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Central Asia: Economic Cooperation Group Lacks Cohesion

Ashgabat, 16 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The Economic Cooperation Organization held an "extraordinary" meeting this week in the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat. The 10 member nations of the organization assembled with the intention of developing trade and communications networks between them. Events showed however that there is still not much communality of purpose between the different states.

The 10 ECO members are the three founding nations Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, and the new members accepted in 1992 -- Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Iran, Pakistan and Turkey first founded the ECO predecessor, the Regional Cooperation for Development, in July 1964. This organization failed to accomplish much, due in part to the Shah of Iran's lack of enthusiasm for the organization, and effectively ceased to exist after the Iranian revolution in 1979.

In 1985 Iran moved to renew the RCD idea but under the new title of the Economic Cooperation Organization. The ECO had more vitality than its predecessor but it was really after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the organization acquired a more formidable look, at least geographically.

A year after the USSR's disintegration the ECO had admitted the nominally Muslim countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Shortly after these countries became members, Afghanistan was admitted. The countries have been trying to form bonds but have still had little success in creating any sort of relationship that would bind them and their population of more than 300 million people together.

The agreed agenda was oil and gas pipelines and communications networks between the countries. Several pipeline route projects were pushed a little further ahead, and there were discussions also over road and rail networks and shipping. The goal is to open up Central Asia to the ports of Iran, Turkey and Pakistan.

Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev said it was better to seek investors in such projects before "grandiose" plans were actually made for routes. Huge oil, natural gas and mineral reserves are still largely untouched under the soil of these countries, partly because practically the only way to export these materials is through Russia. No lines of communication to Iran, Turkey and Pakistan were developed in the Soviet era, so the big question is how and by what route can the wealth of the area reach buyers.

The presidents of Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey signed a memorandum on the construction of a Turkmen-Iran-Turkey-Europe pipeline to bring thousands of millions of cubic meters of natural gas westward annually. As Azerbaijan's Aliyev had hinted though, the fianancing of this project was not disclosed and the needed funds may not be available for all sections of the line.

One of the other pipeline plans was the Turkmen-Afghanistan-Pakistan route for supplying 20,000 million cubic meters of oil annually to Pakistan and further. A protocol was signed by the Turkmen president, the Pakistani prime minister and representatives of the American company Unocal and the Saudi Arabian company Delta. By October of this year a plan should be devised for beginning the project before year's end but no one signed from the Afghan side. Investment in this project is estimated at between $2 billion and $2.7 billion.

However, this does not consider the Afghan Taliban. The Taliban religious movement controls about two-thirds of Afghanistan but they were not invited to the ECO meeting. Instead, the ousted president of the country, Burhanuddin Rabanni, came. The Taliban sent a letter of protest, and by not including the Taliban, and by refusing representation from any faction in Afghanistan, those at the ECO meeting may have earned for themselves the lasting antipathy of the Taliban.

And also within the ECO group there have been signs of friction. Last year Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani tried to drum up support against US sanctions on Iran, but Uzbek President Islam Karimov argued they were at an economic meeting not a political conference.

This week when Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan spoke of support for the Muslims in India, Karimov made thinly veiled references to "outside influences" in Afghanistan. According to one report Karimov wanted Sharif to say publicly that Pakistan would stop any aid to the Taliban and when questioned at a press conference as to which countries he meant by "outside influences" Karimov replied the representative from Pakistan should answer the question.

Realising construction of the pipelines mentioned above would be a good indication the ECO is finally becoming the sort of organization it has long hoped to be. Still, last year the Sarakhs-Messhed-Tedjen railroad was billed as a great trade link but reports now say that freight rarely travels the line. The challenge for the ECO is to plan and realize projects that will make a difference to the member countries and their people.