Uzbek president's visit to Astana highlights serious obstacles in creating Central Asian alliance
Uzbekistan has always been skeptical of proposals by Nursultan Nazarbayev, President of Kazakhstan, to unify the region. Furthermore, Uzbekistan President, Islom Karimov, does not conceal his suspicions about the true intent of Kazakh leaders as they seek to become leaders of the region. In 2002, Tashkent all but scuttled the first summit of the Asian Conference for Cooperation and Measures of Trust, Kazakhstan's most successful international initiative to date. At that time, Karimov pointedly refused to attend the summit and the Uzbeki envoy sent to the conference lacked the authority to sign the final document, the so-called Alma-Ata Act. This was particularly galling to Kazakhstan since those at the conference had agreed to sign the document prior to attending the meeting. At the same time, Karimov did not publicly criticize the actions of Uzbekistan and enabled official Astana to maintain the fiction that that everything was fine between countries and proclaim the first agreement of the Asian Conference unanimously adopted.
While preparing for the Uzbeki president’s latest visit to Khazakistan, officials in Astana report having never expected Karimov to publicly support the idea of a Central Asian Alliance. Officials did expect to hear the traditional diplomatic non-committal wording used on official visits. However, Karimov disappointed his Kazakh hosts by being undiplomatically blunt in his public comments. "As far as Uzbekistan is concerned, this initiative is unacceptable. I'm saying it right here and now to prevent any further speculation on the matter," Karimov said. "Establishment of alliances such as this requires evenness in the levels of economic and social development. Unfortunately, we have too many matters to address still.…..(making) all and any alliances, therefore, untimely." "We've been through it already," Karimov added, to remind all that attempts to create alliances had repeatedly been tried without success in the past.
Nazarbayev's statements on the necessity of creating a Central Asian economic alliance might be seen as a call to revive what Kazakhstan and its neighbors had discarded only recently. However, observers note that the expansion of Kazakh capital and businesses into the countries of the region requires supportive political rhetoric, and it is believed that economic alliances are, so far, the best method for proceeding. Besides, the minimum basis for unification already exists, whether Tashkent is prepared to acknowledge it or not. For instance, regional officials note that the European Union evolved from the European Coal and Steel Community, a minor organization West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, and Italy established in the early 1950s. The thinking within official Astana, then, asks why wouldn't Central Asian countries also unite around water and energy resources?
"We are firmly convinced that gradual, step-by-step progress towards this objective is needed, particularly since the existing agreements allow for it," Nazarbayev said at a recent press conference. "Aware of it, we have agreed to arrange a special international forum in 2009 to discuss the matter of a regional economic union." However, area experts believe Karimov's visit proved that a regional alliance remains wishful thinking.
It is expected that Kazakhstan will soon host a Central Asia/European conference in response to the European Union’s adopting a new Central Asian strategy for 2007-2012. In this particular case, the term "strategy" denotes a program of financial aid to the countries of the region to assist in education, environmental protection, energy production, and other areas. Also, the United States is expected to participate in such a conference as it seeks to establish cooperation and increased influence with the five countries of the region.
Kurmanbek Bakiyev, president of Kyrgyzstan, which remains impoverished and wracked by internal discord, is the only Central Asian leader who currently supports the idea of a Central Asian alliance. Bakiyev’s support, though, may be tied to Kazakhstan’s controlling over 70 percent of the banking capital in Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan also may be seen as the closest regional donor and future source of relief and aid unless the deterioration of the Kyrgyz economy is curtailed. This is why Bakiyev was seen as going out of his way to support Nazarbayev on his visit to Astana a fortnight ago. "I'd say that some neighbors are overly cautious or else fail to understand (the advantages)," he said. "Of course, there may exist some domestic problems that prevent their integration into the process of establishment of the alliance."
Observers also note that Kazakhstan's promoting the idea of a regional alliance should be seen from the standpoint of foreign political maneuvering. The European Union has received nothing, save for speculation, concerning the variety of possible Central Asian gas export routes. However, the United States, battling in Afghanistan, might find even purely symbolic support handy. Particularly when such symbolic gestures are backed by something like token relief aid and transit agreements. It stands to reason, says observers, that the would-be Central Asian alliance is only needed to make political statements on behalf of the region. Are Central Asian countries ready to accept an alliance on these terms? Official Tashkent, for example, is at odds with the West and, first and foremost, with the United States for criticisms in connection with its human rights situation. Also, Uzbekistan is expected to keep clear of the Central Asian chorus Astana is trying to put together. It follows that the coveted regional leadership Kazakhstan is impatient to assume will, in the end, come down to only leading its only supporter of an alliance, Kyrgyzstan.
Ekspert (Moscow, http://www.expert.ru), May 5, 2008. © Translated by Ferghana.Ru