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Central Asia: Is The Region Entering A New Era Of Cooperation?

  • Bruce Pannier --> In a sign of the times, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (left) held talks this week in Bishkek with his Kyrgyz counterpart, Kurmanbek Bakiev (official site) Central Asia seems to have entered a new period of cooperation. Regional leaders are making official visits to neighboring states at a rate not seen since the early days after the fall of the Soviet Union. What's driving this new dynamic?

September 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The latest example is this week's visit by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon to Kyrgyzstan.

"We touched on the difficult issue of territorial delimitation and spoke in favor of a calm resolution of the issue that we inherited from history in a spirit of brotherhood, neighborly relations, in a constructive atmosphere, with mutual respect for our interests," Rahmon said.

Some might say, "So what?" The Tajik president took a one-hour flight to visit the head of a neighboring state. But it's the first time Rahmon has paid an official state visit to Kyrgyzstan since the March 2005 Tulip Revolution that brought Kurmanbek Bakiev to power.

And Bakiev was not the only Central Asian head of state Rahmon held talks with this month. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev visited Tajikistan earlier this month with some good news for the Tajik people.

"We agreed to establish a special investment fund of $100 million," Nazarbaev said. "The Kazakh side will contribute its significant part. The fund will work for the benefit of the Tajik economy. I believe it will be good support."

'Great Potential'

During the same trip, Nazarbaev also visited Turkmenistan to meet with that country's new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. The new Turkmen leader hinted that better days are ahead for Turkmen-Kazakh relations.

"One of the priority aspects of our cooperation is the further intensification of bilateral trade and economic relations," Berdymukhammedov said. "In this regard, we have great potential in the realization of large-scale projects in the field of trade, energy, transportation, and telecommunications."

Nazarbaev's visit to Ashgabat this month was actually the Kazakh president's second trip to Turkmenistan this year, something of a record for visits to Turkmenistan by a head of state. Nazarbaev was in Turkmenistan in May when Russian President Vladimir Putin was visiting, and the three heads of state signed an agreement on pipelines to export natural gas.

Uzbek Comeback

Uzbekistan has not been left out of this new era of cooperation either. Uzbek President Islam Karimov is due to visit Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in October -- two countries that have often had very strained relations with Uzbekistan.

Tajikistan for example, gets most its natural gas from Uzbekistan, but Uzbek authorities have used this as leverage in relations with Tajikistan. When the Tajik government makes decisions that the Uzbek government disagrees with, the gas supplies often are reduced or cut off entirely, though officially the reason is always technical problems. Kyrgyzstan has experienced a similar problem with Uzbekistan.

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been on bad terms almost since they became independent in 1991. But more recently the Turkmen authorities blame the Uzbek government for helping would-be assassins who allegedly tried to kill former Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in November 2002.

The Uzbek Embassy in Ashgabat was searched at that time -- in defiance of international law -- and the Uzbek ambassador to Turkmenistan was declared persona non grata shortly after the incident. In fact, Karimov's last official visit to Turkmenistan was nearly nine years ago -- in October 1998. The reason for that visit was the advance of Afghanistan's Taliban movement to the borders of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Of course, the leaders of the five Central Asian states do see each other when they attend various meetings, like CIS gatherings or, in the case of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, at summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

But while such summits may include security as a leading topic on the agenda, they do not do much to promote regional cooperation in Central Asia. And prior to this busy month of visits, the leaders of the five countries had been making fewer and fewer official visits to other Central Asian states.

Factors Behind Developments

Several factors could be driving this new era of cooperation in Central Asia.

The first is the change in leadership in Turkmenistan. Berdymukhammedov's predecessor -- Saparmurat Niyazov -- made Turkmenistan a very reclusive state. Niyazov did not commit his country to regional groups like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the now-defunct Central Asian Economic Union. Niyazov also did not ever see any reason to talk about regional security.

Another factor drawing the Central Asian states closer together is Kazakhstan's emergence as the regional economic powerhouse. Revenues from oil and natural gas exports are finally starting to drive Kazakhstan's economy upward, and with this extra money the Kazakh government and Kazakh businesspeople are investing huge sums in neighboring Central Asian countries.

When the Taliban movement's forces seized control of Kabul in September 1996, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan sent representatives to Almaty to discuss this threat to security. Turkmenistan, buoyed by its status as a UN-recognized neutral state, chose not to attend that conference or any regional security conference after that.

But Berdymukhammedov has placed a priority on developing better relations with his Central Asian neighbors, a fact that is not only noticed but was rewarded with an invitation as an observer to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Bishkek in August.

Berdymukhammedov's government is promising even more cooperation with its Central Asian neighbors, including energy exports to energy-starved Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Another factor drawing the Central Asian states closer together is Kazakhstan's emergence as the regional economic powerhouse. Revenues from oil and natural gas exports are finally starting to drive Kazakhstan's economy upward, and with this extra money the Kazakh government and Kazakh businesspeople are investing huge sums in neighboring Central Asian countries.

There is now Kazakh investment in hydropower projects, oil and gas pipelines, banks, and other ventures in all of Central Asia. Nazarbaev's trips to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan this month were as much about trade and economic cooperation as they were about political cooperation.

One more factor compelling the five Central Asian countries toward deeper cooperation is the international community's increasing familiarity with the region.

Sensing Growing Importance?

Central Asia was barely on the map for most people until the last few years. The willingness of the five countries to cooperate with U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan helped bring new attention to the region, and the vast energy resources the region possesses kept that attention on Central Asia after those countries' role in the Afghan operation began to diminish.

But now, any number of foreign suitors are arriving in Central Asia, seeking energy supplies, metals, or merely some political influence in a strategically important area of the world that is the border between the worrisome states of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran to the south, China to the east, and Russia and Europe to the west. The five leaders of Central Asia may now be sensing the region's growing importance and a need to coordinate their approaches to various would-be regional players.

One small example is oil and natural gas exports. If Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan can agree on a price for gas that suits them all, they could avoid a potentially nasty competition that might see all reducing prices to outsell their neighbors, with a corresponding loss in profits.

If all this seems logical, then it must be mentioned that historically the region has a horrible record of cooperation. Until the area fell under the domination of the Soviet Union, it was never divided along ethnic lines. There were khanates and emirates in Central Asia and where a person lived -- not who they were ethnically -- was all that was important. A person was either a citizen of the Khivan or Kokand Khanate or the Bukharan Emirate and whether they were Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Kazakh or Turkmen made little difference. But these khanates and emirates rarely cooperated, even in the face of a common threat.

Tsarist Russia had little trouble in subduing them one at a time in the latter part of the 19th century. The Soviet plan to divide the region into republics based on titular nationalities was intended to further divide the people of Central Asia, and even today that policy seems to have succeeded. For more than a decade the five Central Asian states tended to seek help from outsiders instead of seeking it from their neighbors.

After many centuries, that may all be changing.

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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