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Central Asia: Fundamentalism A Key Issue For Presidents Meeting

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Central Asian leaders are holding their own mini-summit next week ahead of the big gathering of OSCE states in Istanbul. Topping the expected agenda will be concerns for security of the Central Asian region in the face of the increasing dangers posed by fundamentalist Islam.

Prague, 12 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The presidents of five Central Asian republics will meet in Istanbul next week (Nov. 17) for a rare regional summit. Paramount on the leaders' minds is expected to be the issue of Islamic extremism, which now appears to be casting its shadow over the fragile Central Asian states.

The one-day meeting has been arranged by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, and it comes ahead of the OSCE's own major summit in the same Turkish city later in the week. (Nov. 18-19)

RFE/RL's Central Asian specialist Bruce Pannier says such a meeting is rare.

"Any time that all five of these (Central Asian) presidents will be in the same room at the same time is going to be an important meeting. It is more than eight years that these countries have been independent, and it's [only] a handful of times that they have all been together at the same place at the same time to discuss something."

The presidents, Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, Askar Akaev of Kyrgyzstan, Imomali Rakhmonov of Tajikistan, Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan have jealously guarded their supremacy in their own areas. Regional cooperation for them has always been a liquor to be taken in measured doses, not drunk deeply. But the growing evidence that Islamic fundamentalism is making inroads into the region may be strong enough to drive them toward cooperation at a hitherto unprecedented level.

The constellation of Central Asian states stands just north of Afghanistan, just east of Iran, and not so very far from Chechnya -- all hotbeds of fundamentalism. To suppose they could be sealed off from the radical currents streaming through so much of the Islamic world would be unrealistic.

In fact, the question is why alarm bells have not been ringing before now. Analyst Pannier sees the series of terror bombings in the Uzbek capital Tashkent earlier this year as an important signal:

"When the Uzbek government put many, many people on trial from the Tashkent bombings in February, these described a network that extended pretty much throughout the Central Asian region and beyond. So I think that this should have been the first 'wake-up call.' When they had the trials, people admitted they had had contacts in Kazakhstan, and people were picked up in Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. That should have been the first clue that really this is everyone's problem now."

The event that brought the issue of fundamentalism in Central Asia to international attention was the incursion of rebel Uzbek gunmen into Kyrgyz territory this past summer, after they were expelled from their bases on Tajik soil. The militants took hostages, among them Japanese geologists and prominent Kyrgyz military men, and one of the hostages was killed. By the time the incident was finally resolved last month, with the surviving hostages released and the gunmen withdrawing back to Tajikistan, the world better understood the vulnerability of the region to extremist activity.

The incident also showed the limits of neighborly cooperation, at least between the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz. The Uzbek state media heavily criticized the Kyrgyz handling of the affair, saying no contacts should have been established with terrorists. For their part, the Kyrgyz said the contacts were only unofficial and did not involve the government.

Of course, turning from the specific to the general, it could be said that the type of heavy-handed leadership that characterizes Central Asia has helped to produce radical and religious-based dissent. Pannier says:

"There's been a great deal of legitimate criticism which says that these one-party political systems or 'strong-man states' have really created their own problems by not offering potential opposition any vehicles for expressing their opinions."

This being so, some opposition figures apparently see next week's OSCE gatherings in Istanbul as an opportunity to state their own cases. It's reported that the leader of the banned Uzbek opposition party Erk, Mohammad Salih, has been seeking permission from Turkish authorities to travel to Istanbul from Norway, where he currently lives. However, as the Uzbek government suspects Saleh of organizing the Tashkent bombings, it seems very unlikely that he would be allowed to enter Turkey.