Central Asian Leaders Do a Delicate Dance with the Bear from Muscovy

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Central Asian Leaders Do a Delicate Dance With the Bear From Muscovy

When the Russian parliament (Duma) voted on March 15 in favor of denouncing the agreements which Boris Yeltsin had signed in 1991 that broke up the U.S.S.R., many in the West assumed this to be a confirmation of Russia's shift toward re-creating the old empire, especially in Central Asia. But, as usual, the issues are not so simple nor are they so straightforward.

On Feb. 21-22 Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov embarked on a two-day "official visit" to Central Asia. On his first day he met in Almaty with Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Foreign Minister Kasmzhomart Tokayev. This was followed by a one-day meeting with his Uzbek counterpart, Abdulaziz Komilov, and Uzbek President Islam Karimov. It was the second time in as many months that Primakov has visited Central Asia: in January 1995 he paid brief visits to both Uzbekistan and conflict-ridden Tajikistan. That was Primakov's very first visit outside Russia since his shift that month from his office as the nation's chief spymaster.

In those meetings with Primakov, the participants on both sides of the table addressed issues of bilateral concern, as well as the ever-important question of regional security. In Kazakhstan, the discussion focused on expanding the Customs Union, currently a trilateral accord between the two states and Belarus, and how it could be used as a vehicle for further integration. (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Georgia have expressed interest in joining.) In an interview given to the Russian newspaper Delovoi Mir while in Moscow, Nazarbayev had argued that integration, in this instance, is based on respecting each nation's sovereignty. His program "Integration 2000," to be drafted later this year, is to outline how this might be done. (How this program relates to the concept of a Eurasian Union unveiled by Nazarbayev in 1994 is unclear.)

Whereas in Almaty the focus of the talks was on economic integration, Uzbekistan's Karimov concentrated on regional security, an issue of considerable importance to both Uzbekistan and Russia in the light of the ongoing conflict in Tajikistan, which both Primakov and Karimov agreed underscores the need for further integration and development of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Such visits by high-ranking Russian officials to Central Asia are often interpreted by Western commentators as a sign that Russia hopes to "retake" the region and reincorporate it into a renewed Soviet Union. Often ignored is the very real fact that the Central Asian states themselves see ties with Russia, and the CIS as a whole, to be of the utmost importance: Karimov himself affirmed that good relations with Russia are a "priority for the Uzbek people."

The Central Asian states themselves see ties with Russia to be of the utmost importance.

Although both Nazarbayev and Karimov recognize that cooperation with Russia is crucial to countering the threats to regional stability from Tajikistan and Afghanistan and to ensuring economic growth, both presidents are anxious not to be perceived by their own subjects as making too many concessions to Russia. Consequently, significant differences of opinion still exist on certain issues. For example, Kazakhstan's reluctance to permit the opening of Russian consulates in the various Russian-dominated northern oblasts, and its finn opposition to Russia's attempt to redefine the legal status of the Caspian Sea are two points of conflict. Likewise, Uzbekistan's decision not to attend this past month's Interparliamentary Assembly session in St. Petersburg, and its refusal to have CIS troops patrol its 156-km border with Afghanistan can be seen as signs of the country asserting its sovereign status. Even the recent comments by Uzbek Foreign Minister Komilov in Pravda questioning the pace of CIS integration can be read in this light.

That said, as discussions on the Tajik crisis and oil pipeline routes continue, the Central Asian states will continue to include and place great importance on the Russian position. …