Changes on both sides of Amu Darya

by Shiraz Paracha

Russia and some countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have successfully used changed realities of the post-Cold War world to their advantage. They have learnt quickly how to survive and stay relevant in a highly competitive world. A lesson that India and Pakistan both have yet to learn.

Sixty-three years after their independence, the two South Asian neighbours, did not find a peaceful way of coexistence. The military in Pakistan is India-centric at a time when it is daily bombed by violent jihadi groups. And India is trying to build bases in Afghanistan to encircle Pakistan.

The generals of the Pakistani military take credit for destroying the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, the jihadi generals and their civilian regiment the Jamaat-i-Islami of Pakistan celebrated ‘historic victory’ against the USSR. Well, the Soviet Union no longer exits but nations in the former Soviet space have demonstrated an amazing capability to survive following the collapse of the USSR. With few exceptions, leaders of the former Soviet states have shown excellent leadership qualities and have proved that they possess a vision for the future of their region.

Three former Soviet states, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus have established a Common Economic Space (CES) that has led to the creation of a free trade zone. The three countries signed a landmark treaty at the beginning of 2010 that will bring the gross domestic product of the three partners to USD2 trillion. It is yet another major step towards the economic integration and cooperation in the region. Former Soviets states are creating new partnerships and rewriting relationships. The elimination of customs duties among the three ex-Soviet countries will increase the gross domestic products of each by 15 percent by 2015. It would bring an additional USD400 billion for Russia, and an additional USD16 billion for Kazakhstan and Belarus.

The Customs Union’s oil reserves will be 90 billion barrels and the value of its agricultural products will be USD112 billion a year. And the free zone’s combined exports and imports will be USD900 billion a year, thus the free zone will increase competitiveness in each country.

Control will end from July 1, 2010 at the Belarus-Russian border and in Kazakhstan. The uniform customs duties in the territory of three countries came into force on January 1, 2010. The customs code will start to work from July 1 of 2010.

Kazakhstan and Russia are big players in world’s energy sector. And both had bumper grain harvest this year. Teaming up in a customs union will give them even greater clout in both sectors. Geography, natural resources, skilled labour force underpinned by Soviet-era technological base and communication lines have provided former Soviet states with foundations to emerge as major players in world’s economy and politics. Shared history and cultural legacies of the USSR such as Russian language are now tools of cooperation, development and achieving common goals.

Forums such as the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) are platform to promote economic integration and trade development in the region. The EurAsEC comprises Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine have a status of observers in this organisation.

Russia, Kazakhstan and other countries in the region are investing in communication infrastructures. New highways and bridges linking ex-Soviet states are under construction. Improvements in railway networks and telecommunication sector are planned. The new and improved infrastructure will enhance Russian influence in the region and at the same time will improve trade between ex-Soviet republics and Europe and the wider world. Israel, for example, is one of the countries that has established substantial trade links with countries in the region. Dozens of Israeli companies are doing business in Kazakhstan in different sectors.

Joint security is another concept that has grown rapidly among the former Soviet republics as suspicions about NATO designs in the region have reached new heights. NATO’s eastward expansion plans are a matter of great concern in the former Soviet Space. Also countries in the north and west of the Hindu-Kush mountains feel uncomfortable with NATO’s presence in Afghanistan.

The split of the USSR in the early 1990s was peaceful. Since then most ex-Soviet countries have good bilateral relations and they have established mechanisms to resolve issues such as border disputes, immigration matters and several vital matters peacefully. However, religious and ethnic conflicts erupted in Chechnya and Caucasus regions of Russia and jihadi groups appeared in the Ferghana valley of Central Asia in the last decade of the 20th century. Georgia and Ukraine also felt the heat of ethnic tensions. While in China Xinjiang region became another spot of religious tension. Interestingly, from Chechnya to Xinjiang, all trouble spots in the former Soviet space and Chinese Central Asia are either resource rich or have strategic importance. Policy makers in China, Russia and Central Asian states see foreign hands behind ethnic and religious tensions in the region and they believe that foreign sponsors are magnifying problems by playing up anxieties and fears of some local communities.

No surprise that the post-Cold War concerns about NATO intentions and foreign intrusions have led to the creation of the Shanghai Corporation Organisation (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). China, Russia and Central Asian states are members of the SCO while the CSTO currently includes Belarus, Russia, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Both the regional organisations focus on collective security, military cooperation and defense of joint strategic interests.

Compared to the 1990s, today’s Chechnya is calm and stable. Jihadi groups have weakened in Central Asia due to strict policies of Central Asian governments and despite Western propaganda China has managed to cool the situation in Xinjiang region.

While huge positive changes are taking place across the Amu Darya, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in the southeast are victims of terrorism and ethnic and religious hatred. Disputes over territory, water and sectarian and religious violence have divided South Asia and are destroying lives of millions in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

On the threshold of the 21st century India and Pakistan can use numerous opportunities that their shared culture, market and geography offer and can become leaders in a world that is interdependent and interconnected. Regional alliances and regional interests are competing national interests in a world driven by trade and economy. Pakistan can provide a corridor for transport of oil and gas to energy-hungry India while India industry can export goods to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

But to achieve that goal and build bridges of understanding both India and Pakistan will have to think realistically and must redefine their relationship in a way that is free of past hatred and misunderstanding.

Shiraz Paracha is a British-Pakistani journalist currently based in Almaty. Kazakhstan. His email is: shiraz_paracha@hotmail.com

Courtesy: Statesman,  Pakistan

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