On Tuesday, June 3rd, 2003, the Central Asia - Caucasus Institute welcomed Askar Aitmatov, foreign minister of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan. His talk mainly concerned the challenges facing his nation and region in the post-9/11 world.
His nation, like much of the world, faces a myriad of daunting challenges ahead, including religious extremism, international terror, the proliferation of nuclear weapons amongst its neighbors and narco-trafficking. The fight against terrorism did not begin on September 11th, 2001 for Kyrgyzstan. The specter of terrorism founded upon religious extremism has threatened the country for better part of the past 6 years. It was the first nation in Central Asia to experience the phenomenon, Minister Aitmatov reminds us, as militant extremists from Tajikistan and Afghanistan tried to violently impose their views upon his country. His country had been on the frontline of the fight against terrorism, religious extremism, organized crime, and drug trafficking years before 9/11. Nonetheless, 9/11 proved a watershed event for the Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan. After all, two of the regions most significant problems, drug trafficking and religious extremism, were deeply tied to Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan had every reason to applaud the ouster of the Taliban and the implementation of the rule of law and a secular government. This was considered by many Central Asian nations, such as Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as shown by their participation in the coalition against international terror. Minister Aitmatov emphasized the importance of Afghanistan today. The drug trade has not abated, he points out, but rather flourished once again. According to British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, ninety percent of the drugs used in the UK are from Afghanistan, traveling through the Northern Corridor, which includes Kyrgyzstan. Practical steps need to be taken to thwart the narcotics business. The rebuilding of Afghanistan is crucial to this, and the Minister emphasizes the breadth and scope of what we still have to accomplish there. His talk then shifted to terrorism, another pressing issue not just for Kyrgyzstan, but all of Central Asia. Increasingly, members of terrorist groups are present in Kyrgyzstan. Though the groups, such as the Islamic Party of Liberation and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, all operate extensively in the region, their headquarters are outside of Central Asia. More and more people in Kyrgyzstan, however, are growing sympathetic. Minister Aitmatov specifically cites Southern Kyrgyzstan as a breeding ground for radicals, due its dense population and poor living conditions. He sees remedying the situation of the people there as the most effective solution. Economic means should be employed as well as a campaign to discredit the extremist religious ideas that distort Islam and drive people to heinous acts in the name of religion. Still, protecting the rights of the people should remain paramount to the government, and no freedoms will be sacrificed to combat terrorists. Increasingly, states in the region are working together to combat these common enemies. Between the Collective Security Treaty of the CIS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, both established before 9/11, the amount of regional interaction is substantial. Recent events have reoriented the agreements towards fighting against terrorism, separatism and extremism. The security community being constructed is not only working towards guaranteeing territorial sovereignty and security, but also towards responding to internal threats or those spanning borders. Kyrgyzstan is rapidly becoming a center for coordinating security in the region. Minister Aitmatov emphasized the responsibility first and foremost of the Central Asian states in ensuring their own security, but also believes Central Asia has a future as a geopolitical intermediary, furthering cooperation between East and West. The question and answer section mainly dealt with the changing position of Kyrgyzstan geopolitically. Post 9/11, China, Russia and the United States are all heavily involved with the country, in sharp contrast to Kyrgyzstan beforehand, what one participant labeled as the “Switzerland of Central Asia.” Minister Aitmatov disagreed with this characterization, pointing out that his country has always welcomed help in the fight against terror and has also clearly delineated the timespan for military agreements such as the use of military bases. He emphasized that Kyrgyzstan, being a small nation, emphasizes a multilateral approach to action, advocating the democratization of international relations. He once again cited the strides made by the region to cooperate in facing their common threats, downplaying their differences on other issues. In general, the Minister sees Kyrgyzstan fostering geopolitical cooperation regionally and globally. Domestically, he sees the Islamists as an increasing threat. They are very clandestine in their operations, and so not much is know about them aside from the fact that their influence is growing. New recruits are coming from Kyrgyzstan. Concerns about dissatisfaction over foreign troops also have been voiced by the Kyrgyz people, culminating in a demonstration last year where militia personnel shot and killed demonstrators. Minister Aitmatov acknowledged that there was a gap between the authorities and the people, and that democratic institutions need to be strengthened. However, theses measures are taking place, in the form of trials for those involved in the shooting of demonstrators and the resignation of many government officials.
Central-Asia Caucasus Institute/Eurasianet, June 03