At the Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) last week, the disharmony among the leaders of the five Central Asian republics was apparent. So was the OSCE's own dilemma of how to shape a coherent policy toward the Central Asia region.
Prague, 24 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian writer Krilov tells a tale about a swan, a fish, and a crab who all lived on the same lake. One day, the three creatures found a large object on the shoreline. This shiny object was fascinating, and each wanted to take it home. The swan tried to lift it into the air. The fish tried to move it into deeper water. And the crab tried to drag it up the shore. But they were all pulling in different directions, and the object did not move.
This tale could well illustrate the way the leaders of Central Asia are failing to cooperate on issues of common importance. Their disarray was clear at last week's OSCE summit in Istanbul. The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were all present for the 54-nation summit. They were also invited by the OSCE to attend a regional "mini-summit" at a luxury hotel the night before the main event began.
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov chose not to attend the mini-summit, sending instead a lower-ranking representative. And sources say that -- although they attended -- Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov and Kyrgyzstan's Askar Akaev barely spoke to one another because of their disagreement over the handling of the recent incursion of armed Uzbek rebels into southern Kyrgyz territory.
The incursion -- which was resolved when the gunmen withdrew to bases in Tajikistan -- illustrates the threat of Islamic extremism facing all the republics. The behavior of Niyazov, Karimov and Akaev shows the extent of the region's failure to cooperate on this topic -- or on much of anything else.
This failure is making life difficult for the OSCE, which under its mandate seeks to build security through cooperative measures. OSCE Chairman Knut Vollebaek visited the region recently and -- according to Uzbek sources -- there was deep divergence between his views and those of President Karimov on how to defuse religious extremism.
According to the sources, Vollebaek urged dialogue with ultra-religious elements, while Karimov flatly rejected contacts with what he called bandits and terrorists. Kyrgyzstan's Akaev, by contrast, did allow unofficial negotiations with the extremists who staged the recent armed incursion, and that led to the present frigidity between the two presidents.
Vollebaek told journalists the OSCE wants to do more to help the Central Asian republics. He said the organization realizes the Central Asians feel marginalized because OSCE attention is presently focused on burning issues like Chechnya and Kosovo. He pledged an initiative to enhance the focus on the region, saying that prevention is better than cure.
"We have to further develop the preventive instruments that we have. We see that when the conflict has developed into a hot conflict or war, then the OSCE has limitations. So we have from the organization's side, but not least from the member states' side, we have to cooperate further in developing a better instrument so that we can address issues before they become conflicts of a military character."
As part of this initiative, Vollebaek offered to open an OSCE regional bureau dedicated to Central Asian affairs. That idea, however, was not well received by some of the presidents, on the grounds that it could lead to Central Asian security being considered in isolation from the mainstream of European security.
In general, the Central Asian leaders are much more interested in the OSCE's role in enhancing security than they are in its roles of fostering democracy and human rights.
OSCE monitoring of the fairness of elections in the region is a particularly sensitive issue. Evidence of that is the outburst in Istanbul of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who told RFE/RL that the Asians don't want OSCE dictates to replace the old dictates from Moscow.
Political opponents of the authoritarian regimes in the region see things differently. They would like the OSCE to have an even greater focus on human rights and powers to enforce compliance on such issues. Muhammad Salih is a leader of the opposition Democratic Forum of Uzbekistan.
"If this organization (the OSCE) is given a visible authority in dealing with policy between states, and if the obligations imposed by the OSCE on member states are fulfilled, if these rules are fixed by definite laws, then the role of the OSCE would be stronger and would serve our interests."
Therein lies the OSCE's true dilemma: How to operate effectively by consensus amid such total divergence of opinion about what it should be doing.
Salih -- speaking to RFE/RL from his home in exile in Oslo -- expressed disappointment that the Istanbul summit had not managed to bring any change of attitude to the problems of Central Asia. He said the summit's attention had been hijacked by the Chechen crisis:
"But Chechnya is not the only concern for us. Our main concern is Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan. In this regard, we did not get from the summit what we expected."
Vollebaek -- who is about to give up the OSCE's chairmanship to Austrian Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schuessel -- must sometimes feel like that object in Krilov's tale: pulled in all directions, but still unable to move.