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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[30.01.2OO3] Central Asia: Leaders Look To UN, Not US, To Deal with Iraq

In his annual State of the Union speech on January 28, US President George W. Bush warned that he is prepared, if necessary, to use the "full force" of the US military to disarm Iraq, if the United Nations fails to act.
Despite closer relations with the United States that have been forged during the war on terrorism, the countries of Central Asia have not offered their support to Washingtons position on Iraq, repeatedly declaring that the crisis should be solved by political and diplomatic means and in accordance with the United Nations Security Council.
Late last year, the foreign ministers from the member states of the CIS Collective-Security Treaty, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, reiterated their belief in solving the Iraq problem by political and diplomatic means.
Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulazi Kamilov on January 27 also said the Iraq crisis should be resolved through the UN and other diplomatic channels, although he did not rule out the use of "other methods" if such efforts fail.
Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have said they will not offer their facilities for use in any strikes against Iraq but only in support of US-led antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan.
Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aytmatov recently declared that "concrete proof" that Iraq is harboring weapons of mass destruction is necessary before any use of military force, and that such force must be sanctioned by the UN.
Serik Abdakhmanov, a member of the Kazakh parliament, seemed to summarize the opinions of many in the region about a possible US-led war against Iraq when he said: "It was said long ago that a bad peace is preferable to a good war. This is why I consider Mr. Bushs statements irrelevant in todays developed world. I support the positions of Germany and France, which looks more appropriate in this case."
Germany and France have said they will not back a war against Iraq outside of the UN framework and believe the UN inspectors need more time to complete their work inside Iraq.
Steven Sabol, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina and an expert on Central Asian affairs, noted that, despite their misgivings about war in Iraq, Central Asian governments nevertheless remain hesitant to openly criticize the United States. "Theyre taking a wait-and-see attitude to see which way the UN decides to go and what actions the United States might take. I think theyre hesitant to be too critical of the United States because that could draw attention to their own regimes and the political suppression in the region. So they are, I think, remaining somewhat silent on the issue," Sabol said.
Alex Vatanka, an editor in chief of Janes Sentinel: Russia and the CIS, a security-assessment publication based in London, said Iraq is not a top priority for Central Asian leaders. "The way they have sided with Russia in calling for a [UN] resolution [authorizing force], or a sort of a compromise, or a final settlement on this issue through the UN, strongly suggests that they have a number of factors to contend with before they can shift their position away from Russia. Right now, they have more to lose by openly siding with the US on the issue of Iraq than they have by going with Russia," Vatanka said.
Speaking yesterday in Kyiv, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his view that any military action against Iraq should be decided through the UN Security Council, although he has warned that Moscow could "change its position" if Iraq causes problems for UN weapons inspectors.
Vatanka believes the Central Asian states are not risking much by siding with Russia since Moscows views are largely shared by other members of the Security Council.
Internally, Central Asian governments also have to deal with majority Muslim populations, among which the legitimacy of any US-led action in Iraq is being questioned. Analysts say it would be unwise for Central Asian leaders to further irritate public opinion, which is already upset over economic hardships in the region and political repression.
Tursunbek Akunov is chairman of the Human Rights Movement of Kyrgyzstan. He said the United States is preparing for war despite Iraqs cooperation with UN inspectors. "Previously, Saddam Hussein did not allow [the inspectors] to come, but now there are no obstacles. The experts can work everywhere. Even [presidential] palaces are opened for them. Inspectors didnt finish their work, and there were no reports of weapons [of mass destruction], but [the United States] is preparing for war. Like in Afghanistan, we are concerned about people who will suffer from the war, not Saddam Hussein. All Kyrgyz people are absolutely against that," Akunov said.
Sabol, however, believes Central Asian leaders are guided not so much by public sentiment and humanitarian issues as they are by regional security concerns. They feel that the internal Islamist threat is far greater to their national interests than Iraq might be," Sabol said.
Local analysts have also raised concern about the effects of a war in Iraq on Central Asian security. At a roundtable discussion in Almaty last week, political scientist Dossym Satpaev, director of a risk-assessment think tank, said a war in Iraq may inflame extremist forces in the region.
In Tajikistan, three ecological organizations recently sent an open letter to US Ambassador Franklin Huddle. In the letter, they express fear that a war in Iraq could result in humanitarian and environmental disasters, complicate the geopolitical balance in the world, provoke new conflicts and stir up public discontent against US foreign policy.
According to Vatanka, the scenario that a US-led war in Iraq will lead to instability in the Middle East could have repercussions in Central Asia. "I can see a link between instability in the Middle East, which then would impact Central Asia. Its not just unique to Central Asia. Instability in the Middle East will impact large parts of the world, and Central Asia is not going to be excluded from that," Vatanka said.
On the economic front, analysts predict that a war in Iraq might reduce demand for oil and natural gas from the region, critical for the economies of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. According to Satpaev, oil prices would probably decrease to $12 to $13 per barrel if Hussein is toppled, while this years Kazakh budget uses $19 per barrel as its standard.
And in the longer run, the free flow of Iraqi oil to the world market could slow development of the two countries own energy resources.
By Antoine Blua, A Eurasianet Partner Post from RFE/RL January 30, 2003

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