In a move widely seen as yet further recognition of Central Asia's growing importance on the global stage following the events of 11 September, World Bank Chief James Wolfensohn spent the past week on a five-country tour of Central Asia to push for the introduction of poverty reduction schemes designed to boost stability in a region riven by poverty, unemployment and corruption. In a statement the bank said that Wolfensohn's tour focused on, "the reforms needed to reduce poverty and promote equitable and sustainable development."
Wolfensohn's trip came hot on the heels of an Asian Development Bank report forecasting that economic growth in Central Asia is expected to remain buoyant in the coming year with most countries in the region enjoying growth rates of between five and seven percent. Although these predictions represent a slight downturn on the region's economic performance last year, Tajikistan is expected to record double-digit growth this year as foreign investment into the region continues to grow.
Among other engagements during his eight-day tour Wolfensohn attended an economic summit of Central Asian leaders in the Kazakh city of Almaty on Monday after which he announced that discussions to implement a US $700 million loan package to Kazakhstan were underway. The summit was opened by Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev who said that the Central Asian countries had come to understand the value of closer cooperation between states and said that all countries were now working together towards the common goals of development and poverty reduction.
The summit was however overshadowed by a deepening political crisis within the country which has seen two senior opposition figures arrested in as many weeks as part of a government campaign to tackle corruption in Kazakhstan. Government detractors however claimed that the arrests were part of a strategy aimed at silencing dissent within the country.
On Tuesday at least eight opposition supporters were arrested in Almaty near to the hotel where the summit was being held. Meanwhile, former government member turned critic, and one of the leaders of the Democratic Choice opposition movement, Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, who had been placed under house arrest last week was unexpectedly moved to the northern city of Pavlodar on Wednesday.
Zhakiyanov had spent much of the previous week holed up in the French Embassy in Almaty having sought refuge there in an attempt to escape arrest. After a series of negotiations Zhakiyanov left the embassy after apparently striking a deal with Kazakh authorities that he would not be imprisoned but held under house arrest at his residence instead. The crackdown on opposition figures is just the latest move in a government campaign manifested earlier this year by the forced closure of a number of the country's independent newspapers and television stations. Both the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe expressed their "deep concern" over the turn of events.
And international criticism was not just reserved for Kazakhstan as the United States weighed in its voice on Wednesday saying that it regretted the extension of Uzbek President Islam Karimov's term of office. The Uzbek parliament proclaimed in the first week of April that Karimov's term of office is to be extended by nearly three years taking a mandated five-year term close to eight years. "We regret what appears to be an arbitrary extension of the constitutionally mandated term in office," said a US State Department spokesman. In 1995 Karimov extended his tenure by five years and when elections were eventually held in 2000 they were widely condemned as unfair.
The US criticism comes just one month after Karimov was feted by US leaders, eager to extend their thanks for Karimov's help in Washington's "war on terror", during a state visit to Washington.
Neither was there particularly good news for Uzbekistan's health officials following the news that with the growing incidence of drug abuse in the country an attendant AIDS epidemic is expected. According to the United Nations Drug Control Programme there are now as many as 20,000 drug addicts in Uzbekistan.
Neighbouring Tajikistan meanwhile received a boost in its efforts to halt sliding unemployment and growing poverty in the country when the Swiss government announced that it was set to triple their existing aid package to the country to more than US $25 million. The Swiss Foreign Minister Joseph Deiss also said that his country would simultaneously double aid to Kyrgyzstan taking its assistance to one of Central Asia's poorest countries to US $10 million.
Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev meanwhile signalled his intent to ward off unwelcome international criticism of his regime when he paid an unexpected visit to the country's troubled southern region which last month was the scene of violent anti-government protests that left five dead and scores injured.
During his visit, Akayev sought to appease the fears of Kyrgyzstan's southern population who feel excluded by the more prosperous north by sacking the local chief of police and chief prosecutor and recommending that the regional parliament replace its governor. "Responsibility for the bloodletting ... lies with the local authorities," said Akayev, who brought with him to the south hundreds of metric tons of food relief as part of an apparent hearts and minds campaign designed to restore his wavering credibility in the south of the country.