Stirrings in the Central Asian republics of ‘Troublistans’

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The “stans” of Central Asia are stirring in ferment and revolt. For the rest of the world, the five repubics –” Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan –” are important only because like the oil producing countries of the Middle East, they sit atop vast reserves of oil and gas that the West covets. Their other function appears to be to prevent Russia and China getting their hands on these riches, all as part of the West’s, especially the US’s geo-strategic plan to keep these two countries from surging ahead. Thus, their energy resources and their strategic positions are all that the West cares about. What happens to their hapless people is quite irrelevant.

For instance, early last month Kazakhstan signed an agreement with the US to provide landing facilities for US aircraft carrying weapons and other supplies to their forces in Afghanistan. This has been necessitated by repeated attacks on NATO convoys through Pakistan creating serious supply problems for US and NATO occupation forces at a time when the Afghan resistance is intensifying. America’s plans extend beyond mere landing or transit facilities; it is negotiating with Kazakh and Uzbek authorities to set up military bases in both countries. Russia’s armed forces Chief of Staff, General Nikolai Makarov said during a ceremony at the Academy of Military Science in Moscow on December 16 that he had information about Washington’s active pursuit of new facilities in Central Asia. “American military bases are dotted throughout the world. The US has opened bases in Romania and Bulgaria, and according to our information, [it] plans to establish [new bases] in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan,” the official RIA Novosti news agency quoted Makarov as saying.

General Makarov viewed this new development as threatening Russian interests and said: “It is clear that Russia is concerned by the deployment near its borders of NATO’s advanced forces and bases ready to start combat operations within hours.” Currently, the US maintains a military base at Kyrgyzstan’s Manas Airbase at Bishkek International Airport. In 2005, Uzbekistan terminated its agreement with the US to use its strategic airbase at Karshi-Khanabad. American and NATO encirclement of Russia and China, however, continues apace. Similar moves are afoot further south in Pakistan that is facing a determined US-India-backed onslaught to destabilize and eventually break-up the country.

America’s indifference to the plight of the people in Central Asia was again highlighted in its lack of reaction to sham parliamentary elections in Turkmenistan on December 14. The first such parliamentary election since the death of longtime autocrat Saparmurat Niyazov two years ago, the official government website claimed it was held in “an atmosphere of openness” and reflected “the full depth of the democratic reforms being conducted in the nation.” The degree of openness can be gauged from the fact that only one political party was legally registered to contest the polls even if all 125 parliamentary seats were up for grabs. The overwhelming majority of the 288 candidates represented the pro-presidential Democratic Party of Turkmenistan; the rest drawn mainly from state-approved civic groups. All ran on a platform of support for President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, successor to Niyazov.

Berdymukhamedov claimed the election was an important step in the development of democracy but opponents questioned this claim. They said it was meant to appease Western countries eager to win access to its natural-gas reserves but wary of its record on human rights. “Since all the candidates were pro-government, regardless of whom people voted for it will be the authorities who win,” Tadzhigul Beg-medova, director of the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, said by telephone from Bulgaria. “These scripted elections prove only that there will be another round of dictatorship,” she said.

Supporters of the government, most of them old party apparatchiks, hailed the elections as a great leap forward. They claimed the vote followed reforms that nearly doubled the number of seats in Parliament and increased its powers, abolishing the rubber-stamp People’s Council –” a 2,507-member assembly of presidential appointees, town elders and others that was formerly Turkmenistan’s highest legislative body. The 125-member assembly may have replaced the former People’s Council but since only one party, the pro-government party, was allowed to contest the polls, the verdict was a foregone conclusion regardless of who won. Despite little campaigning and minimal coverage on state-run television, the government made the fantastic claim that nearly 94 percent of the 2.8 million eligible voters turned out. Most observers described the claim as fanciful. Not surprisingly, there was scant coverage of the election in the Western media. Had this occurred in a country on the West’s enemy list, there would have been howls of protests about lack of democracy and free speech.

If Turkmenistan went through a sham election evoking hardly a yawn, dirt-poor Tajikistan is grappling with another problem: the global economic crisis. Dependent on remittances from expatriate workers in Russia, the economic slowdown has had quite a negative impact on Tajikistan because of lack of a sound resource base. President Imomali Rakhamnov, the Tajik autocrat, had hoped that he will be able to string along but these are troubled times. The military bases he has provided the US do not bring enough cash to keep everyone happy. In any case, Rakhmanov, his family and the large entourage of hangers-on consume the bulk of that money.

If Tajikistan is grappling with an economic crisis, a different kind of crisis has gripped Kyrgyzstan, its neighbor to the east. This tiny remote Central Asian republic has been buffeted by sporadic protests since December 16 although the government has come down hard on dissenters. Led by the opposition parties, the rallies have focused on government policies, especially corruption within the president’s own family, shortage of essential items such as food, fuel and electricity, and the rapidly rising prices of many commodities. While such rallies have been held before, what was unique this time was that some politicians decided to mobilize people on the basis of Islam and it seemed to work. Two prominent opposition leaders, Tursunbai Bakir uulu of Free Kyrgyzstan and Nurlan Motuev of the Kyrgyz Patriotic Party, announced at the end of November their unification as the Kyrgyzstan Muslim Union and promised nationwide protests throughout the country.

“We prayed with believers, then we talked with them outside the mosque. Over six days we visited three regions and met 80,000 people,” Motuev said. Co-Chair Tursunbai Bakir uulu claimed that 95 to 98 percent of the people they met supported their plans. The Kyrgyzstan Muslim Union started protest rallies in Naryn that ended on December 24 in Bishkek, covering all seven of the country’s regional centers in eight days. Corruption and the misuse of resources are at the center of the Muslim Union’s agenda. Referring to the presidency of Kurmanbek Bakiev, Motuev explained: “Corruption and other bad things flourish in this power. These are rejected by Islam and Sharia law.”

The Muslim Union has already faced obstacles. The Kyrgyz constitution forbids political parties from organizing along religious lines. But the organization is making no attempt to hide their intentions. “We cannot be registered as a Muslim party and that’s why we have to register as a union,” Motuev said. “But you should consider the Kyrgyzstan Muslim Union a party.”

The Kyrgyz Muslim Union emerges at a time of increased religious tension in the country’s South. In October, villagers in Osh region protested when authorities did not allow them to hold festivities marking the end of Ramadan. On November 28, 32 people were sentenced to between nine and 20 years for participating in disorderly demonstrations. Authorities allege all are members of the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir party.

The Central Asian stans are stirring. This is not the last of what the world will hear from that remote corner of the Muslim world. Dictatorships are able to sail through if economic times are good but when the economy nosedives and hardships ensue, that stokes resentment leading to unrest and trouble.

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