Weekly news wrap

Authorities have blamed pilot error for the crash of an Uzbek Airlines plane on 13 January. The Russian-made Yak-40, on a domestic flight from the southern Uzbek town of Termez, crashed as it attempted to land in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, killing all 37 passengers and crew, including UN resident coordinator in the country, Richard Conroy.

According to media reports this week, an unnamed source on the commission set up to investigate the crash told Russian news agencies on Saturday that the crew of the plane had tried in vain to gain height just before impact.

Conroy, described by the UN as "an example of integrity, competence and commitment to the UN's highest ideals," was buried in Tashkent on 16 January.

Also in Uzbekistan this week, media reports have begun speculating what implications a new requirement for international NGOs to register with the Justice Ministry by 1 March would have on international human rights and democracy groups working in the country. Earlier registration was done with the Foreign Ministry only, according to the Associated Press.

US diplomats, fearing that some groups might be denied registration and driven from the country, have threatened sanctions if the new policy was not reversed, the report said on Thursday. Washington argues that the requirement violates a 1994 bilateral agreement concerning groups supported by the US in the region's most populous nation.

The targeted organisations - including George Soros' Open Society Institute, the US government-backed National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute - worked with Georgian opposition groups before President Eduard Shevardnadze's ousting in November following weeks of opposition protests, the report explained.

In the field of health, Tashkent has begun taking specific measures to prevent SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) from entering the country. In accordance with a government resolution in May 2003, an emergency commission under the health ministry has been monitoring the acute respiratory infections and flu in the country. And though no cases of SARS have been registered thus far, all arriving passengers and those crossing Uzbek borders are undergoing sanitary and epidemiological control.

Staying on the issue of health, the News of Central Asia website reported on Thursday that energy-rich Turkmenistan would be switching to partially paid medical services. As part of the first phase, some specialised services such as cardiovascular, skin, nervous disorder, and gastrointestinal treatments, along with some other categories, would be available on nominal payment. In 2006, Turkmenistan plans to shift to compulsory medical insurance for all its five million citizens, with the period 2004-2005 to be used to prepare for this.

Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan, authorities on Wednesday have stated that the Chardara reservoir no longer posed a threat to the country's southern Kyzyl-Orda region following a stabilisation of water levels. Earlier there had been concerns in the south of the country that the Chardara reservoir's dam could be destroyed by an excessively huge inflow of water to the reservoir and that a considerable part of the region's territory was under threat.

Days earlier, the Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek and Tajik interstate committee for water resources called on Uzbekistan to increase the water discharge from the Chardara reservoir, Kazakh TV said on Sunday. The committee said the critical situation in the Chardara reservoir had emerged from the failure of an interstate water agreement between the four states and a lack of proper procedure for using the Naryn and Syr Darya rivers.

On the issue of press freedom, a leading Kazakh opposition party on Thursday criticised a new draft media law being considered in the upper house of parliament, warning it was undemocratic and would limit free speech. Approved in December by parliament's lower house, the bill has faced strong criticism by media rights groups, who claim it will strengthen government control over the media through stricter registration and licensing rules. Under the terms of the law, a journalist's accreditation may be withdrawn for insulting the dignity of a government official, something, Kazakhstan's Democratic Choice Party said, could lead to self-censorship by the media, as has happened in Uzbekistan.

While in Tajikistan, journalists in that country have warned that press freedom might be curtailed in the run-up to the 2005 parliamentary elections. "Pressure has recently been exerted on freedom of speech in Tajikistan," a number of journalists said at a round table meeting held on Tuesday. The meeting, entitled "Is there any threat to freedom of speech in Tajikistan?", was attended by journalists and government officials.

But Tajikistan also enjoyed a couple of positive developments over the past week as well. Washington on Tuesday announced it was softening its travel advisory to the impoverished Central Asian nation, stating security had generally improved over the past two years. The announcement noted a decrease in incidents of political violence throughout the mountainous country, warning US citizens nonetheless to think carefully before travelling as the threat of terrorist attacks remained.

Two days earlier, preventing such incidents took centre stage when Russia's 201st Motor-Rifle Division, deployed in the country and alongside the Tajik army, began the first command-and-staff anti-terrorism exercises of 2004, in an effort to boost the military's fight against international terrorism. The effort will further enhance the development of the military training of the Collective Rapid Development Forces in the Central Asian region, which includes subdivisions of the Russian, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Kazakh armed forces.

While on another important matter, Tajikistan has refined and raised the status of its Russian-based representatives on issues of labour migration. "Like Russia, Tajikistan is seeking to legalise migration processes as much as the law allows," Tajik Minister of Labour and Social Security, Mamadsho Ilolov reportedly said on Saturday.

Labour migration is a critical component of the country's fledgling economy, where annual remittances from Tajiks working abroad are equal to the government's annual budget. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 600,000 Tajiks, most of them illegally, work abroad each year, primarily in Russia.