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Central Asia: Leaders Aim For Free-Trade Zone

The presidents from the countries making up the Central Asian Economic Union met in the Tajik capital Dushanbe yesterday. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that the four presidents pledged to establish a free-trade zone within two years.

Prague, 15 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan formed the Central Asian Economic Union five years ago, and Tajikistan was admitted last year.

At the union summit in Dushanbe yesterday, the four presidents signed an agreement to establish a common economic space by the year 2002. Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev praised the agreement as the first of four steps that follow the European Community's path of development.

"This is the first stage on the road to forming a common labor market and capital market. You know our foundations when we began engineering a strategy of traditional development. We formulated four stages. The first is the formation of a free trade zone, the second is the customs union, the third -- formation of a payments and monetary union and fourth -- the formation of a common labor and capital market."

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, who was elected chairman of the union yesterday, explained at a press conference after the summit that the four countries intend to boost trade.

"The documents which we signed at the summit aim at the development of economic cooperation in deepening integration processes between the states of the Central Asian Economic Union."

According to Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev, the union or "economic community" is already a great success.

"By the way, this is the only union within the CIS which has its own bank: the Central Asian Development Bank, for which each state contributes its own share. This bank has $9 million and is carrying out 52 projects. Therefore, you could say that of all the unions that exist on the territory of the CIS, the most active -- according to the figures -- is our own union."

On some issues, the four presidents said they are seeking outside help. One is the Sarez Lake reservoir in Tajikistan. Formed by an earthquake in 1911, this accident of nature is now one of the most important reservoirs in Central Asia. But it has never been improved or re-enforced by humans. If another major earthquake hits the area, geologists fear the natural dam will break and gush torrents of water that could reach as far as Turkmenistan. If that were to happen, major agricultural areas would be washed away in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The presidents appealed to the international community for help in shoring up the dam.

But it is military security that is uppermost on the minds of these four leaders. Uzbek President Islam Karimov, whose country has seen a military buildup on the Afghan border, was the one who raised the issue.

"Today, Afghanistan has become a firing range where bandit groups are formed. Terrorist groups are created in camps where they are providing instruction. I want to emphasize, they are providing instruction, training terrorists. International terrorists from all sorts of groups are there. They prepare in camps from which they emerge to skillfully plant bombs, to skillfully murder, and skillfully carry out acts of sabotage."

Karimov has long warned of the dangers of having the Taliban as a neighbor. The Uzbek government has cracked down on suspected Islamic extremists several times in the last few years -- only to witness, perhaps as a result of the crackdown, the rise of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Members of that movement are blamed for trying to kill Karimov last year and later invaded southern Kyrgyzstan from mountain bases in eastern Tajikistan.

Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all agree that the movement has bases in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Yesterday, the four presidents reiterated that they cannot cope with the problem alone. They called on the international community for help.

The regional security concerns were undoubtedly one reason for yesterday's hastily organized summit. It was the second time the four presidents met in less than two months -- and ordinarily, these leaders seldom meet. In fact, Uzbek President Karimov and Kazakh President Nazarbaev never made official visits to Tajikistan until this week.

In an odd twist, the security threat may be giving new life to the economic union.

(Abbas Djavadi, Iskander Aliev, and Salimjon Aioubov of the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)