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Central Asia: A Regional Summit Discusses Security And Water

  • Bruce Pannier

Prague, 8 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A rare event in post-Soviet times is taking place today in Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov is hosting a summit meeting of his counterparts from the Central Asian CIS states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. On the agenda are the two most important problems in the region today. One -- regional security -- is a topic of recently increasing importance. The other topic -- water use -- is among the oldest of problems in the region.

The gathering marks the third time since the five countries gained independence in 1991 that the presidents have met by themselves to talk about the regional problems which bind them. The meetings have all been held in Ashgabat.

The first was in December 1991. Then, the main topic was what to do following the collapse of the Soviet Union and, in particular, whether to participate in the emerging Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The second summit was in January 1998, but the agenda was vague, possibly because the summit was rather hastily thrown together. Islamic extremism was the one highly publicized topic. Uzbek President Islam Karimov -- whose country was just then beginning a campaign against religious extremists -- was the most vocal in calling for unified counter measures against this perceived threat.

Today's summit is the result of advanced planning by the Turkmen president. In February, Niyazov called Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akaev and the Uzbek president, who had assembled for their Central Asian Union summit in the Kazakh capital, Astana. Niyazov also called Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmonov, who mysteriously was not in Astana (Turkmenistan is the only country of the five not in the Central Asian Union), and invited him to this month's summit.

The issue of security has never been more important for these newly independent countries. The February Astana meeting came three days after a series of bombs went off in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. Though the bombs hit different parts of the city, the investigation is being conducted under the assumption they were an attempt on the president's life. Islamic extremists are being blamed.

President Karimov isn't the only president at the summit to have this experience. An attempt was made on Tajik President Rakhmonov's life in April 1997, in Tajikistan's second largest city, Khujand. That incident is believed to have been sparked by a personal vendetta against Rakhmonov, not by any struggle with Islamists.

There is also the matter of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, which borders Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The orthodox and strict version of Islamic (Shari'a) law that the Taliban movement is imposing on the approximately 90 percent of Afghanistan it occupies is contrary to the various styles of leadership practiced in CIS Central Asia. All five countries have had some form of contact with Taliban representatives in the last year. But concern over the motives of the Taliban and the movement's potential for destabilizing the region persist.

Another problem that comes from Afghanistan but literally grows in CIS Central Asia is narcotics. All five countries are gaining a dubious international reputation as drug trafficking zones as tons of heroin, opium and hashish are confiscated by these countries' authorities every month. By the admission of the region's leaders, the narcotics seized represent only about five to 10 percent of all the narcotics smuggled through the area on the way west.

The other main summit issue -- water -- has always been a touchy subject in the region. A general geographical description would be that most of the region -- starting at the shores of the Caspian Sea and moving east -- is arid desert and steppe land. Only in the eastern boundaries of the states' political borders do the Pamir and Tien-Shan mountain ranges rise and provide water to all regions west. There are several large rivers but only two major arteries -- the Amu Darya and the Syr-Darya -- which together provide water for parts of all five nations.

Central Asian society is now, as it has been for millennia, agriculturally based. The introduction of mechanized farming opened up new land to agriculture, and the greater ability to provide food, and also medicines, has caused a population boom in the region. But the amount of water available is the same as it was throughout time.

Compounding the demand on limited water supplies is the dependence of these countries on cotton. Beginning in the last quarter of the 19th century under Tsarist Russia, and stretching through the Soviet era, the region was transformed largely into a cotton monoculture. The crop is easily sold on world markets and remains a vital export, especially for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But cotton plants demand great quantities of water.

The result is the well-publicized disaster around the Aral Sea, which is fed by both the Amu Darya and the Syr-Darya. Some estimates claim the two great rivers are now providing the sea with only 15 percent of the water they brought it 150 years ago. The fall in the level of the sea is measured in meters, and the salt content of the water in the sea has doubled and created an alkaline wasteland around its shores. Salt blown by the wind travels kilometers away from the sea's shores, damaging the health of inhabitants along the way.

Adding to ecological concerns, the waters of the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya contain large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides from the last kilometers of their journey to the Aral, causing illnesses among those who drink from the rivers on their final approach to the sea.

Though there had never been a census conducted in the region prior to Soviet times, the population of this region was probably between 10 to 15 million people on the eve of the 20th century. It is now rapidly approaching 50 million. With more than half the population currently under 30 years of age, it is likely to be well over 60 million midway through the 21st century. Rational use of water is, therefore, a growing necessity.

Terrorism, Islamic radicalism, narcotics and the need to use water wisely so that it can provide for a growing population should provide plenty to discuss in Ashgabat.