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Central Asia: Souring relations


Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov has not visited Egypt in 15 years, and his hopes for another such visited have petered out.  Eric Walberg reflects on the changing orientation of Central Asia

12/4/7 -- In the past year, there has been a dramatic shift in Central Asia's relations with the world, both political and economic, especially those of Uzbekistan, towards much closer ties with Russia and China in trade, production, politics and culture. This shift reflects a changing orientation throughout the world, including Egypt, as the United States continues its struggle for world hegemony. According to Egyptian historian Anwar Abdel-Malek, "Egypt, having been burned by America's appetite for foreign intervention, is seeking solace in Asian waters."

The shift is not uniform: Turkmenistan (4.5 million) has completely isolated itself from world politics to date; Tajikistan (6 million), Kyrgyzstan (4.7 million) and Kazakhstan (17 million) retain a guarded openness to the West.

Kazakhstan, with its huge oil reserves and extensive wheat and cotton production is the most open and prosperous of Central Asian states and gets the most attention -- President Hosni Mubarak visited Kazakhstan last year and President Nursultan Nazarbaev's visit to Egypt in March made headlines with talks of wheat and oil in exchange for Egyptian manufactures. Politically Kazakhstan is similar to Egypt, with a strong secular president and presidential family active in political life, but tolerating some opposition and relative freedom of the press (though opposition politicians are regularly arrested and newspapers closed abruptly or charged with "insulting the president", etc). But Kazakhstan is much more like Russia than other republics -- 40 per cent of its population is Russian, and Islam plays a relatively minor role in the culture, unlike in Egypt.

In contrast, Egypt's relations with Uzbekistan are lukewarm at best, though it has impressive natural wealth -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov has not visited Egypt since 1992, and President Mubarak has never gone there, even to visit Bukhara. Government contacts have been low level -- the visit of Egypt's Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga in March caused nary a ripple here, though Uzbekistan, with its 23 million people, is really the central Central Asian republic, and in many ways is similar to Egypt, with its long tradition of Islamic learning and its priceless heritage, as exemplified by the medieval cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and great medieval scholars such as Avicenna and Naqshibandi, and in the prominent role that Islam plays among the people today, if not the elite.

On the contrary, Islam sends shivers down the spine of the leadership and led to a massive crackdown in the past decade, resulting in the ongoing imprisonment and torture of up to 6,000 Muslims and the cold-blooded murder of up to 1,000 in Andijan two years ago -- no one knows how many because the Uzbek government prevented any independent investigation and insisted only 169 "terrorists" were killed, despite many eyewitness reports to the contrary. Déjà vu? Uzbekistan, "strangely" absent from Egyptian eyes, is worth careful consideration here. And it is in Uzbekistan that we see most clearly the change in political and economic direction of the entire region. Part One outlines the current situation in Central Asia, with its dramatic shift in relations, while Part Two considers the lessons for Egypt and the lessons which Central Asia can learn from Egypt.

The terrible events in Andijan in 2005 still send shockwaves throughout the region and forced the US and the EU to reluctantly isolate Uzbekistan. Karimov rightly became an international pariah after that, and has had no invitations to the West since. In fact, there is a "no-visa" list for prominent Uzbek officials who are suspected of involvement in the tragedy in Andijan and a half-hearted arms embargo by the US and the EU. Criticism and calls for an independent investigation into "Andijan" prompted Uzbek leadership cries that the West was trying to destabilise the government and promote another "democratic" revolution, as happened earlier in 2005 in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan -- as indeed, at that point, it most probably was. As a result, its relations with the West cooled and paved the way for a radical shift in its political and economic allegiance.

Overnight, Uzbekistan introduced stricter controls on local representatives of foreign media and closed the offices of the UN High Commission on Refugees, the American Bar Association, the Soros Fund, Internews, Freedom House, IREX, Eurasia Foundation, and foreign media such as Radio Free Europe, BBC, Deutsche Welle... The list goes on.

At the same time, Uzbekistan's relations with Asia and Russia expanded to fill the vacuum left by the departure of Westerners. President Putin was quick to see a "window of opportunity" to patch up relations which had soured following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Karimov's love affair with the US as the new economic, if not political, model. President Karimov soon was feted by Russia, where he signed an "allied strategic partnership accord" and joined the Eurasian Economic Organisation (EEO), which was created in 2000 by Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Russia and Tajikistan to establish a customs union which Karimov had earlier spurned.

Uzbekistan was already a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) which was founded in 2001 by China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, and now includes Mongolia, Iran, India and Pakistan as observers and wanna-be members. With its new Eastern orientation, Uzbekistan now made the SCO the centrepiece of its foreign politics and economics, hosting the SCO's Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure which has the bizarre, if appropriate acronym RATS. The haemorrhaging of US businesses continues, the latest casualty being Newmont Mining, which was forced to leave last summer.

The re-orientation towards Russian and China would no doubt have taken place in any case, despite the events in Andijan in May 2005. China is a growing international economic powerhouse, and throughout the past 100 years of close integration of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia both economically and culturally, was bound to assert itself eventually despite attempts by a newly independent Uzbekistan to downplay these relations. In this regard, Fukiyama's "end of history" might better be phrased the "inertia of history".

Uzbekistan's infrastructure and economic links are still primarily Soviet, meaning trade, production and even financial relations are increasing rapidly with Russia and Kazakhstan, based on the past, now that there is the will. However, at the same time, China is drawing Central Asia away from its Soviet past, making Russia look like a junior partner, flooding Central Asian markets with cheap Chinese imports, oil pipelines, and various rail and road transport corridors along ancient Silk Road routes. As with its diplomatic sorties into Africa, China's agenda in Central Asia studiously avoids any criticism of other countries' "internal affairs", so the tragic deaths and oppression of Muslims is most likely even seen as a plus, especially considering China's own problems in western Turkestan with the restive Uighurs.

In addition to mending relations with Russia and its immediate neighbours, and expanding relations with China, Uzbekistan is tentatively broadening its relations with the Muslim world through the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), which includes Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and other Central Asian states.

Relations with both India and Pakistan are expanding as well. There has long been a cultural affinity between Uzbekistan and India, dating back to the common history of the Moghul empire. Indian movies have been a staple of Uzbek entertainment for half a century. India's close ties to the Soviet Union have translated easily into close ties with all the independent Central Asian states, and especially Uzbekistan, and it is now mending fences with China. If Pakistan and India are admitted to the SCO soon, this will only emphasise the importance of the SCO as a real counterweight to US and European- oriented multilateral organisations in determining the foreign policy orientation of not only Uzbekistan but all of Central Asia without the fear on the part of their governments of any criticism of their "internal affairs".

The broad and relatively uniform shift throughout the region away from Washington, despite sharply different scenarios in each country, seems to be part of the "inertia of politics" for the region. Though Kyrgyzstan experienced a surprise "revolution" in 2005 largely instigated by the energetic activity of US and Western NGOs -- in 2004, the US spent $12.2 million in tiny Kyrgyzstan on "promoting democracy" -- its new President Kurmanbek Bakiev quickly distanced himself from Washington, and Kyrgyzstan's political and economic orientation has followed Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan's lead. The only legacy of the pathetic "tulip revolution" being a weakened central government and increased influence of local clan leaders and mafia.

After the sudden death of Turkmenistan's President Niyazov, it is still not clear whether there will be a new political direction in Turkmenistan -- the US could just slip in the back door. The new leader Gurganguli Berdymukhamedov, though a faithful supporter of former President Niyazov (and elected in similarly pro forma elections), might just be convinced to accept US "support" if he feels insecure, which would muddy the region's politics, but my guess is the "inertia of politics" will preclude that. Tiny, weak Turkmenistan is much like North Korea in its isolation, and lack of involvement in any politics beyond its borders. Though it has lots of natural gas, it is not a major player.




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Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

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Eric's latest book The Canada Israel Nexus is available here http://www.claritypress.com/WalbergIV.html