A trip round the 'Stans'
All five Central Asian presidents are authoritarian

Foreign Report, 8 February 2001

2001, Volume 000/2627

These remarks come oddly from one who has had erected in his capital, Ashkhabad, a gold-plated statue of himself which rotates by solar power so that it always faces the sun; who insists on personally concluding all deals with foreign investors and entrepreneurs; and who takes an intrusive, if paternal, interest into every aspect of Turkmen life, from changing the official alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin at a few days notice to ordering a 50% cut in the salary of the head of the weather forecasting service for failing to issue accurate predictions.

All five Central Asian presidents are more or less authoritarian. Parliamentary democracy is still rudimentary. Uzbekistan still operates without a permanent parliament - its current assembly meets only for a few days two or three times a year. Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov has proposed establishing a bicameral parliament with the lower chamber dealing with legislation and remaining in session most of the year. But that remains a proposal.

In Tajikistan, President Imamali Rakhmonov been obliged to give many senior government posts to members of the United Tajik Opposition, as part of an internationally brokered deal which ended five years of civil war. All except Rakhmonov enjoy powers which seem to go beyond what the constitutions of their countries permit. In Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akayev was last October re-elected for a third term (although the constitution specifies only two). Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose seven-year second term expires in 2006 has been granted sweeping powers and privileges after he leaves office, in order, it is said, to prevent the erosion of the achievements made by Kazakhstan under his rule. Niyazov has been voted 'President for Life' - although he has promised to retire in some five to seven years, after training a successor.

Not many people can draw a rough map of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. But oilmen, bankers, mining companies and international strategists, among others, are learning about the 'Stans' as they are called. For this is a region of growing geopolitical importance - with new pipelines mooted to bring their oil and gas to Europe and the plan to revive the ancient 'Silk Road' as a major transport highway. Foreign Report reveals that the ex-Soviet Union may split into two trading blocks.

To the outside world, the five 'Stans', Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, seem to be a single entity. They appear to share not only a traditional Sunni Muslim culture and a legacy of ill-planned Soviet irrigation schemes but also the dangers in the cultivation and marketing of drugs and the bizarre Islamic extremism from neighbouring Afghanistan.

In fact, regardless of frequent proclamations of friendship by their respective presidents, the five 'Stans' are beginning to drift apart on a number of major political, economic and even security issues.

Worries about security

The five states constantly express concern about the destabilising effect of the conflict in Afghanistan and the renewed northward advance of the Taliban forces last autumn. Tajikistan, bordering on Afghanistan and now within range of Taliban shells, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have followed Russia in urging the stepping up of UN-imposed sanctions against the Taliban - while making it clear that their territory must not be used as a base for UN (ie, American) airstrikes.

Uzbekistan (also bordering on Afghanistan) has, however, made discreet overtures towards recognising the Taliban as the sole government (at any rate de facto) of Afghanistan. However, Turkmenistan, which also borders on Afghanistan, maintains its proclaimed status as a 'neutral'. Turkmenistan has set up a number of deals with the Taliban - including the supply of electricity to Afghan border regions under Taliban control, which mitigate the effect of the UN sanctions. Instead of sanctions, Turkmenistan urges an 'even-handed' embargo on arms sales to both sides.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan form, with Belarus and Russia, a customs union which in April is to become the Eurasian Economic Community, empowered to represent the interests of member states in discussions with other countries and international organisations on matters relating to international trade and customs policy. Although the aims of this community are formally only economic, it has been widely seen as the first step towards the establishment of a new 'Eurasian Union', as proposed in 1994 by Kazakhstan's Nazarbayev. However, Nazarbayev now seems less keen on political co-operation and does not intend to join the 'Russia-Belarus Union' The Kazakh public prosecutor has prohibited the public discussion of such an idea, terming it a "gross violation of the laws and constitution of Kazakhstan".

Uzbekistan's government would probably endorse those sentiments. It is now linked with the dissident ex-Soviet republics which do not want to be embraced by Kremlin leaders hankering after the good old days. The other members are Georgia (Foreign Report , Jan 18), Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova. The group, known as GUUAM, is intended to promote mutual trade and co-operation, which its leaders hope will eventually develop into a free trade area.

The founding of the Eurasian Economic Community has been strongly criticised by senior figures of all Uzbekistan's pro-government political parties as liable to lead to Russian hegemony. If GUUAM can push ahead with its economic plans without interference from Russia, the former Soviet Union could eventually end up split between two trading blocks.

The big issues

Not only rivers but also the various irrigation canals constructed during the Soviet era cross national frontiers. Furthermore, a number of Soviet-built dams and spillways are now in urgent need of repair - particularly in the 'upstream states' (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). Flood warning systems no longer operate, and although the downstream states would benefit from repair-work, they do not seem prepared to contribute to the cost.

Some bilateral agreements on water-use have been worked out - in particular a coal-for-water swap between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and a gas-for-water deal between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. However, last summer's drought (the worst for over 70 years) led to major disputes over the allocation of the water available in the Dostyk Canal, which links four states: Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The dispute was eventually resolved but too late for Kazakhstan's cotton and wheat crop; in the worst hit areas of southern Kazakhstan, up to a quarter of the cotton crop was lost.

Information network

A new Central Asia Mountain Information Network based in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, and backed by the Asian Development Bank has been set up to facilitate the exchange of data among the central Asian states and China on the water reserves of the Pamirs and Tian Shian mountains. How far this will achieve its aim of preventing future disputes over water is, however, unclear.

A potential cause of tension between governments is the treatment of ethnic minorities. Soviet strategists deliberately drew the boundaries of the Central Asian republics to cut across ethnic tensions. Hence each of them has a sizeable minority of the eponymous people of one or more of its neighbours. This has recently provoked a number of claims of discrimination: ethnic Kazakhs in Uzbekistan claim that they are being 'driven out' by discrimination or else forced to enter themselves as Uzbeks in the 'ethnic' classification on their identity papers.

Our prediction: The 'Stans' will stay fairly quiet this year but the Kremlin leaders will persist in their strategy of wooing the former Soviet republics back to their sphere of influence. The result could be two trading blocks.

Turkmenistan's President Saparmyrat Niyazov last month said that he was "ashamed" by the omnipresence of his own image in the country's cultural life. He asked for it to be removed from TV programmes, for choirs to stop singing only about the Turkmenbashi (his preferred title: 'Father of the Turkmens'), and for the media to concentrate less on his doings and more on unspecified "critical material".

Foreign Report, 8 February 2001