Rolf Ekéus, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, began by looking at changes the five Central Asian states have experienced since becoming independent. Over the last decade, progress has been made in a number of areas and the existence of the Central Asian States has transformed the political, economic, and social landscape of Eurasia. At the same time, it is clear that considerable challenges remain before the states and societies of the region.

Poverty, HIV spread, drug trafficking, and deterioration of health care and education systems are among the challenges faced by those living in Central Asia. The landlocked position of the five states makes building economic and trade links with the rest of the world arduous. The poorly developed economic infrastructure and communication network within the region makes the necessary development difficult. Frustration and concern about the slow progress on reforms has led some international organizations, notably the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), to limit their engagement in the region.

The speaker stressed that regional co-operation and integration could serve as means to promote economic development, political reform, and long-term stability. The OSCE and other international organizations could make a significant contribution to conflict prevention and promotion of durable political and economic security in Central Asia.

The Office of the High Commissioner on National Minorities has been engaged in Central Asia since the middle of the 1990s. The role of the commissioner is to prevent inter-ethnic tensions from developing into frictions and full-scale violence, which could spill over into international conflagration in the long-term. The potential for violence inherent in majority-minority relations in the region was highlighted in the final years of the Soviet Union when bloody inter-ethnic clashes broke out in the Ferghana Valley.

Further, the concentration of wealth within the five states that has occurred in the last decade, and amongst states, has begun to promote migrations that have an ethnic character. The flow of migrant labor, for example, to Kazakhstan, is likely to intensify as a result of a future divergence of economic fortunes within the region. As a result, the emergence of ‘new minorities’ in the region risks exacerbating existing tensions around historical national minority communities. Knowledge of the state language is increasingly being set as a prerequisite for state sector employment and the holding of a political office, even at a local level. But little is being done practically to spread knowledge of the state language to non-speakers. Together, these factors have meant that the governments of the region are supporting policies that, indirectly or directly, are promoting elements of assimilation amongst the national minorities.

Ekéus believes that economic progress is only a partial solution to ethnic tensions in the region. The sources of such tensions can only be overcome by persistent and long-term actions to promote harmonious relations. “My particular priority in Central Asia in respect to supporting this principle is, thus, to promote integration, particularly in the areas of education and language,” Ekéus explained.

Education can be a vehicle to promote positive values, common understandings, shared history and culture of the region. Ekéus stressed that it is important not to allow education to become a means to divide societies and to marginalise national minorities in Central Asia. With that in mind, he initiated and is supporting the activity of the Working Group on Integration through Education in Kyrgyzstan, which is developing recommendations on how to promote integration through educational policies and practices. Kyrgyzstan’s election in 2005 will be a test for a peaceful political transition of power in the region. Ekéus is also working with the OSCE Strategic Police Matters Unit to develop actively initiatives to promote new forms and approaches to the policing of multi-ethnic areas of Kyrgyzstan.

In addition to education, the long-term stability of Central Asia can be greatly strengthened by addressing the issue of the participation of persons belonging to national minorities in the institutions of the state. Promoting the participation of national minorities in the political decision making of a country is one of the most effective means to support national integrity and loyalty.

Next, Ekéus described two schools of thought on how to deal with the political dimensions of national minority situations in Central Asia. One is the Kyrgyz model through which President Akaev is “shrewdly keeping his Kyrgyz nationalistic opposition at bay by nurturing the interests of the minorities” in the issues of education, language and political participation, and, thereby, assures himself of their support, tipping the political balance of the country in his favor. The second is the Turkmen model, where President Niazov resolutely is developing a one-nation state with an assimilation policy that accepts only a Turkmen identity which means the de facto eradication of the language, cultural and educational identity of the sizeable Uzbek minority, the marginalisation of the remaining Russian cultura and language in the country. The Uzbek leadership is vacillating between the two alternatives by a policy of benign neglect of minority issues, which may gradually create additional internal and regional problems.

Ekéus concluded that broad progress in Central Asia can only be achieved in the context of a comprehensive political strategy to promote stability and security that would include three fundamental components: education reform, language policy, and political participation of minorities.