Britain seeking to end Central Asia 'neglect'

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

AN END may at last be in sight to what many have construed as a British policy of 'benign neglect' towards Uzbekistan, a country emerging as the commercial centre of the resource-rich expanses of Central Asia.

'It's good, but what kept them so long? And will this be a real embassy, or just a small mission?' asked the Uzbekistan Foreign Ministry's chief of information, Ahmadjan Loukmanov, after Britain's ambassador in Moscow visited Tashkent last weekend to convey London's decision to send permanent envoys.

Few Central Asians can believe official British explanations that lack of funds is the only reason for the relative absence of Britain, which only 70 years ago was playing the Great Game against Russia for control of Central Asian markets and mountain approach routes to India.

The last British consul-cum-secret agent resident in Tashkent, Lieutenant-Colonel F M Bailey, was in fact one of the game's last great players, fleeing Communist advances in 1922 disguised first as a Bolshevik agent and later as a Turkoman trader.

But when the vast oil-, cotton- and mineral-rich region opened up for substantial Western business opportunities last year, Britain was reduced to covering four of the five new Central Asian states from Moscow, snowed under by its own problems 2,000 miles away to the north-west.

Even under the proposed new arrangement in Uzbekistan, a mainly Turkic-speaking nation of 22 million, only three British diplomats led by a charge d'affaires will still report to Moscow. The same applies to another mission upgraded last week in the sixth former Soviet Muslim republic, oil-rich Azerbaijan.

The British diplomats who arrive later this year will find several well-established Western ambassadors reporting straight back to their capitals. Most are already putting finishing touches to the best embassy buildings in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, which for the past 120 years has been the chief commercial, industrial and administrative capital of Central Asia's 50 million people.

'I suppose you'd have to call Britain's policy one of benign neglect,' said one European ambassador, an echo of straitened times in the 19th century when British India justified inaction with a policy of 'masterly inactivity'.

The mission will certainly be important. Uzbekistan typifies many of the world's new countries where an impressive mission makes a real impact on governments, and individual diplomats are still far more important than telephones and mass media.

Uzbekistan may be the most populous state in Central Asia and home to its biggest single ethnic group, the Uzbeks. But there are extraordinary gaps in officials' knowledge of the outside world, Western business practices and even languages. In the Uzbekistan Foreign Ministry, for instance, fluent Arabic is far more common than English.

Strategically, the United States has long recognised an interest in buttressing Central Asia as a split widens with the European states of the Commonwealth of Independent States - although, like many others including Britain, it gave an unbalanced initial weight to nuclear-armed Kazakhstan.

Some businessmen argue that, with the respite in Tajikistan's civil war, the conservative Central Asian states even look somewhat stabler than those to the west and certainly offer more manageable economies. Others warn that a big ethnic explosion may yet occur if no outside help arrives.

'In these times of decay in the former Soviet Union, it is in everybody's interest to create a zone of stability here,' said one ambassador in Tashkent. 'We have raised great hopes in the people here . . . We should not see another area submerged in struggles, and the economy is the key.'