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Central Asia Report: September 12, 2003

12 September 2003, Volume 3, Number 31

TASHKENT'S NEW BALANCING ACT AFTER THE SCO SUMMIT. The Foreign Ministers' Council of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- comprising Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and China -- met in a special session on 5 September in the Uzbek capital Tashkent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 September 2003). The session's official purpose was to review progress in implementing agreements concluded during the organization's May meeting in Moscow. But the diplomatic formalities barely concealed a struggle being played out at the heart of the SCO, as Russia and China, alarmed by Washington's burgeoning influence in the region, work to drag Central Asia out of the American camp. The Tashkent summit was framed by visits by Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing to the capitals of the region to sign a series of cooperation agreements with his Central Asian counterparts (see below). At the center of the drama is Uzbekistan, which last week was trying to maintain some kind of balanced and equidistant footing between Russia and the U.S., even as its allegiance becomes the focus of a tug-of-war between the two powers.

The summit of foreign ministers in Tashkent was preceded by a meeting of the six SCO member states' prosecutors-generals on 4 September in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, where they approved a strategy for cooperation in fighting international terrorism and organized crime, drugs and arms trafficking, religious extremism, and separatism. President Askar Akaev addressed the gathering and called for SCO countries, faced by such global threats, to boost national security and regional cooperation, Kabar news agency reported. Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General Myktybek Abdyldaev, speaking after the meeting, said that he thought the common approach to law enforcement cooperation just agreed by SCO prosecutors would be a concrete step in this direction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 September 2003).

The SCO summit also aimed to coordinate the organization's approach to a number of international policy issues ahead of the 58th session of the UN General Assembly later this month (see "Uzbekistan: Foreign Ministers Of Shanghai Cooperation Organization Converge In Tashkent,", 5 September 2003). The foreign ministers issued a communique on 5 September in which they simultaneously called for the UN to take on a larger role in Iraq and expressed their own countries' readiness to contribute to Iraq's reconstruction. They voiced support for efforts toward the peaceful resolution of the dispute over North Korea's nuclear program. As for Afghanistan, they called for more multilateral aid, stressed the need for general elections to be held in 2004 (ironic, in view of the less-than-perfect democratic credentials of the SCO states themselves), and proposed that the international community elaborate a strategy under UN auspices to combat Afghan narcotics trafficking, Russian and Central Asian media reported.

Since its foundation in 1996, the SCO has suffered from a lack of defining purpose and an absence of functioning infrastructure. The Pentagon's move into Central Asia in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks helped provide the former, as Russia and China became prime movers in efforts to pitch the SCO as a regional security alternative to American unilateralism. And important steps were taken to establish the latter, as Uzbek Foreign Minister Sodyq Safaev announced on 5 September that a permanent SCO secretariat would start working in Beijing on 1 January 2004, and the executive committee of a new Regional Antiterrorism Center would open in Tashkent on 1 November, said. (But on the previous day Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksander Yakovenko said the center would not open earlier than next January, noted on 5 September.) The center's location, which was long planned to be Bishkek, was suddenly changed to Tashkent apparently after Uzbek President Islam Karimov discussed it with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the Uzbek city of Samarkand in August (see "RFE/RL Central Asian Report," 8 August 2003). The SCO has never offered the public a reasoned justification for the move. Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov gave journalists on 6 September what sounded like a face-saving explanation for his country's seemingly passive acceptance of Uzbekistan's demand that the center be transferred to Tashkent. According to Aitmatov, the Kyrgyz request that the center be set up in Bishkek was made in 2000 following incursions into Kyrgyzstan by Islamic militants in 1999 and 2000. But the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition has been so successful in eliminating terrorist bases in Afghanistan that Kyrgyzstan is no longer directly threatened with extremist incursions. Consequently, Uzbekistan is more "sensitive" to extremism than Kyrgyzstan is, Aitmatov said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 September 2003).

A more likely explanation relates to Putin's efforts to loosen Uzbekistan's security ties to the U.S., binding it more closely to Russia in political and economic dimensions, and to the SCO as an alternative in the security dimension. The Samarkand summit marked a watershed in bilateral relations, with Karimov all but admitting that he had been obliged, primarily through economic necessity, into adopting a less independent and adversarial position towards Moscow not only in matters of business and trade but across the board (see "Uzbekistan: Karimov Says Improved Relations With Russia Not At Expense Of U.S. Ties,", 4 September 2003). Since then top Uzbek officials have been in damage-control mode by offering repeated assurances that the U.S.-Uzbek partnership will not be affected. Karimov said on Uzbek TV on 29 August that attention given to strengthening Uzbek-Russian relations should not be interpreted to mean that Tashkent is "drifting toward Russia." Foreign Minister Safaev backed his boss in a 3 September interview with the news agency Interfax. "I am deeply convinced," he said, "that those who believe that stronger ties with one country would inevitably weaken relations with another are mistaken." Safaev continued in the same tone in an interview with the newspaper "Kommersant" carried by on 9 September. He said that after "a period of coolness and estrangement" Uzbekistan's friendship with Russia was growing warmer, but insisted there were no ramifications for the American military presence in Uzbekistan: "This matter was not raised in the course of the meeting in Samarkand," he said.

Given the scale of the benefits, particularly political and military, that Uzbekistan has gained from its strategic partnership with the United States, it is clear why Karimov, Safaev, and their colleagues are so anxious that relations will remain unchanged. But repeating that something is so, however insistently, is not the same as making it so. Some reconfiguration of Uzbekistan's present relationship appears inevitable if, for instance, the regional security priorities of the American military (stationed at Hanabad air base in southwestern Uzbekistan) come to clash with those of a Russian- and Chinese-dominated SCO with its Antiterrorism Center in Tashkent. Uzbekistan will then become subject to the same competitive forces as Kyrgyzstan may be facing, sooner rather than later, by its decision to host CIS Collective Security Treaty troops a few dozen kilometers from U.S.-led coalition forces at Kant and Manas air bases respectively.

Perhaps such considerations are part of the reason why Tashkent, having accepted the SCO's mission as an antiterrorist outfit, is simultaneously trying to deemphasize its military aspects in favor of economic cooperation. In August, the organization invested heavily in boosting its credibility as a military alternative to the U.S. by staging extensive maneuvers in Kazakhstan and China (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 3 August 2003). Uzbekistan, however, did not participate, and it has preferred to propound less aggressive outlooks for the SCO as a regional grouping, such as harmonizing customs regimes, lowering trade barriers, and stimulating complementary economies. These are points that Safaev chose to stress after last week's Tashkent summer, according to Uzbek media sources. Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev similarly alleged on 5 September that economic collaboration was a priority issue for the SCO, noted. He said the member states were especially interested in cooperating on transport, energy, technology sharing, and improving the investment climate. Significantly -- in view of the fact that Kazakhstan is also trying to triangulate between Moscow, Beijing, and Washington, although its security and defense relationship with the U.S. is not as developed as Uzbekistan's -- Toqaev also came out against any more large-scale SCO antiterrorism military exercises on the grounds that the fight against terrorism was the responsibility of law enforcement agencies, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He argued that such activities created a mistaken impression of SCO goals in the world community (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 September 2003).

CHINA'S GREAT GAME IN CENTRAL ASIA. Over the past two years, Beijing has clearly signaled its apprehension about the establishment of U.S. military bases in Central Asia -- which, it worries, could be part of a strategy to encircle or contain China -- and has responded by trying to expand its influence in the region. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is the multilateral vehicle it has decided to develop together with Russia. At the same time, Beijing's continued strong interest in improving direct bilateral ties was evidenced by last week's Central Asian tour by Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing. The discussions that resulted and documents signed were revealing in the range of inducements available to Beijing to encourage Central Asian governments to partner more closely with China.

Li visited the Tajik capital Dushanbe on 1-2 September, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. In the course of a reportedly wide-ranging discussion covering terrorism, extremism, and separatism, President Rakhmonov noted the economic importance of facilitating direct overland access between Tajikistan and China by opening a road and border checkpoints at Kulma and Qarasu. Bilateral trade turnover has been running at only $15 million annually, and both sides said they hoped that figure could reach $28 million per year. On 2 September, Li and his Tajik counterpart Talbak Nazarov inked an agreement on cooperation in fighting terrorism, further pledging to collaborate on joint projects ranging from telecommunications and transport to trade, investment, and developing energy sources. After the signing, Li told journalists that the two countries would jointly combat the Uighur separatists of the East Turkestan movement, who are allegedly a terrorist group seeking to create an independent Uighur state in China's westernmost province of Xinjiang. Meanwhile, Nazarov said that Tajikistan recognized that Taiwan was an unalienable part of the People's Republic of China and the government in Beijing was the country's only legitimate ruling authority (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 September 2003). Beijing virtually always demands a public avowal of the One-China policy from the Central Asian states as part of the price of doing business.

On 3-4 September, Li was in Tashkent, where he met Foreign Minister Sodyq Safaev and President Islam Karimov. As in Tajikistan, Li signed an intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in the fight against international terrorism, separatism, and extremism. The signing on 4 September followed a meeting with Safaev during which the sides said they held identical views on terrorism. The officials also discussed intensifying bilateral trade and economic contacts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 September 2003).

On 6 September, Li was received by Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov in Bishkek, where they signed a treaty of cooperation and friendship. Aitmatov told journalists after the signing that Kyrgyzstan and China have identical positions on a wide range of political and economic issues, and he praised China's contribution to regional security through the SCO. Kyrgyzstan is particularly interested in attracting Chinese participation in developing Kyrgyz hydroelectric capacity and transportation and communications networks. The two sides also pledged cooperation in the fight against international terrorism, noting particularly the East Turkestan movement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 September 2003). Three days previously on 3 September, Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General Myktybek Abdyldaev and his Chinese equivalent Jia Chunvang signed a cooperation protocol promising to step up information exchange and providing for Chinese technical aid and training, Kabar news agency reported.