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Central Asia: Freedom Of Movement A Case Study In Lack Of Cooperation

The quick cooperation offered by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan in the U.S.-led war on terrorism has earned Central Asia appreciation from Washington and other Western capitals. But have the Central Asian states been similarly cooperative with each other in dealing with issues of local interest, such as political policy, social change, and regional terrorism? RFE/RL reports that one way of answering this question is to look at freedom of movement by citizens within Central Asia.

Prague, 8 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It is easy to imagine the frustration of Uzbek or Turkmen citizens wishing to travel to neighboring Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, or Kazakhstan.

While many Europeans, for example, can cross the borders of these countries freely, without visas, Uzbek or Turkmen passport holders are required to have entry visas to visit.

Free travel among the five states of Central Asia has become a distant memory for the region's citizens.

On 19 October 1992, less than a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 12 members of the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States signed in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, a special agreement on visa-free travel for CIS citizens within the commonwealth.

The first crack in this agreement came in June 1999, when Turkmenistan withdrew from the accord. Uzbekistan delivered the next blow. Tashkent suspended the Bishkek agreement starting on 1 January 2000.

The Turkmen and Uzbek governments did not give precise explanations to their citizens for these sudden restrictions, offering only vague references to the need to protect national interests and to maintain stability and security.

In retaliation, other regional governments introduced visa regimes for Uzbek and Turkmen citizens.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Boris Shikhmuradov, a Turkmen opposition leader currently living in exile, talked about what he believes were the real motives behind the decision. Shikhmuradov was foreign minister of Turkmenistan at the time it withdrew from the Bishkek agreement. "[Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov] stipulated this issue as an urge to guard Turkmenistan from the penetration of criminal elements. In fact, he was afraid of journalists who, as he used to say, were coming to the country without any control. He was afraid of the presence of representatives of various international human-rights organizations. That was his first step toward the direct isolation of Turkmenistan," Shikhmuradov said.

Malik Abdurazzoqov is an independent Uzbek political analyst. He said there is a variety of reasons behind the introduction by Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan of visa regimes for neighboring countries. "As for natural [objective] reasons, these countries [in Central Asia] lost their national statehood long ago, and that's why they want, by self-identification, by building Uzbek or Kazakh or other national statehoods, to introduce themselves to the rest of the world. When it comes to the subjective side, as you know, each of the Central Asian countries is dependent on one person's policy. This person through his state wants to establish his own leadership in the region. [Kazakh President Nursultan] Nazarbaev, [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov, [Kyrgyz President Askar] Akaev, and [Tajik President Imomali] Rakhmonov, all of them are competing with each other. None of them wants to obey anyone else. Who would start regional integration first? Even if it is started, each of these presidents would put his own project and own interests first," Abdurazzoqov said.

Svetlana Gaparova is a regional expert from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who is based in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh. She agreed that the regional policies of the Central Asian states are often based on the ambitions of their rulers. But she added that the burden of such competition is put on the shoulders of the region's citizens. "Ordinary people do not need such borders. They perceive [the Uzbek-Kyrgyz visa regimes] -- let us say -- as a policy of two states clearing up relations with each other by not very civilized means. But again, ordinary people who live on both sides of the border are suffering for that," Gaparova said.

Many independent observers and members of the political opposition in the region say these closed-border policies come at a high economic cost and that they are one of the main obstacles blocking regional development.

Shikhmuradov cited a number of examples of how the isolation of Turkmenistan through its visa regimes adversely affects the country's economy. "First, tourism, which had started developing promisingly, is dead today. It is reduced to zero because nobody goes there, naturally. Second, a private businessman who applies for a visa and gets refused means he does not go there, too. This is a direct harm to the Turkmen economy. Third, Turkmen airplanes are empty. Planes of so-called Turkmen Airways carry either air [no one] or seasonal Indo-Pakistani workers to and from Great Britain through the territory of Turkmenistan. That's all," Shikhmuradov said.

These adverse conditions likely apply to other Central Asian economies as well. In addition, harassment of visa-holding travelers by border guards and customs officials, and corruption within their ranks, often exacerbates the problem by increasing ethnic tensions. "Because of my job, I have to cross the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border quite often, and I myself have experienced how [border officials] -- who represent the face of their state -- behave. Today's border guards and customs officials are people with very poor education, people without basic ethics, who have little idea about customs and border service. They think that if they are sent here, they can take advantage of ordinary people's lack of knowledge about each other's laws and rob them. In other words, these [Uzbek] officials are undermining the reputation of their state because the bitterness of ordinary people crossing other country's borders is projected through the whole state," Gaparova said.

Many observers believe that unless the Central Asian governments face reality and make regional integration a top priority, they will become further isolated, and the economic benefits of globalization will be lost. "We should look around and see what's happening there. In Southeast Asia, the integration process is strengthening. There is no need to mention the European Union. Geographically, Central Asia is as dry as a bone -- no sea or waterways. In addition, the region has almost no transport-communication system that allows it to establish close relations with its neighbors in the region. Despite these natural challenges, Central Asian governments keep the region internally divided, which is not in the interest of the region. If they continue their current policies, after 20 to 30 years, Central Asia will become a very provincial, remote area of the globe, isolated from world markets," Abdurazzoqov said.

Despite growing economic and ethnic pressures, there is no sign these visa regimes will end anytime soon. When asked about such a possibility, Kyrgyz and Tajik diplomats simply lament the Uzbek government's unilateral decision in 2000, while Uzbek officials point their fingers skyward, an indication that only President Karimov can make that decision.