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Central Asian States Profess Unity, But Grow Farther Apart

  • Bruce Pannier

Kyrgyzstan's Kurmanbek Bakiev, China's Hu Jintao, Russia's Vladimir Putin, Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev, and Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov at SCO military exercises in 2007 -- more unity imposed from outside the region.

Kyrgyzstan's Kurmanbek Bakiev, China's Hu Jintao, Russia's Vladimir Putin, Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev, and Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov at SCO military exercises in 2007 -- more unity imposed from outside the region.

While the five states of Central Asia often try to project an image of regional unity, an increasing habit of going their own ways could harm their ability to jointly dictate their future.

Outside actors have quickly learned that, as those states' common Soviet heritage fades into the past, their attempts to prod the five closer together rarely meet with success.

"These new countries quickly developed national agendas, which were different -- different trajectories of economic development, or lack of development in some cases, and strong authoritarian leaderships who were former communists, but who now espoused nationalist agendas," explains John MacLeod, acting director of the Central Asian program at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

"And all those things tended to drive them apart rather than together."

MacLeod says each of the states has pursued different objectives, and that "whenever there has been a choice to make, they have chosen their own interests rather than compromising for the greater good, and the prime example of that is the complex, complex question of how to share out the waters of the two great rivers of Central Asia which run through the countries and how to share out equitably other resources such as fuel -- oil, gas, and coal."

Security Non-Cooperation

When homegrown terrorism appeared for the first time 10 years ago in the form of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the group threatened stability in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

But when faced with a common threat, the three exchanged mutual accusations rather than finding ways to eliminate it together.

Much the same happened when the Taliban arrived at Central Asia's borders in the late 1990s.

Karimov (left) and Nazarbaev -- personal rivals?
Turkmenistan, with its UN-recognized neutral status, allowed the Taliban to open a diplomatic mission in its capital. Uzbekistan fortified its borders and raised the regional alarm, to no avail. Tajikistan chose a cautious path, refusing to give Afghan refugees safe haven on its territory, while expressing concern about the Taliban.

The states of Central Asia have been known to frequently tout their close relations though pledges of eternal friendship. And, aside from Turkmenistan, they take part in regional groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Collection Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

But in reality, MacLeod says, the governments of Central Asia don't see far past themselves. "They're very individual, there's not a regional stance except when it's expressed through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization," he says. "Occasionally that will take up positions on things, which is increasingly important. But still, ultimately, when push comes to shove each state will act on its own and in its own interest."

One Size Fits None

Outsiders vying for influence in the region have come to realize this.

At the start of 2009, while still head of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus toured Central Asia and spoke of promoting regional cooperation among the five states. But even as Petraeus said this, Washington continued to negotiate individually with each Central Asian country about their level of participation in supporting coalition transit routes from Europe to Afghanistan.

The European Union has similarly devised a Central Asian strategy that pledges to work to bring the region's countries closer together. But despite hosting a number of meetings of top officials of all five Central Asian countries the EU, too, has found it difficult to find a common policy that applies to the region.

Russia, would ideally like all five states to take shelter under its security umbrella, but over time appears to have accepted Turkmenistan's reluctance to join the Moscow-dominated CSTO.

Most recently, Moscow has touted the formation with the other four states and other CSTO members of a rapid-reaction force intended to counter the threat of terrorism spilling into the region from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

During an informal CSTO summit on July 31-August 1, it was announced that Russia plans to open a new military facility in southern Kyrgyzstan, its second in the country, with the aim of stemming possible terrorist threats.

But while Uzbekistan has recently accused Kyrgyzstan of being a gateway for terrorism to its borders, Tashkent has put up stern resistance to the idea of the CSTO security force. It has refused to sign on to the force, has shown increasing reluctance in participating in CSTO meetings, and going into the most recent summit strongly protested against the idea of another Russian base in the region.

MacLeod says that the idea of trying to forge a unified approach in the region has to this point proven unachievable. He says that the EU's "strategy for the whole region, which spoke of things as diverse as energy exports, and human rights, and democracy....just demonstrated the differences between the regional states, because it demonstrates just how impossible this sort of unified approach is because levels of democracy, while nowhere good, are very different [as are] levels of repression, observance of human rights, and also economic performance.

"So I think in practice the EU wanted to deal with them as a unit but in reality they won't be able to do so."

Personal Rivalries

Those differences, along with the "strongman" style of Central Asian presidents, make cooperation difficult at best and next to impossible in some cases. Compounding, or maybe driving this disunity, are the bad personal relations between the five presidents, who tend to view each other as competitors rather than as neighbors and friends.

"It's certainly true that the Tajik and Uzbek presidents have had a rocky relationship partly because of this perception that Uzbekistan is the, at times, meddling bigger brother. It's too close a relationship for comfort really and it's often fraught with tensions," MacLeod notes.

"Uzbekistan with the largest population has felt challenged in a way by the growth of Kazakhstan as the economic powerhouse of the region. The Uzbeks felt that their own method of slower transition was better but the facts proved that the Kazakhs have won that race, the economic race. That has compounded what seems to be a personal animosity between those two presidents."

Turkmenistan received UN-recognized status as a neutral state in 1995 and, under its late President Saparmurat Niyazov, used that status to keep out of any of the attempts to create a regional bloc. New Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has improved bilateral ties with all his individual Central Asian neighbors but has stopped short of calling for a wider regional cooperation.

There have been occasions when all five presidents have attended summits of larger regional groupings. All five were in Bishkek for the SCO summit in 2007, for example, after newly elected Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov was invited. And they have at times met under the banner of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

But there is no formal regional grouping to which all five states belong, and the last true summit of only Central Asian leaders was held in 1999 in Ashgabat. In the end, the five presidents released a statement pledging to improve relations among themselves "based on long-term partnership."

Long History Of Disunity

Ultimately, while the strained ties between the Central Asian states serves to complicate U.S. and European visions of a stable united buffer zone against the radical Islam that exists to the south, there is one country that benefits -- Russia. With long-standing influence in all the five countries, especially as a trade partner, Russian often gains an advantage from the lack of regional solidarity.

But there have also been glimpses of the potential benefits the Central Asian states could reap from a unified approach, the most recent being when natural-gas producers Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan were successful in collectively demanding higher prices for gas from Moscow in 2008.

Regional unity in Central Asia would almost surely come at the expense of Russian influence.

Students of history identify a traditional process in motion once again in Central Asia. The region was part of the playing field of the 19th-century Great Game between Russia and Britain. More than 1,000 years earlier, Arabs were battling Chinese for possession of Central Asia. The Arabs eventually won and Islam came to Central Asia.

Central Asian emirates and khanates that existed then followed strategies for dealing with great powers that are similar to the strategies their descendants are employing today.

They chose then to shun partnerships with Central Asian neighbors and to deal with the outsiders individually. When possible, these Central Asian khanates and emirates enlisted the aid of great powers against their neighbors.

In the end, the lack of unity aided the great powers in taking control of their lands.
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