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October 5, 2016

Pakistan’s near-abroad


October 5, 2016

We are so near in so many ways – sharing history, geographical proximity, faith, culture, commercial and family relations for centuries. Such favourable foundations, however, have not been converted by us into close friendly relations with the Central Asian States for our mutual benefit.

Even as Europe and the US have been pivoting towards Asia, and as the centre of gravity of the world economy is shifting there, several countries – including Asian nations – have been positioning themselves in this resource-rich region through economic, political and security arrangements.

It was Russian strategists who coined the term ‘near-abroad’ after the fall of the Soviet Union to emphasise their closeness with Central Asian and other republics of the former USSR, even as they became separate, sovereign and independent states. And China has rapidly built a range of economic relations spanning trade, energy and transport and communication networks including the ‘One Road, One Belt’ strategy, increasing connectivity with Central Asia and onwards through Iran and Turkey into Europe.

And here we are in Asia and even strategically situated as a gateway to Central Asia, but stuck in the one-track westward outlook left behind by colonial rulers at the time of independence; we cannot seem to find our way forward into this resource rich heartland of Asia.

It is important to remember that Pakistan was among the first countries visited by the leadership of the newly independent Central Asian countries in 1992 soon after USSR was dissolved in 1991. This was an exceptionally unique opportunity that had opened up after 200 years of Tsarist Russia and USSR rule over these lands.

It was fortunate for Pakistan to have been so chosen but unfortunate that it was hostage to a system of governance that lacked the vision to see the promise and potential opened up by this opportunity of the century. It did not invest time and energy into building networks of close cooperation and earn goodwill and friendship of the people and governments of Central Asia and also enhance the country’s profile in the international community.

In my meetings with government and business leaders as well as civil society members of Central Asian countries, goodwill and friendly feelings for Pakistan remain palpable. But Pakistan needs to improve its connectivity and take practical measures for partnering in energy and transport and communication networks, and provide incentives for opening trade and investment offices of Central Asian countries here. And it should set up warehouses for Pakistani goods there to provide substance to these friendly feelings.

It is a pity that agricultural products like bananas reach Central Asia all the way from South America and sea food from Northern Europe while our clueless governance cannot use Pakistan’s potential as the shortest and quickest entry into the Central Asian markets of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

The economics of transportation has undergone a sea change in international trade with Central Asian markets, increasing Pakistan’s potential as the quickest and least costly gateway into these markets.

It is difficult for even some seasoned business leaders, used to century-old routes via Moscow and long road journeys to Central Asia, to realise how much the world had changed after the dissolution of the USSR – as far as trading with Central Asia is concerned. But publicising this fact and realising its potential through improved connectivity, falls squarely upon our horse-and-buggy system which itself lives in the 19th century world of Tsarist Russia.

In the nouveau rich age of ignorance, our governance is not moved by shared heritage of history, commerce or the culture of our people whose children were put to bed on stories of the fairies of Koh-e-kaf (Caucasus mountains), who grew up hearing about Samarkand and Bukhara, and Taimur and Babur – even if they did not read the largest collections of Hadith by Imam Bukhari or heard of Khwarizmi (the father of algebra) or philosopher Al Farabi, acknowledged as second only to Aristotle or Ibn-e-Sina, the star philosopher and medical wizard of the Medieval Islamic period.

It seems that the news hasn’t yet been registered in the sanctum sanctorum of our governance that for a quarter of century now the peoples of these countries have been free from the long rule of Tsarist Russia and USSR and are forging their own relations with other nations.

The Asian Development Bank has been playing an active role in expanding transport and communication networks and improving connectivity with and among Central Asian nations, just as the European Development Bank ( EDB) has been working for similar connectivity of Central Asia with Europe. Pakistan has been among the founding members of the ADB but its laidback governance has not shown an interest in improving connectivity with Central Asia. Consequently, connectivity between Pakistan and Central Asian markets has received the lowest priority of all such ADB projects.

The price paid by Pakistan for its laidback governance has resulted in the countries and companies who originally wanted to partner with us for entering into Central Asian markets, ultimately got tired of the inertia in our decision making and moved on with other alternatives.

The result has been that everybody has developed energy, trade and communication linkages with Central Asia- except Pakistan. New and improved facilities have been created towards the west for European access, towards the north for Russian access and towards the east for Chinese access to these resources.

The only access route left out is the shortest southern route through Pakistan to global markets, which remains where it was for two centuries when these countries were ruled by Tsarist Russia and the USSR.

The world does not comprise a mere half a dozen countries which our laidback governance has been circling around. But the colonial legacy of a one-track westward look still rules the roost and has entrenched itself into our culture of governance. This dependency has been shrinking the world for Pakistan and increasing its isolation.

A closer network of friendly relations with the arc of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan would have brought economic and strategic benefits to Pakistan and also helped handle irritants that have frequently been popping up from across our western border. Extending this arc of friendship to link up with Iran would further benefit Pakistan.

Both Russia and China have strong economic, political and security relations with the Central Asian States. Pakistan is now a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and should work with their understanding and support towards a new era of closer cooperation with Central Asian nations.

What this tells us is the story of a system of governance which was clueless about potential even when the opportunity of the century had walked up to Pakistan itself. Its dependency syndrome has been leading the country into isolation. And it has shown neither will nor capacity to widen the circles of opportunities for the country.

Refusing to learn, Pakistan still hopes to take off on its future journey on a bird which has time and again shown that it doesn’t have any wings to fly.

The writer designed the Board of Investment and the First Women’s Bank. Email: [email protected]


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