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Central Asia: The Future Requires A Multilateral Security System

London, 20 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- One of the world's leading authorities on Central Asia said yesterday that there is an urgent need for an international conference to discuss ways of safeguarding the security of the Central Asian and Caucasus countries.

Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia Institute at Johns Hopkins University, Washington, spoke at a meeting in London that discussed the geopolitical importance of the huge oil and gas reserves under development in the Caspian Sea region.

Starr said the international conference should bring together powerful neighbors such as Russia, Turkey and China, and nations that are investing heavily in the Caspian region, including the United States, France, Britain, Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.

Starr said no single regional power can presently guarantee the stability and security of the eight, mostly small, Caucasus and Central Asian nations that emerged as independent states after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. He also said there is no existing grouping of countries that is capable of providing a regional security structure. "It's certainly not a job for NATO or the OSCE," he said.

He said: "The only arrangement that would probably work would be a cooperative one that involves a combination of their powerful neighbors -- Turkey, China, Pakistan, Russia, Iran -- and some of the main external investors in the region."

Starr said, aside from the brief interlude of the Russian Civil War, none of the newly-important oil- and gas-rich Central Asian and Caucasus countries had ever existed before as an independent state.

He said they remain "fragile"; they have small populations but large land areas; they are dependent on powerful presidents; some are suffering from the legacy of serious internal instability; and only Uzbekistan, with a 22m population, has the capacity to play a regional role. Most importantly, they are surrounded by large regional powers.

He said Central Asia and the Caucasus is a backyard not only for Russia, but for China, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran, all of whom "have interests that are real and of a long duration going back for years."

Starr said: "The security question of the Caspian region turns on a very simple principle of physics: Nature abhors a vacuum. . . These countries at least potentially will be exposed to threats."

He noted that Moscow's military doctrine announced in the early 1990s defined Russia's defense perimeter as the former borders of the Soviet Union; that many in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are concerned about growing Chinese influence; while Iran is pressing its claim as the most logical exit route for Caspian Sea oil and gas.

Starr noted that U.S., French and British investors have a major interest in the stability of the area; as have the Japanese and South Koreans who have invested in manufacturing plants in the region.

But his message to the oilmen and bankers gathered in London was a strong one: "The conditions for securing your investments in the Central Asian and Caucasus region are not yet in place."

Starr, who told our correspondent that he will be visiting Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan next week, said regional powers and western investor nations need to address four major problems: -- The Central Asian and Caucasus nations suffered in the Soviet era because they were cut off from their natural neighbors by the longest and most closed border in the world. Overcoming this isolation by investing in roads, airlines, and telecommunications is a high priority -- Internal linkages within the region are poor. The Soviet system amounted to a hub and spoke arrangement by which the spokes were isolated from one another. As a result it is hard to travel around within Central Asia and the Caucasus. These countries need infrastructures and working organizations linked with each other. -- They desperately need modern skills and training -- Above all, the Central Asian and Caucasus nations need policies to cope with the expected massive investments in their economies, and outside help to anticipate the sometimes devastating effects of "windfall wealth". These problems can include over-centralization, a too big role for government, polarization in the distribution of wealth, and harm to domestic industry and agriculture.

In summary, Starr said: "The future needs to involve some kind of multilateral security arrangement, programs of domestic development that embrace transportation, communications and infrastructure, and measures to anticipate the effects of windfall wealth."