Beijing Flexes Economic Muscle Across Central Asia
What does China see across its western border? Gareth Leather, a China expert for the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, says the answer is obvious.
"Access to raw materials," Leather says. "As China's economy grows very quickly, demand for raw materials has shot up and Central Asia is obviously rich in a number of raw materials that China needs. So it is keen to put more investment into that region."
Central Asia is home to large, relatively untapped oil and natural-gas fields. Most are in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan -- and Beijing has been quick to seize on export opportunites.
Already in the late 1990s, Beijing secured a deal to build a 960-kilometer oil pipeline from western Kazakhstan to China. The pipeline has started partial operation and when it kicks in fully in the next two or three years, it will carry some 20 million tons of oil annually. The cost of building the pipeline was $700 million and generally met the timetable set nearly a decade ago.
Importing Kazakh oil is part of China's plans to diversify both energy suppliers and import routes. That's because some 80 percent of China's oil imports currently transit the Straits of Malacca, a narrow shipping lane between Malaysia and Indonesia.
Leather says the Kazakh pipeline meets both countries' interests. "China has traditionally been reluctant to buy or to rely on the open market for some of its energy imports," he says. "So what it has been doing, is going into a country and investing in the infrastructure, which is needed to extract these raw materials.
"And so for the countries concerned, they are obviously very welcoming to Chinese investment because not only do they get a chance to sell their raw materials, but also the Chinese build the infrastructure as well and so they're seen as benefiting in two ways," Leather adds.
A Turkmen-China natural-gas pipeline is another major energy project financed by China in Central Asia. Eventually, the pipeline will stretch some 7,000 kilometers from eastern Turkmenistan to Shanghai. The agreement with Turkmenistan, which was sealed in 2006, also includes involvement by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, as the pipeline will transit those countries, providing revenue for both from transit fees.
China not only gets the gas it wants -- some 30 billion cubic meters annually for 30 years -- but the China National Petroleum Corporation also has a production-sharing agreement (PSA) to develop the Turkmen gas fields feeding the pipeline. That makes China the only country to have an on-shore PSA with Ashgabat.
Investment With No Strings Attached
China has been busy in other Central Asian countries, too.
In central Tajikistan, China's Export-Import Bank is providing a $300 million loan to help finance construction of the Zeravshan hydropower station. And China's Zijin Mining Group plans to invest some $100 million in a gold-mining operation in the same area.
China is also helping to finance construction of a railway from Uzbekistan through Kyrgyzstan to China.
Leather says that for the Central Asian states, working with China is more advantageous than dealing with demanding Western states and organizations.
He notes that Chinese "loans or infrastructure investments come with no strings attached. Previously, countries would be relying on institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, or places like the EU or the U.S. and these [loans and investments] will come with strict economical and political conditions. And they're quite keen to get Chinese investment, because they come with none of these diplomatic strings attached. So Chinese investment so far certainly has been very welcome in these areas."
And since production of oil, natural gas, and hydroelectric power is really just starting in the Central Asian states, Leather says those countries can see a long-term business partner in neighboring China.
"I think what you are seeing now is only the beginning. China's economy, although it might slow down compared to the dizzy heights that it's grown at in the past few years, is expected to continue growing strongly for the next 10, 15, 20, 30 years," Leather says. "And so this strong demand for energy is unlikely to go away anytime soon. And countries that are net energy exporters stand to benefit hugely from this."
Still, the picture of Chinese investment is not all rosy.
Beijing has done much to make itself an appealing partner, but the Central Asian states are still wary when dealing with their giant neighbor. None of them wants too much Chinese influence in their countries, which partly explains why they remain keen to work with Russia and the West -- both eager markets for Central Asian resources as well.
China, over the last few millennia, has annexed parts of what is today Central Asia -- a fact not lost on the people of the region. Their nations want China's help to achieve economic independence -- not to make them economically dependent on Beijing.
Central Asia: Ambition Often The Downfall Of Powerful Presidential Relatives
So go the lives of many of Central Asia's rich and well-connected. Sadulloev, if the allegations about his demise are confirmed, is hardly the only important figure in the region to rise to power and wealth through bloodlines or marital ties, only to later court ruin through unconstrained ambition. It's a plotline found in similar stories in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
Sadulloev, the latest such case, disappeared nearly a month ago, prompting a regional media frenzy about his possible murder by a member of the country's first family. Sadulloev heads Orienbank, one of the largest Tajik financial institutions. He reportedly owns at least 13 other large companies in the country.
For Tajiks, however, Sadulloev is best-known as President Emomali Rahmon's brother-in-law, a man who in a short period of time rose from humble village origins to become the owner of a vast business empire. He gathered his wealth, many observers say, thanks to connections. His sister Azizamoh, after all, is the president's wife.
Regional media reports regularly speculate that Sadulloev was killed, or seriously wounded, by one of Rahmon's children, amid the first family's discontent with Sadulloev's growing influence and ambition.
Dodojon Atoullo, an independent Tajik journalist, is a long-standing critic of Rahmon. Atoullo says that the president was disappointed by Sadulloev's "political ambitions."
"Lately, Hasan Sadullaev had started to consider himself an alternative to the president, saying if something happens to the president he would take the job," Atoullo says. "There were two centers of power in Tajikistan: one around Rahmon and another around Sadulloev."
Reaching Too High
Such a story certainly rings a bell in neighboring Kazakhstan. Rakhat Aliev, former son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, was a medical doctor before marrying the president's daughter, Darigha.
Aliev eventually rose to head the country's chief tax body before becoming first deputy security minister, a banker, media tycoon, and ambassador. Needless to say, he accumulated an immense fortune along the way. But he did not stop there.
In 2007, when he was charged by a Kazakh court with kidnapping and murder, Aliev claimed he was being punished for having presidential ambitions.
The court, however, found him guilty of kidnapping two bank workers and extorting financial assets from a number of people and companies. In a separate trial by a Kazakh military court, Aliev was also convicted of masterminding a plot to overthrow the government.
Aliev, whose wife divorced him last year, remains out of the country. If he set foot in Kazakhstan, he would face immediate arrest as the courts have sentenced him to a total of 40 years in prison.
Despite divorcing Aliev, Darigha Nazarbaeva also received her own share of "punishment."
She used to accompany her father on important trips abroad. Her party, Asar, was the country's second-largest political bloc. Nazarbaeva was widely seen as her father's successor as president.
However, shortly after the Aliev scandal erupted, Nazarbaeva's party was virtually dissolved and her influence in politics has receded.
Atoullo, the Moscow-based Tajik journalist, says Central Asian presidents do not tolerate anyone, including the closest family members, "who even dream about the presidency."
A Hard Fall From Grace
Indeed, since gaining independence in 1991, Central Asian countries have experienced many changes -- but they have not seen many changes in president. Nazarbaev and Islam Karimov, his Uzbek counterpart, have ruled since the Soviet era, as did former Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov until his death in 2006.
In Kyrgyzstan, former President Askar Akaev stayed in power for nearly 15 years and did not leave until people took to the streets accusing him and his family of corruption and taking over the country's main industries.
Rahmon has ruled Tajikistan since 1992.
All of the presidents have sent their main political opponents into exile or prison. And it seems the punishment for harboring presidential ambitions has been extended to family members, too.
As in Rakhat Aliev's case, those whose presidential ties were somehow severed had to cope with far more than just a broken heart. When Rahmon's daughter Tahmina divorced her first husband, her former father-in-law, Yormuhammad Gulov, was sacked as head of the State Food Company.
But Mansur Maqsudi, an Afghan-American and the former son-in-law of the Uzbek president, lost much more after his marriage to Gulnora Karimova hit the rocks. Soon after marrying into the first family, Maqsudi formed a joint venture with the Coca Cola bottling company in Uzbekistan, becoming the new firm's president.
Although Coca Cola denies receiving any favorable treatment from the government, regional media reports said the joint venture was given access to "the only big bottling plant in Tashkent that met U.S. standards," in the process pushing its chief rival, Pepsi, out of the Uzbek market.
After the couple's divorce, however, Maqsudi's businesses, as well as his Afghan emigre family living in Tashkent, suffered the consequences.
Coca Cola's three plants were raided and their employees harassed. Meanwhile, Uzbek police reportedly rounded up more than 20 of Maqsudi's relatives, driving them to the Afghan border and dropping them off on the other side.
Such stories are starting to weigh on Central Asians, who are growing tired of high-level corruption while ordinary people face rising food prices, unemployment, and poverty.
Alima Sharipova, a university professor in the Kyrgyz city of Osh and an independent expert on social issues, says people in the region are fed up with "presidents giving away their country's wealth to relatives and new relatives as a gift and appointing them to official posts.
"It was presidential family members' greed that brought Askar Akaev's demise," she adds. "And it's not impossible that the same scenario can be repeated in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere in Central Asia any day."
Kazakhstan Debates Polygamy Amid Regional Rise In Popularity
Proponents of legalizing polygamy say the new bill will help improve the demographic situation in the country. They cite Islamic customs, which allow Muslim men to marry up to four wives. And they say the new bill would give more rights to the wives and children of polygamous husbands.
Tangribergan Berdyungarov, a Kazakh parliamentarian, says the legislature is likely to hold a session soon to consider the issue. “The proposed bill is named ‘On Marriage and Family.’ There have been unofficial talks to legalize polygamy in Kazakhstan," he says. "I believe every deputy has his or her own opinion on the matter, and it will be reflected in the voting.”
If Polygamy, Then Polyandry
Berdyungarov tells RFE/RL that he opposes the new bill. He has many supporters in parliament -- mostly women like deputy Bahyt Syzdykova, who calls the issue “nonsense.”
Speaking at a televised roundtable in Astana on May 7, Syzdykova said she would propose legalizing polyandry -- allowing women to marry more than one man -- if parliament legalizes polygamy. “After all, men and women in our country have equal rights according to our constitution,” she said. Syzdykova added that there is more need for a law giving greater rights to children born out of wedlock than any legalization of polygamy.
A woman from the city of Almaty voices a similar opinion. “Many women have become the second or third wives, but neither they nor their children have rights," she says. "I don’t want to see the word ‘polygamy’ [in the new law], but I would like to see that men have obligations and are held responsible for all their relationships and the children born outside [official] marriages.”
Polygamy has been practiced in Central Asian Muslim societies for centuries. Even during the Soviet era, some men took more than one wife, although only the first marriage was considered legal.
Kazakhstan decriminalized polygamy in 1998, but it remains a crime in the four other Central Asian countries. A man can face up to two years in prison for having more than one wife, but the practice is rarely prosecuted.
The Kazakh parliament has held debates on legalizing it several times in the last decade. The first initiative came from the League of Muslim Women of Kazakhstan. Amina Abdukarim Qyzy, the organization’s leader, has said that polygamy would increase the country's population and "bring happiness to many men and women."
A 2004 poll by the “Express K” daily suggested that some 40 percent of Kazakh men supported legalizing polygamy. In the same poll, more than 73 percent of women said they wanted to be the only wife of their husband. Only 22 percent of women said they would not oppose living in a polygamous marriage, but only if wives lived in separate apartments and were equally and adequately provided for by a husband.
Murat Kulimbet, deputy editor in chief of “Kazakhstan Eylderi” magazine, supports legalizing polygamy. He says up to 30 percent of men in the country’s south, where Islamic traditions have always been stronger, have more than one wife.
Polygamy has become more popular in Central Asia as people have returned to Islamic traditions following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Through "nikah," or Islamic marriage, a Muslim man can take up to four wives with the consent of his current wives and if he is financially able to provide equally and fairly for new wives and children. Nikah, however, has no legal force in the region's secular states. Therefore, in the case of divorce or the death of a husband, the second and third wives of the man and their children have no rights.
In recent years, Muslim-dominated societies from Azerbaijan to Russia’s Bashkortostan to Central Asia have seen attempts to legalize polygamy, but parliaments have always rejected them.
Benefits Of Legalization
In Kazakhstan and Russia, polygamy proponents say it would help raise sagging birthrates and stave off demographic crisis. In other countries, such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where thousands of men go abroad in search of work amid high unemployment at home, some people say the wives and children of those men who do not return would benefit from the legalization of polygamy.
In Tajikistan, the idea was raised after the bloody 1992-97 civil war, when the number of men decreased significantly. A group of Tajik women -- mostly the wives of polygamous husbands -- wrote a letter to the country's parliament, asking for their status to be legitimized.
Most observers see a direct correlation between polygamy and economic welfare. Many women agree to become the second or third wives of relatively wealthy men, as they are not financially able to provide for themselves. There is also reportedly an increasing number of cases where men take young girls as their second or third wife from parents who can barely make ends meet. The parents often give their daughters away for a financial reward.
“There may be a need for [polygamy] only among the rich in Uzbekistan," says an Uzbek man working in Kazakhstan. "Nowadays, most families can hardly make ends meet, and millions of Uzbeks work in Russia and Kazakhstan. I don’t think [legalizing polygamy] is an urgent issue in Uzbekistan. Well, not from men’s point of view.”
Turkmen President Orders Major Changes To Constitution
A constitutional commission will draft the changes at the request of the State Commission for Constitutional Reforms, which is headed by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.
Expected amendments include lengthening the presidential term and otherwise enhancing the already-powerful presidency, as well as scrapping a rubberstamp superlegislature known as the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) in favor of a more transparent but long-marginalized parliament, the Mejlis.
The overhaul could make Turkmenistan's political landscape less inscrutable for the country's 5 million residents and foreigners alike, but most observers are likely to withhold judgment until the particulars are in place.
Since stepping in to assume the presidency following the sudden death of strongman Saparmurat Niyazov in late 2006, Berdymukhammedov has sought to present himself as a reformer who can alleviate an impoverished public's worst suffering while opening the hydrocarbon-rich country up to increased trade.
On May 22, the recently created State Commission for Constitutional Reforms held a session chaired by President Berdymukhammedov that was billed as an opportunity to hear about constitutional concerns raised by the public since citizens were invited to comment in April.
Akja Nurberdieva, the speaker of the Mejlis, articulated the desires of "the people" to the commission. "First of all, it should be noted that numerous proposals have been received from citizens on changing the status of the Halk Maslahaty of Turkmenistan," Nurberdiyeva said, "assigning its powers related to state affairs to the president of Turkmenistan and the parliament of Turkmenistan."
The Halk Maslahaty is currently the leading legislative body in Turkmenistan, with considerably more power than the Mejlis. It comprises some 2,500 representatives, although some sessions have drawn up to 3,000 people. All of its members except the parliamentary deputies are appointed rather than elected. Members come from disparate groups across Turkmenistan -- business and government officials, workers and farmers, heads of social organizations, ethnic groups, and village elders.
On its surface, the effort to devolve powers of the unwieldy Halk Maslahaty to the more manageable Mejlis looks like an effort to simplify proceedings.
"Infrequent sessions of the Halk Maslahaty, held once a year, and the large number of its members create difficulties in convening [Halk Maslahaty] sessions and in solving issues quickly and adopting constitutional laws," Nuberdieva said.
A desire for opacity was among the reasons that the late President Niyazov transfered the powers of the Mejlis to the Halk Maslahaty in August 2003. An alleged assassination attempt on Niyazov in November 2002 was followed by a sweeping crackdown in which very few people were above suspicion.
Niyazov and his administration regarded the Mejlis with suspicion because the constitution gave it the power to confirm a new president if a sitting president died or was otherwise unable to perform his duties.
All 65 members of the Mejlis were, and still are, members of the Halk Maslahaty as well.
With virtually all political power in Turkmenistan held by the president, the role of the legislature is largely confined to formal approval of the president's proposed laws.
The Halk Maslahaty demonstrated its loyalty to the president when it decided to make Niyazov the head of state for life (and presented him with a white robe and a palm staff, the symbols of the Prophet Muhammad) in December 1999.
The Halk Maslahaty consistently opposed Niyazov's dubious "suggestions" over the years to hold new presidential elections, however. At a memorable session in August 2002, the Halk Maslahaty approved renaming the days of the week and the months of the year based on Niyazov's relatives, books he wrote, and even the name "Turkmenbashi," or "head of the Turkmen," Niyazov's preferred title. (The Turkmen government recently decreed that the traditional, pre-Niyazov names of the days and months would be used again from July 1.)
Parliament speaker Nurberdieva suggested that the Halk Maslahaty would be abolished and reorganized into an "Elders Council of Turkmenistan."
President Berdymukhammedov then introduced Baba Zahyrov, the head of the State and Law Institute, who proposed devolving many of the Halk Maslahaty's powers to the president.
There was also a proposal -- by Shirin Akhmedova, the head of the Turkmen National Institute of Democracy and Human Rights under the presidency -- that the new parliament have nearly double the current number of 65 seats.
"In connection with proposals on changing the Halk Maslahaty and the institution of people's representatives and with the aim of increasing the people's representation in the high legislative body of the country," Akhmedova said, "proposals have been made to increase the number of deputies in the Mejlis to 125."
After taking over in a rapid transition following Niyazov's death of heart failure, Berdymukhammedov was elected to a five-year term in February 2007. The election marked the first presidential election in Turkmenistan since 1992, when Niyazov ran unopposed and the official tally showed him receiving 99.5 percent of the vote in a poll in which 99.8 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
Turkmenistan is one of the last Central Asian states with a five-year presidential term.
But Nurberdiyeva proposed that Turkmenistan follow Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan's example and expand that period to seven years. Nurberdieva described it as an effort "proceeding from the goals of creating guaranteed opportunities in terms of time for the president of Turkmenistan to implement fundamental long-term programs."
"These proposals are inseparably linked with the wide public support to fundamental, long-term programs of the leader of the nation aimed at serving the interests of the people," Nurberdieva said.
Tough Act To Follow
Niyazov was a Soviet-era holdover who governed with a tight fist and clamped down mercilessly on public dissent.
It is tempting to view an extension of the presidential term as a step backward. But in fact, Turkmenistan has had just two presidential elections since independence in 1991. Berdymukhammedov's election 16 months ago to a five-year term represented the country's first presidential balloting since 1992.
Western officials, analysts, and activists have argued in the past that virtually any talk of elections in Turkmenistan should be taken as a positive sign.
The Turkmen National Institute of Democracy and Human Rights' Akhmedova said many sources are being considered in the constitutional committee's drafting of the new document.
"The norms of UN conventions, to which Turkmenistan is a signatory, OSCE documents, existing law-making and law-enforcement practices and the constitution-building experience of the CIS countries and other states have been studied and taken into consideration while preparing proposals on making amendments and changes to Turkmenistan's Constitution," Akhmedova said.
Such comments might bring hope to groups like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
It might also bring smiles in the European Union, since Europe is eager to receive Turkmen natural gas but reluctant to embrace a Turkmen government that has long had a reputation as a severe human rights violator.
Guvanch Geraev of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report
Uzbekistan: Government Launches Campaign Against Missionaries
Now, the government of President Islam Karimov is taking a broader aim against believers -- this time targeting primarily fringe Christian missionary groups.
A recent documentary on Uzbek state television condemned such groups as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Gospel Church, and Blagodat (Grace) as creating a "global problem, along with religious dogmatism, fundamentalism, terrorism, and drug addiction."
The documentary, "In the Clutches of Ignorance," featured several Uzbek religious and political experts, state officials as well as representatives of the Orthodox and Catholic churches in Uzbekistan. All took a critical view of missionaries.
Jasur Najmiddinov, a theologian from Uzbekistan's Islamic University, was among the many religious experts interviewed. Najmiddinov accused Christian missionary activities, especially by Protestant groups, of becoming a "political tool" and a "part of geopolitical games."
"Their center or place of origin traces back to the United States," Najmiddinov says. "They have even gone so far as meddling in politics. We all know representatives of the Protestant movement played a significant role in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine."
In an interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Najmiddinov later said that Christian missionary movements are a "hidden threat to Uzbek society" and that their activities are "as dangerous as terrorist activities or the illegal drug trade."
The Uzbek theologian added: "Missionaries' activities here can lead to disruptions in our society. If a member of an Uzbek family -- our family member or one of our relatives -- change their faith, the family would not tolerate it."
The documentary also showed video footage of people gathering and praying. It said Uzbek Christian converts, having betrayed their Islamic faith, could easily betray their country, too.
Uzbek law prohibits all religious missionary activity, unregistered religious groups, and the unapproved publication of religious literature.
Defenders of religious freedom, such as the Norway-based group Forum 18, say there has been a steady rise in repression against religious communities in Uzbekistan, including police raids on private homes, detentions of believers and converts, and deportations of foreigners involved in religious activities.
According to Forum 18, a young female Jehovah's Witness was detained and physically assaulted by a police officer after a raid on a private home in the city of Samarkand in March. In another police raid in Samarkand on April 3, security forces detained a Christian convert, Bobur Aslamov. He remains missing. Forum 18 also says several other Protestant church members were beaten during the raid and that police seized Christian literature as well as a laptop computer.
On April 9, police in Tashkent reportedly raided a service held by a group called the Full Gospel, an offshoot of Pentecostalism. Church leader Serik Kadirov was arrested along with four others. They were released the following day.
The state television documentary, broadcast on May 16, accused missionaries of targeting "those with low political awareness and weak-willed young people, as well as minors." It added that missionaries that "get funds abroad" undermine the Uzbek people's Islamic faith and values.
Islam, But Only Government Islam
That's a charge that strikes many as ironic, however.
Religious-freedom defenders and Uzbek government critics say the country's Muslim community is more tightly controlled than any other religious group in the country. Activists say hundreds of ordinary Uzbek Muslims are put behind bars on a regular basis for merely practicing their religion.
Obidkhon Qori Nazarov, a prominent Uzbek imam, tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that he blames the Uzbek government's pressure on Muslims for alienating many Uzbeks from their centuries-old faith.
"This is the result of the government's policies. The government is not leaving Muslims alone," Nazarov says. " People are being fired from their jobs or expelled from universities for merely growing a beard or wearing head scarves. Some people are even sent to prison. People are afraid of following the most basic Islamic requirements. For instance, parents do not allow their children to pray or to go to mosques, because they are afraid of the government."
The Uzbek government maintains that Muslims, Christians, and followers of all other religions enjoy full freedom in following their faith. However, government critics such as Nazarov say the government controls all religious activities -- and that even imams are appointed by authorities.
"It's like Soviet times," Nazarov says. "In the Soviet days, we also had mosques and churches everywhere. But in reality, they all operated under the tightest government control."
RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report