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Kazakhstan: Almaty Conference Aims To Open Up Landlocked States

Representatives from some of the world's richest and poorest nations are gathering in Kazakhstan this week to try to agree on a plan for improving the access of landlocked developing countries to outside markets. Such an agreement is considered crucial to improve economic conditions for these struggling states, many of which are located in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

United Nations, 27 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Trade and transport ministers from more than 60 states meet in the Kazakh city of Almaty tomorrow (28 August) to seek ways of opening up the markets of some of the world's least-developed countries.

The conference of landlocked and transit developing countries aims to negotiate agreements that would reduce the time and costs in transporting goods from poor states lacking access to major trade routes.

The United Nations, the organizer of the conference, estimates that the world's 30 landlocked developing countries spend an average of 15 percent of export earnings on transport services alone. It says that landlocked status costs these countries as much as 0.7 percent in rate of economic growth each year.

Half of these states are in Africa, ranking near the bottom of the UN's Human Development Index. Most of the remaining landlocked developing states are in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and also lag far behind in foreign investment and economic growth.

Nikolay Sahakov is a UN-based diplomat with one of these states, Armenia. He told RFE/RL his government is hoping for concrete results from the conference. "To be landlocked, the geographical obstacle is a real obstacle for economic growth, too, because the transportation costs are high," he said. "So it means we can't develop industry, because our commodities become less competitive in international markets."

Disputes with Azerbaijan and Turkey have led to the closure of two-thirds of Armenia's borders, leaving Georgia as its major export outlet.

The draft Almaty Program of Action prepared for the conference aims to improve cooperation between countries like Armenia and what are called transit-access developing countries such as Georgia. It also involves donor nations and international finance and development agencies.

The program of action aims to clarify the right of access to the sea of landlocked countries. It calls for simplifying the legal requirements involved in the passage of goods from landlocked countries through transit-access countries. It also emphasizes the need to upgrade rail, river, highway, air, and pipeline infrastructures.

Harriet Schmidt is an official with the UN office that oversees the concerns of landlocked developing states. She said that the Almaty conference, if successful, could unlock major resources from the developed world. "The moment donors see that the conditions -- whether it's legal, practical, technical, jurisdictional -- are put in place, then they are much more willing to consider funding," Schmidt said.

Schmidt said among the donor countries sending representatives to Almaty are the United States, Germany, Japan, Italy, Greece, and Canada. Any funding they provide could benefit both landlocked countries and their less-isolated neighbors through projects like infrastructure improvements.

Schmidt said opening up landlocked countries to international market access would have a regional impact, benefiting transit-access countries as well. But she said access countries have raised concerns about environmental impact and other matters. "Right now the thrust is on the landlocked developing countries because they are the ones that have the most severe particular problems. That does not mean that there aren't a good number of issues also for the transit-developing countries because they do have concerns," she said.

A preparatory meeting in Almaty that precedes the conference is encountering the most difficulty over trade issues. A UN press release late yesterday said some developing countries are reluctant to open market access for landlocked nations while they must contend with higher market barriers.

UN officials say any agreed-upon plan will be monitored and evaluated by criteria such as reductions in transport costs.

The landlocked developing countries attending the conference include Armenia, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Among the transit developing countries represented at the conference are China, Georgia, Iran, and Pakistan.