Central Asian States Grow Colder to the West

By Eric Walberg

For those of you who laughed at Sacha Baron Cohen's movie about the hick Kazakh immigrant Borat and his foot-in-mouth problems, it will not come as a shock that Kazakhstan and its neighbors -- the "Stans" -- are turning their backs on the West.

In the past year, there has been a dramatic shift in Central Asia's relations with the world, both political and economic, toward much closer ties with Russia and China in trade, production, politics, and culture. The shift is not uniform: Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan retain a guarded openness to the West, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are more closed.

The shift is clearest in the case of Uzbekistan, which has introduced stricter controls on local representatives of foreign media and closed the offices of the UNHCR, the American Bar Association, the Soros Fund, Internews, Freedom House, IREX, Eurasia Foundation, and foreign media such as Radio Free Europe, BBC, and Deutsche Welle -- that is, just about everyone.

Uzbekistan turns to Asia and Russia

At the same time, Uzbekistan's relations with Asia and Russia are expanding to fill the vacuum left by the departure of Westerners. President Karimov's recent travels focused on Russia, where he signed an allied strategic partnership accord, and Malaysia. This year he went to Kazakhstan for the inauguration of President Nazarbaev, and to South Korea, where he signed a strategic partnership accord with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.

Speaking in Tashkent on May 9 at a ceremony to commemorate the Soviet victory in World War II, President Karimov emphasized the new alliance treaty with Russia and the "need to realize that our agreements to deepen friendly, mutual cooperation with such great nations as China, South Korea, India, and Pakistan represent major steps on Uzbekistan's path toward stability and progress."

The President's trip last year to St Petersburg also marked Uzbekistan's admission to the Eurasian Economic Organization (EEO), which was created in 2000 by Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Russia and Tajikistan to establish a customs union. Uzbekistan pledged to meet the customs and duties requirements by the end of 2006.

The allied strategic partnership relation with Russia was followed immediately by the arrival of Russian troops to train with the Uzbek armed forces, and a public announcement of plans to increase production of airplanes and to renew production in other Soviet-era production facilities.

New cooperation with Kazakhstan

Since independence, relations among Central Asian states have been strained, with increasingly strict visa regimes isolating Uzbekistan from its immediate neighbors. This is now changing, though there are problems in integrating Uzbekistan's less than transparent economy with that of Kazakhstan and Russia, where state interference is less marked and the economy more decentralized.

There is a significant flow, mostly illegal, of cheap labor from Uzbekistan to both Kazakhstan and Russia, and considerable smuggling across the Uzbek-Kazakh border (flour from Kazakhstan, and diesel and gas from Uzbekistan). The issue of water resources is also a difficult stumbling block.

The next year will be crucial in showing whether the new effort to overcome rivalry between the two countries will succeed. In 1994, the two neighbors signed an agreement setting up a Single Economic Space, and in 2002 the Central Asian Cooperation Organization was formed with a similar agenda, with no results.

Inertia of history

This reorientation would no doubt have taken place in any case, despite the tragic events in Andijan in May 2005, an uprising where hundreds of protesters were killed by government troops [see Peace Jul-Sep 2005, p. 20] that prompted Western democracies to turn away from Uzbekistan.

Strict visa procedures are still in place with Uzbekistan's neighbors. For instance it is still easier to travel to Russia than Kazakhstan. Cross-border trade relations and Kazakh-Uzbek joint ventures are limited due to customs, other taxes and the strict visa regime. However, Uzbekistan's infrastructure and economic links are still primarily Soviet, meaning trade, production and even financial relations can increase rapidly with Russia and Kazakhstan, based on the past, once there is the will.

Leaders in the region now view the American government not as a force for stabilization, but as a dangerous agent of chaotic change. This is hardly a good way to make friends and win the struggle against Islamic radicalism.

China the new powerhouse

As old Soviet ties are being renewed, the rapidly growing influence of China is drawing Central Asia away from its Soviet past. Central Asian markets are flooded with cheap Chinese imports of all kinds -- from DVDs to tomatoes, an oil pipeline linking Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and China, and various rail and road transport corridors being built along ancient Silk Road routes. A railway now links Uzbekistan to Xinjiang province via Kyrgyzstan. The recent visit of Chinese leader Hu resulted in the signing of many economic agreements, including energy. China has extended loans and made growing investments in the "stan" economies as part of its cultivation of the region.

Russia is increasingly looking like a junior partner to "socialist" China, which is deftly gathering the regional powers, including the ex-Soviet republics, under its umbrella as resource providers for its industrial monolith.

Muslim states and India

In addition to mending relations with Russia and its immediate neighbors, and expanding relations with China, Uzbekistan is tentatively broadening its relations with the Muslim world through the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), which includes Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and other Central Asian states. As Uzbekistan is a doubly landlocked country, the emphasis so far has been on opening up trade routes to the Indian Ocean.

Afghanistan has been a source of instability to Uzbekistan for the entire period of independence, and while there is no direct threat, the lack of a legitimate government there means bandits, rebels, narcotics, and arms smugglers abound. Uzbekistan served as a base for the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and a channel for aid immediately following the invasion, but with the worsening of relations between Uzbekistan and the West, the US base was closed.

Uzbekistan also recently closed the UNHCR office in Tashkent, stating that the problem of Afghan refugees has largely been solved.

In late April, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came to Uzbekistan, the first such visit by an Indian premier in over a decade. India's Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas and GAIL, a state-run gas company, agreed to explore for oil and gas in Uzbekistan and to produce liquefied petroleum gas. There has long been a cultural affinity between Uzbekistan and India, dating back to the common history of the Moghul empire. Indian movies have been a staple of Uzbek entertainment for half a century. India's close ties to the Soviet Union have translated easily into close ties with all the modern Central Asian states, and especially Uzbekistan.

In early May, Uzbekistan's President Karimov visited Pakistan for the first time in 14 years. Though Pakistan is not in a position to undertake major economic programs with Uzbekistan, the trip showed Uzbekistan's determination to continue to open alternative avenues of cooperation internationally. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is becoming a real counterweight to US and European-oriented multilateral organizations in determining the foreign policy orientation of all of Central Asia,and one in which the member governments encounter no criticism of their internal affairs.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2007

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2007, page 10. Some rights reserved.

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