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Central Asian Leaders Balk At Opening Pandora's Box Of Separatism

An ethnic Uyghur woman walks past a poster for the Beijing Olympic Games on a street in the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang Province.

The results of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, held in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, this week, were very different from what Russian President Dmitry Medvedev confidently predicted beforehand.

On the eve of the summit, Medevedev stated that the Kremlin's recent decision to recognize the independence of Georgia's two breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be supported by the SCO presidents.

In fact, the summit's final resolution lauded "Russia's efforts to normalize the situation in South Caucasus," but was notably silent on the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Although officially the resolution reflected the joint stance of all SCO members, it is clear that it really summarized the results of hard talks between the leaders of the two major SCO players -- Russia and China. Moscow has been careful to justify its decision on the two regions with reference to "preventing genocide," "forcing Georgia to peace," and "protecting Russian citizens," and has been equally cautious not to use expressions referring to "a nation's right to self-determination."

Nonetheless, Chinese President Hu Jintao, whose country is extremely sensitive to claims of self-determination, remained wary.

Historically, China's Xinjiang (New Frontier) Province is part of Central Asia, a region known as Eastern Turkistan. It is populated by Turkic-speaking Uyghurs and Kazakhs and developed into quite a hotspot after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the emergence of the independent Central Asian states.

Headache For Beijing

Since then, Uyghur activists have called loudly and often for independence. Clashes between the activists and Chinese police have occurred regularly in Xinjiang cities for more than 15 years now. Tibet, of course, is another major headache for Beijing, as the run-up to this summer's Olympic Games amply demonstrated. So China is obviously concerned about the possible precedent being set by Moscow's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

China's reluctance to go along with Moscow came as a considerable relief for the other SCO presidents.
China's reluctance to go along with Moscow came as a considerable relief for the other SCO presidents.

Kazakhstan, for example, is well aware of what it means to deal with a separatist-minded minority. Although Kazakhstan is officially a nonfederal, unitary state, it is the most ethnically diverse of the five Central Asian countries. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, only 38 percent of its population was ethnically Kazakh, although that percentage has since risen to 53 percent. Ethnic Russians are densely concentrated in the country's north.

In the late 1980s and the 1990s, Russian nationalists were very active in the region, promoting the idea of creating a Russian autonomous republic in northern Kazakhstan. President Nursultan Nazarbaev, in response, launched a successful repatriation program to attract ethnic Kazakhs from other countries to settle in Kazakhstan. In 1998, he moved the Kazakh capital from Almaty in the south to Aqmola (now, Astana) much farther north in order to emphasize Kazakh statehood in the volatile northern regions.

Nazarbaev also faced a complex situation in the south, where efforts to delimit the Kazakh-Uzbek border proved difficult. In 2002, ethnic Kazakhs in the border villages of Baghys and Turkestanets even declared independence and proclaimed themselves the tiny Kazakh Republic of Baghystan as a way of attracting the attention of the Kazakh and Uzbek governments to their situation.

Uzbekistan has its own potential South Ossetia -- the large autonomous Republic of Karakalpakistan in the northwest of the country. At one point during the Soviet period, that region was part of Kazakhstan, and the ethnic group known as Karakalpaks is linguistically and culturally closer to Kazakhs than Uzbeks. The Uzbek leadership has noted with concern that some tiny groups of Karakalpak nationalists have been calling recently for separation from Uzbekistan.

Recognition Could Resonate

And from there, the situation in Central Asia only becomes more complex.

The volatile Ferghana Valley is divided between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. There are numerous pockets of Kyrgyz territory along the border with Uzbekistan that are populated by ethnic Uzbeks and vice versa. There are regions of Tajikistan populated by ethnic Uzbeks or ethnic Kyrgyz. It is possible that official recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia could resonate in these complicated territories, reviving the complex times of the 1990s when all the countries in the region grappled with the Gordian knot of border delimitation.

Since 1996, the SCO has affirmed its commitment to the principle of territorial integrity in many mutual agreements and resolutions. An SCO accord on cooperation combating separatism and terrorism has been used by China to secure SCO support for Beijing's position on Xinjiang Province and Tibet. They were used by some Central Asian states to justify the extradition to China of Uyghurs charged with terrorism in Xinjiang, actions that elicited harsh criticism from local and international human rights activists.

So, it is easy to understand China's reluctance to go along as Russia seems to be trying to rewrite the long-standing rules of the game within the SCO. None of the other member states is going to sign onto a policy that could complicate their efforts to maintain their own territorial integrity.

In this case, the Central Asian leaders are only too happy to follow Beijing's lead.

Merhat Sharipzhan is senior editor of Headline News at RFE/RL and a former head of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL