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Central Asia: Solana To Provide Reassurance Over NATO Expansion

By Charles Recknagel and Merhat Sharipzhan

Prague, 6 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The NATO Secretary General's visit to Central Asia next week comes as Moscow and Brussels continue to strongly disagree over the Alliance's enlargement eastward in Europe. Some of the Central Asian leaders have taken differing attitudes to that dispute.

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan have invited Javier Solana to Central Asia as members of NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) program. The visit will pave the way for the PfP's first joint peacekeeping exercises to be held in Central Asia in September. The exercises, called "Turkestan-97" will take place in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and involve soldiers from a dozen countries.

A NATO spokeswoman in Brussels told RFE/RL that Solana's visit will be devoted both to PfP matters and to smoothing tensions over the alliance's plans to include some Central and Eastern European states as new members.

"Solana is trying to visit all the members of the PfP program at least once before NATO's July summit in Madrid to explain what will happen there," said Christina Gallach.

The summit will name the first wave of new member states to be admitted into the Western defense organization.

NATO's expansion is opposed by Moscow, leaving Central Asian nations caught between their links to Russia and their budding ties with Brussels. Solana will try to reassure them that NATO will solve the Moscow-Brussels dispute by enlarging and simultaneously building a special relationship with Russia.

But Solana's task could be challenging, beginning with his arrival in Almaty on Monday after first stopping in Moscow. Kazakhstan's position in the dispute has been changeable, judging from President Nursultan Nazarbayev's reactions to it.

Last year, Nazarbayev said that NATO's enlargement should be carried out while taking into consideraton Russia's interests. But just two days ago Nazarbayev told reporters in Almaty that he did not understand why it is necessary for NATO to make any quick decisions on moving eastward. He also warned that NATO's expansion was weakening the position of Russia's democrats.

There are good reasons for Kazakhstan's ambivalence in the NATO-Moscow dispute. After decades as the largest southern border republic of the Soviet Union, Almaty's military links to Moscow remain strong despite its six years of political independence.

During the Soviet era, Moscow built its main nuclear and other military test fields in Kazakhstan, and its nuclear program still needs Kazakhstan's uranium mines. Thirty years of Soviet confrontation with China created a wide range of secret military installations on the Sino-Kazakh border. On a personal level, almost all the military leaders of independent Kazakhstan trained in Russian military schools, just as all of Kazakhstan's military equipment is still produced in Russia.

Just how close military ties are between Kazakhstan and Russia could be seen last year when Almaty signed an agreement to lease four former Soviet test fields back to Moscow. The deal, which leases the fields for $26 million a year, caused protests from the Kazakh parliament, which was not consulted.

The other Central Asian countries in question have less strong military links to Moscow and have taken various positions on NATO's enlargement.

Kyrgyzstan, where Solana arrives Tuesday, has made no public statements on the issue.

Uzbekistan, which Solana visits Wednesday and Thursday, supports NATO expansion and says it should alarm no-one. In a speech last year, President Islam Karimov criticized some former Soviet republics for considering forming a counter military alliance within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Distancing Uzbekistan from any counter-blocks, Karimov called such ideas a "hint of the Cold War era."

Turkmenistan, Solana's last stop on Friday and Saturday before returning to Brussels, has taken no position on NATO enlargement. But President Saparmurad Niyazov has often stressed Turkmenistan's neutrality and said his country would not join any CIS military block.

The four Cental Asian nations joined NATO's PfP program in its first year of operation in 1994. The program fosters cooperation between NATO and its former Cold War rivals through joint training programs including military exercises aimed at peacekeeping and coping with natural disasters. Tajikistan, where a civil war raged for four years before the signing of a fragile peace accord last December, is not a member of the PfP.

As he seeks to reassure Central Asians over the NATO-Moscow rift, Solana also will invite them to move closer to NATO by becoming more involved in PfP programs in the future. NATO spokeswoman Gallach says NATO plans to expand the PfP following the July summit "mainly to satisfy would-be NATO members not included in the first wave." She says the expanded PfP would also give "countries not wishing to join NATO a chance to participate more in the Alliance's programs."

The amplified PfP, which Gallach says will be one of the major topics of NATO's July summit, would offer PfP members a place in an "Atlantic Partnership Council" to formalize the PfP's current ad-hoc meetings of members' defense or foreign ministers in Brussels. Gallach says that "the PfP members would meet at different levels and more frequently." NATO is also discussing how to increase multinational military training cooperation between PfP members.

How Moscow will react to Solana's trip to Central Asia is an open question. Although a member of the PfP itself, Moscow strongly criticized Solana last month for visiting PfP members Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. Kremlin officials accused Solana of pursuing a hidden agenda on the trip to undermine any effort by CIS countries to form a military block of their own. NATO has denied the charges, saying that Solana's trips was only intended to build PfP cooperation.

Gallach told RFE/RL that during his Central Asian trip "Solana will emphasize that there is nothing mutually exclusive about stronger ties between PfP members and countries having their own healthy and wide relationship with Moscow."