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Central Asia Report: March 20, 2008

Kyrgyzstan: 'Public Trial' Held On 2002 Killings

By Bruce Pannier

A police video of the Aksy shooting showed that the police were not provoked before the shooting

Some 500 people turned out in Kyrgyzstan's southern Aksy district for a trial that the justice minister has called illegal. The unofficial "public trial" by rights activists, lawyers, and citizens heard the case of the Aksy killings -- six years to the day after the tragedy took place.

The group behind the event says it was forced to conduct a symbolic hearing to remind officials that those who gave the orders to fire on protesters in March 2002 were never brought to justice.

In a ruling that is bound to spark controversy, former parliament speaker Mukar Cholponbaev read out a verdict at the end of the "trial" that found former President Askar Akaev and current President Kurmanbek Bakiev "as heads of the state and of the government, as guarantors of the constitution and the rights of the country's citizens," responsible "for organizing and carrying out" the 2002 shooting in Aksy.

Aksy remains a controversial and tragic event in Kyrgyzstan.

Several thousand protesters had gathered there to protest the detention of a local representative to parliament on charges of abuse of office. The situation was tense. Some protesters threw stones and sticks as police looked on. No one expected the police would open fire, but they did -- and five people were killed. A sixth died the next day, although there's been a lot of debate about whether that fatality was connected to the police shooting.

The event sparked protests that stretched to the capital, Bishkek, in the north.

At first, then-President Akaev blamed the protesters, saying a few ambitious people had used them for their own political aims. But when a videotape of the shootings emerged, it showed clearly that the police were not sufficiently provoked to fire on the protesters.

The prime minister at the time, current President Bakiev, resigned along with his government some two months later. Akaev, in a bid to calm the explosive situation, declared an amnesty for all involved and ordered the country to move on.

Demanding Justice

But that did not satisfy many who believe the people responsible not only for using deadly force but for authorizing it had escaped justice. This was especially true for the relatives of those killed, who have never stopped trying to have the tragedy properly investigated and those responsible brought to trial, including Akaev and Bakiev.

Sartbai Jaichybekov is an attorney for the relatives of those killed. Speaking at the trial on March 17, he suggested that he and others still think that Bakiev played a key role in the events at Aksy. He also pointed out that Bakiev's statements of his whereabouts when the shootings took place do not conform to other testimony in the case.

Bakiev "says that he was abroad, on a business trip" when the shootings happened, "but former Prime Minister [Kubanychbek] Jumaliev said in court that right after the Aksy events he was at a conference in Bakiev's office," Jaichybekov said. "He said: 'They called me and told me to go to Aksy and gather all the Aksy officials and I left right away for Aksy. I flew there and assembled 28 or 29 Aksy officials.' If Bakiev was outside the country, how could Jumaliev have been with him?"

Akaev was chased from office in March 2005 by protests against rigged parliamentary elections and his failure to improve living standards. Bakiev, by then an opposition leader, was elected president in July 2005.

Since then, there have been minor trials of some officials involved in Aksy. The highest-ranking official of that time to face trial so far is Sultan Urmanaev, the former governor of Jalal-Abat province, where Aksy is located.

Aksy Trial 'Illegal'?

Earlier this month, Urmanaev was found guilty of misusing his position and failing to address the growing problems in Aksy before the violence broke out. He was given a five-year suspended prison sentence with three years probation.

Pointing out that there have already been trials concerning the Aksy events, such as the one that convicted Urmanaev, Justice Minister Marat Kaiypov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on March 17 that the "people's court" in Aksy was illegal.

Kaiypov also recommended that if anyone is unsatisfied with progress so far in finding the guilty parties at Aksy, then they should lodge an appeal in the official court system.

"Since we a have a state, there are justice institutions in this state. Nobody else can judge" or hold a trial," Kaiypov said. "If people think that the trial wasn't fair, then it might be launched again. If somebody escaped trial, then they could be brought to court now. But if people say we are not satisfied with this court, so we will judge by ourselves, then nobody will be satisfied with that, because there is always one side upset with the court."

Aksy is like an open wound on Kyrgyzstan's national psyche. The protests that followed the killings forced the government to loosen its control over the right to assemble and ultimately served as a rehearsal for the events of March 2005 that chased Akaev from power.

But the lack of any real resolution weighs heavily on the minds of many Kyrgyz who are increasingly convinced that the authorities are not interested in seeing the case resolved.

Venera Djumataeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report

Central Asia-Gazprom Deal Imperils Hopes For Trans-Caspian Pipeline

By Bruce Pannier

Gazprom moves again to control the flow

A landmark deal reached this month between Russian gas giant Gazprom and three energy-rich Central Asian states is likely to usher in dramatically higher prices for countries reliant on Russia for their natural gas.

The agreement will virtually double the price of gas in 2009 and could signal the end of European plans to transport gas across the Caspian Sea and away from Russian control.

Gazprom's desire has been to maintain as much control over the export of Central Asian energy resources as it can -- and this deal, bringing Central Asia's energy exporters closer to Gazprom, seems to guarantee that such control will last well into the foreseeable future.

Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller agreed on March 11 with the heads of state-controlled gas companies from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan that those countries will receive "European prices" for their deliveries in 2009 -- somewhere between $350 and $400 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas.

That is more than double the price that Gazprom is currently paying for Central Asian gas, spelling huge new profits for Kazmunaigaz, Uzbekneftegaz, and Turkmengaz.

The deal is likely to hit European consumers soon after the new prices kick in on January 1.

New Tack

It was a surprising move for Gazprom, which runs all the current functioning gas pipelines running out of Central Asia except for one modest pipeline between Turkmenistan and Iran and a partially opened pipeline between Kazakhstan and China.

Mindful of its virtual monopoly on the region's gas exports, Gazprom had spent more than a decade resisting calls for higher prices and signing long-term contracts at below-market prices.

Gazprom was paying Central Asian states less than $70 per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas at the start of 2006. Less than 12 months later, Gazprom had agreed to pay $100 per 1,000 cubic meters for 2007; by the end of this year, the figure will rise to $150.

Uzbekneftegaz's Sobir Salimov tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that as far as Uzbekistan is concerned, Gazprom has finally made the right decision.

"Prices were always different. We had one price, the Turkmen had another. And if we say $120, you know that Russia sells it for $300," Salimov says. "Uzbekistan is now strengthening its position to balance this situation. Uzbekistan will remain firm on this position and if we stay firm Gazprom will have to accept it."

The view was similarly positive from KazMunaiGaz spokesman Arzhan Takachev, who expressed the satisfaction of all three Central Asian countries at the new Gazprom price for their gas.

"We had a situation where we were not able to sell our gas at prices that suited us, and finally we came to an agreement with Gazprom," Takachev says. "This matter is in the common interest of all three republics, and it was a common initiative inasmuch as the gas from our three countries goes through Russia, so all the [Central Asian] parties had an interest [in higher prices]."

Aiming High

Numerous articles in the Russian press put the "European price" for natural gas this year at $300-$350 per 1,000 cubic meters, with some forecasts of $400 by year-end.

Russian analysts said that by hiking the price it pays for gas, Gazprom will see a cut in its profits. But many -- like Matthew Clements, the Eurasia editor at London-based Jane's Information Group -- also expect Gazprom to defray some of the increased expenses by passing the cost on to consumers.

"It's obviously Gazprom who is the intermediary and who is going to be buying the Central Asian gas and pushing it forward on to Western customers and who is going to be making its own profits," Clements says. "And obviously if it's facing increased supply costs, it's going to be increasing its own prices for the Western customers."

Most European consumers already pay "European" prices for Gazprom's gas. But within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) there are countries that have enjoyed beneficial pricing for their gas imports. One is Ukraine, which this year is paying $179.50 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas.

Aleksandr Yakovlev, an analyst for the RosBusiness Consulting Center in Moscow, notes that Ukraine buys its gas from Turkmenistan and tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that Gazprom is unlikely to give Ukraine any more special deals on gas. "From Gazprom's point of view, they are not losing anything," Yakovlev says. Gazprom "will load those expenses on the shoulders of Ukrainian consumers."

Oleksy Ivchenko, the former director of Ukrainian national gas company Naftohaz Ukrayiny, tells RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that the country can cope with higher prices stemming from the recent deal.

"This will not create a major problem for Ukraine. The Ukrainian economy is ready today to buy gas at European prices," Ivchenko says. "The only thing that the scheme of delivery should mean is that the price of gas for Ukraine has to be balanced with the transit-fee payments: the European price for gas minus the [Western] European transit fee."

Clements disagrees with Ivchenko regarding Ukraine's ability to pay $300-$400 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas. "I think there's going to be serious concerns for the Ukrainian economy for this kind of rise [in price]," he says. "Last year the Ukrainians were putting forward figures of less than $200 for 1,000 cubic meters, which the economy could safely absorb. It's already $179 for this year; if it goes much beyond this, then the Ukrainian economy is going to face some pretty severe difficulties."

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko had tried to reach a four-year agreement with Gazprom that would allow a gradual increase in gas prices for her country. But Gazprom said on March 13 that it had agreed with Ukraine that gas supplies for January and February would be charged at $315 per 1,000 cubic meters, but for the remainder of the year the price will be $179.50 per 1,000 cubic meters.

Watching Closely

Two other CIS countries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, were closely watching Tymoshenko's talks with Gazprom. They both receive their gas from Uzbekistan via agreements that are renegotiated every year. This year, the two countries are paying Uzbekistan $145 per 1,000 cubic meters, while before 2006 they were paying less than $50. Despite their potential to generate hydroelectric power, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are several years away from being able to replace Uzbek natural gas with their own sources of power.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are often behind on their payments to Uzbekistan and therefore face regular reductions and even cutoffs of Uzbek gas.

Bazarbai Mambetov, the president of Kyrgyzstan's Oil Traders Association and a former deputy prime minister, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that Kyrgyzstan would not be able to afford the "European" prices proposed by Gazprom.

"I heard on television that [Aleksei] Miller of Russia's Gazprom will travel to Central Asia and that the Central Asian gas price will double next year," Mambetov says. "If the price doubles, then it will be about $300. We don't have the ability and money to buy it for $300 per 1,000 cubic meters."

Shaukat Shoimov, the deputy director of state-owned Tojikgaz, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that Tajik officials were following the Gazprom deal but would not react until later, when gas talks with Uzbekistan would be held. Shoimov says the Uzbek side had not "said anything so far."

"I heard the report about this [Gazprom deal], but we have not received any official news yet," Shoimov says, "so all we can say is that they didn't inform us officially [of a price increase]."

Tajikistan is the poorest of post-Soviet Central Asia's five republics, and consumers are likely to be hard-hit by any significant increase in utilities prices. A resident of Dushanbe tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that a gas-price rise would "severely affect" Tajiks. But he adds that Uzbekistan frequently shuts off gas supplies in any event.

"Even when we pay for gas in advance, they don't provide gas regularly -- for example, they would give us gas for one month and then for one month they wouldn't," he says. "[Price increases] will be hard for people, and they will suffer more. We already have small salaries, and if they increase gas prices people won't know what to do. If gas prices rose, it would severely affect us and we would suffer."

East And West

China is another important consumer of Central Asian gas. Beijing has contracts for natural-gas supplies from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and China is helping pay to develop gas fields and construct pipelines to bring the gas thousands of kilometers eastward to help fuel its economic boom.

China has signed multidecade contracts with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan for huge amounts of gas, but Clements of Jane's Information Group says that does not necessarily mean the price won't change. "The Central Asian states have previously shown a willingness to renege on these contracts," he says. "Certainly Turkmenistan has done it to Russia, so why would they not do it to China as well?"

Clements adds that Central Asian countries will be cautious in talks with their giant eastern neighbor, especially since Russia is also competing to sell China gas.

Foremost among those who want to bring more Central Asian gas to their market is the European Union, for whom the Gazprom deal changes the calculus. With strong support from Washington, the EU has been increasing efforts for proposed trans-Caspian pipelines to be built to better connect Central Asian energy resources to Europe, minus Russia as a middleman.

Recent EU efforts have helped push relations between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to new heights, raising hopes for the construction of a pipeline from the eastern side of the Caspian that would eventually go to Europe.

Russian newspapers have suggested that the Gazprom deal eliminates some of the incentive for Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan to get involved in EU pipeline plans. From those countries' point of view, that reasoning goes, the main problem with gas exports to Russia was always the low prices paid by Gazprom. With that problem solved, Russian newspapers have predicted that projects like the proposed Nabucco pipeline -- which would bring Caspian Basin gas to Europe without traversing Russia -- are doomed.

Clements says that for Russia, this month's Gazprom deal is the culmination of a process that has been under way for some time. He calls it "part of a long-term process that Russia has been undertaking to make sure that Europe doesn't find any alternative sources of energy away from its pipeline monopoly."

Clements says EU pipeline plans were not necessarily doomed, however, pointing out that a Caspian pipeline was still in Europe's interest irrespective of price.

"I wouldn't say it completely kills the plans," he says. "I think the European desire is not so much cheaper gas -- it's to get gas that isn't completely controlled by Russia from its source to [Europe]."

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service Director Tynchtykbek Tchoroev, Tohir Safarov of the Tajik Service, Rozinazar Khoudaiberdiev of the Turkmen Service, Michael Mihalisko of the Ukrainian Service, and Alisher Sidikov of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report

Uzbek, Turkmen Leaders Pursue Better Relations

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Presidents Karimov, Vladimir Putin, and Berdymukhammedov (left to right) at a CIS summit in October

The presidents of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are hailing their improved ties following a rare visit to Tashkent this week by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov of Turkmenistan.

In the latest sign that Central Asia's major gas suppliers are getting closer after a long period of tension, Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Berdymukhammedov concluded two days of talks on March 11 by signing a series of documents on improving bilateral relations. The meetings were watched closely in Moscow, Washington, and Beijing -- the powers competing for the energy resources of the two neighbors.

"I would like to stress my great satisfaction and gratitude to the president of Turkmenistan for the attention he has paid to his state visit," Karimov said after the meetings. His Turkmen counterpart added: "We have common roots and historic ties, and this visit will serve to further improve our bilateral co-operation."

It was a far cry from 2002. That's when bilateral ties collapsed completely after Ashgabat expelled the Uzbek ambassador for alleged links to a failed bid to assassinate former President Sapamurat Niyazov, who died in late 2006.

While little of substance has emerged from these latest talks, the symbolism is important: two former foes are working to improve relations, which has a direct bearing on regional security and economics. If they can resolve key disputes -- particularly over their border, which remains unclearly defined, harbors untapped gas deposits, and complicates day-to-day living of thousands of people -- the impact could be immense.

"Berdymukhammedov's first official visit to Uzbekistan opens a new stage in Turkmen-Uzbek relations," says Oguljamal Yazliyeva, director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. "It is very important for Turkmenistan to cooperate with Uzbekistan to benefit from exporting its energy resources."

She adds that Ashgabat also wants to expand trade and economic cooperation, including exports of chemical, agricultural, and textile products to Uzbekistan. "Uzbek enterprises are using this new atmosphere of cooperation to open branches in Turkmenistan," Yazliyeva says.

But for now, people in both countries might be hoping that substance eventually follows form.

One Uzbek reporter present at the presidents' news conference in Tashkent on March 10 notes that Karimov appeared extremely friendly toward his Turkmen counterpart. "He was in a very good mood," the reporter says. "He praised and showed respect toward the Turkmen leader [and] he said that Berdymukhammedov, a former dentist, had become an honorary doctor of medicine at the Tashkent Academy of Medicine."

Sanobar Shermatova, a Moscow-based expert on Central Asia, says Berdymukhammedov and Karimov appear to have hit it off immediately. He says that while the vainglorious Uzbek leader "hated Niyazov," Karimov and Berdymukhammedov "found a common language" at their first meeting in Ashgabat in October.

The talks last fall were seen as landmark, with a five-year economic-cooperation deal agreed. In fact, the talks went so well that many observers had expected more substantial results from the Tashkent summit.

Official Uzbek media reported on the second day of the visit that the presidents discussed bilateral relations and signed six documents, including deals on cooperation in agriculture as well as a protocol on cooperation between their foreign ministries.

Russia's "Vremya Novostei" daily speculated that cooperation in the gas sphere "undoubtedly" topped the agenda of the private talks. The report said the issue of natural-gas deliveries from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan through Kazakhstan to Russia were likely to be discussed at a gathering of those four countries' leaders in May, during an expected tour of Central Asia by new Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev.

But in a possible sign of the potential economic leverage that their friendly cooperation can confer on Tashkent and Ashgabat, Russian gas giant Gazprom announced on March 11 that starting in 2009, it will cease to buy Central Asian gas at cut-rate prices and instead will begin purchasing it at higher European rates. The message is that if Ashgabat and Tashkent can coordinate on energy rather than undercut each other's prices, then they will profit all the more -- even if European consumers ultimately foot the bill.

Gazprom made the announcement in a statement following talks in Moscow between its chief executive officer, Aleksei Miller, and the heads of the national-gas companies of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

Meanwhile, the people who live along the Turkmen-Uzbek border -- those most affected by tense relations between their countries -- are hoping diplomacy can bring more concrete improvements to their own lives.

Turkmen and Uzbeks on either side of the border have intermarried for centuries. But a strict visa regime arose in response to the bilateral chill, making family visits and cross-border small business nearly impossible.

"We have relatives in Bukhara, Karakol, and other places [in Uzbekistan]," says Turkmen writer Hudayberdy Hallyev. "Our girls married guys in Uzbekistan, [and] Uzbek girls became the wives of our guys. So the relations between us are very good. I want with all my heart for relations to improve. All paths to each other should be open."

RFE/RL's Uzbek and Turkmen services contributed to this report

Uzbek Theater Troupe Overcomes Tragedy

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Ilkhom's production of "Ecstasy with the Pomegranate"

Six months ago, Mark Weil was attacked and killed on a dark Tashkent night. But his inspiration is still lighting up the Uzbek capital -- and beyond.

Weil, the founder of the world-renowned Ilkhom Theater, was struck on the head and stabbed in the stomach by unidentified assailants in front of his apartment building on September 6. The 55-year-old, from one of Tashkent's old Jewish families, died the next day.

His last words were, "I open a new season tomorrow -- and everything must happen." Everything, in fact, is still happening.

At the Ilkhom ("inspiration" in Uzbek), the show goes on. The theater, located in a dark and dank Tashkent basement, remains the beacon of artistic excellence and cosmopolitan dissent that it has been since opening in the Soviet Union 32 years ago. On March 14, the troupe begins a tour of the United States, with stops in Seattle, San Franciso, Indiana, Ohio, and at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

"Of course, we all were shocked by the death of Mark Yakovlevich," says Boris Gafurov, Ilkhom's new acting director, tells RFE/RL from Tashkent. "The theater was in limbo for a long time. We did not know how to live or what to do, and we are still hurting. Yes, we were in shock. But we have overcome it. Otherwise, we wouldn't have fulfilled any [of Weil's] plans. We continue Mark's cause. We are learning how to live again, and continue doing what he has taught us."

Weil's plans included "Days of American Art," which ran in February with the support of the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, as well as the U.S. tour that kicks off at the ACT Theater in Seattle, where Weil's wife and two daughters have lived since the late 1990s. Ilkhom will also perform later this year in Germany and is mulling a possible tour in Israel. The company bills its plays, which will carry subtitles abroad, as "understandable by people of all languages and cultures."

"Mark's approach to administration for that theater was quite inclusive, so I feel fairly optimistic," says Margaret Lawrence, a director at the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts at Dartmouth, where the troupe will perform in April. "He has developed leadership skills among the next level of administrators at Ilkhom to the extent that I feel confident they can continue forward with the same kind of energy and quality that he had."

Haven Of Free Thinking

Among Uzbek theatergoers, Ilkhom seems as popular as ever. Umida, a Tashkent resident and self-professed Ilkhom aficionado, says she sees every play performed at the theater and calls each one an "exquisite masterpiece." Recently, she saw "White White Black Stork," one of Ilkhom's signature pieces.

"This old story is primarily about tolerance -- it's about a boy who has a different sexual orientation but cannot live the life that his physical nature requires," Umida says. "He lives in a Muslim society before [the 1917 Bolshevik] revolution. He is unhappy because he can't reveal his true feelings. He is forced to marry, and his bride is also unhappy. It is a real human tragedy. The performance is so dramatic -- it just captivates audience."

Mark Weil (courtesy photo)

It was Weil's controversial choice of plays as well as his original interpretation of classical pieces that made his small Tashkent troupe immediately famous among Soviet theatergoers. Yet it was more than mere theater that attracted people to Tashkent from all parts of the Soviet Union to see Ilkhom's performances. For many, it was a place of freethinking dissent amid the Soviet gloom.

Weil once told the BBC that he had been under "total pressure" in Soviet days when everything was under "the absolute control of Soviet ideology." He said his independent theater, which has never received any state subsidies, should never have even been born, let alone survive and thrive. "But somehow they [authorities] missed it," he said.

Weil's theater survived through Soviet censorship and the democratic thaw of the late 1980s that gradually reverted to authoritarianism in Uzbekistan. Along the way, Ilkhom has often faced the threat of closure, even as powerful people, such as Uzbek President Islam Karimov's daughters, are frequently seen there.

Weil's murder remains officially unresolved and a criminal probe continues. While suspicions that it was politically motivated are inevitable in this deeply authoritarian land, local media reports say the assailants, who did not rob Weil, were most likely drug addicts. An official with the Uzbek Culture Ministry also reportedly attended Weil's funeral, calling his death "a great loss."

Gafurov says the police have refused to give any details of their investigation.

Worth Reprising

Weil's death was a blow to Tashkent cultural life. The theater has been an island for intellectuals who recall the multiethnic and multilingual Tashkent of years gone by -- and would like to keep it that way. Yet Weil himself famously recorded the slow disappearance of such a city in his 1998 documentary, "The End of an Era: Tashkent."

An ethnic Jew living in a predominantly Muslim society, Weil was one of few who were unafraid to speak up about religious taboos and to challenge customs and stereotypes. He was beloved by Muslims and Jews, Uzbeks and Russians. Inevitably, his plays were a manifestation of his and his city's cosmopolitanism. In his final media interview, to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Weil lamented the fading of Tashkent's international flavor, calling Karimov's Uzbekistan "not only undemocratic, but very boring. It is not colorful; it's monochrome."

Yet his troupe has always been diverse.

Maksim Tumenev, 29, an Ilkhom actor and its associate artistic director, says he is still in shock over Weil's death. Yet he says Ilkhom is unlikely to share the fate of some other Uzbek theaters whose actors, especially ethnic Russians, have emigrated for better-paid jobs -- mostly in Russia.

Although growing instability in Uzbekistan eventually led Weil to move his family to Seattle, the man himself resolutely refused to leave his homeland – the only place he truly felt creative, he said. That example inspires Tumenev, who is more motivated than ever to stay home and follow in Weil's footsteps.

"I had intended [to immigrate] due to some personal plans before [Weil's murder]," he says, "but then I suddenly felt a great sense of responsibility. It is not true that there is nothing to stay here for. There is, and some. That's the Ilkhom Theater and everything that Mark Yakovlevich and people around him have created over many years. That's something to stay here for."

Among other works, the Ilkhom troupe will perform "White White Black Stork" in the United States. It is based on books written in the 1920s by Abdulla Qodiriy. An Uzbek "jadid," or reformist writer, Qodiriy was a victim of Stalin's repression and died in a Soviet Gulag in 1938.

Dartmouth College's Lawrence says she has wanted to bring the play to the United States ever since she first saw it four years ago in Tashkent.

"It's so poetic, almost like an inverted Romeo and Juliet story where instead of young lovers who want to be together and their families don't, which leads to tragedy, here you have a young couple who are thrust together with equally tragic results," Lawrence says. "The play hangs together artistically so beautifully, and yet it is a very interesting window into [Muslim] religious censure, the history of Tashkent itself, into Uzbek culture itself."

IMF Demands Tajikistan Repay Nearly $48 Million

Tajikistan is struggling with the effects of a harsh winter

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is demanding that Tajikistan give back more than $47 million in loans, saying the Tajik central bank did not provide accurate information about the country’s financial state.

For Tajikistan, the timing couldn’t be worse.

The country, coming out of one of the worst winters in memory, is dealing with some $1 billion in damages caused by snow and freezing temperatures. Last month, Dushanbe made an urgent appeal for international aid to help the country respond to the catastrophe.

But now, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is asking Dushanbe to repay more than $47 million in IMF loans as a penalty for having provided the global lender with false data about the country’s financial situation. The IMF says Tajikistan had listed its international reserves at $450 million when in fact they totaled no more than $115 million. The IMF believes Tajik authorities hoped to boost the country’s chances of receiving further loans and grants.

IMF spokesman Masood Ahmed says the IMF board found it difficult to agree on how to react to the Tajik violation, given the Central Asian nation's dire economic situation.

"On Tajikistan, it was indeed a difficult decision for the board, because on the one hand there has been a serious instance of misreporting of relevant economic data by the Tajik authorities," Ahmed said. "At the same time, the board was very conscious of the fact that the country is going through very difficult economic circumstances."

The harsh winter in Tajikistan has caused huge electricity shortages and ruined crops. Heavy snowfalls, just now starting to melt, are likely to bring floods and landslides that will destroy more crops this spring, besides damaging roads, bridges, and homes.

Favorable Terms

Ahmed says the IMF understands these problems, and is therefore giving Tajikistan what it considers easy terms for repayment of the loan.

"The board decided that while the resources that have been provided to Tajikistan from the IMF needed to be repaid, it would use its discretion and extend the repayment period beyond the normal 30-day repayment expectation to one where these resources would be repaid over a six-month period beginning in September 2008," he said.

Tajik authorities, who also agreed to allow an independent audit of the central bank, were quick to promise compliance with the IMF’s new repayment terms.

Abdulghafor Qorbonov, an official at the Central Bank of Tajikistan, said the bank "has the capability of fulfilling completely the decision adopted by the IMF executive board."

But others question Qorbonov's certainty that Tajikistan, grappling with $1.2 billion in foreign debt, can pay back nearly $50 million between September 2008 and the start of February 2009.

Abdulgani Mukhamadazimov, an independent political and economic analyst in Tajikistan, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that the scandal with the IMF will hurt Tajikistan's chances of receiving more desperately needed loans in the future.

"In international relations, accusing someone of lying is a very serious event," he said. "If there is a loss of faith between the two sides, then that will change [the IMF's] relationship toward Tajikistan. There is a list, a black list, and if Tajikistan falls on this list the international community will have less faith [in the country], and this will have a negative impact and political, social, and financial consequences."

It’s not the first time the IMF has had problems with Tajikistan. In 2002, the IMF said Tajikistan had misreported its external arrears, which violated the terms of the country's Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility arrangements.

Tohir Safarov and Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report