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Central Asia/Caucasus: International Influence On Region Seen As Mixed, At Best

Many international organizations, including the World Bank, the United Nations, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have increased their presence in Central Asia and the Caucasus to assist the region's countries during transition. But whether these organizations have actually enhanced political development and stability remains an open question. RFE/RL reports on a recent panel discussion at Harvard University that examined international engagement in the region.

Cambridge, Massachusetts; 7 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- An array of international actors, including financial institutions, nongovernmental organizations and multinational firms, arrived in Central Asia and the Caucasus after the Soviet Union's collapse.

These groups seem committed to remaining in the region for the long term. But less apparent is whether they have been able to advance their aims for political and economic reform in the region.

By many measures, countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus have shown little progress since independence. Poverty has grown, governments have become more authoritarian, and a number of separatist conflicts remain frozen in place.

Top analysts of the region examined the impact of international engagement at a conference hosted on 4-5 October by Harvard University.

David Pearce represents the World Bank in Uzbekistan. He told an expert panel that the five Central Asian countries face the common challenges of market reforms and institution building. At the regional level, he said, the challenges include water and energy cooperation, ending drug trafficking, and improving trade and transit.

Pearce believes Central Asia would benefit from the same sort of commitment the European Union has shown in the Balkans. "External actors in the international community first need to plan for the long haul," he said. "The constraints are daunting, especially the lack of a strong political umbrella for regional cooperation, such as the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, which was itself anchored in the European Union accession perspective."

Kazakhstan, he said, has the region's brightest economic prospects, due to its enormous energy resources, but faces the long-term challenge of directing those revenues appropriately.

Kyrgyzstan has perhaps made the most progress in terms of economic reforms and in building a vibrant civil society, but it lacks market access, has weak institutions, and must manage pervasive poverty and massive debts.

Tajikistan's problems are even more pronounced, due to the country's institutional weakness and a continued risk of internal instability and conflict.

Pearce said Turkmenistan's near total isolation presents an obstacle to efforts to enhance regional cooperation, especially on water allocation and management.

Uzbekistan faces serious challenges in improving its economic climate and in cooperating with its neighbors on regional issues.

Many of Central Asia's leaders, Pearce said, see regional cooperation as antithetical to their own national interests.

He cited water management as the international community's priority in the region. A decade of work on the issue -- chiefly by institutions like the World Bank -- has provided an analytical base and framework for further outside help. But Pearce conceded that political difficulties are preventing a long-term regional solution. "In the immediate future, practical support will likely have to focus mainly on bilateral and trilateral arrangements between two or three countries and on country-specific or river basin-specific reforms and investments in improved water management and use," he said.

Martha Brill Olcott is a senior analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a prominent analyst of Central Asia and the Caucasus. She said international actors have already missed the opportunity to impel significant changes in the region. "The Western community was unprepared in the period in which we had our maximum potential to have influence," she said. "And the failure of the Western community to act in the first two or three years of independence really, in a sense, denied us a real crack at being able to influence outcomes."

Olcott said that during the past 12 years, Central Asian governments have become more resistant to ideas from outsiders, insisting that they know best how to handle their country's problems. This is a result, she said, of the mixed signals sent by the international community on issues like human rights.

Olcott told the panel the leaders who have made reforms have done so out of their own self-interest rather than as a result of international pressure. "Where the international financial institutions have succeeded the best are regions like or countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where the state leaders viewed the state's survival as substantially enhanced by their willingness to engage in systemic economic reform," she said.

Olcott stressed the need for regional cooperation among these land-locked states. Kyrgyzstan, for example, cannot thrive unless it has a regional market. And Tajikistan has to be able to ship through Uzbekistan. But she said that regional solutions are becoming much less likely on economic issues.

In 12 years, Olcott said, the international community has not yet learned how to give these countries the proper incentives to compel them to act. And that is the real difficulty in pressing for regional agendas.

In some cases, the efforts of the international community may have prolonged the difficulties. That's the view of Gerard Libaridian, a professor of history at the University of Michigan and an adviser on international issues to former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian.

Libaridian said that, in some cases, increased international involvement -- what he calls "over-strategization" -- has delayed resolution of regional conflicts. In the case of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Libaridian said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe provided a valuable forum for the two parties to come together on neutral turf.

But he said the negotiation process -- lacking timelines or urgency -- has actually contributed to prolonging the impasse. "This lengthening process of negotiations and the calculations which parties to conflicts have made have produced a hardening of positions on all parts," he said. "That is, if 10 years ago in a conflict such as [the] Nagorno-Karabakh conflict there was no national hatred or ethnic hatred, now you see it develop on both sides, you see it in other conflicts, and it becomes politically more difficult to move back and to make compromises."

But while such mini "cold wars" remain a concern, the major freeze between the United States and Russia has thawed.

Olcott noted that since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, the former rivals are able to coexist in Central Asia in an unprecedented fashion. As Russia expands its economic ties to the region, the United States continues to build security alliances.