Iran Pushes Cross-Border Regional TV Project
For years, Tehran has pursued vigorous "cultural diplomacy" in neighboring countries that share its linguistic roots -- namely, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Such efforts were in the spotlight this week after a March 24-25 meeting in Dushanbe of the three countries' foreign ministers. Among other issues, the ministers reportedly prepared a deal on launching a common Persian-language satellite-television network to be run jointly by all three governments.
"The common television network will start broadcasting programs in Farsi, Dari, Pashto, Tajik, and the other languages of the three countries," Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohkhon Zarifi told a news conference in Dushanbe on March 25. He added that the three countries' presidents would sign the deal on the joint television project when they meet next, possibly as early as August.
Although the headquarters of the television channel would be based in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, some observers have been quick to characterize the new network as merely the latest instrument aimed at spreading Iranian influence in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and other Persian-speaking areas of Central and South Asia.
Tehran has invested in cultural ties in Tajikistan since the impoverished former Soviet republic, whose government is militantly secular, gained independence in 1991. Iran has set up a cultural center in Dushanbe that supports a variety of cultural and educational programs. Since the early 1990s, Tehran has also organized frequent cultural trips to Iran for Tajik writers, journalists, and influential intellectuals.
Journalists who have traveled to Iran in such trips say they have been encouraged by the Iranian Embassy in Dushanbe to write about their journey and impressions. Tajik teachers, university professors, and doctors in recent years have been included on such trips, which are fully paid by the Iranian side.
Many Tajik writers, poets, and scientists have also had their books published in Iran. For example, Muhammadjon Shakuri, a prominent Tajik scientist, travels to Iran almost yearly on trips funded by the government in Tehran. He says he is grateful to Iran because when he fell ill recently he was taken there for two successful operations -- all expenses paid by Iran, of course.
Shakuri says Tajik intellectuals appreciate what he calls Iran's desire to strengthen cultural ties and support people who share the same language. "Many books by contemporary Tajik poets have been published in Iran, in the Arabic/Farsi alphabet," he tells RFE/RL. "Such cooperation is expanding now, and Tajikistan is welcoming it, too."
In addition to its cultural center, Tehran finances "Iranian Rooms," which have been set up in almost every university in Dushanbe. There, students and professors get free Internet access, textbooks, and daily newspapers and magazines.
The cultural center has also taken over a significant part of the Tajik National Library -- a complex long popular among students, professors, and young professionals. In recent years, Iran has also donated thousands of books in Persian, Russian, English, and other languages.
Rahmatkarim Davlat, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Tajik Service, says many Tajiks believe that Tehran is pursuing a clear political agenda through its cultural programs. "Iran wants to have its supporters among influential intellectuals, and most importantly among the younger generation of Tajiks," Davlat says.
But Hamza Kamol, the head of the Tajik Cultural Foundation in Dushanbe, notes that Iran is just one of several countries that pursue a cultural agenda in the Central Asian country. "When it comes to cultural diplomacy, Iran has not done anything more than other countries, such as Russia, have been doing in Tajikistan," Kamol says.
Russia's cultural centers and embassy in Dushanbe reportedly provide financial support for Russian publications in Tajikistan, among many other activities, such as organizing Russian film festivals and art exhibitions. Likewise, the French cultural center in Dushanbe offers a library, language courses, and promotes French movies.
Turkey has also set up several Turkish-language schools, which have become popular among children from well-to-do families. By contrast, Iran has set up no such schools in Tajikistan.
Tajik authorities, meanwhile, say they support widening cultural and business ties with Iran. But there are tensions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the secular government in Dushanbe.
In the early 1990s, when supporters of the Tajik Islamic and democratic opposition briefly took control of state-run television, they began rebroadcasting Iranian programs in Tajikistan. But the government, after reasserting control over the station, quickly banned all such broadcasts, which it regarded as too religious.
Tajik authorities also have yet to register the Organization of Persian-Speaking Journalists, a group set up by Iranian and Tajik journalists and their financial sponsors in 2007. The group has reportedly applied at least eight times to the Tajik Justice Ministry for official registration. But the ministry has repeatedly refused to give the group any official permission to operate.
While Tajik, Afghan, and Iranian officials have played up plans for the new Persian-language satellite channel, many Tajik journalists and experts tell RFE/RL that they believe the project will be dead in the water. They say that despite the shared language, there are big differences among peoples in the three countries when it comes to their attitudes about culture.
For example, they say Iran would not allow television presenters and guests to appear without adhering to its strict Islamic dress code. Nor would Iran want to broadcast modern songs and movies where women are not covered head to toe. In Tajikistan, however, modern songs and dances, Western movies, and television series are extremely popular.
That is to say nothing of politics. Adolat Mirzo, a female Tajik journalist, tells RFE/RL that it would be almost impossible for the regional, state-run, Persian-language television network "to organize even an ordinary political roundtable because the three countries have totally different political lines."
While Iran has poor relations with the West, the government of Afghanistan depends on military and economic support from the United States and European Union.
Tajikistan, while desperate for economic aid from any source, has sought to strike a balance in its relations with Iran, Russia, and Western countries. Tahir Shermuhammadi, an independent Iranian-born analyst based in Germany, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that Dushanbe, which gets significant financial support from Washington, "won't jeopardize its relations with the West by getting too close to Iran."
Other Tajik observers say Iran's cultural policies have actually brought about the opposite of what Tehran might have intended.
Before Iran expanded its cultural activities in Tajikistan, many Tajiks had cherished the idea of improving relations with Tehran. After all, Iranian prerevolutionary literature was popular in Tajikistan, while Iranian songs and movies -- largely created by Iranians abroad -- had attracted huge audiences.
But then the Islamic Republic of Iran started showing movies and concerts with artists covered head to toe. Coupled with Iranian publishers filling Tajik bookstores with Islamic tomes, many Tajiks say they were "disappointed."
Will the new satellite television network change their minds? It's unlikely, but stay tuned.
Central Asia: UNAIDS Chief Says Disease Spreading At Record PaceA new report by the independent Commission On AIDS In Asia, sponsored by the United Nations, contains the most comprehensive assessment of the disease’s spread and impact in Asia. However, the report does not cover Central Asia and Afghanistan, which instead will be dealt with during a major international AIDS conference in Moscow in May. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev spoke with Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, who says HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is spreading faster in Central Asia than anywhere else in the world.
RFE/RL: Why were Central Asian countries not included in the new report?
Peter Piot: Well, the reason is that they felt that from the prospective of the economy and so on, that the rest of Asia is a more homogenous entity. And traditionally, the Central Asian countries, from the time of the former Soviet Union, are more still oriented in terms of their policies and so on towards an entity with Eastern Europe, so that’s why. But that is changing also. It is changing in terms of the political and economic landscape.
Also, when we look at migration, at where the natural resources are going, it’s more and more going eastwards, east and southeastwards, than not only west and northwards.
RFE/RL: How has HIV/AIDS developed in Central Asia since 2005?
Piot: In recent years, several countries have really made progress in Central Asia in terms of the spread of HIV and the control of it, but the truth is that HIV is increasing more rapidly in Central Asia than in any other part of the world. The absolute numbers are still quite low, and it’s the same story as before. It is mostly injecting-drug use, very slowly also among sex workers.
And the key problem for me is that countries are still not embracing major effective programs, such as needle exchange and the use of substitution therapy -- methadone for the injecting-drug users -- so that keeps them really, how to say, under control for their addiction, and also makes sure that they can have access to prevention methods.
RFE/RL: When we speak about HIV/AIDS in Central Asia, should we also include Afghanistan?
Piot: I think that’s a very good point because where do the drugs come from? Where’s the heroin coming from in Central Asia? It’s from Afghanistan. It’s not more complicated than that. And so, it will be very, very important to work also with Afghanistan, the drug trade. Just as in China, for example, in the western province of Xianjiang, which is kind of more part of Central Asia, heroin is coming from Afghanistan, but in Yunnan Province, more in the east, it is coming from Burma.
So, we must really tackle the problem also at its roots. And heroin production is at an all-time high, and that means that also the AIDS epidemic is going to follow the drug addiction as its shadow.
RFE/RL: What’s on the agenda for the Moscow AIDS conference in May?
Piot: From May 2 to 4 in Moscow, there will be the second major regional conference on AIDS covering the problem issues in Eastern Europe and in Central Asia with representatives from all countries. And the issue of HIV prevention, particularly among injecting-drug users, is going to be very high on the agenda. It is also the most controversial issue -- politically the most sensitive -- but that’s why it is important to bring all the countries together around this.
RFE/RL: What is the attitude of the Russian authorities toward the spread of HIV/AIDS?
Piot: There has been actually good progress in terms of the response to AIDS in Russia. The budgets have gone up. There are now programs for drug users, sex workers, and all that. But it is extremely variable from one oblast [region] to the other, and from one city to the other. Some are doing well and have active programs, such as we see in St. Petersburg and so on, and there are others where hardly anything is done and where only a police approach is happening, which we know doesn’t work.
RFE/RL: What is the difference between Russia and Ukraine in terms of impact and response?
Piot: Last week, the president of Ukraine issued a decree and announced that he is going to take personal charge of the response to AIDS, for the first time. And [he] declared it as an issue of national importance. Ukraine is the country that is the most affected [in Eastern Europe]. Over 1 percent of the total adult population is HIV-positive. And programs have been put in place.
What strikes me the most in Ukraine is that there is a very active civil society -- groups of people living with HIV, quite young people -- who are really taking these things in hand. And I think that, plus, if there is now political stability, I think it will be necessary to make sure that there are programs that will move [forward].
RFE/RL: One of your colleagues said, “We have to act as if there will be no AIDS vaccine.” Does that mean pessimism prevails?
Piot: Well, I think it is an expression of realism that up to now, all efforts to produce a vaccine have failed. And that we have to go back to the drawing board, as Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, the director of the National Institute [of Allergy] and Infectious Diseases in America, has just said. What we have is a social vaccine, is an educational vaccine, but not a vaccine that we can give a shot and then people are not infected. That is going to take a long time.
Rumors About Kyrgyz President’s Health Prompt Official Response
Bakiev went to Germany at the end of February for medical treatment, although the nature of that treatment has never been clear. When Bakiev failed to return home as planned on March 16, rumors started flying that he was gravely ill -- or even dying if not already dead.
The speculation prompted the presidential press service to issue a statement on March 24, saying that Bakiev was in "excellent health" and that rumors to the contrary are groundless. Medet Sadyrkov, head of the presidential administration, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the statement was aimed at putting an end to questions in the media about Bakiev's health. He says he spoke personally with the president and that Bakiev would be back in Bishkek on March 28.
Speaking on People's Revolution Day, a national holiday on March 24, parliament speaker Adakhan Madumarov told journalists he was in constant contact and had telephone conferences with Bakiev "every second day."
Madumarov had also sought to reassure the public on March 19, when he said Bakiev was "healthy and ready to get into the boxing ring."
But particularly with so many public concerns over the legacy of the so-called Tulip Revolution after three years, some found it strange that Bakiev was in Kyrgyzstan for neither Norouz on March 21 nor for People's Revolution Day, the celebration marking the anniversary of events that ousted Bakiev's predecessor, Askar Akaev.
Former Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev, who recently returned from Germany, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that he visited Bakiev at a hospital near Frankfurt and said the president is doing well. "While I was in Germany for my [unofficial] business, I decided to meet with the president," Atambaev says. "I was also worried in the wake of such rumors" about Bakiev's health.
But Atambaev says the president's health condition is "good," and described "some problems with the joints in one leg" that been corrected. "They treated the leg, and now he is in a so-called rehabilitation period," Atambaev says. "He is swimming in a pool and using a trainer. We had a good [Norouz] party and had a talk."
But aside from such general statements, neither Atambaev nor any other Kyrgyz official has said exactly what kind of condition Bakiev has been suffering from.
Opposition leaders are already complaining about the secrecy surrounding Bakiev's medical condition and the president's extended "short vacation" abroad.
Omurbek Tekebaev, a former speaker of parliament and leader of the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party who is one of the most influential politicians in Kyrgyzstan, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz that the government should arrange for the media to cover Bakiev in Germany.
"First of all, the presidential administration is to be blamed for the rumors, because, if there were timely information on the [president's] vacation and his health condition, then there wouldn't be any such rumors," Tekebaev says. "When [Russian President Vladimir] Putin goes to Sochi for vacation, [Russian television] shows how he climbed a mountain, how he met with youngsters and drank tea, how he was skiing, with whom he met there. Some of our high officials traveled [to Germany] during the month to meet with [Bakiev, and] they should show this on television."
There is also speculation over why Bakiev has set his return date for March 28.
The Russian daily "Vedomosti" reported on March 21 that Bakiev wants to be in Kyrgyzstan before the opposition holds a "kuriltai," or grand public meeting, on March 29. The agenda reportedly includes demands for early parliamentary and presidential elections. The opposition has alleged that parliamentary polls in December were undemocratic.
The Russian newspaper "Vremya novostei" reported on March 24 that Bakiev is timing his return to "eclipse the kuriltai," and that the president's office has already invited the media to come see a healthy Bakiev's arrival, distracting reporters from covering the opposition meeting.
After a month out of the country, Bakiev is likely to face a heavy Kyrgyz media presence on his arrival.
Tynchtykbek Tchoroev, director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, contributed to this report
Kyrgyzstan: The Bittersweet Fruits Of The Revolution
But was it a revolution, as so many Kyrgyz people and the government say? Roza Otunbaeva, a former foreign minister and now a leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, says that there was a revolt against the old order.
"A big historical event always has some contradictions in it. On March 24, people genuinely revolted. That was a real revolution. People were fed up with corruption, with injustice," she tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.
"And people said, 'we want to follow the constitution.' It was written in the constitution that the president can be elected for two terms only, but Askar Akaev violated that constitution, and lots of his assistants helped him," Otunbaeva adds. "The Constitutional Court let him be elected for a third term. But when he was going for a fourth term, people stood up and revolted."
Otunbaeva is one of many political figures in Kyrgyzstan who is adamant that there was a revolution, and she adds that the revolution did not end in 2005, but that it continues today. She says Akaev may be gone, but the man who replaced him, current President Kurmanbek Bakiev, is not much better.
"This day will be marked in Kyrgyz history. But our revolution, our victory, was stolen," she says. "We witnessed only how one clan was changed for another one. When we were discussing [in parliament] whether we should celebrate this day or not, I said that the revolution is still ongoing. Those people who wanted to arrest us [in 2005], who became very rich under Akaev's regime, they are still here [around Bakiev now]. But those who made this revolution are left on the streets. That's why they are all disappointed."
Has Anything Really Changed?
And that is a debate that has been going on since 2005. But what evidence can be offered to support whether the Tulip Revolution, as it was called, was actually a revolution?
Presidential spokesman Nurlan Shakiev says that it was a revolution, and that there were some changes. "I can say that all the demands of that revolution are almost fulfilled by now," he says. "Because, first of all, the regime was changed. That was the first demand. And second was constitutional reform. It didn't happen immediately, as the revolution demanded, but in 2007 we adopted a new constitution though a national referendum."
Shakiev adds that the third change was "a struggle against corruption. This struggle is already yielding its first results. To prove this, we can say that if in 2005 Kyrgyzstan's budget was about 18 billion soms [more than $500 million], now we have almost 2 1/2 times more, about 50 billion soms in our budget."
Meder Usonov was a protest leader in the southern Jalal-Abad province in March 2005. He says Kyrgyzstan and its people gained nothing after March 2005, so the events of that time are not a revolution as much as the government running away.
"Not a single demand of the people has been realized," he says. "Our demand was do not sell our land, do not violate the people's rights. We demanded that the parliament dissolve parliament, but it was dissolved only after three years and after big scandals. [Bakiev's] government traveled a very rough road; some people say it was easy, that the old regime just fled. We are now celebrating March 24 as a holiday. It's shameful, because on that day the Kyrgyz authorities ran away from the country, and it's a shame for our republic."
Only Raising Expectations
It seems impossible for everyone to agree on the events of three years ago. But some basic details may help, given that a revolution usually brings major changes following the ouster of the old regime.
The parliamentary elections held in December 2007 resulted in an overwhelming victory for the party that President Bakiev helped create, the Ak Jol Party, two months before. It marked the first time Kyrgyzstan has ever had a president's ruling party in parliament. Some see that as a negative development.
But among the new deputies in parliament, nearly one-third are women, which most regard as progress in terms of gender equality. There were no women in the previous parliament.
Despite the publicized battle against corruption, scandals involving government officials still surface, and opposition groups have also pointed out that President Bakiev's relatives either have received state jobs or are enjoying great success in their business activities. Such nepotism also existed in the Akaev-era government, though to a much greater degree.
Presidential spokesman Shakiev notes some economic progress in Kyrgyzstan, but for most Kyrgyz the economic situation has hardly improved. The average wage is about $40 per month and many thousands of Kyrgyz workers have gone to Russia, Kazakhstan, and Europe as migrant workers.
The energy situation has also not improved much -- the country's vast hydroelectric resources are still underdeveloped and electricity shortages occur during the winter months, as power rationing recently hit the capital, Bishkek.
In terms of foreign policy, the last three years have seen little substantial change. Russia is still Kyrgyzstan's main ally and trading partner and Kyrgyzstan's relations with other world powers are much the same. The biggest change is the suspicion with which its immediate neighbors now view Kyrgyzstan, since the authoritarian rulers in the other Central Asian states do not want to see any kind of similar people's revolution in their countries.
It's easy to see why many people inside and outside Kyrgyzstan view the events of March 24, 2005, with mixed emotions. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that popular discontent led people in Kyrgyzstan to rise up against the president, who the people saw as standing in the way of progress and greater democracy.
But despite the new government making improvements in some areas, the high expectations of the Kyrgyz people after the events of March 24, 2005, are far from being met.
Venera Djumataeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report
Central Asia: Behind The Hype, Russia And China Vie For Region's Energy Resources
The two countries, after all, routinely cooperate on the UN Security Council to thwart the West on issues ranging from Kosovo's independence to sanctions against Iran. They are the frontline states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which both have touted as an emerging Asian military powerhouse. They also share a common stated desire to curb U.S. global influence and establish what both Moscow and Beijing call a "multipolar world."
But despite the hype in Moscow and Beijing, analysts say the long-term prospects for an anti-Western Sino-Russian axis are less promising than official statements suggest. Beneath the platitudes about strategic global cooperation and partnership lies a growing local rivalry: a fierce competition between Moscow and Beijing for energy reserves in Central Asia, a region in both countries' backyards that both view as a vital sphere of influence.
"In the last year, many analysts have spoken about a Sino-Russian axis. But it is not an axis. It is a tactical alignment against some United States moves," says Federico Bordonaro, a Rome-based analyst with the "Power and Interest News Report." "In the medium term, competition between China and Russia is set to take a more important place in relations between Beijing and Moscow. This is due to the fact that Beijing absolutely needs energy and the same energy is in the strategic interests of Russia."
China's breakneck economic growth -- 11.4 percent last year -- has sparked an insatiable appetite for energy that has led Beijing to eye Central Asia's oil and gas reserves. Beijing imports a large amount of its energy from Russia, but has become increasingly interested in buying directly from Central Asian suppliers -- including oil from Kazakhstan and natural gas from Turkmenistan.
But Russia's state-controlled Gazprom, which is struggling to supply both the domestic market and its European customers, also covets Turkmenistan's gas reserves. Moscow has thus taken steps to ensure that it controls the distribution of Turkmen gas via its network of pipelines.
"They need to control the networks," Bordonaro says. "And in the medium and longer term, they absolutely need to avoid [having] the majority of Turkmen gas flowing to China."
Dueling Gas Deals
Moscow is also concerned about Beijing's recent moves into the Central Asian market, where Russia has long dominated but food and textile imports from China have become increasingly conspicuous. Russia still accounts for the largest share of Kazakhstan's and Uzbekistan's imports, but China is right behind it and closing the gap quickly.
Turkmenistan also agreed last year to allow China National Petroleum Company to develop gas fields in its Bagtyyarlyk region.
For the time being, common strategic interests shared by Russia and China have taken precedence over the emerging economic tension -- but it is not clear how long that will last.
"I wouldn't say it is a conflict; that is too strong a word," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the Moscow-based journal "Russia in Global Affairs." "We will see a soft competition that could heat up as China becomes more successful. Russia doesn't want to be China's junior partner in this region."
Gazprom announced on March 11 that it had agreed to pay Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan market prices for natural gas starting in 2009. In recent years, Gazprom had been purchasing the gas at between $70 and $150 per 1,000 cubic meters and then reselling it -- either on the Russian domestic market at heavily subsidized prices, or in Europe and elsewhere for a hefty profit.
Gazprom did not announce the price it was going to pay, but analysts say it will fall somewhere between $350 and $400 per 1,000 cubic meters.
The move was widely seen as an attempt by Russia to retain control of the market following recent moves by China to gain a stronger foothold.
Construction began in 2007 on a pipeline that would transport natural gas from Turkmenistan to China. Beijing and Ashgabat signed the deal in 2006 and the pipeline is scheduled for completion in 2009. Beijing has also agreed to buy 30 billion cubic meters of gas a year from Turkmenistan over a 30-year period.
Matthew Clements, the Eurasia editor at the London-based Jane's Information Group, says China has been rapidly erasing Russia's natural advantage in Central Asia, which is based largely on Soviet-era ties.
"Russia is very active in the region, has seen it as its sphere of influence, and has historic links with all these countries. But likewise, the behemoth that is the Chinese economy at the moment is obviously pulling a huge amount of influence in the region," Clements says. "You can say that traditional Russian ties would give it slightly greater influence in these countries. But it seems that more and more, China has more to offer, which is really sort of counterbalancing this."
The Sino-Russian competition is also hindering plans by the United States and the European Union to gain access to Central Asian gas. Specifically, it is a blow to the Nabucco and trans-Caspian pipelines, EU-backed projects that seek to circumvent Russia by transporting gas from the Caspian and Central Asian regions to Europe via Turkey and the Balkans.
It is also unclear how much natural gas Turkmenistan actually has, and whether it is enough to meet the needs of China, Russia, and Europe. Analysts say the struggle over limited resources, the competition promises to be fierce.
"In Central Asia, we are witnessing a zero-sum game because if the resources will flow toward China, they won't flow toward Russia and Europe," Bordonaro says. "This is a very simple thing, but a very important one, because it is the foundation of a new great energy game in Central Asia, which was said by some analysts to be looming. But it is already in place."
It is a "great game" that the Central Asian gas suppliers -- Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan -- have become increasingly adept at playing to their advantage. Analysts say that for this reason, projects like Nabucco, while damaged by recent developments, are far from dead.
The Central Asian states "want to play on all possible tables," Bordonaro says. "They have eyed the possibility to make deals and do business not only with the Russians, but with Chinese and the Europeans. The Europeans could have the possibility to ameliorate their position, because these countries strongly want to diversify."
Analysts point out that Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan have also learned that it pays to put aside their rivalries and present a united front on gas deals.
This new dynamic in the region promises to complicate relations inside the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
"In the past year or so, there has been a lot of discussion about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but Russia's active participation and its desire to develop this organization has significantly decreased," Lukyanov says. "This is because it has become clear that China will play the leading role and Russia doesn't need this."
Moscow and Beijing have a long history of complicated and ambivalent relations. They were close allies after the 1949 communist takeover in China. Relations soured in the 1960s and the two fought a border conflict in 1969. Relations improved following the Soviet breakup in 1991.