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Central Asia Report: January 25, 2008

Turkmenistan To Allow Independent Survey Of Its Gas Resources

By Bruce Pannier

Turkmenistan's Korpeje oil and gas field (file photo)

Turkmenistan's leadership has boasted for years about its huge natural-gas fields, and has signed multibillion-dollar contracts with foreign countries for most of those reserves. But no independent assessment has ever confirmed that Turkmenistan actually has the resources to fulfill its end of the deals.

Now Turkmenistan is seeking to put all doubts to rest. The government announced this week that the Oil, Gas, Industry, and Mineral Resources Ministry is going to allow an international auditing firm to assess the country's natural-gas reserves.

It might seem odd that a country that has already signed contracts worth tens of billions of dollars for its natural gas is only now allowing an independent survey of its gas resources.

But former leader Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December 2006, was loathe to allow foreigners on his territory, let alone give them access to Turkmenistan's gas and oil fields. So those interested simply had to take his word that Turkmenistan access to as much as 22.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.

Annadurdy Hadjiyev, an independent economist in Bulgaria, tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that the information previously available to potential foreign investors was unreliable at best. "Former leader Niyazov spoke about large deposits of [natural] gas located in Turkmenistan based [only] on some sort of research conducted by some unknown auditing firms," Hadjiyev says.

Hadjiyev says that since the international community is frantically seeking energy supplies, many are looking to Turkmenistan and weighing Niyazov's claims that the country has the world's fourth-largest natural-gas reserves, while considering the track records of companies already engaged with Turkmenistan.

"Turkmenistan has already signed a contract with Russia for 25 years of gas supplies and has signed a contract for supplies of gas to China," Hadjiyev says. "The question for all of these consumers, all those who have signed contracts, is: Does Turkmenistan really have these supplies?"

Major Obligations

Based on contracts already signed, by the end of this decade Turkmenistan is supposed to provide nearly 100 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually to China, Russia, and Iran.

And that has not stopped the Turkmen government from talking to other prospective customers. The European Union is increasing its ties with Turkmenistan in a bid to secure some of its gas supplies, and there is still talk of a "trans-Afghan" gas pipeline that would bring Turkmen gas to Pakistan and possibly India.

So the question of whether Turkmenistan really has such large supplies of natural gas is becoming increasingly urgent.

But Turkmenistan's history as an isolated state works against investment, since the government has often made outrageous claims of economic success that could never be independently verified. Hadjiyev says that is why the Turkmen government must now ensure that every step of any audit is transparent.

"If Turkmenistan is prepared to undergo such an audit of all its gas fields, and convince the international community that it has these colossal reserves, then everything must be done openly," Hadjiyev says. "It needs to be clear who the auditing company is, what kind of auditing work is being done, and the final results of this absolutely must be published."

Certainly, few companies are willing to take the risk that China's National Petroleum Company agreed to take in July 2007, when it invested in gas fields in eastern Turkmenistan.

"The Chinese oil and gas company is conducting its own geological survey work. But what is really there [in the gas field]? If they find gas, then they find it. If they don't, then it is their own fault," Hadjiyev says.

The deal with China was a first for Turkmenistan, which previously did not allow foreign companies to set up their own operations and conduct their own independent geological surveys on the country's mainland (as opposed to its Caspian Sea oil and gas fields.)

Hadjiyev suggests that if the independent audit is transparent and supports the Turkmen government's claims regarding its natural-gas riches, it should open the door to other major projects. "No one wants to take a blind risk," he says. But if the Turkmen authorities can prove its claims to Europe, that will help accelerate the Nabucco trans-Caspian gas-pipeline project, which European countries are not fully ready to back, he adds.

The Nabucco trans-Caspian project aims to link the Caspian basin to Austria via Turkey by 2012, and by 2020 it could supply 25 billion-30 billion cubic meters of gas to countries along the route. The planned pipeline would not go through Russia at any stage of its route, one of the advantages that makes it a main energy project supported by the European Union.

(RFE/RL Turkmen Service Director Jamal Yazliyeva and correspondent Altyn Magauin contributed to this report.)

EU Energy Official Downplays Gazprom Expansion Threat

EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs

EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs says there is no reason to fear the recent spate of energy deals Russia has made with EU member states. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas, Piebalgs says Brussels will continue to seek alternative suppliers to meet future EU demand, and notes that legislation is in the pipeline to prevent the Russian energy giant Gazprom from gaining control of strategic assets in Europe.

RFE/RL: The EU has viewed Russia's various recent pipeline projects -- among them South Stream and Nord Stream -- and acquisitions in Southeastern Europe with remarkable equanimity. Do you not fear that Moscow has a hidden agenda, aiming to increase Europe's dependence on Russian energy and undermining EU attempts to develop alternatives, such as the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline?

Andris Piebalgs: Well, there are different companies involved, quite a lot of companies. Eni [Italy, involved in South Stream] is not in Nabucco. Also, EON and BASF [German, Nord Stream], and Gasunie [Dutch, Nord Stream], are not in Nabucco. Nabucco is OMV [Austrian] and other companies that are not involved [in the Russian projects]. So I would say it's not about the money -- the money is sufficient in the market. Also, the European Investment Bank, for example, is not financing Nord Stream; but perhaps, if the request were to be made, it could finance Nabucco. So it's not a money issue.

RFE/RL: And there is sufficient demand?

Piebalgs: Unfortunately there is too much demand for gas. That is what our difficulty is, because we today consume roughly 500 [billion cubic meters, or bcm] of gas, we produce 200 [bcm]. So it means we have a gap of around 300 bcm. In 2020, [the gap] will be at least 400 [bcm] because domestic production [will go] down and gas consumption [will] grow.

[The commissioner goes on to note that the EU's drive to cut down carbon-dioxide emissions will further boost the demand for gas as a relatively "clean" fuel. He says EU governments need to work to also develop other, "less easy" alternatives such as nuclear energy, renewable energy, coal and oil shale -- the latter two filtered for carbon-dioxide capture.]

RFE/RL: So you do not think Russia is using energy as a political tool?

Piebalgs: I'm very pragmatic. You can blackmail somebody who wants to be blackmailed. I don't see the situation this way. What I clearly see is that Gazprom decided that most of their [exports] would go to European consumers. Why is this so? I would say the reasons are not only political, [it is] because they know the market, they have experience in this market and they know that it's a market economy -- so they know that they will get very good profits for [their] gas.

What I also see from [Gazprom is] that they don't like to [supply] gas through countries. They like to go immediately to the consumer. Well, it's up to them to decide. I personally believe that [there is nothing wrong with] the transit of gas through [non-EU] countries. But they think differently; that's [the reason behind] the investment in South Stream. I would say [South Stream] is very clearly [about] going to a growing gas market, I don't see it differently.

Politically, well if you already have some dependence, 25 percent of consumption and we have a growing gap [between domestic production and imports], I don't believe that the consumption of Russian gas [will account for more than] 30 percent of our future demand, so it will not change particularly.

[Piebalgs goes on to say the "big challenge" for Russia is not infrastructure in Europe, but "upstream" investments in gas production to expand capacity. He says he "very much hopes" work on the Shtokman gas field will start this year. Piebalgs also expresses worry that the growing domestic demand for gas in Russia could affect deliveries to Europe.]

RFE/RL: So you don't see any underlying political motives behind Russia's recent deals in Serbia and Bulgaria?

Piebalgs: Where the political muscles are [being flexed], well, we see this with Serbia where that is definitely the case, where [there] is a political-economical deal, but I don't see [that] with any other country. Because the Bulgarian case [last week's signing of a joint-venture agreement with Gazprom to develop South Stream] is completely different. Bulgaria agreed that they will allow transit of gas via its territory. But if I recall, not so long ago when alternatives to Nord Stream were debated, Latvia said, "Oh, we would like to have the transit of the [Russian] gas." Lithuania [said the same thing] Poland had. So it's different. So we should see that Bulgaria is definitely in line with European energy policy and if they decide to allow the transit of gas through their territory it's their [decision] as a sovereign nation.

RFE/RL: Did Bulgaria consult with you prior to inking its deal with Gazprom?

Piebalgs: Well, we discussed [it] quite a lot. I never saw the documents that they signed because it's up to them. We discussed the issue and I said that gas is different from oil, it's completely different from [the] Burgos-Alexadropolis [oil pipeline], because for gas, at the end of the day, for some regulatory issues it will be [the European] Commission that will take the decisions. [I did this], just not to have bad surprises, just to explain that the acquis [that is, EU law] will be also applied to this pipeline [South Stream] and it means third-party access and all these issues. So, it is just the beginning of the story of South Stream, it is not still the final conclusion of the South Stream. As I said, there is nothing wrong [with] South Stream from the EU market point of view, but all the regulatory issues still need to be solved.

RFE/RL: Do you have any specific plans for the protection of strategic EU infrastructure in this field? Gazprom is looking for acquisitions in many EU countries, among them Austria, where Nabucco will end.

Piebalgs: I believe strongly that network infrastructure should be separated from upstream activities, downstream activities. It think that is the crucial issue. It's not only [important] from the security point of view, but also from the normal market point of view, to use the full capacity. That's why I proposed this ownership "unbundling" [legislation in 2007 to separate energy suppliers from distribution networks] because I believe it is right from the market point of view [eds: bringing down prices] and also from a security point of view [eds: preventing monopolies]. Because only an "unbundled" company could own [pipeline] networks [once the legislation is passed] and then the question falls [away] because then Gazprom can't have control of any EU [pipeline] network -- not because it is Gazprom, but because it is an integrated company.

RFE/RL: When do you expect construction on Nabucco to begin?

Piebalgs: I need now to take a decision on one regulatory request for third-party access, I will take it in early February. Soon I will get other requests [from EU member state energy-market regulators], [which] we could deal with during 2008. I heard that there will be six partners in the consortium. We are working now, we will meet with a couple of companies afterward to discuss competition [legislation] issues because the gas will mostly come at this stage from [the] Shah Deniz [field in Azerbaijan], and also through the Arab pipeline from Egypt, later on some Iraqi gas could be added. So, we should resolve some competition issues still, so that means we could be ready [to start work on Nabucco] somewhere in the second part of 2009.

RFE/RL: What about the prospect of importing Iranian gas?

Piebalgs: The issue is very much related resolving the issue of the enrichment of uranium. What I have heard is that there have been some positive changes, but I know that the Iranians are very tough negotiators, so I don't know if [these are] real changes or not. Until then, I believe there will be no major investments from EU companies.

[Piebalgs adds that he is certain Iran will be a major gas supplier to the EU in the future.]

Kazakhstan: Corruption, Idle Promises Blamed For Mining Accidents

By Bruce Pannier

An ambulance enters the compound of the mine in Abai

Two weeks after a methane explosion at the Abai mine in Kazakhstan's central Karagana region killed 30 miners, it is still unclear why such deadly accidents continue to occur so often in the country's mines.

Many miners are threatening to strike for better working conditions and higher wages, while others have already held protests.

On January 22, the Emergency Situations Ministry presented the conclusions of its preliminary investigation, which blamed violations in the use of equipment. These violations caused sparks, the report says, that ignited methane gas and set off an explosion. The ministry said investigators are "clarifying the degree of responsibility of the mine's management."

But some say that "responsibility" goes far beyond the mine's management.

The Abai coal mine is owned by Arcelor-Mittal, which is controlled by Indian-born, billionaire steel tycoon Lakshimi Mittal. Arcelor-Mittal, formerly Mittal Steel, first started operating in Kazakhstan in 1995. The company (called Arcelor-Mittal-Temirtau in Kazakhstan) is the largest steelworks in Kazakhstan and now owns 15 coal and iron-ore mines there.

The company says it has invested more than $2 billion in these mines since its Kazakh operation started and says some $250 million has gone toward improving safety in the mines. In 2007, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development loaned Arcelor-Mittal-Temirtau $100 million to improve the health and safety practices in its coal mines.

Cutting Corners On Safety

But many say they haven't seen any improvement. Aynur Qurmanov, an activist from the Kazakh nongovernmental organization Shanyraq, visited the Abai mine after the accident. He tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that worker protection there is "simply intolerable."

Qurmanov says that many mines are "run down" and "haven't changed since the Soviet period. Mittal talks about improving the conditions and equipment, but in fact there has not been any improvement in the mines."

Prosecutor-General's Office spokesman Saulebek Zhamkenuly says that mines owned by Arcelor-Mittal have a worrisome record in Kazakhstan. "Since similar accidents have been repeated on a regular basis, all the mines and industrial facilities belonging to the Arcelor-Mittal-Temirtau company are in the process of being inspected, especially the level of work safety is being looked into," he says.

One similar methane-gas explosion in September 2006 at a Kazakh mine owned by Arcelor-Mittal left 41 miners dead.

Situation 'Complicated'

Qurmanov and Zhamkenuly's remarks suggest that not all of the millions given to improve work and safety conditions at the mines has been spent for that purpose.

But Dos Koshim, the chairman of the Kazakh nongovernmental organization Nation's Future, says that the problems at the mines might be the fault of Kazakh officials, not Arcelor-Mittal.

"I would divide the corruption into two parts," Koshim says. "The first one is the power holders in very high positions [in the Kazakh government] who do their best to support Mittal and foreign investors like him, whose major objective is to get as much from Kazakhstan's mineral resources at any cost, no matter what the work-safety conditions are or the human lives [it may cost]. The second part is the local authorities' activities that cover the foreign investors' weak points. Those two go hand-in-hand, but I would put those in high positions as the most responsible [for such accidents]."

The miners themselves are divided as to what course to take. Some went on strike shortly after the Abai mine explosion. Some even barricaded themselves inside a mine for several days to draw attention to the plight of miners. Miners at four of the mines owned by Arcelor-Mittal are threatening to walk off their jobs this week unless they receive raises, safety improvements, and the right to retire at age 50.

Sergei Shipkov, the deputy chairman of the miner's union in central Kazakhstan, says negotiations with Arcelor-Mittal representatives are set to start. He describes the situation as "complicated," and says that the union has demanded "an increase in wages, extra finances for safety and protection, and now we are waiting for a commission from London [to arrive] that will negotiate with us."

A strike following the 2006 mine accident resulted in an increase in wages for miners. Eight mid-level managers and staff at the mine received prison sentences of up to 3 1/2 years for their negligence in that accident. Arcelor-Mittal then promised to do more to improve safety at its mines in Kazakhstan.

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

Belly-Dancing Girlfriend Of Former British Envoy Exposes Brutal Uzbek Regime

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Nadira Alieva in publicity photo

Nadira Alieva has come a long way since growing up in a family of actors in the central Uzbek town of Jizzakh.

In a solo performance that began on January 8 at London's Arcola Theater, the 26-year-old tells her life story in post-Soviet Uzbekistan. It includes surviving a drug-addict father, two rapes, and a stint as a Tashkent stripper before meeting British Ambassador Craig Murray, who left his wife to take her back to London with him.

She tells it all while also performing a belly dance in a sequined dress and veil.

"The performance is about myself, about how I came to England and my life with an ambassador, about how we lived and what difficulties we had to face and overcome, what we experienced," Alieva says. "But in fact, it is about how a person solves a problem of overcoming difficulties."

But while Alieva describes herself as being apolitical, her show also shines a bright light on the brutal regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov. It does so by both talking about the politics and also talking about Murray, who has been one of the West's fiercest critics of Karimov since serving as envoy to Tashkent until October 2004.

Shahida Yakub, a London-based Uzbek journalist, says Alieva's performance sends an important message about Uzbekistan. "The content of the performance is very strong because it shows the Uzbek dictatorship and an ordinary family that lives under that dictatorship," Yakub says.

"There are thousands of girls like Nadira in Uzbekistan. I think -- and she says so -- Nadira was lucky because she met Craig Murray," she continues. "But there are so many girls who go to Dubai and even to Osh and Bishkek [in neighboring Kyrgyzstan] to work there as prostitutes. From this point of view, it's helpful that the performance shows the pain that many Uzbek women go through."

Early Years Of Hardship

For Alieva, the world's always been a stage. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, she tells how she used to dream of becoming an actress herself while watching her parents perform on stage at a Jizzakh theater.

But after Uzbek independence in 1991, her parents lost their jobs and her father turned to alcohol and narcotics. He used Nadira as a drug mule to bring drugs from a nearby Uzbek-Afghan border checkpoint.

Alieva says her family was starving. After her brother stopped her from committing suicide, she decided to do what her mother wanted her to do.

"My mom did not want me to become an actress. She wanted me to become a teacher," she says. "I became a teacher. I graduated from the [Tashkent] University of World Languages. I worked as a teacher, which made my mother happy."

But Alieva could not afford a normal living with a teacher's salary, although she also worked part-time as a cleaning lady. So she found a job as a secretary in a small company, but had to quit it soon after being raped by her employer.

It's one of the bitterest moments for Alieva -- mostly because the rapist was a devout Muslim who had performed a pilgrimage to Mecca. "I was shocked, I cried a lot," she says. "You know, the fact that he was a hajji.... It left a severe scar in my heart. Had it been someone else, maybe I would be able to forget it."

Leaving Uzbekistan Behind

Soon after the incident, Alieva became a pole dancer in a Tashkent nightclub, earning some $300 a month -- enough to support her entire family.

It was there, in 2003, that she met Murray, then Britain's ambassador to Uzbekistan. Murray was an outspoken critic of the Uzbek regime's human rights abuses. He also criticized his own government for cooperating with Tashkent -- a onetime ally in the West's war on terrorism. He said Britain was using Uzbek intelligence obtained from prisoners under torture.

Murray later lost his job, walked out of his 20-year-marriage, and moved with Alieva to London.

Alieva is brutally honest about her motives. She says she pitied Murray but saw him as a way out of her life as stripper. And she admits that she is not sure if she would have chosen Murray had she known about his political views.

"Frankly speaking, I don't pay attention to politics. Had I known what Craig was up to in Uzbekistan, I would never be with him," she says. "When did I learn that he was involved in our politics? When I came to London, I read about it in newspapers. Our house was full of journalists. I was told that everything happened to us because Craig was involved in Uzbekistan's politics. I was very angry."

Her story also includes another rape in Uzbekistan by a police officer and lap dancing in London to make ends meet after Murray lost his job.

On the London stage, she speaks about life with Murray -- and also about some things that he would probably rather keep private. "His attitude toward my career as an actress is very positive, although he wished I would not say some things," Alieva says. "Well, I did not want to tell some of the things myself."

She was recently quoted by a British newspaper as saying that she had first learned about spanking and masochism after meeting foreign men in the Tashkent nightclub. Alieva admits that this was a part of the deal with the playwright and producers. "They wanted to make it attractive to theater-goers," she says.

Hope For The Future

Alieva says she has another, more personal reason for the performance. "I had a hard life [in Uzbekistan] but my family was with me. Now, life is good but my family is not here," she says.

"My mother visited us last year. We don't have money to invite her again," Alieva continues. "If I earn money from this show, I hope to have a chance to invite her here. I can't even invite my brothers and see them because we don't have money. But I hope everything will be fine."

Alieva hopes to earn more money when her performance moves from the 60-seat Arcola to the larger West End Theater next month.

She also says there are plans in Hollywood to make a movie based on Murray's autobiographical book, "Murder in Samarkand," a scathing portrait of the Karimov regime and the compromises British and U.S. officials made with it after September 2001. Alieva claims she has heard rumors that Angelina Jolie might play her in the film.

Alieva's performance has received mixed reviews. The website "Stage" said, "She has a warm and engaging stage presence." But the "Daily Mail" was more critical. It described the performance as "no Cinderella-style fairytale" of a "rather amoral woman" with "ample curves."

Alieva says she wouldn't wish her fate on anyone, but she adds: "I am proud of myself because I did not give up despite all the difficulties. Deep in my heart, I have always believed in God and his miracle. As you see, up to now, all my dreams have been coming true, slowly, one by one."

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

German Journalist Severely Beaten In Kazakhstan

Marcus Bensmann's wife said she was not aware of any evidence that the savage beating was connected to his work

A German journalist who was found unconscious and semi-frozen in the snow on the outskirts of the Kazakh capital on January 20 has been flown in a medically equipped aircraft to Germany for further care.

Marcus Bensmann, who made his name as an independent and outspoken journalist unafraid of criticizing the authoritarian practices of some Central Asian governments, had been robbed and severely beaten.

Bensmann, 38, was taken to a hospital in Astana with a concussion, a broken jaw, nose, and cheekbones, and severe frostbite.

His wife said she had no evidence that the assault was a result of Bensmann's work.

Bensmann was filming a documentary about Astana for the German television station WDR. He has worked for ARD/WDR in Moscow since 1997 and has written extensively for many German dailies and magazines about Central Asia.

Bensmann and his wife, Galima Bukharbaeva, were in Andijon on May 13, 2005, when Uzbek security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing hundreds of people. Bukharbaeva has testified several times in the West about the events in Andijon as she witnessed them. Bensmann was forced to leave Uzbekistan shortly afterward, and has been unable to return to the country since then.

Bukharbaeva told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that Bensmann's film about Astana was to show different aspects of the city.

"Besides the opera house, besides architects whom he wanted to talk to about new buildings, he wanted to show Astana's nightlife, so he went to a night club on Saturday night," she said. "And when he was leaving the club, as far as I know, he took a private taxi with two others already inside, and they were the ones who [attacked and beat] him."

Shanat Bintenov, a police chief in Astana working on the case, said Bensmann was the victim of a common robbery. Other observers, noting the severity of his beating -- which was unnecessary in robbing him -- have speculated that Bensmann may have angered someone in researching and filming his documentary or that someone linked to the Uzbek government -- of which he has often been very critical in his work -- may have ordered the attack against him.

Bukharbaeva said Bensmann is in "very serious condition" but that she was able to speak to him briefly before he was flown to Germany. Bukharbaeva said he has serious facial fractures but the greatest danger to his health is the frostbite, as he was left unconscious in temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius for several hours.

"I'm inclined to think that this was an unfortunate incident, most likely a criminal assault, a robbery," Bukharbaeva said. "I don't have any reasons, or indications, or suspicions that it was an organized attack with a political subtext."

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

Uzbek Cotton Industry Targeted By Child-Labor Activists

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Uzbeks harvesting 'white gold'

In an open letter on January 17, some 100 Uzbek dissidents and activists abroad and 40 in the country say the forced use of child labor in the Uzbek cotton industry has become a "deliberate state policy" aimed at "acquiring extra profits."

Child labor has existed since the Soviet era in Uzbekistan, the world's third-largest cotton exporter. But the letter, the second such appeal by Uzbek activists in as many months, says that in recent years forced child labor has spread on a "mass scale," and that working conditions for thousands of minors who toil in Uzbek fields have worsened.

One of the letter's signatories is Nadejda Atayeva, who heads a Paris-based Association on Human Rights in Central Asia.

"As you know, child labor has been used to pick and proceed cotton for many years [in Uzbekistan], and the time came when we decided to raise this problem," says Atayeva, whose group is behind the campaign to boycott Uzbek cotton. "We wrote the petition to the international community in order to start debate and address the issue properly because efforts to solve the problem inside the country did not bring any success so far."

Global Attention

Concerns over the use of forced child labor in Uzbekistan began attracting more international attention in October, after the BBC aired a documentary that showed Uzbek children picking cotton for clothing sold in Britain.

The BBC's "Newsnight" program filmed an Uzbek cotton field full of schoolchildren, some as young as 9, hard at work. The documentary showed how children were accompanied by a police escort, which cleared the road for buses and trucks loaded with mattresses to take the kids to cotton fields or back to the barracks. One boy said he was paid just two pence per kilogram -- 40 percent less than officials in the capital, Tashkent, said pickers were paid.

Following the expose, several international companies said they would stop buying Uzbek cotton. Swedish retail giant H&M, Finland's Marimekko, and Estonia's Krenholm were the first. This week, they were joined by Britain's Tesco, the world's third-largest retailer, and by Marks and Spencer, Britain's largest retailer.

"We are really thrilled Marks and Spencer have just announced they will no longer be buying cotton from Uzbekistan," says Juliette Williams, who leads the Uzbek boycott campaign for the Environmental Justice Foundation, a British-based NGO. "And they are telling all their suppliers the same message -- that they need to make sure that there is no Uzbek cotton in the production process to make clothes that will be sold in Marks and Spencer stores. We are really thrilled at that. It's quite a victory."

Williams says the decisions by Britain's major retailers have the potential to change a multibillion-dollar industry and stop abuses such as forced child labor. The boycott could also spread beyond Europe, a major buyer of Uzbek cotton and where one in every four garments contains it.

In Bangladesh, textile and yarn producers tell RFE/RL's Uzbek Service they might look for alternative sources for cotton if Uzbekistan, which supplies most of cotton used in Bangladesh, does not stop its child-labor practices.

Boycotting The Boycott

Not everyone has embraced the boycott.

The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), a U.S.-based group that promotes the world cotton trade, called the allegations by Uzbek activists "exaggerated" and "absurd." The ICAC's statement came after the Uzbek activists issued an initial appeal on November 16 to boycott Uzbek cotton.

ICAC Executive Director Terry Townsend has ruled out what he called "factual errors" on the use of defoliants and pesticides in cotton fields that activists claim Uzbek children are inhaling, as well as information on the level of pay for child workers and other issues. Writing on November 30, he concluded that a boycott of Uzbek cotton in international markets would be "highly impractical."

Nevertheless, Townsend says his committee's panel would be involved in "gathering objective information" pertaining to the allegations. The panel will present its findings during the ICAC plenary meeting in Burkina Faso in November 2008, he wrote.

Atayeva said this week's statement was partly in response to the ICAC's reaction to the original call for a boycott. The activists' November appeal was sent to the European Union and the governments of the United States, Russia, and China, as well as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the World Bank, the UN's Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the International Labor Organization.

Cotton revenues are a major source of hard currency for Uzbekistan, with around $1 billion in annual exports. But activists say it's especially lucrative for the ruling elite, such as President Islam Karimov's family and cronies. They say the boycott will not affect ordinary Uzbeks.

The Hidden Cost

Officials in Tashkent have not publicly reacted to recent international outcry. However, in the past they have denied the use of forced child labor in the country's agricultural sector, saying Tashkent adheres to international conventions on child labor and "forbids any form of child labor in cotton fields and other agricultural sectors."

Atayeva, a former schoolteacher, was fired from her job in Uzbekistan for refusing to send sick schoolchildren to the cotton fields. She says the letter's signatories are all Uzbeks with firsthand experience of conditions in Uzbek cotton fields, and that foreigners who deny their accusations appear to have been deceived by the Uzbek government.

"Our appeal is based on our concern over the fate of Uzbekistan's children, who are deprived of a proper education at the expense of collecting 'white gold,'" Atayeva says.

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