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Central Asia: Summit Arouses Quiet Surprise

  • Bruce Pannier

Prague, 8 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan assembled in a remarkable Central Asian summit Monday and yesterday.

The gathering was notable not so much for its content, which was sketchy -- at least for public consumption.

The meeting was remarkable for the fact that it happened at all.

Since the five nations won independence in 1991 in the collapse of the Soviet Union, their leaders always have had substantial matters to discuss. But rivalries between them, both personal and national, worked to inhibit collaboration.

That the conference convened in Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital, added an element of surprise. Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov long has erected barriers to a five-way summit. Confident that his country's wealth in oil and natural gas will turn the sparsely populated, desert state into an oasis, Niyazov has stood aloof. United Nations recognition of Turkmenistan in 1995 as a neutral state supported his determination to avoid closer ties to his neighbors.

Turkmenistan, like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has been frustrated somewhat in early attempts to export fuels to markets outside the CIS. However, a deal signed between Kazakhstan and China last year promises to open a new route for exporting hydrocarbons to the Pacific Rim. And the opening of the Turkmen-Iranian pipeline just before the end of last year brings the hope that exports to Europe will soon be possible.

The suddenness of the conference, without an evident urgent need to meet, was mysterious. The last time the leaders of all five countries, and only these leaders, gathered together was in December 1991. A reason for urgency then was clear. The USSR had collapsed and the CIS -- Commonwealth of Independent States -- formed without any of the leaders of Central Asia's republics even being asked for their opinion. By contrast, the parties announced this month's conference only the day before it convened without even an agreed agenda.

Possible explanations for the fact that all five presidents gathered in the same building to talk with each other are varied. One is that they felt a need to forge a common Central Asian front with the next CIS summit looming. Another is they wanted to discuss the perceived growing threat from Islamic fundamentalists in their region.

Another, especially interesting, possibility is that this hastily convened conference was related to a visit by Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to Uzbekistan in the second half of December, a visit by Russia's Minister on CIS Affairs Leonid Adamishin to Tajikistan at approximately the same time, and a visit of Iran's new president and chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Mohammad Khatami to Turkmenistan. Chernomyrdin is returning to the area next week for official visits to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

Some of what was said at the summit was old and some new. But recent high level visits to the area by Russian officials and the Iranian president may have proved a catalyst to bring the five presidents together. So, it seemed natural that at the conclusion of this meeting they issued a call for more Central Asian cooperation between the five.

Uzbekistan would like to export its hydrocarbons and the Kazakh-Chinese and Turkmen-Iranian pipelines may provide Uzbekistan with an opportunity if Tashkent can cultivate better relations with its northern and western neighbors. There was some evidence such cooperation could be forthcoming when Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan agreed to renew shipments of fuel to regions in southern Kazakhstan which have been experiencing severe shortages of energy for several years.

The idea of a Central Asian Union may get a boost also though it appears that complete, five-country, or even a "three plus two" union remain distant. Even before the conference, Tajikistan expressed an interest in joining a Central Asian Union alongside Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Niyazov's press secretary hinted at interest in the union. He said that Turkmenistan's neutral status prohibits it from joining such a union. But then he added these words: "Solutions by the Central Asian union to the problems of energy transportation and the development of pipelines could be of interest to Saparmurat Niyazov."

He pointed out that Turkmenistan already cooperates with the other four states through organizations such as the Economic Cooperation Organization (of which Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan are also members) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

The problem of narcotics in the region also got attention. Uzbek President Islam Karimov, backed by Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akayev, called on Turkmenistan to police its borders better. The five countries represented at the conference are becoming as internationally well known for their drug trade as for their mineral wealth. A united effort would seem at this point to be essential and perhaps even then, no more than a band-aid on a gaping wound.

The states' relationship within the framework of the CIS was discussed but a statement issued after the conference differed little from earlier statements concerning the CIS.

For the five Central Asian states to convene a summit was an unexpected start for 1998. Little of what transpired behind closed doors has been made public. What seems evident is that the five countries finally are joining efforts rather than working at cross purposes. Such cooperation would facilitate exporting the region's mineral wealth abroad. It might even influence events in Afghanistan and reestablish Central Asia as the crossroads of east-west trade.