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Tajikistan: Shanghai Five Discuss Separatist Threats, Trade

The presidents of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are meeting in Dushanbe today for the annual summit of the Shanghai Five. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that the presidents are expected to discuss how to combat Islamic separatist movements. Another topic will be greater economic cooperation.

Prague, 5 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The presidents of the group of nations known as the Shanghai Five converge on Dushanbe today for their annual summit, and the main topic of conversation is likely to be fighting religious extremism, separatism, and terrorism. That is a very different topic from the one that brought the countries together for the first time in Shanghai in 1996.

At that time, the presidents of China and its four CIS neighbors -- Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- met for a specific purpose: to discuss demilitarization of the CIS-Chinese border. The subsequent agreements, on troop reductions and the withdrawal of some hardware from a 100-kilometer zone on either side of the border, were largely symbolic. All of the countries had reasons to cut down their forces in the area: Russia and Kazakhstan because of financial problems, Kyrgyzstan because of its small army, Tajikistan because of its civil war, and China because it was about to reclaim Hong Kong and Macau and was closely watching Taiwan. And in any case, the weapons withdrawn were old and in need of replacement.

Still, the five continued to meet annually to review progress. After the troop reductions were settled, China was the first to raise the issue of fighting separatism. The Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim people in western China, have for centuries resisted rule from China, and in past years they have continued to resist, sometimes violently. The Uyghurs are related to the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz across the border, and both those countries harbor Uyghur minorities. China has won assurances from those two governments they will not support the Uyghur separatist movement.

Similar groups have emerged in most of the other four countries since China called for combating separatism. The Russian government is fighting Chechen separatists, while the Kyrgyz, and Tajik governments, as well as the Uzbek government, all have problems with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group they term "religious extremists." It is no coincidence, therefore, that Uzbekistan's president is attending the Shanghai Five summit as an observer. All these countries are facing groups of separatists that are more or less radical and more or less Islamic extremists.

Dushanbe, where the rotating summit is located this year, is a good place to discuss fighting such threats. The Tajik civil war ended in 1997, but until this year, it would have been practically impossible to guarantee security for such an event in Dushanbe. This is in large part due to the presence of armed Islamic groups based in the remote eastern mountains. It is also due to Tajikistan's southern border with the country that is likely to be the primary topic of conversation -- Afghanistan.

According to the Shanghai Five countries, Uyghurs, Chechens, and militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan all have training bases in Afghanistan. There, the groups are said to get weapons, money, and even the aid of Mujahedin from other Islamic countries. All the groups are said to be allied with the Taliban and international terrorist Osama bin Laden. Such claims appear in the press of all the countries represented at the summit, usually attributed to a "source," sometimes to "an informed source" or "high-ranking source." Proof for these allegations is scarce, but the tenacity of the separatist groups makes the assertion that they are receiving outside help seem plausible.

What the Shanghai Five can do about international terrorism, however, remains an open question. Greater cooperation along the borders and between law enforcement agencies are likely topics for discussion.

Another proposal on the agenda could prove more productive than fighting terrorism. That is the proposal to expand the scope of the Shanghai Five to form the basis of an economic union. The four CIS countries already have trade agreements among themselves, and all have some trade with China. Unfortunately, most of that trade is unofficial, often in the form of shuttle traders crossing into China and bringing back Chinese goods to sell. Still, the five countries, as well as Uzbekistan, occupy a good deal of the region which the old Silk Route passed through. Resurrecting that route -- an idea that has been discussed perhaps too often since the Soviet Union collapsed -- could prove invaluable for the land-locked CIS Central Asian states. The major obstacle remains poor transportation links between the countries.

The Shanghai Five group appears to be an evolving entity. The group served the function for which it was created, and now is seeking new avenues of cooperation. Offers to join have already been thrown out to other countries bordering the five. By next year, when the summit moves back to China, it may take more than the usual one day to discuss all the issues.