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Central Asia: Shanghai Group Opens Secretariat In Beijing Tomorrow

Foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will open the organization's secretariat tomorrow at a ceremony in the Chinese capital, Beijing. Analysts tell RFE/RL that the event could have lasting significance for the members -- Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Prague, 14 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Shanghai Cooperation Organization will enter a new age tomorrow with the ceremonial opening of its secretariat in the Chinese capital, Beijing, by the member states' foreign ministers.

The SCO consists of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Finland through the Eurasian landmass. The group formed seven years ago to resolve disputes along the former Chinese-Soviet border. It has expanded its focus to include the fight against terrorism, extremism, and separatism, as well as economic cooperation.

Representatives of many multilateral organizations such as other Asian groupings, the United Nations, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are to attend the ceremony.

The secretariat will coordinate SCO activities. It will be led by the former Chinese ambassador in Moscow, Zhang Deguang. The candidatures of three deputies, one of them from Russia, will be confirmed at the SCO ministerial conference.

At the same time, the organization's Executive Committee of the Regional Antiterrorist Structure will be set into motion in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

Artem Malgin is the deputy director of the Center for Post-Soviet Studies at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. He says, "The opening of a permanent secretariat in Beijing and the Regional Antiterrorist Structure in Tashkent are both further steps toward institutionalization of the cooperation between China, Russia, and the Central Asian republics."

Malgin notes that the organization is now able to function as a full-fledged international organization with its own mechanisms, personnel, and budget.

But Malik Abdurazakov, a pseudonym for an Uzbek political analyst based in Tashkent, notes that the SCO's achievements so far, and its prospects, are limited.

"I don't believe in the prosperity of cooperation [within the SCO] and I don't know to what extent Uzbekistan will benefit from it concretely," he says. "To present, there has been no benefit. This organization cannot solve the problem of terrorism. In a sense, I think the main point here is to keep China's influence in Central Asia."

Alex Vatanka is editor in chief of "Jane's Sentinel: Russia and the CIS," a security-assessment publication based in London. He says the opening of the SCO secretariat will make the presence of the organization felt on the international stage more than it would have been otherwise.

"[The SCO] is certainly a tangible entity to deal with when it, for instance, comes to crisis resolution on the regional scale. For instance the UN can now mediate -- perhaps -- by using this channel more than before," Vatanka said.

Vatanka notes that the presence of two regional powers -- Russia and China -- in the organization could bring fresh impetus to the idea of cooperation between the relatively unstable states of Central Asia. He says that the SCO could help solve critical issues of mutual interest if Central Asian governments play their cards right.

"It could be the issue of the Uzbeks unilaterally [land-]mining their border with Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, which then results in the loss of life on the other side. This is then revenged, in a way, by stopping the supply of water [to Uzbekistan]. So it's sort of a vicious cycle," says Vatanka. "If you succeed in having coordination, this will essentially reduce friction between these states. And it will, in a sense, provide particularly comfort to the weaker states such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Their voice will be heard better in this multilateral, regional forum."

However, Vatanka says, the temptation for China and Russia to pursue their own individual interests could be detrimental. The organization will then look like existing CIS organizations, which tend to produce a lot of treaties without implementing them. The big losers would be the Central Asians, he says.

But Chinese and Russian interests "are not as pressing as the Central Asians'," he says. "I mean, the issue of having your territory violated, human trafficking or drug trafficking are issues that really impact the Central Asian states. Immediately, one would hope that this organization is kept focused on this issue of combating regional problems such as drug trafficking and Islamist extremism."

Last August, troops from Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan participated in war games on Kazakh and Chinese territory. Vatanka says that Russia and China have been eager to increase ties within the SCO in order to counterbalance the increasing U.S. presence in Central Asia over the past two years.

Vatanka says economics and trade are some of the issues the organization could address in its future development. Russia and Central Asia have oil and gas to sell, while China is increasingly short of energy.

The SCO foreign ministers will also discuss in Beijing preparations for the organization's summit, scheduled for late May-early June in Tashkent. Mongolian Foreign Minister Luvsangiin Erdenechuluun plans to attend as an observer. Mongolia, which is situated in the heart of the SCO territory, has shown interest in the organization's activities.

A joint statement that Russian and Mongolian foreign ministers signed earlier this week says the two sides plan to consider Mongolia's joining the SCO's activities in one form or another.

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