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2003 & Beyond: Five Different Futures Await Five Central Asian States

Central Asia is becoming less of a region and more of a land comprising five distinct and different countries. The year 2003 offered many examples of the diversification under way. Some of the divisions are the result of a natural divergence of interests while others seem to be driven by external factors, but the trend looks set to continue in 2004 and the years beyond.

Prague, 19 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For more than a century now, many people have tended to view Central Asia regionally, speaking of the area with terms such as Russian Turkestan or Soviet Central Asia, or more recently as "the Stans."

But that image is quickly becoming too simplistic. As the events of 2003 illustrate, the five countries that make up Central Asia are traveling along increasingly divergent paths.

As the year started, the Turkmen government had just expelled Uzbekistan's ambassador, claiming he played a role in the alleged 25 November 2002 assassination attempt against President Saparmurat Niyazov.

Before the first week of the new year ended, several hundred Kyrgyz and Tajik citizens were fighting over travel rights in the southwestern Ferghana Valley, and Uzbekistan closed its 2,203-kilometer border with Kazakhstan, claiming the move was made to prevent poisoning from Kazakhstan's food products.

Alex Vatanka, editor of the London-based "Jane's Sentinel," says cooler relations are related partially to the personalities of the region's five presidents. Vatanka says it is the lack of democracy and focus on personal political survival that divides the five countries and limits the potential for growth.

"One of the reasons why cooperation hasn't improved within the five states is that the region's five states are not run by democratically elected leaders. [You] have five individual strongmen in charge, five strongmen who are each [looking] to consolidate and extend their rule as opposed to the achievement of the long-term, strategic interests of their states," Vatanka said.

Business decisions also divide the five states.

Uzbekistan has the largest population in Central Asia; Kazakhstan the most land and the most oil. But Uzbekistan, despite its population, cannot help Kazakhstan's oil industry the way Russia can.

Laurent Ruseckas, the director of the emerging Europe and Eurasia department at the New York-based Eurasia Group, says Russia makes a natural partner for Kazakhstan: "From an economic point of view, I think it's pretty clear to the Kazakh government that their most important economic relationship in the region is with Russia. And so you're seeing that some of the ideas of a Central Asian partnership, of Central Asian economic cooperation, which were getting a little bit of play in terms of rhetoric a few years ago, have really faded from the scene."

Kazakhstan has registered an average of 10 percent GDP growth in the last three years, while Uzbekistan's population is becoming more impoverished. This resulted in Uzbek farmers and merchants taking their goods to Kazakhstan to sell at a higher price, and without paying taxes into Uzbekistan's state coffers. Many credited this fact, rather than fear of disease, as being the likely reason for the Uzbek government's closure of the border with Kazakhstan in early 2003.

The problems of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan illustrate a growing trend in Central Asia. Kazakhstan is becoming wealthy, which will in time lure citizens from the poorer, neighboring countries. And, as Kazakhstan seeks to expand its oil business it may well find relations with its Central Asian neighbors less important to its needs.

The same is already true of Turkmenistan, which has few ties to its Central Asian neighbors as it attempts to bring its oil and natural gas to international markets.

This process of division, while natural, has been hastened recently by growing attention from the outside world.

After 11 September 2001, a new force, the United States, was firmly injected into Central Asia. The United States needed bases to strike at the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan embraced the opportunity of strengthen ties with the United States, and since then Tashkent has grown more and more distant from its neighbors.

Tajikistan, the Central Asian state most dependent on Russia, also allowed the U.S.-led coalition fighting terrorism in Afghanistan to use a base. Vatanka of "Jane's Sentinel" says that decision has brought about a change in Tajik-Russian relations: "The Tajiks now, in dealing with the Russians, speak in a more confident fashion. They demand certain things they wouldn't have done before."

China also is exerting influence on the region. Vatanka notes that recently the Kyrgyz government added five groups to its list of terrorist organizations -- some of which until now have only been considered a threat by Beijing.

China is also involved in Kazakhstan's biggest oil-pipeline project. Ruseckas of Eurasia Group says it's an attractive partnership for both sides. China will get the oil it needs, and Kazakhstan will get the $9 billion it requires for building the pipeline: "China looks at oil and gas as very strategic commodities -- every country does. And for [China], Kazakhstan is an attractive potential source of oil that could come over land, which they see -- especially the Chinese military see -- as being less vulnerable to being cut off."

The year 2003 is the first since independence in 1991 that there have been no bilateral meetings between any of the Central Asian presidents outside of a larger forum, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or CIS summit (both held at the end of May). Such bilateral meetings may have only a symbolic value, promoting an image of unity, but until now they have been regular features of life in independent Central Asia.

The region's security threats are gone for now. The Taliban have been ousted from power in Afghanistan. The U.S.-led coalition continues to use several bases in Central Asia. And, as of October, a new Russian military base has been opened in Kyrgyzstan to go with the Russian base in Tajikistan.

Vatanka says it is lamentable that regional cooperation has taken a back seat to individual concerns: "It's a disappointment, because you would, as an outsider, say one thing that would really assist all the five states is integration first within the region. It's not a small part of the world. It's a good chunk of the Eurasian land mass and when you imagine them pooling their resources -- again, whether it's political or economic -- together that would make their voice stronger. And that's exactly what such a landlocked and historically out-of-the-way region needs."

Vatanka says the situation in Central Asia will likely continue along the path evident in 2003. Any leaps forward in the region, Vatanka says, would come only if something major occurred.