By Holger Jensen
Deseret News, Jan 16
Scripps Howard News Service
The five central Asian nations that became independent after the breakup of the Soviet Union eight years ago are rich in resources but short on democracy.
Only one of their leaders has been bold enough to declare himself �President for Life,� but the other four clearly intend to stay in office indefinitely, much like Africa�s first crop of post-colonial dictators.
All are former Communist Party bosses who say their Muslim nations are not ready for Western-style democracy. All are human rights violators who justify their strong-arm tactics as being necessary to contain �Islamic terrorism.�
And all are tolerated by Western governments more interested in Central Asia�s vast oil, gas and mineral reserves than the welfare of its 55 million people.
Kazakhstan�s Nursultan Nazarbayev presided over a farcical election last year that excluded his main opponent and extended his term until 2006. His image as a liberal, pro-Western leader took a further beating when he admitted that �criminal and irresponsible elements� in his government had sold 30 MiG-21 fighter jets to North Korea.
Washington and Seoul found it hard to believe that Nazarbayev, who runs a one-man show, knew nothing of the arms deal, even though he made scapegoats of his defense minister and national security chief.
Tajikistan, bordered by warring Afghanistan and still recovering from a disastrous civil war of its own, also had a one-man election in November. To no one�s surprise, President Imomali Rakhmonov won 96 percent of the vote after his sole challenger refused to take part because of government constraints on his campaign.
In neighboring Turkmenistan, President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov doesn�t even make a pretence of democracy. Copying Stalin, he has cultivated a massive cult of personality, building palaces, mosques and airports bearing his name, erecting statues and larger-than-life portraits of himself and putting his face on all the nation�s money.
Catering to his lust for power, Turkmenistan�s tame parliament ended the last century by voting to let him remain the country�s leader for as long as he wants. �As an exception, the term in office of our first president won�t be limited,� the legislature announced Dec. 28.
Niyazov then promised free gas, water and electricity to all Turkmen citizens, along with two pounds of salt a month and a doubling of the minimum monthly wage to $50. But he cannot deliver since his country is broke.
In the latest mockery of democracy, Uzbekistan�s President Islam Karimov won 92 percent of the vote in a Sunday election that saw his only opponent cast his ballot for the incumbent because he �wanted stability.�
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe refused to monitor the Uzbek poll, saying voters were denied a �genuine choice.�
It charged that the only other presidential contender, an obscure philosopher named Abdulkhafiz Dzhalalov, was a puppet added to give the election a gloss of legitimacy.
Uzbekistan is rich in gold, base metals and natural gas and is one of the world�s largest cotton exporters. But slow market reforms and growing unrest by Islamic fundamentalists have scared off foreign investors. The average wage is only $10 a month, and much industry lies stagnant.
Bomb blasts aimed at Karimov killed 16 people in February. There was a hostage-taking incident in March and a shootout in a holiday resort in November that claimed 19 more lives. Blaming Muslim radicals, Karimov ordered a security crackdown in which six suspects were executed and many more sentenced to long prison terms.
Critics say he is using the threat of Muslim fundamentalism as an excuse to crush all opposition.
Kyrgyzstan�s Askar Akayev is perceived by the West to be the least authoritarian of Central Asia�s leaders. But he too has jailed political adversaries in the runup to presidential and parliamentary elections later this year.
While conceding that Islamic radicals pose �legitimate security concerns� for Central Asian governments, Human Rights Watch says their response has been �thoroughly disproportionate to any threat presented.�
And it blames both the Clinton administration and the European Union for closing their eyes to such abuses while �granting lucrative trade benefits� to the dictators responsible.
So much for a foreign policy based on human rights.
By Michael Lelyveld
and Sarah Martin
As the Caspian competition continues, a U.S. expert sees theoretical advantages for Iranian export routes but finds there are too many problems in the way. RFE/RL Correspondent Michael Lelyveld files this report:
Washington, 13 January
Iran may represent the lowest-cost outlet for Caspian Sea oil, a U.S. consultant told Middle East experts this week. But he concluded that the routes may not be used because of a combination of problems, including sanctions policy and Iranian inefficiency.
Thomas Stauffer, a former professor of Middle East economics and energy at Harvard and Georgetown universities, told a group at the Middle East Institute in Washington that Caspian oil swaps through Iran could offer significant savings over alternative export plans, at least in theory.
�Now, the advantages of moving oil through Iran are rather compelling. The infrastructure actually exists. There are pipelines, which now carry oil from southern Iran to the north. These could be reversed with minor alterations. The export facilities already exist in southern Iran and indeed they are significantly underutilized. Iran has in various states of repair almost 8 million barrels per day of export capacity and is now exporting something less than 3 million,� Stauffer said.
Stauffer believes that using the pipelines and port facilities for direct export across Iran would be inefficient. But he pointed to potential savings from oil swaps, particularly for smaller volumes of oil.
For volumes up to 400,000 barrels per day, Iran�s cost for swaps would be only about 40 cents per barrel, Stauffer estimated. The cost would rise to about $1 per barrel for volumes up to 1 million barrels per day, he said.
Iran has actively promoted the option of swapping or exchanging oil with Caspian producing countries for several years. The swap mechanism works by importing oil for local use in Iran�s northern refineries, while an equal amount of Iranian crude is exported in the south through Persian Gulf ports.
Swap volumes have so far remained small, however, mainly due to technical problems with handling Kazakhstan�s oil, which has a high sulfur content. Companies operating in Turkmenistan have also been swapping oil, but their volumes also remain relatively small.
Iran has also been charging a high premium for conducting the swaps, a fee known as a netback charge. Tehran reduced its netback charge at the start of the year in order to compete with the pipeline fees of the planned Baku-Ceyhan project, which is backed by the United States. The line from the Caspian to Turkey�s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan is designed to carry 1 million barrels per day at a charge of $2 and 58 cents per barrel.
Stauffer cautioned that while Iran�s swap costs could be low, there is no telling what it will charge. U.S. sanctions policy also stands in the way of any advantage that American oil companies might gain from using the route, he said.
But Stauffer was equally critical of Iran�s seeming inability to exploit the natural advantage of the swap option. So far, Iran has failed to put together a deal for building a 392-kilometer swap pipeline that would connect its Caspian port at Neka with its refinery near Tehran. Iran might have had a serious impact on the Baku-Ceyhan project if it had succeeded earlier in organizing and marketing swaps as an option, said Stauffer.
�But the Iranians have shown themselves to be as inept as our administration. They haven�t put the project together. This project has been stalemated for about two years even though several companies have submitted viable bids on the project,� he said.
Lengthy negotiations with the China National Petroleum Corporation on building the swap line fell apart last year over financing. So far, a second round of talks with Chinese companies does not appear to have borne fruit. In the meantime, any natural advantage of swaps may be slipping away as the United States, Azerbaijan and Turkey press forward with plans for the Baku-Ceyhan line.
�The Iranian connection for oil is economic, but it�s the Iranians at this point who are the stumbling block,� Stauffer said.
Jan 15, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
The first hunt of the season has begun in northern Kazakhstan to try to cull the growing number of wolves which in recent months have been terrorising live stock in the region.
Local officials in Akhtuba say there are more than 5,000 wolves this year prowling the desert wilderness of north-western Kazakhstan where people pasture their flocks.
They say that is almost double the number of wolves there were last year, moving at speeds of 30, sometimes 40 kilometres a night across the vast Kazakh steppe.
In Kazakhstan�s east, where the winds howl across the frontier from Siberia, the situation is said to be even worse.
Already 400 sheep and 90 cattle have been killed in Akhtuba alone.
At this time of the year temperatures drop to minus 40 degrees centigrade in the wildest reaches of the steppe and the fear is as winter drags on the wolves will become more daring in their desperate search for food.
All Over the Globe is published by IPA House.
© 1998 IPA House. All Rights Reserved.