Central Asian leaders have taken steps to strengthen regional ties. But chances remain high that agreements signed during an informal summit in the Kazakhstani capital of Astana will become bogged down in logistical details.
A major obstacle to closer regional cooperation is Turkmenistan's hermit-like tendencies, underscored by the fact that the country's strongman, Saparmurat Niyazov, stayed away from the September 1 regional summit. Beyond Turkmenistan's idiosyncratic behaviour, mistrust remains a stumbling bloc. For example, relations between Uzbek leader Islam Karimov and his Tajik counterpart Imomali Rahmonov have been cool for years.
The deals that emerged from the September 1 gathering of the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to some extent lacked substance. The summiteers -- who discussed economic, security and cultural cooperation -- concluded two pacts covering water resources -- one that seeks to save the shrinking Aral Sea and another that strives to improve the regional water management system.
Summit participants envisioned the creation of a consortium to tackle long-running disputes over the distribution of scarce water resources. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan hold the bulk of the region's water, while the main consumers are Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The discrepancy leads to annual spats over supply and consumption. While expressing a desire to put a better management system into place, the states could only agree on setting up a working group to examine the feasibility of creating a water consortium. This suggests that progress toward the final goal of a comprehensive management system is likely to be slow.
Meanwhile, the agreement on saving the Aral Sea appears to rest on a shaky foundation. The sea -- a victim of misguided Soviet central planners, who diverted rivers that fed the Aral to support cotton cultivation -- has been shrinking at an alarming rate for over 40 years, and now is estimated by the UN Environment Program to be less than half of its size in the mid-1960s. As a first step toward the Aral's regeneration, the Central Asian leaders agreed to revive the International Aral Sea Salvation Fund, aiming to raise international awareness about the environmental catastrophe.
The second stage of the Aral salvation blueprint would seem to require the diversion of Siberian rivers, an oft-debated measure that was discredited during in the late Soviet era as environmentally hazardous. At a news conference, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev defended the idea of redirecting rivers, and downplayed the long-standing environmental concerns. "We have talked to the Russian president about the fact that statements to the effect that this would be damaging and so on were populist," Nazarbayev said. "This would be just 8 percent of the flow, which would not even have any effect on drainage but would play a great role in integration and relations between our countries."
Any attempt to implement a river-redirection scheme would be sure to generate a storm of protests. It would also be an enormously expensive project, which, in the end, could merely spread the environmental damage, rather than rescue the Aral. Even while seeming to promote the idea, Nazarbayev admitted that "the issue is quite serious and complex."
Following the regional summit, Uzbek President Islam Karimov stayed on in Kazakhstan for his first ever state visit. In the post-Soviet era, Uzbek-Kazakh relations have been characterized by a rivalry for regional supremacy -- Kazakhstan as an economic powerhouse and Uzbekistan as a political heavyweight. The effusive praise and relaxed body language displayed during Karimov's state visit indicated a degree of success in improving relations. "How enthusiastically the Kazakhs have welcomed the delegation from Uzbekistan. Whatever you ask, Nursultan Abishuly, I am ready to resolve all issues," Karimov told Nazarbayev, in remarks broadcast on Kazakhstan's Khabar TV.
Nazarbayev and Karimov signed a variety of agreements, including one that established an interstate coordination council. The two presidents also pledged to double trade, which is up 27 per cent so far this year. However, it started from a low base: in 2005, Uzbekistan accounted for approximately 1 percent of Kazakhstan's overall foreign trade volume, according to figures from Kazakhstan's Statistics Agency.
"The year 2006 has seen a breakthrough in Kazakh-Uzbek relations," Nazarbayev told a news conference at the end of the visit.
Certainly there have been more contacts between the two neighbors in 2006 than in previous years, with Karimov attending Nazarbayev's January inauguration and Nazarbayev paying his first state visit to Uzbekistan in March. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The increased contacts, in turn, seem to have produced stronger bilateral bonds. Nazarbayev cited several achievements since his March trip to Tashkent: the Development Bank of Kazakhstan has opened a Tashkent branch; the Almaty-Tashkent-Nukus rail route has been revived; and the number of flights between Tashkent and Almaty has been increased."People in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are eager for one thing: for there to be more opportunities to mix," Karimov told the joint press conference. "The formal restrictions preventing people from mixing should be reduced to a minimum."
Despite the upbeat rhetoric, the two leaders failed to directly address several practical obstacles to expanded cooperation, especially stringent border-crossing procedures and corruption. Crossing the frontier remains complicated, with Uzbek citizens required to show their own border guards documentary proof of their reason for travelling, and citizens from both states subject to arbitrary bribe requests from border guards on both sides.
In addition to improving ties with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan has in recent months succeeded in forging closer relations with Kyrgyzstan. Throughout the summer, the two countries carried out joint operations that, according to Kyrgyz officials, have routed Islamic militants in southern Kyrgyzstan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The various Central Asian leaders appear to have differing motivations for seeking greater regional cooperation. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, for example, seems primarily interested in gaining political support from his neighbors to bolster his shaky domestic political position. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Karimov, meanwhile, is preoccupied with promoting regional security as a means to contain Islamic radicalism. Given the differing agendas, it remains to be seen whether the recent moves will produce meaningful regional cooperation, or prove to be just another false start.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asian affairs.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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