Kazakhstan + 4 more

Comment: Central Asia faces growing divisions

A marked increase in regional disunity is draining countries of their resources and increasing their dependence on outside powers.
By Sabit Madaliev in Tashkent (RCA No. 180, 4-Feb-03)

Central Asian countries are growing further and further apart as inter-state disputes multiply and leaders seek the support of foreign allies.

The failure of regional integration may further impoverish the local population, make governments more authoritarian and expose the region to a dangerous rivalry between foreign powers.

Frontier problems are the main source of tension and conflict in Central Asia at present.

In the most recent incident, some 200 Kyrgyz and Tajik villagers living close to the border between their countries clashed on disputed territory and demolished each others' customs posts. Police from both sides managed to restore order, but the underlying problems remain unresolved.

And Uzbekistan recently closed its border with Kazakstan - the only country in the region with which Tashkent has no visa regime - in an attempt to stop Uzbeks shopping for cheaper goods across the frontier. The move has strained relations between the two nations.

Another area of friction is the failure of Central Asian states to agree on sharing water resources - vital for both energy production and agriculture.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are the source of much of the region's water, on which Kazakstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan depend. Failure to agree on how this scarce resource should be distributed has prompted some countries to act unilaterally.

For example, Ashgabat provoked a furore with its decision to create an artificial sea by diverting Amudarya river, which supplies the whole region.

The tension between these republics is a direct legacy of Soviet rule. While they were being governed from Moscow, a number of problems emerged between them, which remained unresolved.

When the USSR disintegrated in 1991, independence brought to the fore long-held resentments and now governments in the region feel that the time has come to settle old scores.

Border disputes are the main bone of contention. While some countries have managed to sign delimitation agreements - notably Uzbekistan and Kazakstan - they have been unable to implement them so far.

In other cases, prolonged disputes have prompted residents of frontier areas to take the law into their own hands - as in the case of the Tajik and Kyrgyz villagers - threatening to stall the whole negotiation process altogether.

This has also been evident in the Fergana region, the confluence of Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik territory.

Concerned over incursions by members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, Tashkent planted mines along the mountainous border with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan without their consent two years ago. This led to a number of fatalities and significantly curbed the movement of people across the border - which had previously been badly hit by a tough visa regime.

Countries also continue to accuse each other of interfering in each others' affairs. At the end of last year, Turkmenistan expelled the Uzbek ambassador after implicating Tashkent in the plot to kill the Turkmen president. And towards the end of 1999, Tashkent accused Dushanbe of allowing the IMU to create military camps in eastern Tajikistan and launch attacks from there against Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

As well as the numerous inter-state disputes, the region has witnessed a constant rivalry between the two largest countries, Kazakstan and Uzbekistan, for regional domination. Both have vainly sought to impose their vision of economic and political integration on their neighbours. Rather than bring the fractious Central Asian republics closer together, these initiatives have served to drive them even further apart.

As a result, the region's countries have gone down different economic and foreign policy paths.

Although they all declared their preference for a market economy, each had its own idea on how reforms should be implemented.

Kazakstan opted for shock therapy - introducing a market economy at once, with an emphasis on mass privatisation of state industries. While this process was seen as successful, few have benefited from it. The majority of Kazaks live in poverty.

Kyrgyzstan also used elements of shock therapy, and conducted privatisation at a fairly swift rate. But after taking a large amount of credit from international financial institutions - much of which went into the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats - the country is now defaulting on debt repayments.

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have both been reluctant to adopt market reforms. In the former there is no private sector at all - land, water and natural resources are owned by the state, as they were in the past. The latter has opted for gradual reforms - but because the government chose not to rely on international credits to fund the transition ordinary people were forced to bear the burden, through increased taxation and salaries that hardly kept pace with inflation. At the same time, the nations' differing foreign policies have also become very evident.

Since the mid-Nineties, Kazakstan has begun to move closer to Russia, on which it continues to depend for the delivery of its crucial oil exports to western markets.

Uzbekistan is not opposed to cooperating with Moscow - but on its own terms. Tashkent's strategic alliance with Washington after the September 11 attacks on America has strengthened President Islam Karimov's position. He wants to remain politically independent of Russia, and is known to favour stronger ties with Europe, South Korea and Japan.

Turkmenistan has not been keen to develop relations with Washington and fell out with Moscow over energy deals. Instead, Niazov has chosen to court other regional powers such Turkey and Iran. Within Central Asia itself, the president has almost completely isolated his country because he felt he could gain little from cooperating with his neighbours.

In conclusion, two trends are emerging in the region. Firstly, countries are wasting time and resources on a multitude of disputes, mainly because leaders are putting their political and personal ambitions above the economic and social interests of their countries. Secondly, failure to get along has prompted them to seek alliances with bigger powers outside the region, which have long coveted their natural resources and strategic importance. As a result of these trends, ordinary people in the region, angry at their governments' inability to improve their standard of living, are likely to become more discontented. In response, regional leaders will most probably strengthen their authoritarian rule. At the same time, the region will increasingly become a stage for a dangerous rivalry between their powerful foreign allies.

Sabit Madaliev is an independent journalist and writer.