The major themes of the EAPC Forum included: energy security; Central Asia’s contribution to security and development in Afghanistan; and regional challenges and cooperation in Central Asia and the Caucasus. For its part, the Rose Roth Seminar focused on democratisation and the construction of a robust civil society; economic development, and the environmental challenges that Central Asian countries and Kazakhstan in particular are addressing.
Central Asia ’ significant energy resources and its location at a vital geo-strategic crossroads have made it the object of ever mounting international attention since the Cold War’s end. The region borders Afghanistan, Russia, China and Iran and is a vital link between East and West as well as North and South. Central Asia’s cooperation with Euro-Atlantic institutions remains embryonic, however, and Kazakhstan is currently the only regional actor participating in NATO’s International Partnership Action Plan (IPAP). By extension, Kazakhstan ’s parliament is the sole legislative body from the region to have established formal relations with the NATO PA.
Several speakers at the seminar stressed that the Alliance does not see itself in any way becoming a dominant security player in the region. Indeed, NATO officials strongly reject the notion that they are playing a zero sum game in which deeper cooperation with any single coalition of states occurs at the expense of another. To the contrary, they underline that Kazakhstan’s cooperation in transporting supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan does not conflict with its cooperation with other regional security organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The Alliance remains focused on what it can do to improve the security landscape, including support for defence reform and disaster management. As a result, NATO projects in the region include a small arms destruction trust fund, support for Kazakhstan ’s newly-formed peacekeeping battalion, assistance for rocket fuel destruction, and a project to improve internet connectivity in the region.
In many respects, Central Asia has posed less profound security challenges than many experts had originally anticipated. Indeed, Kazakhstan ’s decision to become a non-nuclear weapon state marked a critical contribution to regional and indeed to global security. Although there are tensions in the region, the kind of internecine strife that some feared would plague the region has never emerged with the exception of the civil war in Tajikistan from 1992-1997 and the violent suppression of protests in Andijan, Uzbekistan in 2005. The region has thus been more stable than anticipated, and its governments have struggled to construct national identities and legitimacy with varying degrees of success. Kazakhstan has perhaps been the most successful in this regard.
Very serious challenges nonetheless persist, and the potential for civil and regional conflict cannot be ruled out. The Seminar’s keynote speaker, Martha Brill Olcott, pointed to several of these problems. Water management issues in an ever drier region are a potential source of conflict, and the states of Central Asia have yet to forge lasting agreements among downstream and upstream countries. The water problem also relates to a rural energy challenge and sustainable energy projects are essential to ameliorate conditions in the region’s impoverished rural areas.
The region’s borders are not entirely demarcated, they remain militarized and they are managed in a highly corrupt fashion. All of this undermines regional integration and stability. Drug trafficking poses a very serious set of challenges to regional security and internal stability, and this is one reason why the situation in Afghanistan is of grave concern to all the region’s governments. The current economic crisis has sparked a mass repatriation of labour migrants, who could become a source of discontent and instability. Meanwhile the Euro Atlantic community has only been partially successful in helping the region to ameliorate these conditions, in part, because the West is not completely trusted.
Seminar participants considered the effects on the region of the global economic downturn in a separate session. That crisis and the resulting drop in energy prices has dramatically slowed the growth rates of the region’s gas and oil exporters including of Kazakhstan. Beyond this immediate problem, the region’s energy exporters have uniformly failed to diversify their economies and have become over-reliant on ever fluctuating commodity prices. This is not a stable path to economic and social development. The EU and Russia remain the region’s principle trading partners, but China ’s economic presence in Central Asia has increased markedly and will likely continue to grow. This has created an opportunity for the region to play the great powers off of each other, and to varying extents, they are doing this.
Although developing a well articulated civil society can takes time and dedication, several speakers and participants regretted the slow pace of democratic development in Central Asia. While the number of NGOs in Kazakhstan has risen markedly rapidly, they are subject to an array of legal restrictions that effectively slow their emergence as social and political actors. There are also indications that this process is meditated in a top-down fashion, which obviously undermines the democratic ends that process ought to serve. Measures such as a draft law in Kazakhstan that would impose tight controls over internet use are particularly worrying. Several parliamentarians suggested that the absence of genuine opposition in the region’s parliaments is a particular concern.
On the positive side, radical Islamism has not taken root in Central Asia to the degree that many had once feared. Professor Galina Yemelianova from the University of Birmingham suggested that politically active Islamic groups operating in the Fergana Valley are more tolerant than jihadist groups in other regions and should not be categorized as extremist. Only in Uzbekistan has a genuine radical Islamist movement taken root, while previously violent Islamicists in Tajikistan have not been brought into the governing consensus. Professor Yemelianova told participants that interest in Islam and the Islamic way of life is rising in Central Asian societies where Soviet authorities had once sought to uproot the region’s Islamic traditions. Over time, this could become a factor in relations with the West and with China.
Finally, environmental problems in the region are acute. Over half of the region is undergoing some degree of desertification, and decades of Soviet occupation has bequeathed the region myriad environmental catastrophes including the drying Arial Sea, poor quality water, and the poisoned land at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site and other military sites. Decades of uranium mining pose the challenge of radioactive material management. However, Peter Stegnar of the Jozef Stefan Institute told participants that scientific studies demonstrate that radioactive levels in uranium mining areas are low and do not pose a major threat to the health of populations in those regions. Although actual health risks are low, perceived risk is high and public panics are not uncommon. Further research and assistance are needed to begin to cope with these challenges but so too is greater transparency and dialogue with civil society.
Much of the information generated by this Seminar will be incorporated in the updated version of the Report of the Sub-Committee on East-West Economic Co‑Operation and Convergence by Attila Mesterhazy (Rapporteur) on Central Asian Energy Production: Potential Contributions to Transatlantic Energy Security, which will be presented for adoption at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s 55th Annual Session in Edinburgh, 13-17 November 2009.
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