On July 7, 2005, Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the United States of failing to honor its financial obligations towards Uzbekistan. This was a transparent excuse. The United States had no financial obligations towards Uzbekistan. The Uzbek communiqué was the precursor to a formal eviction notice.
Tashkent gave U.S. forces 180 days to leave the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base. This brought an end to a strategic partnership that was forged in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Tashkent’s move surprised many observers at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight it is reasonable to argue that the writing had already been on the wall for months. This paper examines the dynamics of U.S.-Uzbek relations and the single most important factor that broke the alliance.
A critical factor in policy making in post-Soviet Central Asia is the confluence of “national interests” with “regime interests.” This is, of course, not unique; as a general rule, authoritarian regimes exhibit a pronounced tendency to project their own interests onto the nation. “National interests,” in effect, become a euphemism for what is in the best interest of the ruling
regime. This confusion is exaggerated in Central Asia. For example, in Turkmenistan, the late president named cities after himself or his mother and even renamed the months of the year after his mother. This is an extreme case. But other leaders are not far behind. In Uzbekistan, the ruling regime has systematically presented President Islam Karimov as the savior of the nation, a reincarnation of the fourteenth century hero and champion of Uzbek traditions, Amir Timur. In this paradigm, President Karimov and his government have an exclusive monopoly on defining what is in the best interests of the nation. Regime continuity, therefore, is seen by those in power as synonymous with national security.
This confluence has played itself out in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy. Since independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has maintained a difficult relationship with Russia and the United States, marked by an apparent inconsistency. In the early days of independence, the Uzbek leadership pursued a thinly disguised hostile policy towards Russia and openly courted the United States. Following the September 11 attacks and the U.S. involvement in Central Asia and Afghanistan, Tashkent moved speedily
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to consolidate its relations with Washington, leading to the March 2002 bilateral Security Partnership Agreement, the first and to date only one of its kind in Central Asia.
But three years after the signing of the historic agreement, the Uzbek leadership added its voice to those of Russia and China to remove the United States from Central Asia. This appears to be a complete turn around and contradicts everything that Tashkent had pursued. But this contradiction masks the core criterion that has informed Uzbekistan’s foreign relations with the great powers, i.e., the Uzbek leadership’s existential obsession with maintaining and consolidating its grip on power. Every turn in Tashkent’s foreign policy pivots on this primary criterion.
The paramount importance of self-preservation explains why Uzbek President Islam Karimov, warning of the imperial undercurrents in Russian politics, could on one day ridicule Russia for its inefficiency in fighting terrorism when compared with the American success in dislodging the Taliban and then sit at a roundtable with presidents of Russia and the neighboring states to present a united front against the United States.
When the United States decided to move swiftly against the Taliban and approached the Central Asian republics for overflight rights in their airspace or access to their territories, Tashkent was overjoyed. Uzbekistan’s response was effectively instantaneous as U.S. troops began arriving in Uzbekistan before the end of September 2001. The Karshi-Khanabad Air Base near the Uzbek-Afghan border, which came to be known as K2 by the Americans, served as an important bridgehead for projecting
American force onto Afghanistan. The 1,000-strong force at K2 had direct (and short) access to Afghanistan and the forces of the Northern Alliance, which served as the fighting force in the assault against the Taliban.
The American presence in Uzbekistan and other Central Asian republics was almost universally seen as legitimate in the global response to terrorism. But this consensus did not ease concerns in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran about Washington’s long-term objectives in the region. In response, Washington denied any long-term plans for Central Asia. The U.S. commander of the military operation in Afghanistan, General Tommy Franks, told journalists, for example, that Washington had no plans to “build a permanent military base” in Central Asia.1 He also rejected suggestions that Washington was involved in a secret deal with Tashkent for a 25year lease for an American base. General Franks insisted that the United States was not in competition with Russia “for spheres of influence” in Central Asia.2 Unfortunately for General Franks, Tashkent and Washington signed their bilateral security partnership shortly after, making his comments look disingenuous. President Karimov added fuel to the fire of anti-American hysteria in Moscow by insisting that the “Americans should not leave our region until peace and stability is established throughout Central Asia…. They should stay as long as needed.”3
The rationale for the overtly pro-American position in Tashkent seemed obvious. There appear to have been two key factors informing this position. First, Uzbek leadership had been concerned with Islamic militancy and had consistently asked for international assistance in
combating the Islamic threat. The civil war in Tajikistan (1992-97) and the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 1996 shocked the Uzbek leadership, making them feel vulnerable to Islamic agitation. The civil war in Tajikistan was blamed on Islamic militancy at a time when similar Islamic groups in Uzbekistan were becoming more assertive and challenging the authority of the regime, its official Islamic establishment, and its credentials to represent true Islam. For the Uzbek leadership, Tajikistan presented a dangerous precedent that needed to be averted. The ascendance of the Taliban in Afghanistan only reconfirmed the threat of Islamic militancy in the minds of the Uzbek leadership. The Taliban’s anti-Karimov position and northward advance, which brought them into direct conflict with the forces of the Uzbek chieftain, General Dustum, elevated fears that the Taliban were poised to march on Samarkand and Bukhara. As far as the Uzbek leadership was concerned, Islamic militancy threatened to upset the status quo and present a real risk to the regime. Repeated appeals by Tashkent to the international community in the late 1990s to combat what they called “Islamic terrorism” were due to this risk assessment.
Second, the Uzbek leadership had been systematically engaged in burnishing its own nationalist image and was meticulous about distancing itself from the Soviet past. This was a critical project, as the leadership had remained effectively unchanged in its composition and mode of governing.
Constructing a nationalist image was, therefore, critical in redefining the leadership and its role in the future of Uzbekistan. As a result of this campaign, it became incumbent on the Uzbek leadership to present itself as defiant against
Russian imperialism. Public-relations blunders by figures like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who played on Russian nostalgia for imperial greatness, only served the Uzbek leadership and its nationalist counterparts in other Central Asian republics to further entrench themselves in their respective domestic settings as guardians of the national project. The Uzbek leadership was keenly aware of the domestic mileage it could gain through its posturing against Russia. This domestic angle can easily be overlooked when commentators explore Tashkent’s relations with the great powers and focus on Uzbekistan’s search for its place in the world as a small power in a turbulent region. But this has been a critical factor in the Uzbek leadership’s strategic thinking and its overtures towards the United States.
In the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, these overtures were received with unease in Washington. U.S. administrations had serious misgivings about associating closely with an authoritarian regime with a very questionable record on human rights. Reciprocating Tashkent’s overtures was especially problematic for what Paul Wolfowitz critically labeled the “Russia first” policy, which subordinated U.S. interests in the former Soviet bloc to U.S.-Russian relations.4 According to Frederick Starr, in testimony before Congress, Washington has “viewed policy towards Central Asia and the Caspian basin as a sub-set of some other policy concern, usually Russia, rather than a focus of American policy in its own right.”5 But, to the delight of the Uzbek authorities, these concerns were abandoned after September 11.
The removal of the Taliban from power by the U.S.-led coalition and formalization of bilateral ties between Tashkent and Washington were significant gains for the Uzbek leadership. The effective destruction of the almost single-mindedly anti-Karimov Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) during the American bombing raids on Mazar-eSharif was a tangible manifestation of this gain. Within months of the September 11 attack and the launch of the War on Terror, Uzbekistan had emerged from the shadows onto the international scene as a key U.S. partner in Central Asia and a reliable ally of the United States in combating Islamic terrorism. The signing of the security partnership between the United States and Uzbekistan in March 2002, which George
W. Bush described as a “new chapter” in U.S.-Uzbek relations, was the crowning episode in this rapid transformation.6
The new special relationship was almost immediately used by the Uzbek leadership to snub Russia and their Central Asian neighbors. The official press in Tashkent called it a sign of international recognition of the wisdom of the Uzbek leadership under President Karimov.7 A similar sentiment was put forth, albeit much more diplomatically, by the U.S. State Department when it recognized, on more than one occasion, that Uzbekistan was a “leading” state in Central Asia.8
KEEPING THE BEAR AT BAY
The rapid warming of relations between Tashkent and Washington was a source of concern for Moscow. For years, Russians had lamented their declining status as a world power. This sense was especially poignant among the top brass as their army suffered defeat and humiliation at the hands of the Chechen rebels, and Russia was forced to withdraw its border guards from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan under bilateral agreements. Russia’s sphere of influence was shrinking, and the Kremlin seemed powerless to halt the retreat. The Kremlin was acutely aware of its declining authority, and this realization added force to the multilateral approach to regional politics. This explains the energy the Russians put into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Originally known as the Shanghai Forum, the SCO was first convened in 1996 to act as a regional confidence-building initiative for former Soviet states (Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) bordering China. But it soon grew into something much bigger and more significant as both China and Russia capitalized on its potential to act as a regional bulwark against American encroachment into Central Asia. It was, therefore, only apt for the annual SCO meeting in 2005 to be used as a platform to present a united front against continued American military presence in Central Asia.9
Given the transparent anti-American bias of the Shanghai Forum, it is somewhat perplexing that Tashkent chose to associate itself with the organization. Uzbekistan does not share a border with China and was not at the initial meetings, but it was invited to attend the June 2000 meeting as an observer and formally joined at the July 2001 summit. This timing was significant; it corresponded with cross-border raids by the IMU, which were growing in frequency and audacity. In July 2001, for example, IMU forces conducted a daring raid across the Tajik-Kyrgyz border and engaged the Kyrgyz security forces.
Dealing with Islamic militancy was clearly becoming a high-priority issue for the
states involved, including China, which was concerned with cross-border links between its Muslim Uygur population and those living in exile in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. As a result, Uzbek leaders found natural allies in the Shanghai grouping.
Tashkent’s entry into the Russo-Chinese-dominated SCO was a calculated risk. By joining the SCO, Uzbek leaders risked diluting their prized anti-Russian imperialism stance. This feature of Uzbek foreign policy had reached its apogee in April 1999, when Tashkent withdrew from the CIS Collective Security Treaty after it accused Moscow of using the organization as a hegemonic tool. Now Uzbek leaders seemed to be leaving themselves open to similar hegemonic pressures, although this might have seemed a manageable risk in comparison with the tangible benefits that the SCO promised in countering the IMU.
An added reason for Uzbekistan’s entry into the SCO could have been a sense of pride. President Karimov has made it clear that Uzbekistan has a legitimate claim to regional leadership. This attitude and chronic border disputes between Uzbekistan and its neighbors have caused unease in the region and led to fears of Uzbek hegemonism. On Uzbekistan’s entry into the SCO, President Karimov even suggested that Uzbekistan was a “key strategic player” and integral to any regional security or anti-terrorist strategy.10 This sense of self-importance meant that Tashkent could not tolerate being left out of a regional organization that, by early 2001, seemed on the verge of becoming a real force against Islamic militancy, commonly labeled Islamic terrorism.
By September 11, 2001, Uzbekistan was in an ideal position of being courted by both Russia and the United States as a regional partner. Uzbek leaders could, in effect, pick and choose their international friends. Given the importance of claiming independence from their old masters in Moscow, it is not surprising that they chose to give such prominence to their alliance with Washington. Faced with a fast-changing geostrategic landscape and the apparent reluctance of American forces to leave Uzbekistan, Moscow and Beijing doubled their efforts to turn the SCO into a tangible entity beyond the annual meetings that characterized its early years. In January 2004, the SCO launched its permanent Secretariat and a standing executive body in Beijing. In the same month, Uzbekistan was offered, and accepted, the establishment of a Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure, which had originally been earmarked for Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). By this time, it seemed clear that Tashkent was maintaining two parallel, yet potentially contradictory, security alliances.
On the eve of the U.S.-troop arrival in Uzbekistan, Uzbek Foreign Affairs Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov ridiculed Moscow for trying to keep a semblance of CIS unity in foreign-policy decision making.
Uzbekistan was within its rights to invite the United States, he asserted, and was not obliged to “coordinate foreign policy with anyone.”11 One year later, President Karimov warned of a new great-power rivalry when Russia established a rapid reaction counterterrorism base in Kant (Kyrgyzstan), only 20 miles from the American base in Manas.12 At this time, Uzbekistan was enjoying an unprecedented increase in U.S. aid. According to the State Department, Tashkent enjoyed a fourfold jump in U.S. aid in 2002 ($300 million), which was substantially higher than aid to the neighboring states.13
Yet the harsh words reserved for Russia did not necessarily translate into a clean break with the Kremlin, as Tashkent was fully aware of the dictates of geography. Despite the anti-Russian rhetoric, Uzbek authorities appreciate that Russia is always going to be a key neighbor. Furthermore, the Russian political leadership— and the Chinese, for that matter— have been accommodating of the closed Uzbek political system. Russian electoral observers, for example, have consistently contradicted observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in their assessment of Uzbekistan’s experience with representative democracy. The 2000 presidential election was widely criticized by Western observers as not “free or fair,” while the CIS delegation found that it complied with “international norms.” The same discrepancy in international assessment was evident in the January 2002 referendum, which extended the term of the incumbent president until 2007.
It was clear that Russia and the United States had different expectations of their allies. The United States prides itself on the promotion of human rights, political openness and economic liberalization. This foreign-policy agenda was overshadowed by security concerns of the post-September 11 era, but Washington never abandoned it in relation to the former Soviet republics. These topics were frequently discussed and were a nagging but managed challenge to U.S.-Uzbek relations. Uzbek authorities seemed to be able to manage
U.S. concerns with human rights and democratic reforms by emphasizing the common security challenge of terrorism and making cosmetic changes. For example, the Uzbek authorities insisted on the inclusion of political reforms in the March 2002 U.S.-Uzbek security pact. This was followed by official announcements regarding the abolition of media censorship, which was almost universally seen as a positive consequence of improving bilateral relations. The first sign of trouble came in early 2004, when the State Department issued its annual human-rights report to the
U.S. Senate as part of the foreign-aid ratification process. The report identified a number of interrelated issues as seriously wanting in Uzbekistan, namely the absence of media freedom, systemic violations of human rights and significant flaws in judicial independence. In the Senate committee hearing that discussed the report, a number of key figures highlighted Tashkent’s positive achievements, but these were not sufficient for the Senate to sanction the continued level of U.S. aid to Uzbekistan.
This episode was a warning shot for the Uzbek authorities. The Uzbek leadership had tried very hard to keep its authoritarian grip on power unchallenged by making conciliatory gestures toward democratic reforms and human rights for international consumption. But by the end of 2004, it was becoming clear that this strategy had serious limitations. The Uzbek leadership could see the writing on the wall. The May 2005 massacre of protesters in Andijan brought latent tensions in U.S.-Uzbek relations to the fore, and events that followed once again changed the geostrategic landscape of Central Asia. As far as the Uzbek authorities were concerned, their alliance with the United States was losing its benefits and becoming a liability. Shifting of the security alliances seemed to be necessary in order to guard the regime against international pressure and preserve its authority.
MAY 2005 AND ITS AFTERMATH
The exact turn of events on May 13, 2005, in the city of Andijan remains murky. Unconfirmed reports indicate that some 500 people were killed or injured when security forces opened fire on street protesters following a jail break. But this is contested by Uzbek authorities. What is known is that the Andijan jail had been the focus of protest rallies by relatives of the inmates, and tensions were rife in the city due to the trials of those accused of Islamic militancy. According to official sources, however, a militant Islamic group was responsible for the jail break and the shootings. Official sources put the number of casualties at 173.14
This incident took the U.S. administration by surprise. Ferghana Valley, where the killings took place, has long been identified as suffering from severe economic issues, including overpopulation and high unemployment, making it a hotbed of radicalism and a breeding ground for Islamism. But the U.S. administration was unprepared to deal with what seemed to be a sledge-hammer security response on the part of the Uzbek authorities. While European capitals such as London were spurred into action to condemn the Uzbek crackdown in the strongest of terms, Washington vacillated. The State Department called the incident “deeply disturbing” four days after the event and asked Uzbek authorities to cooperate with an International Red Cross inquiry into the shootings.16 But the dismissive response of the Uzbek authorities and growing international calls for an independent inquiry raised the diplomatic temperature. On May 31, 2005, President Bush entered the fray, publicly asking the Uzbek authorities to allow a Red Cross investigation. Following these comments, U.S.-Uzbek relations entered a free fall. What had seemed a source of strength and regional credibility quickly metamorphosed into a source of liability for the Uzbek regime. Given the Uzbek leadership’s ultimate priority of consolidating itself under the rubric of “national security,” the subsequent events were not surprising.
The seriousness of the matter for Uzbek authorities was evident in Tashkent’s decision not to send its defense minister to the scheduled meeting of NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council.17 This meeting would have received significant publicity in the Uzbek press had it not been for the unexpected downturn in U.S.-Uzbek relations — Tashkent had previously cherished opportunities to publicize its special relationship with Washington. The souring of relations gave rise to speculation about the future of U.S. access to the K2 base. On the same day as the NATO meeting from which the Uzbek delegation absented itself, The New York Times published a story about a letter of protest by six U.S. senators to the State and Defense Departments, asking the administration to review its links with Uzbekistan.18
By this point, Uzbek authorities had already realigned their strategic thinking and invited a group of Russian experts to verify their version of events in Andijan. President Karimov met a Russian delegation of political analysts on June 10 and declared his confidence in their “unbiased and objective evaluation of issues” to help Uzbekistan deal with the “information attack.”19 The reference to an “information attack” was a not-too-subtle dismissal of U.S. and European concerns. The growing gap between Tashkent and the United States became more evident when the official daily published a dismissive account of Western diplomats’ criticism of Uzbekistan, calling Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw “foreign-policy dinosaurs.”20 Relations between Tashkent and Washington slumped to a new low when President Karimov appeared on Russian television along with President Putin and accused the United States of sponsoring the demonstrators in Andijan and “script writing” a revolution.21
The reference to scripted revolutions by President Karimov revealed the depth of Tashkent’s uneasiness about the activity of various internationally funded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the role they had played in Georgia, Ukraine and neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, who lost his post for his outspoken views on the violation of human rights in that country, has argued that Edward Shevardnadze of Georgia had already warned President Karimov of the dangers posed by the Soros Foundation, one of the largest and most active international organizations committed to promoting civil society in the former Soviet space.22 This warning was echoed by Askar Akaev, the deposed president of Kyrgyzstan, who accused the United States of masterminding the so-called “tulip revolution” through NGOs. The Kyrgyz Tulip Revolution came in March 2005, only a few months before the Andijan events. There is little doubt that President Karimov saw Andijan as an attempt to replicate the color revolutions.
President Karimov has been convinced that NGOs pose a serious threat to his regime. He views all NGOs, especially those receiving financial aid from abroad (primarily the United States), as potential cells of political opposition. For that reason, the ruling regime has a low tolerance threshold for NGOs and has confronted them with a labyrinth of bureaucratic obstacles. At the same time, the ruling regime also acknowledges that it needs to tolerate some degree of NGO activity in order to appease Western concerns about political reform. This has been a very difficult balance, but one that seemed to satisfy the United States, at least in the heat of anti-terror coalition building.
As far as the Uzbek leadership was concerned, Tashkent and Washington were parties to a Brezhnevite social contract: the Uzbeks pretended to engage in political reforms, and the Americans pretended to see results. All the while, both parties cooperated to root out Islamists, their common enemy. But with the growing seriousness of American demands for reforms and the protection of human rights, this contract started to crumble. This arrangement was seen as advantageous in Tashkent in so far as it helped protect the status quo and insulate the regime against threats. But the costs of maintaining this false contract fast outweighed its benefits, and the Uzbek authorities used the U.S. position on Andijan as a trigger to free themselves.
On July 6, 2005, Uzbekistan joined Russia and China on the side of an SCO convention to ask for a clear timeline for
U.S. withdrawal from Central Asia. Three weeks later, Tashkent delivered a notice to the State Department formally evicting the
U.S. forces at K2.23
Uzbekistan’s foreign relations have been volatile and sometimes contradictory. It has had a love-hate relationship with the United States and Russia. But one underlying factor has remained constant throughout the short history of the Uzbek state: the determination of the regime to use all avenues (internal and external) to bolster its hold on power and avert any change that might undermine its long-term prospects. This guiding principle inclined Tashkent towards Washington because the United States appeared to be a much more efficient force in dealing with the Islamist threat in Central Asia. In spite of repeated commitments by Russia and China to fighting terrorism, the Uzbek leadership was openly doubtful about the capability of these regional powers to eliminate that threat and concerned about the damage to its anti-Russian-imperialist image if it identified too closely with Moscow. The sudden American interest in Uzbekistan was, therefore, warmly welcomed in Tashkent. Uzbekistan’s entry into the U.S. led anti-terror campaign appeared to pay handsome dividends, as the United States eliminated the threat of the Taliban and the IMU, in addition to providing Uzbekistan with much-needed technical and financial aid to bolster the economy and, of course, its security forces.
For a short while, it seemed to the Uzbek authorities that the price tag for theclose U.S.-Uzbek relationship was affordable. Tashkent was aware of the importance of human rights in U.S. foreign policy thinking and was more than prepared to pay lip service to that agenda. This strategy seemed to work while the United States was distracted with more immediate security problems in the region. But the May 2005 events put an end to the brief U.S.-Uzbek honeymoon. Washington’s call for an international investigation into the events, although expressed in a very diplomatic and mild manner, signaled to the Uzbeks the growing risks entailed in U.S.-Uzbek ties. These risks to Uzbek authority were deemed unacceptable, leading Tashkent to take the stunning step of serving an eviction notice on the Americans. No doubt this move will be presented in the official historiography of Uzbekistan as further evidence of the leadership’s wisdom and commitment to protecting national sovereignty.
Uzbek leaders appear to be well aware of the strategic importance of their country and the consequent interests of both Moscow and Washington in having access to it. This knowledge has offered them a certain degree of latitude, and to date they seem to have developed a flexible posture toward security alliances and foreign relations. This has effectively meant that they could pick and chose their international allies to bolster their domestic hold on power.
1 RFE/RL, Newsline, January 24, 2002.
2 RFE/RL, Newsline, January 25, 2002.
3 Vasili Viktorov, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 8, 2002.
4 Paul D. Wolfowitz, “Clinton’s First Year,” Foreign Affairs, Vol.73, No.1 (Jan.-Feb. 1994), p. 41.
5 S. Frederick Starr before the House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. Federal News Service, February 12, 1998.
6 Agence France-Presse, March 13, 2002.
7 Narodnoye Slovo, March 27, 2002.
8 Allan Larsen, U.S. undersecretary of state, told reporters, “Uzbekistan holds a leading place in Central
Asia,” RIA Novosti, December 14, 2002.
9 Ann Scott Tyson, “Russia and China Bullying Central Asia, U.S. Says,” The Washington Post, July 15, 2005.
10 Itar-Tass, June 13, 2002.
11 Jamestown Foundation, Fortnight in Review, Volume 7, Issue 19 (September 28, 2001).
12 RFE/RL, Newsline, December 12, 2002.
13 Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, “U.S. Government Assistance to and Cooperative Activities with EurasiaFY 2002,” released January 2003; http://www.state.gov/p/eur/rls/rpt/23630.htm.
14 Neil Buckley and Demetri Sevastopulo, “Russia Rejects Calls for Wider Uzbekistan Inquiry,” Financial Times, 10 June 2005.
15 RFE/RL, May 17, 2005.
16 RFE/RL, June 2, 2005.
17 RFE/RL, June 10, 2005.
18 C. J. Chivers, “Six Senators Urge Reassessment of Ties with Uzbekistan Ruler,” The New York Times, June 9, 2005.
19 RFE/RL, June 13, 2005.
20 Pravda Vostoka, June 17, 2005.
21 C. J. Chivers, “Central Asians Call on U.S. to Set Timetable for Closing Bases,” The New York Times, July 6, 2005.
22 Craig Murray, “Why the U.S. Won’t Admit It Was Jilted,” The Guardian, August 3, 2005
23 RFE/RL, August 1, 2005.