The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan meet today in Almaty, one day ahead of an informal summit of CIS leaders, to formally expand what has so far been an economic union into an organization with broader goals. The U.S.-led campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan, which has significantly altered the situation in Central Asia, is expected to be a focus of today's meeting. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that Central Asia's role in the war on terrorism may be a topic for concern when the general CIS meeting is held tomorrow.
Prague, 28 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Four of the five Central Asian presidents are gathering today in the former Kazakh capital Almaty, ahead of a wider CIS summit tomorrow, to formalize a shift in their relations.
The leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan announced last December that the regional organization they had formed in 1994, the Central Asian Economic Union, was expanding its goals to focus on security interests and changing its name to the Central Asian Organization of Cooperation. Today, in addition to signing a formal agreement on the new group, the four leaders are expected to discuss changing concerns in the region -- including the countries' own security concerns as well as their new relationship with the United States as it pursues its war on terrorism.
The meeting, hosted by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, will be attended by Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, and Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
Each of the four leaders has offered support for the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan since it began last October. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are all currently hosting international forces, including U.S. troops, at temporary bases.
The countries' new cooperation with the U.S. may mean increasing amounts of development aid flowing into the impoverished region. It may also mean greater stability for an area struggling with its own extremist and terrorist elements.
Leaders of the four countries have met to discuss security issues since the summer of 1999, when Islamic extremists began carrying out attacks on the territories of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Since then, concerns over security have helped to patch over previously strained relations between the neighbors.
John Schoeberlein is the director of the Harvard Forum for Central Asian studies. He told RFE/RL the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan has had certain ancillary benefits for Central Asia.
"The relative security that we have now in Afghanistan, as compared with six months ago, is a positive development. That could, for example, constrain the possibilities for militant groups that would undermine the stability of Central Asian governments to operate from Afghanistan's territory."
The campaign in Afghanistan did succeed in crippling Central Asia's biggest security threat, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). After attacking Kyrgyz and Uzbek troops in 1999 and 2000, the IMU found safe haven in Afghanistan, where it received support from the ruling Taliban militia, and possibly the Al-Qaeda network as well. A number of IMU soldiers were reportedly killed during the U.S.-led assaults on Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces, including IMU leader Djuma Namangani, although his death has not been independently confirmed.
Despite certain setbacks, however, the IMU remains a distinct concern for the Central Asian government.
Ian Bremmer is the president of the New York-based Eurasia Group. He says while the security situation in Central Asia has improved, certain risks remain. He told RFE/RL that true security will come to the region only once fundamental economic changes are made.
"I think in general there is an improvement in the security situation, but I wouldn't say it's a marked improvement. I think these changes [in security] are very gradual and the benefits will really only be seen over time when the money for infrastructure and the foreign investment start coming in."
But as the Central Asian nations open their doors to Western troops, they must also balance their desire for U.S. aid against opposition from Russia to a prolonged Western presence in the region. Russia remains the region's leading trade partner, and in the case of Tajikistan, a major military partner as well. Between 15,000 and 20,000 Russian-led troops are based in Tajikistan, guarding the country's mountainous border with Afghanistan.
Schoeberlein says economic matters are also likely to figure prominently at today's talks. He says business prospects have never been as rosy for the region as they are now. "It's also helped the region to attract the attention of the international donors, and there have been some promises of assistance forthcoming."
Today's meeting may also be used to shore up a united regional front ahead of tomorrow's informal CIS summit, also in Almaty. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has already called for a review of "foreign military presence on the territory of the CIS" -- clearly a reference to the Central Asian states.
One additional area of potential discussion is Turkmenistan, the only Central Asian state not represented at today's meeting. Turkmen leader Saparmurat Niyazov does not enjoy close relations with any of his Central Asian neighbors, and has recently seen several senior government officials defect to the ranks of the opposition outside the country.
The four presidents meeting today may consider what, if any, assistance they may lend Niyazov, who is scheduled to make a rare appearance at the CIS summit tomorrow. Despite traditionally unfriendly relations with the Turkmen president, the four leaders may have an interest in preventing Niyazov's political misfortunes at home from extending to their own governments.