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Central Asia Report: February 3, 2005


3 February 2005, Volume 5, Number 4

WEEK AT A GLANCE. Kazakhstan's opposition moved to center stage with an unsanctioned demonstration in Almaty on 29 January. Some 2,000 people gathered to support Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), which is currently appealing a court decision to dissolve the party for an early December statement that deemed President Nursultan Nazarbaev illegitimate and called for civil disobedience. Police moved in on demonstrators, arresting eight DVK activists. A court summarily sentenced seven of them to fines and jail terms ranging from two to seven days. Before it took to the streets, the opposition presented a draft constitution to the public. The draft, drawn up by the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces of Kazakhstan, reduces presidential authority and introduces added checks and balances. On the official front, the UN Counterterrorism Committee met in Almaty. And finally, the Kazakh government has reached an agreement to buy half of British Gas's 16.67 percent stake in the Kashagan oil field; the entire stake is valued at $1.23 billion.

Unsanctioned demonstrations were also on the agenda in Kyrgyzstan, where a court fined three organizers of an unauthorized 19 January rally 1,000 soms ($24) each. At that gathering, Kyrgyzstan's opposition had protested the exclusion of former diplomats from elections for failing to meet the country's five-year in-country residency requirement. The Legislative Assembly recently passed a draft bill that would allow ex-diplomats to run in future elections, but the outgoing speaker declined to pass it on to the president, and the issue of opposition ex-envoys (a number of whom are barred from participation in the upcoming 27 February parliamentary elections) seems set to remain a hot topic on the Kyrgyz political scene.

Tajikistan's embattled independent weekly "Ruzi Nav" once again fell afoul of the tax police, who impounded an issue and shuttered the printing house that produced it. Press watchdogs warned that the shutdown, the third for the newspaper in recent months, suggests an official attempt to eliminate alternative sources of information in the lead-up to the 27 February parliamentary elections. As those elections neared, both the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) set up their observer missions. President Imomali Rakhmonov removed a number of high-ranking officials, dismissing Iskandar Davlatov, head of Tajik Savings Bank; Abduahad Normatov, first deputy minister of industry; and Subhon Koshonov, editor in chief of the "Jumhuriyat" newspaper.

Representatives of the Caspian littoral states (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan) gathered in Ashgabat for yet another attempt to settle the legal status of the Caspian Sea. Tension between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan formed the backdrop, with both countries laying claim to the Kyapaz/Serdar oil field and Turkmenistan recently sounding out a Canadian company on joint development of the field. Before the Ashgabat meeting, Turkmenistan floated the idea of international arbitration; Azerbaijan shot down the proposal a few days later. In the interim, another session of the working group came and went with a polite communique and an agreement to continue talks, next time in Tehran.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov addressed a joint session of the Uzbek parliament on 28 January. The president outlined policy priorities -- bolstering parliament's role, liberalizing the legal system, democratizing the media, and pursuing a foreign policy that puts Uzbekistan's interests first. Karimov then turned to foreign-funded NGOs, charging that some of them exceed their charters with untoward programs. Warning that "we will bring to heel those who go beyond the law," Karimov then directly addressed invited Western ambassadors, saying: "I don't want to delve too deeply into this matter. But those sitting up there in the balcony ought to understand that better." At a news conference after the address, the Uzbek president said that his country may pull out of GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Moldova) because of "tendencies that are taking place now in Ukraine and Georgia."

FEAR OF ORANGE

One of the most significant events in the recent history of Central Asia may have actually occurred in Kyiv in late 2004, when thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest falsified election results.

Those protests eventually swept Viktor Yushchenko to Ukraine's presidency in a political upheaval the world now knows as the Orange Revolution. In the early days of 2005, change in Ukraine, and similar events in Georgia a year earlier, has emboldened opposition movements in Central Asia and unnerved rulers who have been in power since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Whether the future holds crackdown or crackup, events in Georgia and Ukraine are increasingly creating the context for Central Asian politics, as recent developments in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan vividly demonstrate.

Though Kazakhstan's opposition cried foul after parliamentary elections on 19 September, the resulting parliament convened with a minimum of fuss and an overwhelming majority of supporters of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev. But that was before Ukraine. Leading figures from the Kazakh opposition visited Kyiv as demonstrations roiled the Ukrainian capital under the full glare of international media. Inspired by what they saw, the leaders of the opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) issued a statement in early December rejecting the legitimacy of President Nazarbaev's government and calling for acts of civil disobedience. Perhaps also influenced by events in Ukraine, a Kazakh court ordered the dissolution of DVK on 6 January for incitement.

With the DVK's case under appeal, Kazakhstan's Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces -- which brings together the DVK, Ak Zhol, and the Communist Party -- applied for a permit on 19 January to hold a demonstration in Almaty "against extremism and terrorism." When the authorities refused to grant a permit, the opposition took to the streets anyway, gathering up to 1,000 people in Almaty on 29 January to express support for the DVK, "Kazakhstan Today" and Interfax reported. In a nod to events in Kyiv, an invited guest at the 29 January rally was Andrei Gusak, a coordinator for the Ukrainian youth movement Pora, DVK noted in a press release. Police were out in force, arresting eight DVK activists. A court promptly sentenced seven of them to fines or jail terms ranging from two to seven days. At a news conference in Almaty on 31 January, DVK members decried the authorities' "illegal actions," condemned government efforts to muzzle coverage of the 29 January rally, and vowed to conduct similar protests in the future, according to a DVK press release.

Political tensions have also been rising in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where parliamentary elections are looming on 27 February. Both Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, who has said that he will step down when his term ends later this year, and the opposition have made it clear that they view the upcoming poll as a referendum on the status quo. Recent years have dimmed the luster Kyrgyzstan gained in the early 1990s as an "island of democracy" in an authoritarian sea, but it still boasts a comparatively vibrant civil society and an increasingly vocal political opposition.

A coalition of opposition forces brought 500 people together for a demonstration in Bishkek on 19 January after a district election commission barred former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva, whom President Akaev described in a 28 January interview with Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" as the "locomotive of the opposition," from participation in parliamentary elections because she failed to meet the five-year in-country residency requirement. Otunbaeva, the co-chairwoman of the opposition movement Ata-Jurt, and two other organizers of the 19 January demonstration have since been fined 1,000 soms ($24) each for the unsanctioned rally. Topchubek Turgunaliev, who leads the opposition Erkindik party and received a 1,000-som fine as one of the organizers of the 19 January protest, dismissed the court decision as "a politically motivated order," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. He promised to follow up all legal avenues: "For sure, we will appeal to the Bishkek City Court, then to the Supreme Court, then the Constitutional Court, and then to an international court."

A crucial part of the emerging political context is a perception gulf between two basic understandings of the Orange and Rose revolutions. The consensus in Europe and the United States, both in official circles and the broader public, was that the changes in Georgia and Ukraine represented a victory for democracy. The official view in much of the CIS, from Russia through Central Asia, is that in both Georgia and Ukraine Western-funded organizations, primarily U.S.-backed democracy-building NGOs, cunningly manipulated existing dissatisfactions to foment upheaval and install pliant regimes. Kyrgyz President Akaev has spoken out frequently on the issue, memorably comparing the Western export of democracy to the Bolshevik export of revolution in an article in Russia's official "Rossiiskaya gazeta."

However, the most recent, and forceful, statement of the case belongs to Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Uzbekistan's placid parliamentary elections on 26 December took place without the participation of any opposition parties and earned a tepid assessment from the OSCE. When Karimov addressed a joint session of the country's newly elected parliament in Tashkent on 28 January, he made it clear that he has his eyes on NGOs. In the transcript of Karimov's address provided by official Uzbek news agency UzA, the president appeared to refer to his government's decision in 2004 to deny registration to the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute and Internews-Uzbekistan when he stated that "as inspections have shown, the activities of certain NGOs created at the expense of various sponsors go far beyond their declared charters and programs to carry out specific goals ordered up by others."

Karimov said that "such projects, which contradict our legislation, have no future in Uzbekistan," UzA reported. He stressed: "We will bring to heel those who go beyond the law. We have the capability to do that," Uzland reported. Karimov then directly addressed Western ambassadors, invited guests at parliament's first joint session. "I don't want to delve too deeply into this matter. But those sitting up there in the balcony ought to understand that better," he said, according to Reuters. The remarks, which were not included in the transcript posted on the UzA website, underscores a commitment to head off potential unrest at the pass where Karimov clearly believes it rode into Georgia and Ukraine -- through Western-funded NGOs.

The narrative of the Orange Revolution is even beginning to creep into public foreign-policy discussions. At a news conference after his address to parliament on 28 January, President Karimov said that his country may pull out of GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova), Uzbek Television's First Channel reported. Why? Karimov explained: "The tendencies that are taking place now in Ukraine and Georgia, and also in Moldova, which is a member of GUUAM, make us reconsider our relations again and again: whether or not we should continue participating in GUUAM in the future. We have not yet adopted any decision on this account. However, I think we will solve this issue in the near future." Uzbekistan has been ambivalent on GUUAM in the past, suspending and then reaffirming its membership in 2002 and 2003, and the U.S.-backed organization is largely considered moribund, but the Uzbek president's statement is noteworthy for its specific reference to Ukraine and Georgia.

For now, the major change that events in Ukraine and Georgia have wrought in Central Asia is one of perception. With the authorities, the opposition, and outside observers increasingly viewing events in the region through the prism of changes in Georgia and Ukraine, a common context is reemerging to frame political discussions. Such a context briefly existed in the immediate post-Soviet period amid much exuberance about the coming "transition" of successor states. Subsequent years had a sobering effect, as the triumphant narrative of transition broke down into national tales that diverged from the hoped-for storyline. With a new narrative troubling the powers that be, energizing the opposition, and drawing international attention, Central Asia finds itself once again at what could be an anxious crossing. (Daniel Kimmage)

EU ENCOURAGED BY TASHKENT'S WILLINGNESS TO SUSPEND DEATH PENALTY

By Ahto Lobjakas

The European Union has praised Uzbekistan for what it says is the country's stated will to institute democratic reforms, respect human rights, and abolish the death penalty. Uzbek Foreign Minister Sodyq Safaev met in Brussels on 1 February with an EU delegation headed by Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, who represented the bloc's current presidency. After the meeting, Asselborn praised what he said was clear intent from the Uzbek side to consider abolishing the death penalty.

"This morning, the Uzbek foreign minister stated that Uzbekistan wants to abolish the death penalty. [The country] needs some time for reflection on this, but it does want to abolish the death penalty for all cases," Asselborn said. "It is a very concrete step in the dialogue between the EU and the countries of Central Asia. It is truly remarkable that we have come to such a conclusion."

An Amnesty International report released in advance of the meeting says Uzbekistan sentenced between 50 and 60 people to death in 2004. But Asselborn said the EU understands that Uzbekistan's transition to democracy and rule of law cannot be immediate. He said the bloc is willing to assist Uzbekistan with reforms, and said he sees developments in the country in a broader context.

"[The EU is willing] to help encourage them to take decisive steps to abolish torture, to hold elections as we know them in democratic countries, [societies based on] the rule of law," Asselborn said. "If one looks at what happened in Ukraine, in Palestine or what took place on [30 January] in Iraq, we see that in the Arab world, in the countries of the former Soviet Union -- among them Uzbekistan -- democracy is [taking root] step by step in a decisive fashion."

Privately, EU officials said they had confronted the Uzbek delegation with damning reports detailing persistent human rights abuses and the torture of prisoners. They also challenged the Uzbek side on the conduct of parliamentary elections last year, which the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has strongly criticized. An OSCE report said the elections fell significantly short of international standards.

Uzbek Foreign Minister Safaev defended the vote after the meeting. "[It is] the first time in history [that] the Uzbeks can select their deputies to the parliament, selecting [from among] five or six candidates running in every constituency," Safaev said. "It is a real step forward. [For the] first time, the more than 3,000 Uzbek NGOs participated in a system that we call civic society. Five years ago we couldn't imagine that. [For the] first time Freedom House [and] other international organizations might together with the Uzbek law-enforcement system make an open investigation of the reports of human rights abuses in the penitentiary system."

EU officials said after the meeting that Sarajevo had argued Uzbekistan's secular institutions are under continuous threat from Islamist fundamentalists. The EU regards Uzbekistan as an important partner country in Central Asia, given its proximity to Russia, China, and Afghanistan. EU sources said, however, the bloc had rejected Uzbekistan's request to be included in the EU's European Neighborhood Policy meant to support countries on the bloc's borders. A senior European Commission representative will travel to Uzbekistan in April to prepare ground for a later visit by the EU's external affairs commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

UN TERRORISM COMMITTEE MEETS IN ALMATY AMID WARNINGS OVER HUMAN RIGHTS

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

The UN Security Council's Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC), created in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks, met on 27 January in the Kazakh city of Almaty. The three-day regional conference, which began on 26 January, focused on Central Eurasia, which has faced a threat from Islamic militancy in recent years. Particular attention was paid to the financing of terrorism and at ways to step up regional efforts to crack down on money laundering, arms trafficking, illicit fund transfers, and fake charities. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has called on the UN body to bring antiterrorism efforts in line with human rights.

Russia's ambassador to the UN, Andrei Denisov, who currently chairs the UN's CTC, spoke on 26 January about the goals of the conference. "The reality is that the threat of terrorism cannot be eradicated completely in the near future. It will continue to reproduce itself one way or the other. But nations can and should make every effort to limit the opportunities for this threat to realize itself, and this is what we are doing, and this is what we are going to discuss during our [three-day] conference," Denisov said. Denisov added that "terrorism has deep roots in Central Asia" and that stability in the region is crucial for global security.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev reiterated that theme in his remarks at the opening of the meeting. "Kazakhstan's national security is closely linked to the security of the Central Asian region. And security in Central Asia should be considered an integral component of security in [Eurasia]. The Central Asian region should be part of a Eurasian security system that is part of a global security system," Nazarbaev said.

At the CTC meeting in Almaty, the head of the CIS Antiterrorism Center (ATC), Boris Mylnikov, announced a list of terrorist organizations assembled by member states of both the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The deputy head of the ATC, Beksultan Sarsekov, said in an interview with the daily "Komsomolskaya pravda-Kazakhstan" that Hizb ut-Tahrir, as well as some "extremist Uyghur organizations," pose a threat to Central Asia. He noted, however, that Hizb ut-Tahrir has renounced the use of violence in its campaign for an Islamic caliphate.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has sent an open letter to the CTC, calling on member states to affirm that protecting human rights is essential to the fight against terrorism. Rachel Denber is acting director for Europe and Central Asia at HRW. She told RFE/RL that the protection of human rights is an obligation of all UN member states and that human rights violations undermine security. Denber said that Central Eurasia is a region of particular concern.

"Central Eurasia is a region that has increasingly faced threats of terrorism. It is a very important region for global security. And yet it is a region that is home to many governments that do not have good human rights records, that are not convinced of the need and importance of protecting human rights while at the same time combating terrorism," Denber said. HRW mentioned Russia and Uzbekistan, where Denber said the governments' "egregious human rights violations" have undermined effective counterterrorism strategies. There also have been concerns about Kazakhstan's human rights record, particularly the authorities' treatment of radical Muslims and their readiness to return fleeing Muslims to western China's Xinjiang region, where they face possible execution. Denber said the UN CTC has been slow to recognize the importance of human rights in fighting terrorism and is developing a consensus only now.

Eugene Huskey is a professor of political science of Stetson University in Florida and an expert on Central Asia. Huskey told RFE/RL, "In countries in Central Asia, it is very common to have the leadership link -- or try to link -- the opposition with terrorism, even though, of course, there is no linkage between the two. There is the claim in electoral campaigns and at other times that the actions of the opposition are playing into the hands of the terrorists and other extremists in these countries. And this, of course, is a very dangerous kind of decision for leaders to take -- or I should say, of course, very undemocratic."

The vague definition of terrorism contributes to the problem. Usually, it is up to each government to make a list of terrorist organizations whose activity is banned in an individual country. Therefore, there is always a possibility for authorities to include opposition groups in the list.

Huskey stressed that the United Nations can play an important role in solving the problem. "Here there is an important role for an organization like the UN or regional organizations where there can be a clearer sense of who qualifies as a terrorist. If you leave it up to the individual countries, there is the danger that they will simply find convenient opposition organizations within their countries that they'll put on their terrorist lists. So I think the internationalization of this issue would be very helpful for human rights purposes," Huskey said.

The Almaty conference was cosponsored by the CIS and is the fourth meeting of the CTC. Previous meetings were held in New York, Washington, and Vienna.

Representatives from the European Union, NATO, African Union, Asian Development Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the League of Arab States attended the talks.

CHINA'S GROWING REGIONAL, EUROPEAN LINKS SEEN AS BENEFITING CENTRAL ASIA

By Breffni O'Rourke

The five Central Asian countries look likely to benefit from China's strong desire to forge new regional bonds in East Asia and strategic links with Europe. The former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have spent more than a century closely tied to Russia, with their economic, political, and cultural orientation being almost entirely toward Moscow. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has become a key player in the Central Asian region. Since 1991, when Chinese traders began bringing consumer goods into Central Asia, the situation has changed dramatically. Moreover, Beijing is looking beyond the ideological divide of the Soviet era and seeking closer ties with Moscow.

Chinese big business has moved in, and Beijing has trade missions in every Central Asian country. China invests in local enterprises, donates aid money, and is active in bodies like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which groups Central Asia, Russia, and China. Beijing claimed last year to have invested a total of $1 billion in Central Asia, and increased trade with those republics tenfold in the last decade.

Sebastian Bersick is a research fellow at the European Institute for Asian Studies in Brussels, which is preparing a major study for the European Commission on Europe's interests in East Asia. Bersick told RFE/RL that the regional reorientation is part of the process touched off by the end of the U.S.-Soviet bipolar dominance of the world during the Cold War: "This is all part of the new developments which we are witnessing since the fall of the wall in Berlin and the end of the systemic bipolarity in international relations."

China, on its way to being a major world power, is seeking stability in its own region, as well as strategic links with Europe as a counterweight to the overall dominance of the sole remaining superpower, the United States. These moves, said Bersick, will have an impact also on Central Asia: "The development in the coming years of a free-trade area, a common East Asian free-trade area between China and some members of ASEAN [the Association of South East Asian Nations] -- of course, this offers trade opportunities for the Central Asian countries as well."

He said he does not expect the Central Asians to be part of this planned free-trade zone in the short term, but he said they are bound to have that opportunity in the future: "Right now, there is no talk of the Central Asian countries joining this kind of free-trade arrangement, but certainly in the future this will be an option."

Further afield, China's growing links with the European Union were illustrated by last month's summit, which was seen as confirmation of a mutual interest in seeing a "multipolar" world.

EU spokeswoman Emma Udwin spoke warmly about the "very dynamic" EU-China partnership: "The relationship is growing, visibly, before our eyes from one that started out as pretty much exclusively a trade relationship into one that covers all the elements of a modern partnership."

Beijing has been part of the movement promoting Asian contacts with Europe for the past decade. It is a key member of the ASEM process, meaning the cooperation forum grouping China, Japan, South Korea, and the 10 ASEAN nations, on the one side, with the 25 EU members plus the European Commission on the other. Any trade advantages enjoyed by the ASEM members can eventually be expected to have a positive impact on Central Asia as well.

But Beijing is casting its net even wider, by seeking closer links with Moscow, consigning to history the great ideological rift of the Soviet era. China and Russia will hold their first-ever joint military exercises next year. China is the Russian arms industry's top customer. It is said to be in the process of spending some $2 billion on weapons this year to update its military forces.

KAZAKHSTAN LIKELY LEADER IN REGIONAL COOPERATION

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

Kazakhstan last year showed some of the strongest economic growth in the CIS. The gross domestic product (GDP) of the oil-rich country grew by 9.3 percent. Kyrgyzstan also enjoyed a good year, with 7.1 percent GDP growth. The two countries are considered to have the freest economies of Central Asia, and have taken steps to develop bilateral economic ties in a region where partnership and trade are the exception rather than the rule. Experts say Astana, as Central Asia's leader in economic growth, may become the driving force behind regional cooperation -- if and when the remaining capitals show sufficient political will.

Kazakhstan is one of the biggest oil producers and exporters in the CIS, and the recent surge in world oil prices has been a boon. Big oil revenues have allowed the country to develop its other economic sectors. Kazakhstan's retail and financial sectors both saw significant growth in 2004.

Anne Walker is a Central Asia analyst with London's Economist Intelligence Unit. She told RFE/RL: "Kazakhstan has had a much more successful record in areas such as the financial sector which has proceeded with liberalization much more credibly than in other countries. And it has welcomed investment into the oil sector."

Kazakhstan's banking sector has had particular success. According to the Standard and Poor's international financial rating agency, Kazakh bank assets are the third largest in the CIS, after Russia and Ukraine. And Kazakh banks have extended their influence beyond the country's borders. Kyrgyzstan's Kabar news agency reported earlier this month that Kazakh banks control 50 percent of Kyrgyz banks.

But there are problems as well as achievements. Oraz Zhandosov, a former chairman of the Kazakh National Bank, told RFE/RL: "There are certain positive developments in the country. They are connected with the income from export of natural resources. I wouldn’t say the biggest, but a significant part of that income remains in the country. Then it is spent on commodities and services like housing construction, consumer services, restaurants, and retail trade. These sectors have developed. However, the commodity-production and service sectors, which could be competitive on a global or at least the regional market, remain underdeveloped."

Kazakhstan's agricultural sector, which is the country’s second-largest employer after industry, remains underdeveloped due to limited government reforms. Experts say it may become an obstacle for economic growth in coming years.

Earlier this month, "The Wall Street Journal" and the U.S.-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy institute, published an economic-freedom index. The Kazakh and Kyrgyz economies were ranked as "mostly unfree." This was one category higher than the remaining three Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, whose economies were all rated as "repressive."

Kyrgyzstan has had success in attracting Russian and Kazakh investment. But Bishkek is still heavily reliant on foreign loans and is vulnerable to the strict conditions of its creditors. Observers say the country's political opposition has used this fact to criticize the government's performance -- something that may have consequences ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan.

Officials have reported Tajikistan's 2004 GDP growth as 10.6 percent -- higher than either Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. But Walker said that was not enough to raise Dushanbe out of the "repressive" economic-freedom category. "[Tajikistan] has had a lot of problems attracting investment, partly because of the [1992-97] civil war, but also because it is not a particularly attractive market. Tajikistan is located between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan and it always scores very badly in corruption, disease, and things like that," Walker noted. Tajikistan remains one of the poorest countries in the CIS. According to a poverty assessment report by the World Bank, 57 percent of the population live on or below $2.15 a day.

Experts say there are no foreign companies or banks looking at Central Asia as a major area of interest. Western investors are wary of the region's poor business environment and pervasive corruption. But Russia, which has greater ease operating in the region, is actively pursuing closer economic ties with Central Asia. Russia's Gazprom monopoly has signed several contracts with Uzbekistan's Uzbekneftegaz energy company during the last two years, and has increased its import of Uzbek gas.

Walker said that the development of intraregional economic ties in Central Asia would help the countries compete better on the world market. "Although [the Central Asian] presidents frequently say how committed they are to cooperation, there has been little evidence they are actually prepared to go ahead with that. Organizations are already set up to do that, but they have conflicting interests in things like managing water resources. You know, one country needs it for some months for cotton, another country needs it for electricity. And yet, it’s quite an important bargaining chip in negotiations. No country is willing to relinquish rights over things like the use of water," Walker said.

Walker said in addition to water issues, another obstacle to cooperation is the necessity to share oil and gas pipelines to export the region's hydrocarbon resources. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have tried to develop new routes and work out projects for new pipelines. But they still remain highly dependent on the Central Asia-Center pipeline that travels through Russian territory.

Kazakhstan is looking to spearhead regional cooperation projects. But Zhandosov, the former national bank chairman, said Kazakh companies seeking to broaden their partnership with neighboring countries face serious obstacles. "Genuine integration requires similar socioeconomic systems in the countries involved. This is the first condition. The second is political will on all sides. Look at Central Asia. The socioeconomic systems in two countries -- Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan -- are completely different from the others. Genuine integration, therefore, is impossible," Zhandosov said.

Moreover, Zhandosov added, the political will that could open up borders to a free flow of people, capital, and goods has not been demonstrated in practice.

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