Accessibility links

Breaking News

Central Asia Report: November 21, 2002

21 November 2002, Volume 2, Number 44

THE NATO SUMMIT AND CENTRAL ASIA. The Central Asian states are marginal to the 21-22 November NATO summit in Prague in light of the meeting's major agenda. Billed by NATO officials as a "transformation summit," its focus is on further expansion into Eastern Europe -- on 21 November seven former Soviet-bloc countries were invited to become NATO members in May 2004, following ratification by parliaments -- defense expenditure, and recrafting the military relationship between the United States and Europe.

But there also are other issues under consideration that are more germane to Central Asia's core security concerns, especially the alliance's evolving posture toward global terrorism. On the summit's eve, U.S. President George W. Bush warned: "The military capacities of NATO must be altered to meet the true threats we face. NATO must transition from an organization that was formed to meet the threats from a Warsaw Pact to a military organization structured to meet the threats from global terrorists" (see "NATO: Seven Countries Formally Invited To Join Alliance,", 21 November 2002). Its military doctrine is being revamped to focus on the danger from terrorism, rogue states, and the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The alliance is also likely to declare itself prepared to take action beyond its traditional European and North Atlantic theaters, ready to react to threats wherever they arise.

All five of the Central Asian states are represented at the summit. Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev arrived in person. (The latter's visit kicks off a weeklong European tour including stops at the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels, where he is scheduled to meet its president, Romano Prodi, and the Netherlands for a two-day state visit and a business forum of the three Benelux countries, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan.) Kyrgyzstan's delegation included Defense Minister Colonel General Esen Topoev, Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov, and Minister of Emergency Situations Satybaldy Chyrmashev, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported on 20 November. Turkmenistan's reclusive president stayed away, but sent Defense Minister Rejepbay Arazov and Foreign Minister Rasit Meredov, ITAR-TASS noted on the same day.

Even if NATO's current priorities keep the Central Asian actors far from center stage, they are likely to be active in the wings in Prague, using the forum to air their concerns and explore avenues of cooperation with alliance members. The Pentagon at least has kept the spotlight on the region's security in recent weeks by hosting both the Kazakh and Kyrgyz defense chiefs. On 14 November, Kazakh Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev met his U.S. counterpart Donald Rumsfeld to discuss the war on terrorism and ways to expand bilateral military ties. Rumsfeld reiterated that "President Bush was committed to long-term relations with Kazakhstan and the whole of Central Asia," and added, "We count on the continuation of cooperation in order to make sure that Afghanistan does not become a haven for terrorists again," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Altynbaev noted in turn the importance of military training in the United States for Kazakh military officers and of joint exercises conducted with U.S. service personnel, particularly at a time when Kazakhstan is trying to strengthen its forces by moving from a conscript to a professional army (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 November 2002). An 18 November press release from the Defense Ministry in the Kazakh capital Astana confirmed that an agreement had been concluded on educating its officers at U.S. military academies.

A week earlier, Kyrgyz Defense Minister Topoev had held talks with Rumsfeld and U.S. Central Command head General Tommy Franks during a U.S. visit on 6-11 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 November 2002). With Franks, Topoev initialed a plan for multidirectional bilateral military contacts in 2003, involving exchanges of visits by their countries' top brass and staff officers, joint workshops, joint-operations training in mountainous areas, and study tours for Kyrgyz servicemen to the Marshall Center in Germany and to participate in the Minuteman program in Montana, according to a Kyrgyz Defense Ministry press release cited by Interfax on 18 November.

Admittedly, the Kazakh and Kyrgyz defense ministers' talks with the Pentagon were about improving bilateral ties with the United States in its capacity as the world's superpower, not as NATO member per se. But Kyrgyzstan has been cooperating de facto with NATO states since it made the capital Bishkek's Manas air base available last December to the Western antiterrorism coalition. Some 2,000 coalition troops are presently deployed at the base. Furthermore, a NATO delegation led by Major General Guido Palmieri arrived in Bishkek on 20 November, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The alliance officials came for three days to discuss ongoing military reforms in Kyrgyzstan and ways of strengthening the country's connections with NATO within the framework of its Partnership for Peace (PFP) program.

All five Central Asian states have signed on to NATO's PFP program, enabling them to increase political and military cooperation and engage with the alliance more closely. However, the level of engagement has varied from country to country. Some joined at the PFP's inception in 1994. Kazakhstan enthusiastically pursued cooperation with NATO since then, hosting peacekeeping exercises within the parameters of the PFP in October 2000 and becoming the first Central Asian state to join NATO's Planning and Review Process program. Astana has also offered to make its peacekeeping battalion KazBat available for service in the Balkans (see "Special Report: The NATO Prague Summit,", 19 November 2002).

At the other end of the spectrum, Tajikistan, wracked by civil war from 1992 to 1997, became the last of the former Soviet republics to sign up when it did so in February of this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2002). Rakhmonov said at the time that Tajikistan hoped cooperation with NATO would contribute to regional stability and provide opportunities to modernize its armed forces. More recently, Tajikistan's envoy to NATO indicated to RFE/RL that his country was looking to NATO for more modest help, such as cooperation in clearing mines laid during the civil war and in training for emergency situations like earthquakes or heavy rains (see "NATO: Central Asian Presence Underscores Ties,", 20 November 2002). The latter reference sheds light on the inclusion of Minister of Emergency Situations Chyrmashev in the Tajik delegation to the summit.

Bringing up the rear in terms of willingness or ability to participate actively in the PFP is Turkmenistan. A statement from the presidential press service in the capital Ashgabat on 20 November, quoted by Interfax, touted the fact the Turkmenistan was among the first of the ex-Soviet republics to join the PFP, in May 1994, and said that "planned and steady cooperation, based on mutual understanding and respecting Turkmenistan's status as a neutral state" had been the watchword of relations ever since. In reality, though, the country's official neutral stance has meant that it has not taken part in PFP maneuvers. There is some question whether it would even be physically and technically competent to do so. Its armed forces have been badly run down, with morale reportedly very low as soldiers are sent to the fields to grow their own food to survive. Turkmen TV reported on 7 November, not credibly, that young conscripts were extremely enthusiastic about serving in their country's armed forces and there was not a single case of draft dodging. "Our people are profoundly satisfied with the giant efforts undertaken by our great leader to increase our fatherland's military might," the television averred.

By contrast, Varorud news agency reported on 16 November that in Tajikistan conscription was so unpopular that military commissars press-ganged young men into service, while a recent television program that aired in northern Sughd Oblast showed the solitary isolation cells used by the local registration office to punish boys attempting to evade the call-up. The chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Tajikistan, Marc Gilbert, commented it was no wonder boys tried to flee when the commissars' methods were so brutal and conditions in the army so beastly, reported on 18 November.

In terms of regional security, Uzbekistan has had an anomalous and privileged position among the Central Asian states since it established a "qualitatively new relationship" with the United States by opening Hanabad air base to U.S. troops and contracting a strategic partnership with the superpower (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 18 October 2002). Washington's patronage has generally emboldened Karimov to act more independently toward multilateral organizations that he has felt lacked punch. He was lukewarm about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization at its St. Petersburg summit in June (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 13 June 2002). Also in June, he withdrew from the ineffectual GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) grouping, although Tashkent has quietly revived relations since. And he implicitly compared the UN's weakness in bolstering regional security with U.S. might in strongly critical remarks made during UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's visit to Uzbekistan last month (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 24 October 2002).

By the same token, Uzbekistan has been respectful but reserved in its relations with NATO, an organization still looking for a mission that, in comparison to Washington's spectacular unilateral commitment in the wake of 11 September, has not done much for Uzbekistan lately. Nevertheless, Uzbek press talked up its hosting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly to Tashkent last month. On 18 November, a government press officer praised Uzbek-NATO military and scientific programs and said that cooperation was proceeding successfully, Interfax reported. On 20 November, Uzbek Radio assured listeners that Uzbekistan's views on world peace and security coincided with NATO's. That said, the radio exhorted NATO summiteers to remember that the best weapons to ensure security were ultimately political and not military, and that even smaller, less powerful states -- presumably including Uzbekistan -- should not be coerced or bullied to conform to outsiders' agendas. "There are all sorts of countries -- small, strong and weak, rich and poor. Yet each country has its own absolutely lawful interests," said the radio. Lurking in that statement is probably an admonition to the West to stop pushing Uzbekistan to implement democratic and human rights reforms at a faster pace than the regime is willing to go.

On 21 November, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze reiterated that he would make a formal request at the NATO summit that Georgia be accepted as an alliance member (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 November 2002). He acknowledged that this would not happen anytime soon. But it raises the question whether, at some point in the medium-term future, the Central Asian states may themselves become candidates for membership. The obstacles are formidable. Corruption and the slow pace of democratic reforms in some of the seven countries just invited into NATO had cast last-minute doubts about whether they were really fit to join: Doubts about Central Asian states would likely be even more serious. As an alliance of democratic states, NATO would have to demand that Central Asian governments completely overhaul the way they function, while their militaries have only taken tentative steps to become more transparent, accountable, and civilian-controlled. Great-power interests in the region beyond the United States' also present hurdles. There was a reminder of Moscow's strong interest in keeping a foothold in Kazakhstan last month, when the Duma (lower house of the Russian parliament) ratified agreements on leasing test ranges (for $16 million a year), installations, and combat fields in Kazakhstan. "The ratification of the treaties corresponds to the political, military, and economic interests of Russia," Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Aleksei Moskovskii said immediately afterward, Interfax reported on 11 October. Moreover, Moscow deploys some 25,000 troops in Tajikistan, including the 201st Motor-Rifle Division, to maintain stability and patrol the borders.

A meeting in Moscow of the defense ministers of the CIS Collective Security Treaty member countries was also deliberately scheduled on 20 November, the eve of the NATO summit, as a reminder that Russia maintains a strategic presence in Central Asia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. The ministers decided to reinforce the treaty's contingent in Central Asia, consisting of a collective rapid-deployment force with units from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, Interfax reported on 20 November.

Meanwhile, China recently participated in military exercises in Kyrgyzstan, the first time that Chinese troops had conducted such exercises outside their homeland. A Chinese military delegation followed up with talks at the Defense Ministry in Bishkek on 20 November, Kyrgyz TV reported. It was agreed that more Kyrgyz officers would go to study in China, while Beijing would send instructors to a military college in Kyrgyzstan, the television said.