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Caucasus/Central Asia: Presidents Seek Stronger Cooperation With U.S.

Washington, 26 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Senator Sam Brownback -- a leading proponent of expanded American investment in the Caucasus and Central Asia, hosted a meeting of 11 heads of state and foreign ministers from the region on Saturday in Washington.

Brownback, a Republican from the central state of Kansas, has introduced legislation in the Senate which calls for a broad range of initiatives on economic development in the Caucasus and Central Asia with American investment.

The aim, according to Brownback, is to ensure that the states of the region continue to strengthen their recent independence while at the same time improving commercial and polititical ties with the West.

In attendance at the meeting in the U.S. Congress were the presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey and Romania and the foreign ministers of Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. The officials are in town to take part in the NATO anniversary summit, which is to include a summit-level meeting of all the countries in the Partnership for Peace.

Each of the regional leaders at the meeting spoke to stress their desire for stronger cooperation with America and to welcome Brownback's legislation. The bill, among other things, calls for increased direct American economic assistance, preferential trade tariffs, aid to strengthen regional democratic institutions, and direct U.S. involvement to help resolve outstanding regional and ethnic disputes.

U.S. National Security advisor Samuel Berger, along with former Secretary of State James Baker and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, were also at the meeting and all stressed the crucial importance of the region to the United States. They emphasized that strengthening the independence and prosperity of Central Asian and Caucasus countries is central to America's national interest.

Baker noted that the United States was the first country in the world to open embassies in all the Central Asian and Caucasus nations which emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union.

Brzezinsky observed that just 10 years ago, the entire Eurasian continent was a "closed political system" where all power and all decisions were routed through Moscow. He said that today Central Asia and the Caucasus were witnesses to political pluralism, which he called a "giant step forward."

Brzezinski said that Central Asia and the Caucasus are still lacking strong political and especially economic links to the West and the global economy. This is why, he noted, Senator Brownback's initiative carries such importance.

Brownback himself said that promoting American investment and better regional cooperation across the region will benefit all sides. But he and other speakers emphasized the importance of the Caucasus and Central Asia amounts to more than economics. As Brownback put it, the region lies "at the crossroads of many forces and cultures." By developing its ties to America and the West, he said, the region can act as a force to contain anti-Western extremism and instability across a significant and strategic part of the world.

Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov picked up the theme. He urged the U.S. Congress to approve Brownback's legislation. Pointedly, he warned that there are countries in the region who retain imperialist ambitions and who wish to thwart Central Asian and Caucasus links with the West. He did not mention Russia by name, but he castigated those who are nostalgic for the old USSR and he specifically referred to Moscow's opposition to plans for roads, railways and pipeline routes to the West, which would bypass its territory.

Although Karimov's statement was perhaps the most direct, all the regional leaders urged quick passage of Brownback's legislation. The only official who did not directly mention the bill was Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian. Oskanian praised America's commitment to the region, but Brownback's bill calls for the U.S. president to be given the authority to lift economic restriction against oil-rich Azerbaijan, if it is determined to be in Washington's national interest.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at odds over the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh for over decade. A ceasefire between the two countries is in effect, but no final peace settlement has been reached.

In fact, Saturday's meeting in Washington made clear that although intentions to revive the wealth and potential of the historic Silk Road are plentiful on all sides, some serious political potholes remain. Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev used the occasion to harshly criticize Armenia for blocking regional cooperation and he accused the Yerevan government of what he termed "ethnic cleansing."

More talks between the two sides are planned in Washington in the following days. If progress can be made on this thorny issue, then the Silk Road may be one step closer to reality.