Central Asia steps nearer to unity

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A SPLIT is widening in the former Soviet Union between the dem ocratising ferment of the Russian-dominated west and conservative, old-style Central Asia, where five potentially well-off Muslim states are reluctantly preparing to strike out on a path of their own.

Crippled by imported rouble inflation, suspicious of Moscow's intentions and left out of decisions by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Central Asia has reason to be unhappy.

'In this day and age, you don't invade with swords and horses. But there are civilised methods no less aggressive and effective,' the Uzbekistan President, Islam Karimov, told one of his main newspapers, Pravda of the East.

Such concerns brought Central Asian leaders together for a little-noticed January summit in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan and biggest city for the 50 million people of this region of deserts, mountains and the Oxus and Jaxartes rivers.

Putting aside antagonisms, the leaders said they would now work together for regional security, better economic ties, a shared television station, a joint newspaper and to help save the drying Aral Sea.

Mostly former Communists who are inching away from strong Soviet-style central government, all five were relieved that an Islamic-democratic alliance has been on the run in Tajikistan since December. They vowed to help the new conservative government. Many are uncomfortable with the democratic outpouring in Russia and are on bad terms with another experiment for the future, the national-democratic government in Azerbaijan, the sixth Muslim republic of the former Soviet Union.

Kazakhstan accepted for the first time that it was fully part of the region with Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and the new conservative government of Tajikistan. Together they decided to change the region's name to Central Asia in the Russian and the Turkic languages of the region - formerly it was called Kazakhstan and Middle Asia, the name that described most of 19th-century Turkestan.

Ahmadjan Loukmanov, Uzbek istan's Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: 'Our roots are one, our languages similar, our religion the same. (The Soviet Union) cut us into five pieces. These five states will remain. But relations should be as strong between them as one state. Tactics may differ, but the strategy is one.'

For all such glowing words, diplomats say the move was a shot across the bows of western CIS states, with whom Central Asia cannot afford to cut off old Soviet links. As one said: 'It is one thing to have a joint objective and quite another to have a joint policy.'

But the process does add up to insurance, a second track of policy that landlocked Central Asia could build up if relations with Russia take a turn for the worse.

One common fear among Central Asian governments is that Russia will introduce a new currency to replace the ailing rouble before they are strong enough to defend the new national bank notes that Uzbekistan has already stacked up in its bank vaults.

The summit would also not have been possible without a change of heart away from Moscow by Kazakhstan's President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. More than 40 per cent of Kazakhstan's population are Russians, who populate the north of his vast territory, in some places closer to Moscow than Alma Ata. 'Nazarbayev is scared that when Russia strengthens again, it will come after those people, especially since that area is full of oil and gas resources,' said one ambassador in Tashkent. 'He feels that he would be stronger . . . with the 50 million people of Central Asia behind him.'

Central Asian unity is not around the corner, but America may see it as the next best thing if the CIS does not work. Turkey may resent being left out - it staged its own attempt to unite the Turkic speaking states in a common group last October - but is happy with the shared principles of secular, strong government.

Following the defeat of the Islamists in Tajikistan, Iran has faded from the picture, leaving Islamic fundamentalism from Afghanistan as the main external threat that all five states are committed to deterring. Central Asian summits are nevertheless better known for acrimonious exchanges than brotherly love, insiders say.

Turkmenistan, gas-rich and with a small, homogeneous population, wants no big brothers and to the irritation of the others, occasionally flirts with Iran.

Kyrgyzstan, probably the most democratic of the five, is overshadowed by the region's two main rival powers, Kazakhstan, with its space launch-pads, nuclear weapons and oil wealth, and up-and-coming Uzbekistan.

Uzbeks are Central Asia's main ethnic group and account for much of what industrial output there is, while the Tashkent government has been strengthened by the success of the conservative, Uzbekistan-backed faction in the civil war in Tajikistan.

'The January meeting did not make a new Turkestan. It is not yet even a Central Asian common market, though we want that. We are still part of the CIS,' Mr Loukmanov said.

'But it has been no use. The CIS should work for all states, not just the big ones. For the future, we'll just have to wait and see.'

(Photograph and map omitted)