Wednesday, January 31, 2007

How Will Uzbekistan Handle Succession?: Reverberations from Turkmenbashi’s Death

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When Turkmenbashi passed away under a cloud of secrecy in Ashghabad in late December, one can assume that the other Central Asian presidents thought long and hard about what would happen if they experienced a similar heart failure, whether naturally or induced. Given Kazakhstan’s relative stability, Rakhmanov’s young age, and Bakiyev’s numerous other political problems, events in Ashghabad probably scared Islam Karimov more than it did the others.

The relatively murky succession of Turkmenbashi brings up many questions for Karimov. First, the question of whether Turkmenbashi’s death was a natural result of hard living or a part of a palace coup likely occupies the minds of autocratic leaders throughout the region, but it is especially worrisome for Karimov whose security organs are the most empowered in Central Asia. Second, the absence of Niyazov’s family in discussions related to December’s quick succession in Turkmenistan must make Karimov wonder about the position of his own family once he has left the scene. Obviously, Gulnara is more powerful in Uzbekistan than any of Niyazov’s family was in Turkmenistan. She is also, however, less popular in the public eye. Finally, the speculation about the seemingly pre-meditated role of Turkmenistan’s security organs in quickly and smoothly managing Turkmenbashi’s succession must lead Karimov to think more seriously about what plans Uzbekistan’s more expansive security apparatus might have for handling his eventual passing.

Perhaps this is why President Karimov has been silent about the next presidential elections in Uzbekistan despite the fact that his term (by one reading of the laws) has already ended. While he has the same convoluted constitutional justification as did Nazarbayev to prolong his rule another year if he wishes, Karimov has not even gone through the pro-forma actions of justifying such a move by creating a staged discussion in parliament. Rather, he has chosen to ignore the issue of elections all together for now. Even if he had intended to schedule a shot-gun surprise election for himself as did Nazarbayev in December 2005, events in Turkmenistan may have made him think twice.

Assuming that Islam Karimov will choose to stay in power until his health falters as did Niyazov, however, the question of succession in Uzbekistan is less worrisome to him than it is to the rest of the world. With a population more than five-times the size of Turkmenistan’s, an active and angry radical Muslim opposition in exile, and not nearly the per capita natural resources of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan’s presidential succession is unlikely to be handled as smoothly as was the case in Ashghabad in late December. Furthermore, the power structure within the military and security structure of Uzbekistan has often been rumored to be more splintered than in Turkmenistan, and it is definitely better armed. If Turkmenistan’s succession seems thus far to be a relatively copasetic agreement between a few power brokers in a smoky room over cognac, Uzbekistan’s transition in leadership could look much messier.

And, the messiness would probably not stop at the borders of Uzbekistan. Instability in Uzbekistan would likely become a major issue for all of its bordering countries. If a power struggle were to turn violent, for example, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan could have difficulties protecting their borders. Likewise, if instability led to a refugee situation, these three countries and Kazakhstan as well would be hard pressed to deal with large numbers of Uzbek citizens spilling over their borders.

Of course, as somebody mentioned in a forum where this was discussed last week, the elite of Uzbekistan may already have lined up a consensus for succession. But, if they haven’t, Uzbekistan’s leadership transition could create havoc throughout the region. Thus far, there are no signs that Islam Karimov is dealing with these issues, but one has to believe that he is thinking about them. If he isn’t, others, both inside and outside of Uzbeksitan, certainly are.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Political Party Un-Development in Kazakhstan: Will “Nur-Otan” Succeed in Destroying all of its Opponents?

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Will Minister of Justice Balieva begin registering independent political parties?

Since the dismantling of Dariga Nazarbayeva’s party Asar this past summer, there has been a gradual attempt to consolidate the political representation of all of President Nazarbayev’s political allies under the umbrella of a new enlarged Otan party, recently renamed “Nur-Otan.” At the same time, there seems to be an ongoing attempt to divide and control those opposition parties that might act as a counterbalance to “Nur-Otan.”

As Sergei Duvanov suggests in a recent analytical article, these attempts to divide the opposition appear to be working. While Alga DVK, the Real Ak Zhol, and the new Social Democratic Party all publicly support each other, there appear to be divisions between them. Without going into speculation as to who finances which parties, rumors suggest that these three emergent “wings” of the opposition have different patrons, which are not necessarily all motivated by the same goals. Furthermore, the government of Kazakhstan appears to be involved in its usual games of playing each of these parties against each other. While Bulat Abilov of “Real Ak Zhol” is being squeezed out of the political arena through politically charged court cases, the Government is simultaneously demonstrating tolerance by registering Zharmakhan Tuyakbai’s Social Democrat Party. At the same time, Alga DVK, which continues to operate without registration, is on the margins and could be manipulated against these two other parties.

Outside the opposition, there is yet one other political party “project” moving forward that has been rumored to have important allies with deep pockets who are within the President’s inner circle. This is the Atameken Party, which claims to represent the emergent Kazakhstani middle-class and tries to play a centrist position between the opposition and “Nur-Otan” by promoting reform without directly criticizing the President. While such a party would not appear to be a threat to the President and his inner-circle, it does upset the on-going process of pro-presidential consolidation under “Nur-Otan.” Perhaps for this reason, Atameken has recently encountered a series of road blocks in its attempt to register. While it has collected all of its signatures for registration, it has been blocked from its attempts to publicly discuss its proposed platform on television.

In the meantime, the founder of Atameken, Yerzhan Dosmukhamedov is busy obtaining international support for his party’s registration application, which is scheduled to be answered by the Ministry of Justice on Monday. First, he visited Moscow last week where he was able to get a statement of support from the Russian Union of Right Forces. Now, he is in Washington where he has been meeting with congressional staff, pundits, and governmental entities in an attempt to get their support for his party’s registration. Furthermore, he placed a full-page advertisement in the Washington Times, demonstrating that he indeed has resources behind his bid to be registered. In the advertisement, Dosmukhamedov aligned his party with the long-awaited “political modernization” reforms promised by President Nazarbayev “so that Kazakhstan may become a stronger partner with democratic nations all over the world.” While these moves may not determine the fate of Atameken's registration, they will ensure that groups in the west will take notice if Atameken is not registered, thus further bringing into question Kazakhstan's real intentions for political reform.

Kazakhstan, therefore, once again appears to be at a crossroads in its political development. While the government continues to promise political reforms, it is unclear whether the country is headed towards real multi-party politics or a re-installation of a quasi-democratic one-party system differing from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union only in ideology and name. While many have suggested that the appointments of Karim Masimov and Marat Tazhin are signs that the country will head down the path of political reform, a more accurate sign of the country’s intensions will be visible in the ways that it deals with political parties. Will Bulat Abilov be allowed to continue his political activity, or will he be gradually strangled by politically motivated court battles? Will the government quietly use different elements within the opposition to immobilize opposition voices? And, will the government register the Atameken party as a centrist pro-reform party representing the goals of certain allies of the president vis a vis his less reform-minded allies?

In general, the creation of “Nur-Otan” appears to be aimed at replicating President Putin’s success in liquidating multi-party politics in Russia through “United Russia.” Kazakhstan, however, is not Russia. There continues to be an intense intra-elite struggle for political influence in Kazakhstan in anticipation of an eventual change in leadership, and the security organs of Kazakhstan are not as all-encompassing or as brutal as Russia’s omni-present SNB.

Thus, even if “Nur-Otan” prevails through the destruction or silencing of other political voices in Kazakhstan, it will only drive political competition within the country’s elite further underground where it would definitely be less transparent, probably more violent, and likely more divisive. On the other hand, if the government of Kazakhstan was to take steps to allow for all political parties to operate unfettered by judicial machinations and fear, it could raise its profile internationally, leaving images of Borat’s Kazakhstan in the dust. It could also ensure that Nazarbayev would establish a legacy as a reformer even at the same time that he is implicated in the “Kazakh-Gate” case of James Giffen getting underway in New York. The answer to which path the country will take may depend upon what lesson President Nazarbayev takes away from post-Turkmenbasi Turkmenistan and post-Akayev Kyrgyzstan. Will he view the hubris of these now former Central Asian leaders as their lack of toughness or as their inability to establish a political system that would out-live themselves and ensure their place in history?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Has Bakiyev backed the Kyrgyz Parliament into a Corner (again)?

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Will Felix Kulov be nominated Prime Minister again?

In September when the Kyrgyzstan opposition began protesting the lack of progress in the reforms promised by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, they were counting on Felix Kulov eventually joining them. When Kulov held his course in backing Bakiyev throughout the protests, the opposition felt betrayed and increasingly turned against the Kyrgyz Prime Minister.

Since that time, Kyrgyz politics have taken yet another winding path into a standstill. It seemed that early November had brought compromise and a new constitution. But, in a move reminiscent of Kyrgyz presidents past, Bakiyev pulled out a new years surprise and rammed a slightly different version of the constitution through parliament on December 30. The major change in this “newer” constitution was that it returned the power to nominate the government to President Bakiyev until a new parliament is elected. With this newer constitution signed by Bakiyev last week, the President immediately sent his renewed nomination of Kulov for Prime Minister to the parliament.

Few were surprised when the parliament refused the nomination of Kulov. Many were surprised, however, when President Bakiyev decided to send Kulov’s name to parliament a second time. The quandary that the parliament finds itself in at present is that three consecutive denials of the President’s Prime Minister nominations will result in a dissolution of parliament. If it denies Kulov a second time, Bakiyev may decide to either present his name a third time, or he may decide to present the name of somebody that the parliament might dislike even more, such as Usen Sydykov.

It would seem that the chess game is nearing checkmate. In a last ditch effort to save itself from being backed into a corner, the parliament has declared Baliyev’s second straight nomination of Kulov illegal. It is questionable, however, whether this decision would be upheld by the constitutional court. Most importantly, with politics at a standstill, Kyrgyzstan has returned to what has become its usual state of affairs – inactivity. The question of public broadcasting has been all but lost, and the real purpose of developing a new constitution to prevent a repeat of past corruption and authoritarianism has been obscured. With the idealists who had great hopes for the “Tulip Revolution” becoming increasingly fatigued by this political in-fighting, it is even questionable whether parliamentary elections could yield enough enthusiasm to get the country out of its present rut. Perhaps only a real revolutionary leader could do that -a Kyrgyz “Nelson Mandela”- could accomplish that. Are there any out there?

Monday, January 22, 2007

More Trouble in Kazakh Oil Country: Foreign Investment and Foreign Laborers being Re-thought?

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Kazakh workers striking at an Agip construction site late last week

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Some of the increasing workforce of Chinese oil companies active in Kazakhstan

Those who have been working for foreign oil companies in western Kazakhstan for some time are well aware of the fact that there will come a time when Kazakhstan wants to take total control over its own resources. While there have long been waves of dissatisfaction in Kazakhstan with regards to foreign investment in the oil sector, the role of foreigners in the oil extraction business of western Kazakhstan is coming under particularly close scrutiny as of late.

One of the big issues in the last year has related to the role of foreign sub-contractors in western Kazakhstan. In October, Kazakh workers attacked Turkish supervisory contractors on a construction site at the Tengiz oil field. While the conflict eventually was resolved, continual comments to my website suggest that there is still animosity towards Turkish and other foreign workers among local employees. This past week, for example, a similar issue flared up on an Agip construction site also run by Turkish contractors at Karabatan. Unhappy with their wages and their treatment at the hands of Turkish supervisors, some 200 Kazakh workers went on strike, but Agip moved to quickly mitigate the dispute by raising wages. While these conflicts were mitigated, there are still lingering problems between Kazakh workers and foreign supervisors in the region, especially when the supervisors are from sub-contracting companies and from developing countries. After fifteen years of independence, the workers of Kazakhstan are becoming increasingly disgruntled at the higher wages and alleged arrogance of foreigners working in the oil sector, especially when those workers are from developing countries.

This issue, however, is obviously of more concern to Kazakh workers in western Kazakhstan than it is to the Kazakh government. The government remains most concerned about the bigger question of asset ownership. As indication of that concern, the new government in Astana has just amended the law “On Mineral Wealth” so as to institute a two-year moratorium on the re-sale of licenses to develop oil deposits. This move is meant to send a clear sign that Astana wants to keep their natural resource assets in check and curb quick sell-outs that have been rampant in recent years. As Reuters suggests, this move may be especially focused on controlling the rapid increase of Chinese oil companies’ assets in the region. Still, it is an issue that will affect other foreign companies as well.

Overall, it would be wrong to suggest that these various events add up to the imminent demise of foreign oil companies in Kazakhstan. That would be highly unlikely before Kazakhstan sees the long-awaited returns on the Kashagan oil field scheduled to begin pumping oil in 2009. But, they do suggest that foreign oil companies will need to be watching developments in Astana more closely. Furthermore, while the tension between Kazakh workers and foreign sub-contractors in the region has yet to be exploited by the nascent political class in Kazakhstan, it is a populist issue that could benefit various political forces in the country, especially in the context of the country’s quiet intra-elite competition for the right to take over the reigns once President Nazarbayev steps down. If such political forces begin to look to workers in western Kazakhstan for support, that could spell even more troubles for the various foreign oil companies active in the west of the country.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Nazarbayev shuffles the government

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Before going to bed, I noticed that the Kazakhstan government had already changed significantly. Without going into too much detail, the following changes have been announced:

Nurtay Abykayev will no longer be the speaker of the senate and will become the ambassador to Russia.

Tokayev has taken over as speaker of the senate, while Marat Tazhin takes over Tokayev's old job as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

As already noted, Karim Masimov becomes the Prime Minister while Daniyal Akhmetov has moved to Minister of Defense.

All in all, Nazarbayev has succeeded in forming yet another balance of power groups - with people known to be close to Timur Kulibayev, Dariga Nazarbayev and Rakhat Aliyev, and Alexander Mashkevich all in high positions. In general, it appears as if the position of Timur Kulibayev may be on the rise (as predicted here on Monday), but it is also noteworthy that the person in line to succeed the president in the event he is incapacitated is generally seen as a client of Dairga.

Time, however, can only tell whether these changes will bring an alteration of policy.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Why Might Berdymukhammedov Want to Reform Turkmenistan and Can the U.S. Help?

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Does the front runner in Turkmenistan’s presidential elections really want to change the country?

In the last week, several articles have emerged in sources as well known as the New York Times and Businessweek highlighting the seemingly progressive election platform of the front runner in the election to succeed Turkmenbashi as the second president of independent Turkmenistan - Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. In a speech to potential voters, Berdymukhammedov reportedly made a significant number of campaign promises including the following:

1.) To continue the political program of Saparmurat Turkmenbashy

2.) To reform the agricultural and the oil and gas sectors

3.) To provide all citizens with easy and cheap access to the Internet (Turkmenbashi had maintained relatively tight control of the internet)

4.) To make water, salt and gas almost free (as opposed to completely, as was the case under Turkmenbashi)

5.) To reform the pension system and raise student stipends and social security payments.

6.) To open new schools and universities and to provide Turkmen youth with opportunities to study abroad in the USA, Japan, Germany, France, UK, China, and elsewhere. (Turkmenbashi had ensured that diplomas obtained outside Turkmenistan were not recognized in the country)

7.) To increase secondary education to 10 years and University education to 5 years (Turkmenbashi had decreased the years of education)

8.) To increase the quality of Turkmen education writ large so that a Turkmenistan education will be recognized outside the country. (Turkmenbashi had begun an educational program largely based on his own book, Rukhnama)

9.) To support entrepreneurship and private business. (Turkmenbashi had generally inhibited private business, beyond small-scale retail)

10.) To improve medical care by sending doctors abroad for exposure to new methods. (It was generally difficult for Turkmen citizens to get exit visas under Turkmenbashi)

11.) To begin the privatization of houses and land and allow people to obtain loans for the building of homes. (Privatization had been virtually non-existent under Turkmenbashi)

With the exception of point one (which seems to contradict the other promises), these seemingly modest goals are fairly radical in the context of Turkmenistan, which has been one of the most closed states in the world for the last decade. Optimism about reforms, of course, should be cautious, especially given that the country remains very closed and controlled at the moment and Berdymukhammedov has still said nothing about the scores of political prisoners in the country, the liberalization of the media, or allowing the political opposition in exile to return to the country. Furthermore, as acting president and front-runner presidential candidate, Berdymukhammedov appears to be in control of what promises to be a non-election election in February in which he will undoubtedly be elected without transparent, independent, or stable electoral institutions. Still, one cannot help but think that Berdymukhammedov might genuinely be serious about reforming Turkmenistan, at least to some degree. And, while foreign media have generally characterized his calls for reforms as “surprising,” he really has little choice but to start the country onto a new path. Consider the following for example:

1) Turkmenbashi’s successor needs engagement from the west, and an agenda of reform may be the only way to obtain that in a significant way. While Russia’s role in a new Turkmenistan is likely to be significant, those in power in the country also do not wish to be beholden to Russia, especially in terms of energy markets (and even more so given Russia’s behavior around its recent gas disputes with Belarus, which is its supposed closest ally). In the past, the country has held Russia (and every country in the world) at arms lengths by Turkmenbashi changing his mind constantly and keeping all external forces off balance by what at least appeared to be the whims of an unstable megalomaniac. Any successor to Turkmenbashi will have to adopt a different strategy for maintaining a healthy distance from Russia. If Berdymukhammedov is watching his neighbors, he knows that reaching out to the west for assistance on reform is one way to do that.

2) While all indications suggest that Berdymukhammedov has a lock on the upcoming February election, he would still need to deal with an assortment of internal political forces afterwards. These include the military and other security agencies as well as the various regional power groups in the country. The authors at have been one of the only internet sources reporting on the regional/clan dimension of succession in Turkmenistan. While they may be a bit alarmist about these internal forces’ ability to immediately create discord and they cloak regional patron-client networks in “exotic” clan language, the people at are correct to point out that these factors will be of longer term concern to Berdymukhammedov if he indeed becomes president. In this context, it will be difficult for Berdymukhammedov to immediately control the country without providing real benefits to people and without garnishing international support. The reforms he has mentioned could do both.

3) Perhaps most importantly Turkmenbashi’s bizarre neo-soviet economic policies have created a hidden crisis in the country that makes the situation akin to that faced by Mr. Gorbachev when he inherited the leadership of the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s. While the system continues to hobble along, experts have noted over the last several years that Turkmenbashi was gradually finding excuses to cut social welfare projects, education, health programs, etc. because the country was running out of money. As somebody working in the health sector, Berdymukhammedov is likely more aware of these problems than are many. Essentially, Turkmenbashi’s successor must find ways to liberalize the economy in order to avoid a considerable crisis. Beginning economic reform, of course, is also a pandora’s box that could lead the country into instability, and Berdymukhammedov may also understand this and knows he will require international support if he is to even consider opening up the box.

For all of these reasons, one can assume that Berdymukhammedov’s election promises cannot all be “smoke and mirrors.” This does not mean that the man will usher in a new age of “democracy” in Turkmenistan, but it may mean that he is at least willing to engage western development models and open up his country to the world. Furthermore, since the election promises do appear to be at least partially broadcast for western ears, it is important that the U.S. reacts to them, but also that it does so methodically and realistically, but without undue compromise. The U.S. should make every effort to engage the emerging leadership of a new Turkmenistan now. It must get to know its goals and worries better to determine if Turkmenistan is really interested in heading down a path towards reform. At the same time, the degree of U.S. Engagement should be tempered by a better understanding of the country’s new leadership. If the country’s goal is akin to the “managed democracy” so widespread throughout the former Soviet Union, U.S. assistance will have limited impact. If the country is willing to try and resolve its many problems through real moves towards accountable governance and respect for human rights (even gradually), the U.S. must be ready to engage much more seriously. To do that, the U.S. also has to be ready with money for an assistance program should the opportunity for serious engagement arise. And, perhaps most importantly, the U.S. government must continue to push the new Turkmenistan leadership (even if initially behind close doors) on the question of political prisoners still serving time. The new government's position on the prisoners of Turkmenbashi's regime may be the true litmus test of its intentions.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Kulibayev on the Rise?: Karim Masimov Reportedly Nominated as the New Prime Minister of Kazakhstan

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Karim Masimov, first Uyghur Prime Minister of Kazakhstan?

After some three and one-half years as Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, Daniel Akhmetov stepped down on Monday. According to at least one source, President Nazarbayev has already nominated Karim Masimov as his choice to take the place of Akhmetov. While people have been speculating about Masimov’s candidacy to succeed Akhmetov for some time, it is still a surprising choice if reports are verified by official announcements in the upcoming days.

The choice of Masimov would appear to be a significant departure from Akhmetov’s reign in many ways. While both technocrats, the two politicians differ substantially. Akhmetov, a native of Pavlodar, was best known as the man who brought Pavlodar oblast under control after the fall of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement and the arrest of the Oblast’s popular Akim, Galymzhan Zhakiyanov. Many observers suggest that Akhmetov is a client of the powerful metal mogul Alexander Mashkevich. Politically, Akhmetov is generally seen as a conservative “yes-man.”

Masimov, on the other hand, is seen as a progressive young reformer and allegedly as a client of President Nazarbayev’s son-in-law Timur Kulibayev. Furthermore, he is rumored to be an ethnic Uyghur despite being registered in his passport as a Kazakh. Thus, he would be the first Prime Minister of Kazakhstan to be neither Kazakh nor Russian and the first non-Kazakh since the early 1990s.

While it is still early to foretell the exact meaning of this change in cadres, people in Kazakhstan are already speculating on its political significance. Are we seeing the continuation of Kulibayev’s rise in the intra-elite power struggles of Kazakhstan, is this a sign of a new era of reforms, or is this just a swing in the pendulum? After all, Tokayev, was considered “progressive” as well, but he did not initiate significant reforms as Prime Minister. Regardless, in Kazakhstan, the position of Prime Minister is more technical than political. But it is a symbolic position, and symbols can often be quite powerful. The most interesting question, however, is what other changes in the government will follow. In Kazakhstan, a change in Prime Minister usually means an entire re-shuffling of high-level government positions (and subsequently low-level ones as well). Thus, most government workers in the country are probably in for some sleepless nights in the weeks ahead.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


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The holidays and my recent move-in into a new house have slowed down posts on the Roberts Report, but coverage of the on-going events in Central Asia and Kazakhstan will continue into 2007 soon enough. In the meantime, I wish all readers of the Roberts Report a belated happy holidays and a great 2007! May this latest year of the ”Fire Pig” be one which you will remember fondly! For those interested in forecasting politics in Kazakhstan, has an interesting astrological piece on what the new year may bring various actors in Kazakhstan's political scene.

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