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Central Asia Report: May 9, 2008

Russia: European Court Rules For 'Andijon' Plaintiffs, Warns Against Extradition

By Farangis Najibullah

President Islam Karimov's image rises above the street in Andijon

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled against Russia in a case involving 13 Central Asian businessmen who are fighting to block their extradition to Uzbekistan, where their lawyer says they could face torture or even execution.

The Strasbourg court ordered Russian authorities to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to the 13 men, one of whom is Kyrgyz and 12 of whom are Uzbek nationals, because they violated their rights when they held them for as long as 20 months without trial. It also cautioned Russia against handing any of the plaintiffs over to Uzbek authorities.

Tashkent has alleged that the men helped finance a broad plot in 2005 that was aimed at freeing a handful of alleged Islamic extremists in Andijon, in eastern Uzbekistan, and destabilizing the central government. Officials responded to the unrest with a security crackdown in which eyewitnesses say hundreds of unarmed protesters were killed.

One of the Uzbek defendants, Shukrullah Sobirov, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on April 25 that the accusations against himself and his fellow defendants "are baseless and obviously fabricated by the officials."

He called allegations that he and his fellow defendants had received at least $200,000 to further the antigovernment cause "complete slander," adding, "Honestly, back then, we didn't even have enough money to pay our rent."

Fearing persecution in Uzbekistan, the men fled soon after the Andijon tragedy to Russia, where they sought asylum. Instead, they were arrested in June 2005 on the basis of the Uzbek warrants.

The group's lawyer appealed to the Strasbourg court, citing concerns over possible torture or execution if they were returned to their homeland.

On April 24, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia to pay each of the men roughly $24,000 in damages and a combined $28,000 in legal fees.

The court also warned against extraditing the men to Uzbekistan, saying such a move would further breach the plaintiffs' rights because they would face imminent arrest and possibly torture.

Russia, a member of the Council of Europe, has three months to appeal the decision.

Uzbekistan has long been criticized by rights groups for alleged ill-treatment of prisoners.

Irina Sokolova, the defendants' Russian lawyer, says Uzbek authorities claim that the men continue to pose a threat.

"I would also like to point out that Uzbek law enforcement officials wrote in the men's criminal cases that they have been involved in extremist and terrorist activities on Russian territory," says Sokolova, who noted that Russian authorities have been unable to corroborate such claims. "After investigating the case at the request of the Russian prosecutor-general, the Russian side said that they could not find any proof or information to confirm those allegations."

The men say Russian human rights activists, including the Memorial group, have provided support by attracting media and politicians' attention to the case.

In May 2005, months of minor protests surrounding the trials of 23 businessmen accused of being members of the banned Islamic group Akramiya culminated in an attack on a jail and other public facilities in which many prisoners were freed. The next day, according to eyewitnesses, hundreds of unarmed residents were killed when security forces opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators who had gathered in central Andijon to criticize the government and demand better social conditions.

Tashkent has consistently rejected international calls to allow an independent probe into the events in Andijon.

Hundreds of Uzbeks fled Andijon for neighboring Kyrgyzstan in the days after the violence, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) eventually granted them refugee status and helped relocate them to third countries.

Under intense pressure from Tashkent, neighboring Kyrgyzstan has extradited five Uzbek nationals accused of involvement in the Andijon violence. The move sparked condemnations from human rights groups and the UNHCR, which described it as a violation of international law.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondent Oktambek Karimov contributed to this report

Turkmen, Iranian Presidents Moving Ahead With Rival Pipelines

By Bruce Pannier

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) and his Turkmen counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, exchange one of their agreements in Kabul

Pipeline politics took center stage as Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad went on the road to promote competing pipelines to export their natural gas.

Berdymukhammedov was in Kabul on April 28, making the case for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI), while Ahmadinejad was in Islamabad the same day, discussing details of the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline (IPI).

Both pipelines have several pros and cons, and the consumer countries -- Pakistan and India -- have signaled they want both TAPI and IPI to help sate their energy needs.

Berdymukhammedov spoke about TAPI with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on the first-ever visit by a Turkmen president to Kabul in independent Turkmenistan's 17-year history. The two countries signed deals on energy, transport, and culture. The meeting came just days after representatives from their countries, along with Pakistan and India, signed an agreement to start construction of the pipeline in 2010, with operations slated to begin in 2015.

"We had a discussion with the Turkmen president on a series of issues that involve our two countries," Karzai said. "The main areas of our talks were on the exchange of energy between the two countries, developing transportation, communications, and on the gas pipeline that will export natural gas from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. We discussed a railway between our two countries -- and how to extend the railroad through Afghanistan to neighboring countries. Also, we spoke about the importation of electricity from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan. And we had a discussion on terrorism threats and regional problems."

'New Era' In Relations

The Turkmen president hailed the event as signaling a "new era" in relations between the two states. "Today, our historic friendship has endured much, but we are entering a completely new era that brings broad possibilities for developing the mutual and useful relationship between our countries," Berdymukhammedov said.

According to plans, the 1,680-kilometer TAPI pipeline would start in the Turkmen city of Dauletabad and 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 will 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 range from $6 billion to $7.5 billion.

Analysts point to two major drawbacks with TAPI. The first is the route through Afghanistan, where it will be difficult to ensure security for the pipeline, especially as it turns eastwards and approaches Kandahar, where fighting between militants and the Afghan government and foreign forces is still a daily occurrence. Turkmenistan and Pakistan have been trying for more than a decade to get the pipeline built, but security problems in Afghanistan have always held up the deal. If security could be guaranteed, Afghanistan stands to receive large and badly needed revenues from transit fees.

The second problem is the question of how much natural gas Turkmenistan actually has. The April 28 edition of the Russian daily "Kommersant" points out that Turkmenistan has a contract with Russia's Gazprom to export up to 50 bcm of gas annually to Russia for two more decades, a contract with China that starts in 2009 for 30 bcm annually, and a deal with Iran for 8 bcm annually. Berdymukhammedov also promised earlier this month to send 10 bcm to Europe Union countries, though the details of that agreement are still unclear. The acceptance of the TAPI deal would bring annual Turkmen gas exports to well over 100 bcm annually -- a huge amount of natural gas to export when Turkmenistan's proven reserves of gas are not fully known.

No Iranian Participation

But TAPI enjoys two advantages that the IPI does not -- support from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and no Iranian participation. The ADB's support gives the project a greater international profile and, since Iran is not involved, TAPI may also find other investors -- including U.S. companies that are forbidden by U.S. law to deal with Iran, and European investors who fear U.S. sanctions if they commit to IPI instead of TAPI.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf (right) meets with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Islamabad

Ahmadinejad's visit to Pakistan was similar in nature to Berdymukhammedov's in Afghanistan. Pakistani and Indian officials also met about IPI last week in Islamabad when Indian Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Murli Deora was there for talks. Iran, under intense pressure from many countries over its controversial nuclear program, would benefit greatly from signing such a major deal, which would also bring in much-needed revenue.

Reports from Islamabad on April 25 indicated that India and Pakistan were close to finalizing their part of the deal. Ahmadinejad is trying to push the potential partners to sign that deal. For its part, Iran has already started constructing the pipeline on its territory and could have its section to the Pakistani border completed by 2012.

The IPI pipeline would be some 2,600 kilometers long and would cost an estimated $7 billion. The IPI pipeline would initially carry some 30 bcm annually, but within three to four years after starting up that amount would increase to 70 bcm. Iran first proposed the pipeline in the 1990s, but tensions between Pakistan and India kept the project on hold until now. In their meetings last week, Pakistani and Indian officials stressed that cooperation between the two nuclear neighbors is better now.

Washington's Wrath

IPI's disadvantage is the U.S. objection to the pipeline -- but both Pakistan and India have indicated publicly that their countries' demand for energy is such that Islamabad and New Delhi are prepared to endure the possibility of complicating ties with Washington. The ADB has not come out in favor of IPI, and many potential international investors may be frightened of facing Washington's wrath for being part of IPI.

A distinct advantage for IPI is that there are two major companies that have expressed interest in joining the project -- Russia's Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corporation. Gazprom has supported the IPI project for several years, but China's interest is relatively new and may have to do with a proposal from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf earlier this month that his country could build a "Karakorum" pipeline to deliver gas or oil to China through mountain passes in the Himalayas. Such pipelines could bring not only Iranian natural gas but also gas and oil delivered to Pakistani port cities along the Arabian Sea.

Another meeting on TAPI -- at which the major parties will attempt to agree on transit prices -- is scheduled for May. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad travels to Afghanistan on April 29.

The Kabul bureau of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan and RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Guvanch Geraev contributed to this report

'April' Returns To Turkmenistan

By Bruce Pannier

The late President Niyazov was a tireless self-promoter

It's April again in Turkmenistan. Not "Gurbansoltan" -- the name of late President Saparmurat Niyazov's mother and what he insisted that citizens call the month.

In 2002, in one his more bizarre moves, Niyazov changed the official names of the days and months. January became Turkmenbashi, or "Head of the Turkmen," the late leader's preferred title. April was named after his mother. And the days were given names like Bashgun (Monday), which in Turkmen is literally "main day," or Ruhgun (Saturday), which means "spirit day."

Those changes have long confused many of Turkmenistan's 5 million people. But now, as with many other things in post-Niyazov Turkmenistan, yet another odd legacy of the strongman who died in late 2006 looks set for the dustbin of history.

On April 23, Akja Nurberdieva, the speaker of parliament, presented President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov with a request from the Turkmen people during a government meeting in the capital, Ashgabat.

"Esteemed President, we have received thousands of letters from Turkmenistan's citizens and in these letters they want to change the names of months and days back to what they were," Nurberdieva said.

In reply, Berdymukhammedov told the meeting that maybe the time has come to restore the traditional names of the calendar. He also recommended that parliament take up the issue at its next session, although it's unclear when that will be.

"As this issue directly concerns the nation's interests, and there is public support for it, let us put it on the agenda of the next parliamentary session," the president said.

Most never learned the new names. So the change will be welcomed by nearly everyone except perhaps by schoolchildren, who had to memorize Niyazov's calendar and will now have to learn the days of the week and months all over again.

"People my age, for example those over 30, have not used the new names except in official documents," one citizen who asked to remain anonymous tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. "Honestly, I don't know which month is which. They say 'Alp Arslan [August], Gurbansoltan, Turkmenbashi, Turkmen, etc....' I don't understand."

Berdymukhammedov, who has moved slowly but surely in undoing some of the more mercurial moves of his late predecessor, also told the meeting on April 23 that "in some cases, national laws become obsolete, thus creating obstacles to progress."

Analysts suggest that the pace of reform under the new president has been measured to prevent a break down in Niyazov's highly structured system. Too much reform too quickly, they say, could lead to big problems.

Moreover, merely returning the names of days and months to their traditional form might not be enough.

"People want to be able to make statements about Niyazov, that Niyazov's policies don't bring us anything good; and Berdymukhammedov must say this openly -- he must say that the people were completely deprived of their rights during Niyazov's rule," one man tells RFE/RL. Berdymukhammedov "has to confess this and not only Berdymukhammedov but the Mejlis [parliament] also has to fulfill its obligations and state its position, and not simply look at Berdymukhammedov's mouth."

Berdymukhammedov has never indicated that he is willing to go that far, that fast. For now, he seems content to see progress in changing things back to the way they were before Niyazov’s embarked on some of his worst excesses.

In the future, when the new president feels more comfortable in his position, then he may come to acknowledge some of his Niyazov's worst mistakes -- just as Nikita Krushchev denounced the policies of Josef Stalin, his predecessor as Soviet leader, at an unprecedented communist party congress in 1956.

If that day comes, though, it will be an ordinary Monday or Saturday. The days of Bashgun or Ruhgun will already be forgotten.

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

In Chornobyl Disaster's Wake, A Fading Legacy Of 'Green' Awareness

By Brian Whitmore and Claire Bigg

Vacated residential area in Prypyat, near Chornobyl

In late 2002, the government of Kazakhstan was putting the finishing touches on a plan to import and store nuclear waste from other countries. Officials had hoped the plan would generate as much as $20 billion in badly needed revenues.

But then an odd thing happened. Environmental groups held public hearings, local residents were mobilized, and a letter-writing campaign to lawmakers was launched. Weeks later, the plan was dead.

It was a landmark victory for Kazakhstan's environmentalists -- a fledgling movement that traces its roots to the 1986 Chornobyl disaster.

It was a rare success, however. As the international community marks the 22nd anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident on April 26, vibrant Green movements that can influence environmental policy in the former Soviet Union remain few and far between.

RFE/RL's Belarus and Ukrainian services report from the contamination zone

The Chornobyl blast was caused by a massive power surge at the plant, located near Pripyat in Ukraine. It blew the 1,000-ton lid off a reactor and initially killed two people. Another 29 emergency workers died within the next three months. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says that fallout from the disaster will account for no more than 4,000 deaths worldwide. But Greenpeace and other environmental groups say the total is in the hundreds of thousands.

Despite such dire predictions, authorities in the regions affected by Chornobyl have typically pushed ecological concerns far down on their agendas in favor of short-term economic or political gains. Nascent grassroots Green movements have also suffered from the emergence of authoritarian regimes in countries like Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan.

"Green movements are more developed in countries with stable regimes, where people are for the most part confident in their future, where they are provided for, where finding a piece of bread or life-supporting medication is not a problem," says Aleksandr Velikin, the head of the Chornobyl Union in Russia's Leningrad Oblast and a former "liquidator," one of the hundreds of thousands of people from across the Soviet Union who were brought in to clean up after the nuclear explosion at Chornobyl.

Rising Green Consciousness

Such luxuries have so far eluded the post-Soviet space, where environmentalists continue to face an uphill battle.

Russian activists, for example, failed in 2001 to prevent a nuclear waste-import scheme similar to the one that Kazakhstan's Greens blocked. Moscow also plans to build 40 new nuclear reactors by 2030, over the objections of the country's environmentalists. Belarus, which to this day screens milk and other agricultural products for radioactive contamination, is likewise planning to build a new nuclear plant.

It wasn't always this way. Many analysts describe the years between the Chornobyl disaster and the 1991 Soviet breakup as the high-water mark of environmental activism in the region.

"The Chornobyl catastrophe changed people's awareness and their attitude toward the environment; toward technical progress, which doesn't always bring good; and toward the fact that atomic energy must be handled very cautiously," says Vladimir Chuprov, the chief nuclear expert at Greenpeace-Russia.

Soon after the accident, physicists and other scientists lobbied for enhanced nuclear safety. Within a few years, as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika took root, even the general public began to press for more information.

Kazakh "cleaners" of the Chornobyl disaster pose for a picture in 1986, on display at an exhibition in Almaty

"For those scientists who were aware of the immediate consequences of the Chornobyl accident, there was a very immediate reaction among a number of them to address the issues that the Chornobyl accident created," says Alan Flowers, an expert in radiology at London's Kingston University who has done extensive research on the effects of the Chornobyl disaster. "And this occurred directly in the period very soon after the accident in 1986, because many scientists were very aware of the fallout and of the very dramatic consequences on the population."

Flowers, who was expelled from Belarus in 2004 for unauthorized contacts with NGOs, says the scientists' concerns mushroomed into more broad-based political activism in the general public. He says the "large-scale" reaction that ensued included campaigns for the publication of information and maps about the Chornobyl fallout.

Observers say this gave a boost to environmental groups that were already forming in the increasingly open political atmosphere.

"In the Soviet Union, you couldn't criticize the system, the party, but ecology was one of the issues to which the Soviet leadership paid no attention. The ecological movement had already begun, and Chornobyl gave it a huge boost," says Chuprov.

Political Fallout

In Ukraine, the new environmentalism dovetailed with an emerging independence movement. And in Belarus, as Flowers notes, it sparked the rise of the republic's first post-Soviet head of state, Stanislau Shushkevich, who led the republic's independence drive and served as chairman of the Supreme Soviet from 1991-94.

"In particular, Stanislau Shushkevich came to prominence because as a physicist, he was very aware of the true extent of fallout and the need to publicize and open up information to the public on the locations of the fallout," Chuprov says. "He became the people's champion on publicizing information on the Chornobyl accident in Belarus."

Kazakhstan, which was not directly affected by the Chornobyl fallout, nevertheless provided many of the liquidators who cleaned up after the explosion. When they returned home, some joined -- and helped publicize -- the emerging environmental movement there.

Today, Kazakhstan has one of the stronger environmental movements in the former Soviet Union. Analysts and activists say that this is because the environmental situation there is particularly dire, even by post-Soviet standards.

According to estimates cited in the media, nearly 10 percent of Kazakh citizens are suffering the aftereffects of hundreds of Soviet-era nuclear bomb tests at the Semipalatinsk testing site, which was closed in 1991. Falling rockets and debris from the Baikonur Cosmodrome have also caused ecological damage.

"Kazakhstan is a place where many international environmental problems are concentrated," Mels Eleusizov, leader of Kazakhstan's Tabighat (Nature) movement, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "Here we have Caspian problems -- a huge issue; the Aral Sea problem -- the whole world is talking about it and it has been affecting more and more aspects of life day after day; the Balkhash Sea issue -- the issue that has been getting similar to what we have in Aral region; Semey [Semipalatinsk nuclear test field] and many other test fields. Every single city in Kazakhstan has its own [ecological] challenges."

New Obstacles

But the burst of ecological activism that followed Chornobyl lost its momentum after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. The Soviet successor states quickly became more concerned with economic development than ecology.

"We gave a lot of recommendations to the government. But the government has made it clear that it doesn't need them," Eleusizov says. "The government is focusing on economic issues now -- it cares mainly about oil and other mineral resources. Meanwhile, ecological issues seem to be on the second level of interest. But I can tell you, at some point it will be too late for anybody to take care of the ecology."

Many post-Soviet governments in recent years have become increasingly authoritarian, leaving little room for independent environmental movements. The most glaring example, of course, is Belarus, the country most affected by the Chornobyl disaster and where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime ruthlessly suppresses any form of public dissent, including environmental activism.

"Discussion of grassroots activism is pretty much a barren territory in Belarus, insofar as any nongovernmental activism is very closely scrutinized and has been for very nearly a decade in Belarus," Flowers says.

True to form, Belarusian authorities are widely expected to break up a march by the country's liquidators, which is scheduled for April 26 to mark the Chornobyl anniversary.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Katsyaryna Gancharova, a member of the country's Ekadom environmental group, says that despite the numerous bureaucratic and political obstacles placed in its path, the Green movement is determined to persevere.

"The registration process is complex. On the whole, civic organizations are barely surviving because the very unfavorable situation in the country doesn't allow them to function as they should," Gancharova says. "But the Green movement is nonetheless developing, people are interested in ecology. This question is becoming increasingly topical."

RFE/RL's Belarus, Kazakh, and Ukrainian services contributed to this report