“The situation in Central Asia remains complex,” said Ambassador Miroslav Jenča, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA).
“Unresolved border disputes, tensions over the use of common water resources and energy needs, marginalization and human rights challenges, drug trafficking, terrorism and other forms of organized crime continue to undermine regional stability and require concerted efforts by all countries of Central Asia.”
Ambassador Jenča discussed the challenges of increased regional cooperation and integration in Central Asia, which he said, “is still regarded by many in the region as a process that could have a negative impact on national sovereignty and national interests.”
Concerning water management, he said that “the lack of trust prevails in bilateral and multilateral relations, particularly between upstream and downstream countries.” Furthermore, “different interests and agendas pursued by key foreign players are often not contributing to closer interaction within the region,” he said.
Ambassador Jenča discussed some specific regional tensions, including between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the 2010 crisis in Kyrgyzstan, and the security situation in Afghanistan, which he said, “has implications for all of Central Asia, and there are opportunities for states in the region to support its transition,” though he said, “Afghanistan needs to be better engaged in regional processes and relevant regional initiatives.”
In measuring the impact the Regional Centre has had as it passes its five-year mark, Ambassador Jenča said, “It is difficult to measure how instrumental we have been, but positive references and appreciation of our work made by the Central Asian states, the UN Security Council members, and our partners in the region during our five years’ work are to some extent sound indicators.”
“However, we cannot be complacent, because the situation I mentioned above is fragile, and serious challenges to peace and security in Central Asia remain and require constant attention and further action by all players.”
The interview was conducted by Walter Kemp, IPI Director for Europe and Central Asia.
Walter Kemp: How do you assess the current security situation in Central Asia? Are you concerned about recent tensions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan—for example, with rail blockages and cuts in gas deliveries due to Uzbekistan’s anger at the proposed construction of a major dam—and what can be done to improve relations?
Miroslav Jenča: The situation in Central Asia remains complex. Unresolved border disputes, tensions over the use of common water resources and energy needs, marginalization and human rights challenges, drug trafficking, terrorism and other forms of organized crime continue to undermine regional stability and require concerted efforts by all countries of Central Asia.
Bilateral relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have not been easy over the last years. In particular, the long-running disputes over some parts of the border, the management of water/energy resources, especially the construction of the Rogun Hydro Power Station (HPS), continue to cast a shadow over possible progress towards a better mutual understanding. This unfortunate trend does not serve either the long-term strategic interests of both countries or regional interests in general. Instead, we consider that the existing misunderstandings between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan can be solved if there is a political will to find a compromise.
Regarding the Rogun HPS [dam]: the UN Secretary-General expressed support to the process of independent assessment studies of the project under the auspices of the World Bank. We believe that the results of the studies will provide an informed guidance for the governments of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and in broader sense for the whole Central Asia region and assist in reaching a mutually acceptable agreement on the basis of an inclusive dialogue.
WK: In 2010 a crisis erupted in Kyrgyzstan, despite preventive efforts. What happened, and what lessons can be learnt?
MJ: The key element in conflict prevention is the political will of the ruling powers in the country to acknowledge the seriousness of negative factors and tendencies, to assess correctly their potential to degenerate into violent conflict and the readiness and capability to take necessary action in order to avoid it. I visited Bishkek, Osh and Jalalabad regularly, including in spring 2010, and was there also just one week before the conflict had erupted in June, so, I could assess the situation on the spot. In Kyrgyzstan, the government at that time was of the opinion that the situation was manageable and could be maintained under control without urgent extraordinary measures.
Looking back at what had happened, we can say that the crisis was a result of a combination of different long- and short-term factors, in particular, the neglect and often abuse in political purposes of interethnic relations, marginalization, corruption and organized crime, injustice, deep socio-economic problems, as well as the lack of legitimacy of the state authority in the aftermath of the change in power in April 2010. A very important factor was the resistance of the ousted president and his supporters. The UN leadership and UN agencies on the ground had reacted very swiftly to the calls for assistance from the interim government and the people. Serious action was taken in response to the crisis, humanitarian catastrophe was avoided, stabilization started, and the political process of the legitimization of power reinvigorated.
Throughout the transitional period, the UN closely interacted with regional organizations and other partners. The so-called Troika mechanism of the EU, OSCE, and UN special envoys for Kyrgyzstan was instrumental in creating conditions for successful political transition, coordination of international aid. and post-crisis stabilization in the country. In less than two years, the political transition in Kyrgyzstan was completed with the presidential election in the end of October 2011. The economy of the country has showed even some growth. Those are important achievements of the people and the government of Kyrgyzstan.
At this stage, however, the deep-rooted causes of the crisis still have to be adequately addressed; in particular, those related to inefficient public administration, socio-economic problems, rule of law, corruption, interethnic reconciliation, the low participation of citizens, notably national minorities, in local governance and law enforcement structures. The long-term stability will not be attained until these deep-rooted causes of the instability are dealt with. It is a long term and painful process, but it is the only way to achieve sustainable peace and stability. The international community is ready to continue supporting the people of Kyrgyzstan in this endeavor.
WK: Why it is so difficult to promote regional cooperation in Central Asia?
MJ: The increased regional cooperation and integration in Central Asia is still regarded by many in the region as a process that could have a negative impact on the national sovereignty and national interests. The lack of trust prevails in bilateral and multilateral relations, particularly between upstream and downstream countries. Different interests and agendas pursued by key foreign players are often not contributing to closer interaction within the region.
There is also a lack of a regional identity in Central Asia. Positioning themselves to others, countries put much stronger emphasis on their unique position and ambitions without giving due importance to the potential of the regional cooperation. The Regional Centre (UNRCCA), working in close interaction with the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and other partners, tries to promote better understanding of advantages of regional approaches aimed at increased security and economic and social prosperity. At the same time, the regionalization should go hand in hand with strengthening of bilateral relations. These two processes do not exclude each other.
WK: Do you see an increased danger to stability in Central Asia with the drawdown of ISAF forces in Afghanistan? How can security and cooperation between Central Asia and Afghanistan be improved?
MJ: Developments in Afghanistan are affecting security in Central Asia. Illicit drug trafficking and smuggling is feeding organized crime in the region. There is a potential threat of terrorist and extremist actions related to lesser control over the Afghan territory after the withdrawal. Those factors are taken very seriously by the CA countries. At the same time, the main challenges for stability lie within the Central Asian states themselves. Socio-economic problems, marginalization, rule of law, religious extremism, interethnic tensions, and organized crime are issues which need to be addressed by the countries in the region. The more stable, democratic and prosperous are the countries themselves, the more resistant they become to external threats.
The Central Asian states can play a more important role in stabilizing Afghanistan using their comparative advantages of geographical proximity, cultural similarities, and potential for mutually beneficial regional cooperation. Energy, infrastructure, transport and capacity building in Afghanistan are the areas where countries of the region are already involved and are interested to expand further their cooperation. They need to be supported by the international community in order to bear fruits of regional cooperation. Afghanistan needs to be better engaged in regional processes and relevant regional initiatives. At this point in time international support to concrete projects within those initiatives is needed more than ever. From this perspective, the next Istanbul Process Ministerial conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in April this year will provide excellent opportunity to show real progress.
WK: The Regional Centre has been in operation for just over five years. How you would assess the center’s contribution to preventive diplomacy thus far?
MJ: In the five years since its inauguration, UNRCCA has been actively involved in preventive diplomacy efforts across a range of issues of high importance to the region, with the aim of building trust and strengthening cooperation between the Central Asian states, and thus reducing the risk of conflict or, in some cases, the relapse into violence. UNRCCA has become a recognized partner with significant convening powers which offer a useful platform for discussions and the search for mutually acceptable solutions to current and emerging threats to peace and security in the region.
The Regional Centre operates on the basis of its 3-year program of action, which was developed in the course of consultations with the governments of Central Asia and with a view to UNRCCA’s mandate. The current program of action focuses on addressing issues related to the man¬agement of common natural resources and environmental degradation, the impact of regional trans-boundary threats, and the implications of national developments within the countries of Central Asia on regional stability.
With regard to the management of trans-boundary water resources, the center provides a platform for consultations between the Central Asian countries. UNRCCA tries to use international best practices in negotiating mutually beneficial water agreements to facilitate a comprehensives solution in the region that would take into consideration the interests of all Central Asian countries. The center’s programmatic activities aim at creating conditions conducive to the development of bilateral and multilateral consultations between the Central Asian states. The center works on the establishment of an early warning mechanism to prevent potential problems on trans-boundary rivers and assists the Central Asian countries in acquiring necessary skills to design scenarios of potential developments in the water/energy area. Most recently, the UNRCCA has prepared a proposal for modernizing the legal framework for trans-boundary water management in the Aral Sea basin. In implementing its programmatic activities, the center cooperates closely with the executive committee of IFAS (International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea) based on the memorandum of understanding signed in 2010.
In the area of trans-boundary threats, UNRCCA assisted the Central Asian states in devising a regional plan of action to implement the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. A joint plan of action adopted at the ministerial meeting in Ashgabat in November 2011 is the first action plan of its kind in global efforts to implement the UN Counter-Terrorism Strategy. Activities related to transnational organized crime and drug trafficking are implemented in cooperation with other specialized UN entities.
UNRCCA supplements the efforts of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which is the leading UN agency dealing with challenges related to the situation in Afghanistan and its regional implications. The Centre actively participates in different regional formats such as SPECA (UN Special Programme for the Economies of Central Asia), RECCA (Regional Economic Cooperation Conference for Afghanistan) and the Istanbul Process. As a UN Participating Agency the Centre particularly contributes to the work of the Counter-Terrorism Confidence Building Measure under the Istanbul Process.
WK: Successful preventive diplomacy is measured by the absence of failure. So how do know when you have actually been instrumental in reducing tensions, since nothing happens?
MJ: Despite many challenges, the Central Asian states have managed to keep peace in the region. The key role in this situation is played by countries themselves and their leadership. The international community, including UNRCCA, has contributed to this process, too.
It is difficult to measure how instrumental we have been, but positive references and appreciation of our work made by the Central Asian states, the UN Security Council members and our partners in the region during our five years’ work are to some extent sound indicators. However, we cannot be complacent, because the situation I mentioned above is fragile, and serious challenges to peace and security in Central Asia remain and require constant attention and further action by all players.
WK: Thank you for this interview.