In a seemingly democratic gesture, Kazakh authorities handed over prominent Uzbek human rights activist Lutfulla Shamsuddinov to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on July 1. With this move the government resolved a difficult dilemma that had brought a flood of criticism from international human rights organizations.
Shamsuddinov had been a hot potato from the moment Kazakh security forces detained him in Almaty on July 4 at the request of Uzbek authorities. Suspected by Uzbek security agencies of masterminding the May riots in Andijan, Uzbekistan, and other anti-government activities, Shamsuddinov was regarded as a political refugee in Kazakhstan and a human rights activist in the West.
The most embarrassing aspect of Shamsuddinov’s detention was the fact that Kazakhstan, as a signatory state, had to strictly abide by the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, while at the same time the Minsk convention on mutual legal assistance between CIS countries demanded extradition to Uzbek authorities. The Kazakh Foreign Ministry, obviously irritated that the impending international row coincided with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) July 5 summit in Astana, tried to wave aside Western protests over the dissident’s detention. This attitude was clearly expressed by the Kazakh national coordinator of SCO activities, Sabyr Imandosov, who remarked that the UN would be better advised to tend to global issues such as Afghanistan and the Middle East instead of meddling in bilateral affairs between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (Megapolis, July11).
One of the explanations for the Kazakh authorities’ paranoia about UN and Western human rights organizations seems to be that SCO members were planning to compile their own list of terrorist organizations, similar to the black-lists issued by the CIS, Interpol, NATO, and the OSCE. Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev hoped the SCO’s list of terrorist organizations would be finalized in two or three months and, accordingly, the final decision on Shamsuddinov’s case was expected not earlier than August. Apparently, the foreign minister’s statement was nothing more than a clumsy excuse for the scandalous detention of the Uzbek dissident, which drew harsh criticism from Human Rights Watch in New York. The director of the Eurasian Political Research Center, Rustem Lesbekov, thinks that Kazakh authorities will not grant political asylum status to Uzbek refugees as long as an alliance-type relationship exists between the two countries (Zhas Alash, July 12).
Nevertheless, the handover of the Uzbek human rights activist to the UN High Commissioner is hardly surprising, given the declining international reputation of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and the prospect of Kazakhstan building closer ties with the European Union. Kazakhstan’s refusal to extradite the refugee accused by Uzbek authorities of committing terrorist acts may, however, run counter to the Central Asian integration plan advocated by Astana and raises doubts about the capability of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to develop genuine security cooperation among its member states.
The Kazakh security services have tried to find a compromise regarding Uzbek requests to send back suspected “terrorists” immediately after the Andijan massacre. On July 1 two Uzbek citizens detained in Almaty on suspicion of involvement in the Andijan events were sent back to Uzbekistan. On June 27 some 349 Uzbeks seeking refuge in Kazakhstan were taken to the Zhibek Zholy border post. But none of these cases caused noticeable protests from international organizations. Clearly, the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan could not predict that Shamsuddinov’s detention would backfire and unleash strong criticism. Handing over the dissident to the UN Kazakh authorities got rid of the volatile issue, at least for the moment. Kazakh First Deputy Prosecutor-General Ilyas Bakhtybayev hastened to sweeten the bitter taste of the setback for the Uzbek security services, saying that the handover would not spoil bilateral relations with Uzbekistan (Kazakhstan Today, July15).
Regrettably, Shamsutddinov’s case is not likely to be the last embarrassment in Kazakh-Uzbek relations if Kazakhstan continues its plan to develop stronger ties with the European Union and international human rights organizations. Kazakhstan will inevitably face a large influx of refugees from Uzbekistan who currently sheltered in refugee camps in Kyrgyzstan. Eyewitness accounts say that hostility among the impoverished Kyrgyz population towards Uzbek refugees is mounting, and that the next wave of Uzbeks fleeing their country will head to Kazakhstan. Until now Astana has responded to the woes of its neighbors merely by evicting their citizens from Kazakhstan. In the first six months of 2005 immigration police detained 14,000 Uzbeks. For them, Kazakhstan is the last save haven from persecution in their own country. Many of them refuse to proceed onward to Russian cities, fearing skinhead attacks there (Novoye pokolenye, July18).
The rising problem of Uzbek refugees in Central Asia demands the involvement of the international community. Migrants from Central Asia are unwelcome on the Kazakh job market, because the local population fears that the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz will take away their jobs. If not addressed in a timely fashion, the uncontrolled migration may lead to ethnic strife in the densely populated region.