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Colonel Mahmud Khudaiberdiev in a 1997 photo

Uzbekistan appears to have acknowledged that mutinous Tajik Colonel Mahmud Khudaiberdiev was once in Uzbekistan but is now no longer there.

At a meeting with journalists on July 25, an RFE/RL Tajik Service (Ozodi) correspondent asked the regional head of the Tajik Interior Ministry in Khatlon whether Tajik authorities had requested Khudaiberdiev’s arrest and extradition from Uzbekistan -- now that bilateral relations have improved after years of frostiness.

Solehzoda confirmed that Tajik authorities had made such a request but said they received information that Khudaiberdiev left Uzbekistan after the death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

It was an amazing statement considering that Uzbekistan has previously either denied or avoided comment on Khudaiberdiev's possible presence on Uzbek territory.

That Uzbek officials would now admit Khudaiberdiev was sheltering in Uzbekistan is a huge indication that Tashkent’s relations with Dushanbe are improving.

During Tajikistan’s 1992-97 civil war, Mahmud Khudaiberdiev, a former lieutenant in the Red Army, commanded the Tajik Army’s 1st Brigade, possibly the most capable unit among pro-government forces. Khudaiberdiev was fiercely opposed to Islamic fighters within the Tajik opposition, but he was also an opportunist. His unit fought with the Tajik Army’s 11th Brigade in September 1995 for control of the town of Tursunzade and the aluminum plant there, one of the few sources of revenue that Tajikistan had at the time, and Kurgan Tepe, the administrative center of the Khatlon region. A UN observer, Austrian Lieutenant Wolf Sponner, was killed when he investigated the clash between the two brigades, and as many as 250 Tajik civilians died during these battles.

Uzbekistan’s admission that it harbored one of Tajikistan’s most-wanted criminals is stunning, but it also points to a new spirit of cooperation in Tajik-Uzbek ties that allows for such acknowledgement.

The beleaguered Tajik government talked about disciplining Khudaiberdiev. But instead it was Khudaiberdiev who mobilized his unit, seized Kurgan Tepe, and marched on Dushanbe in late January 1996, demanding that President Emomali Rahmon dismiss several officials. Rahmon appeared to have little choice and sacked a deputy prime minister (Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev), the presidential chief of staff (Izatullo Khayaev), and the head of the Khatlon region (Abduljalil Salimov), then shortly afterward dismissed the prime minister (Jamshed Karimov).

The Tajik government also granted Khudaiberdiev an amnesty, and he pulled his troops back from the capital.

Nominally, Khudaiberdiev supported the Tajik government. But the cost of this arguably tepid loyalty was said to have been informally ceding parts of southwestern Tajikistan to Khudaiberdiev and his cronies. After talks with the government, he eventually withdrew his troops from Tursunzade in March 1996.

Khudaiberdiev returned in January 1997, claiming an armed group from Tursunzade had raided the 1st Brigade’s headquarters on December 29, 1996, killing an officer and stealing weapons. Khudaiberdiev ignored a presidential order to withdraw and prevented the presidential guard from entering Tursunzade. Powerless to do anything to force Khudaiberdiev from Tursunzade, the government rescinded the order for Khudaiberdiev to vacate Tursunzade, instead tasking him with disarming criminal groups in the city and restoring order there.

It was no secret that Khudaiberdiev opposed the peace deal that the two Tajik sides agreed to on June 27, 1997, as the accord gave the Islamic wing of the opposition places in government.

On August 9, 1997, Khudaiberdiev and former Interior Minister Yakub Salimov (who was by that time the chief of the Customs Service) moved their forces on Dushanbe. They were repelled after several days of fighting, and Khudaiberdiev and most of his unit vanished.

On November 4, 1998, Khudaiberdiev returned, attacking cities in Tajikistan in northern Tajikistan. He was again beaten back after four days of fighting, and again disappeared.

It was seemingly clear that Khudaiberdiev and what remained of the 1st Brigade had come from Uzbekistan and retreated there when they lost the battle. Uzbek officials, of course, vehemently denied any connection to Khudaiberdiev; but President Rahmon was sure and told Tajikistan’s parliament on November 12, 1998, that Karimov aided the rebels because the “Uzbek leadership wants to take the whole of Tajikistan under its control.”

The November 1998 foray is thought to have been the last time Khudaiberdiev was ever seen in Tajikistan. From time to time in subsequent years members of his unit were caught in Tajikistan and imprisoned, but the colonel himself had disappeared again.

Tajik authorities were certain he was somewhere in Uzbekistan, but relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had soured significantly after the Tajik peace agreement was signed. Then-Uzbek President Islam Karimov was also against the Islamic wing of the Tajik opposition receiving places in government, and Uzbek authorities insisted Khudaiberdiev was not in Uzbekistan and they said they had no idea where he could be.

There were rumors. Some said Khudaiberdiev went to help ethnic Uzbek Afghan commander Abdul Rashid Dostum reclaim Mazar-e Sharif from the Taliban in late 2001. Khudaiberdiev was rumored to be part of an elite presidential guard for the Uzbek president. Some even claimed Khudaiberdiev was sent to help restore order in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May 2005 in the bloodiest violence in Uzbekistan since its 1991 independence.

But there were never any conspicuous reports of Khudaiberdiev being anywhere but Uzbekistan.

As recently as late November 2013, Tajik military helicopters flew over part of Uzbekistan’s Jizzakh Province in Uzbekistan looking for something. The Tajik government first denied the incident, then said the helicopters had accidentally strayed from their course; but eyewitnesses in Jizzakh Province said the helicopters were over Uzbek territory for an hour and seemed interested in the village of Kyzyl-Mazar.

There was speculation that Tajik security forces received information suggesting that Khudaiberdiev had a training facility in the area.

And as it turns out, Khudaiberdiev might really have been there. Khatlon Interior Ministry chief Iskandar Solehzoda appears to have suggested that Khudaiberdiev was in Uzbekistan for almost 20 years. But he also indicated the colonel has once again vanished: “There is no concrete information about [Khudaiberdiev’s] current location. Some information suggests he is in Turkey.”

Uzbekistan’s admission that it harbored one of Tajikistan’s most-wanted criminals is stunning, but it also points to a new spirit of cooperation in Tajik-Uzbek ties that allows for such acknowledgement.

It’s true the confession comes along with comments that Khudaiberdiev has once again disappeared, but at least Tashkent appears to have demonstrated a willingness to clear the air with Tajikistan on an issue that was a major problem in relations between the neighbors.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Turkmenistan's wheatfields have been ominously dry this year as the country grapples with extreme weather. (illustrative photo)

It appears the people of Turkmenistan are headed for another hungry winter, the third such winter in as many years. And like the two previous years, it seems this time the government is not even prepared to admit there is a problem.

The harvest is gathered. But so far there is no word as to whether croplands yielded the 1.6 million tons of grain the government targeted for this year, although that seems unlikely.

The Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN) website reported on the government's ominous silence on July 22, noting: "The grain harvest in Turkmenistan has finished.... However, there were no reports about successful collection of the state grain target of 1.6 million tons."

The grain production goal in Turkmenistan has been 1.6 million tons since 2011, when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov claimed (we'll get to Turkmen official claims below) the country hit that figure, allowing Turkmenistan to export "for the first time in its history" 150,000 tons of wheat and 50,000 tons of flour.

ATN reported that the grain harvest for 2015 was 1.4 million tons and in 2017 it was only about 1 million tons. Turkmenistan's government reported the grain harvest was 1.6 million tons in 2016 and just over 1 million tons in 2017.

Drought, Torrential Rain, And A Freak Windstorm

This year, the weather reportedly damaged Turkmenistan's crops. Early spring was unusually dry; then torrential rains hit the country in mid-May, flooding many areas of the country, followed at the end of May by a freak windstorm that carried salt from the dried-up Aral Sea and deposited it on fields in Turkmenistan's northern Dashoguz and eastern Lebap provinces.

It's Raining Salt: Toxic Storm In Central Asia Sparks Health Fears
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By mid-June, some farmers in the northern Dashoguz Province were complaining to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, that the state had not sent the necessary fertilizer or machinery to fields and predicted a poor harvest.

Most of Turkmenistan's people have been coping with flour shortages since autumn 2016. Flour and baked bread is currently rationed, and oftentimes citizens wait in long lines outside state stores and, once inside, need to show identification to purchase their allotment.

ATN noted that government officials are currently on holiday and, "Once their holiday is over, the government will analyze the results of the harvest."

Long lines of people wait in front of a grocery store in Ashgabat to buy vegetable oil, sugar, and flour in late May.
Long lines of people wait in front of a grocery store in Ashgabat to buy vegetable oil, sugar, and flour in late May.

What the government eventually says should be interesting. Failure to meet targets invites an unpleasant response from President Berdymukhammedov.

Last year officials were predicting as late as June 27 that the country would product 1.6 million tons. When it was discovered that production was nearly 40 percent short of that figure, Berdymukhammedov severely criticized many officials, from village and district heads to ministers and the head of the newly-built Garlyk fertilizer plant.

Beatings Reported

Reporting the true figures for this year could cost many officials their jobs and these officials will be aware of this. Azatlyk reported on July 12 that regional heads in the Dashoguz Province were beating leaders of collective farms that failed to meet grain quotas.

If Turkmenistan announces it has met, or nearly met, the target figure, there will be many questions.

Any figures the Turkmen government has provided in the past about virtually any sector of its economy are suspect, and grain production is a prime example.

Berdymukhammedov's predecessor, Turkmenistan's first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, set the target figure for grain production at 1.2 million tons in 1992. For most of the 1990s the country never even came close to meeting that goal (the harvest for 1996 was some 488,000 tons). Niyazov reprimanded and fired officials for failing to meet grain quotas, just as Berdymukhammedov has been doing.

But in March 1998, as planting was starting, Niyazov told a meeting of the government that if quotas for grain and cotton went unmet, those responsible "at all levels" would be held accountable and could face criminal charges.

That year Turkmenistan met its target of 1.2 million tons, and parliament and the cabinet honored Niyazov by bestowing the "Altyn Oi (Golden Moon)" award upon him (it was Niyazov's third such award and he was the only person ever to receive it). It heralded the era of dubious grain production reports as the country harvested 1.4 million tons in 1999, 1.7 tons in 2000 (which was a drought year), 2 million tons in 2001, 2.3 million in 2002, and by 2006, the last year Niyazov was alive, the country reported the grain harvest was 3.5 million tons.

Of course, in 2006 Turkmenistan's State Institute for Statistics also claimed the country's population was 6.786 million, though the population even today is believed to be about 5 million people.

It would seem pointless for any official to deny this year's harvest is a disaster. The truth will become clear for Turkmenistan's people soon enough.

Toymyrat Bugaev and other members of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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