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NATO: Interview -- Secretary-General Robertson On Central Asia

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson is due to visit four Central Asian countries next week. In a phone interview, he tells RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky what he hopes the trip will yield and what he wants to achieve during his tenure as head of the military alliance.

Prague, 28 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In recent years, the 19-member NATO alliance has sought to establish the same sort of ties with Central Asian countries as it did earlier with former Warsaw Pact countries in Central and Eastern Europe. George Robertson, who became NATO's secretary-general last year, wants to deepen those ties when he heads to the region next week. In a telephone interview, he told RFE/RL:

"I would hope in going to Central Asia I would underline the importance of this region to NATO and to the West in general. It is an area of enormous importance and significance thanks to its history and its ethnic, religious, and linguistic composition. And, of course, its economic potential and its geopolitical location have pushed it right up to the top of the agenda. So I'll be taking a message of friendship and of partnership, and I'll be in many ways emphasizing my own commitment to making sure that we build partnership and cooperation with the countries of Central Asia."

Robertson will visit Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. Those countries have been members of NATO's Partnership for Peace program since the mid-1990s. And all of them participate in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, or EAPC, where 47 nations discuss and plan cooperative activities. Robertson said he is hoping for even greater cooperation:

"I believe there are a lot of new opportunities for cooperation to come about -- in the defense field, in the area of defense reform, of civil emergency planning, of the NATO Science for Peace project, in the environmental programs that NATO runs. All of these are areas which are outlined in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council's action plan for the next two years. and they are all areas where the Central Asian republics could play a bigger part and find themselves really then in the mainstream of cooperative and partnership activities, which would bring them in line not just with Russia and their immediate neighbors, but also the countries of western Europe and the United States."

Last week, CIS defense ministers -- Central Asian ministers among them -- attended a meeting in Moscow where Russia was once again seen as trying to strengthen its influence in Central Asia. But Robertson said he does not foresee potential tension over Central Asia between NATO and Russia:

"There's absolutely no competition between the NATO countries and Russia over activities in the Central Asian area. It is the opposite of competition. We want cooperation, and indeed Russia's new rapprochement with NATO gives us an ideal opportunity of giving that signal loud and clear: that we're interested in building a more stable and a more predictable part of the world where there is an enormous potential for trouble. And it's in the interests of both Russia and of the West that we cooperate to the maximum extent in these areas."

Earlier this month, the three Baltic countries -- all keen to join NATO -- expressed concern that the alliance would not allow them to join because of Russia's strong opposition to NATO's eastward expansion. Robertson said that he is pleased that relations with Russia, which had cooled because of last year's NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, have recently warmed. But he makes it clear that Russia does not have a veto on any country's application to join NATO -- even the countries of central Asia.

"Every country has the right to make its own choice and its own security arrangements, and obviously Russia has got a centuries-long tradition in that area. But on the other hand, the countries of that area also want to make contact with the West and, through the Partnership for Peace, with NATO -- and I think that the combination of the two adds up to a very successful formula."

But he said that any discussion today of NATO considering a new status for the Central Asian countries would be premature:

"Well, I think we've got to walk before we run, and that is why I'm very keen that the Central Asian countries get more engaged in the Partnership for Peace. That offers exercises, it offers training, it offers attendance at NATO colleges, English-language training, and a lot of cooperation in civil emergency planning, NATO's Science for Peace program, and indeed the NATO environmental program. So these are areas where I want much more activity to take place in the Central Asian countries."

Robertson said he hopes that Central Asian countries could become involved in peacekeeping operations alongside NATO, and he discussed that possibility with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who visited NATO headquarters in Brussels this week.

"I think it's a very realistic goal, because of course there already is the embryo of a peacekeeping battalion for Central Asia -- it's called Centrasbat -- and it's something that I've spoken about with the president of Kazakhstan, President Nazarbaev, when he visited NATO headquarters. And I've got high hopes that they will be able to put in place, maybe in Bosnia or Kosovo, that battalion -- both to help the peacekeeping that is going on there and also as a very visible signal that the countries of Central Asia are coming together and are developing their own positive links between themselves."

Robertson said that some of the Central Asian countries have already shown their desire for closer cooperation with NATO:

"In Uzbekistan, we've got a country that is already engaging with the alliance in a broad spectrum of consultations and cooperation activities. For example, in response to the hostage crisis in southern Kyrgyzstan last summer, the EAPC has conducted a series of consultations of direct interest to the countries in question. So this whole issue here of the fight against terrorism is one of the priority issues of the Partnership for Peace."

International human rights watchdogs and Western governments have criticized poor democratic standards and frequent human rights abuses in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and, to a lesser extent, in Kyrgyzstan. But Robertson said he does not believe NATO's contact with these countries implies that the alliance condones their shortcomings, nor that it harms NATO's image.

"One of the benefits that we get through the Partnership for Peace and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council is to spread the message about the rule of law, about democratic institutions, about democratic control of the military and the benefits of applying democratic norms to the development of a country. So, although there are those who raise questions about the state of democracy in some of the Central Asian countries, we believe that engagement with countries allows better opportunity for preaching and showing the lessons of how democracy is actually good, not just for a country's vitality, but also for its economic progress."

Some of the former Soviet republics have formed military ties among themselves, such as the GUUAM countries -- Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova. GUUAM nations have said that one of the main roles of a joint military unit will be to protect oil pipelines running westwards from Azerbaijan. Their alliance is also seen as an attempt to counter the political and economic might of their recent colonial master, Russia.

Asked about whether NATO would help in the development of GUUAM, Robertson said:

"Very much so, because NATO is not in the business of trying to replace existing cooperative structures in this or any other region. And indeed, we have tried in the past to develop cooperation between countries, whether it is bilateral or multilateral. And indeed, the GUUAM countries took the opportunity at the recent EAPC ministerial meeting in Florence, in Italy, to have a GUUAM ministerial meeting at that point. So there are a whole series of regional set-ups which exist and, insofar as they bring countries together in a cooperative way to deal with common problems, then NATO very much encourages that and will continue to support it."

Robertson said he sees his mission as building on NATO's work so far. He said the alliance's achievements consist, first, of keeping the peace with its Warsaw Pact adversaries for 40 years, and then playing a key role in bringing peace to Bosnia and Kosovo, where NATO troops went into action for the first time in NATO's history. He then described what he wants to accomplish in the future:

"I see the next period for NATO in shaping the peace, shaping the security environment for a generation to come and that is where the Partnership for Peace and the EAPC and indeed NATO enlargement fit into that process."

Robertson also said he believes that Ukraine is an essential piece in Europe's security architecture:

"I see the relationship with Ukraine as being critically important to the eastern part of the European continent. And it's a very good relationship, which took the whole of the North Atlantic Council to Kyiv earlier this year."

The NATO secretary-general said that he hopes improving relations with Russia and growing cooperation among the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council will produce a zone of stability and predictability that will help prevent the recurrence of past troubles.