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Central Asia Report: November 2, 2007

More Kazakh Media Silenced As High-Stakes Feud Continues

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Rakhat Aliev (file photo)

November 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Kazakh media has been caught in the crossfire as mudslinging continues between a former presidential son-in-law and the country's ruling elite.

Four opposition weeklies that planned to republish a recent RFE/RL interview with Rakhat Aliev have been rejected by their publishing houses and did not go to print today, amid veiled official threats.

"All newspapers that have recently published either interviews or the flurry of information given out by the former son-in-law, or any comments, have seen tough pressure," says Rozlana Taukina, the head of the Kazakh nongovernmental group Journalists in Trouble.

In a telephone interview with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service on October 26, Aliev appeared to accuse his former father-in-law, President Nursultan Nazarbaev, of ordering the execution-style killing of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev and two aides in 2006.

Less than a week later, on November 1, Almaty city prosecutors announced that Aliev will be tried in absentia on charges of involvement in abductions, financial wrongdoing, and abuse of official powers.

Aliev is among the most senior defections ever from the inner circle of Kazakhstan's tight-knit ruling class. The opposition, mindful of Aliev's years of dedicated service to the autocratic Nazarbaev, has kept Aliev at arm's length since his fall from official grace. But they and presidential allies clearly recognize that he has been privy to the inner workings of a secretive Kazakh government.

The recent maelstrom could also affect Kazakhstan's bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009, which still hangs in the balance. OSCE foreign ministers are due to meet in Spain later this month to vote on the bid.

Suddenly, Problems Arise

Problems for the Russian-language independent weekly "Svoboda slova" began on October 29, when its publishing house, Speed Master Print, refused to print the November 2 issue.

"Svoboda slova" Editor in Chief Gulzhan Ergalieva says she then turned unsuccessfully to several other printing houses but "they all refused" the job for "various reasons." She says the next day, October 30, brought two visits to "Svoboda slova" from the financial authorities. "They told us that they received a tip that we had violated tax legislation by hiding some funds and not meeting our tax obligations to the state treasury," she says.

Similar events were occurring at two other publications, "Respublika" and "Vzglyad." The publishing house for the Kazakh-language opposition weekly "Taszhargan" also turned away that paper, which was visited by fire-safety officers.

An officer with the Kazakh financial authorities who was contacted by RFE/RL's Almaty correspondent said she had no information about any of the cases.

Galina Dyrdina, a deputy editor at "Respublika," thinks the troubles stem from the weekly's plans to print coverage of what has been dubbed "Rakhat-gate." "Someone is afraid that Rakhat [Aliev] could publish -- particularly through our newspaper -- information about who is really behind the killing of Altynbek Sarsenbaev," Dyrdina says.

Sarsenbaev, his driver, and a bodyguard were shot dead outside Almaty in February 2006. Fellow members of the opposition continue to allege top-level involvement in the killings despite a trial this year that resulted in the conviction of mid-level security and other officials for those deaths.

Hushing Up Embarrassing Revelations

That's where estranged son-in-law Aliev comes in. A former deputy chairman of the National Security Committee who later served as ambassador to the OSCE and Vienna, Aliev told RFE/RL that the order for Sarsenbaev's killing came from Austria while President Nazarbaev was there on holiday.

The Aliev case is bringing Kazakhstan the kind of attention it doesn't want (epa file photo)

Aliev was married to Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha, until she divorced him long-distance in June after the accusations arose against him. In August, an Austrian court rejected Kazakhstan's extradition request, saying Aliev could not receive a fair trial in Kazakhstan. In September, two of Aliev's bodyguards in Vienna fled to Almaty and were said to have implicated their former boss in criminal activities, including the high-profile abduction of two senior Nurbank executives.

In a move criticized by international media watchdogs, Kazakh authorities blocked several opposition websites in late October, citing mostly technical reasons.

Independent journalists and rights activists called the move political censorship, coming as it did after the websites posted wiretapped phone conversations purportedly among senior officials, implicating them in serious wrongdoing. All the downed websites had recently run stories on apparent government attempts to silence Aliev. They all also linked the closures to the posting of the transcripts, some of which include apparent references to Aliev.

Journalists in Trouble's Taukina alleges that the heads of several newspapers were summoned to the Interior Ministry some two weeks ago, where they received instructions from the Interior and Culture and Information ministries "not to publish information that comes from the Kazakh president's former son-in-law."

President Nazarbaev has not been shy about his ambitions of making Kazakhstan, which sits on large fossil-fuel and uranium deposits, a regional powerhouse in Central Asia.

But "Respublika's" Dyrdina says the current official pressure on independent newspapers tarnishes the international image of a country that is trying hard to prove its democratic credentials.

The U.S.-based nongovernmental group Freedom House in its draft freedom-of-the-press report for 2007 describes Kazakhstan as "not free" and notes that "the authorities allow limited press freedom but safeguard the existing power structure against dangers that truly independent media might pose."

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merkhat Sharipzhan and correspondent Maryam Beysenkyzy contributed to this report from Prague and Almaty.)

Tajikistan's Much-Needed Electricity Stalled In Uzbekistan

By Farangis Najibullah

Tajikistan has vast, untapped hydroelectric potential

November 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- When the Tajik and Turkmen presidents met in Dushanbe last month for a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Dushanbe, they announced that Tajikistan was going to import electricity from Turkmenistan to help to solve its winter energy crisis.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon said that Ashgabat, Dushanbe, and Tashkent had reached an agreement to deliver electricity from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan through neighboring Uzbekistan starting on November 1. The Turkmen electricity, however, has not arrived.

Tajikistan depends on Uzbekistan for much of its access to the outside world, and has often been left at the mercy of its larger western neighbor's decisions to block transit of goods and energy.

Rashid Gulov, the deputy head of the engineering department in Barqi Tojik, the Tajik state energy company, says that the head of Barqi Tojik left for Tashkent on November 1 to discuss the issue with Uzbek energy officials.

According to Gulov, Tajik Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov also plans to discuss the issue with his Uzbek and Turkmen counterparts on the sidelines of the SCO prime-ministerial meeting that begins today in Tashkent.

At Uzbekistan's Mercy

Tajik officials -- who had been talking publicly about the Turkmen electricity and how it will help solve the crippling energy shortages the country has every winter -- are now talking vaguely about some kind of "technical work" that still needs to be done to bring the electricity to Tajikistan.

Iso Sadulloev, a top official of Uzbekistan's state energy company UzbekEnergo, told reporters in Dushanbe last month that Uzbekistan has mostly completed the overhaul of its energy delivery networks.

There are two major power links to transmit the Turkmen electricity through Uzbekistan, Sadulloev said, and one of the lines was ready to use in October and the last minor work on the second line would be completed by November 1.

But Shokirjon Hakimov, a department head at the Tajik Institute of International Relationships in Dushanbe, says that the only obstacle to Tajikistan getting electricity from Turkmenistan is of a political nature, not a technical one. He says Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government has often put pressure on Tajikistan, with transit routes through Uzbekistan being its main tool.

The two countries have a long-standing dispute over transport routes, with Uzbekistan closing its borders and roads and railways to Tajikistan without prior warning. Vehicles delivering goods to or from Tajikistan and trains with hundreds of passengers are sometimes stranded for many hours on the Uzbek border.

With war-torn Afghanistan on its southern border, Tajikistan depends greatly on Uzbekistan for energy transit and transport routes to the west.

No Quid Pro Quo

Last winter, Tajikistan signed an agreement to buy electricity from Kyrgyzstan during the winter. However, the plan was not implemented after Kyrgyz officials said that Uzbekistan would not allow the transmission to go through its territory despite having signed an accord on the transfer.

During spring and summer, when the river waters are at their peak, Tajikistan produces much more hydroelectric power -- and actually exports some of it to Uzbekistan.

Hakimov says that Tajikistan -- which along with Kyrgyzstan controls most of Central Asia's water resources -- has been providing Uzbekistan with water and electricity during the summers in the hope that Uzbekistan will "return the favor" during the winter.

"This year, when Uzbekistan needed more, [Uzbek President] Karimov officially queried Tajikistan" about the possibility of getting more energy and water, Hakimov says. "Tajikistan provided water and electricity for Uzbekistan -- even more than the usual amount. And there was a precondition that Uzbekistan would agree to [allow the transfer of electricity across its territory] when Tajikistan had a greater need for power in the autumn and winter. But it did not happen."

Tapping Its Potential

Hakimov says it is likely that in the coming days or weeks -- after exhausting talks with Uzbek officials and perhaps with Tashkent securing better transit fees from Tajikistan -- that Tajik officials will succeed in finally bringing Turkmen electricity to the households, offices, and factories that need it.

But in the longer run, Hakimov says, Tajikistan has only one option to end its electricity crisis once and for all -- it has to build the capacity to produce enough energy to cover its own needs year-round.

Ironically, Tajikistan has the greatest hydroelectric capacity in Central Asia, with an estimated potential to produce over 300 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. Several large and medium-sized facilities, including the Sangtuda and Roghun hydropower plants, are under construction, mostly with Russian and Iranian investment.

But Tajikistan's hydropower plants currently produce only about 17 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually and it is the only country in Central Asia that faces such severe seasonal power shortages, with towns and villages receiving electricity for only a few hours during the early mornings and evenings. The only exceptions are city hospitals, government offices, and some factories and other sites that officials have categorized as "strategically important."

Tajik households have adapted to the situation and are now used to having dark winter evenings. Wealthier people usually use small power generators that produce enough electricity for one household. But those Tajiks with less money have no other option than to use oil lamps and candles until the country's infrastructure improves or until Uzbekistan decides to be more neighborly.

Kazakh President Accused Of Ordering Opposition Leader’s Murder

Rakhat Aliev (file photo)

October 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Rakhat Aliev, the controversial former son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, has accused the president of ordering the murder last year of a key leader of the country’s political opposition.

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Kazakh Service today, Aliev, speaking by telephone from Vienna, also said that he plans to release the results of his own investigation into the murder to Austrian authorities. Opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev, his driver, and bodyguard were shot dead in February 2006 outside Almaty. The Kazakh opposition blamed the regime for the killings, a charge the government denies.

In the interview, Aliev, a former member of the Kazakh elite who has never been in the opposition, said, "The order for the elimination of Altynbek Sarsenbaev was given from the territory of Austria, when President Nazarbaev was on holiday in Klagenfurt, Austria, in early February 2006, where [then-speaker of Kazakh's upper house of parliament Nurtai Abykaev] came just for a few hours."

Aliev’s accusation is the latest and most scathing one to date in a flurry of recent public feuding between him and authorities. Aliev, a former ambassador to Austria, where he now resides, is wanted in Kazakhstan for alleged abduction and corruption, among other charges. Attempts by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service to reach Nazarbaev’s office for reaction to his remarks were unsuccessful.

'War Of Blackmail'

Commentators have portrayed the public mudslinging between Aliev and authorities as a palace feud that has erupted into a “war of blackmail.” But for Astana, it is untimely, having thrown open a window onto the underbelly of Kazakh politics just as the country is hoping its improved image in the West will help win it backing to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to which Aliev also once served, ironically, as Kazakh envoy.

"What this does is unpleasant from Astana's point of view,” Matthew Clements, a Eurasia expert at Jane's Information, says of the public feuding between Aliev and Nazarbaev. “They do not want this coming out because it kind of puts it at the forefront, really kind of brings out that these issues exist in Kazakhstan."

Last week, Kazakh authorities said they had found a body believed to be one of the senior bankers whom they accuse Aliev of abducting. This week, Kazakh authorities shut down four opposition websites after they posted wiretapped phone conversations allegedly between senior officials, implicating them in serious wrongdoing. All the downed sites recently ran stories about apparent government attempts to silence Aliev, a former confidant of Nazarbaev. They all also linked the closures to the posting of the phone transcripts, some of which discuss Aliev.

During RFE/RL’s broadcast of the Aliev interview today, the transmission quality suddenly dropped and became almost inaudible. RFE/RL’s broadcasts in Kazakhstan are carried by Kaztelradio, which is part of the Kazakh Ministry of Communications. Kaztelradio told RFE/RL the problem was due to technical difficulties.

President Nazarbaev has led Kazakhstan since independence (official site)

Aliev, who was until earlier this year married to Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha, is a former top security-service officer. Over the years, he amassed a fortune spanning media and banking -- a business empire that in recent months has come under attack by authorities. He is also believed to be privy to information that could implicate Kazakh officials, including Nazarbaev, of alleged wrongdoing.

"Well, this is part of the concept of the authoritarian, dictatorial regime of President Nazarbaev, who has held on to power for 16 years already,” Aliev said in the interview. “We all witnessed the president win 91 percent of the vote in the latest presidential election and saw [the pro-presidential party] win almost 100 percent [in parliamentary elections] in August this year. The president's greatest dream came true. He has obtained full control of all the branches of power: legislative, executive, and judicial."

Last month, two of Aliev's bodyguards in Vienna fled to Almaty and reportedly implicated their former boss in various criminal activities, including the abduction of two bank officials. In August, an Austrian court rejected a Kazakh extradition request for Aliev, saying Aliev would not receive a fair trial in Kazakhstan, where he's also wanted for alleged abuse of office.

Democratic Enough For The OSCE?

OSCE foreign ministers are due to meet in Spain in late November to vote on Kazakhstan’s bid to assume the Vienna-based organization’s rotating chairmanship in 2009. Although the OSCE dubbed the Kazakh parliamentary elections in August “neither free nor fair,” Astana is seen by many as having a good chance of getting the chairmanship, despite opposition to it by the United States and United Kingdom, who remained unconvinced of Kazakh democratic progress.

"The European ministers who are deciding on the OSCE [chairmanship] would actually like to a degree to pretend that Kazakhstan is better, that it's improving,” analyst Clements says. “They really want to engage with Kazakhstan, they want to get access to its gas, to its oil, and they want to sort of develop this cooperation and the OSCE is a really crucial way of doing it.”

But recent news, at the least, is unlikely to help Astana’s attempts to portray itself as an emerging democracy.

Speaking on October 25, after news that Kazakh authorities had closed the opposition websites, John MacLeod, a Central Asia expert at London’s Institute for War and Peace Reporting, said, "The actual timing, I think, is most unfortunate from the [Kazakh] president's perspective."

(RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier contributed to this report.)

Uzbekistan's Economic Hardships Belie Official Growth Figures

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

A market stall in Andijon, eastern Uzbekistan. Many Uzbeks are struggling to afford basic food staples

November 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Although officials in Uzbekistan say the country's economy grew by 9.8 percent in the first nine months of this year, ordinary Uzbeks don't seem to be feeling the benefits of a growing economy.

Moreover, with the media and official statistics firmly in the hands of an autocratic president in an election year, observers caution against placing too much faith in claims of economic achievement.

The official statistics for Uzbekistan's gross domestic product regularly differ by several percentage points from those reported by international financial institutions. Depending on whom you ask, the discrepancies are blamed on anything from different accounting methodology to the government's political agenda. By exaggerating economic growth, the regime of President Islam Karimov could be well-positioned to tout its successes while avoiding genuine reform.

Ann-Louise Hagger, an editor and economist with the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), tells RFE/RL that growth for the first nine months of this year is actually likely to be lower than the nearly double-digit growth already announced, although she notes that the economy has indeed been expanding.

Hagger points out that recent growth is a trend throughout the CIS region. "A lot of economies picked up quite strongly in the last few years. Obviously, there was quite a sharp fall in output in the post-Soviet period. In a way, the economies are bouncing back from that," she said. She adds that Uzbekistan and other energy-rich states have seen growth largely because of their huge exports of increasingly lucrative hydrocarbon resources.

The Russian state gas monopoly Gazprom, Uzbekistan's biggest partner, has injected millions of dollars into the country's energy sector in the last few years.

In addition to high demand for oil and gas, prices for Uzbekistan's other major export items -- cotton and gold ---- have also been on the rise. Uzbekistan is among the world's top 10 gold exporters, although officials do not announce gold output statistics.

A Questionable Bumper Crop

In October, Uzbek authorities reported that the country exceeded its goal of 3.6 million tons for the cotton harvest. President Karimov on October 16 congratulated the Uzbek people on "a great victory" and said the harvest was the result of "selfless work" and "wide-ranging reforms being carried out in the country's agrarian sector."

Karimov claimed that the "bumper crop, for the first time in Uzbekistan's history, was 100 percent produced by private farms, which is an absolutely new type of ownership in the village."

But Uzbek farmers have complained of being forced to sell cotton to the government at a fixed price -- much less than a free market could offer. The practice has led to smuggling of cotton out of the country, mainly to Kazakhstan.

Hagger says is unclear how reliable the government's output statistics are. "We know there is no market structure in place in the cotton sector, which [would] encourage farmers to increase output. They have to sell their output at artificially low prices. There are no market incentives there. And there is also environmental degradation, problems like that, which suggests that cotton output might not be as high as suggested by the authorities," she said.

Tashkent-based journalist Abduramon Tashanov also questions the published figures, noting that the achievement of this year's cotton-harvest goals was reported earlier than in previous years. He suspects it might be official propaganda ahead of December's presidential election, which is expected to hand incumbent Karimov a third term.

"A very weird thing happened this year. The earliest date in the country's history that [officials] have announced that the cotton-harvest plan was achieved was in 2000 -- on October21. Suddenly this year it was achieved on October 10. If the current regime stays, we are going to hear similar reports by Independence Day" on September 1, he said. "Summer, spring, or autumn, they arrive at the same time every year -- they don't arrive earlier to help cotton farmers. But the statistics are turning into brazen lies."

Tashanov alleges that some journalists have received instructions from supervisory institutions to report such economic "achievements," including those in the cotton industry.

A Struggle To Make Ends Meet

For ordinary Uzbeks, a growing economy holds little meaning. They are more concerned about low wages and high prices at the bazaars.

The International Monetary Fund put the inflation rate at more than 15 percent in 2006, the latest available figure, while the official minimum monthly salary languishes at just $12.

A woman from the southern Uzbek town of Qarshi told RFE/RL that she was concerned about the high price of flour -- which has risen dramatically since September. "A 50-kilogram sack of flour costs 45,000 sums [around $40] for flour produced here in Qarshi. It used to be 15,000-16,000 sums," she said.

Prices in the capital, Tashkent, are about 10 percent higher -- some 50,000 sums for a sack of flour. There has also been a shortage of vegetable oil in recent weeks -- despite a price hike. Now a liter of oil costs $3.50 in Tashkent.

The United Nations estimates that one-third of the country's 26 million people live below the poverty line. Some sources inside the country claim the figure is higher, and that half the population lives on less than $1 a day.

Hagger says the GDPs of commodity exporters like Uzbekistan are likely to be high in the short term, as world prices for natural gas, oil, cotton, and gold are likely to stay high in 2008-09 before easing slightly.

But she says the reliance of economies like Uzbekistan's on the export of natural resources makes them unsustainable. "The external conditions are very favorable for the Uzbek economy at the moment. But if, for example, commodity prices drop sharply, that would really hit growth quite badly, because the domestic market is not particularly well-developed, living standards are still very low. So the economy is very vulnerable to external conditions," she said.

Economists like Hagger suggest that the Uzbek outlook is bleak, with poverty remaining widespread and Uzbekistan remaining "quite a poor country" -- even though its population sits on some of the largest fossil-fuel deposits in the world.