– by Shiraz Paracha
Central Asia’s richest and largest state Kazakhstan is following a strict visa policy for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the same time offering further relaxations in visa regulations to nationals from Western and several non-Western countries.
Pakistan has an image problem in the former Soviet republics. The current floods and the continuing violence has further exacerbated Pakistan’s image. To the people of Central Asia and other countries in the region Pakistan is a trouble spot.
It is an irony that the six “Muslim” Central Asian states prefer to keep a distance from Pakistan despite the fact that Pakistan played a crucial role in their independence.
Following the split of the Soviet Union, Pakistani military generals thought that they would control poor and backward Central Asia. The plan was to bring the six Central Asian states under the Pakistan’s sphere of influence. Time has proved how wrong the Pakistani generals were. In the early 1990s, Pakistan took Central Asia for granted. Islamabad looked down at Central Asian countries. Now it is the other way round. Many Central Asians pity Pakistan. Almost every day, they watch television and realize that Pakistan is home to millions of hungry, poor and helpless people. Central Asians fear that troubles from Pakistan can come into their societies.
Pakistan has cultural and historical links with Central Asia and friendly relations with China. Being a gateway to the Middle East, Africa and East Asia, Pakistan offers excellent economic and trade opportunities to members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Pakistan can be an effective on forums such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO).
However, despite its ideal geopolitical location and the huge trade and economic opportunities it can offer to Eurasian countries, Pakistan has failed to establish warm relations and build bridges of understanding with the CIS, particularly the six Central Asian sates.
Pakistan has missed several opportunities due to misadventures of the Pakistani generals. Pakistan does not have an effective and successful foreign policy because its military is obsessed with security and the military sets foreign policy priorities. Pakistan’s foreign policy is not formulated by professionals, visionary politicians or intellectuals.
Semiliterate generals and foreign office clerks, who are proficient in English language, control the country’s foreign policy.
It is unfortunate that instead of using innovative and creative ways to develop friendly relationship with the CIS countries, Pakistani missions in the region have been busy in India bashing. Pakistan embassies in the CIS organize Kashmir days and waste money on useless anti-India propaganda not realizing that India had been a Soviet ally and she still enjoys warmer relations with all the 12 CIS member-states, which were part of the Soviet Union.
Many CIS residents resent Pakistan’s role in the 1980s Afghan War against the former Soviet Union and its support for the Taliban regime. Pakistan is perceived as a hub of religious extremism. People in almost all of the former Soviet states lost loved ones during the Afghan War. The common perception is that Pakistan was instrumental in the US proxy war against the Soviet Union.
Later, Pakistan’s support for the Taliban regime created a fear that Pakistan was trying to spread the Taliban brand of Islam to secular societies of the ex-Soviet Union. Such fears led to a negative image of Pakistan among many in the CIS region. The public in countries such as Kazakhstan, Georgia, Ukraine and Russia would like to see their countries modern and secular. Some in the CIS countries may disagree with Western policies and Western values but most want to learn from the West in economic and social development sectors.
Violence and other forms of criminal activity, including drugs and human trafficking, are also associated with Pakistan. The country is seen as an unstable and dangerous place that is home to terrorism and extremism. Businesses and government circles in the CIS, especially Kazakhstan and Russia, the two most important countries in the region, have little understanding of Pakistan and its people.
Unfortunately, Pakistani missions in the region seem to have failed to do the necessary ‘image PR’. Staff of Pakistani diplomatic missions in the CIS region is usually lazy and unhappy. Many Pakistani diplomats prefer to work in Western countries. A posting in the CIS region amounts to a demotion.
Most Pakistani diplomats do not communicate in local languages and some do not respect native cultures. Some members of Pakistani diplomatic missions in the CIS region allegedly promote personal business interests. Some are involved in activities that are contrary to their work.
Last year, I attended a cultural event hosted by the Indian Embassy in Kazakhstan where the Indian Ambassador gave his speech in three languages—Kazak, Russian and English. He impressed his audience. Indian cultural centres are very active in building bridges with the CIS countries.
Turkey is the most active Muslim country in Central Asia. It has invested heavily in infrastructure development, especially in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Another focus of Turkish investment is education sector. Several Turkish universities have opened in the region, while hundreds of Turkish shops, cafes and businesses have been established in Central Asia following the split of the Soviet Union. Growing Turkish influence is vivid in several areas of Central Asian daily life.
Israeli companies are also very active in Central Asia and in other countries of the region. Soon I will write a separate article on Israeli interests in the CIS. Even Iran, too, has cultural centres in important countries of the CIS.
Military generals, policy-makers and some in the Pakistani media still believe that they defeated the Soviet Union and the six Central Asian states owe their independence to Pakistan. It is a dangerous and flawed view that is not based on reality. Pakistan must stop looking down at the CIS countries, particularly at the Central Asian states.
Pakistanis need to understand that in the Post Cold War world, Pakistan has emerged as a state that is epicenter of violence and religious hatred. The public in Central Asia as well as in Russia fear Pakistan. If Pakistan wants to build strong long-term relations with the CIS countries, it must put its own house in order first. It needs plans to focus on building a softer image of Pakistan in the CIS.
Simultaneously a campaign should be launched within Pakistan about the huge economic potential and strategic importance of the CIS.
Pakistan can also learn from the positive legacy of the USSR to overcome domestic problems. Unlike developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, most of the CIS states have well-developed health and education systems and solid infrastructures such as roads, rail networks and communication lines. The region is also very rich in natural and human resources.
Pakistan can buy cheaper electricity from Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. It is possible to lay power transmission lines between Pakistan and Tajikistan via China. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan can supply Pakistan with cheap oil and gas products. Pakistan will hugely benefit, if it could provide India with a corridor to import energy from Central Asia. Such measures will bring peace and prosperity.
President Asif Ali Zardari is paying attention to build mutually beneficial relations with Central Asia and China but he has limitations. The military will not allow President Zardari bring long-term changes that might reduce military’s hegemony over foreign affairs.
The military will resist tooth and nail if a civilian government in Pakistan ever tried to provide India with a corridor for importing energy from Central Asia, such a move, though, will be in the best interest of Pakistan and its people. But the interest of Pakistan and the interests of Pakistani military are two different ends of a pole. One can only hope that the military mindset will change.
The relationship between Pakistan and the CIS can be mutually beneficial at other levels as well. Unlike the West most former Soviet states have secular, classless and tolerant societies. Many of these countries also enjoy cultural and social harmony in terms of common language and social bonds among communities. Pakistan can learn positive lessons from the Soviet experience. At the same time, Pakistan, too, has a lot to offer.
If rule of law has been a major strength of Western societies, belief in Eastern and Muslim value systems has saved the Pakistani society from breakdowns. Most former Soviet states no longer have the Soviet time rule of law nor do they have a value system they can draw on to protect their societies. The Soviet value system is fading and there seems to be a value system vacuum in many of the CIS countries, which are now faced with social disorder and chaos.
Pakistan has a wonderful social system based on love, loyalty and respect. Family, community and friendship bonds are central to the social system. Former Soviet society lacks such values and bonds. Promotion of such positive values through media can help create a good name for Pakistan in the CIS.
Art and literature have been very important in Soviet society. Messages through artistic forms can work well in the former Soviet Union. Love, warmth, faithfulness and the sprit of sacrifice in human relations are central themes of Pakistani literature. Pakistani television dramas, novels, poetry and other forms of literature that highlight the importance of family and human connections could have a great effect on public opinion in the CIS. Such a campaign could certainly help improve the image of Pakistan in the Commonwealth.
If Pakistan adopts a long-term public relations strategy of image building, it would bear fruits in other fields as well. But it MUST be based on transparency and honesty.
(Shiraz Paracha is an international journalist and political analyst.
His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org