Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 1997, pgs. 47, 90-91

Central Asia

Central Asia's Growing Links Improve Economy

By Gordon Feller

In the post-communist era the countries around the Caspian Sea have been seeking mutual links to improve their mostly difficult economic situations. One grouping that appears to be gaining strength is the triangle composed of Armenia, Turkmenistan and Iran. The three countries are developing cooperation particularly in the fields of energy, transport and banking and also in general trade.

Their efforts to achieve long-term energy integration is evident in both the natural gas and electricity sectors. The gas supply systems of Iran and Turkmenistan, two major producers, are scheduled to be connected to each other in September. Armenia plans to join this system next year, after the necessary construction work is finished. And Armenia started receiving high-voltage electrical power from Iran via a newly built power line on May 1.

The importance to Armenia of stable energy supplies can hardly be overstated. That small country is blockaded along its borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan because of the dispute involving the Azerbaijani enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is populated mainly by ethnic Armenians.

Access to outside markets is therefore not easy for Armenia, particularly as there have also been problems in using the railway northwards through Georgia, where a section of the system has been disrupted through unrest. Therefore Yerevan hopes to reap benefits from another trilateral venture with Iran and Turkmenistan, namely the establishment of a joint transportation company, the headquarters of which will be in the Turkmen capital Ashkhabad.

The benefit of the Yerevan-Tehran-Ashkhabad axis also is being felt in general trade. Iran and Turkmenistan are already Armenia's biggest commercial partners, with their trade together exceeding that between Armenia and Russia.

The triangle would like to attract Russia to join them in their economic integration process. Armenia and Iran also are seeking to develop another program of trilateral cooperation with Greece. Armenia and Greece already are linked in the bigger Black Sea regional grouping of nations, but the mutual economic links of Greece with Armenia and Iran are not yet very active, and it is likely that the establishment of a basis for such economic cooperation will be a long-term process.

Tajikistan: Economy Still Suffering From War's Legacy, Says EBRD

The gross domestic product of Tajikistan, still suffering the legacy of civil war, fell by a further 7 percent last year, while inflation is expected to soar to 100 percent this year. That's according to a report issued this week by experts from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

The report says that since independence the Central Asian country, with its population of 5.8 million people, has been plagued by serious civil unrest, most notably the civil war that erupted in 1992. But with a new pact between the government and its opponents in place since last December and the cease-fire of 1995 still holding, conditions "could soon be in place again for an end to the country's political instability."

The report says Tajikistan offers much potential to investors. It is poised to become a leading producer of gold and has significant deposits of silver, coal, and precious stones. It is the third largest producer of hydroelectric power in the world, and there are good opportunities for eco-tourism. But, the report says, "Investor interest is offset at present by an array of uncertainties."

Turkmenistan: First Positive Growth Expected In Six Years, Says EBRD

The EBRD reports that the gross domestic product (GDP) of Turkmenistan is forecast to increase 10 percent in 1997, the first positive growth in the Central Asian country for six years.

Inflation also is on a downward curve, after the hyper-inflation of 1,330 percent in 1994; 1,262 percent in 1995; and 446 percent in 1996.

The report says that Turkmenistan, with the fourth largest natural gas deposits in the world and substantial oil reserves, has "vast economic potential." However, the economic performance of this country of 4.2 million people has been affected by the caution about transforming itself from a centrally planned to a market-based economy. The report says production and trade remain largely centralized, many goods and services are subject to price controls, and there are limits on the amount of land that can be owned by private individuals.

But in 1995 the country announced a wide-ranging package of economic reforms, which were welcomed by foreign observers as a sign the country is "at last embracing the transition process."

The EBRD report concludes: "Although still at an early stage of transition from command to free-market economy, the country is expected to carry through reforms over the next few years."

Uzbekistan: First Economic Growth Recorded Last Year, Says EBRD

An EBRD report says Uzbekistan last year recorded its first economic growth since its transition process began.

The report says the gross domestic product (GDP) of the Central Asian country grew by 1.6 percent because of a strong performance in its energy, mining and services sectors, and despite big shortfalls in agricultural production.

The report says Uzbek officials are predicting GDP growth of 5 percent this year, with industrial output rising 3.5 percent.

The report says that since starting its transition from central planning to the free market, Uzbekistan has "emphasized gradualism, keeping control of the reform process to maintain political and social stability." However, it has also pursued a controversial policy of import substitution, arguing that, as Central Asia's most densely populated country, with one of its most advanced infrastructures, Uzbekistan can produce goods that currently require the spending of hard currency.

In late 1996, the government imposed restrictive currency-and-import controls which resulted in criticism from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the suspension of $185 million in stand-by credits. Uzbek authorities maintain that the restrictions are temporary and necessary for sustaining industrial growth and structural reform.

Otherwise, the report says, Uzbek authorities have accelerated economic reform. They have largely implemented comprehensive financial stabilization and reform policies; encouraged the development of the private sector; and introduced a full-fledged national currency.

The report concludes that "The need to diversify the economy and modernize, in particular, Uzbekistan's extractive industries has made attracting foreign investment one of the government's key priorities."

Kazakhstan: EBRD Foresees Bright Prospects For Economic Growth

A report published by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) says the medium-term economic growth prospects for Kazakhstan are "bright" because of its rich natural resources, political stability and pragmatic government.

The report says foreign investors have recognized this and that their investment of $2.8 million to date, with commitments to invest exponentially more, underpin the country's economic future.

The report says the government and its private-sector partners have made "impressive" progress in developing the oil industry.

It says development of the Tengiz oilfield near the Caspian Sea, one of the largest oilfields in the world with estimated reserves of 6 billion barrels, is moving forward on schedule. The Tengiz field is the largest oil discovery in the world in the past 20 years, and the single largest joint venture operating in the former Soviet Union.

The report, prepared on behalf of Kazakhstan authorities by the EBRD's country promotion team and bank staff, was released in April at the EBRD's sixth annual meeting in London.

When in November 1993 Kazakhstan introduced its own currency, the tenge, it faced a serious economic crisis. The report says: "Since that crisis point, economic performance has steadily improved."

Along with Russia and Lithuania, Kazakhstan is one of only three ex-Soviet republics to successfully borrow on global capital markets. The country's success has permitted the National Bank to accumulate hard currency reserves equal to three or four months' of imports.

The report says Kazakhstan is concentrating on continuing tight monetary and fiscal policies, resulting in the maintenance of proper budget discipline, and improving the banking system, as well as carrying out the third stage of the privatization and restructuring of enterprises.

The tenge now is freely convertible for foreign trade. The report notes, "There is no shortage of dollars in the country inhibiting the process."

Since independence in 1991, flows of foreign capital into the country have steadily increased, from $473 million in 1993 to $1.2 billion in 1996. These foreign investments have come from the U.S., Britain, Turkey, South Korea, France, Japan and others.

Kazakhstan's crude oil will begin reaching international markets via a new Caspian Sea pipeline in 2000. The report says this will focus foreign attention on the potential of a country which, aside from its oil and mineral wealth, is one of the world's largest exporters of wheat.

Georgia: EBRD Sees Stability And Economic Growth

An EBRD report says the economy in Georgia has now virtually stabilized and the dramatic decline over the past five years has bottomed out. The report says: "After five years of civil war and economic collapse, stability has now returned."

According to the report, growth of the informal economy, now estimated to account for more than half of overall economic activity, is outpacing the slowing contraction of the formal Soviet-era economy.

The report, prepared on behalf of Georgian authorities by the EBRD's country promotion team and bank staff, was released at the EBRD's sixth annual meeting in London in April. The report says most of the state sector is idle and the rest is working at only a fraction of capacity. But growth is being driven by private small and medium enterprises which are active in such areas as services, transportation, construction and food production and processing.

The budget deficit was held down in 1996 to 3-4 percent and in October last year President Shevardnadze predicted a 1997 budget deficit of 2.9 percent of GDP. Government expenditure is under tight rein at about 13 percent of GDP.

The new currency, the lari, introduced in 1995, has steadily appreciated in value. In 1996, it was about 1.28 to the dollar.

Registered unemployment remains very low, although most of the workforce no longer participates in formal employment. The private sector may now account for more than 50 percent of GDP. More than 30,000 new businesses were registered in 1996. Georgians have a tradition for entrepreneurship, a trait which explains the fact that there are now more than 65,000 registered small businesses.

For the future, the report says Georgia has very great possibilities, including extensive gas and oil reserves and vast hydropower potential. It also has substantial mineral resources. It could double its diverse farm output, and also has major tourist potential. And the report says: "Georgia remains strongly committed to democratic order and the establishment of a market economy."

Azerbaijan: EBRD Compares Oil Fields To North Sea And Alaska

A report published by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development says the oil fields of Azerbaijan are on the point of becoming as significant to the international energy industry as the North Sea was in the 1970s.

It also says the petroleum deposits in Azerbaijan's massive Caspian Sea oil fields are as important as the north slope of Alaska.

The report, prepared on behalf of Azerbaijan authorities by the EBRD's country promotion team and bank staff, was released at the EBRD's sixth annual meeting in London in April.

The report says by 2010 investment in the country's oil and gas sector alone could reach $23 billion. It says the capital, Baku, is well on the way to becoming a "world class boom town."

"The new mood in the nation's capital comes from anticipation of the first oil being shipped out to Western markets from Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea oil fields later this year," says the report. Confidence also stems from the fact that "foreign investment in Azerbaijan rose five-fold in 1996 to $342 million, mostly in the oil sector."

The report says international oil companies are stepping up the pace of exploration and development in the Caspian Sea region, and rapid progress is being made in upgrading the pipeline network needed to get Azeri crude onto the international market.

The report says oil could begin flowing to international markets from the Chirag, Azeri and deep-water Guneshi fields in the second half of this year. This would "prove to the international community that Azerbaijan is capable of dealing with the complicated pipeline politics involved in moving crude oil from the landlocked Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, from which crude can be moved to the Mediterranean."

The first shipments of oil will generate hard currency to finance government participation in further developments of the energy sector.

Overall, the economic outlook for 1997 is "very promising." The report says that selling "early oil" will not only make a positive contribution to the country's hard currency position, up to 70,000 barrels a day are expected to go on sale in Western markets, but will also boost the nation's profile among international investors.

The report concludes: "The transition to a market economy will require strength and fortitude. But the accelerating pace of change confirms the confidence of those already investing in the country."

Central Asia's Turkic-Speaking States Agree on Eurasian Ministry

A meeting of representatives of Turkic-speaking states and communities has concluded in Istanbul. Participants decided to set up a Ministry for Eurasian Affairs within the Turkish government.

Speakers also suggested instituting a standing educational council and an Academy of the Turkic-Speaking World, emphasizing the importance of developing all-round contacts among "fraternal states" in culture, education, economics and trade.

The meeting was attended by representatives of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as by representatives from the Russian Federation republics of Bashkortostan, Dagestan, Tatarstan, and Chuvashiya.

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