Monday, 21 November 2011

Pakistan-Turkmenistan: Looking For New Horizons

ECO with a population of 440 million, is not a small market, the US that is a considered a big consumer market is 300 million. If the countries are given a free hand by the outside forces, the economy, culture, trade, communication, industry etc can be augmented and integrated for the mutual benefit of the member countries.

Before I make my analysis on Turkmenistan, I would like to add that seeing into the future, I could visualize that Central Asian Republics (CAR) should be the future focus of Pakistan. It was not just a passion or some gut feeling but signs and the reading of the events was clearly pointing in that direction. Since CAR is part of ECO, therefore CAR cannot be studied separately but in a broader context of ECO. Accordingly a virtual think tank was established in 2008 to study and focus on ECO with a special emphasis on CAR. When I discussed with a number of professors of IR from different universities, all after a deep thought came back as if they come out of sleep and opined that ECO is our future and CAR needs a special study to build strong ties.

A study panel was established and we began holding our monthly meetings at borrowed places for not having a place of our own. Its hoped that one day we shall find some sponsors to sponsor this .

I have always compared ECO with SAARC; similarities, potential, advantages and disadvantages etc. SAARC has some inherent defects; it’s the hegemonic attitude of India, the largest country in this block that has not allowed any move forward. All the countries surround India and none are happy with her attitude , aims and objectives. India has long outstanding issues that India is not willing to resolve. Like Zionism, it’s the Hindutwa that has become a real threat not only to the region but reaching far and beyond the region. Even Bangladesh, whom India instigated to secession from Pakistan, has some serious issues with India. Sri Lanka faced a proxy war of India for 30 years. Nepal, a landlocked country has been subjected to various political destabilizations to make it submit designs, likewise Bhutan has no independent policy of her own but to keep supporting Indian agenda. Sikkim another landlocked country was annexed by India like it did with Junagdh, Manavadar and Hyderabad that had opted for Pakistan.  Jammu and (J&K) remains a very burning issue that India is not prepared to resolve. This is yet another state that is Muslim majority that was to accede to Pakistan but the conspiracy of Lord Mount Batten, not forgetting Lady Mountbatten, along with Nehru changed the borders and gave Ferozepur and Gurdaspur to India so that India can have land access to J&K state.

Unlike India’s constant threatening postures, ECO has no such issues; there are no border disputes, no religious disparities or cultural dissimilarities. In population, ECO is much smaller to SAARC but in area and resources, SAARC is not match to ECO. The six landlocked countries (CAR) of ECO have no problem except the American presence in Afghanistan that’s a big impediment for the growth of the region. People of Afghanistan are as enthusiastic about ECO as of any other country of the block. Its imperative that the US and her NATO allies leave Afghanistan at the earliest so that a more comprehensive cooperation and development can take place.

ECO with a population of 440 million, is not a small market, the US that is a considered a big consumer market is 300 million.

If the countries are given a free hand by the outside forces, the economy, culture, trade, communication, industry etc can be augmented and integrated for the mutual benefit of the member countries. With surplus in oil, gas and coal the energy needs of the member states would not only be met but would have huge surplus to export to outside world.

Ethnically all the states have common roots and heritage therefore there are no irritants of any sort. What is required to increase the flow of people from one state to another for trade, education, cultural exchanges etc.

It was in this context that Gurbanguly BERDIMUHAMEDOW, Turkmenistan president paid an official visit to Pakistan. This visit is a series of exchange visits by the heads of the governments of the member countries on bilateral basis that in turn are strengthening ECO.

Turkmenistan with a population of 4.9 million, is largely a desert country with intensive agriculture in irrigated oasis and sizeable gas and oil resources. The two largest crops are cotton and wheat. Although agriculture accounts for roughly 10% of GDP, it continues to employ nearly half of the country’s workforce. This implies that Pakistan must lay greater emphasis on its agriculture sector to reduce unemployment.

Turkmenistan has taken a cautious approach to economic reform, hoping to use gas and cotton export revenues to sustain its economy. From 1998-2005, Turkmenistan suffered from the continued lack of adequate export routes for natural gas and other trade. At the same time, total exports rose by an average of roughly 15% per year from 2003-08, largely because of higher international oil and gas prices. New pipelines to China and Iran, that began operation in early 2010, have given Turkmenistan additional export routes for its gas, although these new routes have not offset the sharp drop in export revenue since early 2009 from decreased gas exports to Russia. Although the literacy rate is almost 100% but the remains poor because of misuse of oil and gas revenues

During his visit, a number of agreements were signed, trade, TAPI, Cultural Exchange, Currency Swap, 1000 MW of electric power, Rail link, air links etc all were discussed and MOUs signed. Besides this, Pakistan must offer military cooperation and train the Turkmenistan defence personnel at all levels. Also, some sales of military hardware can be made by Pakistan to meet the limited needs of Turkmenistan.

Although the MOUs are being signed on bilateral basis, but these must incorporate the extension of the same collectively to cover the ECO block. ECO tariff should be structured in a manner that it encourages free travel with no visa restrictions, visas can be stamped at the point of entry. Within the ECO, an open sky policy must be adopted.

Under the cultural exchange, joint production of TV plays and films should also be included and not remain confined just to cultural troupes. Another strong cultural affinity that we have is the exchange of pilgrims to the holy shrines and promotion of Sufi music and festivals.  Turkmenistan has a strong Sufi following and this is a strong bond between the as it leads to the central personality of Prophet (SAW).

Where we are talking to swap currencies, a study should be initiated within the ECO framework to develop a common currency. This would not only stabilize the currencies but also provide a price harmony within the region. This would also demand streamlining the tariff and duty structure.

Turkmenistan has extended the rail link to Afghanistan, Pakistan must step in and link it up from Torkham where we already have our rail head. Once this link is established, then we are linked with Russia and beyond to Europe via yet another route. This rail will also bring traffic to Gawadar port for goods movement to and from CAR.

Written by Raja G Mujtaba  in Opinion Maker

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