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Central Asia Report: April 24, 2008

Central Asia: Trans-Afghan Pipeline Discussions Open In Islamabad

By Bruce Pannier

Indian Oil and Natural Gas Minister Murli Deora is leading New Delhi's delegation in the TAPI talks

Officials from Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan have opened a meeting in Islamabad to discuss a pipeline that would bring Turkmen gas to South Asia.

First proposed some 15 years ago, the project has never been carried out, whether due to instability in Afghanistan or strained ties between Pakistan and India. But the parties involved feel that now may be the time to finally carry out the project, which would benefit all four countries.

The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project certainly would help the consumer countries, Pakistan and India, while Turkmenistan could make billions of dollars from gas exports. But arguably it would benefit Afghanistan most by providing steady transit fees to fill depleted state coffers in Kabul.

However, the security situation in Afghanistan, long a major obstacle to TAPI, remains as much a problem today as it’s ever been.

"If we consider the present security situation of Afghanistan, I think it is too much to consider that this project can be done," Afghan analyst Waliullah Rahmani tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. "It will cross from Kandahar and Herat. The southern cities and provinces of Afghanistan are completely unstable."

Nonetheless, oil ministers, officials, and experts from the four countries have begun to discuss a range of issues regarding the proposed project during two days of talks in Islamabad.

Cost Estimates Vary

According to plans, the 1,680-kilometer TAPI pipeline would start in the Turkmen city of Dauletabad, pass through the Afghan cities of Herat and Kandahar, before entering Pakistan at Quetta and proceeding to the Indian border town of Fazilka. Six compressor stations are to be built along the route. Plans for the pipeline call for it to export some 33 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas from the field annually.

Estimates of the cost for building the TAPI pipeline are some $6 billion. Some estimates of construction time have the pipeline completed no earlier than 2018. The Asian Development Bank is backing the project.

Rahmani notes that foreign forces operating in southern Afghanistan are still engaged in heavy fighting and predicts that if work started, the pipeline itself, as well as workers, would be certain targets for militants. But Rahmani says TAPI is certainly in the interests of the Afghan government and people, and he urges President Hamid Karzai to make stability in the regions along the proposed route a priority.

"This project is a big achievement for the economy of Afghanistan," Rahmani says. "President Karzai's administration should consider this project to be a big achievement and should work to stabilize the southern region of Afghanistan."

Turkmenistan has been pushing the project for years and even met with Taliban officials in the late 1990s to try to secure guarantees for the pipeline, which at that time did not foresee Indian participation. Turkmenistan's southern Dauletabad field is one of the few Turkmen fields that has been thoroughly checked -- by Unocal in 1997. The U.S. company estimated the field has 708 bcm of natural-gas reserves.

Turkmenistan not only stands to gain financially but could also secure its place as the gas hub of Eurasia if it can fulfill all the commitments it already has to Russia, the European Union, China, and Iran.

Pakistan As Possible Hub

For Pakistan, TAPI could provide both an energy resource and revenue in the form of transit fees to India. Pakistani officials, including President Pervez Musharraf, have been promoting their country as a possible hub for gas and oil from Southwest Asia and the Arabian Sea to China if road, rail links, and pipelines were built.

India's inclusion in the project makes it more viable. The New Delhi-based Indo-Asian News Service reported on April 14 that India "currently meets only 55 to 60 percent of its demand for natural gas." India had been an "observer" in previous talks about the pipeline project, but when Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari visited Turkmenistan at the start of April for talks on the project, he declared that India had full member status.

Supporters of TAPI in Islamabad will be looking over their shoulders at other talks in the Pakistani capital this week. Indian Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Murli Deora is leading India's delegation not only in the TAPI talks but also in meetings with Pakistani officials on the IPI -- or Iran-Pakistan-India -- pipeline.

The IPI pipeline would be some 2,600 kilometers long, with an estimated cost of $7 billion. Iran estimates it can complete its section of the pipeline to the Pakistani border by 2013, though other estimates say Pakistan could start receiving gas from the IPI pipeline as soon as 2011. But potential investors may be frightened away from the IPI because of U.S. sanctions against doing business with Iran. The Asian Development Bank has yet to publicly support the project, either.

Guvanch Geraev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report

Uzbekistan: Family Says Jailed Poet, Sons Are Being Tortured

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Yusuf Juma

Family members say an outspoken critic of the Uzbek government and his two sons have been tortured physically and psychologically in the months since they were jailed for a range of minor offenses.

A trial for alleged battery, use of insulting language, and resisting arrest opened on April 8 against Yusuf Juma and his 25-year-old son, Bobur, before the court quickly adjourned the proceedings to next week.

The two men were arrested in December after staging a protest in their native city of Bukhara against Uzbek President Islam Karimov

Speaking by telephone from undisclosed locations in connection with that hearing, Juma's fugitive wife and a third son told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that their jailed family members have been "tortured," including being forced to watch the other sibling being beaten.

Juma, his son Bobur, and other family members conducted a "picket on wheels" in their hometown of Bukhara ahead of the December presidential election to call for a boycott and the resignation of Karimov, who won a controversial new term that appears to violate a constitutional ban on third terms.

Juma drove a vehicle around Bukhara displaying a banner that urged, "Dictator Karimov: Resign and Leave."

Juma also wrote a letter to the Uzbek Constitutional Court accusing Karimov of violating the constitution by seeking the third term and calling for his prosecution.

The preelection stir was not the first time that Juma has protested government actions. He is a well-known government critic and has written poems and articles criticizing Karimov and Uzbek authorities in the past.

Those efforts -- including a poem calling for Uzbeks to cast off the shackles of "slavery" -- landed him in prison in 2001. His 10-year-jail sentence was reduced under international pressure.

Now, Juma and his sons Bobur, 25, and Mashrab, 22, are all in jail.

Mashrab is serving a prison term for hooliganism. Family members and Uzbek human rights activists claim the charges were trumped up in an attempt to silence Juma.

Juma and Bobur face charges of using insulting language, battery, and resisting arrest.

The poet's lawyer, Ruhiddin Komilov, told RFE/RL that the hearing in a Bukhara regional court was quickly adjourned on April 8 "because Juma has not received material related to the case and the indictment."

The lawyer says Juma and his son face up to five years in prison if found guilty.

The poet's wife and three other children fled Uzbekistan following the arrest of the two men in mid-December. His wife, Gulnora -- who also participated in the December protest -- is reportedly sought for what the Uzbek authorities said were anticonstitutional activities.

Speaking to RFE/RL from an undisclosed location outside of Uzbekistan, Gulnora Juma said she fears for her husband's life.

"It's been almost five months that he's been in jail," she said. "Only twice was he taken to see a doctor after he complained about his heart. Otherwise, he has been in a single cell under strong psychological and physical pressure. People who saw him did not recognize him. He might die if he is not released [soon]."

She added that her two sons have also been abused in prison, according to relatives' who have been allowed to visit them.

"Both my sons were brought to the same prison cell and tortured there in front of each other -- one is being beaten up after the other," she said. "On top of that, they also endure strong psychological pressure. Our relatives have phoned us from Qorakol [a district of Bukhara] and told us this."

Juma's eldest son, Alisher, who also spoke to RFE/RL from an undisclosed location, expressed concern over the fate of his father and brothers.

"Our family has always fought against the Karimov regime. We intensified our fight before [the December 23 presidential] election. Now I don't know what to do," Alisher said. "Karimov considers my father a personal enemy and he is likely to imprison my father. But because [Karimov] is trying to improve relations with the European Union and America, he also may order the release of my father. Who knows?"

He suggested that authorities will ensure that "even if [Karimov] releases my father and brother, Bobur, he is likely to keep my brother Mashrab in his 'concentration camp' as leverage [against my father]."

The opening of Yusuf Juma and Bobur's trial took place one day before the start of a meeting between the EU "troika" and five Central Asian foreign ministers in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat.

London-based Amnesty International on April 9 called on the EU to fully implement the human rights aspects of the bloc's Central Asia strategy, adopted in June. The group warned that there has been a "signal failure" by both sides to pursue the implementation of the strategy's human-rights elements.

One day earlier, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) had urged the EU to establish human rights benchmarks for Central Asian governments and "make their fulfillment a core objective of its Central Asia Strategy."

HRW said the EU should redouble efforts to secure the release of all human rights defenders unjustly imprisoned in Uzbekistan and end the harassment of civil-society activists.

Andrea Berg, HRW's Central Asia researcher, says the EU should reinstate sanctions it imposed on official Tashkent following the 2005 bloodshed in Andijon, where hundreds of unarmed protesters are thought to have been gunned down by government troops.

"The sanctions should be reinstated until Uzbekistan fulfills all recommendations set by the European Union," Berg says.

The EU is scheduled to review its sanctions policy toward Uzbekistan later this month. In October, Brussels suspended some of the sanctions that had in place for over a year.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report

Turkmenistan: Finance Officials Sacked Amid Talk Of Economic Reforms

By Bruce Pannier

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (file photo)

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has fired several top officials involved in the country's financial sector. Observers say the move may be intended to show he is serious about economic reforms as the country moves to redenominate its currency next year.

Berdymukhammedov has already ordered an audit of all state assets, including foreign bank accounts that once belonged to his late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov. For months now, Berdymukhammedov has called on economic and financial officials to facilitate foreign investment and keep domestic prices stable. Much of that work remains unfinished, however.

At a cabinet session on April 14, Berdymukhammedov expressed dissatisfaction with the Central Bank’s work and with its chief, Geldymurat Abilov.

"The leadership of Abilov in the Central Bank is not adequate," Berdymukhammedov said. "It has now become quite clear that the work of the Central Bank is not up to current demands. The banking system from day to day remains static and has not made progress. I want to remind you that the goals and obligations of the Central Bank are first to maintain price levels and uphold the economic policies of the president; create new hard currency policies and maintain them; and work to overhaul the accounting system and increase the effectiveness of the budgetary system. But unfortunately, this work still has not been done."

Berdymukhammedov said Abilov was being sacked for his "grave shortcomings and the fact that he cannot understand the job we gave him."

The president also dismissed the minister of transportation and communications, as well as several other lower level finance officials at the same cabinet session.

Berdymukhammedov spent 2007, his first year in office, focusing on expanding international business ties -- not an easy task given that Niyazov isolated the country from the rest of the world. Niyazov preferred to let interested business representatives come to him.

By contrast, Berdymukhammedov has spent much of his first 15 months in office meeting with world leaders, including the Chinese, Russian, and U.S. presidents, and top international business officials, promoting investment in Turkmenistan or seeking customers for Ashgabat's natural-gas and oil resources.

But Berdymukhammedov has also made promises for modest domestic reforms and has made good on some pledges. He restored the 10-year mandatory education system, a health-care system that had seen severe cuts, and has allowed limited access to the Internet.

At the cabinet meeting on April 14, Berdymukhammedov also appointed a new deputy prime minister, Hojamyrat Geldimyradov, who shares that title with seven other officials. Geldimyradov will be in charge of issues related to financial recovery, developing the banking system, and strengthening the manat, the national currency.

Part of the president’s economic reforms have so far involved setting a new official rate for the manat to the U.S. dollar, lowering its value by about 20 percent. As of January 1, 2009, Berdymukhammedov also wants to redenominate the Turkmen currency so that, for example, 1,000 manats will become 1 manat.

The redenomination plans were a major focus of the cabinet session, where Berdymukhammedov said he believed it would help in accounting. But the immediate reaction of Turkmen citizens was to trade all the manats they could for hard currency. Many exchange points were reportedly emptied of dollars in a few hours.

The new currency will feature portraits of famous figures from Turkmen history. The 500-manat banknote will be the highest denomination and the only note to retain Niyazov’s portrait, which still graces all Turkmen banknotes.

Guvanch Geraev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report

Central Asia: Kyrgyz President Returns From Astana With Wheat-Export Deal

By Bruce Pannier

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (left) held talks in Astana with visiting Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev has returned home after a two-day visit to Kazakhstan, where he held talks with President Nursultan Nazarbaev. Energy, water, food, and migrant labor topped the agenda of the talks.

Ties between the Central Asian neighbors have been strained since Bakiev came to power following political upheaval in 2005, and they faced further challenges in the wake of a recent Kazakh ban on wheat exports. But they now appear back on track.

Bakiev's hopes to renew the traditionally good ties between the two neighboring states appears to have achieved some success, at least according to Medet Sadyrkulov, the head of his presidential administration.

"The [official visit] was successful," Sadyrkulov says. "Now we have arrived in Bishkek. Our President Kurmanbek Salievich [Bakiev] is in his office now. All the questions planned for the agenda [of the visit] were discussed. The [main event] was the Interstate Council. All the issues which were planned to be discussed at the session of the Interstate Council have been resolved."

More specifically, Bakiev said after returning to Bishkek that Nazarbaev had assured him that Ashgabat's recently announced ban on wheat exports would not apply to Kyrgyzstan, which imports about 20 percent of its wheat from Kazakhstan.

Relations between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have long been close for many reasons. Their languages are similar, as are their traditions. But when former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev was chased from power in March 2005, Kazakh-Kyrgyz relations went through a difficult period. All of Central Asia watched the events with concern. None of the other regional leaders wanted anything similar happening on their territories.

Central Asia's 'El Dorado'

Kazakhstan never lost touch with its neighbor, however, and there are many reasons for the two countries to maintain close relations. Kazakhstan has become an El Dorado for the rest of Central Asia, a country with vast oil and natural gas resources. Laborers from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan often find work there.

Bakiev indicated after meeting with his Kazakh counterpart that progress was made in addressing Kyrgyzstan's needs for energy supplies.

"We discussed the possibilities of Kazakhstan's participation in financing a second gas pipeline -- Tashkent-Bishkek-Almaty -- that would run through the territory of Kyrgyzstan," Bakiev said. "And we also looked at the possibility of including Kyrgyzstan in transnational projects for supplies of blue fuel [natural gas]."

The two presidents also agreed to hold a conference in Kazakhstan in 2009 to create a Central Asian economic union to focus on better distributing regional energy and water supplies among the five Central Asian states. Bakiev noted that some countries have been reluctant to commit to the union, which Nazarbaev first proposed several years ago.

Nazarbaev also reminded that it would be prudent for the Central Asian states to meet and formulate a common plan for dealing with Europe since the region has "resources" that Europe needs.

"By the way, I said the same at the European Union," Nazarbaev said. "I am convinced that Europe will absolutely need Asia because the resources of Asia -- human, material -- this resource base will be needed in Europe for its development."

Bakiev also noted progress in resolving the migrant-labor issue. In recent years, scores of Kyrgyz citizens have been deported from Kazakhstan for working there illegally. Nazarbaev, speaking ahead of his talks with Bakiev, said a special agreement for Kyrgyz laborers was close.

"There is a request submitted by the Kyrgyz side to create for Kyrgyz citizens a 90-day visa-free regime in Kazakhstan," Nazarbaev said. "We are going to meet on that, taking into consideration our agreement on partnership and when we meet we will decide this question."

Deal Reached

Following the meeting, Bakiev said a deal had been reached.

"I am certain that the agreement will provide the basis for labor migrants and the signing of the agreement answers the interests of both sides for simplifying procedural mechanisms and accepting labor resources from Kyrgyzstan for working on the territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan," he said.

The two presidents also agreed to create a special investment fund for joint projects. Bakiev suggested the deal would be advantageous for Kyrgyzstan since its rich neighbor would contribute the lion's share of funds. According to Bakiev, "If Kyrgyzstan puts $5 million into the fund, Kazakhstan will put $25 million into it." Bakiev said the money would be used for "direct private investment in Kyrgyzstan's economy."

Nazarbaev also spoke about Kazakhstan's role in helping the economy of northern Kyrgyzstan's Issyk-Kul resort area, where the Kyrgyz parliament recently approved a measure to lease Kazakhstan four hotels for 49 years.

"We personally thank you and your parliament for solving the problem of some Issyk-Kul-based resorts that belonged to Kazakhstan," he said. "After that, we will construct a highway from Uzyn-Agash to there. The road [to Lake Issyk-Kul] will be shortened by 250 kilometers. Most people who visit Issyk-Kul are Kazakhs. We believe that if we set the right conditions for them, if we develop Issyk-Kul's surroundings, it will help the Kyrgyz economy."

Nazarbaev also noted that his country is one of the main investors in Kyrgyzstan.

Erzhan Karabek of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service Director Tynchtykbek Tchoroev, and correspondent Meerim Sultangazy in Bishkek contributed to this report

Kazakh Wheat Ban Hits Some Neighbors Harder Than Others

By Bruce Pannier

Stocking up on bread in Dushanbe

Officials in Kazakhstan have announced a four-month ban on wheat exports aimed at protecting consumers from the effects of global grain shortages. While stable bread prices at home are the intended goal, the move could produce the opposite effect in the region, which traditionally consumes considerable amounts of Kazakh wheat.

Such shipments are particularly high in the poorer states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where imports represent 19 and 15 percent of total consumption, respectively.

News of the ban by Kazakhstan, the world's fifth-largest wheat exporter, sent wheat prices higher on international markets. Kazakhstan produces about 20 million tons of wheat a year, with more than half of that exported to overseas markets. About 1.4 million tons is exported to Russia.

Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov had warned last week about "either duties on the export of [grain] or...a complete ban."

In the announcement on April 15, officials said the halt on exports would remain in place until the beginning of September.

Masimov's office noted that the Kazakh government "adopted a decision to ban wheat exports without limiting flour exports." But such shipments are unlikely to fill the gap.

Bad Timing

Central Asia was buffeted by the harshest winter in decades, and consumers are likely to face rationed supplies of expensive bread in the spring and summer.

Much of the region's winter crops were devastated by extended periods of freezing temperatures. Countries like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were hoping to compensate for their own crop failures by importing wheat from Kazakhstan, far and away the region's biggest grain exporter.

Like its four fellow postcommunist republics in Central Asia, economic laggard Tajikistan has made efforts to hike its grain production. But Vahhob Vohidov, an economist and Soviet-era republican agriculture minister, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that the country is still unable to meet its own demand for wheat. Tajikistan still needs to import 500,000-600,000 tons each year, according to Vohidov, "particularly from Kazakhstan and Russia."

"In order to provide [domestically] for the needs of our people, we would have to grow more than twice the wheat we currently produce," Vohidov adds. "In such a case as we have now, the government needs to intervene to increase domestic wheat production."

Odil Olimshoev, an economics professor at Tajikistan's National University, says the Kazakh ban makes a bad situation worse and highlights a lack of "food security."

"This is happening already, with the price of wheat and bread rising," Olimshoev says. "Now, of course, everything depends on other [wheat] exporters, but it is an indication that we need to increase wheat production in our own country."

In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which like Tajikistan does not sit on major hydrocarbon deposits, farmers planted more wheat this year than in the past, according to a spokesman for the Agriculture, Water, and Reprocessing Industry Ministry, Amangeldi Abdrakhmanov. He says a wheat shortfall of around 200,000-300,000 tons was expected to meet per capita demand of about 205 kilograms.

Abrakhmanov adds that talks with Kazakhstan are continuing.

Better Prepared Elsewhere

According to Stratfor, Kyrgyzstan imports 214,000 tons of grain annually (about 19 percent of its total consumption) from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan 216,000 tons (about 15 percent of total consumption), Uzbekistan 117,000 tons (about 2 percent of consumption), and Turkmenistan a reported 2,400 tons (less than 0.10 percent of consumption). Across the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan reportedly buys some 360,000 tons of Kazakh grain every year.

Turkmen political analyst Atageldi Garaev tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that the Kazakh ban will affect his country but that Turkmenistan is better prepared than its neighbors to cope without Kazakh wheat due to the Turkmen government's campaigns during the 1990s to increase domestic grain harvests.

"If Kazakhstan does not sell us grain, does not ship grain, I think in Turkmenistan and also in all the Central Asian countries it will be a difficult situation," Garaev says. "All the same, I think it will be better in Turkmenistan than in those other [Central Asian] countries."

In conversations with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, officials from Azerbaijan's Agriculture Ministry credited foresight in their planning for mitigating the likely effects of Kazakhstan's ban.

Agriculture Ministry official Sabir Valiev said wheat-storage areas, opened just last year, are currently full. "We have enough wheat in our storage areas," Valiev says. "If they impose an embargo on exports, it will be losses for them. In September, we will collect our own wheat harvest."

Similarly, the Agriculture Ministry's Mammad Huseinov tells RFE/RL that there would be no bread problem in Azerbaijan, which receives about 15 percent of its wheat from Kazakhstan. "As of January we had had 760,000 tons in our storage areas and then we imported 250,000 tons more," Huseinov says. "You will see, there will be no shortage in the country."

Analysts note that other countries around the world have already taken or are considering similar action to the Kazakh ban.

One analyst notes "a desire by governments to hold down this food inflation spiral and one way to do that is not letting any more wheat flow out of the country." Analysts also point out that Argentina has banned wheat exports, and Ukraine and Russia have reduced their wheat exports.

Rovshan Gambarov of RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, Erzhan Karabek of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, Guvanch Geraev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, and Khiromon Bakoeva of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report

Tajikistan: Government Shuts Down Independent Radio Station

By Farangis Najibullah
Tajik authorities have taken the independent Imruz (Today) radio station off the air, citing "technical problems."

Since it began broadcasting last summer, Imruz had become the most popular FM station in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, and the surrounding area. Among the locals, Imruz was known as a "serious radio station." It broadcast news and reports focusing on Tajikistan's political and social sphere, as well as music.

The radio's bosses and editors have been reluctant to talk to the media since the decision was made on April 8.

"The motives are still unclear," says Rustami Joni, the head of radio Imruz. "I don't think the decision [to stop the radio] has anything to do with the Tajik government."

Joni added that a few days before the radio's closure "officials" were checking the content of the radio station's reports from early April, but he stopped short of saying who "the officials" were.

Unlike many other local radio stations, Imruz did not avoid criticizing the country's political scene. All politicians, including opposition leaders and critics of the government, have had access to the station. One of its recent guests was Rahmatullo Zoirov, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party and an outspoken critic of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.

Avoid Direct Criticism

Fearing pressure and reprisals, most local media outlets in Tajikistan try to avoid direct criticism of the government and top officials, and decide to self-censor their work.

A few days before being shut down, Imruz reported on a planned public protest in the eastern city of Khorog, saying that the local people were increasingly dissatisfied with their low and often unpaid wages, as well as with the growing food prices.

The same day, the radio station aired a commentary on the country's rampant unemployment -- one of the biggest problems in Tajikistan -- and the plight of Tajik migrant laborers in Russia. The commentary made a gloomy prediction, saying that in the next few years half of Tajikistan's population will turn into seasonal workers in Russia.

The radio station also covered Tajikistan's admission that it had lied to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with the IMF demanding $46 million in loans back.

Independent journalist Rajabi Mirzo says that so far only Russian-language media in Tajikistan would dare to take such a critical tone.

"Tajik-language media have much more influence and impact in Tajikistan and therefore they could become more dangerous [for the government]," Mirzo says. "Radio Imruz was the first local FM station to broadcast its programs entirely in the Tajik language. It focused on subjects that so far have only been covered by Russian-language radios. So it wasn't acceptable for many people [in the government]."

Criticizing Rahmon's government is a rare occurrence among Tajik media. Those who have dared to do so have been penalized. Almost all independent publications that have been critical of the government or the president, including the dailies "Ruzi nav," "Odamu olam," and "Nirui sukhan" have been shut down in recent years. Even the BBC was removed from the FM band more than two years ago.

Back On The Air?

Many Tajiks say the authorities should focus on solving the country's social and economic problems instead of shutting down media outlets that criticize the current situation.

It remains unclear when Imruz will get permission to broadcast again. Some people predict it will come back on the air, but that it will be much more cautious after getting what amounts to a rebuke from the government.

It is not the first time that Imruz has been taken off the air. It was shut down in February by the authorities but was back on the air less than three days later.

Imruz's listeners have one more reason to hope that their favorite FM station will return to the airways soon. The radio indirectly belongs to the Tajik president's influential and wealthy brother-in-law, Hasan Sadulloev. Sadulloev is the head of Orien Bank, one of the biggest in the country, which owns Imruz as a part of its so-called media-holding group.

The closure of Imruz shows that even some of the closest people to President Rahmon must exercise caution when it comes to criticizing his government's policies or problems in the country.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report

Tajikistan: 20 Arrested After Protesting Demolition Of Homes

By Farangis Najibullah

These women were among some 20 taken away by police after protesting against the demolition of their homes

Police in Tajikistan have arrested some 20 women in central Dushanbe who had gathered to protest the imminent demolition of their homes.

The demolitions are part of a plan to destroy dozens of old houses in the city to make way for modern buildings under a general plan to renovate and reconstruct the Tajik capital. The plan affects hundreds of residents, many of whom are being evicted without compensation.

The women were among some 40 demonstrators -- residents of the capital's Somoni district -- who gathered in front of President Emomali Rahmon's office on April 15. Eyewitnesses say they were struck by police and forced into a bus to be taken to jail.

The women say they were freed a few hours later after pledging to never take part in such demonstrations again. The demonstrations followed another protest by Somoni district residents who rallied on April 14 outside the local authorities' administration building.

The protesters live in about 30 houses that were built around the city's cement factory. City authorities have decided to demolish all of the houses, accusing the residents of building the houses without official permission.

Improvement Plan From 1980s

Hundreds of private houses would be affected by the Dushanbe authorities' general plan for reconstruction and renovation of the capital that was launched about three years ago.

The Dushanbe Mayoral Office says the reconstruction plan was initially designed in the 1980s but was postponed due to a lack of money. It aims to build modern buildings -- offices and residential apartments -- to replace private homes that were built in a mix of shapes and styles in many parts of the city.

The number of residents who would lose their homes under the reconstruction plan was not disclosed by the officials. The mayor's office insists the reconstruction plans only involve private homes that were built without official permission from city authorities.

One of the homes in Dushanbe slated for demolition (RFE/RL)

The residents, however, complain that they are virtually being thrown out of their homes without any financial compensation.

Jamollidin Sirojov, a Dushanbe resident, took part in the demonstration in Dushanbe's Somoni district. Sirojov said his house was bulldozed two years ago, and he and his family have rented apartments since then. Sirojov said he was not offered any compensation by the local government.

"My house was destroyed," he said. "I don't know where to go or what to do. I don't understand the government at all. I don't know if they want to build or to destroy."

The mayor's office claims that it offers each family that loses a home 900 square meters of space in Dushanbe's eastern suburbs on which to build a new house. However, it doesn't provide the materials or the money to construct a new home.

Some families who lost their homes have reportedly been offered flats in the city's vast supply of Soviet-style apartment blocks, which are generally in poor condition.

Compensation Limited

Compensation for a lost home is available, but it is limited only to the poorest people. Only families who live below the official poverty line -- that is, those whose monthly income does not exceed the minimum salary of some $6 -- are entitled to get financial compensation for losing their homes. Under such a precondition, hardly anyone has been able to claim financial reimbursement from the government.

Guliston Temurova lives in Dushanbe's Koohdoman area, where all private houses are slated to be bulldozed. Temurova complains that water and electricity were cut off in the area two years ago. "Our authorities should be ashamed that they have left our children to live in such places with no water and electricity, and people face so much cruelty and pressure," she says.

There have been a number of protests by residents and extensive media coverage since the reconstruction project was launched in 2005. However, the authorities appear determined to go ahead with the reconstruction plan "to give the city a better look" and to offer the capital's residents "modern and affordable apartments."

Many Dushanbe residents say they hope the reconstruction plan will improve their city's image, although it is not clear how long it will take for city authorities to replace the destroyed buildings with new, attractive ones.

Unlike some Tajik cities -- such as Khojand or Kulob, which have thousands of years of history -- Dushanbe became a city in the 1920s when it was chosen as the place for the new Tajik capital to be built. Most of the buildings in the residential areas are aging, unattractive concrete apartment blocks that were built during the Soviet era. There are also many neighborhoods with privately built houses that are more original and varying in their looks and sizes.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report

Turkmen Gas-Export Offer Seen As 'Breakthrough' By EU

By Ahto Lobjakas

Part of Turkmenistan's Korpeje oil and gas field

BRUSSELS -- The European Union says Turkmenistan has made its first-ever serious gas-export offer to Europe.

"[The EU was told that] as of 2009, 10 billion cubic meters of gas will be available for transport towards Europe," European Commission spokeswoman Christiane Hohmann told RFE/RL in Brussels on April 15. Hohmann accompanied a high-level EU delegation to Ashgabat last week.

Hohmann said the precise nature of the offer is seen as a "breakthrough" by Brussels. So far, she said, Ashgabat had only offered the EU vague "assurances" of its export capacity, which, EU officials feared, were based on unrealistic estimates. Turkmenistan is already under contract to supply significant volumes of gas to Russia, China, and Iran.

To be sure, the "assurances" are still there, but as a prospective icing on the cake. Hohmann said Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov promised to augment his exports to Europe further as currently undeveloped gas fields come on-stream.

Three Options

But perhaps more significantly, Berdymukhammedov stated in clear terms for the first time that he wants to supply gas to Europe directly without transiting it via Russia. Although Hohmann said alternative transit routes were not specifically raised at the talks in Ashgabat, she said the Turkmen side left no doubt it is looking to bypass Russia.

"There are three options on the table," she said, "which [are]: the trans-Caspian pipeline linking Turkmenistan with Azerbaijan; there is another option of going through Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan; or to transport it on ships [in the form of] liquefied gas."

The Turkmen bid is a boost for EU-backed but currently stalled efforts to build the Nabucco gas pipeline, which would link the EU's main southern gas hub in Austria to Azerbaijan. Russia has been trying to undercut the economic viability of Nabucco by announcing separate plans to build a competing pipeline -- known as South Stream -- through the Black Sea to Bulgaria.

The point for Russia is to deny the EU independent access to Central Asian gas. Russia wants to preserve its lucrative transit monopoly, retain its political grip over the Central Asian countries, and it also needs Central Asian gas to be able to honor its own export commitments to the EU, currently running at some 150 billion cubic meters a year. Some observers say a lack of investment by Moscow and rising domestic consumption could lead to export shortfalls as early as 2010.

Russian Leverage

Meanwhile, Russian imports account for more than one-quarter of the EU's total gas consumption, giving Moscow considerable leverage in its dealings with the bloc.

Nabucco is projected to have a capacity of upwards of 30 billion cubic meters by 2020. Currently, the project can only reckon with Azerbaijan's gas, as Iran remains beyond the political pale for the EU. In November 2007, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev told EU officials his country could double its current export annual volume of 9 billion cubic meters.

This would still leave a shortfall of some 10 billion cubic meters, which is more or less exactly what Turkmenistan has now offered.

The problem that remains for the EU is to find investors for both the Nabucco and trans-Caspian pipelines. Brussels says it will not underwrite the investments, insisting the projects must be commercially viable.

Many observers have warned that the EU's aversion to "political" investments leaves its strategic interests vulnerable to meddling by Russia, which still controls the gas monopoly Gazprom.

Kyrgyz Opposition Calls For Dismissal Of Parliament, New Constitution

Some 2,000 opposition supporters adopted a harshly worded resolution

BISHKEK -- Some 2,000 representatives and supporters of Kyrgyzstan's main opposition parties, meeting in the capital, Bishkek, have adopted a resolution calling for the dismissal of parliament and the invalidation of the current constitution.

The meeting, called a "kurultai," was also attended by members of leading nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), intellectuals, and ordinary voters. It was called by the Public Parliament, an umbrella bloc of several opposition parties and NGOs.

The parties who organized the kurultai feel the promises of the March 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan have gone unfulfilled and that they have been marginalized by the government that emerged after those events.

More photographs from the opposition meeting can be found on the website of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

According to Azimbek Beknazarov, leader of the opposition Asaba (Flag) party, the resolution adopted on April 12 states that Kyrgyzstan is "in a grave political, social, and economic situation because of the establishment of an unfair, inhumane, and irresponsible power system in the country." The resolution urges President Kurmanbek Bakiev to "carry out urgent measures in order to improve the lives of ordinary people, to stop the rise in prices, and ensure economic growth."

The Kyrgyz authorities rejected the demands, saying the current constitution was adopted with the support of almost 80 percent of Kyrgyz voters and that only another referendum can change or amend it.

'Just Criticism'

The head of the presidential press service, Dosaly Esenaliev, defended the government's performance and criticized the opposition congress.

"If there had been reasoned, constructive proposals, it would have been OK," Esenaliev told RFE/RL's correspondent in Bishkek. "But there was just criticism, of course. It is a phenomenon in democratic societies. However, today's efforts by the government are working in the direction of lessening the negative impact of the ongoing economic crisis in the world on Kyrgyzstan."

Temir Sariev, a former lawmaker and now co-chairman of the For Justice movement, told RFE/RL ahead of the meeting that there are three "big headaches" in which the opposition is critical of the government's performance so far. "They are like a three-headed dragon," he said. "First, corruption; second, poverty; third, unemployment. We will discuss ways of resolving these three ills."

The kurultai in Bishkek (RFE/RL)

Excluded From Power

Kyrgyz Justice Minister Marat Kaiypov said on April 12 that the kurultai has no legal authority.

"Our constitution allows [citizens] to convene a kurultai," Kaiypov said. "However, when the kurultai is to be convened [there are questions that need to be answered] -- what issues will be discussed, where it will be held, who will convene it, and what power do their decisions have? Such questions have to be defined by the law. Unfortunately, there is no law about the regulations of convening the kurultai. They have not yet been adopted."

None of the opposition parties that organized the kurultai won seats in the last parliamentary elections -- and for the Ata-Meken (Fatherland) Socialist Party that fact is particularly painful. Ata-Meken won enough of the popular vote to claim eight seats but, due to a new regulation adopted just before the December poll, the party had to win half of 1 percent of the vote in every voting district in the country and failed to do so.

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service Direcor Tynchtykbek Tchoroev and correspondent Bubukan Dosalieva contributed to this report

Uzbek Justice Ministry Revokes Accreditation Of Chief Rabbi

Uzbekistan's chief rabbi, Abe Dovid Gurevich

The Uzbek Justice Ministry has refused an accreditation request by the country's chief rabbi, Abe Dovid Gurevich. The ministry says Gurevich failed to provide proper documentation, while others say the move represents an attack on religious freedom.

The dwindling population of Jews in Central Asia represents one of the oldest religious communities in the region -- established more than 2,000 years ago, even before the predominant Muslim faith.

Though there are only thousands of Jews left in Central Asia, they still have a chief rabbi. But as of April 10, Gurevich has no official right to serve the Jewish community.

The Justice Ministry had warned on April 5 that the accreditation for Gurevich -- who has lived in Uzbekistan since 1990 -- may not be renewed. The ministry says it has multiple complaints against Gurevich and the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Orthodox Judaism that he heads. Among those are that the group is not submitting its financial records, making its funding impossible to trace; that the organization meets at a different address than the one given to Uzbek authorities; and that Gurevich "says the laws of the Republic of Uzbekistan are not applicable to him."

Jalol Abdusattarov, the head of the Justice Ministry's Department of Religious Affairs, said on April 10 that Gurevich's activities exceeded his authority and were not in accordance with the stated goals and duties of his organization. He gave no specific examples of such activities.

'Not A Grain Of Truth'

Prior to the announcement that he was being stripped of his accreditation, correspondent Sadriddin Ashurov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service spoke to Gurevich about the Justice Ministry's announcement. He said he had no idea why the ministry would refuse to prolong his accreditation.

Since the Justice Ministry mentioned the possible refusal of accreditation to the rabbi, the state press has published articles vaguely referring to the numerous violations of the law that Gurevich has committed and questioning whether Gurevich really has any official authority to head the Jewish community in Central Asia.

Gurevich said allegations that he violated the law are inaccurate. "None of the material written about us contains even a grain of truth," he said, "not a grain of truth."

The Jewish community in Uzbekistan has seen several setbacks in the last decade. When Uzbekistan adopted a new law on religion in 1998, it abolished the rabbinate, the Jewish community's administrative office. Subsequent attempts to reopen the rabbinate have failed, leaving the Jewish community without theological schools to train rabbis.

In February 2006, Avraam Yagudaev, a Jewish leader from Tashkent, was killed in an automobile accident that some said was suspicious. A few months later, tragedy struck again when Gurevich's secretary and her mother were found strangled to death in Tashkent.

Failed To Accompany Delegation

The news about Gurevich's accreditation problem came as more than 100 members of the World Congress of Bukharan Jews arrived in Uzbekistan, led by its president, Lev Leviev. The ancient Silk Route city of Bukhara is located in Uzbekistan, and the Bukharan Jews are perhaps the best-known Jewish group of Central Asia.

Gurevich said his current difficulties -- which the rabbi says also include visa problems -- prevented him from accompanying the delegation to the city, regarded as the Uzbek Jews' homeland. Gurevich said not even an April 4 meeting with Abdusattarov, of the Justice Ministry's Department of Religious Affairs, could clear up the accreditation problem and allow him to go to Bukhara.

State media outlets in Uzbekistan do not report on issues unless the government has a reason for the news to be made public. The campaign against Gurevich in the Uzbek press looks to be paving the way for Gurevich's eventual removal as head of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

As for the Bukharan Jewish community, it numbered some 40,000 when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Today, it is about half that as thousands took the opportunity to move to Israel, the United States, or elsewhere.