russia does not dry out. Nazarbaev has known about the Chinese plans for the Irtysh for a decade now but seemed emboldened to raise the issue knowing he had Putin's support.
Putin and Nazarbaev also discussed bilateral trade, which has significantly increased this year. Putin said trade between the two countries should come to some $16 billion this year, up from about $12.8 billion in 2006.
In a nod to the governors present at the forum, Putin noted that about $7 billion of that came from crossborder trading. To put that figure in perspective, when Boris Yeltsin was Russian president he wanted to increase Russia's bilateral trade with China to $20 billion annually.
Among the other issues Putin, Nazarbaev, and officials discussed were joint ventures to manufacture and repair armaments and other military hardware, cooperation in the banking sector and how to prevent bird flu from spreading from China into Kazakhstan and Russia this year.
Tajikistan: Temptation Is Strong For Young Men To Ignore Military Call-Up
As the new season of military call-ups is under way in Tajikistan, young men between 18 and 27 years old are required to report to their local army-recruitment offices.
But many young Tajiks are skeptical, and admit they will go to great lengths to avoid army service.
Komil Rajabov, a 22-year-old Dushanbe resident, has ignored several letters from the local military office, or "voenkomat," and is instead going to Moscow to continue his education.
Rajabov distrusts the state-run media campaign that claims there have been improvements in the conditions for army conscripts.
"I would not mind serving in the national army, but I would only join the army if there were a guarantee that I was not going to endanger my health there," Rajabov says.
Rajabov claims his view of army conditions is shared by a majority of young Tajik men.
Many Tajiks are aware of the appalling conditions that Tajik National Army soldiers must endure -- a lack of proper food, clothes and equipment, as well as freezing and poorly outfitted military barracks.
The days are long gone of Tajik soldiers turning up on doorsteps in tattered military uniforms to dine on the charitable contributions of locals.
The country's Defense Ministry has been trying hard to improve the armed forces' tarnished image.
But young men who served recently in the army and who spoke with RFE/RL suggest the military has a long way to go to change public impressions.
'You Could Freeze To Death'
Rahmatullo Safarov is a 25-year-old resident of Hisor region, on the outskirts of Dushanbe, who completed his 24 months of compulsory military service two years ago.
"There was no proper food or clothing," Safarov says. "I don't know how conditions are now in the army, but it was awful before. We mostly ate porridge, but even that was in small portions. We had old uniforms. They would barely give us another set of uniforms in six months. The uniform wasn't warm enough -- you could freeze to death in those clothes during the night patrols."
Rahmatullo told RFE/RL that he fell ill during nighttime duty and was sent to a Dushanbe military hospital, where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.
Rahmatullo said that -- like many of other young men -- he was forcibly seized by "voentkomat" representatives and sent to the army.
Seizing young men in streets and markets and sending them into military service was a common practice for years in Tajikistan. The practice was known as "oblava."
During the military call-up in the spring, the Defense Ministry announced that "oblava" had been outlawed and vowed to try to conscript soldiers on a less confrontational basis.
The ministry has also launched a campaign to convince young people to fulfill their military service. State-run television airs a weekly program that shows soldiers wearing new uniforms and polished shoes in brand new military barracks. Often, they are singing patriotic songs and happily discussing the "wonderful conditions" in the army, compete with claims of "superb food."
Viewers who spoke to RFE/RL said they haven't seen any criticism on the show of anything remotely connected with military service or army conditions.
Military officers, officials, and former soldiers frequently appear on youth-oriented programs to praise army service, including its "physical and moral benefits for the young."
Faridun Mahmadaliev, who heads the Defense Ministry's press and communication department, says the Tajik army is much improved and thoroughly different from its former self.
"There are clean and airy dormitories, and new blankets, and beds are in place for new soldiers who join the military units this year," Mahmadaliev says. "From the very first day of joining the force, every new soldier would feel like the leadership of the country and the government are taking care of him."
Firuz Saidov, a sociologist in Dushanbe, tells RFE/RL that after many years of rumors and complaints about dreadful conditions in the army, young people still find it difficult to trust television reports and the military officials citing major improvements.
"There should be a program of 'Open-Door Day,'" Saidov says. "I mean, during such days, young people and parents should be able to personally go and see up-close the living conditions of the soldiers."
It is not clear, however, that open-door days would persuade young Tajik men to join the army.
In his interview with RFE/RL, 22-year-old Rajabov vows that he won't return from Russia until he's 28 -- too old to be conscripted into the Tajik army.
More HIV-Infected Children Found In Southern KazakhstanOctober 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A senior Kazakh health official has reported another rise in the number of children infected in hospital with HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS.
The chief of the South Kazakhstan Regional Health Department, Viachelsav Dudnik, said the number of children infected by HIV-tainted blood in southern Kazakhstan had now reached 133.
Most of the children have been infected with HIV in two major children hospitals in Shymkent, located in South Kazakhstan Province. It is thought that many were infected by the reuse of needles that had been tainted with the disease or had been given a transfusion of tainted blood.
The scandal surrounding the infection of the children -- several of whom have since died of AIDS -- initially broke in 2006 and caused fear among parents whose children had undergone treatment at the medical facilities.
Kazakh Minister of Health Protection Erbolat Dosaev was fired in connection with the incident, and several medical workers were sentenced to prison terms.
However, government critics say that Kazakh authorities have not taken enough measures to help the victims.
Sagadat Masagurov is the former head of a Shymkent-based nongovernmental organization, Protection for Our Kids from AIDS.
Masagurov told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the government has not kept its promise to support the children who have fallen victim to medical workers' negligence.
"In general, for the government this issue is like a closed book now," he said. "It just turned into a routine issue, that's all. We have predicted that in a half a year everybody would forget it. That seems to be true. Nobody wants to hear or discuss the issue of the compensation that is due [for the victims and relatives of the victims]."
It was Masagurov's NGO that brought the Shymkent incident to the public's attention.
'No Uzbek Rights Progress' Ahead Of EU Sanctions Review
The comments by Riina Kionka, an EU human rights envoy, come two weeks before EU foreign ministers are due to discuss whether to extend the bloc's sanctions against Uzbekistan, imposed in the wake of the mass killings of protesters in the city of Andijon in 2005.
Kionka told the committee on human rights on October 1 that the sanctions had "worked to an extent" in opening a channel of communication, but that Uzbekistan had not substantively cooperated with EU efforts to open up a rights dialogue.
Kionka, a personal representative of EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, said the Uzbek side appeared intent on sidelining key EU concerns and avoiding further meetings, including at a meeting in Tashkent last month.
"There was no agreement to have a follow-up human rights discussion in October," she said. "In addition, the Uzbek side gave the indication that they would not like to discuss any more any events connected to Andijon or anything having to do with the sanctions -- that this is regarded to be the EU's internal problem."
The sanctions were imposed after Uzbek authorities forcefully put down an uprising in the eastern city of Andijon in May 2005.
The Uzbek government says 187 people died in Andijon and that Islamic militants instigated the violence, but rights groups say hundreds of people were killed, most of them unarmed demonstrators that included many women
The EU's sanctions include a visa ban on officials involved in Andijon, a freeze on technical contacts, and an arms embargo. In May, the bloc marginally relaxed the penalties, taking some officials off the visa ban list and reducing the period after which it reviews the measures.
Now, two years after initially imposing sanctions, the EU finds itself in a quandary.
In a sense, the sanctions have arguably worked. A dialogue of sorts has been launched with Uzbek authorities, with meetings to discuss the events of Andijon and human rights issues. But Uzbek intransigence at those meetings has left EU officials wondering precisely about the value of opening up channels of communication for their own sake.
Kionka said Tashkent "has very ambitious views of the goals for EU-Uzbek cooperation but" -- in her words -- "very ambiguous views on how to get there."
This leaves the 27 EU foreign ministers with very little new to go on when they meet in Luxembourg on October 15 to debate the fate of the sanctions.
Kionka told the parliamentary hearing that many member states want to "refocus" the sanctions and add other criteria beyond the demand for an international inquiry into the Andijon events. She did not elaborate what those criteria might be.
One EU official told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that Uzbekistan's refusal to face tough questioning on Andijon means Brussels' focus is likely to shift to more topical issues such as human rights standards and attempts to pursue a dialogue with Uzbek civil society. On the other hand, the official said, the EU could expand its visa ban list and freeze the assets of some officials.
Divisions Within EU
The EU's difficulties in communicating with Uzbekistan are compounded by divisions within the bloc. Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Ireland are said to implacably resist any easing of the sanctions without tangible progress in the field of human rights.
On the other hand, the EU's previous chair, Germany, and the current holder of the bloc's rotating presidency, Portugal, are keen to show that the EU's new Central Asian strategy, adopted in June, is bearing fruit. For that, they need the cooperation of the Uzbek government.
Kionka, however, stressed that human rights standards are a key element in the EU's Central Asian Strategy.
Alain Deletroz of the International Crisis Group, a think tank, spoke at the October 1 hearing as an expert. Deletroz said that apart from a deteriorating human rights situation, Uzbekistan also faces social catastrophe. He said standards in fields such as health care, education, and others are plummeting.
Deletroz particularly warned Brussels not to relax the sanctions before Uzbekistan's presidential election in December, when some observers expect long-serving President Islam Karimov to orchestrate a new term.
"What is certain is that if the Council of the European Union is going to relax the sanctions against Karimov's administration," Deletroz said. "Karimov's propaganda apparatus would immediately seize upon it to prove that he is right, that European democracies admit it, and [to say] 'Look, they have dropped the sanctions!'"
Deletroz also said the EU should isolate Uzbekistan from the other Central Asian republics, and treat it the way Brussels treats the worst rights offenders -- such as Myanmar (Burma).