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Kazakhstan: Almaty Conference Adopts Access Plan For Landlocked Countries

In Almaty, a two-day international ministerial conference of landlocked developing countries ended today having successfully adopted a play for improving the access of these countries to outside markets. The Almaty Program of Action focuses on transport availability and cost, and how to provide better access to seaports and facilitate the export of products.

Prague, 29 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Developing landlocked countries are hoping to gain improved market access under the new Almaty Program of Action sponsored by the United Nations.

The document was adopted today in Almaty by the international ministerial conference of landlocked developing countries. The terms of the agreement were reached Wednesday (27 August) at preparatory talks in Kazakhstan's financial capital. Low-income landlocked and transit developing countries, as well as donor states and international organizations, participated in the talks.

The UN has classified 30 developing states as landlocked, including Armenia, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. With transit costs eating up as much as 15 percent of their export earnings, the plan is considered crucial to improve economic conditions for these countries.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Anwarul Karim Chowdhury read a statement from Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the conference's opening ceremony: "This conference is an opportunity for landlocked and transit developing countries and their development partners, including the private sector, to forge strong partnerships and draw much-needed attention to [the difficulties of landlocked countries]."

Brigita Schmognerova is executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). With the 2000 UN Millennium Declaration calling on donors to increase aid and assistance to landlocked countries, she said, the Almaty Program of Action is crucial to assess the specific needs of these states.

"This conference [was] a unique opportunity for all of us to review the special needs of this group of countries and to reflect on how best we can contribute to meet them. The Almaty Program of Action that the conference [adopted] addresses the key issues, including transit policy issues, infrastructure development and maintenance as well as trade facilitation issues," Schmognerova said.

Speaking today with RFE/RL on the results of the conference, Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev said he believes the conference was very successful and important, specially for his country. "This conference is very important for Kazakhstan," he said. "Kazakhstan is the biggest landlocked country in the world, and that's why the agreements achieved and the documents signed are very important for the Kazakh economy and for Kazakhstan's transport interests."

According to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, the program will be an "invaluable contribution" into the development of transit-transport interaction of interested countries.

Kazakh Transport Minister Kazhmurat Nagmanov pointed out that the plan represents an opportunity for landlocked countries to establish a "niche" within the overall international relations, and will facilitate their integration into the global economy.

Kim Hak-Su is executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Europe (UNESCAP). He described the difficult position most landlocked countries face: "New manufacturing and trading practices, such as global supply chains and just-in-time production systems, continue to spread. These trends are making transport costs and time critical factors in determining global trade and investment patterns. Unfortunately, landlocked countries, due to their high transportation costs and distances from ports and international markets, are often at a disadvantage when it comes to competing in global markets."

Therefore, noted Carlos Fortin, deputy secretary-general of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), transport networks of landlocked developing countries must be improved to decrease the costs of moving agricultural and mineral products from rural centers of production.

Fortin stressed that regional trade expansion and economic integration should be another key component of the search for solutions to landlocked status. "As regional trade expands, many landlocked developing countries are likely to become crossroads," he said. "In effect, the geographic disadvantage of landlocked developing countries can be turned into an advantage. Once they are part of a regional integration agreement, their landlocked position often means that they are located at the center or hub of a region."

According to Fortin, this is particularly true for Kazakhstan, whose location gives it a natural advantage for becoming a natural center from which to serve the entire Central Asia.

In order to promote regional cooperation and come out of trade isolation, the Central Asian countries should revive the Silk Road, according to the associate administrator of the UN Development Program, Zephirin Diabre. "Central Asia has provided, throughout history, a link in trade routes between East and West. Today, we must encourage you to revitalize this Silk Road and to do more to work together regionally. Despite Central Asia's geographical isolation, stronger regional cooperation and international regional integration will create larger markets that encourage investment," Diabre said.

But responding to questions from journalists, UN Deputy Secretary-General Chowdhury noted today that the Almaty Program of Action is not binding on its signatories. Everything depends, he said, on the good will and intentions of the countries that are capable of influencing the situation in the economically backward regions of the world.

(Edige Magauin of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)