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Central Asia Report: June 18, 2008

Uzbekistan: OSCE Concerned Over 'Harassment And Intimidation' Of RFE/RL Journalists

Miklos Haraszti

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Europe's main human rights watchdog, has expressed concern over Uzbekistan's assault on the independent media, including RFE/RL journalists.

Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE's media freedom representative, voiced concern over Tashkent's "intimidation and harassment of nongovernmental journalists." The OSCE statement, issued on June 17, came after Uzbekistan detained an independent reporter and accused RFE/RL Uzbek Service journalists of antistate activities.

"Independent journalist Solidzon Abdurakhmonov was recently detained on drug charges, and reporters working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty were accused of carrying out antistate activities in an hour-long program broadcast repeatedly since June 9 by Uzbek state television," the statement said.

Haraszti added that the assaults on free journalism in Uzbekistan were "especially regrettable as Uzbek authorities told me during my visit last week that they were ready to start the much-needed reforms of the media governance in the country."

While in Tashkent, Haraszti said he also called on the Uzbek government to carry out specific steps to help the country's nonstate media, including providing accreditation for reporters from the BBC, RFE/RL, and Deutsche Welle. He also called for the release of all those imprisoned "for expressing critical views," which together with "the return of foreign media outlets to Uzbekistan would be important first steps toward compliance with OSCE commitments, as well as a signal of stability."

Haraszti also "asked his counterparts in meetings to liberalize media regulations and to allow for pluralism and political debate in the press. He also called for privatization in the print media, the creation of a public-service broadcaster, easy registration and licensing of media outlets, and decriminalization of libel," the OSCE statement said.

The statement was the second time in recent weeks that the OSCE's representative on media freedom has intervened on behalf of RFE/RL journalists in Central Asia, where the environment for nonstate media appears to be steadily deteriorating.

On May 21, Haraszti sent a letter to Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin, urging the government in Astana to restore access to RFE/RL's Kazakh-language website. The website had been blocked for some two months for "technical reasons," according to the Kazakh state telecom operator. Service was finally restored two weeks ago.

Tajikistan: Tensions Rising Over Food Prices In Remote East

More than 500 people gathered for protests in Khorog

Tensions between Tajikistan's government and local leaders in the remote eastern Badakhshan region appear to be reaching a critical stage.

The inhabitants of the sparsely populated area have for weeks complained of rising food prices and what they call increasing interference from the central government.

More than 500 people gathered on June 18 in front of the government building in Khorog, the capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region in eastern Tajikistan's high mountains. They were protesting news that the government had sent additional troops to the region with a plan to arrest local leaders.

"I heard that [the government] brought troops here," one female demonstrator told RFE/RL's Tajik Service. "I am a mother of two sons, and I do not want there to be bloodshed again and mothers to be in mourning again. We gathered here not just to prevent war, but also to learn why they brought these forces here and what the purpose of these troops is. Let [the authorities] explain why they are here. If they tell us we will leave peacefully. We do not want anything else."

Excluded From Politics

Badakhshan makes up nearly half of Tajikistan, with much of the land several thousand meters above sea level. Many of its 500,000 people are Ismaili Muslims -- Shi'ite followers of the Aga Khan. In a country of mainly Sunni Muslims, they have been largely excluded from Tajik politics. The Badakhshanis often found themselves the targets of various groups during Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war, which claimed some 100,000 lives.

Since the war’s end, the people of the region have seemed to prefer living secluded lives. But they have recently complained about increasing prices of basic goods, a lack of electricity, and what they see as growing meddling by the central government.

Local leaders not affiliated with the government have been leading the criticism. The opposition Social Democratic Party has also seized on the discontent in a bid to garner greater popular support, not only regionally but throughout Tajikistan, where people face problems similar, though not as severe, as those in Badakhshan.

The head of the party's local branch, Alim Sherzamonov, was among those who broke the news that hundreds of soldiers had been transferred to Khorog as a precautionary move ahead of a planned to visit to the area next month by President Emomali Rahmon.

Badakhshan residents say they are fearful the government is preparing a crackdown similar to one last month in the southwestern Kulob area, which is also experiencing rising costs for basic goods. In May, the Tajik government sent troops into Kulob to capture a local figure the authorities claimed was a major drug trafficker. The troops captured the man, but several local residents died during the operation.

'No One Is Telling Us Anything'

People in Badakhshan are now wondering if the same thing is about to happen there. Adding to their fears are reports that Badakhshan's top government official, Qosim Qodir, has evacuated his family to the capital.

"My reason for being here is to find out why the head of the oblast sent his family to Dushanbe," Sabzali Mamadrizoev, one of the demonstrators, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service. "If everything here is so peaceful, why did he send his family there? He has not said anything, he has not told the people what is going on or held any meetings about it. Our goal is to learn why no one is telling us anything."

The demonstrators dispersed on June 18 after local officials promised that the additional troops sent to the region would be withdrawn. The demonstrators have vowed to return in two days if that promise is not kept.

Despite being located in the remote southeastern corner of Central Asia, Tajikistan is important to both Russia and the United States. The country hosts a Russian motorized rifle division and a modest NATO contingent engaged in support operations for U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan.

Salimjon Aioubov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report

Kyrgyzstan: Rights Groups Assail Restrictive New Media Law

By Bruce Pannier

Will President Bakiev keep his pledge to ensure media independence?

More than three years since Kyrgyzstan's "People's Revolution" brought a new president to power, press freedom advocates are questioning whether President Kurmanbek Bakiev is as committed to a free media as he pledged during his 2005 campaign.

Bakiev had promised to give full independence to the National TV and Radio Broadcasting Corporation as well as all other state-funded media outlets in Kyrgyzstan. But on June 4, Bakiev signed amendments to the country’s press law that appear to jeopardize the independence of the media.

In a statement on June 16, the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said the amendments "put many media under threat." RSF said part of the law "gives the president the power to appoint the executive director of state-run TV and radio KTR," which effectively "wrecks efforts undertaken to make [KTR] a public and not a state company."

Prior to the amendments, a 15-member supervisory council had governed KTR, with the president, parliament, and civic groups each selecting five board members.

Bakyt Orunbekov, a member of the supervisory council, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the new law is an obstacle to further media reform. "This law is a huge impediment on the path to realizing the idea of creating public television," Orunbekov says. "Moreover, this has a negative influence on democratic processes and freedom of speech, which until recently Kyrgyzstan was praised for having."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) last month urged Bakiev to veto the media bill, saying it "obliterates Kyrgyzstan’s attempt at broadcasting reform.”

The CPJ had objected to other changes in the media bill, such as legislation requiring that "half the programming carried by any television or radio station must be self-produced and in the Kyrgyz language," and a change that "enables state agencies alone to revoke, sever, or annul broadcasting licenses for various technical violations."

The CPJ noted that "those penalties could be sanctioned solely by the state agencies; approval from the Kyrgyz courts would no longer be required."

Marat Tokoev, the leader of Journalists, a Kyrgyz NGO, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the new law could spell the end of some independent Kyrgyz television and radio stations.

"This law represents a step backward," Tokoev says. "Television channels and radio stations cannot endure the regulations included in it. That means that we are creating obstacles to the development of the [state television and radio] company. It is possible that many television channels and radio stations will be closed down."

Two television channels in the southern Osh area, Osh TV and Mezon TV, lodged appeals against the new law that were rejected by the Constitutional Court. Both stations broadcast in the Uzbek language to a large ethnic-Uzbek audience in the Osh area and across the border in Uzbekistan. Since the broadcasts are not in the state language of Kyrgyzstan, the channels fear they will be taken off the air.

Not Only Broadcasters

Tokoev could also have mentioned the print media. At least one independent newspaper is encountering troubles not seen in Kyrgyzstan since the 2005 change of power.

On June 14, Kyrgyz authorities raided the office of the independent newspaper "De Facto," confiscating the weekly's computers. The raid was troubling to many observers partly because such moves against the media have been rare since Kyrgyz independence in 1991.

The raid is merely one of several recent events in Kyrgyzstan that are raising concerns about the government's commitment to democratic principles.

A Kyrgyz court ruled that "De Facto" had printed libelous information and issued a warrant for the raid after the newspaper's June 12 edition alleged that an official of the Kyrgyz Taxes and Duties Committee was involved in corrupt activities. In the article, author Zamira Moldoeva appealed to Kyrgyz authorities to bring the official to justice.

Cholpon Orozobekova, the weekly’s editor in chief, said the article’s author is prepared to testify in court against the allegations and the raid. She added that the subpoena against the reporter is an attempt to silence the independent newspaper.

“De Facto” was earlier fined 1 million soms ($27,600) on June 2 for printing an article that alleged Bakiev's nephew was involved in a traffic accident that resulted in the death of a pedestrian.

Nongovernmental organizations in Kyrgyzstan are showing their support for “De Facto.” On June 17, the coalition For Democracy and Civil Society said in a statement that the legal case against the weekly is politically motivated and aimed at the "elimination of the free press and the intimidation of journalists."

Culture and Information Minister Sultan Raev urged patience, telling RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the matter is not yet settled and that the president and civic groups can still propose changes to the newly signed law.

"The decree of the president was signed with current realities in mind," Raev says. "For it to be implemented there are still some unresolved questions on which the president has already made recommendations to the culture and justice ministries. We are working currently to honor these recommendations."

Bakiev says the new law is still open for debate, and a special commission has been appointed to study proposed changes.

But RSF, among others, questions that effort. “We do not understand why the president should sign a law which he knows is unsatisfactory and then ask ministers to study proposals from civil society," the media watchdog said in its statement.

Director Tynchtykbek Tchoroev and correspondent Kubat Chekirov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report

Age-Old Water Problem Brings Tensions To A Boil

By Bruce Pannier

Kyrgyzstan's Toktogul Reservoir is less than half-full

As temperatures shoot past 40 degrees Celsius in many areas of Central Asia, the residents of the ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara sit in the scorching heat -- pondering a long, hot summer with little water.

But Bukhara is not alone.

The cities, towns, and villages of western Uzbekistan, and western Central Asia in general, are facing the same hot summer short of water -- a cruel fate considering many of these areas were flooded just weeks ago. The problem’s source lies some 1,000 kilometers away -- in the water-rich mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

No Agreement

This week, in a bid to resolve their water problems before the summer sets in, officials from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan met in Bishkek to discuss ways to fairly share the region’s water and energy resources. But reports suggest the June 10-11 talks in the Kyrgyz capital not only failed to generate any agreement but may have exacerbated water and energy tensions among the haves and have-nots of Central Asia.

Central Asia's water problem is eternal. Traditionally, water supplies for much of a region covered in dry desert originate in the snow-capped mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But this year, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan look to face severe water shortages. That’s because both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan consumed much of their own water to generate emergency electricity supplies during one of the harshest winters in recent memory.

In Bishkek, the issue was top of the agenda. But there is a new twist in Central Asia’s water saga. The supplier countries in the east -- Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- are now increasingly pushing for something in return for their water. But Uzbekistan, among others, refuses to countenance paying for a resource that among Central Asians is generally considered a gift of God -- not a commodity that can be bought and sold.

It’s here the talks appear to have broken down, says Gregory Gleason, a veteran Central Asian specialist who has worked extensively with experts in the region on water issues. He says that Uzbek officials "have expressed to me that water is not a product that can be sold, that it is a product that people are entitled to, have a right to, and to reduce it to a commodity would be to violate Central Asian traditions."

Bishkek, with Dushanbe as a tacit partner, has argued for years that it bears the full financial burden for maintaining the locks and dams along the rivers that eventually become the Syr-Darya, Central Asia's great river of the north. Since that water makes its way into Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz government says both neighboring countries should either help share the maintenance costs or else provide special terms for supplies of natural gas (from Uzbekistan) or coal (from Kazakhstan).

Sellable Commodity?

Kazakhstan has agreed to some extent, sending some free coal to Kyrgyzstan in compensation for using its water. But Tashkent continues to reject any suggestion of paying for water, even as it refuses to offer easier terms for energy-needy Bishkek and Dushanbe to purchase Uzbek natural gas.

The Kyrgyz government, however, has become increasingly vocal that its water should be viewed in the same light as the region’s other major resources -- gas and oil -- as a commodity.

"There are politicians in Kyrgyzstan and some water-management officials in Kyrgyzstan who have also adopted the idea of pricing water because they recognize that this is one of the commodities, one of the natural resources, that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have that other countries in the region desperately need," Gleason says. "But it does come into conflict with many Central Asian traditions."

Kyrgyzstan annually releases 11 billion cubic meters of water through its reservoir systems into rivers that flow into Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan uses most of that, with Kazakhstan consuming the remainder.

Going into the Bishkek talks, Kyrgyzstan was reportedly offering the first 3 billion cubic meters of water free to Tashkent, but demanding payment for the rest. Uzbekistan rejected the terms -- and that, reports say, ended the meeting.

Kazakh officials seem to have been more amenable to Kyrgyzstan's proposal. That is, perhaps, less of a surprise considering Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has proposed forming a Central Asian union to work out -- among other issues -- a regional "energy for water" agreement. Uzbek President Islam Karimov, for his part, made it clear as recently as last April that he has no interest in Uzbekistan joining a Central Asian union.

Central Asia is coming off a harsh winter, with extended periods of below-freezing temperatures. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, lacking gas and oil for heating, suffered the worst, with both facing energy rationing. That was made worse when Uzbekistan, citing debts, reduced and at times suspended supplies of natural gas to both countries. At the start of winter, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had increased the flow of water in their hydroelectric dams to compensate for lack of alternative energy supplies from neighbors, particularly Uzbekistan. By the New Year, Tajikistan was hardly generating any hydroelectricity.

Plenty of snow fell in the mountains, but Kyrgyz and Tajik water officials are now saying that it fell in the wrong places and that reservoirs are not being sufficiently replenished. Kyrgyzstan's massive Toktogul Reservoir is well below normal levels -- a situation that exists throughout the Kyrgyz and Tajik mountains.

And since there is no energy agreement with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can argue they need to fill their reservoirs for hydroelectric power this winter to avoid a repeat of last winter's energy rationing.

Where Central Asia’s water woes go from here is anybody’s guess. But as summer drags on, it will become clearer exactly what the region’s thirsty people are willing to do, or not do, to get a drink.

Gulaiym Ashakeeva and Bubukan Dosalieva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Elmurad Jusupaliev of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report

Mourners In Kyrgyz Capital Bid Farewell To Literary 'Giant' Aitmatov

Funeral services for Chingiz Aitmatov at Ata-Beyit Memorial Complex

BISHKEK -- Tens of thousands of people have turned out in Kyrgyzstan's capital to bid farewell to novelist and statesman Chingiz Aitmatov, an intellectual and cultural icon of global renown who died this week at the age of 79.

Aitmatov, whose mythical novels and stories were widely acclaimed in the former Soviet Union and translated into more than 170 languages, died at a clinic in the southern German city of Nuremberg on June 10.

"Today we are faced with the greatest of losses: Merciless death has taken Chingiz Torokulovich Aitmatov from us," President Kurmanbek Bakiev told local and foreign dignitaries in a eulogy at the National Philharmonic before the ceremony in Bishkek's central Alatoo Square.

"One more star in the sky has faded; the heart that was filled with joy and sorrow, pure feelings and dreams of not only the Kyrgyz nation but also of all the peoples of the world, has been stilled, has stopped."

Following the tribute ceremony in downtown Bishkek, the coffin of the man who was regarded by many as the conscience of a nation was taken to the Fathers Graveyard (Ata-Beyit) Memorial Complex on the outskirts of the city for burial.

The memorial complex was erected in 1992 to inter the victims of Stalinism, including Aitmatov's father, Torokul Aitmatov. The name "Ata-Beyit" was given by Aitmatov, who in the 1980s was one of the first Kyrgyz writers to openly expose the Stalinist purges.

UNESCO has described Aitmatov as one of the world's most-read contemporary authors. Aitmatov coined the term "mankurt" in his novel "The Day Lasts More Than 100 Years," about a Kazakh man who is torn between tradition and Soviet manipulation traveling to bury a dear friend.

A number of Aitmatov's books have been adapted into films in Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Turkey.

He had suffered lung and kidney failure after falling ill three weeks ago while on a film set.

Kazakh poet and former Ambassador to Bishkek Mukhtar Shahanov eulogized Aitmatov in verse at the National Philharmonic ceremony, saying Aitmatov had conquered the world with his writings.

"Two people named 'Chingiz' were famous in world history," Shahanov said. "One [Mongol conqueror Chingiz Khan] conquered the world with his sword, while the other conquered the world with his spiritual power."

The writings of Aitmatov, son of a Kyrgyz father and Tatar mother, transcended ethnic barriers such that many Central Asians -- and indeed citizens all over the former Soviet Union -- considered him to be "their" writer.

Mourners lined the streets of Bishkek to honor Aitmatov (RFE/RL)

His insightful but tempered portrayals of life in the Soviet Union earned him widespread public respect while they allowed him to avoid bans or outright criticism from Soviet authorities.

In Bishkek for the memorial ceremonies, Russian Culture Minister Aleksandr Avdeyev praised Aitmatov, who wrote in both Kyrgyz and Russian.

"Today we are burying a giant of world literature of the 20th century," Avdeyev said, "a giant of Kyrgyz literature, a giant of Russian literature."

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Aitmatov served as a diplomat for a newly independent Kyrgyzstan and a member of the Kyrgyz parliament. In 1997, he became the first person to be granted the official title "Hero of Kyrgyzstan."

Aitmatov leaves behind a wife, three sons, and a daughter.

Uzbekistan: State TV 'Threatens' RFE/RL Journalists

RFE/RL's Tashkent bureau before its forced closure at the hands of Uzbek authorities in late 2005

Uzbek state television has aired a program about RFE/RL that rights activists and political analysts say contains "the worst kind of threats" against the broadcaster's Uzbek journalists and amounts to "terrorism" against the free press.

The hour-long program was stridently critical of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service -- known as Radio Ozodlik (Liberty) -- accusing its reporters not only of violating journalistic ethics but also of carrying out antistate activities. The program broadcast detailed personal information on several Ozodlik journalists and their family members, including addresses, passport information, places of work, and even the names and locations of their children's schools.

Most Ozodlik journalists live in Prague after RFE/RL’s Tashkent bureau was forced to close after reporting on the Andijon massacre in May 2005, in which Uzbek troops fired on a crowd of civilian protesters, killing hundreds, according to witnesses and rights activists. But many of the relatives of Ozodlik journalists remain in Uzbekistan.

“This is really, deeply worrying,” says Andrew Stroehlein, media director for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a nongovernmental policy group focused on conflict prevention. “These television stations are known to have close links with the security services, and it’s very well known that last year, when they vilified another journalist by the name of Alisher Saipov, he was murdered very shortly after.”

Saipov, a correspondent for the Voice of America and frequent RFE/RL contributor for Uzbek-language programs, was gunned down last year in the Kyrgyz city of Osh. The killing of the 26-year-old ethnic Uzbek was widely believed ordered by Uzbek security forces.

Prime Time

The broadcast about Radio Ozodlik was aired on three state-run regional Uzbek television stations at prime time on June 9 and 10 to an estimated audience of 11 million, including in areas of neighboring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Elsa Vidal, who heads the European and post-Soviet desk at the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), expresses solidarity with RFE/RL’s journalists and their families.

“These public addresses on television broadcasts jeopardize their security because they are targeted now as ‘traitors,’ which we know is usually the first state before deeper harassment,” Vidal says. “So we hope this won’t go further, but unfortunately we think we are now witnessing a worsening of the situation in Uzbekistan.”

Abdurahman Tashanov, a Tashkent-based independent journalist, called the program a direct threat. "This program is terror, political terror against democrats and journalists who don't share the government's views, who oppose it,” Tashanov says.

“The state has always used this policy since the early years of independence and has improved it. In the early years of independence, they used it against opposition members, then in the early 2000s -- under the pretext of the war against terror," he adds. "Now, it has become an information war. The regime uses it to survive because democratic voices from Radio Liberty, BBC, and other foreign media sources are a problem for the Uzbek government.”

RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin called the program “a direct and deliberate attempt to endanger our journalists." In a written statement, Gedmin added: "The Uzbek government has produced these broadcasts to portray our journalists as criminals, and therefore either to incite attacks against them or to condition viewers for attacks it may seek to perpetrate itself. These are the acts of an outlaw regime, not of a respectable government."

Media Freedom Conference

The program was aired on the same days that the Uzbek government hosted a conference on “media freedom” in Tashkent that human rights advocates called a “sad farce.” In April, the European Union had agreed to hold the conference together with the Uzbek government, inviting top international rights groups to attend such as the ICG, RSF, Human Rights Watch, and the Open Society Institute.

The EU made its decision on the same day it had agreed to maintain a freeze on sanctions against Uzbekistan imposed after civilian protesters were killed in 2005 in the eastern city of Andijon. However, Uzbek officials scrapped the agreed plans for the EU-Uzbek conference on media freedom, instead staging their own. None of the international rights groups were invited.

Both Vidal and Stroehlein say it was darkly ironic that the conference was held on the same days that the Uzbek stations aired their program on Radio Ozodlik. Stroehlein says the authoritarian government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov -- which both Washington and the European Union have tried to engage in recent months after pursuing a tougher policy of isolation over rights abuses -- feels that it can act with “complete impunity against people who are trying to bring some kind of free information to the citizens of that country." “It’s awful, appalling in every way,” he says.

This week, Uzbek authorities arrested former RFE/RL journalist and human rights activist Solijon Abdurahmanov, accusing him of “antigovernment” activity. Abdurahmanov had been an RFE/RL correspondent until 2005, when the Tashkent bureau was closed.

Last month, on the third anniversary of the Andijon events, Uzbek police arrested another former RFE/RL journalist, Nosir Zokirov. He was the first reporter to cover the massacre.

World Bank Warns Of Tainted Blood Transfusions Across Region

Children were infected at hospitals in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan

In a new study, the World Bank has raised the alarm over tainted blood transfusions across Central Asia, saying people face significant risk of contracting HIV, hepatitis, and other deadly diseases.

In the report, released to mark World Blood Donor Day on June 14, the World Bank says, "The health systems in Central Asian countries have an urgent need to improve their screening efforts in order to prevent the use of infected blood in transfusions."

Since 2006, hundreds of people, including many children, have been infected with HIV/AIDS through tainted blood transfusions in Central Asian hospitals. That includes 149 children in Kazakhstan (10 of whom have already died), 69 children in Kyrgyzstan, and several more in Tajikistan. Some 30 mothers in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were also infected with HIV/AIDS.

The World Bank-sponsored a study is titled "Blood Services in Central Asian Health Systems -- A Clear and Present Danger of Spreading HIV/AIDS and Other Infectious Diseases." The study, in which blood given by some 7,500 donors was retested, said such "retesting identified cases of HIV that had been undetected by the blood center laboratories that originally tested the samples."

The incidence of HIV/AIDS-infected blood was rather low. The study put it at 0.2 percent. But it said 2.7 percent of the samples tested positive for hepatitis B, 3 percent for hepatitis C, and 3.6 percent for syphilis.

Based on these results, the World Bank said Central Asia needs to "strengthen screening of blood donors on the occasion of each blood donation."

Dysfunctional Health-Care Systems

In Kazakhstan, HIV-infected blood was discovered in 2006 after the outbreak of infections among children was made public. However, the record-keeping system had not accurately catalogued donors, making it difficult to track the sources of the tainted blood.

The children, all under the age of 5, received the blood when they were admitted to children's hospitals in the Shymkent area.

"In one of the children's hospitals there are 150 beds and only 13 catheter [tubes]. They are using these catheters without any disinfection," Yerbolat Dosaev, the Kazakh health minister at the time, told RFE/RL in September 2006.

"It is the responsibility of local officials, not mine," Dosaev said. "If it were [my hospital], I would have sacked the local administration as of July 20," when the first hospital officials were dismissed.

Dosaev was eventually dismissed along with several health-care officials, while some hospital workers and local officials were charged with criminal negligence. The Kazakh government -- and more importantly, President Nursultan Nazarbaev -- vowed there would be no repeat of the tragedy and ordered a complete overhaul of the blood-donor system.

There are now 14 health-care workers on trial in neighboring Kyrgyzstan for the infection of children in 2007.

Kyrgyzstan is trying to improve its blood-screening system after the accidental infections in hospitals in the Osh area. The head of the country's blood-donor center, Sagynbek Abazov, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the chances of receiving tainted blood are low, but they do still exist.

"During blood transfusions, there can be accidents," Abazov says. "There is a danger because the effectiveness of the [screening] system is estimated to be 99.9 percent. That means the danger [of infection] is about 0.1 percent."

But one of the local Kyrgyz health officials facing charges of negligence for the infection of children in Osh said during his trial last month that as many as 69 children and several of their mothers may have been infected from blood transfusions.

Figures for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are difficult to come by, so the situation with their blood-donor banks is not clear.

The World Bank notes that "until recently, little was known about blood-transfusion systems in Central Asia and their contribution to disease transmission." With more data now emerging, the hope is that Central Asian patients will eventually be able to concentrate on getting better -- and not have to worry about the tainted transfusions.

Tynchtykbek Tchoroev, Eleonora Mambetshakirova, and Torokul Doorov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Merhat Sharipzhan of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report

Child Labor Alive And Thriving

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Central Asian children pick cotton (International Labor Organization (ILO), ILO-IPEC PROACT-CAR project)

As World Day Against Child Labor is marked as part of continuing efforts to stamp out the practice around the globe, there are hundreds of thousands of underage children in Central Asia skipping school to work as unskilled laborers in cities or on farms.

While some children toil out of necessity for their families, in some countries the use of child labor is a state policy.

Children, some of them as young as 7 years old, can be found working at virtually every bazaar in Central Asia. They sell anything from food to clothing and cosmetics, and preteen boys often push carts in outdoor markets while young girls from the countryside offer to work as housekeepers.

The money they earn is often a lifeline for their families. Poverty is the main reason these kids leave school and work.

"I am proud that I work and get paid; I distribute bread," says 13-year-old Safar from the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, adding, "I wish I could go to school together with my classmates, but life is hard and I have to work."

Officials in Central Asia have long denied that children are forced to work. Many contend that the kids are helping their parents after school and that it is rural residents themselves who send their children into the fields to earn much-needed cash.

Firuz Saidov, an expert on child labor at the Center for Strategic Studies under Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, admits that there is no way to stop child labor because many Tajiks live in poverty and children are crucial for families to have enough money to survive.

"Children work mostly in trade, agriculture, and in the street -- they wash cars. It's hard to stop this in Tajikistan," Saidov says. "Their rights are violated both by employers and police."

But in many rural areas, particularly in places like Uzbekistan, it is the government that forces children to pick cotton. The practice has existed since the Soviet era and continued when the Central Asian countries gained independence in 1991 -- even after they joined international agreements banning child labor.

Not An Official Priority

Human rights activists say that cotton brings cash to the state coffers as well as to the pockets of the ruling elite in some countries.

Jovid Juraev, of the international organization Save the Children in Dushanbe, is critical of the Tajik authorities' stance on the use of child labor. He says there is no political will to end it despite official pronouncements to the contrary.

"The use of children in cotton picking has become a national catastrophe -- some 200,000 Tajik children are forced to do hard and harmful work [with the number increasing during the main harvest season]," Juraev says. "It amazes me that despite the decrees made by the president and the government, children are still subject to economic exploitation. And no one dares to fight it."

In neighboring Uzbekistan, the world's third-largest cotton exporter, the use of child labor in the cotton sector is a state policy.

As the cotton harvest begins in September, schools are shut down and thousands of children are bused to fields, sometimes with a police escort. They pick what is dubbed the "white gold" that brings around $1 billion in annual exports for Uzbekistan.

Uzbek authorities have been under fire from international human rights groups to stop using forced child labor in the cotton industry. A campaign launched in November brought some results, as major clothing chains including Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Gap, and H&M -- as well as textile producers in South Asia -- resolved to stop buying Uzbek cotton fiber.

The Long Haul

Nadezhda Atayeva, who heads the Paris-based Association on Human Rights in Central Asia, says that "noticeable progress" has been made in the campaign to boycott Uzbek cotton. She says the Uzbek authorities seem to have stopped denying the use of child labor and are willing to hold a dialogue with human rights groups and international organizations.

The Uzbek parliament adopted a law in January on "Guarantees of the Rights of the Child." It was followed by ratification of the International Labor Organization's (ILO) convention on the worst forms of child labor and minimum age.

In Kyrgyzstan, a girl collects tobacco leaves (ILO courtesy photo)

Atayeva praises the moves but adds that it is crucial for the Uzbek government to give greater economic freedom to farmers and thus reduce the incentive to use the low-paid or unpaid labor of children.

She also says the coming cotton harvest will be a litmus test for the Uzbek government.

"Despite those positive changes, it is important that international organizations have the possibility to monitor the situation in the autumn," Atayeva says. "Every interested party should be able to go to [Uzbek] cotton fields and check if there are children below the age of 15 working there and, if so, what their working conditions are."

History Of Ambivalence

In Turkmenistan as well, child labor is widely used during the cotton harvest, although the country is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It also passed laws in 2002 and 2005 prohibiting the employment of children under the age of 16 and regulating a child's right to protection from exploitation.

The late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov frequently issued statements on the necessity of ending child labor, but the situation remained largely unchanged throughout his presidency.

The U.S. State Department estimated that more than 1 million children were part of the labor force in 2000. More recent statistics are hard to find.

Last year, Niyazov's successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, made a similar statement. But human rights activists say children are still widely used for labor in Turkmenistan.

In Kazakhstan, children work in cotton and tobacco fields and as unskilled laborers in urban areas. In recent years, children from neighboring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have been working in Kazakhstan along with their parents.

Dana Zhandayeva, Kazakh project coordinator of ILO's child-labor project, tells RFE/RL that the situation with forced child labor has improved since the Kazakh government ratified two ILO conventions (one on a minimum employment age and the other on the worst forms of child exploitation) and asked for international organizations' assistance to stop the use of child labor.

A boy hauls potatoes in Amina, Kazakhstan (ILO courtesy photo)

"[The Kazakh government's] initial position was ambiguous: officials denied the problem. Then they started saying the problem exists only in the cotton industry. Now, they admit this phenomenon exists in Kazakhstan, although not as acutely as in neighboring countries," Zhandayeva says. "They admit the need to tackle the problem although they try to say that only the kids of migrants from Uzbekistan work. In general, I cannot say the government is not acting and not taking measures [against child labor]."

There are bright spots. Zhandayeva says that in Kyrgyzstan, for instance, the government has been at the forefront of the fight against child slavery. She says the Kyrgyz government is the only one in Central Asia that not only cooperates with international organizations to fight child labor but also allocates funds to stop it.

RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondents Zarangez Navruzshoeva in Dushanbe and Mirzo Salimov in Prague contributed to this report

Turkmenistan: Moscow Designer Eyes Turkmen Fashion, As Locals Vie With Strict Dress Code

By Farangis Najibullah

Designer Zaitsev on the runway

On a visit to Ashgabat this month, Russian fashion designer Vyacheslav Zaitsev professed his fascination with traditional Turkmen clothes, and announced plans to create a new collection featuring elements of traditional Turkmen costumes.

Zaitsev, who was in the Central Asian republic to take part in the Turkmen Textile Exhibition, said the collection would mostly consist of casual wear, including jeans, and would be made exclusively from Turkmen cotton. He added that the designs would also feature Turkmen embroidery, which had captured his imagination.

Zaitsev’s Fashion House in Moscow hopes his many customers in Russia and beyond will welcome the new line, like the designer’s other creations.

Zaitsev’s new collection is unlikely to be in high demand in Turkmenistan, however. Women there are still strongly encouraged to wear traditional costumes -- long dresses covering ankles and a traditional hat called a “takhya.”

Uniforms are compulsory in schools, and girls’ uniforms are entirely based on national costumes. They include bright green, ankle-length dresses decorated with embroidery. Male and female students must wear takhyas. Girls sport two long braids, and those with short hair attach fake plaits to their takhyas to meet the requirements.

Farid Tuhbatulin, head of the Turkmen Initiative Group in Vienna, says some students, especially non-Turkmen, are unhappy with the strict dress code imposed under late President Saparmurat Niyazov. In a report on human rights in Turkmenistan, the Turkmen Initiative Group wrote earlier this year that female teachers and university students, regardless of ethnicity, are forced to wear national costumes.

"In the beginning, when the dress code was introduced at universities, some students [who did not want to wear national costume] were deprived of their stipends, and others were threatened with possible expulsion from university," Tuhbatulin said. "This way, students were forced to accept university administrations’ requirements.”

Moreover, many families cannot afford the pricey school uniform, Tuhbatulin says. “Students are required to wear national costumes made from expensive fabrics, including a variety of types of velvet," he said. "The collar of the dress has to be decorated with specific embroidery. It costs a lot of money. Besides, during official ceremonies all students are required to wear almost identical clothes with the same color and style.”

A Sartorial Island

Many foreigners visiting the country note that the first thing they notice is that most of the women on the streets wear traditional costumes.

Some link it to a lack of choice in the country, kept in isolation for nearly two decades by its eccentric former president. It was difficult, if not impossible, for many Turkmen to travel abroad, while traveling to Turkmenistan was equally difficult for foreigners. At the same time, foreign publications were banned and many Internet sites blocked.

Turkmen women in traditional dress at a festival in Ashgabat

Nevertheless, many Turkmen women say they choose to wear boldly-colored traditional costumes because they are proud of them. Red, purple, and yellow are among the most popular choices of colors for the dress, which is decorated with red and gold handmade needlecraft on its front, collar, and sleeves.

In spite of the limitations, Turkmen women love dressing up. Some Turkmen even say that many women would invest their last pennies on clothes rather than on food.

Fashionable urban women have created their own new style, mixing traditional dress with European elements. The traditionally wide Turkmen dress has become considerably tighter in the waist. Long sleeves have become optional and the neckline plunges quite low, while the collar has almost disappeared.

It’s a mix that Russian designer Zaitsev, in his new collection, would do well to draw upon. Just don’t expect Turkmen women to be sporting his new clothes any time soon.

For now the state still dictates what they can wear, even if many Turkmen women would clearly rather make their own fashion decisions.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service contributed to this report