OSCE chief fears C.Asia next Balkans

OSLO, Dec 30, 1999 -- (Reuters) After a year scarred by warring in Chechnya and Kosovo, the head of Europe's foremost security group fears that Central Asia could spawn worse conflicts than the Balkans.

Knut Vollebaek, the outgoing chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), also wants the 54-nation group to seek closer ties with the United Nations on an early warning system to avert civil strife.

Vollebaek told Reuters that the OSCE, which measures success by an elusive yardstick of conflicts averted, faces huge challenges in the five nations of Central Asia, a region bordered by Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran.

"This is an area where we could see conflicts even worse than the Balkans. And we should address them now because now we have the possibility to do so," Vollebaek, who is also Norway's Foreign Minister, said in a year-end interview.

"The problem is that it doesn't get much political and public attention," he said of the former Soviet republics Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

"People nod and agree with me (about serious risks in Central Asia) but very little is done to follow up," he said.

The region, of mountain, steppe and desert, faces threats from disputes over access to resources like water and energy as well as from myriad ethnic and religious fault lines among its 55 million inhabitants.

Afghan Drugs Feared

Uzbekistan, for instance, accuses Afghanistan to the south of fomenting Islamic fundamentalism and "terrorism". And the five states fear rising drug trafficking - U.N. data says Afghanistan produces 75 percent of the world's opium.

Kyrgyzstan has faced incursions this year by Moslem insurgents from neighbouring Tajikistan. In Turkmenistan, President Saparmurat Niyazov this week won the right to rule for life in a step away from democracy.

Tajikistan, meanwhile, is struggling to overcome a 1992-97 civil conflict between Moscow-backed government forces and the Islamic-led opposition in which tens of thousands of people died. Moscow keeps a force of about 20,000 troops in the nation.

The OSCE, which promotes civil and minority rights, arms control and conflict resolution, has set up offices in the five Central Asian capitals.

"If we could develop further a regional strategy that both ties the (five states) further together and also assists them in looking at how to solve the problems together, like natural resources, like stability, like democracy, then I think that it could be a success story for the OSCE," he said.

Conflicts in Kosovo and the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya have taken most of the OSCE's attention in 1999. Norway hands the OSCE chairmanship to Austria on January 1.

Kosovo, Chechnya Defeats

"I think it's fair to say that both Kosovo and Chechnya are defeats for the OSCE," Vollebaek said.

"At the same time I don't think this means the OSCE is obsolete or useless. But I think it's a challenge to us to try to develop early warning and preventive diplomacy much more."

Norway's top-selling daily Verdens Gang said the OSCE, whose decisions demand consensus among members, was being sidelined by the European Union. "Vollebaek has done a good job but the OSCE just lacks the clout to get much done," a diplomat said.

Vollebaek said that OSCE successes this year include dampening ethnic tensions in the Baltic states and in helping Albania recover from a plunge to near-anarchy in 1997.

And a November summit in Istanbul agreed a new security charter, laying out goals for the 21st century, and an updated Conventional Forces in Europe treaty limiting armed forces and heavy equipment set at the end of the Cold War.

Vollebaek said his toughest decision in 1999 was to pull out 1,400 unarmed OSCE observers from Kosovo in March, days before NATO began its air war against Yugoslavia.

At the end of the year, Russia let Vollebaek visit Chechnya in December but ignored his appeals for a truce.

Vollebaek says he wants closer ties to the United Nations to work on heading off conflicts.

"We could share information, we could discuss strategy and I think we could be much more efficient we could coordinate our efforts," he said. If it worked, the OSCE could advise other regional groups like the Organization of African Unity about possible closer cooperation with the U.N.

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