Weekly news wrap

Chairman-in-Office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy addressed an international conference on education organised by the OSCE in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, on Monday, on the first step of his week-long tour of the Central Asian region.

Education is one of the priorities for the activities of the organization this year. "Specifically for the Central Asian region, it is believed that a modern education system with high standards can help foster stability and security, and provide a further impetus to progress towards achieving OSCE standards and ensuring full attention to its principles," OSCE said in a statement on Monday. Local media reported that the OSCE pledged support to Tashkent in terms of democratic reforms and security issues.

In his second stop in the region in Kazakhstan, Passy discussed on Tuesday that country's bid to take on the OSCE Chairmanship in 2009, suggesting it develop an action plan to prepare for this challenge before the candidacy came up for consideration by the 55 participating States in 2006. The OSCE Chairman-in-Office also met high-ranking government officials.

In the meetings, Minister Passy praised the advance of reform in the region's largest nation. The Kazakh Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency reported that Passy noted "a big progress" made in democratic reforms that were currently under way in Kazakhstan.

"It takes time to develop democracy. I am confident that Kazakhstan is on the right direction," the agency quoted him as saying. In Passy's view, the oil-rich ex-Soviet republic, compared with other countries in the region, was "much ahead and this is already a big achievement."

The Chairman-in-Office also raised the issue of the media law recently passed by parliament, suggesting that such an important piece of legislation should fully meet international and OSCE standards. The law has been strongly criticised by both international and local media groups describing it as a step backwards in terms of media freedom in the country.

Also on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) slammed Astana for allegedly harassing opposition figures ahead of parliamentary elections. "The government is attempting to keep its fiercest critics out of the media and out of politics," said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia Division. "This is going to undermine the integrity of the elections this fall."

A report from the New York-based group detailed alleged harassment of Kazakh opposition figures through arbitrary criminal and misdemeanour charges and threats of job dismissal, in many cases aimed at preventing them from running for public office.

On Wednesday, in Kyrgyzstan, his third stop, Passy said that the OSCE would do everything possible for the upcoming elections in the country in 2005 to be free and fair, hailing the country's commitment to abolishing death penalty. "There are many examples that could be used in other parts of the region, such as Kyrgyzstan's suspension of the death penalty and its reduction of capital crimes, which are hopeful signs leading towards its total abolition," he said. Kyrgyzstan has extended a moratorium on the capital punishment until the end of 2004. Under a national human rights programme, Bishkek is expected to abolish the death penalty by 2010.

On Thursday, Passy held talks with Tajik President Emomali Rahmonov and other top officials to address "threats as international terrorism, religious extremism and drug trafficking," AFP reported, citing Rahmonov's office.

Tajikistan is a main smuggling route for drugs destined for Western markets from Afghanistan, which produces 77 percent of the world's opium from which heroin is made. The OSCE and Tajik foreign ministry signed an agreement allowing for the second phase of the Mine Action Project to go ahead. In the first phase the OSCE allocated some $650,000, which allowed Tajikistan to set up the Tajik Mine Action Centre and to train qualified specialists in mine clearing. The acting OSCE chairman is scheduled to visit Turkmenistan on Friday.

Staying in Tajikistan, the World Bank's (WB) regional director for Central Asia, Dennis de Tray, met with top government officials on Monday to discuss the effectiveness of using loans and grants allocated for implementing projects in Tajikistan, the Tajik media reported. The Bank, which Tajikistan joined in 1993, channelled some $325 million in loans and grants to the mountainous Central Asian nation since then. At present the World Bank finances eight investment and one technical project worth some $166.5 million in the country.

Meanwhile, Uzbekistan is undermining democratic principles and violating the rights of their citizens, according to a report by Freedom House released on Tuesday. The government had committed gross violations of human rights and religious freedom, said the media and rights watchdog. Tashkent, the survey said, has instituted few reforms since it became independent after the break-up of the Soviet Union and shows a "monolithic unwillingness to make meaningful democratic reforms." The report also accused the most populous Central Asian state of mass arrests of opposition Muslims.

And in Kazakhstan, a number of newborns were reportedly suffering complications after receiving a Yugoslavian tuberculosis vaccine, a local Express-K newspaper reported on Thursday, adding that the vaccine had been given to thousands of babies. After the vaccinations, some children got fever and their underarm lymph nodes swelled. Medical workers consider the vaccine made in Serbia had changed its characteristics due to improper transportation and storage conditions.

Dozens of babies suffered complications after the vaccination, the report maintained, adding nobody knew exactly how many children had fallen ill. The children in Kazakhstan were vaccinated with BCG, often given to infants and small children in countries where TB is common.