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Central Asia Report: March 8, 2008

Kazakhstan: Ukraine Wins Promises Of Cooperation, But No Energy Deal

By Bruce Pannier

Yushchenko and Nazarbaev in Astana

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko arrived in Kazakhstan hoping to secure new deals for Kazakh energy supplies, but he is set to leave with no agreement for more natural gas or oil anytime soon.

Yushchenko's visit to Kazakhstan was planned months ago and timed to coincide with the opening of the "Year of Ukraine" festivities in Kazakhstan. But the renewed disputes that emerged this week between Ukraine and Russian gas giant Gazprom shifted the focus of Yushchenko's visit to trying to strike new deals for supplies of Kazakh oil and natural gas.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, after a meeting with Yushchenko in the Kazakh capital Astana today, briefly raised Ukraine's hopes. "We clearly understand Ukraine's interest in energy resources and, with its large resources and opportunities to increase both oil and gas output in the future, Kazakhstan can potentially meet this need," Nazarbaev said.

But Nazarbaev pointed out that actually increasing energy exports to Ukraine depends on a third party, noting that Kazakh oil is transported to Ukrainian ports through the Russian Transneft oil-transit system, known as the Caspian Pipeline Consortium. He said that Kazakhstan is ready to boost its exports to Ukraine, but that an agreement would have to be sought with both countries and Russia.

Matthew Clements, the Eurasia editor at the London-based Jane's information group, said before the Nazarbaev-Yushchenko meeting that Kazakhstan was unlikely to agree to anything that might jeopardize Kazakhstan's strong ties with Russia.

"Kazakhstan has a closer relationship with Russia than other CIS states or regional states and I think this has been cemented in recent months by the pipeline agreement between Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia," Clements said. "And I think it shows a favorable point of view from Kazakhstan toward Russia and indeed from Russia toward Kazakhstan."

However, Clements continued, "Nazarbaev has shown a great willingness to be quite open-minded in terms of getting as many gas deals as possible into other countries, for instance pipeline and export agreements signed with China; and he's also been very open to the idea of supplying some degree of [gas] across the Caspian towards Europe."

Nazarbaev did venture to say that a deal with Ukraine that does not involve Russia or Russian companies is at least possible. "There is an alternative way to resolve this issue, and that is to reach the Black Sea via Baku," Nazarbaev said. "We're working to restore the old pipeline that runs directly from Baku to the Black Sea, and Kazakhstan has bought out the deep-sea port in Batumi [Georgia] together with its terminals."

For his part, Yushchenko held out the prospect that Kazakh oil could not only be sold to Ukraine, but also transported through Ukraine to other countries in Europe via a Ukrainian pipeline that begins in Odesa on the Black Sea and will eventually reach the Polish port city of Gdansk.

"The goal of the Odesa-Brody [pipeline] project is to deliver Caspian oil to the center of Europe," Yushchenko said. "So we believe there is no alternative to this project. No existing project has been designed to deliver Caspian oil to European consumers by this shortest way."

Talks between the Kazakh and Ukrainian presidents were reportedly cordial, and Kazakhstan is due to send representatives to an energy summit in Kyiv in May. Yushchenko said the Odesa-Brody-Gdansk pipeline project would be among the top issues on the agenda at that summit.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan and Michael Mihalisko of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report

Uzbekistan: NATO Hints At Deal On Renewed Operations

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

A U.S. soldier at Karshi-Khanabad in the early days after September 11, 2001

Conflicting reports of a potential deal on a NATO troop presence in Uzbekistan have spawned talk of a delicate thaw that could raise Russia's hackles and prompt a backlash from rights groups angry over a deadly crisis in eastern Uzbekistan in 2005.

A NATO envoy says officials in Tashkent are weighing the possibility of allowing NATO armies to use an Uzbek military base for alliance operations in neighboring Afghanistan.

The prospect of such a presence could indicate a willingness on both sides to improve relations since a deadly security clampdown in eastern Uzbekistan in mid-2005.

Some observers are likely to question whether the flip side of such an approach suggests that the events of Andijon -- where authorities say under 200 people died but eyewitnesses and watchdog groups claim many more peaceful protesters were gunned down -- have been forgotten.

The thaw could also anger regional players Russia and China, who have worked hard to capitalize on frosty relations between Tashkent and the West to strengthen their own energy and security relations in Central Asia.

U.S. forces had used the Karshi-Khanabad base until being kicked out by Uzbek President Islam Karimov after criticism over Andijon. German troops were allowed to stay in the country, at another base in Termez.

But Robert Simmons, NATO's envoy to the Caucasus and Central Asia, suggested at a Moscow news conference on March 5 that U.S. forces might now be back.

"My understanding is [Uzbek authorities] are also agreeing to participate or let other ally nations beyond Germany use facilities in that country," Simmons said. "It might be because of that -- although I am not sure of all the details -- that other allies including the United States are now again using facilities in Uzbekistan."

Simmons added that "inasmuch as that supports our mission in Afghanistan, we welcome the fact that more allies can in fact use those facilities."

It is the suggestion that U.S. soldiers are already there that has rankled some.

A spokesman for the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Vitaliy Strugavetz, said he thought Simmons "simply made a mistake." He said the Uzbek government has not informed other CSTO members about the possibility of inviting a third party's troops to Uzbekistan, as it is obliged to do under the treaty.

"It was wishful thinking, and I assume it was also a well-prepared informational 'mistake,' softly speaking -- as he 'mixed up' Khanabad and Termez," Strugavets said.

Officials in Tashkent have not responded to Simmons' comments.

The press attache at the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, Molly Stephenson, has denied a report claiming that U.S. troops are already using the Uzbek base again. Stephenson told RFE/RL that there was a "misunderstanding" related to the NATO envoy's quote and that "the United States has no bilateral access to military facilities in Uzbekistan."

"Individual Americans who are attached to NATO international staff can use the German air bridge from Termez to Afghanistan, and that's on a case-by-case basis," Stephenson said, "but there are no American troops based in Termez, or Karshi, or any other base in Uzbekistan."

The Karshi-Khanabad, or K2 base as it is sometimes known, was one of the biggest Soviet military bases and a key staging point for Soviet operations during its abortive 1979-89 campaign in Afghanistan.

To be sure, there has been a flurry of recent Western diplomatic activity in Tashkent. In late January, Admiral William Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, met with President Karimov in the Uzbek capital.

The European Union has had sometimes wrenching debate over its post-Andijon sanctions and is set to discuss lifting its visa ban on top Uzbek officials in late April. The EU ban was imposed in November 2005, after Karimov dismissed calls for an independent international probe into the Andijon deaths.

Uzbek authorities also recently granted amnesty to several prominent human rights activists, a move that was welcomed by the EU.

Human rights activists have accused the West of abandoning the dispute over what really took place at Andijon. Western officials, however, say Uzbekistan's human-rights record has always been a part of the equation.

"Recently, given certain events including the access of the European Union to discussions about human rights in Uzbekistan, relations between NATO and NATO members and Uzbekistan have improved," Simmons said in Moscow, "and Uzbekistan has, for instance, returned to participating in meetings in Brussels in the Partnership for Peace context -- and we welcome that."

Moscow and Beijing are not likely to embrace even tentative moves that could open the door to increased Western influence in Uzbekistan or the region.

Following international criticism over Andijon, Uzbekistan became an active member of the CSTO.

Sergei Mikheev of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies said Karimov has been trying to broaden his foreign-policy options to lessen Russian and Chinese influence. But if Karimov has decided to allow U.S. troops back in, he added, the decision could backfire.

"Karimov is in a very difficult situation right now [and] we have to wait and see if this news will be confirmed," Mikheev said. "But I believe that U.S. troops' return to Uzbekistan may to some extent soften Uzbekistan's relations with Americans but simultaneously complicate relations with Russia. Which is better for Karimov? I don't know."

He went on to suggest that "history shows [that] attempts by authoritarian regimes to reach a compromise with the Americans often ends in those regimes' destruction."

Mikheev said he thought "conclusions were drawn and lessons learned" from Andijon and its aftermath, and added that he doubts "Karimov is ready to take another risk" through such a crackdown.

RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent Alisher Siddikov contributed to this report

Yushchenko Seeks Energy Imports In Kazakhstan

By Bruce Pannier

Yushchenko and Nazarbaev in Astana

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is on a visit to Kazakhstan this week, ostensibly to help kick off the "Year of Ukraine in Kazakhstan."

But given Ukraine's current problems with Moscow over natural-gas supplies, Yushchenko's presence in Kazakhstan -- the energy baron of Central Asia -- could not come at a better time.

Just this week, Russian gas giant Gazprom announced a sharp reduction in gas supplies to Ukraine, citing Kyiv's alleged $600 million debt for supplies already received. The move caused political as well as energy problems in Ukraine, and threatened to fracture the already fragile coalition between Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

So Yushchenko's appearance in Kazakhstan, a country rich in natural gas and oil, is an opportunity he should take full advantage of, according to Volodymyr Omelchenko of the Razymkova Center, a Ukrainian think tank.

"Kazakhstan has some of the largest oil and gas resources in Central Asia. Oil output is growing in Kazakhstan now. And when the Kashagan oil field begins functioning in 2011 or 2012, Ukraine should use that opportunity" to secure its supplies, Omelchenko tells RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

Matthew Clements, the Eurasia editor at the London-based Jane's Information Group, tells RFE/RL that Yushchenko is almost sure to ask Kazakh officials about energy exports from Kazakhstan when he meets with them in Astana.

"The long-term issue that Ukraine is really pushing at the moment is an attempt to diversify its [energy] sources away from Russia because of the current problems it has" with Russia, Clements says. "And one of those [sources] is obviously Central Asia."

Clements cites proposals to create a new pipeline running through Turkey, Ukraine, and other parts of Europe, bypassing Russia. "Key to that would be accessing Central Asian gas and oil and transporting that across the Caspian Sea," he adds.

Kazakhstan's Feuding Allies

Borikhan Nurmukhammedov, an Almaty-based independent political observer, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that Yushchenko is not only seeking energy supplies, but also support in Ukraine's feud with Russia.

"The most important issue in relations between Ukraine and Kazakhstan is the issue of energy," Nurmukhammedov says. "Ukraine today is trying to get Kazakhstan's support to solve some of the problematic issues between Ukraine and Russia." At the same time, he adds, "every time problems arise between Ukraine and Russia, Ukraine turns to one of the biggest consumers of its industrial output -- Kazakhstan. I think those are the issues Yushchenko is going to take care of while he is here" in Kazakhstan.

Yushchenko should specifically be asking about Kazakh oil, since the only available route for Kazakh natural gas runs through Russia. But there are some considerable problems in seeking Kazakh oil: as Clements notes, Kazakhstan and Russia are close allies and have been for some time.

"Kazakhstan has a closer relationship with Russia than other CIS states or regional states and I think this has been cemented in recent months by the pipeline agreement between Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia," Clements says. "And I think it shows a favorable point of view from Kazakhstan toward Russia and indeed from Russia toward Kazakhstan."

However, Clements says that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev "has shown a great willingness to be quite open-minded in terms of getting as many gas deals as possible into other countries. For instance, pipeline and export agreements have been signed with China and he's also been very open to the idea of supplying some amount of [gas] across the Caspian toward Europe."

Transit For Energy

Almaty-based independent political analyst Sharipbek Amirbek tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that there are several good reasons for Kazakh leaders to be sympathetic to Ukraine's requests for more energy supplies. Amirbek cites Ukraine's developed industrial infrastructure as an important advantage. Furthermore, he says, "Ukraine is known today as a transit country on the way to the West, meaning that even Russia transports its gas to Europe via Ukraine, so...for Kazakhstan it is very important to use Ukrainian territory as a transit territory. That will be on the agenda."

Agreeing on oil shipments is easier than actually delivering oil to Ukraine. The only land route between Kazakhstan and Ukraine crosses Russia. But Kazakhstan has been building up an oil-tanker fleet and that could at least help in the initial stage of exporting oil.

"Oil or gas from any Central Asian countries to Europe or Ukraine is actually very difficult if you're trying to bypass Russia," Clements says. But "there are tanker routes across the Caspian into Baku in Azerbaijan, which links them to the BTC [Baku-Tbilisi Ceyhan] pipeline to Turkey and then on to Europe."

Yushchenko spent his first day in Kazakhstan at festivities to mark the "Year of Ukraine in Kazakhstan." On March 6 he will hold meetings with Kazakh officials.

RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhan and Mariana Drach of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report

Turkmenistan: Take Down The Portraits! Niyazov's Personality Cult Being Dismantled

By Gulnoza Saidazimova
Turkmenistan was once littered with so many pictures and statues of Sapamurat Niyazov that outsiders might be forgiven for thinking the country looked like a personal portrait album of the late leader known as "Turkmenbashi," or the "Father of All Turkmen."

Now, reports from Turkmenistan say that scores of portraits of Niyazov -- who created one of the 20th century's last great cults of personality -- are being removed from public more than one year after his death. Yet there are concerns Niyazov's successor, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, might be creating a personality cult of his own.

In Central Asia, presidential portraits are often seen on the facades of government and public buildings. Portraits of leaders also hang on the office walls of virtually every government official. There even seems to be a telling rule of thumb: the more authoritarian a leader, the more his portraits will adorn the buildings and streets of cities around the country.

But the portrait and statue extravaganza during Niyazov’s 21-year rule was virtually unmatched anywhere -- as was the level of authoritarian rule. Dozens of busts and statues of Niyazov and his family were erected during Turkmenbashi's lifetime.

Ashgabat became well known for Niyazov's gold-plated statue atop the capital's highest building, the Neutrality Arch. The statue, which rotates so that it always faces the sun, became a key manifestation of Niyazov’s personality cult. His image also adorned every banknote of the country's currency. Even the national vodka and other food products bore his portrait and were called "Serdar," or "Great Leader."

Not For Me, But For The People

Niyazov often said he did not want to have his pictures and statues in the streets but it was "what the people wanted." He added: "If I were a worker and my president gave me all the things they have here [for free] in Turkmenistan, I would not only paint his picture, I would have his picture on my shoulder or on my clothing."

But it seems that many of the Niyazov portraits have now been removed, as Berdymukhammedov slowly moves to deconstruct Niyazov's cult of personality.

"I don't see Niyazov's portraits anymore," Rahim Esenov, a prominent writer in Ashgabat, told RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service. "In a clinic where I usually go, his pictures used to cover all the walls completely. Now, they are gone. However, you can still see his busts and statues on the streets."

A source close to the Turkmen government told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that all government and public institutions have been instructed to remove Niyazov's portraits as well as boards containing excerpts from Niyazov's speeches and his book "Rukhnama," which had become a force-fed "spiritual guide to the Turkmen nation."

According to the instruction -- which is said to have come directly from Berdymukhammedov -- no portraits should be hung on buildings. Portraits of Berdymukhammedov could replace those of Niyazov but only inside government offices, a source told RFE/RL.

Still, Berdymukhammedov's dismantling of the Niyazov personality cult has a long way to go.

Many statues of Niyazov and his mother, Gurbansoltan Eje, can still be seen in Ashgabat and in the country's provinces.

Niyazov's portrait is still on the country's currency, although a decision was made recently to have them replaced with new banknotes without Niyazov's face. The process will take a couple of years.

Meanwhile, observers have voiced concern over a possible cult of personality being established by Berdymukhammedov himself.

A New Cult?

In recent months, numerous reports from Turkmenistan have said that portraits of Berdymukhammedov are replacing those of Niyazov in many places around the capital and elsewhere.

A correspondent for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service in Lebap Province also reported on such a case. "One school director told me that at the beginning of this school year, he was told to take down a portrait of Niyazov and put a huge picture of Berdymukhammedov in its place," the correspondent says. "[He said] the order came from the Education Ministry's district department."

Western media have speculated that Berdymukhammedov has appeared to take steps toward opening up the country. Yet state television reporters now refer to Berdymukhammedov as the "great leader" and newspaper articles extol his virtues.

Bairam Shikhmuradov, an exiled opposition activist, says Berdymukhammedov should stop developing his personality cult, which he says could damage Turkmenistan's international reputation.

"They have started to praise and flatter Berdymukhammedov as much as they did with Turkmenbashi. It looks ugly," Shikhmuradov says. "I hope the president will stop that and not let the situation go as far as it did under Niyazov. Taking into account the prospects of Turkmenistan's relations with the United States, China, and Russia, this nonsense with flattery, portraits, and open letters [of praise] to the president, will become an obstacle for him and his work."

Uzbekistan: Is EU's 'Engagement' Policy With Karimov Bearing Fruit?

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Umida Niyazova believes international pressure secured her amnesty

Bobomurod Mavlonov quickly joined his family in the central Uzbek city of Navoi after spending 2 1/2 years in an Uzbek prison for charges that he says were politically motivated.

He says his release was a big surprise. "I returned to my family on the same day" that prison authorities told him of his release. One of them accompanied me -- he brought me home. I am resting now. I should get some medical treatment."

The 62-year-old Mavlonov was one of more than two dozen human rights activists who had criminal charges brought against them in the aftermath of the bloody crackdown against protesters in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May 2005, when security forces shot dead hundreds of demonstrators.

He was convicted of corruption and abuse of office. Mavlonov, a member of the Erk opposition party, said the charges were trumped up.

But he and four other activists -- Saidjahon Zainabitdinov, Dilmurod Muhitdinov, Ikhtior Hamraev, and Bahodir Mukhtarov -- were freed from prison on February 2-4.

The surprise release came on the eve of a key meeting in Tashkent between European Union and Uzbek officials on February 5.

Just Window Dressing?

Umida Niyazova, who was serving a suspended prison term, was also amnestied on February 3. Niyazova links her amnesty with international pressure put on the Uzbek government and a current "thaw" in relations between Uzbekistan and the West.

"I was amnestied, although a month earlier I received a formal refusal" from the authorities, she says. "Therefore I am absolutely positive that there is a direct link between my amnesty and international relations."

But other activists are skeptical about the releases, saying they are merely window dressing and that they don't signal any true change in the Uzbek government's abysmal human rights policy.

Dadakhon Hasan is a dissident singer and poet who was given a three-year suspended sentence in 2006 for writing and performing a song about the events in Andijon. He says the release of other prisoners that Uzbek President Islam Karimov considers his "enemies" is highly unlikely.

"They will not release those who they consider dangerous [for the regime]. Many are set free after they beg [Karimov's] pardon," Hasan says. "Others refuse to ask for a pardon. Their release is out of sight in my opinion."

The EU welcomed the move to release the prisoners. It also noted that a number of other human rights defenders are still jailed in Uzbekistan and it called for their immediate release.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) also called for the further release of more than a dozen activists. Veronika Szente Goldston, HRW's advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, says the release of the six rights activists is "extremely significant" and demonstrates that sustained international pressure on Tashkent works.

International Pressure Working?

"These releases show that international pressure sustained over time on the Uzbek government can be effective in securing concrete progress in human rights," Goldston says. "This proves that the sanctions policy that the EU has in place has the potential to trigger positive change."

Goldston points out that more than a dozen other rights activists remain behind bars and "there is more that needs to be done." She continues: "These are significant initial steps that really show that the sanctions work as an effective leverage on the Uzbek government and it sends a message that the EU needs to maintain pressure and secure the release of all the other prisoners who are behind bars on account of their human rights work."

Goldston says the EU should maintain the pressure on Tashkent and "not give away the leverage prematurely."

Some observers believe the arrest on February 19 of Deputy Prosecutor-General Anvar Nabiev -- who was responsible for the prosecution of many of those imprisoned after the Andijon events -- is also connected to EU pressure.

The release of the jailed activists is one of the EU's demands outlined in a declaration adopted by EU foreign ministers in October 2007.

The EU came under fire after it suspended a visa ban on top Uzbek officials in October. Uzbek and international human rights groups accused Brussels of being "too soft" and also putting energy and geopolitical interests ahead of human rights and democracy.

The EU imposed the visa ban and a weapons embargo on Uzbekistan in October 2005 in response to the bloodshed at Andijon. The suspension of the visa ban came with a list of tough conditions attached to it.

Among the conditions the Uzbek government has yet to meet are full access by international bodies to the remaining prisoners, access to Uzbekistan for UN special rapporteurs, and the ability of nongovernmental organizations -- including HRW -- to operate freely in the country.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been trying to get access to Uzbek prisons for years. The committee's representative -- who spoke to RFE/RL on the condition of anonymity -- said the ICRC has been engaged in negotiations with the Uzbek government but has not yet received access to the prisons.

There is speculation that the EU will not reinstate the visa ban when EU foreign ministers review it in late April, despite the Uzbek government's failure to meet most of the conditions needed for the ban to be waived.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament adopted its own initiative report on an EU strategy for Central Asia on February 20. The report noted "the slowness of implementation" of the EU's 2007 strategy for Central Asia. Members of the European Parliament also called on the European Council and the European Commission to "ensure that human rights issues should carry equal weight with the EU's robust approach to energy, security, and trade."

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