Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 81

Presidents Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, Askar Akaev of Kyrgyzstan and Imomali Rahmonov of Tajikistan, accompanied by their respective foreign affairs ministers and Security Council secretaries, conferred on April 20-21 in Tashkent on regional security problems. The meeting was held without Russian participation, though probably not without Russian approval. The new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is prepared–up to a point–to countenance Uzbekistan’s aspiration to regional leadership on security issues.

The participants discussed creating a legal framework for coordinated actions by their military forces and security agencies against “terrorist activities” and potential aggression. Public statements by several presidents and aides implied that they regard the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan as a source of terrorism and aggression. The desired legal framework apparently would entail, at a minimum, easy access for troops and agents of participating countries to come to each other’s assistance across national borders in emergencies.

The four presidents finalized and signed an agreement on joint actions to combat terrorism, “political, religious and other types of extremism” and transborder organized crime. The joint actions would range from intelligence-sharing to covert operations by the four countries’ secret services to the use of armed forces. The agreement is subject to parliamentary ratification, which seems a foregone conclusion.

Three points in the agreement expose cracks in the common front of the signatory countries. Those points obligate the countries to deny sanctuary to “terrorists and extremists,” to refuse any concessions to them, and to prosecute or extradite them “to the country concerned.” Almost certainly of Uzbek authorship, these stipulations reflect Karimov’s discontent with Kyrgyzstan’s and Tajikistan’s handling of the Uzbek Islamist insurgency last year. Those two weak governments held back from taking the offensive, allowed the insurgents repeatedly to cross the Tajik-Kyrgyz and Tajik-Afghan borders in the hope that they would not return, opposed preemptive strikes by the Uzbek military on insurgent sanctuaries in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and bargained with the insurgents, rather than attempting the impossible mission to apprehend and extradite them to the “country concerned,” Uzbekistan. Tashkent’s problems with Dushanbe seem far from over (see below).

In a parallel official bilateral meeting, Karimov and Nazarbaev complained in unison about what they see as Western passivity in dealing with international terrorism, religious and political extremism, transborder crime and other challenges to the Central Asian countries’ security. Karimov and Nazarbaev were speaking in the wake of U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet’s, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Louis Freeh’s and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visits to the region. These U.S. officials had sought to demonstrate to Central Asian leaders that Washington can be counted on to provide active support against terrorism and associated threats.

Karimov almost regretfully indicated that he has only one country to turn to–apparently Russia–for upgrading Uzbekistan’s air defense system. Apparently alluding to the U.S. officials’ visits, Karimov recounted that he had “asked the foreign leaders who visited recently, what else could Uzbekistan do?… Uzbekistan has no option but to seek serious support from those countries that would create an air defense system for us. We will cooperate with any country which helps us strengthen control of our airspace.”

Akaev assured the other presidents that Kyrgyzstan will not again be “caught unawares by terrorist incursions as it was last year…We are ready this year, have undertaken large-scale measures and received a great deal of assistance.” Rahmonov for his part assured Karimov and Akaev that Tajikistan is prepared to commit troops–unlike last year–“if there is a threat to Tajikistan or another state.” But only two days later, Tajik Security Council Secretary Amirkul Azimov appeared to fall back on last year’s tactics. Azimov described as “irresponsible and inflammatory the recent claims by some foreign media and politicians that the 1999 events in Kyrgyzstan could recur and that there could occur incursions from Tajik territory by the terrorist gangs of [Uzbek Islamist leader] Juma Namangani.” Those unnamed politicians and media are in fact Akaev, Karimov, their senior officials and their state-controlled media. Azimov insisted, first, that he found no evidence of the presence of those gangs in central Tajikistan during a recent inspection there; second, that the gangs may at most be “lurking in inaccessible mountain gorges;” and, third, that the lurking gangs in any case “no longer enjoy the backing of the local population.”

Turkmenistan, in keeping with its status of permanent neutrality, stayed away from the Tashkent meeting. That country’s good-neighborly relationship with Afghanistan–even as Taliban forces control the border area opposite Turkmenistan–provides counterevidence to Moscow’s, Tashkent’s and Dushanbe’s common postulate that the Talibs are bent on attacking their Central Asian neighbors (Uzbek Television, Tashkent Radio, Narodnoye Slovo (Tashkent), April 21, 22; Itar-Tass, April 22, 24; see the Monitor, October 27, November 9, 1999, April 20).