Russia looks to energize Central Asia at Sochi Summit

RIA Novosti / POOL
President Dmitry Medvedev is hosting a summit today with his counterparts from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan with special emphasis placed on building regional transport links and fighting drug trafficking.

With so many other international players content on smashing things in Central Asia, Russia is busy trying to put things back together.

Issues of regional security, the situation in Afghanistan, as well as measures to combat drug trafficking out of Afghanistan are anticipated to be the focus of talks between Presidents Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Emomali Rakhmon of Tajikistan, together with their host Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

In addition to obvious security issues, the development of economic links between the four countries – which is understood as the best way to guarantee regional peace – will take a front seat in Sochi.

During a recent summit in Moscow, Medvedev proposed funding an extensive road and rail link from Islamabad to Ferghana and Dushanbe, and this initiative won enthusiastic support.

According to Muhammad Farooq Afzal, chairman of the Pakistan-Russia Business Council, the proposal will open up many opportunities across a region that has been oppressed by the echoes of war and impoverishment for too long.

“Russia is keen on funding infrastructure projects such as roads, rail and energy in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Afzal wrote in the Dawn.com website. “The positive results of the meeting will give access to Tajikistan and Russia for Pakistani ports and in return Pakistan will get access to the Central Asian markets and rich Siberian regions through road and rail.”

The proposed rail and road system, which envisions linking up the three countries through a 1,340-kilometre (832 miles) long road (connecting Pakistan from Chitral via the Durrah pass into Afghanistan and on to the Tajik capital of Dushanbe), carries huge economic potential for Russia and its three Central Asian partners.

Pakistan, with the second largest economy of the four summit participants behind Russia, has shown enthusiasm for the plan, and hopes to cash in on Russia’s growing consumer market as a destination for its factory goods.

“With a population of 145 million and a consumer goods market of 1.27 trillion dollars, the Russian Federation is an enormous market,” Afzal says. “Together with the neighboring countries, Russia is a potential market in the field of textile and garments, rice, leather, sport goods, surgical equipment and pharmaceuticals. If an aggressive export strategy is adopted, Pakistan can raise its consumer goods export to Russia up to one billion dollars within a year.”

The only hindrance the chairman of the Pakistan-Russian Business Council could foresee as disrupting the proposal were trade barriers and visa restrictions, which may be settled during Wednesday’s negotiations.

In addition to the extensive road and rail system being largely bankrolled by Moscow, the summit participants will discuss Russia and Tajikistan’s usage of Pakistan’s sea ports in the Arabia Sea. Any apprehension that Islamabad may have over granting docking privileges in the ports of the Arabian Sea will be offset by the monetary benefits connected with the leasing rights.

On the eve of the summit, Islamabad, which is trying to cope with severe flooding across large parts of the country, is showing tremendous optimism for a successful conclusion of the four-party talks.

“Relations between Pakistan and Russia are dynamically developing now,” Abdul Basit, spokesman for the Pakistani Foreign Ministry told Itar-Tass. “We hope that the trip of Pakistani President Asif Zardari to the summit in Sochi will promote a further growth of Pakistani-Russian interaction and help solve many topical problems of regional security.”

The spokesman went on to say that Zardari will ask his interlocutors to join international efforts by sending aid to Pakistan, which has been hit by deadly floods. Basit then apologized, saying that the Pakistani president would have to cut short his visit in order to supervise the situation back home.

“Unfortunately,” Abdul Basit said, “the stay of the Pakistani leader in Russia will be reduced to the minimum since Asif Zardari has to be with the Pakistani people during this critical moment for our country.”

The United Nations warned that many of the 20 million people affected by the disaster (one-fifth of the country’s total population) have yet to receive any emergency aid. The floods have killed at least 1,500 people and inundated about 1.7 million acres (700,000 hectares) of crops, raising the specter of food shortages. Food prices have jumped sharply since the floods began, while political tensions are reportedly on the rise as well.

Meanwhile, Tajikistan, a landlocked country of about 7 million people with marginal economic opportunities (according to a recent report by the World Bank, the primary sources of income in Tajikistan are aluminum production, cotton growing and remittances from migrant workers) is naturally supportive of a plan that may provide it with a sea outlet for its limited exports. There is even a dash of historic triumphalism in the deal.

According to an editorial in the Rupee News of India, “For the first time, Tajikistan will have access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea – a dream of Catherine the Great of Russia.”

For Russia, although access to Pakistan’s ports on the Arabian Sea promises lucrative economic dividends, it is tempting to ask whether the leasing privileges will acquire any sort of a military dimension.

With Russia’s naval force lacking an outlet in the Middle East/Central Asian waters, a Russian naval base off the coast of Pakistan would place Moscow right smack in the middle of highly unstable territory as US military incursions into the border zones between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the hunt for suspected terrorists continue unabated. At the very least, a Russian security presence in and around the Arabian Sea would help to thwart heroin shipments from reaching Russia via Afghanistan.

A recent report put out by Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov revealed that up to 30,000 Russians die annually due to conditions related to opiate addiction.

However, a large part of the responsibility of eliminating Afghanistan’s cash crop lies with the Afghan people, especially considering that US and NATO forces have announced they would begin a pullout from the embattled country starting in July of next year.

The Afghan government has stated its intention to buy modern weapons, including Russian ones, according to Afghanistan's charge d'affaires in Russia, Hafizullah Ebadi.

“Afghanistan definitely needs powerful national armed forces,” Ebadi told Interfax.

In conclusion, Moscow is doing more tha simply protecting its interests in a region that is fraught with war, drugs and economic instability. Given Russia’s proximity to this region of high volatility, Moscow is proposing the best possible remedy, and one that is too often overlooked as a means for fighting back against extremism and terrorism, and that is supporting economic rejuvenation. In order for this region to prosper once again, it will require substantial economic investment, not more destructive military operations.

With the participation of other leading players in the region, which now include China and the United States, this tinderbox of regional disturbances can be fully extinguished by inviting these countries to participate more fully in globalization's cornucopia, as opposed to remaining idle on the sidelines. It is refreshing to see that Russia, after experiencing its own dark page in the history of the region, has chosen exactly such a course of action.

Robert Bridge, RT