The Central Asian nations of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have seemed a secondary priority in the West's relations with former Soviet republics. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports, however, that both countries received visits this week by high-ranking Western officials.
Prague, 19 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Central Asia hosted two high-ranking Western officials this week: U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Jeffrey Starr visited Tajikistan, and NATO Secretary-General George Robertson concluded a regional visit with a stop in Turkmenistan.
Both Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are members of NATO's Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, but neither is an active participant in NATO programs. This contrasts with neighboring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, all of which are active participants in NATO's Partnership for Peace program.
Starr arrived in Tajikistan on Tuesday. His purpose appears to have been two-fold: First, to improve U.S.-Tajik military ties and, second, to convince Tajik officials to become more active in the Partnership for Peace program.
He seems to have been successful on both counts.
Tajikistan, which shares a long border with Afghanistan, is a heavy transit country for trade in illegal drugs and weapons. The Tajik government is ill-prepared to deal with these problems because the country is still recovering from a five-year civil war that ended in 1997.
Starr says the U.S. can help:
"My visit has focused on the issue of establishing a bilateral relationship between the Untied States and Tajikistan in the area of defense and security. And, of course, in our conversations in the last few days, the issue of regional security, terrorism, and narcotics trafficking came up. But the primary focus was simply to establish a bilateral relationship between the United States Department of Defense and the Ministry of Defense of Tajikistan and other ministries with [which] I met in the last few days."
Tajikistan already receives military help from Russia. Russian-led border guards have kept watch over the Tajik-Afghan border for years, even during the Tajik civil war. Tens of Russian soldiers have been killed guarding the border since Tajikistan became independent in 1991.
The cash-strapped Tajik government's need for the border troops has made the country dependent on Russia.
Starr told Tajik officials that the U.S. will provide special equipment to help monitor the border, but he says Tajikistan's relationship with Russia will not be affected.
"We recognize the historical relationship that has existed between Russia and Tajikistan, and I find no contradiction between that relationship and Tajikistan's desire to establish a relationship with the United States, and our desire to establish a relationship with Tajikistan."
Starr apparently succeeded in his other aim, getting Tajikistan more interested in playing an active role in Partnership for Peace. NATO started hosting military exercises with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan in 1996. But Tajikistan, in the midst of civil war at the time, was in no position to take part. Starr says:
"I think the decision whether Tajikistan will join the Partnership for Peace program is a decision for the government of Tajikistan to make. Over the last two days, I received several positive indications of interest on the part of the government of Tajikistan to join the Partnership for Peace program. The real value in joining Partnership for Peace is that it presents more opportunities for the soldiers of Tajikistan to interact with soldiers of other countries, other NATO countries, other partnership countries."
NATO Secretary-General Robertson's agenda during his visit on Wednesday and Thursday to Turkmenistan was probably more modest: simply reminding Turkmenistan that NATO has not forgotten the country.
There was little information available about the visit, but Robertson was quoted as saying that Turkmenistan's status as a neutral nation would make it uniquely qualified to defuse regional tensions.
Turkmen officials, for their part, expressed an interest in receiving NATO training for disaster-relief efforts.
(RFE/RL's Tajik and Turkmen services assisted with this report.)