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NATO: Central Asian Presence Underscores Ties

By Zamira Eshanova/Antoine Blua

Central Asia is not expected to play a major role in the Prague NATO summit tomorrow and Friday, in spite of the presence of three Central Asian presidents in the Czech capital this week. The NATO agenda is already full with expansion, funding, and developing new capacities to fight terrorism. Nevertheless, Central Asian officials hope to use the summit as a way to underscore their ties to the alliance.

Prague, 20 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- While the focus of this week's NATO summit in Prague is the alliance's expansion into Eastern Europe, among other issues, leaders from Central Asia are keen to keep their countries in the alliance's spotlight.

Central Asia has sent no fewer than three presidents to the summit: Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, and Imomali Rakhmonov of Tajikistan. Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan are sending defense and foreign ministers.

Yves Brodeur, a NATO spokesman, told RFE/RL that the presence of the Central Asian leaders shows how important the event is for the region. "Central Asian countries find in this summit a privileged forum where they can interact with the heads of states and governments of member countries, [and] where they can discuss their problems in the area of security. And they can also express their expectations from NATO -- from the Atlantic alliance -- in terms of support we can provide them. It is really a forum to exchange ideas that leads to cooperation programs. So Prague will be important for them," Brodeur said.

All five Central Asian states are members of NATO's Partnership for Peace program, which provides members with tangible assistance and training.

Sharif Rahimov is Tajikistan's ambassador to Belgium, NATO, and the European Union. He said his country, which joined the Partnership for Peace in February 2002, is keen to develop ties to NATO quickly. "Really, [Partnership for Peace] is about cooperation for peace. This is about cooperation in the fight against terror. And this cooperation involves military planning and [training for] emergency situations. Tajikistan, almost every year, has an earthquake or heavy rains. At the same time, we cooperate on clearing mines, which is a result of the [1992-97] civil war," Rahimov said.

It's not clear how much of a role Central Asia will play at the two-day summit. Alex Vatanka, from the publication "Jane's Sentinel" in London, pointed out that the agenda is weighted toward finance issues and cooperation between the United States and Europe, not Central Asia. "The big debate is between Washington and its European NATO allies about defense expenditure and the role Europe should play in assisting Washington. So there isn't anything to my mind set out to be achieved at this summit in relations to NATO-Central Asia ties," Vatanka said.

Ties between NATO member countries and Central Asia have strengthened since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and the war in Afghanistan that followed. U.S. and other NATO-member troops are now stationed in all Central Asian countries except neutral Turkmenistan.

The close engagement of the Central Asian states in the war on terrorism has raised concern among international human rights activists, who are calling on NATO not to turn a blind eye to human rights violations. But NATO is not expected to use the Prague summit to make a push for human rights in Central Asia.

Mohammad Solih, a leader of the opposition Erk (Freedom) Party of Uzbekistan, said he would like to see organizations like NATO put more pressure on Central Asian governments to meet basic standards of democracy. "Current regimes in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan, are not meeting their people's even basic demands. In fact, they are not taking into account people's wishes, [but they are] making policies that are against the people's will. Despite that, we, as a democratic opposition, are always saying we support Central Asia's integration into the international community. At the same time, however, as we have been constantly repeating, the Western countries should see how regional regimes are increasing their repression against people in the name of fighting terrorism and stability and take appropriate measures to stop it," Solih said.

Brodeur said NATO is trying to establish a dialogue with the Central Asian countries to promote the alliance's standards on democracy and the rule of law. But he said it's a very long process. "This is an exchange forum that permits us to help these countries to reform their military institutions, for instance. But it also allows us to help them integrate certain values common to us -- important values -- here at NATO, such as the control of the military by civilians, the rule of law, the respect for minorities," Brodeur said.

Stephen Blank, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute in the U.S. Army War College, said he believes through expanded contacts with NATO, the Central Asian societies will feel increasing pressure to reform. "NATO is clearly moving in the direction of becoming an organization of crisis management and collective security, which can only benefit Central Asia. But NATO will also demand -- what the EU will demand too -- major changes in the way Central Asian governments and militaries do business, if they're going to have a closer relationship," Blank said.

Blank said this process will be helped along as the countries' militaries become more transparent, accountable, and professional.

(Iskandar Aliyev of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)