Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Sixth Report

Regional conflicts

Weapons proliferation

48. The security situation in the Caucasus and Central Asia was greatly improved by the decision of the governments of Kazakhstan and of Ukraine not to pursue nuclear weapons policies and to repatriate their Soviet-era nuclear armaments to Russia.[99] Nevertheless, the dissipation of the conventional Soviet arsenal throughout the republics has exacerbated conflicts across the region, most notably in the Caucasus. We heard in Baku that in the early 1990s it had been possible to purchase a hand-grenade on the street for as little as US$1.50. While Dr Herzig believed that the ready supply of arms to the Caucasus was not now a factor preventing resolution of its various conflicts, he told us that Russia's agreement to supply arms to Armenia had made it more difficult to establish the level of trust necessary to resolve the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.[100] The potential for weaponry from the Soviet era or later to fall into the hands of terrorist and criminal groups in the region constitutes a continuing and serious threat to regional security. There is an OSCE embargo on arms sales to Armenia and Azerbaijan, which binds the United Kingdom.[101] We recommend that the Government, working within the framework of the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, make as its foremost arms sales policy consideration in the region the need to reduce the risk of armed conflicts between, or within, the states of the South Caucasus and Central Asia.


49. In its initial memorandum, the FCO told us that "the region of South West/Central Asia and Afghanistan is a major conduit for the shipment of heroin to Europe, including the UK."[102] Quite apart from the particular implications for the United Kingdom, this international drugs trade has severe consequences for the stability of the region and for the flow of opiates towards Europe. It fosters further crime and official corruption, and is associated with other areas of illegal activity—such as the illicit trafficking in arms—which are also detrimental to regional security. Local drug use is growing fast, and the countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia are suffering the severe social consequences of this development, including the spread of AIDS. While in Tashkent we met the Director of the Central Asia Regional Bureau of the UN Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP), together with the leading drug control officers in Uzbekistan and from the EU. A memorandum supplied to us by ODCCP indicates that Uzbekistan is a significant hub for opiates trafficked out of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and onwards towards Russia and Western Europe, making use of better transport links and the reduced frequency of customs checks under regional free-trade agreements. ODCCP estimates that 65 per cent of Afghan heroin passes through Central Asian hubs.[103] The UN, with United Kingdom technical and financial support, is bolstering the state drug control agencies in the region.

50. Since it submitted its initial memorandum to us, the FCO has been involved in a Government-wide review of the United Kingdom's international priorities in tackling drugs. As a result of this review it believes that there is "no evidence to suggest that the Central Asian Republics present a current drugs threat to the UK either as producers or as transit countries."[104] It repudiates the methodology behind the ODCCP's assessment of the trade in opiates from Afghanistan, and believes that these opiates are instead reaching the United Kingdom via transit routes across Iran. The assistance which the Government provides to the relevant national and multilateral drugs control agencies is now made in recognition of the "potential threat to both the UK and the region."[105]

51. However, the FCO has not denied that Central Asian transit routes are developing in capacity. We are concerned that the Government's approach may not be adequate to deal with what is clearly a serious and developing problem in the region, and may not adequately recognise the readiness to co-operate in fighting the drugs trade on the part of national authorities. The development of a significant opiate transshipment capacity in Central Asia, whether or not the ultimate destination is the United Kingdom, should be a matter of grave concern to the Government. Drugs trafficked into Russia or Eastern Europe may displace drugs supplied by other routes, which in turn may find illicit markets in the United Kingdom. We recommend that in view of an actual threat to the United Kingdom from the trafficking of heroin and other opiates through Central Asia, the Government should reverse its decision not to post a full-time Drugs Liaison Officer to Tashkent, and work to strengthen its co-operation with the multilateral and national drugs control agencies operating in the region.

52. We were concerned while in Tashkent to hear that the EU Central Asia Drugs Initiative (CADI), launched at the Dublin European Council in 1996 to assist the countries of Central Asia in tackling the trade in drugs, had not yet been implemented. The FCO acknowledged that despite two visits to the region by Commission officials in 1997, the assistance recommended for delivery through Tacis "has been slow to get off the ground", though the Minister told us that the programmes were to be implemented in June 1999.[106] CADI has, however, yet to publish the terms of reference of its five subsidiary projects.[107] In view of the perceived inefficacy of Tacis programmes, the Government should press the European Commission to seek alternative and more effective mechanisms to support Central Asian drugs programmes.

53. We also heard in Tashkent that the remit of CADI was likely to lead to duplication of the expert work being developed by ODCCP. We raised with the Minister the specific issues of training of sniffer dogs and advising on management of border controls, both of which were to be brought within the remit of CADI, despite ODCCP's active involvement.[108] Ms Quin assured us that the Government sought, through dialogue and action in European Council meetings, to ensure that duplication did not take place. The FCO has since told us that the EU will not pursue its project for a sniffer dog centre.[109] We urge the Government to ensure that EU programmes in the field of drug control in Central Asia are implemented in a timely and effective fashion. In particular, such programmes should not waste resources in duplicating efforts undertaken by other national or multilateral organisations.

Management of natural resources

54. On independence the resources of the former Soviet republics fell to the respective successor governments, and centralised distribution systems were soon disrupted or broken up. Prospects for the sharing and management of natural resources across the region, and in particular throughout Central Asia, have given rise to enormous concern. The most prominent example of the threats posed by poor resource management is in the area of water resources. The West is well aware of the environmental catastrophes which have led to the desertification of the Aral Sea region. Concern has also recently been raised about the devastating consequences for the region of the potential collapse of the natural dam which contains the waters of Lake Sarez in the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan.[110] Dr Sara O'Hara, of the University of Nottingham, demonstrated to us the potentially catastrophic implications of a failure to address the issue of water management throughout the Syr Darya and Amu Darya river systems which water the five Central Asian states.[111] The Central Asian economy is dependent on agriculture, which in turn is wholly dependent upon satisfactory irrigation. Eighty per cent of the available water in the region rises or is generated within Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, where it is stored and released downstream to the irrigation systems of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Disputes have frequently arisen over the regime which the Kyrgyz use for the release of water: they prefer to run their hydro-electric plants at full power in the winter, releasing the maximum water flow downstream. However, the cotton-growing states of the Aral basin need maximum water flows for irrigation in the summer.

55. The issue is frequently discussed between the states concerned, but agreements reached are often short-lived.[112] We heard in Tashkent that the Uzbeks believe that water resources flowing into the Aral basin are the common property of the states of the region: the Kyrgyz Republic maintains that it has the right to control water flows from its territory. The issue has most recently been mediated by the exchange of Uzbek gas for Kyrgyz water. In another development, the Kyrgyz Republic interrupted water supplies to Kazakhstan for ten days in May 1999 following a dispute over Kazakhstan's alleged failure to deliver coal in exchange for water supplies. The instability in Tajikistan seriously threatens the stability of the Amu Darya system. The downstream republics have set agricultural targets which require water supplies far in excess of what is presently available. In addition, the water management installations surviving from the Soviet era are poorly maintained, and crumbling and threaten to fail at any moment. Dr O'Hara told us that "irrigation canals are silting up and much of the drainage is non-functional."[113] While in Turkmenistan we visited a stretch of the Kara Kum canal, which draws its water from the Amu Darya river and forms the backbone of the country's irrigation and agricultural system, and saw at first hand evidence of the degradation of this vital facility. There is no inter-regional agreement as to who should pay for the repair or upkeep of the irrigation systems. Training in water management issues has virtually ceased, and many experts have left the area. While "improving water use at the farm level is the only way forward"[114] it is clear that the entire water-use regime inherited from the Soviet era requires fundamental re-examination.

56. Mr Tim Hannan of the Leeds Environment Centre of the University of Leeds told us that water issues were responsible for most of the political tensions in Central Asia, and that the possibility of violence arising from the water crisis should be taken seriously.[115] Although the United Kingdom has had little involvement in water management issues to date, German and Swiss agencies have been able to undertake practical co-operation such as setting up clean water stations.[116] Mr Hannan believed that United Kingdom companies had great technical expertise they could lend to the region, but that any efforts to alleviate the situation by the private sector were not being sufficiently supported by the Government. We believe that the failure to settle and safeguard the systems of water distribution in the Aral Sea basin is one of the greatest potential threats to regional security. We recommend that the Government use its best efforts to work with the governments of Central Asia to alleviate the severe difficulties of water management in the region, both in resolving disputes over resource allocation and in promoting the necessary technical assistance from British companies with expertise in the field.

Economic collapse

57. The danger of economic crisis is another of the principal threats to regional security. The initial drying-up of budget lines from Moscow in 1991, and the Russian economic collapse of 1998, have both dealt economic shocks to the region and substantially increased poverty. The general economic decline across the region has led to cuts in production and sharp reductions in the standards of living of all but a minority of citizens: this economic malaise has been exacerbated by corruption.[117] The quality of education, health and social services provision has been badly affected. The states of the South Caucasus have in particular suffered from the loss of their markets in Russia and of remittances from their nationals working there. There have been demonstrations in Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic against steep declines in living standards. The poverty which stretches across the region must be regarded as a threat to its stability. We deal further below[118] with the economic potential of the region and measures to ensure its continuing economic stability.

Weakness of civil society

58. A further major threat to the region's security is in its generally slow development of rights-based civil society. Respect for human rights and the development of structures such as NGOs and trades unions which stand apart from the structures of the state but assist in the development of open and democratic societies are clearly fundamental to the maintenance of stable government in the region as a whole. It is especially important given the serious challenges posed by political and economic transition throughout the region. The experience of the Soviet era has shown that true stability can only be built upon the principles of openness and democracy in government and society. We discuss the development of civil society in the region at greater length when we consider human rights and good governance issues.[119]

59. It is clear from the preceding paragraphs that there is a worrying potential in the region for instability which may adversely affect the United Kingdom's commercial and geographical interests. We conclude that the Government's stated objective of supporting the independence, security and territorial integrity of the states of the region is well-founded.

99   Q36. Back

100   Q35. Back

101   Evidence pp. 83-84. Back

102   Evidence p. 81. Back

103   Appendix 32, Evidence p. 200. Back

104   Appendix 34, Evidence p. 218. Back

105   Appendix 34, Evidence p. 219. Back

106   Evidence pp. 81-82; Q 241. Back

107   Appendix 24, Evidence p. 219. Back

108   See QQ239-246, especially Q242. Back

109   Appendix 34, Evidence p. 219. Back

110   "Biblical flood poised to drown a nation", The Observer, 20 June 1999. Back

111   Evidence pp. 4-11. Back

112   QQ11, 29. Back

113   Evidence p. 5. Back

114   Evidence p. 11. Back

115   QQ9, 30. Back

116   Q10. Back

117   Appendix 5, Evidence p. 122; Appendix 7, Evidence p. 129. Back

118   See below, paragraphs 74 ff. Back

119   See below, paragraphs 102-144. Back

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Prepared 27 July 1999