From email@example.com Wed Oct 18 13:00:59 2000
Copyright 2000 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Mostly, Integration Exists on Paper
By Sergei Blagov, IPS, 13 October 2000
MOSCOW, Oct 13 (IPS) - Russia, three Central Asian states and two other post-Soviet republics have just made their latest attempt at collective security and economic cooperation, but their efforts at integration have made little headway so far.
On Oct 11, the presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus and Armenia met in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek to discuss measures to boost security in the volatile Central Asian region.
They signed an agreement on the Collective Security military forces, to be assembled in case of need by member states. The forces are to be used to combat outside aggression, to carry out "anti-terrorist" operations, or to be involved in military maneuvers. The forces' expected numerical strength was not revealed.
The six post-Soviet nations make up the Collective Security Treaty of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), formed in 1991 after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Modern mechanisms for collective security are "important" for the Central Asian nations, Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akayev was quoted as saying.
This week's meeting comes after an August summit among the presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. There, they joined forces to combat terrorism, political and religious extremism and cross-border organised crime.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly said the Central Asian states could face increased refugee inflows from Afghanistan, which lies just south of these states.
But the Russian leader declined to comment on Uzbekistan's position -- Tashkent had said it saw a threat in the Taliban advance in Afghanistan -- because this Central Asian nation has yet to join the Collective Security Treaty.
Central Asia has witnessed other attempts to band together to face a perceived common enemy.
In 1998, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan formed a "troika" with Russia to fight Islamic fundamentalism. Under this, Russia keeps a 20,000-strong peacekeeping force in Tajikistan, helping patrol the volatile republic's border with Afghanistan, now largely controlled by the Taliban.
But since then, the "troika" has hardly been mentioned.
Now, Uzbekistan seems inclined to refrain from joining collective security bodies and instead seems to prefer making a deal with the Taliban movement.
This is because of a recent northward advance by the Taliban, which has sparked concern about instability throughout Central Asia and the spread of what officials see as religious extremism.
Likewise, since August, dozens of well-armed Islamic rebels have crossed into Kyrgyzstan from neighbouring Tajikistan and engaged government troops in clashes.
But the violence faded in early October and rebels have not attacked government troops, Kyrgyzstan Security Council secretary Bolot Djanuzakov told journalists this week. "The anti-terrorist operation has been basically completed," he argued.
Kyrgyzstan says 30 of its troops have died so far this year compared with 23 in 1999. Kyrgyz authorities claims the rebels lost at least 120 killed and 200 wounded.
Fighting broke out in the same area last year but stopped in autumn with the return of snow, which made the remote region inaccessible. But this resumed as soon as the passes were open again.
Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan share borders in a rugged mountainous area that has proved extremely difficult to police. Smaller numbers of Uzbek forces have also been killed. The exact number of rebel dead is unknown, but put in the hundreds.
The rebels are reported to be part of the Tajik-based Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, led by Jumaboi Namangani, from bases in nearby Tajikistan. The movement opposes Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who has clamped down on what he sees as a threat to his country's security from Islamic extremism.
"The Central Asian states, notably Uzbekistan, could use the fighting as crackdown on internal political opposition," Abdufattah Mannapov, deputy head of the Moscow-based human rights watchdog Asia Committee, said in an interview.
Already, international human rights groups say Uzbekistan is holding up to 5,000 Karimov opponents accused of belonging to extremist organisations or being held on similar charges. Uzbekistan denies it holds political prisoners.
As tensions increased in Central Asia, the New York-based Human Rights Watch argues that the repression against the perceived "enemy within" is mounting as government forces battle armed insurgents on the borders.
Arrests in Uzbekistan continue to target religious persons linked to clerics who have fallen afoul of the government or pray outside government-run mosques, says the human rights watchdog.
But if they are not doing so well on security cooperation, roughly the same group of former Soviet republics has made more inroads in the area of economic integration.
On Oct. 10, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan met in the new Kazakh capital, Astana, and signed an agreement to set up a new economic body called the Eurasian Economic Union.
This union somewhat mirrors the European Union, and is supposed to replace the virtually defunct customs union that exists in the region.
At a news conference in Astana after the signing, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev hailed the five-year-old customs union as a "new international organisation".
However, the officials conceded that the Eurasian Union aims to harmonise the tax and customs laws of the member states -- basically the goal the customs union failed to achieve.
Designed as a sort of free-trade zone, the customs union lacked economic substance. Some say it could even be counter-productive in terms of post-Soviet integration.
Notably, "Eurasian" has long been Nazarbayev's buzzword for the cooperation among the former Soviet brethren. But some actions by Central Asian governments themselves are undercutting this attempt at cooperation.
In January 1999, Kazakhstan became the first to announce restrictions on the import of the Russian goods. y Ironically, the move did not even contradict the provisions of the so-called customs union, which allow import restrictions may if the interests of national producers are endangered.
Kazakhstan, for its part, introduced 200 percent tariffs on imports from Kyrgyzstan, another member of the customs union.
Thus, the former Soviet republics' repeated calls for integration and economic cooperation remain more on paper than in reality. The journey to deeper links remains fraught with potholes, and the proposed economic union in Central Asia, some time off.
Origin: Manila/POLITICS-CENTRAL ASIA/
[c] 2000, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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