The Washington Diplomat / July 2004
By Larry Luxner
On June 1, five Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — joined with the United States to initial a far-reaching Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA).
The pact, signed by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and the five countries' ambassadors in Washington, creates a United States-Central Asia Council on Trade and Investment that will provide a forum to address trade issues that hamper regional economic development, such as intellectual property, labor and environmental issues. It will also seek to boost the participation of small and medium-sized businesses in world trade.
"More than a decade after independence in Central Asia, the countries in the region are exploring new ways in which to open and liberalize trade. The United States is pleased to be a partner in this historic agreement with the five Central Asian countries," said Zoellick, who was accompanied at the signing ceremony by Kazakh Ambassador Kanat Saudabayev, Kyrgyz Ambassador Baktybek Abdrisaev, Tajik Ambassador Khamrokhon Zaripov, Turkmen Ambassador Meret Orazov and Uzbek Ambassador Abdulaziz Kamilov.
Together, these five former Soviet republics have a land area of 1.54 million square miles (with Kazakhstan alone accounting for two-thirds of the total), and a population of 55.9 million (with Uzbekistan accounting for nearly half of that). Last year, U.S. imports from the region totaled $570.5 million, while U.S. exports to those countries came to $548.1 million. Major exports to Central Asia include machinery and equipment, chemcials, agricultural products and aircraft; major imports include mineral fuels, chemicals, textiles, metals and cotton.
Less than a week before the signing of TIFA, Zoellick and the trade ministers of five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic met in Washington to sign the Central American Free Trade Agreement. That pact must still be ratified by Congress and the national legislatures of the six other countries involved.
The United States already has TIFAs with a number of countries in order to enhance trade ties and coordinate regionally and mutilaterally through regular senior-level discussions on trade and economic issues. Likewise, the Central Asian TIFA will establish a similar ongoing dialogue which the USTR says "will help increase commercial and investment opportunities by identifying and working to remove impediments to trade and investment flows between the United States and Central Asia."
At present, only one of the five countries, Kyrgyzstan, is a member of the World Trade Organization. Three others — Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — are negotiating accession to the WTO, leaving Turkmenistan as the only one without current or planned WTO membership.
Ambassador Orazov, representing Turkmenistan, said he cannot overstate the importance of TIFA for his country, which is a major exporter of oil and gas, and ranks as the second-largest cotton producer in Central Asia.
"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, but especially after 9/11, the U.S. began paying very serious attention to this region," he said. "The United States recognizes how important this region is from a geopolitical standpoint. This agreement will serve in the long term to develop our country's prosperity and good relations with the United States, while helping to encourage democracy in the region."
Orazov conceded that Turkmenistan and the four other countries have a long way to go in terms of democratic reforms, but insisted that the region has been unfairly portrayed in the Western media.
"A lot of journalists who try to write about Central Asia really don't know the situation," he said, complaining that reporters often ignore history and tradition in their criticism of authoritarian regimes. "It is impossible to establish all democratic institutions immediately."