When Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev initiated the Bishkek International Conference on Enhancing Security and Stability in Central Asia in June 2001, he could not have known that scheduling the meeting for December 2001 in the Kyrgyz capital would bring his struggling country international attention.
Now that more than three months have passed since the conference, though, the moment for the goals set forth at the conference appears to have passed.
As it happened, the conference functioned as a showcase for Central Asia. Three months after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, the region had received more media coverage and international attention in the West than ever before. Uzbekistan (and, to a lesser extent, Tajikistan) had become nearly as vital to American geopolitical interests as Russia. Bishkek's Manas Airport had become a major military base for troops from a number of countries. And Afghanistan had been the scene of the "war on terrorism" for two months.
All these circumstances underscored the task of the conference, which was organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UN ODCCP). The organizers charged more than 300 participants from roughly 60 countries with a daunting task: to "strengthen comprehensive efforts to counter terrorism." The Central Asian states provided urgent case studies for this effort. Marie-Carin von Gumppenberg, a Munich-based Central Asia analyst, told Eurasianet: "This was the first time Central Asia was really acknowledged by the international community as an important player in global politics. It was also the first time that due attention was shifted towards the [nonviolent Islamic group] Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the [al Qaeda-linked] Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other militant groups in the region."
Despite the geographic focus, the topic of the conference remained too huge to be manageable. Jan Kubis, OSCE Secretary-General, opened the conference with a warning: "The threats emanating from global networks of terrorism, its sources, methods and instruments are highly complex." After two days of statements and discussions, a Declaration and a Programme of Action by the participating states were drawn up.
Ustina Markus, Senior Analyst with the International Crisis Group in Osh, participated in the Bishkek conference and observed the delegates' struggle to come to unified positions. "It was difficult to agree on even fundamental principles such as what constitutes terrorism. The delegation stayed up till 1:00 am trying to find mutually acceptable wording." Fissures of special interest to the Kyrgyz occurred when, according to Markus, Chinese delegates wanted separatism included in the definition of terrorism. For most Western delegates, the term only applies to the deliberate murder of innocent civilians for political aims. But Russian delegates reportedly sympathized with the Chinese line, a refection of the Kremlin's own tough position towards the separatist region of Chechnya. "In the end, the declaration they drafted was rather vague and essentially only condemned terrorism," said Markus. "That raises some worrisome issues, since the 11 September attacks are now being used by everyone from Israelis to Chinese to justify repressive tactics against unassimilated minorities on the territories."
Just how much are the Declaration and Programme of Action worth and how are they put in practice today, some three months later? Markus calls the declaration so pliable as to have little practical value. And in its efforts to forge improvements in the fields of human rights and rule of law, the conference's results are unclear. The deaths of Kyrgyz protesters in the Jalalabad region in March, the persistence of political torture in Uzbekistan and the sight of a member of Kazakhstan's Parliament hiding from police in the French embassy all serve to reinforce the tenuous nature of civil society development in the region.
"The OSCE has a difficult task in Central Asia. With its limited resources and the need to criticize the governments on human rights issues, it's hard to find a common ground for political strategies," says von Gumppenberg, who used to work for OSCE's Bishkek office.
Eurasianet: http://www.eurasianet.org, April 5, 2002
Chris Schuepp: 4/5/02