Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Central Asia

  1.  The Committee have requested a memorandum of supplementary evidence on Central Asia. The Committee's Sixth Report, Session 1998-99, on South Caucasus and Central Asia, considered a wide range of issues including regional security, the role of multilateral organisations, economic prospects and British commercial interests, human rights and good governance, and the way in which the Government delivered its objectives. An FCO response was published in the Committee's First Special Report, Session 2000-2001, in January 2001. This memorandum focuses on developments in Central Asia and the Government's response since then, including in the context of the Afghan crisis.

  2.  The response of the five Central Asian states to the events of 11 September and the crisis in Afghanistan has underlined the importance and relevance of the UK's relationship with those countries and the region to wider foreign policy goals. The Central Asian states all immediately condemned the attacks in the US and all subsequently extended political support to the coalition in the fight against terrorism. All granted overflight rights for humanitarian payloads. Three—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan—border Afghanistan and are playing important roles in assisting with humanitarian operations. Uzbekistan has offered facilities for search and rescue operations. Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have offered facilities for the support of military operations. In the short term, this continued co-operation makes a significant contribution to the military and emergency assistance effort.

  3.  Central Asian support and engagement will also be required for the longer-term task of political stabilisation and reconstruction in Afghanistan, to which regional stability and economic growth is directly relevant. Discussion with the Central Asians on Afghanistan was underway before 11 September. The Government invited the Central Asian countries to participate in the Weston Park Conference on Afghanistan in July 2001 and the Foreign Secretary subsequently discussed Afghanistan with the Ministers who attended from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

  4.  The Central Asian countries clearly stand to gain from a settlement in Afghanistan, which has long exported instability to the region including in the form of militant fighters, drugs and illegal migration. Besides the reduction of these threats, some like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan hope to see new trade and pipeline routes through a stable Afghanistan in future. They also see opportunities for improved relationships with Western coalition partners.

  5.  But while the Afghan crisis has raised the profile of Central Asia, the government does not believe that engagement with the Central Asian countries should be conducted primarily through the prism of Afghanistan. Although Afghanistan has been the main external threat to stability in Central Asia, the stabilisation process has been slowed by other, internal factors: insufficient progress on political and economic reform, weak civil society and poor human rights performance, increasing poverty and debt, corruption, environmental degradation and lack of effective intra-regional co-operation. In engaging on these issues the Government recognises that the countries of Central Asia, while sharing a common Soviet heritage, are different from each other and at different levels of development, and so require differentiated responses. But underlying the various bilateral relationships, the government has a common aim of encouraging the development of better governance and economic management, and regional co-operation based on economic interdependence. The Government seeks the reduction of poverty and the tackling of terrorism and the conditions which enable terrorists to recruit and win support, while avoiding the general repression which loses the middle ground. The overall goal is prosperity, bolstered by foreign investment, and stability for each of these countries and the region as a whole.

  6.  The Government recognises that it cannot pursue these objectives alone, and that there are no quick fixes. It therefore seeks greater co-ordination with EU, US, international financial institutions and other partners, is pressing for more collaboration between the multilateral organisations, and is engaging in a constructive dialogue with the region's neighbours. It seeks to promote a shared analysis and a common, long-term approach. In particular the new and more constructive relationship with Russia post-11 September provides a unique opportunity for better co-operation in the region. Within the EU the Government supported conclusions to the General Affairs Council on 10 December 2001 affirming a long-term EU commitment to Central Asia, and agreeing to focus assistance on poverty and political repression as causes of extremism and political instability and to promote regional co-operation.


  7.  Significant armed incursions into Central Asia by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) such as occurred in 1999/2000, were less evident in 2001. The reasons are unclear. The IMU may have been concentrating their efforts in Afghanistan, fighting alongside the Taleban. The Central Asian states were also better prepared to meet the threat, through their co-operation in the CIS Collective Security Treaty and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. The recent military action in Afghanistan has weakened the IMU. But it is too soon to conclude it is finished, either as a political movement, or fighting force. It retains sympathisers in Tajikistan as well as in Uzbekistan itself.

  8.  External security threats are unlikely to disappear. The Government has been discussing with Uzbekistan what self-defence assistance we can offer consistent with our human rights concerns; the Government has also been discussing training requirements for the Kyrgyz armed forces. The Secretary of State for Defence visited Tashkent in November and discussed Afghan and regional security issues with President Karimov. A regional Defence Attaché was appointed to Almaty, Kazakhstan, in July 2001, covering Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and a Defence Attaché will be appointed to Tashkent in the next few months. Pending that a temporary Defence Attaché will be in place in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in January 2002. Defence matters in Turkmenistan will continue to be covered by the Defence Attaché in Moscow. Under its Peacekeeping English Projects the British Council is providing English language training to military staff in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.

  9.  In parallel, the Government continues to urge the countries of the region to distinguish between genuine terrorism and political dissent, including radical but non-violent expression of Islamic views.

  10.  The Central Asian countries have rising domestic drug demand fed by Afghan heroin. Owing to porous borders where controls are inadequate, they are becoming an increasingly important transit route for heroin going to Russia. The direct threat to the UK remains potential rather than, so far, proven. But the Government is developing links with the Central Asians to help them combat drugs trafficking through the region. A regional Drugs Liaison Officer was appointed to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in September 2001: another is planned for Tashkent from summer 2002. The FCO is providing £490,000 of anti-drugs assistance to the Central Asian States, including £240,000 for a search facility at Kushka on the Turkmen-Afghan border.

  11.  The Government is also using the Global Conflict Prevention Fund (administered jointly by the FCO, MOD and DfID) to address potential flashpoints in the region. In 2001 this has funded a programme to resettle former fighters into civilian life in Tajikistan, where the post-civil war political consensus continues to be extremely fragile; a micro-credit scheme for women's groups in the Ferghana Valley, to encourage a bottom-up approach to poverty alleviation in this densely populated region of high unemployment; and training and technical support for the judiciary in Uzbekistan, to encourage greater professionalism. It is planned to increase conflict prevention activities in Central Asia, including programmes aimed at reducing ethnic and religious tensions, promoting democratic reform and finding peaceful solutions to disputes over territory and resources, including water. Specific projects proposed include further training for the judiciary, training for independent media, refugee resettlement programmes, and advice and training on boundary delimitation and watercourse law.

  12.  On regional co-operation, the Government welcomes the constructive role of the CIS Collective Security Treaty and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. It will be discussing with partners how to develop the dialogue on regional security issues with members of these organisations, to include non-military responses to regional security. The Government continues strongly to support the work of the OSCE, including on regional security co-operation. The UK part-funded, and attended at senior level, the OSCE December 2001 Bishkek Conference on Strengthening Comprehensive Efforts to Combat International Terrorism.

  13.  Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are parties to Vienna Document 99—an OSCE confidence and security building measure which promotes transparency, stability and openness in military activity. The UK Joint Arms Control Implementation Group (JACIG) provided in-country arms control training to Kazakhstan in 2001, and Kazakh and Kyrgyz arms controllers participated in UK-based arms control training in December 2001.

  14.  Central Asia's size, geographical position, and Soviet legacy gives rise to risks not only from drugs but also from smuggling of weapons and lethal materials, including nuclear materials. In his Mansion House speech of 12 November 2001 the Prime Minister proposed an initiative to combat the proliferation of sensitive nuclear, chemical and biological materials through `the region. The General Affairs Council Conclusions of 10 December 2001 included at UK initiative support for regional border security and non-proliferation.


  15.  The Government believes that good security in Central Asia is a function of good governance, inclusive political systems, measures to address poverty and a proper respect for human rights. It supports the efforts of the OSCE to bring together the human rights, security and economic dimensions of its work in Central Asia. It ensured that the recent EC Commission review of its assistance to Central Asia resulted in a focus on good government and poverty alleviation. With UK support the EU has also agreed to resume its Tacis technical assistance programme in Tajikistan. The Commission is considering increasing Tacis assistance to the region.

  16.  The Government has regularly raised specific human rights concerns with the Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Turkmen governments, including prisoner cases. It has raised proposed new, restrictive media and religious registration laws in Kazakhstan. It will continue to press for compliance with key UN and ILO human rights instruments, for Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to abolish the death penalty, and for Kyrgyzstan to move from a moratorium to abolition. Human rights and governance issues have also been raised in the regular EU dialogue with Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. There continues to be little prospect of the UK ratifying the EU Partnership and Co-operation Agreement with Turkmenistan, because of human rights concerns. (There is as yet no negotiated PCA with Tajikistan).

  17.  While Central Asian states cannot be members of the Council of Europe, the government would like to encourage them to follow the example of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in becoming observers of the CoE's European Commission for democracy through law (Venice Commission), which advises on constitutional and legal questions and promotes legal standards compatible with European values. The government will also encourage Central Asian states to bring local practices into line with the CoE's human rights legal instruments which are open to non-member states and, in due course, to commit themselves to such agreements as the Convention for the prevention of torture.

  18.  The Government encourages contact between the UK Parliament and parliamentary institutions in the region, and welcomes the establishment and activities of All-Party Parliamentary groups. A high-level Kyrgyz Parliamentary group visited the UK in February 2001 under the auspices of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and had discussions with the FCO Minister for State, the Minister for the Armed Forces and the Minister for International Development.

  19.  The British Council is expanding its operations in Central Asia, with a planned budget increase from £700,000 to £1.5m in the period to 2005/6. This will enable the Council to reach wider, younger audiences (while still engaging with the authorities), to increase e-services and expand core activities in the education and information sectors, arts, science, English language and governance. The Council moved into new offices in Almaty in 2000 and plans a presence in Astana from 2004. It is helping to establish a new Kazakh British Technical University, which will strengthen Kazakhstan's expertise in infrastructure and economic reform. The Council currently manages programmes in Kyrgyzstan from its Almaty office but is bidding for funding to open an office in Bishkek in 2004/5, following our planned opening of an Embassy there.

  20.  In Uzbekistan the British Council is working in partnership with the Uzbek government to create employment opportunities for young people through improvement in education and English language skills, and addressing institutional and policy reform, the development of more participative and open society and access to information. Assistance with education reform is a key area for the Council in Uzbekistan. Effective management of the Uzbek Umid scholarship programme has meant that the majority of Uzbek government funded overseas scholars are now being sent to the UK. The Council is facilitating a new Uzbek International University project, planned to open in 2002. The Council manages a limited level of activity in Turkmenistan. The Council has no current activity in Tajikistan but following the opening of the Embassy there will investigate the opportunities for engagement. The Council is supporting NGOs in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with a particular focus on violence against women, where the Council has been a pioneer in bringing the issue into the public domain and supporting the development of legislation and crisis centres.

  21.  DfID's programme in the region is targeted on poverty elimination, with a focus on governance issues, improving the livelihoods of the poorest and their access to essential services such as water and healthcare. DfID is stepping up its engagement in Central Asia, focussing on Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan where poverty is extensive. It supports Government-led poverty reduction strategies in close partnership with the rest of the international community, particularly the IFIs. DfID are supporting a World Bank/IMF conference in March 2002 to look at the particular development challenges facing the poorer countries in Central Asia and the rest of the FSU, and to work out the best approaches to resolving them. Issues such as debt and governance reform will be discussed.


  22.  The equitable and sustainable exploitation of the region's resources and the development of open, strong, broad-based economies are also an essential component of regional security and stability, and a prerequisite for an improved quality of life for the people of the region. UK companies are playing an important role through large-scale investment, notably but not only in the energy sector, and increasingly through partnerships helping to build local capacity. But corruption, inadequate legal safeguards for investors, and deficient macro-economic reform are continuing to act as a brake on economic development and inward investment.

  23.  The Government therefore believes that fostering an investor-friendly environment is a key task for economic reform in the region. Only diversified investment (ie not just energy sector) will allow the region to develop its full economic potential. Nor can this potential be fully realised without greater co-operation across borders, which in turn requires a more regional perspective from the countries concerned, and responsible leadership from the strongest.

  24.  The Government has pressed the Kazakh authorities to honour existing production sharing agreements, and to develop greater transparency in dealing with investors. It has urged the Uzbek government to speed up economic reform, including moving to full currency convertibility. It has also ensured that investment and economic conditions have featured strongly in the regular dialogues under the EU Partnership and Co-operation Agreements. Trade Partners UK are giving Central Asian markets greater priority, with potentially more resources for supporting new business opportunities.

  25.  The Government has continued to develop its dialogue with the EBRD on Central Asia. The EBRD remains committed to expanding its activities in the region, in support of economic and political reform and consistent with its Article I obligations. In Turkmenistan the UK fully support's EBRD's decision to suspend new activity pending Turkmen progress on its Article I commitments.


  26.  In addition to the appointments of Defence Attaches and Drugs Liaison Officers (detailed in paragraphs 8 and 10) the UK opened an Embassy in Dushanbe on 20 December 2001. Inter alia this will work on Afghanistan, where Tajikistan as a front line state has a significant role, on regional co-operation and security, and on political and economic reform in Tajikistan including UK assistance. We plan to open a full Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in 2003. We intend to establish a UK diplomatic presence in Bishkek in 2002, with the posting there of a Diplomatic Service Officer who would work to set up the Mission and establish a range of contacts with the Kyrgyz authorities. The Embassies in Almaty and Tashkent, which currently cover Kyrgyz and Tajik issues, should thus be able to redeploy some resources. Almaty will also get an additional officer.

  27.  Whitehall Departments are taking a joined-up approach to Central Asia. An inter-departmental Whitehall Steering Group on Central Asia has been established, to oversee a rolling programme of action in specific areas.

  28.  The government will continue to look for opportunities for ministerial and senior official visits to the region, and for other ministerial contact with the governments of the region. In addition to the visit to Tashkent by the Secretary of State for Defence in November, the Kazakh and Tajik Foreign Ministers and Kyrgyz Deputy Foreign Minister met the Foreign Secretary and Mr Hain in July 2001 in London, the Uzbek Foreign Minister met the Foreign Secretary at UNGA in November 2001, and the Kazakh and Kyrgyz Foreign Ministers met Dr MacShane at the OSCE Ministerial in December 2001. The Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister met the Deputy Prime Minister in London in July 2001. Further Ministerial contacts in 2002 are planned.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

16 January 2002

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