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Central Asia Report: December 28, 2007

Kazakhstan: The Forgotten Famine

By Bruce Pannier

Kural Tokmurzin's mother lived through the famine

December 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- At first sight, the small village of Samsy is an unremarkable place.

About 70 kilometers west of Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty, the village is dissected by a highway. Farmers work in the fields growing mainly melons and wheat.

But what lies underground in Samsy is a nearly forgotten page in Kazakh history.

Dotting the fields there are scores of mounds, a little more than a meter high. Buried beneath these mounds are the unnamed dead from a horrific man-made famine in the early 1930s, which killed at least 1 million Kazakhs.

While other former Soviet states, notably Ukraine, have marked the great Soviet famine, which spanned the winters of 1931-33, the Kazakh government has sought to bury this bitter memory along with the forgotten victims.

As many as 14 million people in the Soviet Union died of starvation during Josef Stalin's forced collectivization drive. Ukraine was worst affected, but the famine spread to Kazakhstan, the North Caucasus, and parts of Russia.

Samsy is just one of hundreds of villages and towns in Kazakhstan where tales of the famine are still remembered.

In the village of Oyil in Kazakhstan's Aqtobe Province, Kural Tokmurzin, now in his 70s, remembers the stories his mother and other relatives told him about those times.

Tokmurzin told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that it started when Communist Party officials arrived in Oyil, in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, as the collectivization of agriculture began.

"They" were looking for "kulaks," he said, the term given to anyone who appeared to be better off financially than other people. In the case of Oyil, that meant those fortunate few who owned livestock -- perhaps a dozen sheep or a few horses.

"Many of the people whose sheep and horses were confiscated had to move to inner Russia, to Karakalpakistan, and on to Iran or to Uzbekistan," Tokmurzin said. "There were rumors that life was easier there, that it was easier to survive. Those who stayed suffered but survived the winter of 1929-1930. But the worst season came in 1930-31 when the famine started."

The collectivization process hit the traditionally nomadic Kazakhs hard. They were suddenly forced to settle in one spot and, as Tokmurzin said, those who had more than just a few farm animals were treated as kulaks.

Added to that were the requisitions from Moscow that demanded huge shares of the crops so that the Soviet government could obtain hard currency and purchase machinery for the numerous factories being built.

Thousands of Kazakhs fled the famine. Tokmurzin's Uncle Shitan went to the Russian city of Orenburg and then Stalingrad (now Volgograd) to look for work and food. But he returned when the Soviet government began distributing food aid to Kazakhstan in 1933.

'Gangs Of Cannibals'

By then Kazakhstan was in chaos. "People told him the roads were lined with corpses and that wild animals, particularly wolves, were eating the corpses," Tokmurzin said. "The people said these animals might attack my uncle. More shocking were the tales of gangs of cannibals roaming the countryside."

Preparing to complete his journey back to Oyil, he was again warned that there were starving people cannibalizing others in Kolda.

Shitan decided to leave but told his nephew years later that after he departed Kolda he sensed he was being followed. He went to a nearby river and saw that several men were pursuing him. Shitan jumped in the icy river and swam across to escape his pursuers.

The devastation was monumental, but was often only discovered later.

In 1967, authorities decided to build a House of Culture in Oyil. As excavation began, workers found the skulls and other bones of young children.

It emerged that Tokmurzin had an older brother and sister, born before the famine started. They, like thousands of other children, were given to the authorities who promised to give them the care their parents could not provide during those hard times. Neither survived.

Estimates of the total number of people who died due to the famine vary. But all sources agree that more than 1 million ethnic Kazakhs alone died during the famine, although many say the number of dead Kazakhs was twice as high.

In the 1980s, Professor Talas Omarbekov of Kazakhstan State University was allowed to view the Soviet archives about the country's famine.

"What I saw was the figure that 2.3 million people died. This is only the figure for ethnic Kazakhs. If you add the hundreds of thousands from other ethnic groups who died, we can say that during collectivization we lost half our population," Omarbekov said.

The figures Omarbekov cites do not include the tens of thousands who fled to other areas of the Soviet Union or beyond its borders to Iran, China, and Mongolia.

Even as late as 1959, ethnic Kazakhs accounted for less than 30 percent of the population in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. According to some figures, up to 90 percent of the animal herds of the nomadic Kazakhs had died.

Ties With Russia

Contemporary politics plays a large role in the government's failure to mark this tragedy.

Ukraine, which suffered from a Soviet-induced famine at the same time as Kazakhstan, has blamed Moscow for the tragedy, something that severely aggravated bilateral relations.

Such blame for the famine is an unsavory issue for Russia, which absolutely rejects any notion that the tragic event in Ukraine was a genocide. A Putin spokesman recently called such talk an "attempt to rewrite history."

The Kazakh government seems to have learned from Ukraine's experiences, realizing that bringing up this painful chapter in its people's past would sour relations with Russia -- its biggest trading partner and the main destination for Kazakh oil.

Remembering the famine also risks aggravating ethnic tensions in multicultural Kazakhstan, where roughly 30 percent of the population is ethnic Russian.

(RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan and the Almaty bureau contributed to this report)

Tajikistan: Government Reacts To Economic Crisis By Banning Witchcraft

By Farangis Najibullah

Visiting sorcerers is popular in Tajikistan (file photo)

Amid a spike in unemployment and energy prices, the Tajik government in recent months has moved to curb civil liberties. Its latest target, however, is an eye-catcher: witchcraft.

After banning extravagant weddings and funerals and prohibiting students from driving "expensive" cars and using mobile phones earlier this year, Tajik authorities have now turned their attention to the occult. In mid-December, the Tajik parliament introduced a bill to ban witchcraft and fortune-telling.

The move has sparked criticism, with many Tajiks saying that politicians should be tackling more serious issues, such as rampant unemployment and a severe energy shortage that has left many parts of the country without electricity for much of the day.

Askar, a 32-year-old resident of the city of Sughd, told RFE/RL that most Tajik households get just six hours of electricity during the cold winter days. He said witchcraft and fortune-telling are not anywhere near his list of everyday problems in a country where employment is believed to be between 25 and 30 percent, and where nearly one-third of the population lives in poverty.

"Key issues such as economic reforms, human rights, development of civil society, and freedom of political movements have almost never been discussed," said Shokirjon Hakimov, a politician and professor at Tajik International University in Dushanbe. "The discussion of [witchcraft] in the parliament proves once again that they try to divert people's minds to petty and minor issues."

Popular Pastime

Some experts say the authorities might require those engaged in fortune-telling to get registered officially and pay taxes. According to the legislation, "those engaging in sorcery and fortune-telling will be fined between 30 and 40 times the minimum monthly wage," or about $200.

Parliamentarian Mahmad Rahimov told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that there are some 5,000 people in Tajikistan who practice witchcraft or fortune-telling. Tajik authorities and state-run media have expressed their concern that such activities are becoming increasingly popular in the country, and that many people who have health problems or other troubles are approaching sorcerers instead of seeking professional help.

State-run television reports that there are long lines of people waiting to see sorcerers, who charge a significant amount of money for their services.

Ironically, one well-known fortune-teller in the capital, Dushanbe, claims that most of her "clients" are people who work for government agencies. "They come to me to boost their career opportunities or find a cure to their health issues," the fortune-teller, known as Maisara, explained. "All of them, including people from the National Security Committee, the Interior Ministry, and other ministries come here to seek treatment."

Too Conspicuous

The authorities describe the attempt to ban such practices as a part of an antipoverty campaign started earlier this year. In May, President Emomali Rahmon criticized lavish weddings, funerals, and other extravagant private functions. Rahmon said some wealthier Tajiks have established a new tradition of expensive weddings and funerals by throwing huge parties that continue for several days.

Their poorer neighbors often save for years or spend many months working as migrant laborers in Russia to be able to match such celebrations. Others borrow money and go into considerable debt.

Shortly after President Rahmon's speech, strict limits were put on such parties, including the number of guests and cars that could be present at such a festivity. Many party givers were fined for breaking the rule, although some Dushanbe residents complain that the new restrictions have created a new source of bribes for police and other officials.

Rahmon has also barred students from driving luxurious cars and using mobile phones inside school buildings, saying such practices are an unnecessary display of wealth. He also outlawed high-school graduation parties, calling them a waste of money.

Some people have welcomed these measures, saying they relieve the burden of holding expensive parties that they can't afford.

But others question whether witchcraft and fortune-telling -- which have survived repression over the centuries, including the burning of witches in Europe and elsewhere -- can be stopped by a presidential decree or new law.

(RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondent Kayumars Ato contributed to this report)

Uzbek Incumbent Wins Presidential Poll Without 'Genuine Choice'

President Islam Karimov

Incumbent Uzbek President Islam Karimov won the country's presidential election, but some international monitors say the process fell far short of democratic standards.

The preliminary results of the December 23 presidential election in Uzbekistan were made public today. Mirzo-Ulughbek Abdusalomov, the head of Uzbekistan's Central Election Commission (CEC), said Karimov received just over 13 million votes, which gave the incumbent 88.1 percent of the total ballots cast in the poll.

Not Even Close

Karimov's next closest competitor, Asliddin Rustamov of the People's Democratic Party, received 3.7 percent of the vote. Following them were Diloram Tashmukhamedov of the Adolat Social-Democratic Party with 2.94 percent, and rights activist and independent candidate Akmal Saidov with 2.85 percent.

The CEC reported that 90.6 percent of the nation's 16.2 million voters cast ballots in the December 23 poll. While that figure may seem high it is actually the lowest turnout percentage for presidential elections in Uzbekistan's history. In the 1992 elections, the official reported turnout was 98 percent and in 2000 it was 92 percent.

Karimov ran despite a constitutional restriction against any person being president for more than two terms. Karimov was elected in 1992 and 2000 and had both those terms in office extended through referendums in 1995 and 2002. Opposition and rights groups criticized Karimov's run for a third term.

Uzbekistan's CEC said there were no serious violations reported at polling stations around the country, though witnesses reported seeing individuals casting multiple ballots. Some rights activists in Uzbekistan are also questioning the reported high turnout since several sources reported low voter activity in many regions.

Short Of Democratic Standards

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe released their preliminary assessment today, saying that the election "did not offer a genuine choice."

Urdur Gunnarsdottir, a spokesperson for the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the department that monitors elections, said the "election was held in a very controlled political environment, which did not really leave much room for real opposition and this election failed to meet many of the commitments that OSCE states have made to hold democratic elections."

Gunnarsdottir said while ODIHR noted some positive aspects in Uzbekistan's presidential election such as the fact that " you had more than one candidate, you had four candidates." But she said this progress was diminished because "when you have these candidates endorsing, publicly endorsing the incumbent president, then that in reality deprives the electorate of choice."

Election monitors from the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization sided with Uzbekistan's CEC in qualifying the elections as free, fair, and transparent.

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

Kyrgyzstan's Ruling Party Names Its Choice For Prime Minister

Kyrgyzstan's new parliament met today and the Ak Jol (Best Path) Party, which won the majority of seats in the December 16 elections, named their nominees for prime minister and speakers of parliament.

Meanwhile, a planned protest against the results of those elections did not take place today, but opposition groups made clear they remain highly unsatisfied with the conduct and outcome of the poll and will not keep silent or accept the results.

Ak Jol is the party President Kurmanbek Bakiev created in October, a week before the national referendum on a new constitution.

The choice for prime minister was 46-year-old former Minister of Industry, Energy, and Fuel Igor Chudinov. Chudinov, an ethnic Russian, was a leading member of the Communist Party youth group -- Komsomol – during the Soviet era and since independence has worked almost exclusively in Kyrgyzstan's energy sector, including work as director general of Kyrgyzgaz, the state company in charge of procuring gas shipments for the country. Chudinov is the fourth prime minister Kyrgyzstan has had this year.

Ak Jol also nominated its candidates for speaker and deputy speakers of parliament. Former State Secretary Adakhan Madumarov was appointed speaker after a vote of 79 to eight (of 90 deputies) in his favor (three votes were declared void).

Ruling Party For The First Time

He said Ak Jol's resounding victory was nothing to be concerned about, saying "Ak Jol Party will be responsible for the activities of the [Kyrgyz] government and the parliament." Madumarov said the nation's people trusted the party and this was evident since "even before today, the people placed these responsibilities on the party by voting for them."

Madumarov used examples from other CIS countries to argue there was no reason to be alarmed that Kyrgyzstan, for the first time in its history as an independent country, has a ruling party. He pointed to neighboring Kazakhstan where "a single party is working there. Did any tragedy happen, or was there any earthquake after that?"

And Madumarov, alluding to the fact that the pro-presidential Communist Party and opposition Social-Democratic Party also won seats in Kyrgyzstan's parliament, mentioned Russia where "four parties are working [in the parliament], two of them -- Unified Russia and A Just Russia -- are sister parties."

The three deputy speakers are Cholpon Baekova, Azizbek Tursunbaev, and Kubanychbek Isabekov. Some 20 deputies voted against the candidacy of Baekova. She was the chairwoman of the Constitutional Court when the court ruled former President Askar Akaev could run for a third term in office and was still chairwoman in September when the court ruled constitutions approved in November and December 2006 were invalid, which prompted the October referendum.

A statement from President Bakiev was read in parliament saying the election of a new parliament should put an end to the problems Kyrgyzstan has experienced since the so-called "Tulip Revolution" of March 2005 that chased long-time President Akaev from power. Bakiev held a session of the government today and said in 2008 the government should focus on "resolving economic questions."

Still An Opposition Voice In Parliament

But the Social-Democratic Party, the only opposition party to win seats in parliament, indicated it would not sit and be quiet while Ak Jol governs the country. Social-Democratic Party member and deputy in the new parliament Bakyt Beshimov said, "Ak Jol has loaded itself up with all the opportunities, but we will see how they resolve the tasks before us." Beshimov predicted that "after three or four months they will feel and understand that without the Social-Democratic Party some problems cannot be resolved," and he added "only then will a different style of politics be possible."

Some other opposition groups are still adamant that the December 16 parliament elections were rigged and therefore should be declared invalid.

A Bishkek Court late on December 23 rejected a motion from the Ata-Meken Socialist Party to have those elections declared invalid. Ata-Meken placed second in the nationwide vote but due to a rule requiring parties receive at least 0.5 percent of the votes in each of Kyrgyzstan's seven provinces and two largest cities -- Bishkek and Osh -- Ata-Meken was disqualified from getting any seats in the new parliament. Ata-Meken says it did receive the necessary amount of votes in all regions and is vowing to appeal decision to the Supreme Court.

Ata-Meken and other opposition groups promise to organize nationwide protests against the election results but postponed demonstrations that were planned for today.

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

Uzbekistan: President Faces Election Challenge In Name Only

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Islam Karimov has led the country with a tight fist for 18 years

Uzbekistan holds a presidential election on December 23 in which incumbent Islam Karimov's victory appears a foregone conclusion despite two previous terms that many think should disqualify him.

Karimov, who turns 70 in January and has led the country for 18 years, is running against what can only be described as nominal challengers. The three other candidates who registered with the election commission are regarded as Karimov loyalists and have praised him publicly.

Few outside observers have any illusions about the degree of choice facing Uzbek voters, particularly since opposition parties are not allowed to participate.

The legal basis for Karimov's candidacy remains unclear, since the Uzbek constitution bars a president from serving more than two terms but authorities already ignored that limit when they approved his bid in mid-November. Karimov, a former communist party boss, has already extended his term in office twice through referendums, in 1995 and 2002.

The OSCE's election-monitoring body, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), said in a recent report that "neither the [Uzbek] election administration nor the representatives of the four candidates perceive any legal ambiguity" regarding Karimov’s eligibility.

ODIHR spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir noted some of other findings of the organization's limited election observation mission (LEOM) that visited Uzbekistan and issued the interim report earlier this month. "The election campaign and the coverage in local media have been very low key and non-confrontational," Gunnarsdottir said. "There have been no debates between the candidates, and very low-key meetings with voters. And some of the people we met have expressed the view that the candidates are not very well known and there are people who have questioned the existence of choice."

Uzbek authorities seem to have done their best to keep the election campaign low-key, although all four candidates, including Karimov, have traveled to various regions of Uzbekistan for meetings with potential voters. Karimov's gatherings have been held under tight security. "All the movement of passersby and cars were stopped inside the city of Jizzakh [when Karimov visited]," one resident told RFE/RL. "The Interior Ministry and National Security Committee officers surrounded all locations while traffic police prevented any movement inside the city. And only specially designated people were allowed to a meeting [with Karimov]."

Security measures were reportedly stepped up in the capital, Tashkent, and in other regions in the run-up to the list. Citizens in Tashkent say there are more police in the streets than ever. Opposition and human rights activists have told RFE/RL that the number of secret service officers who usually follow them increased and checks were strengthened in recent weeks.

In one of the bluntest moves to silence an outspoken critic of Karimov's administration, authorities arrested poet Yusuf Juma shortly after he held a protest in his native Bukhara and demanded Karimov's resignation on December 8. Juma's wife and two grandchildren reportedly managed to escape when police assaulted their house. Their whereabouts are unknown.

In a December 13 report, CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation, a network of civil-society organizations, said Uzbekistan is a "frightening place for activists" where critical voices have been "gagged." "In the lead-up to [the] elections, there has been an unprecedented amount of repression," said Clare Doube, who manages CIVICUS's Civil Society Watch program. "Citizens are regularly monitored and threatened. The media is strictly censored. And independent civil society has been systematically eliminated from the country."

She added that CIVICUS has been "concerned" by research that "has shown that the situation in Uzbekistan is dire when it comes to space for civil society." Doube said that "particularly in the context of the upcoming election, there needs to be a space for civil society to function freely, and our research has found that that is certainly not the case in the current situation in Uzbekistan."

Foreign journalists who requested accreditation were reportedly permitted to stay in Uzbekistan for just one week, from December 20-27. An independent regional news website,, reported on December 18 that private hotels in Samarkand received instructions from authorities not to receive guests until January 5 and send all clients to state-owned hotels. speculated that the order was based on "authorities' fear of not controlling journalists and independent observers" coming to Uzbekistan days to cover and monitor the election.

The OSCE delegates who traveled to Uzbekistan earlier this month were also given delayed visas that prevented them from undertaking a needs assessment mission. The Uzbek authorities also limited both the number of OSCE observers, to 30, and the duration of their stay.

Western election monitors have never recognized an Uzbek parliamentary or presidential election as free and fair or up to international standards.

Erica Barks-Ruggles, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, suggested to RFE/RL in mid-December that the Uzbek election campaign had already failed to meet international standards.

"I do not think that the outcome of the election is very much in doubt and I don't think that anybody would say that this election process has met international standards," Barks-Ruggles said. "So regardless of what the day of the vote looks like, the process has not met international standards. We look forward to a day when Uzbekistan will have free, fair, open, transparent, inclusive elections. But this election is not going to be that."

Russian-led CIS observers regularly recognize elections in Uzbekistan as fair and open, however. They are likely to endorse the official results of the polls.

Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Tashkent and an outspoken critic of the Karimov government, told RFE/RL that Karimov's reelection is likely to deepen Uzbekistan's isolation, which began after the Andijon bloodshed in May 2005 when government troops clashed with peaceful protesters and killed hundreds. "Karimov is a particularly brutal dictator, not someone that most governments would want to be associated with, so I think continuing isolation from the West in a political sense will continue and be reinforced by his remaining president more or less permanently," Murray said. "But -- I would not want to overemphasize that too much -- Western governments will continue to do economic business with Uzbekistan. And, of course, Karimov will calculate that he does not need the West as long as he has strong support of Russia and of China. And with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin also looking for ways effectively to stay in power, no doubt that will continue."

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

Kyrgyz Authorities Counter Vote Protests With Detentions

Ata-Meken supporters being detained in Bishkek on December 21

The detention of opposition protesters is continuing in Kyrgyzstan along with protests against the December 16 parliamentary elections and a ruling that excludes the leading opposition party from parliament.

Meanwhile, deputies elected in that vote met for the first time and adjourned after just 90 minutes to avoid providing a lightning rod for opposition-led protests outside the parliament building and around the country. Opposition groups continue to reject both the vote results and a decision to exclude the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) Socialist Party from parliament despite its second-place finish nationally.

Ata-Meken is calling on its supporters to stage demonstrations around the country starting December 24, the day the new parliament is expected to reconvene to choose a speaker.

The Central Election Commission announced on December 19 that the Ak-Jol Erdlik (Best Path Popular) Party, which President Kurmanbek Bakiev created in mid-October, won 71 seats of the 90 seats in parliament, with the remaining 19 seats split between the opposition Social Democratic Party (11 seats) and the pro-Bakiev Communist Party (eight seats).

Authorities in the capital have responded to public displays of outrage by detaining demonstrators, rights activists, NGO officials, and journalists. Police took about 30 people into custody today as those individuals attempted to stage a protest in downtown Bishkek. Reports said 10 of those detained were Ata-Meken supporters and the others were from the "I Don't Believe" group that has been protesting election results since December 17.

Police had already detained other "I Don't Believe" activists earlier in the week. Sixteen people, including "I Don't Believe" protesters and other activists, were sentenced in a Bishkek court on December 20. Dinara Oshurahunova, who heads the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that a Birinchi May district court handed down mostly five-day jail sentences to those five defendants. "The [police] are putting them into separate cells," Oshurahunova said. "Some of the girls are crying."

Oshurahunova said Civil Society Against Corruption Chairwoman Toleikan Ismailova was sentenced to seven days in jail, and alleged that because police "struck" Association of Nongovernmental and Nonprofit Organizations Chairwoman Toktaiym Umetalieva when they detained her, she was simply fined 700 Kyrgyz soms (about $20) and then freed.

Protests have for the most part been minor affairs, possibly because of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday. But opposition hunger strikes continue in Bishkek, Osh, and Jalal-Abad, while another protest is ongoing in the northern Issyk-Kul region.

The U.S. State Department released a statement late on December 20 criticizing some aspects of the elections, including "uncertainty over election rules, widespread vote count irregularities and exaggerations in voter turnout, [and] late exclusions from voter lists." The U.S. statement follows criticism from other groups -- most notably monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who called the election a step backward for Kyrgyzstan.

Ata-Meken leaders have filed a court case in Bishkek in an effort to annul the decision by the Central Election Commission that kept Ata-Meken out of parliament over its apparent failure to meet a 0.5-percent local threshold in the elections, despite finishing with 8 percent of the national vote.

Topchubek Turgunaliev, a long-time opposition leader in Kyrgyzstan who sided with President Bakiev in March 2005 after authoritarian President Askar Akaev was chased from power, was critical of Bakiev and the election results in comments to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

"The parliament that is sitting now has suppressed democracy," Turgunaliev said. "It is obvious to all that the authorities have returned to the old methods. This new parliament is a 'pocket parliament.' We said the same about the previous parliament, but it is even more true about the current parliament."

(Tynchtykbek Tchoroev and Ulan Eshmatov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report)

Russian Group Storms Onto Kazakh, Uzbek TV Scenes

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

A man watches TV at a hair salon in Almaty

A Russian media conglomerate's recent expansion into Central Asia has sparked considerable discussion in the region. Is it just a smart business deal -- or another instance of Moscow's intention, by stealth or by wealth, to reassert hegemony over the lands of its former empire, this time by broadcasting Russian-language soap operas and other fluff rather than news and information?

Russia's CTC Media recently announced a deal to buy one of Kazakhstan's most popular television channels and to register a new television company in Uzbekistan. Although the two acquisitions are markedly different, both are seen as "tasty morsels" picked up at bargain rates and likely to generate large profits in the two countries, which have a combined population of some 42 million people. But beyond commercial considerations lies a host of possible political implications.

CTC Media's plans to buy Kazakhstan's fourth-biggest television station, Channel 31, came as a surprise to many in that country. That's because CTC Media is seen as a "purely entertainment" group, while the Kazakh station is a "business-oriented media outlet with a strong information core," according to Viktor Klimov, a producer at Channel 31.

As a result, Klimov and others have voiced concern that there will be major changes in Channel 31's programming -- changes that would boost Russian influence in the energy-rich country, which under President Nursultan Nazarbaev has sought to pursue a multivector foreign policy friendly to Moscow, China, and the West.

Viewer Discretion Is Advised

To be sure, Russian broadcasts have remained popular across Central Asia since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. That's due to historical and cultural ties as well as the higher production quality and content of their programming. Nonetheless, the latest moves by CTC Media are raising concerns.

"The issues of redistribution of the information space concern not only business, but also national security," said Rozlana Taukina, who heads the Kazakh nongovernmental group Journalists in Trouble.

Taukina sees Russian media expansion into Central Asia as part of a Kremlin policy aimed at restoring its influence in the post-Soviet space. Calling CTC Media's moves "a threat to Kazakhstan," Taukina told RFE/RL that her concern is that some 70 percent of the country's population watches foreign broadcasts rather than Kazakh television.

"It is the Russian programs that the Kazakh people watch today," she said.
"Tomorrow, it will be Chinese. And what about the day after tomorrow? Will some other foreign powers broadcast their programs in Kazakhstan?" Taukina asks.

Like every other media outlet in Kazakhstan, Channel 31 -- which is legally obliged to broadcast half in Russian language and half in Kazakh -- has never criticized Nazarbaev, his family and friends, or their controversial involvement in state-owned businesses.

But viewers say it has offered professional programming that included analytical and political shows through 11 regional branches and 60 affiliates.

Now, reports say the new deal with CTC Media will affect Channel 31's daily analytical show, Informbureau. Klimov, a general producer of Informbureau, says he was told that the program's time and format were going to change.

But Armanzhan Baitasov, the head of Channel 31, said the station would maintain its "brand" while becoming richer in content. However, he added that the channel would start producing soap operas and other such programming.

"It's an absolutely new business in Kazakhstan," Baitasov told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "We are positive that with [CTC Media's] entry into our company, our ratings will soar because there will be many new shows, films, and soap operas. We are also confident that a new competitive environment will emerge, and that it will have a positive impact on the whole media industry."

In Uzbekistan, meanwhile, CTC Media's new target for acquisition is perhaps less surprising.

The Russian group recently announced a deal with the Uzbek media company Terra Group, reportedly controlled by Uzbek President Islam Karimov's eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova. The two sides are due to set up a new company -- divided into 51 percent Russian and 49 percent Uzbek stakes -- that will broadcast on Channel 30, a Terra Group holding that has recently been redubbed Markaz TV. Channel 30 is currently a purely entertainment channel broadcasts mostly youth-oriented fare such as music videos. News segments are limited to cultural tidbits. It is also a major venue for promoting the activities of Karimova, whose father is considered the most authoritarian leader in a region brimming with autocrats.

It's a format familiar to CTC Media, which has become one of Russia's top broadcasters with a nationwide audience of some 100 million. Its two Russian channels -- CTC and Domashny -- are overwhelmingly entertainment stations, with Domashny targeting a "mostly female audience," according to a company profile.

Eye Candy

With CTC Media set to secure a reign of fluff on the airwaves in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, not everyone sees overt political motives behind the deals.

Initial reports put the price of Channel 31 at $130 million-$150 million, but some sources said CTC Media paid just $65 million -- about half the market price. The independent Kazakh weekly "Respublika" and speculated the rest was or will be paid "under the table." Channel 31 reportedly belonged to Nazarbaev's chief of staff, Bolat Utemuratov, before it was acquired by CTC Media.

The Ukrainian website recently quoted CTC Media's CEO, Aleksandr Rodnyansky, as saying that his company's new channels in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are projected to generate some $460 million-$480 million in first-year revenues. That is likely to grow as television enjoys a lion's share of both advertising markets, growing by 40-45 percent annually in Kazakhstan compared to 25 to 30 percent in Russia.

Yuri Mizinov, a popular Kazakh Internet journalist who runs the independent website, says the profit motive is indeed driving the deals, although he acknowledges Kazakh viewers are unlikely to profit. "I would not say CTC Media has a very high-quality content, unlike some other Russian television channels," he said.

As for viewers' opinions, one Uzbek youth wrote on a readers' forum ( that CTC Media's is a good move because Uzbek television stations are some 30 years behind Russian ones in terms of technology and content. Another wondered if the content will be different from other Russian programs and if it will take into account the "local mentality." He said he hopes it does not as he is "fed up" with Uzbek programming.

But a visitor to one Kazakh forum ( wrote recently that CTC Media would simply bring "dumb humor and endless soap operas." He suggested that Kazakh viewers, rather than being better informed, would be flooded with Russian fluff.

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

Kyrgyzstan: Election Hurdle Still Standing Despite Court Ruling

By Bruce Pannier

'I Don't Believe' protesters are detained in Bishkek on December 18

Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court has rejected a quirky clause in the country's election law that threatened to exclude all but the ruling party from parliament following landslide elections. But election authorities' decision to ignore that verdict as they announced final results today suggests the battle over last weekend's elections is far from over.

The Supreme Court ruled on December 18 that it is unfair to disqualify from parliament all parties that fail to garner at least 0.5 percent of the vote in every province, potentially broadening the field to three parliamentary parties out of 12 that registered for the elections two days earlier. The decision left President Kurmanbek Bakiev's favored party as the overwhelming winner in the polling, which was Kyrgyz voters' first chance to pick new legislators since the public upheaval that unseated Bakiev's predecessor in 2005.

But there was hope in some circles that the decision might salve political wounds already inflicted by these elections, which were also the first under a new constitution approved by a referendum in October.

Both of the strongest challengers to the ruling Ak-Jol Eldik (Best Path Popular) Party, which reportedly received around 49 percent of the preliminary vote count but would receive an enormous boost from both the national and provincial parliamentary hurdles, have questioned the Central Election Commission's pre-election approval of the threshold and the court's wisdom in issuing its verdict soon after voters cast their ballots.

International observers have already suggested that the polling represented a "missed opportunity" for a country that has provided both high hope and bitter disappointment in a region otherwise dominated by autocrats and clannish politics.

Authorities today announced results that leave the provincial threshold in place but did not offer a breakdown by party, saying Ak-Jol won 71 out of 90 parliament seats with the remainder going the pro-presidential Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party. They noted that the main opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party had been felled by the 0.5-percent requirement despite its 8.3-percent national showing according to a preliminary tally.

Devil In The Detail

The Central Election Commission had approved the provincial threshold along with other changes to the country's election laws in late October. Officials' disregard for the Supreme Court ruling striking down the provincial requirement -- which comprises the seven provinces and the two biggest cities, Bishkek and Osh -- looked sure to spark fresh protests.

The uniqueness of the 0.5-percent-in-every-province rule and the fact that the Ak-Jol party itself initiated the court challenge made it difficult to interpret the likely effect of the ruling. Ak-Jol, which was launched by President Bakiev in mid-October before he suspended his active participation to keep above the partisan fray, was a clear front-runner that reportedly benefited enormously from high visibility on state media and official connections. But even in a region accustomed to electoral drubbings for the opposition, it would doubtless prove embarrassing for Bakiev and the entire Kyrgyz political establishment to try and defend a one-party parliament like the one that emerged from the recent elections in Kazakhstan (with the exception of a tiny handful of appointments that are made by President Nursultan Nazarbaev).

One of the three possible beneficiaries of the court's verdict, Ata-Meken, had already launched protests and signaled its intention to ignore the announced results without a recount. Other parties appeared poised to join the chorus of critics as protests broke out in a number of Kyrgyz cities on December 18.

The high court's reversal was initially expected to allow Ata-Meken, as well as the less popular Communist and Social Democratic parties, to enter parliament. All three of those parties exceeded the national threshold of 5 percent.

Kimmo Kiljunen, the head of the election-monitoring team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), vented his frustration and noted the opacity of the Kyrgyz election process on December 17. "For the first time, for the first time in my history as an election observer, I find myself in a situation where by stating now to you the conclusions of the election I can't even guess, I can't even guess, the rough composition of the coming parliament or even if there will be a parliament at all," Kiljunenn said. "It's still pending on the court decision, what is the interpretation of the 0.5-percent threshold."

Not Appeased

Ata-Meken claimed to have initiated protests in Bishkek, Osh, and Jalal-Abad on December 18, and said up to 100 people in Osh and dozens of others in Jalal-Abad launched hunger strikes to protest results. The party responded to election officials' snub two days later with a new call for a recount and a vow to continue its fight.

Former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, who leads the opposition Ar-Namys (Dignity) Party, claimed his party was cheated out of parliamentary seats by "massive falsifications" that favored the Ak-Jol Party. Kulov and senior Ata-Meken member Temir Sariev held a press conference on December 18 at which Sariev said the election commission's preliminary figures were incorrect and that his party's monitors had very different results from some districts. Sariev claimed that slightly more than half of the 1.96 million voters said to have cast ballots on December 16 actually took part in the election. He said his party had figures directly contradicting numbers from election officials, despite "stuffed ballot boxes."

Several parties and nongovernmental groups have said they intend to challenge the results in court. Some are demanding fresh elections because of what they say were massive violations.

A movement calling itself "I Don't Believe" staged a protest in Bishkek on December 18 at which police detained about 20 members. Another group of some 1,000 people was reportedly protesting in the Tong district of Issyk-Kul.

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

Turkmenistan: UN Opens Regional Preventive Diplomacy Center

By Bruce Pannier
Central Asia is rich in history, oil, and gas -- and troubled by security risks, organized crime, narcotics trafficking, and extremism. In response to those threats, the United Nations this week launched a center for diplomacy in Ashgabat intended to help the region tackle its challenges before they spiral out of control.

The UN says its Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy, which opened on December 10, will seek to assist the governments of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in building “capacities to peacefully prevent conflict, in facilitating dialogue, and in catalyzing international support behind projects and initiatives." It will be headed by a senior representative of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and will have an initial budget of $2.3 million as well as a small international staff.

Presiding over the inauguration ceremony, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said that "contemporary history contains more than just a few examples when diplomacy in various forms and manifestations was a serious factor in preventing wars and conflicts."

Underscoring the importance of the event was the list of attendees.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon was there, as were the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran. Representatives from regional groups were also at the conference, such as the general secretaries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), representatives from the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the United Nations.

Lynn Pascoe, the UN undersecretary for political affairs, attended on behalf of the UN secretary-general. Pascoe noted that the center was the result of years of talks that have resulted in a "new chapter" opening up for the region.

"After years of careful consultation and negotiations, this event arrives with a spirit of high cooperation and friendship. It begins a new chapter in the partnership between the UN and the countries of Central Asia," he said.

'Investment In Peace'

Pascoe also read comments from Ban that spoke of the "tremendous promise" the center brings, since "prevention is an investment in peace." Ban said the costs of wars and conflicts include "lives needlessly lost, economies destroyed and hopes for development...dashed."

Central Asia is well-acquainted wars and conflicts. Civil war ravaged Tajikistan from 1992 to 1997, and its effects linger. Terrorist groups have staged attacks in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Until recently, years of war in Afghanistan effectively cut Kabul off from Central Asian. The opium and heroin trade from Afghanistan continues to take a toll on the region’s economies, while the associated problem of drug addiction makes an impact on regional healthcare. At the same time, security and border forces are engaged in a battle that is growing in scope and cost.

Combating these problems and avoiding future conflicts are clearly formidable tasks. The UN has made no secret that it hopes regional groupings such as the SCO -- which brings together Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and China -- will help advance the center’s mission.

Bolat Nurgaliev, the secretary-general of the SCO, said at the ceremony that regional governments are united in "the joint battle against terrorism, separatism, and extremism, the battle against the illegal trafficking of narcotics and weapons and other forms of transnational illegal activities, including illegal immigration." He added that the Central Asian countries are also "broadening effective regional cooperation in the political, trade, economics, defense, healthcare, environmental protection, cultural, educational, energy, transportation, and other fields."

Khurshid Anwar, the secretary-general of the ECO, a regional economic grouping that also includes Turkey and Iran, said the new center’s mission would require assistance from many quarters.

"The 21st century has begun with events of great consequence," Anwar said. "These are unfolding in rapid succession. Their impact is not confined to any specific country or region. Nor are all these developments positive and constructive: a rising spiral of extremism and terrorism, the menace of drugs, human smuggling, and money laundering, and the steady degradation of the environment affect us all."

For Turkmenistan, emerging from years of self-imposed isolation under former President Saparmurat Niyazov, the new UN center is a major boost to its international profile.

On December 12, Ashgabat marks the 12th anniversary of the UN's recognition of Turkmenistan as a neutral state. Anwar stated that Turkmenistan's policy of neutrality, as well as its central location in the region, make it a good choice to host the center.

(RFE/RL's Turkmen and Kazakh services contributed to this report)

Turkmenistan: Voters Still Waiting For Change

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Members of the Halk Maslahaty, February 2007

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has promised changes for Turkmenistan, although those changes have so far been barely felt by the people. But many were hoping the December 9 elections to the country's highest legislative body, the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) might mark the start of something new.

The Halk Maslahaty is a unique body created by the first Turkmen president, Saparmurat Niyazov.

In 2004, Niyazov -- who also went by the name of Turkmenbashi (father of all Turkmen) -- said the Turkmen political system was different from that of any other state in the world. "Our parliament dramatically differs from [the parliaments] of other countries of the world. Under the constitution, the Halk Maslahaty has been the main legislature so far. Parliament merely writes laws for the Halk Maslahaty [to approve]. This is the job [of members of parliament]," he said.

A Rubber-Stamp Body, So Far

The statement followed the law in late 2003 that reduced the powers of the 50-seat Mejlis -- or parliament -- and gave the Halk Maslahaty the authority to dissolve the parliament.

But the Halk Maslahaty -- which has some 2,500 members -- and the Mejlis have acted as nothing more than rubber-stamp bodies that unanimously approved each and every step taken by Niyazov.

The Halk Maslahaty's most memorable decision came in 1999 when it confirmed a parliament proposal to make Niyazov "president for life."

Being a grand national assembly, it usually meets only once a year. But it always has been assembled when there was a matter of great importance to be decided.

Such was the case when it met in December 2002 to demand an amendment to the constitution permitting death sentences to be given to those who allegedly tried to kill Niyazov one month earlier.

Among other noticeable decisions was the approval in late 2002 of Niyazov's idea to officially change the names of the months and days of the week. The month of April was named after Niyazov's mother, Gorbansoltan Eje, who died in the Ashgabat earthquake of 1948, leaving Niyazov, the future Turkmenbashi, an orphan. January became "Turkmenbashi," and September was named "Rukhnama" after Niyazov's "spiritual book" that was equated with the Koran and became compulsory reading in Turkmen schools.

Smaller, local versions of the Halk Maslahaty were also created by Niyazov. Niyazov said that "a Halk Maslahaty should be created in the welayats [provinces] and etraps [districts]. If a threat arises to the country, God forbid, bad times come to us, in order to save ourselves from ruin quickly and take the needed steps, the [local] Halk Maslahaty must quickly assemble and then form the national Halk Maslahaty."

Very Tight, But Not A Race

Turkmen voters in the country's five provinces and the capital, Ashgabat, were to cast ballots on December 9 for elected members of the Halk Maslahaty -- other members are appointed directly by the president.

Local media have reported that all of the candidates in these elections represent the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan -- the country's only political party, as well as some civic organizations like the Youth League and the Union of Women.

Turkmen television, radio, and newspapers carried information about the elections, but it appeared that not many people were paying attention to the state-run media.

"Frankly speaking, at this moment I know nothing about candidates for the Halk Maslahaty because we were not invited to the meetings with them," Tejen Aga, a 70-year-old pensioner living in Ashgabat, told a RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent. "And there is not enough information on media about their programs."

He also complained about receiving just one ballot for a family of 10 people. "I was told I could vote with all passports of my family members older than 18."

[On December 9, RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Khalmyrat Khlycdyrdiev reported seeing some irregularities that pointed to broader problems, and could leave room for inaccuracies. During visits to a number of polling stations in the capital, Khlycdyrdiev said election officials were keeping some records in pencil and failing to request identification to confirm individuals' identities.

He also said polling authorities were allowing individuals whose identities hadn't been confirmed to vote on behalf of entire families.]

Some Turkmen who spoke to RFE/RL said they saw no point in voting, as the Halk Maslahaty members have failed to do anything for the people.

"Some members of the Halk Maslahaty live in our village, but we don't see any results from their work," said Rozy Allakov, a farmer in the eastern Lebap province. "There is no telephone connection in our village. Only the village governor has one. Another example of the kind of issue that should be addressed is that many villages in the region have no natural gas. Turkmen gas is used in Europe but not in our village. As I understand it, the members of the Halk Maslahaty should take care of the peoples' needs."

Azgeldi Hommadov, a 34-year-old construction engineer from Ashgabat, said he agrees. "For example, we don't know about the results of directives related to the agricultural sector of the country that were adopted at the 20th Halk Maslahaty session," he said. "Neither do I know about measures taken by the Halk Maslahaty members against corruption, which is a serious issue in all regions. At the meetings with their voters, the candidates are afraid to of raise such criticism."

Hommadov added that Turkmen media does not cover those issues either. "They cover only success stories," he said. "Only one side of life is shown."

Skepticism vs. Hope

Along with the skepticism many potential voters have about the upcoming election and the role of the Halk Maslahaty, there seems to be a gleam of hope among some Turkmen for positive changes in their lives because of Berdymukhammedov.

Rahim Esenov, 80, is a prominent writer and an opponent of the Niyazov regime. He was detained and put under house arrest under Niyazov in 2004 and his book, "The Crowned Wanderer" -- which brought him the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award last year -- was banned in Turkmenistan.

Esenov told RFE/RL that he felt a "cautious optimism" that existed in the times of the "thaw," when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushev came to power after the death of dictator Josef Stalin.

Esenov said that, among "small and symbolic" changes, he saw as a positive sign the fact that an election campaign is being held. "A huge billboard appeared near my home. It contains candidates' photos and biographies in both Turkmen and Russian. I have to admit that I was happy to see it. There wasn't such a [practice] before. Only newspapers used to publish information [about candidates] that was only in the Turkmen language. Now, there are also pictures. It was such a big surprise that I even stopped walking [when I saw it first]. Other people also stopped walking and read it. I guess it is not enough but they are the sprouts of the new and the good," he said.

Esenov said he would "definitely" go to a polling station on December 9 to fulfill his "citizen's duty" to vote.

Irina, an ethnic Russian who lives in Ashgabat, also told RFE/RL that she planned to vote. "I have dual -- Russian and Turkmen -- citizenship, and I voted in recent Russian parliamentary elections," she said. "I am not able to walk, but I contacted authorities and asked them to bring a ballot box to my home. And they did so. I think they will come again on Sunday."

Hommadov, an engineer from Ashgabat, was also somewhat optimistic, although he said the changes in society had been very slow in coming.

"Despite dominating fear, there are people who are not afraid to express their thoughts freely," he said. "But they are few. We feel changes but they are very slow. It will take time to have a free society."

The main question among voters is not who will win, but whether the new Halk Maslahaty members will support changes in society or stall them.

(An RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent contributed to this report from Turkmenistan.)