12 March 2008 - NATO PARLIAMENTARIANS DEBATE CENTRAL ASIAN SECURITY
Security in the Caspian region and Central Asia was the main focus of the 68th Rose-Roth seminar, which took place in Baku, Azerbaijan, 6-8 March. Organised in cooperation with the parliament of Azerbaijan, the seminar involved some 50 members of parliament from NATO and partner countries, including delegations from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, participants from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, international organizations, academic institutions, NGOs and think-tanks.
Owing to its geographic location and richness in energy resources, the Caspian region, and Central Asia in particular, has returned to the forefront of international relations in recent years. References to the historical “Great Game” between the Russian and British empires of the 19th century, as well as to a “Grand Chessboard” where the world’s major powers are competing against each other, are often brought up with regard to this vast area. However, these terms are misleading, according to Anatol Lieven of King’s College in London, mainly because they wrongly imply that the nations of the region are the “pawns” of other powers and not “masters of their own destiny”. Certainly, powers such as Russia, the United States, the EU, China, and India have political and economic interests in the region, but the analogies suggest that the politics of the region are a “zero-sum game” with winners and losers, a type of thinking which creates unnecessary tensions.
The region’s geopolitical orientation is genuinely multi-vectored and not favouring one single power centre. Consequently, countries of the region can be simultaneously members of a range of multilateral frameworks, including the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), the Co-operative Security Treaty Organisation (SCTO), the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the OSCE and the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme. Robert Simmons, NATO Special Representative for South Caucasus and Central Asia, underscored that the Alliance does not see itself as a competitor to other organisations in the region. There is a wide range of areas, he argued, where all actors can successfully co-operate, including combating terrorism, trafficking in drugs, arms and human beings; as well as civil emergency planning, protection of critical energy infrastructure and of the environment. NATO’s assistance is not limited to purely security aspects, such as defence planning or enhancing interoperability, but it also includes projects like the Virtual Silk Highway, which provides internet access to academic resources for scholars in the Central Asian countries.
Afghanistan was debated widely during the seminar as an important external factor for the region. All Central Asian countries support the efforts of the international community in this country, and in particular they realise that if NATO fails, instability could spill over to their region. NATO is able to use certain military bases in Central Asia to support its operations in Afghanistan, and it also conducts regular meetings in Brussels with representatives from Central Asian countries and Afghanistan to discuss how best to deal with issues of security and development. Nevertheless, several speakers noted that the unique potential of these countries—particularly their knowledge of the politics, languages and culture of Afghanistan—is vastly under-utilised. Closer coordination between certain Provincial Reconstruction Teams and the Central Asian business community was suggested.
Central Asia could also, according to some participants, potentially change from an area of insecurity and competition into a region projecting stability and co‑operation to its vicinity. In this regard, the European Union could play an important role in facilitating its “opening to globalisation”, as stressed by Pierre Morel, EU Special Representative for Central Asia. The Union is investing considerable resources and has initiated regular consultations with Russia, China, and India, as well as with all the regional organisations.
In terms of energy politics, participants disagreed as to whether Caspian oil and gas resources were significant enough to provide a viable alternative to Russian hydrocarbons for Europe. While some suggested that the West should not have false hopes, particularly since the Caspian nations have other potential customers, such as China and perhaps even India and Iran; others argued that these resources might in fact be larger than envisaged earlier. Therefore, the development of the Trans-Caspian oil and gas link as well as progress on projects such as the Nabucco gas pipeline could be instrumental in Europe’s energy security. Several speakers also stressed that the paramount importance of the physical security of energy infrastructure, and that NATO’s expertise could be utilised in this area. In this regard, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline was an extremely important asset for the Euro-Atlantic region in terms of energy security.
The state of democracy and human rights in Central Asia was another key theme of the seminar. While tangible progress has been achieved in boosting national identities, developing elements of market economy and abolishing the death penalty, the overall picture remains rather gloomy. Almost all representatives from regional civil societies argued that the apparent stability in the region is artificial and unsustainable. The state-building process is far from finished: political regimes in all five countries remain authoritarian, to a greater or lesser degree, and the general level of corruption is startling. Some contributors conceded that, while still undemocratic, Central Asian countries are at least more “pluralistic”. Nevertheless, there is no real opposition in parliaments and, in most of the five countries, the president’s power is absolute. Free mass media are rare or non-existent; in many cases, censorship is exercised even over the Internet. Private property is not considered inviolable, and elites would therefore perceive regime change as a threat to their personal wealth. The discontent is growing in many societies, and upheavals, such as Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 failed “Tulip Revolution”, are not improbable in the near future. Human right activists in Central Asia expressed disappointment that Western countries seem to have taken a very cautious and pragmatic approach to the promotion of civil liberties and democracy in these countries.
The rise of Islamic radicalism could also become a threat to stability in the region. Concern was expressed that in Central Asia the moral vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet system had to some extent been filled by radical Islamic movements, often sponsored by organisations from Middle Eastern countries. Although all five Central Asian countries are formally secular states, there are concerns about radicalisation and the ability of Central Asian regimes to cope with this problem.
One session of the seminar also dealt with the situation in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijani representatives emphasised that their country considers Euro-Atlantic integration to be their top strategic priority. However, against the background of renewed military clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno Karabakh, seminar participants generally agreed that unresolved and protracted conflicts are the main obstacles to the modernisation and stabilization of the region. As an additional challenge, many underscored the question of whether the recent declaration of independence by Kosovo will reinforce separatist trends in the South Caucasus. Nevertheless, representatives of international organisations stressed that the Kosovo case was “unique” and did not constitute a precedent for other conflicts. Renewed efforts are required by regional and international actors to solve these conflicts in terms of mediation, prevention and confidence building measures. Obviously, there is no “silver bullet” that could quickly solve them, but, as Anatol Lieven put it, this does not let the international community off the hook to continue trying.
In conclusion, while similarities were highlighted between the South Caucasus and Central Asia, the increasing divergence between them was also stressed. Both regions, as Oksana Antonenko of IISS in London put it, are “moving away from their post-Soviet commonality”. The South Caucasus is getting closer to Europe, but at the same time emerging as an area of strong competition between Russia and the West. On the other hand, Central Asia appears more remote and isolated, but a potential area of real coexistence among the various players. In terms of security, however, to tackle the multiple challenges in both regions will require the engagement of all international actors for the foreseeable future.