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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[12.04.2OO2] Ex-Soviet Central Asia a long way from democracy. By Sebastian Alison

ALMATY, April 12 (Reuters) - Opposition leaders are held, newspapers closed in Kazakhstan.
The President extends his term to eight years in Uzbekistan. Scores are killed and wounded in riots in Kyrgyzstan.
Six months after aligning themselves with the United States in its war against terror in nearby Afghanistan, the five former Soviet Central Asian states are proving awkward allies and promoting some novel interpretations of democracy.
The five countries were quick to offer help to the anti-terror coalition after the attacks of September 11, and by late that month all had thrown themselves behind the U.S. cause.
After many high profile visits by top Washington officials such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Afghan war commander General Tommy Franks, Washington has built up an impressive number of troops in the region.
Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan all host U.S. troops and aircraft. Kazakhstan has offered to do so, and provides overflight rights. Turkmenistan, which is neutral, has stayed clear of the military aspect of the campaign, but has won praise for help in moving humanitarian aid.
This support for the U.S. campaign marked the first time that the five countries, which became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, had developed significant relations with Washington independently of former colonial master Russia.
While they bask in their new found global attention, and get hefty payments for giving landing rights and other benefits to their guests, recent actions have raised fears that Central Asia's leaders are becoming increasingly repressive .
Kazakhstan is the latest to become embroiled in scandal, admitting last week that President Nursultan Nazarbayev took a $1 billion payment for a state share in an oil company in 1996, and put it in a Swiss bank account without informing parliament.
Although the government defended the move, saying Nazarbayev used the cash to prevent Kazakhstan plunging into bankruptcy during a 1998 financial crisis, the World Bank was less happy.
Bank president James Wolfensohn said this week that the fact the news had come out at all was encouraging, but added: "I obviously don't believe in taking a billion dollars, and I obviously don't think it's a small amount of money."
At the same time, two leading Kazakh opposition politicians are under arrest, charged with abuse of office. They say their cases are political.
One of them took refuge in the French embassy and only left when a deal was struck between European diplomats and the Kazakh authorities to let him remain under house arrest. The authorities broke the agreement on Wednesday by sending special police to remove him without informing the French ambassador.
Several opposition newspapers have been closed and a television station forced off the air when its main feeder cable was shot out by a sniper.
The U.S. embassy in Almaty issued a statement saying "the actions suggest an effort to intimidate political opposition leaders and the independent media." But events across the border in Uzbekistan are no less troubling.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov, like Nazarbayev in office since before independence, held a referendum in January to extend his latest term to seven years from five, in apparent defiance of the constitution.
In fact when parliament rubber-stamped the results of the referendum last week and named a date for the next election -- Deecember 23 2007 -- it became clear his latest term will actually be just a few days short of eight years.
"We regret what appears to be an arbitrary extension of the constitutionally mandated term in office," a U.S. State Department spokesman said this week.
The United States keeps at least 1,000 troops in Uzbekistan, although the Uzbeks give no exact details and operate in extreme secrecy.
Kyrgyzstan is home to the biggest contingent of foreign troops in the region, with around 3,500, mostly American and French, stationed at Manas airport near the capital, Bishkek.
Kyrgyz authorities also arrested an opposition leader, Azimbek Beknazarov, in March, leading to 2,000 demonstrators protesting in the south of the country.
The authorities called the protests a coup attempt. Police opened fire on the crowds. Five died and some 80 were injured in two days of riots, although it was not clear how they died.
Beknazarov was eventually released, but not before the U.S. State Department expressed "our concerns that Mr Beknazarov's arrest appears to have been politically motivated."
Tajikistan, still in chaos after a 1992-1997 civil war, and Turkmenistan, where veteran leader Saparmurat Niyazov enjoys the most sweeping powers of any leader of the region, have often been criticised by the United States over human rights.
A little over six months after joining the anti-terror coalition, there are few signs that these newest U.S. allies are abandoning the authoritarianism of the past.
Reuters, April 12, 2002

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