Ansar M Bhatti
The Central Asian states undoubtedly have acquired huge regional and global significance because of their strategic importance and business potential. Most of the states, after their independence, have made huge progress in human as well economic development. The infrastructural improvement in these states has also been phenomenal. Having visited Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan I can say with confidence that these three states, especially Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, have never looked back after declaring independence. Tajikistan, among these states, happens to be a struggling economy mainly because the country did not come by enough natural resources as compared with the other states at the time of the independence, yet its leadership is making strenuous efforts to bring the country at par with the other neighboring states. Another factor that has perhaps impeded its growth appears to be tensions at the borders with Afghanistan and sometimes with Kyrgyzstan as well. Afghanistan particularly has always been a source of tension for this country like Pakistan and Uzbekistan, however Tajikistan appears to have overcome its border problems mainly because the Tajik President Rahmon Emomali has shown zero tolerance for any subversive activities. Pakistan and Tajikistan enjoy excellent relations. At one point the Tajik flag carrier started direct flights from Dushanbe to Islamabad however the activity could not last long for the want of passengers. The outbreak of Covid afterwards made it impossible for both sides to resume this air link.
CASA 1000 project is yet another important engagement which would cater to at least 25 per cent of the energy needs of Pakistan once completed. Work on this project is under way however its completion largely depends on the situation in Afghanistan.
With Uzbekistan Pakistan’s engagement is multi-faceted. The trade and economic activity between the two countries continues to grow with each passing day. Uzbekistan is well known for its religious tourism potential. People-to-people contacts between Islamabad and Tashkent increased manifold after the start of direct flights between Tashkent and Lahore. Somehow this air link got disturbed because of Covid but as reports suggest both sides are working hectically to re-activate this route. Infrastructural development in Uzbekistan has also been tremendous in recent years. The holding of the SCO summit in Samarkand in September 2022 proved yet another feather in Uzbek cap. The city was already well known for its historical importance but after this summit it has become a must-visit place as the Uzbek leadership has completely turnaround the city on modern lines.
The bullet train ‘ Afrosiab’ that runs between Tashkent and Bukhara, making a stopover in Samarkand, is yet another attraction the tourists would like to explore and enjoy. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar was in Tashkent recently to strike a billion dollar economic deal that unequivocally shows proximity of relations. Similarly Uzbekistan produces state-of-the-art machinery used for cotton crops. The Uzbek embassy in Islamabad, from time to time, holds road-shows exhibiting its products, which can certainly enhance the capacity of the Pakistani agriculture sector. It is up to the Pakistani side to cash in on this opportunity in order to increase its agri produce. The rail link from Uzbekistan to Peshawar is going to further spur regional trade and economic activity therefore the stakeholders are trying their best to put this project in operation sooner rather than later.
Kazakhstan, during the past few years, has intensified its engagement with Pakistan for which credit must go to former Ambassador Barlybay Sadykov, Ambassador Akan Rakhmetullin and now Ambassador Yerzhan Kistafin. The incumbent Ambassador Kistafin is zealously pursuing the goal of diversification of relations between the two countries. It is because of his tireless efforts that the direct air link between Almaty and Lahore is going to be established from April 26, 2023, while in May Almaty and Karachi shall be linked with a direct flight. Apart from trade and economic relations, cultural and academia links between the two countries have also been strengthened. With the establishment of direct air links one can hope both countries would be able to cement relations besides working earnestly to make the direct air link a sustainable activity.
With Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan too Pakistan is desirous to have close links and vice versa. Kyrgyzstan is also part of the CASA 1000 energy project. Besides, both countries have explored a number of other avenues as well in order to further solidify bilateral relations. There is a direct flight from Islamabad to Bishkek now and plans are afoot to have similar air links from other Pakistani cities as well.
As regards ties with Turkmenistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) is indeed an important project. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline will be a 1,814km trans-country natural gas pipeline running across four countries. The investment agreement for the development of the TAPI project was signed by the four countries in February 2016. The ceremony marking the beginning of construction of the Afghanistan-Pakistan section of the pipeline was held in February 2018. Designed to serve for 30 years, the pipeline was expected to commence operations in 2021 but after the lapse of so many years the project is far from completion. The progress on this project has not been made because of the Indian presence. There is a consistent view among the people who matter in Pakistan that as long as India is part of TAPI its fate will continue to hang in balance. However if Pakistan and India are able to mend fences then it is a whole new ball game.
Azerbaijan is not part of Central Asia however its engagement with Pakistan has been extra-ordinary. Particularly after the 44 day Patriotic War in which Azerbaijani forces successfully regained its territories from Armenia, relations between Islamabad and Baku touched new horizons. Pakistan had extended whole-hearted support to Azerbaijan – a gesture duly recognized by the Azerbaijani people and government. It was after the frantic efforts of former Ambassador Ali Alizada and the sitting Ambassador Khazar Farhadov a direct air link was established between Islamabad and Baku. But unfortunately the flights had to be discontinued mainly because of some bureaucratic hurdles on the part of the Pakistani authorities.
Afghanistan holds the key when it comes to making projects such as CASA 1000, TAPI etc a success therefore all these regional players must work collectively for peace and stability in Afghanistan. Afghanistan also belongs to the Central Asian region therefore it should be part of all Central Asian initiatives.
Quite recently the Rawalpindi and Islamabad Chambers of Commerce and Industry opened Central Asian facilitation desks at the respective chambers by allocating a special space for this purpose. Undoubtedly, businessmen can surely contribute a lot towards promotion of trade and economic links but for this they need to undertake sustainable and practical initiatives. Mere photo sessions may not do any wonders.