All five Central Asian countries have expressed some level of nervousness about the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the region. To address these fears, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has proposed a meeting of regional leaders next month. RFE/RL's Roland Eggleston reports on the various countries' concerns about the possible threats that fundamentalism poses to the region's stability.
Munich, 7 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Central Asia is expected to be a central theme at the OSCE summit in Istanbul next month. Democracy-building and security in the region are on the agenda, and the summit is expected to issue a declaration on the need for more cooperation to protect Central Asian stability.
This week, the OSCE chairman proposed a separate Central Asian conference, to be held alongside the OSCE's Istanbul summit. The chairman, Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, invited the presidents of the five Central Asian member countries to the proposed meeting during his recent Central Asian tour. Vollebaek visited all five countries last week and met with government and opposition leaders.
Vollebaek told RFE/RL that no firm decision has been taken on whether to convene the Central Asian mini-summit, but he said none of the countries declined the invitation. Vollebaek said he envisions the meeting as a forum to discuss all forms of regional cooperation -- not just security, but also cooperation on issues such as water and energy resources.
Vollebaek said his tour of Central Asia has shown there is a real fear of religious fundamentalism in all five countries. He said the OSCE is holding internal discussions on how the organization can assist the Central Asian states in combating it.
"There is no doubt that they fear religious fundamentalism. That has been very prominent in all my conversations. I think this is an issue we have to discuss very seriously within the context of the OSCE."
Vollebaek said that in all his meetings last week, the discussions eventually turned to the conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan, where Islamic militants have been holding hostages since August. He said the situation seems to symbolize the fears the five countries have about Islamic fundamentalists.
Vollebaek said Kyrgyzstan is also alarmed about fundamentalist groups in the Osh region, where there have been frequent outbreaks of trouble. Recently, several members of the Wahhabite community, an Islamic sect originating in Saudi Arabia, have been arrested in the Osh region on charges of fomenting religious feuds.
Kyrgyzstan is not only concerned with the religious views espoused by these groups, it's also worried about the links some of them have with international drug smugglers. Akayev said his security chiefs believe that Islamic militants in Osh control most of the drug trade from Afghanistan.
In Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev told Vollebaek he has created a special commission to counter what he considers a threat from religious extremists. Nazarbayev said all Central Asian countries are cooperating to some extent in combating the perceived threat, but that more coordination is needed.
In Tajikistan, the concern is also twofold. One threat is the armed drug smugglers who cross the border from Afghanistan with opium and other drugs intended for western Europe. The other concern is the aims of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, the main party in the United Tajik Opposition. The party's leader, Said Abdullah Nuri, told RFE/RL in Dushanbe last week that he wants to establish an Islamic government in Tajikistan. But Nuri said he wants his party to accede to power by democratic means.
"Yes, creating an Islamic state is our dream and our hope. But we understand that it can be achieved only stage by stage and in accordance with the wishes of the people of Tajikistan. We want to build a state that will be within the framework of the constitution."
Vollebaek told RFE/RL that the OSCE is looking at a number of different areas in which it could help the Central Asian countries. In general, the organization supports the "Great Silk Road doctrine" proposed by Kyrgyz President Akayev last year, which suggests a cooperative approach to solving regional problems.
The OSCE chairman said it has been suggested that the OSCE should encourage Islamic currents other than fundamentalism. Advisers have suggested that the organization sponsor a pan-regional meeting between politicians and moderate Islamic clergy. Vollebaek said other advisers have suggested that the OSCE could sponsor meetings between different religious groups.
"This is something we are discussing. And we will pursue that. I think that is absolutely an idea which could be pursued. We have to create a dialogue, a better understanding. This is something we will have to address and see if we can facilitate contacts between different religious groups and also between religious groups and political leaders so that there could be a better understanding of religion as an element in their societies."
In all his discussions with the Central Asian leaders, Vollebaek said, he stressed that Islam itself should never be considered an enemy. He said leaders must resist the temptation to dismiss political opponents by labeling them "religious extremists."
Vollebaek said he believes the Istanbul summit will be the place for the OSCE to make a start in convening a dialogue about the relationship between religion and politics in Central Asia.