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New Central Asian countries draw attention at Stanford conference

Was the ambassador from Turkmenistan given any trouble in Washington over his country's decision to work with Iran on an oil pipeline, the curious American wanted to know.

"We have a very long border with Iran, we receive our milk and bread from Iran, and we don't have much choice of neighbors," responded Halil Ugur during his visit to Stanford. "So far, we have received very well [sic] understanding with the U.S. administration."

That understanding in Washington and elsewhere in the United States is developing from a very low base of knowledge. A considerable amount of that base was gathered at Stanford on May 22 when the Center for Russian and East European Studies hosted a conference on the newly independent republics of Central Asia ­ Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Interest in learning about an area famous for the exploits of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and ancient silk traders was evident from attendance: About 100 people, including many from the surrounding community, squeezed into the Hartley Conference Center in Mitchell Hall. At breaks, people huddled around wall maps, seeking their bearings in a region that was just background for the sickle and hammer when most went to school. Many also picked up brochures from the Hoover Institution advertising its textbook series on nationalities, which includes a 1990 volume on the Uzbeks and a 1995 volume on the Kazakhs.

The expertise present in the room included Stanford Professor William Perry, until recently the U.S. secretary of defense. Perry worked with Kazakhstan to dismantle its nuclear weapons, sent used Coast Guard boats there so the country could patrol its portion of the Caspian Sea, provided materials and technical assistance for the republics to form the "Central Asian Battalion" for peacekeeping, and arranged to send their military officers to a U.S.-German school to study for six months how a military operates in a democracy. The school was so important to him, Perry said, that he planned his schedule around its commencements and has given all six commencement addresses so far.

Present also was Coit Blacker, senior fellow at the Institute for International Studies, who until last fall was the White House's chief security council official for the region. Blacker said U.S. assistance to Central Asia, expected to be between $60 million and $75 million next year, was "modest and should be larger." The countries border the Caspian Sea, believed to be the world's second largest reserve of oil and gas. Facilities that can market and deliver that resource run mostly to Russia now, and the republics see their future political and economic stability tied to how those resources can be developed and marketed more widely, and the proceeds split. "How this comes out, I would agree, will determine the fate of the region," Blacker said.

Gail Lapidus, a former University of California-Berkeley sovietologist now at Stanford, said the republics had not desired independence when they got it in 1991 as a result of the Soviet break-up and were less prepared for self-governance than other parts of the old Soviet Union. One of the few American scholars to investigate the ethnic composition of the region during the Soviet era, she said each republic is ethnically diverse because Stalin slapped arbitrary provincial borders on Central Asia.

Unlike Soviet officials in Slavic states, the Soviet local officials in Central Asia were not rotated and therefore built up considerable local power, said Pauline Jones Luong, one of Lapidus' former students who did fieldwork in the region and who is finishing her dissertation while at Harvard. Luong said that many Western scholars and diplomats expected ethnic hostilities to flare up with the demise of the Soviet Union, but they haven't because the administrative borders laid down in Moscow actually did stick ­ reshaping people's identities to the point that they see themselves as citizens of a subregion, akin to the kind of regional economic connections that form in counties or metropolitan areas elsewhere.

There has been, however, a civil war in Tajikistan and the leaders of that republic and the others are worried about the potential for ethnic violence should the Taliban of Afghanistan cross over the mountains into their states, said David Holloway, a Stanford sovietologist who co-directs the Center for International Security and Arms Control. When he and Lapidus visited the countries' capitals recently, they found that only the officials in Turkmenistan were relatively "relaxed" about the fundamentalist Islamic group's takeover of northern Afghanistan. In Uzbekistan, there was even talk of inviting in Russian troops, Holloway said, but since the nature of the threat they saw was subversive rather than military, it was not clear to him how Russian troops could be effective.

The countries' leaders, all drawn from the same class that governed locally under the Soviets, see their major challenges as preserving political stability and developing an economic base in face of high birth rates, limited arable land, and water and environmental problems caused by careless Soviet development, speakers said. With the exception of Kyrgyzstan, they are one-party states that have not moved toward more democratic institutions. Environmental problems include erosion and salinity build-up from poor practices in irrigation, crop rotation and pesticide use, as well as contamination from nuclear waste. Water resources, which originate in mountains, pass through what are now three separate countries, creating new resource sharing problems, according to Erika Weinthal, a political scientist from Columbia University who is a visiting fellow at Stanford this year.

Ugur, the Turkmenistan ambassador, said the Soviets built an agricultural sector "without significant environmental concern. Now we face a huge investment costs to address the problems."

He stressed the necessity of his country's political neutrality because of its landlocked location and economic development needs. The country signed a recent agreement with Iran and Turkey to develop a pipeline that will reach markets in the West, is working with an Israeli company to upgrade a refinery and hopes eventually to work with Afghanistan and Pakistan on southern pipelines. It also works with the other Central Asian republics on making the region more attractive to outside investors by integrating communication and transportation infrastructure planning, and developing coordinated standards of accounting and laws affecting business, he said. Splitting Caspian Sea oil and gas revenues is "potentially contentious," he said, and may take a long time to resolve.

Besides their economic struggles to develop oil and gas, Perry said that the republics face ongoing struggles to retain their sovereignty and maintain internal stability, and to achieve free market/democratic institutions.

If they want to remain independent, he said, "they will have to cut the long umbilical cord to Russia, which will be painful and expensive." While Russia continues to exert influence, he said he doubted there would be any type of military showdown.

Internal stability is threatened by a cultural conflict, Perry said, that could be variously described as a struggle between fundamental and modern branches of Islam, a struggle between clerical and secular political leadership or as a struggle for influence between Turkey and Iran. Without a tradition of democratic or free market institutions, they are not likely to take hold easily, he said.

The most important thing U.S. government officials can do for the Central Asian republics, he contended, is "give them attention and respect. . . . These are important nations to the security of the region and to the security of the United States."


By Kathleen O'Toole