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Central Asia: Uzbek Leader Stands Pat On Regional Union

Presidents Karimov (left) and Nazarbaev in Astana on April 22 (official site) Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, long a key proponent of greater economic and political unity among the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, revived the idea ahead of his Uzbek counterpart's visit this week.

Once again, Uzbek President Islam Karimov shot it down.

Moreover, the manner in which Karimov responded suggests that a long-standing rivalry between the leaders of the region's two largest states might be heating up again.

At a news conference on April 22, the first day of Karimov's visit, he rejected Tashkent's participation in any regional union by recounting the failures of several previous attempts to bring Central Asia's states together.

He noted the formation in 1998 of the Central Asian Economic Union (CAEU), which in 2002 became the Central Asian Commonwealth (CAC). Which in turn gave way to the Eurasian Economic Community.

"If we look back at the last 10 years, there were a lot of meetings, many aspirations were expressed about how to invigorate this union or commonwealth," he said. And yet nothing was ever achieved, Karimov suggested.

He has a point.

Efforts to bring the five Central Asian states closer together have consistently failed, despite public statements of "eternal friendship." Indeed, they were all much closer as Soviet republics, seemingly bound by mutual feelings of second-class citizenship in a Soviet state that promised equality.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, none of the Central Asian leaders had much experience in foreign policy. Suddenly, they all had to chart their own domestic and foreign policies. They also seemed to find some comfort in being together, as all of them were experiencing similar difficulties: hyperinflation, seeking new markets for their exports, and experimenting with their political systems.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were the first to try to form a union, in 1993, and it was probably natural that these two would initiate such a move. Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia and Kazakhstan the largest geographically.

Kyrgyzstan signed on in 1994 and the Central Asian Economic Union was formed. In 1998, Tajikistan joined and it became the Central Asian Economic Community (CAEC). In 2002, the same four countries changed the name of the organization to the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO).

By 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin was working furiously to restore Moscow’s influence in Central Asia, where three countries were hosting U.S. or NATO troops for operations in Afghanistan. In October 2004, Putin flew to Dushanbe to participate in a CACO summit and the four Central Asian leaders agreed to admit Russia. Yet as Karimov noted, by 2005 that organization also was defunct.

Uzbekistan did participate in all these groupings, but Karimov, in his Astana remarks, left no doubt about Tashkent's stance toward any such future unions.

"Every country defines its attitude to this initiative by asking how it answers the interests of this or that country in the region," Karimov said. "I want to say right now that for us the idea is not acceptable for Uzbekistan, and I want to say this once and for all so there is no speculation about this question."

Single-Minded In Tashkent

Karimov was the second Central Asian president to visit Astana this month. On his visit, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev expressed support for Nazarbaev's proposal, something that Karimov addressed in blunt terms.

"If Kyrgyzstan really wants to create this union with Kazakhstan, I think those two countries should solve this question," Karimov said.

Karimov also pointed out that one Central Asian state has been resistant to any idea of a regional organization, thus making such cooperation practically impossible. Turkmenistan, under former President Saparmurat Niyazov with his United Nations-recognized policy of neutrality, declined to become a member of any of the previous Central Asian unions.

What's behind Karimov's opposition? It may have more to do with the relationship between the two leaders rather than the need for greater cooperation between the two countries. With roughly two-thirds of Central Asia's population living in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, there seems to be ample room for cooperation. Yet Karimov and Nazarbaev have been competing over regional preeminence since independence.

Now, Kazakhstan's state coffers are overflowing with oil wealth and Kazakhstan is set to receive the presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010. In contrast, the standard of living in Uzbekistan is not improving and at times appears to be declining. Moreover, the OSCE is still as likely to discuss the Uzbek government's human rights violations as it is greater cooperation with Tashkent.

Curiously, the only organization where the Central Asian states seem well disposed to mutual cooperation is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), where Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are joined with China and Russia. Both the huge neighbors offer economic and security benefits for Central Asia, though both also seem inclined to making as many bilateral deals with individual Central Asian states as they can.

Standing next to Karimov at the news conference on April 22, Nazarbaev appeared undeterred by his guest's comments.

"Concerning the four-sided, or even five-sided consortium, we still are determined [to create it]," Nazarbaev said, "but for now this will not happen because again we have different opinions."

The day after Karimov left on April 24, Nazarbaev opened the seventh annual Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty by calling for the creation of a regional hard currency.

Nazarbaev's idea of a Central Asian union also received strong support the president of the 62nd session of the UN General assembly. Macedonia's Srgjan Kerim, speaking at the media, called Nazarbaev's idea "interesting, as this would possibly enable these states to develop more freely."

RFE/RL Kazakh Service director Merhat Sharipzhan contributed to this report

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