"The United States should be interested in the formation of the security system in the Caspian region".

Maulen Ashimbayev,
Director of Kazakhstan
Institute of Strategic Studies

Dr. Ashimbayev made a wide-ranging
presentation on challenges and
threats to security in Central Asia at
the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute
at the School of Advance
International Studies of the Johns
Hopkins University in Washington,
DC, on November 19, 2003. The
topics included Afghanistan,
geopolitical situation in Central Asia,
relations with Russia, China, the
United States, the development of
Caspian Sea's oil riches, as well as
the issues of finding a niche for the
region in the globalization and of democratization in Central Asia. The excerpted remarks follow.

Nowadays, the situation in the Central Asian region has improved and stabilized somewhat, primarily as a result of the counter-terrorism operation in Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban regime. Still, today we cannot talk of a complete stabilization of the situation in the region.

The problems of security in Central Asia, which became more pressing in recent years, have both external and internal determination. The aggravation of the security problems is one of the key characteristics of the modern world. Across the globe, we see the aggravation of such problems as terrorism, extremism, international crime, spread of drugs, ethnic tensions, separatism, spread of weapons of mass destruction and many others. What became the reason for the new turn in the spread of these negative phenomena? It seems that one of the reasons lies in the fact that the destruction of the old system of international security is becoming clearer against the backdrop of the yet unformed new system.

All of this was and remains the backdrop of the processes in the security sphere in Central Asia. The security situation in Central Asia is part of the global trends in security. Only such conceptual approach allows understanding the situation in our region correctly, as part of the global processes.

Today countries of Central Asia have reached a certain stage of their development characterized by a fragile and unstable stability against the backdrop of the unresolved conceptual security problems.

The first problem is still the same Afghanistan.

After the counter-terrorist operation by the United States and its allies at the end of 2001 and the beginning of 2002, an illusory impression was created that the problem of Afghanistan is finally resolved.

But the situation in that country turned out to be much more complicated. The forced removal of the Taliban regime did indeed take place, yet the transformation of the social, economical and political system of Afghanistan that had brought this ultra-radical group to the political arena of Afghanistan in the 1990s, did not.

Ensuring the resilience of the peaceful process that began with the fall of the Taliban remains a major problem. Leaders of military formations hold real power in the regions, and any attempts by the new government to exert influence on them are met with fierce resistance. Moreover, the struggle between the political forces based on ethnic and tribal background still continues and remains the main content of the political processes of this country. Practically, Afghanistan continues to be ethnically fragmented with all the consequences thereof.

As a result of all of this, the tensions and conflict in Afghanistan are rising again. Recently major attacks by the militants reportedly took place in several provinces against both patrols, roadblocks, and the peaceful facilities related to the restoration of Afghanistan. In particular, news reports continue to come in on a regular basis about the military clashes in the provinces of Konar, Nangarhar, Paktia, Khost, Zabol, Oruzgan, and Qandahar.

In one way or another the Taliban control a number of provinces. By some information, the government of Khamid Karzai controls the situation in no more than 10 out 32 administrative units. The majority of governors have their own military units that provide resistance to both extremists and the official military structures.

As a result of the overthrow of the Taliban regime, the problem of narcotics in Afghanistan was not resolved. The flow of drugs initially reduced, but then grew and outgrew the previous level. UN experts believe that in 2002 the acreage seeded with opium poppy in Afghanistan amounted to 74,000 hectares, which is 10 times more than in 2001. Last year, a record amount of raw opium was produced there, more than 4,500 tons. It should also be noted that the bulk of 10,000 tons of opium produced during the previous 3-4 years, minus the amount shipped to the markets, was not discovered and seized as part of the international anti-terrorist operation.

The Government of Karzai is concerned that the fight against the opium plantations will lead to serious social tensions which in turn would hamper the government's influence. For the majority of Afghanistan's population, this business is the main source of income.

For the U.S., the problem of Afghanistan will, as it seems, remain, in short-term and in long-term perspective, one of priority. The countries of Central Asia can provide certain support. Today the countries of the region are involved in the rehabilitation processes in Afghanistan, rebuilding its economy and providing certain humanitarian assistance, etc., but that happens somewhat fragmentary and without a system. It is important to put this work on a systemic basis and to work out a format for the long-term economic cooperation of the countries of Central Asia with Afghanistan. It would be feasible to adopt a special program of multilateral cooperation of the Central Asian nations with Afghanistan in economic, social, political, humanitarian and military sphere. A lot in this project will depend on the support of the United States.

The next strategic challenge for the countries of the region, primarily Kazakhstan, is linked to finding a correct foreign policy formula in the circumstances of pressure being exerted by several centers of influence, namely Russia, China, the U.S. and the Islamic world.

This is our "classic" problem. We have felt and continue to feel quite serious influence from without in many areas, and have to correlate our steps with the interests of foreign subjects. A permanent search for a balance between external and internal interests becomes a major task. The Caspian Sea is a case in point. The region will be dominated by a constant need to navigate among the interests of foreign subjects, but at the same time without strong rapprochement with any one of them.

For our countries, it is very important to build a correct strategy of relations with every one of the mentioned subjects, and the task is complicated by the fact that their interests quite often conflict with each other. Conducting a policy of balancing on the external influence is, in our situation, the only correct approach to securing an independent way of development. It is a rather complex task, if we take into account that the field for maneuvering keeps shrinking.

The future of Russia's policy in the region remains an open question. Recently, Anatoli Chubais, an emblematic representative of the right forces in Russia, has voiced a concept of "a liberal empire". I don't think this was a casual or pre-election move on behalf of Chubais who knows the mood in the Russia's elite quite well. In any case, the Russia's influence in the region will be strengthening which will influence general geopolitical situation in the region.

A dynamically developing China remains a serious challenge to us. A fast-growing China means both opportunities and some problems for us. China has defined our region as a zone of its important interests which, in greater part, resulted from the politico-military presence of the U.S. in the region after September 11th. China has serious interests in the Caspian, and, undoubtedly, would like to become one of the investors in the Caspian region.

For countries of Central Asia, there are certain questions related to interaction with the Islamic world. This challenge is especially pressing for Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Therefore, the relations of the subjects described above with the countries of Central Asia on the one hand, and the relations of these subjects with each other on the other hand determine a general geopolitical situation in the region at this stage.

The following conceptual problem that also affects regional security is related to the Caspian Sea, or, rather, the absence of the security ensuring system in the Caspian region.

The interests of several dozen states, including oil consumers, transit countries, other oil states, the biggest transnational companies, as well as the interests of a number of international organizations, are concentrated around the Caspian Sea. Although the Caspian Sea cannot be an alternative to the Middle East, its significance for the world energy is high enough, in particular, in relation to Western Europe, and, in the future, to a dynamically developing Asian-Pacific region.

Today, the proven oil reserves of the Caspian Sea amount to approximately 4 billion tons. By different estimates, the prognosticated reserves amount to 15 to 30 billion tons. The sizable portion of these reserves is in Kazakhstan's sector.

At the same time, there still remain quite complex problems around the Caspian Sea related to the interweaving of interests of many subjects and certain conflicts in their interests. The fact that the issue of the legal status of the Caspian Sea has not been settled yet aggravates the situation and complicates relations between some Caspian states.

The geopolitical situation around the Caspian Sea is far from being simple. New contradictions and problem factors are appearing. All of this necessitates the extremely urgent formation of a system of security and stability in the Caspian region as well as the security of major pipelines.

Recently, experts have been discussing an issue of adoption of the Caspian Sea Stabilization Pact. I consider this idea quite interesting and in many respects required at the current stage of the Caspian region's development. Within the framework of the Stabilization Pact, in our opinion, it could be possible to work out principles of behavior in the Caspian region, including such issues as non-militarization of the Caspian Sea, settlement of the existing problems by means of negotiations, mutual respect of interests, diversification of export routes and etc.

The United States has strategic interests in the Caspian region. American companies have contributed billions of dollars to the development of the Caspian oil fields. In this connection, in my opinion, the United States should be interested in the formation of the security system in the Caspian region.

In any case, creation of a security system of the Caspian region and of major export pipelines is one of the key tasks of the coming decades in order to ensure security in the Caspian  Central Asian region.

A major complex of problems in Central Asia is connected with the shortage of vital resources in Central Asia.

Deficit of water resources and regulating water remain a key long-term problem. Deficit of fresh water as well as shortage of water to be used in agriculture are among the most serious problems in Central Asia. Security as well as the economic development of the region depend on the constructive settlement of these problems.

Water is both the basis of cooperation in Central Asia and a conflict generating factor. All relatively dangerous interethnic differences in the region have being centered around the water problem during the years of independence.

Alongside with water, the shortage of land resources in Central Asia is another important problem. The problems related to overpopulation of a number of regions, in particular, the Ferghana valley, are being amassed. According to demographic prognosis of some experts, in the coming twenty-thirty years, population of some countries of the region will considerably increase. Some experts forecast a demographic explosion in some countries.

Accordingly, with every year, the shortage of vital resources will increasingly make itself felt, becoming one of potential destabilizing factors. Therefore, by working to resolve the problems of water and overpopulation of some regions in Central Asia we are ensuring security in our regional space.

Yet another strategic problem for Central Asia is linked to the region's lagging behind in the circumstances of globalization. Globalization is an objective, yet harsh process. Benefits of globalization are not distributed equally. In these new circumstances, the Central Asian nations might be left on the sidelines of the global development. They are in a danger of being stuck with the narrow specialization on the global markets, primarily in the raw material sector. This will inevitably influence the development of other industries, the level of education, cultural development of the country, human potential, etc.

Globalization also means and promotes regionalization, regional integration. These are ways to adapt to globalization. The process of regionalization is evident across the world. In our region, however, the integration is far from its optimal and desired state. Moreover, considerable difficulties remain in expanding the economic contacts and cooperation.

In this connection, one of the key questions for the countries of Central Asia for the first half of the 21st century is whether they are able to establish an effective regional grouping, a unified market, a unified economic space?

For the countries of Central Asia it is also important to find a correct form of relations and integration with Russia.

In general, this is a bloc of quite complex issues which will require its correct solution in the foreseeable future.

Finally, the last group of key regional problems and challenges is related to the need to find an optimal formula of democratization in Central Asia with the next 10-15 years.

It is important to avoid two extreme positions on this point. Forcing the democratization is fraught with destabilization of the countries of the region, but at the same time delays in this process can also have negative consequences. A not so good backdrop further complicates the situation. I mean large-scale social problems in the region, such as poverty, destitution and unemployment.

But our region has to democratize with the next ten to fifteen years. It will either happen in an evolutionary way, or in radical ways. Therefore, finding a correct strategy of democratization coupled with the least social costs is one of the major challenges for all the Central Asian states at this stage.

Therefore, the problems our countries face are many. And let's hope that the countries of the region will find adequate responses to these challenges. Without that, the Central Asian region will remain a zone of instability, conflict, strategically lagging behind a dynamically developing world community, with all the political and economic consequences thereof.

In conclusion, I would like to say a few words about the cooperation between Kazakhstan and the U.S.

I am deeply convinced that Kazakhstan has to develop systematic and strategic relations with the United States. For Kazakhstan, having systematic relations with the United States is important in many dimensions, particularly, in attracting investment, strengthening our security, ensuring certain balance in the external influence, and in the possibility of a more effective involvement into the global processes, etc.

For the United States, Kazakhstan can also be an important partner in the region. First of all, this is related to our economic potential and stabilizing role in the region.

I understand there are certain open questions in our relations. But I would like to hope that they will not limit the understanding of commonality of the strategic interests of our countries in Eurasia. There are more stable and long-term interests which lay the foundation for the long-term cooperation.

Dr. Ashimbayev is currently a Visiting Fulbright Scholar at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute. He concurrently serves as the Director of the Kazakh Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of the RK (Almaty), the most authoritative source for foreign policy and national security guidance for the Kazakh government. He is also a Chief Editor of two periodicals: Analytic and Kazakhstan-Spectre, and a National Consultant for the United Nations Development Programme. He has written many publications, including: Political Transition: from Global to National Dimension; Terrorism: a Look from Central Asia; Security of Kazakhstan at Present Stage; and National and Regional Security of the Central Asian Countries in the Caspian Sea Basin.

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November 20, 2003                                No. 6