“I believe that for the next year or two or three Central Asia will be on everybody’s agenda,” said World Bank chief James Wolfensohn this week as he concluded an eight-day tour of Central Asia, which in itself underscores the growing international importance of the region following the events of 11 September. “My perception of the region as important economically, socially and politically has been very clearly demonstrated on the trip,” said Wolfensohn.
During his five-country tour Wolfensohn called on all Central Asian republics to speed up economic reform but announced significant loan programmes as an incentive to do so. Uzbekistan will receive US $40 million for improving water supplies while Kyrgyzstan won a near identical sum to assist in the implementation of its poverty reduction programme. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) meanwhile weighed into the aid programme by investing US $1 million in Kyrgyzstan’s leading micro-finance provider to help fight poverty by expanding access to micro-loans for low-income entrepreneurs. The beneficiaries will be mostly women.
But despite the apparent rosy glow of development opportunities there remain serious questions over the region’s commitment to democratic processes that are likely to become contingent features of future aid packages. Kyrgyzstan’s President Askar Akayev came under continued opposition pressure this week when hundreds of opposition supporters gathered in the capital Bishkek to discuss recent political violence in the south of the country last month that left seven dead and scores more injured. The delegates approved a resolution calling for criminal charges to be brought against officials responsible for the deaths and demanded the resignation of the President and his entire government.
Opposition anger in Kyrgyzstan was further provoked by the continuing failure of the Kyrgyz parliament to act on a year-old initiative to create a human rights ombudsman who would attend to such matters. Kazakhstan meanwhile, which has already implemented a series of political and economic reforms in recent months, announced this week that it would name an official human rights ombudsman later this year, with Foreign minister Kasymzhomart Tokayev conceding that the number of reported violations had increased last year.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev this week commented publicly for the first time on a US $1 billion government slush fund that was set up in 1996 using the receipts of a privatisation programme. Nazarbayev rejected accusations that the fund had been misused insisting that the money was used as an emergency economic reserve fund. The Economist Intelligence Unit however, saw the government’s very admission of the funds existence as a possible sign that profound political change is afoot in the country.
According to regional analysts there is now room for cautious optimism that the international spotlight that Central Asia now finds itself under and the financial commitments that are pouring into the region, will lead to an improved humanitarian situation in Central Asia. Perhaps more importantly there also appears to be a growing recognition of the need to re-emphasise conflict resolution in the region by addressing the root causes of conflict. In a speech to the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce last week, Richard Gold, the deputy Director of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) Eurasia office, said that the agency is working to expand small businesses, promote the work of regional NGOs and encourage better environmental management in Central Asia. To that end he announced that USAID has given US $37 million to Uzbekistan since 11 September and would request a further US $27 million for the coming year.
One such programme that they already fund is aimed at the residents of the vitally important Ferghana valley region, which includes the territories of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and plays host to some of the regions most complex ethnic and humanitarian flash points. The “Peaceful Initiatives of the Community” programme seeks to teach residents how to avoid conflict and seek ways of regulating land and water conflicts without the involvement of the authorities and without recourse to violence.
Meanwhile in Tajikistan, the United Nations Refugee agency, UNHCR, in cooperation with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) this week concluded the repatriation of Afghan refugees stranded on the banks of the river Pyandj on the Afghan Tajik border. The last 389 families registered as willing to return left on Thursday for their home villages in Afghanistan.
NGOs in Tajikistan this week completed a measles vaccination campaign in the country initiated after the discovery of 360 suspected cases of the disease in the district of Khojamaston, south of the capital Dushanbe. In Turkmenistan meanwhile, a United Nations humanitarian official said that the organisation would be scaling down the majority of its Afghan orientated assistance programmes based in the country. “It is anticipated that the OCHA office will close at the end of April, by which time most of the UN agencies will have ceased or drastically reduced their operational activities directly related to the Afghanistan emergency,” said Ted Pearn, Senior Humanitarian Affairs Officer.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions