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Central Asia Report: June 13, 2002

13 June 2002, Volume 2, Number 23

SCO ANNOINTED AS INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION. Meeting on 7 June in the Petrodvorets Palace in St. Petersburg, the leaders of the six Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) states signed a 26-point charter turning their loose security group into a fully-fledged international organization, with a permanent secretariat in Beijing, Russian and Western news services reported. They further agreed to establish a regional antiterrorist structure in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, and signed a political declaration highlighting the SCO's joint goals. The SCO consists of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and China.

On the day before the summit, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin convened in the Yusupov Palace for bilateral talks, at which Putin sought to calm China's fears that Moscow, by recently forging ties with Washington, was turning its back on friendship with China, AP said on 6 June. "We believe that relations with our great eastern neighbor, China, are a major priority," Putin said, as quoted by the news agency. Meanwhile China's foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan said on 8 June in St. Petersburg that China expected the U.S. military presence in Central Asia not to be extended after operations in Afghanistan cease, Reuters reported.

Commentators noted that a coherent vision of the SCO's aims seemed to be lacking in St. Petersburg, as the six leaders put different amounts of emphasis on the organization's strategic priorities and possible functions. At their 6 June meeting, for example, Putin and Jiang expressed special interest in seeing the SCO develop a trade component, RFE/RL reported. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev concurred, saying that he hoped the SCO would become an important factor in ensuring economic prosperity in the region, and suggested that the member states consider a common tariff policy (see "Shanghai Group Aims To Increase Economic Cooperation,", 12 June 2002). According to the political declaration adopted following the summit, reported by Xinhua news agency on 7 June, the SCO should negotiate favorable conditions for trade and investment and develop a long-term program for multilateral economic cooperation. Special attention is to be given to projects such as the construction of transportation networks and power-generation facilities, water usage, and the production and export of hydrocarbon fuels.

Meanwhile on the sidelines of the summit, Putin and Nazarbaev signed a long-term hydrocarbon pact whereby at least 17.5 million metric tons of Kazakh oil will transit Russia annually for 15 years, CNA and TVS Moscow reported. The two sides also agreed to establish a joint company that will process and transport natural gas, ITAR-TASS said, adding that 50 percent of the new company will be owned by the Kazakh state gas company KazMunayGaz, with the remaining shares to be divided between Russia's Gazprom and Rosneft. The agreement assumes that initially Russian pipelines will be carrying 3.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Kazakh gas annually, rising to 50 bcm in the course of a few years in tandem with the development of Kazakhstan's huge offshore Caspian gas field at Kashagan, CNA said.

But other leaders, such as Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, were less enthusiastic about expanding the SCO's mandate to include economic affairs, a commentary said on 11 June. Akaev told his colleagues that would have to establish guidelines concerning the extraction of minerals, and on the use of fuel and water resources, before there could be large-scale economic cooperation, Kyrgyz TV reported on 7 June. As the leader of a small and economically weak country that could be economically exploited by its giant neighbors, Akaev preferred to focus on the need to fight terrorism and develop transport and communication links. In his speech in St. Petersburg, Akaev said that the SCO's top priority was to set up the counterterrorism agency in Bishkek, Kyrgyz TV reported on 7 June. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said on 8 June that the agency would be open for cooperation with any state willing to join forces with it, Interfax reported. President Imomali Rakhmonov of Tajikistan, another weak country which, like Kyrgyzstan, has suffered from Islamist militants in recent years, also reckoned that the most valuable role the SCO could play was in the fight against terrorists, said on 11 June. (Not forgetting that Kyrgyzstan already contributes to the international counterterrorism effort through the CIS, Akaev remarked to Putin in St. Petersburg that cooperation in the framework of the Collective Security Treaty was also proceeding successfully and signaled their states' resolve to fight terrorists, Interfax reported on 7 June. Putin replied that, "The only good signal to terrorists would be a bullet in the head," the agency said.)

Most dubious of all the SCO leaders about the organization's usefulness, whether its strategic focus be trade or expanding its counterterrorism capacities, was Uzbek President Islam Karimov, whose last-minute resolution to attend the summit at all was newsworthy (see "Karimov Decides To Take Part In Shanghai Group Summit,", 7 June 2002). Giving only lukewarm support to the idea of a counterterrorism agency in Bishkek, the Uzbek president said the SCO should not become a military alliance or a political bloc, but it should attempt modest forms of counterterrorist cooperation, and its main function should be as a forum for debating global political issues, Uzbek TV reported on 7 June.

CHEMICAL AGENTS FOUND AT HANABAD. On 7 June a routine inspection of the Hanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan, where some 1,000 U.S. troops are presently stationed, detected traces of nerve gas in a bunker on the edge of the base, RFE/RL and AP reported. Two more sources of nerve and mustard gas, including in the hangar serving as a headquarters, were detected the next day. Initial fears that the chemical agents represented an attack on the military personnel at the base quickly gave way to suspicions that an underground stockpile of chemical weapons, stored secretly at the base during Soviet times, was leaking. All American soldiers were evacuated from the sites, Reuters reported. None had reported exposure or illness from the contaminants, AP said on 9 June. U.S. military health teams were told only last week by Uzbek officials that chemical weapons had indeed been stored at Hanabad under the USSR (see "Discovery Of Gases At Coalition Base Raises Questions,", 11 June).

Nevertheless, on 10 June Colonel General Viktor Kholstov, head of the Russian Defense Ministry's Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Force, told Interfax-Military News Agency that, "It is out of the question that Soviet troops could have left any war gas in Uzbekistan." He was promptly backed up by a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman. Hanabad was one of several bases in Uzbekistan used as the staging ground for the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A large contingent of Western troops is also based at Manas airport outside the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.

Furthermore, an unnamed Uzbek Defense Ministry official denied to Interfax on 11 June that either chemical of biological weapons have ever been stored at Hanabad. He rejected as "deliberate rumors or disinformation" reports of an "emergency" at the base (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 June 2002). He did admit that biological and chemical weapons had been stockpiled "at a former military training ground near Vozrozhdenie Island in the Aral Sea," where they had been tested by joint U.S-Uzbek military teams. But the official said that that example had no bearing whatsoever on Hanabad, Interfax reported.