WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 641, February 4, 2011 COMMENT
KAZAK EARLY ELECTION PRESENTED AS DEMOCRATIC OPTION President Nazarbaev offers lesson in democracy by dropping plans to extend current term, but slips in an early election instead. By Aitolkyn Kourmanova WINTER GAS SHORTAGES IN UZBEKISTAN Citizens of gas-rich state rig up wood-burners as fuel cuts take winter toll. By IWPR Central Asia TAJIKS TRADE LAND FOR FRIENDSHIP WITH CHINA Critics say granting land to China "unconstitutional", but consensus view is that diplomats secured best possible deal. By Aslibegim Manzarshoeva TAJIK GOVERNMENT TARGETS ILLEGAL MOSQUES Authorities worry about radical Islam, but look set to shut down rural community mosques in the process. By Aslibegim Manzarshoeva **** NEW ************************************************************************************ LATEST PROJECT REVIEWS: http://iwpr.net/make-an-impact/project-reviews VACANCIES: http://iwpr.net/what-we-do/vacancies **** IWPR RESOURCES ****************************************************************** CENTRAL ASIA PROGRAMME HOME: http://www.iwpr.net/programme/central-asia CENTRAL ASIA RADIO: http://iwpr.net/programme/central-asia/central-asia-radio NEWS BRIEFING CENTRAL ASIA: http://iwpr.net/programme/news-briefing-central-asia CENTRAL ASIA HUMAN RIGHTS: http://iwpr.net/programme/central-asia-human-rights-reporting-project STORY BEHIND THE STORY: http://iwpr.net/report-news/the-story-behind-the-story BECOME A FAN OF IWPR ON FACEBOOK http://facebook.com/InstituteforWarandPeaceReporting FOLLOW US ON TWITTER http://twitter.com/iwpr **** http://iwpr.net/ ********************************************************** DONATE TO IWPR: http://iwpr.net/donate **** http://iwpr.net/ ********************************************************** COMMENT KAZAK EARLY ELECTION PRESENTED AS DEMOCRATIC OPTION President Nazarbaev offers lesson in democracy by dropping plans to extend current term, but slips in an early election instead. By Aitolkyn Kourmanova Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaevs surprise announcement of an early election allows him to neatly sidestep a proposal to let him rule until 2020 without seeking a popular mandate. Nazarbaev issued a decree on February 4 setting the election date for April 3, just two months away. The previous day, he had approved legislative elections allowing him to call snap elections. Supporters of Nazarbaev, who has governed Kazakstan since before it became independent in 1991, ran a campaign to gather signatures in favour of holding a referendum on prolonging his current term in office until 2020, obviating the need for the election scheduled next year. (See Kazak Parliament to Rule on Extending Presidents Term.) Campaigners gathered over five million signatures, more than half the voting-age population and far more than the 200,000 needed to trigger a referendum. But on January 31, Kazakstans Constitutional Court rejected plans for a referendum as unconstitutional. Nazarbaev then presented his own plan for an early election as the best possible alternative. Instead of a dilemma that divides our society a referendum or an election I am proposing a formula that will unite us; I am proposing to hold an early presidential election, he said in an address to the nation. He said the decision not to hold a referendum was a historic lesson in democracy, about staying true to the constitution. When the referendum campaign got going in January, opposition and civil society groups in Kazakstan as well as the United States government and the European Union warned that it would be a setback for democracy. Nazarbaevs alternative plan was thus designed to create the impression that he adhering to democratic principles and the Kazak constitution. In reality, it does not reflect a democratic impulse. If anything, it says more about him as a tactician who tries to stay one step ahead of any development that may present a threat to his solid grip on power. All he has done is changed the method by which he pursues his ultimate aim of staying in power for as long as possible. There are no signs that the current political set-up is moving in the direction of greater democracy. Last year, for example, Nazarbaevs position was consolidated when he was awarded special status as Leader of the Nation, granting him considerable privileges even if he does step down as president. The referendum campaign has also furnished him with a second political vehicle, in addition to the governing Nur Otan party. Coalition Kazakstan-2020, an umbrella group uniting over 600 organisations, had its trial run driving the campaign to gather millions of signatures and present the referendum as the real will of the people. Kazakstans leadership has made it clear it intends to follows its own particular version of democracy, which includes putting pressure on the opposition, free media, and civil society groups. It is hard to expect political liberalisation from a leadership that believes the country will plunge into revolution if people are granted too much freedom. But why was so much effort put into the referendum campaign, only for the president to turn his back on it? There are several possible reasons, one being that the idea of allowing Nazarbaev to rule without renewing his mandate may have begun looking distinctly unappealing in light of the recent turbulence in the Middle East. The street protests that toppled the autocratic ruler of Tunisia and plunged Egypt into crisis have shaken any belief that resource-rich, predominantly Muslim countries have placid, accepting populations. These events have shown that as well as Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan where presidents were brought down in colour revolutions other kinds of state are also susceptible to popular unrest. Domestic factors may also have played a part. Some hardline figures in Nazarbaevs entourage may have been keen on the referendum as a way of perpetuating a system that provides them personally with power and wealth. It is quite plausible that the wave of international criticism of the referendum plan forced the president to rethink and become more receptive to the arguments made by other supporters that such a patently undemocratic move was unnecessary when the right kind of election could deliver the same result. The answer to why an election at such short notice is desirable is simpler. Nazarbaev is keen to secure victory now, at a time when he feels his position is strong, and avoid possible unpleasant surprises that a later election might bring. Apart from anything else, holding an election so soon leaves potential opponents with hardly any time to prepare a campaign. Although oil revenues have helped cushion the blow, the Kazak economy has been weakened by the impact of the global financial problems. Public protests are no longer confined to opposition groups, but increasingly involve various categories of people including investors in failed companies, people who cannot meet high mortgage payments, and the growing number of unemployed. These circumstances require the government to take tough action to restore economic stability. But that will involve some painful medicine that will not go down well with the voters. It is worth recalling that when an early election was called in 1999, it was swiftly followed by unpopular measures necessitated by economic crisis. Nazarbaev was elected president of newly-independent Kazakstan in 1991, and a referendum five years later extended that first term until December 2000. The election was brought forward by nearly two years to January 1999 just as Kazakstan began to feel the effects of financial turmoil in Russia in 1998. a couple of months after the election, the government was forced to devalue the national currency. Kazakstans massive oil revenues have undoubtedly allowed President Nazarbaev to maintain stability for many years. But having the spending-power to keep people off the streets cannot be used as an excuse for endlessly avoiding the serious political reforms that are needed. The 18-year leadership of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev reminds us that preserving a political system in a state of stagnation can have disastrous consequences. Long-serving presidents are not in themselves a guarantee of long-term political stability. Aitolkyn Kourmanova is IWPR Country Director in Kazakstan. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR. This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway. WINTER GAS SHORTAGES IN UZBEKISTAN Citizens of gas-rich state rig up wood-burners as fuel cuts take winter toll. By IWPR Central Asia Despite abundant reserves of natural gas, Uzbekistan is struggling with supplies to domestic consumers, forcing many to improvise heating and cooking facilities to get them through the winter. Experts say the authorities prioritise export sales over domestic consumers, making supplies intermittent in parts of Uzbekistan where temperatures dip well below zero. Used to hardship, Uzbekistans residents are finding inventive ways of coping. Temperatures at night are currently 15 degrees below zero, and theres a strong wind, a farmer in Khorezm, a north-western region of Uzbekistan. People are heating their stoves with guzpaya, dried-up cotton stalks. Were also buying low-grade coal which doesnt give off much heat. Salim, a 40-year-old father of four from Margilan, in the eastern Fergana region, found another way of dealing with the gas cuts. Copying his neighbours, he laid bricks in his main room, leaving a space where he burns wood to create a heated floor. The family does its cooking on a stove running on gas cylinders. Another Margilan resident, who gave her name as Nargiza, has a wood-burning stove inside her apartment, a typical solution in towns where multi-storey apartments have their gas supply cut off for several hours every day. We installed it several years ago and now we all gather in that room to get warm, she said. Like many apartment owners, Nargiza has to cook outside on an open fire. Uzbekistan has substantial reserves of natural gas and produces more than 60 billion cubic metres a year. Some is exported to Russia and to neighbouring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, but official statistics show that most is consumed within the country. Experts blame the chronic shortages on a number of factors, some of them to do with infrastructure. The mains supply network is crumbling due to underfunding, leading to numerous leaks, and there are not enough storage facilities to ensure a steady supply over winter, when demand shoots up. The country has sufficient natural gas, but the problem is that the equipment is old; the gas distribution system doesnt use modern technology, an analyst in Tashkent said, adding that installing new pump technology was vital, as the flow of gas through the pipes slowed when the weather was cold. Funding problems are aggravated by retail customers failing to pay their gas bills. But the root of the problem, experts say, is that the authorities are less interested in ensuring a steady supply to the domestic market than in meeting commitments for the lucrative export market. As the government runs short of revenues, it is increasingly reliant on revenues from gas and the other main export item, cotton. A manager with a municipal utilities agency in Tashkent complained that any unused gas in storage was sold off to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan instead of being retained for the winter period. This was done by the city mayors office, but is of course agreed with higher authorities, he said. Despite the hardships caused by gas supply cuts, protests are rare because people fear harassment or arrest. A 60-year-old resident of Khorezm region who gave his name as Ahmed recalled how local residents wrote to their local government and staged a demonstration about the cuts. The police immediately came and demanded that we disperse, Ahmed said, adding that the more vocal protesters were summoned for questioning by the National Security Service. They came back silent and reticent. Since then, we havent complained for fear of reprisals. We just wait for spring. This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway. TAJIKS TRADE LAND FOR FRIENDSHIP WITH CHINA Critics say granting land to China "unconstitutional", but consensus view is that diplomats secured best possible deal. By Aslibegim Manzarshoeva The government of Tajikistan has come under fire for agreeing to hand over a slice of territory to neighbouring China, but some independent commentators agree with officials who say it was the best possible deal in the circumstances, especially given the importance of maintaining good relations with Beijing. Tajikistans parliament ratified a border demarcation agreement with China on January 12, in the process signing away 1,100 square kilometres of borderland in the remote south-eastern region of Badakhshan. Only two members, from the opposition Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP, voted against the bill. Like Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan, the newly-independent state of Tajikistan found itself heir to a territorial dispute that first Tsarist Russia and then the Soviet Union never resolved with China, concerning the precise line that the frontier should follow through largely inaccessible mountain zones. Initially the Chinese stuck to their claim to 28,500 sq km of land a fifth of Tajikistans territory. But the final agreement reached in 2002 gives China 1,100 sq km, just four per cent of what it had been asking for. Analysts say it has taken Tajikistan over eight years to ratify the deal because of the technical complexity of marking out a boundary along 800 km of difficult mountain territory, a task that defeated Tsarist and Chinese officials in the 1880s. Officials say ratification marks a definitive end to uncertainty over the long-running territorial question and consolidate the growing relationship with Beijing, already a major investor in Tajikistans cash-strapped economy. All that comes at the relatively painless price of losing some unproductive land along the remote frontier. Addressing parliament on the day of the vote, Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi called the agreement a major victory for Tajik diplomacy. Foreign ministry spokesman Davlat Nazri noted that China is now Tajikistans second biggest trading partner after Russia, and investment and government grants from Beijing are playing a significant role in creating new infrastructure such as roads, tunnels and power lines. The leader of the Communist Party, Shodi Shabdolov, was among the majority who voted for ratification in parliament. He views it as a major geopolitical victory, because it will facilitate growing overland trade links with China important for Tajikistan, a landlocked state with transit routes through sometimes difficult neighbours Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. Sukhrob Sharipov, head of the Institute for Strategic Studies, which is attached to the Tajik presidents office, insisted the deal was advantageous for the country. Unlike the old Soviet Union, small Tajikistan was not in a position to shrug off Chinese pressure, so it was an achievement to reach an agreement in which Beijing retreated so far from its initial claim. I see it as a pragmatic solution, Sharipov said. Our country has secured the stability and inviolability of its borders for many decades to come. Like many analysts, Rashid Ghani Abdullo said it made sense to cede the frontier lands as they are uninhabited, unsuitable for commercial development, and located in a barren high-altitude plateau. Critics of the move cite a constitutional provision that Tajikistans national territory is inviolable, and claim the deal betrays that principle. IRP leader Kabiri said one of the reasons the constitutional issue was so important was that any breach could set a dangerous precedent. Tajikistan still has unresolved demarcation issues with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, with disputed pockets of land and unclear boundary sections. The most important thing is that we dont provide an opening to other neighbours with whom we still have unsolved issues, Kabiri said. We must proceed on the basis that the borders we had since the Soviet period are definitive and cannot be subject to alteration. Overall, though, Kabiri admitted that it had been a difficult call for Tajik diplomats and had at least cleared up a nagging dispute, so people should now live with it. Shams Gulmamadov of the Sipar lawyers association raised another constitutional matter because Badakhshan has the status of autonomous region, the national authorities cannot redraw its boundaries without first winning approval from the provincial elected assembly. In Badakhshan itself, there was some grumbling about the land deal, but no public protests, unlike 2008 when demonstrations in the main town Khorog were partly about plans to transfer some land to another Tajik region. Of course its clear to an outside observer that financial considerations came first. Tajikistan has borrowed a lot of money from China and now its time to pay up, Khorog resident Oshur Imombekov said. But I wonder what our grandchildren will say about it in a hundred years time? In the Tajik capital Dushanbe, a man who gave his name as Akbar complained about the lack of consultation. Why do the authorities appeal to people to express a view when they need it but when they give our land away to others, they dont ask us whether we agree? he asked. Aslibegim Manzarshoeva is an IWPR-trained journalist in Tajikistan. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of IWPR. This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway. TAJIK GOVERNMENT TARGETS ILLEGAL MOSQUES Authorities worry about radical Islam, but look set to shut down rural community mosques in the process. By Aslibegim Manzarshoeva A government campaign to shut down unofficial mosques in Tajikistan appears to be driven by fears some of them may be used to preach Islamic fundamentalism. But critics warn that indiscriminate closures will leave many rural communities without a local mosque simply because they have not gone through a formal registration process. At the beginning of January, ten mosques were shut down by the city authorities in the capital Dushanbe, on the grounds that they were operating unlawfully. The authorities cite a law on religion passed in 2009 which included the requirement that only purpose-built premises can qualify as places of worship, and set specific criteria for whether a community is entitled to build one. The law also sparked a process where religious institutions of all kinds had to re-register with the government. In this predominantly Muslim country, 3,700 mosques have already been granted registration, as have 74 premises belonging to other faiths such as the Russian Orthodox Church. The fate of some mosques remains uncertain as they have either not applied for registration or their applications are still pending. In the Darvaz district of southeast Tajikistan, for example, the future of 28 mosques is hanging in the balance. Eleven of the applied for registration before the January 1 deadline passed, while the other 17 did not and are thus liable to be closed. Although Darvaz is in Badakhshan, where most communities belong to the Ismaili branch of Islam, the people here are Sunni Muslims like the rest of Tajikistan. It is also borders on northern Afghanistan, which Taleban insurgents have increasingly been infiltrating from their traditional strongholds in the south of that country. There are various reasons why the authorities are worried [about the area]. One is that Darvaz is next door to the Rasht area where some alarming events unfolded recently, religious affairs expert Sadi Yusifi said, referring to clashes between government troops and suspected Islamic militants last year. (See Tajik Authorities Struggle to Quell Militants on this.) Another is the fact that Darvaz is a strategic area that connects Badakhshan with the rest of the country, and that borders on Afghanistan. So its natural that the increasing number of mosques and the rise in religious sentiment there should become a focus of attention for the authorities. Analysts say the Tajik government is nervous about the risks posed by Islamic radical groups and wants to get a grip on how mosques are run, removing those that operate without permission and cutting down on the number that have appeared in the two decades that Tajikistan has been independent. The authorities view the increasing number of mosques as incompatible with the secular nature of the state, in other words as the Islamisation of societys cultural traditions, a commentator who asked to remain anonymous said. Its a phenomenon that has recently become very noticeable in certain regions for instance, where weddings and other events are accompanied by sermons and no music is played. The authorities have avoided talking about threats posed by Islamic radicalism, and instead focus on the need to follow procedures and regulations. In Dushanbe, an official from the religious affairs department in the mayors office insisted that the aim was not to close places of worship, but simply to ensure that buildings were used for their proper purposes. He cited cases where shops and cafes had been turned into mosques without the requisite application being filed with the authorities, The deputy head of the national-level Committee for Religious Affairs, Mavlon Mukhtorov, said some of the mosques in Darvaz had made errors in their applications for registration, but these could be corrected and they would be allowed to stay open until a final decision was taken. The government crackdown has met with some supporters among the analyst interviewed for this report. Islamic affairs analyst Farrukh Umarov argued that there was nothing wrong with attempting to rein in the proliferation of mosques, and said everyone should follow the same rules when it came to putting up new buildings. To counter suggestions that the Tajik government was in some way hostile to Islam, Umarov pointed out that Qatar and other Arab states were providing funding for a mosque in Dushanbe that will be the largest in Central Asia once it is completed. However, the government clampdown also has its critics, who say the rural mosques now under threat provide a useful service to remote communities, and it would be better to help them comply with official regulations rather than shutting them down. Jura Nazriev, chief editor of the local newspaper, Darvoz, said many villages in Darvaz district were too far from the nearest town for people to be able to get there if their local mosques closed, especially since mountain roads were closed throughout the winter. Residents of Darvaz are unhappy at the prospect of no longer having somewhere to meet for prayer. One man who gave his name as Karim said, They say the mosques are operate illegally, but Im not interested in the law. I am obliged by Sharia [Islamic law] to pray five times daily, so Im against any kind of arguments from the authorities about closing mosques down. Muhiddin Kabiri, who heads the opposition Islamic Rebirth Party, says he agrees that mosques should register with the proper authorities. But they need to be helped to do so, and not subjected to bans and restrictions, he added. Kabiri believes the tough line on religious issues being driven by hardliners in government. It seems to me that at the moment, its the hawks who have the upper hand in determining the relationship with religion; they like attacking things, he said. There is certainly evidence that government is worried about the ways Islam is practiced. This month, the governments religious affairs committee announced that it was working with theCouncil of Clerics, the state-approved Islamic structure in Tajikistan, to compiling a list of some 60 topics deemed suitable for sermons, and will soon distribute the list to the imams or prayer-leaders of mosques across the country. The Asia Plus news agency reported earlier in January that police in Dushanbe detained about 30 men who had beards, and photographed and fingerprinted them before releasing them. Police said the measures were part of a sweep designed to uncover extremists. Late last year, the authorities ordered hundreds of Tajiks studying at madrassas and Islamic universities abroad to return home, warning that they were at risk of falling prey to advocates of terrorism and extremism. (See Tajikistan: Islamic Students Told to Come Home.) Aslibegim Manzarshoeva is an IWPR-trained journalist in Tajikistan. This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway. **** http://iwpr.net/ ********************************************************** REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA provides the international community with a unique insiders' perspective on the region. Using our network of local journalists, the service publishes news and analysis from across Central Asia on a weekly basis. 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