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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Joins Central Asian Trade Bloc

APForeign ministers of, from left, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Japan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan posing after their meeting on Saturday.
ASTANA, Kazakhstan -- Four Central Asian nations Saturday formally approved Russia's membership to their economic bloc, providing Moscow the opportunity to restore its influence in the strategic, energy-rich region.

Also on Saturday, the four nations signed a cooperation declaration with Japan, aimed to strengthen ties with its major regional donor.

In May, Russia said it would join the Central Asian Cooperation Organization, established in 2001 to improve trade ties among its members.

The foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan approved Russian membership at talks in the Kazakh capital.

The organization has made little progress at economic integration in the three years since its founding because of border disputes, ethnic tension, economic hardship and security concerns.

Russia pushed to join the organization as it seeks to restore influence in Central Asia, where the four countries were ruled by Moscow before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The United States has deployed troops in Central Asia since 2001 in its anti-terrorism campaign in neighboring Afghanistan. The move irritated Russia, which views the region as part of its sphere of influence.

At a meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi later Saturday the Central Asian foreign ministers agreed to boost their political and economic contacts under a new Central Asia-Japan formula.

Kawaguchi said the new form of cooperation would allow Japan to assist the region with solving such regional problems as terrorism, drugs, weapons proliferation, water and energy sharing, and trade.

"There are some problems that the countries cannot solve on their own: they require both joint regional and international efforts," she said through a Russian interpreter.

The predominantly Muslim region saw a spread of radical Islamic groups after the 1991 Soviet collapse. Uzbekistan was hit by two series of attacks this year blamed by authorities on al-Qaida-linked groups based outside the country.

The attacks killed more than 50 people.