Central Asia Essay
PROBLEMS OF WEALTH, A WEALTH OF PROBLEMS
In 1996, Central Asia became more clearly than ever the object of a new form of international rivalry, particularly in the renewed regional contest over Afghanistan. Some analysts referred to this rivalry as a new “Great Game”, harking back to the term made famous by Rudyard Kipling and Lord Curzon to describe Russian British rivalry in the area a century ago. And it is surely true that in the civil war between the Taliban movement and the forces under the command of Ahmed Shah Massoud, foreign powers played a role Pakistan’s support to the Taliban was critical. But the stakes today are different; not the reach of distantly based empires, but the viability of nearby states which recently became independent, and the control of trade and pipeline routes to connect the region to the world market. Direct military and administrative control of territory plays less of a role, and the Central Asians themselves are now major layers as they were not a century ago. And yet, certain aspects of the region’s politics are better understood by reference to the Great Game than to the Cold War. Though nineteenth century Britain was a constitutional monarchy and Russia an autocracy, the ideological difference between these systems played little role in their competition, just as the ideological differences among today’s outside contenders Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and, more distantly, the United States play a limited role. The collapse of the USSR, with the subsequent opening of borders, has reinserted Central Asia, so long captive within a closed Soviet empire, into its position in the larger region, including Russia, China, and the Muslim states to the south.
The first priority of these newly independent states was to form national political systems, modes of rule that would establish them as. sovereign actors both’ domestically and in the ,international community, They had to define a new relationship with Russia and the outside world. Despite nominal independence, these states remained tied to Russia through the “hard wiring” of decades of investment in infrastructure; economic relations, transport, communications and Security. as well as education, language, and even personal and family links. At the same time, the new states eagerly seized on the opportunity to diversify the external relations that independence afforded. No aspect of international relations bad greater importance than economics, The collapse of the USSR meant the .loss of, budgetary subsidies, which ranged from around 20 percent – for energy rich Turkmenistan and Kazakstan to as high as 50 percent for Tajikistan. The republics also lost sources of raw materials and markets for their industries. which produced mostly intermediate goods, especially for the vast Soviet defense establishment. They hoped that they could make up of these losses by selling oil and natural gas to foreign markets, and by attracting foreign investment to revitalize their industries and rebuild their infrastructure.
Security also posed a major problem. Portions of the former Soviet military and security forces remained in each of these states. In a clear demonstration of the sheer newness of the situation in Central Asia, political leaders, in power and in opposition, could sincerely say that they did not know whether the Russians should be viewed as their allies or as the principal threat to their national security. All joined the Common wealth of Independent States, though Turkmenistan has announced a doctrine neutrality and therefore declined to participate in CIS joint military activities, and Uzbekistan has sought to balance Russian power with a strong relations to the U.S. All but Tajikistan, still tom by a civil War, also joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace. Furthermore, as long as they were republics of the USSR, these states external borders were closed and the region to which they belonged well defined. Today, the five former Soviet Central Asian republics are not simply part of the Post Soviet space they are also becoming part of a new Lenlarged area of international interaction. On issues of security and economics their relations with Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China are key. The events in Afghanistan, for instance, were triggered in part by the Pakistan Iran rivalry, thus leading to major changes in Central Asia’s security and economies. And not only did Chinese pressure lead to restrictions on the activities of Uighur activists, but China is quietly becoming one of the largest sources of foreign investment and trade in the region outside of the energy sector.
Finally, the domestic challenge of statehood has meant establishing a definition of citizenship, defining the role of ethnicity or nationality in a particular state, and creating new institutions of authority, governance, and participation. Here, too, different tendencies have emerged, though strong presidencies with few checks on their powers are a regional trend. The protection of political rights and civil liberties remains precarious in the region. Threats of ethnic and religious strife, pressure from neighboring countries, and the need for stability in times of economic transformation are often cited as reasons for limits on political activity and even for violent repression.
THE CURRENT SITUATION
Five years after independence, while certain measures have been taken toward regional integration, Central Asia is characterized by diversity. A number of differences are identifiable. Although Turkic Central Asia has been stable since independence, civil war in Tajikistan has continued and is closely related to the situation in Afghanistan. The Tajiks are as populous in northern Afghanistan as in their own country and speak a variety of Persian (known in Afghanistan as Dari) as their main language. The Tajik civil war, like the Afghan war, began as an ideological conflict between those favoring and those opposing the Soviet system. After the collapse of the USSR, however, both conflicts changed into multi sided ones among coalitions from different regions with different foreign backers. The combatants have some what differing ideologies, but these are less important than regional and ethnic allegiances.Currently, the government of Tajikistan is controlled by a faction from Kulab province backed by Russia, which also maintains about 25,000 troops and border guards in the country, ostensibly for peacekeeping. Uzbekistan, Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan also maintain a token military presence as part of the border guards or peacekeepers. Uzbekistan played a leading role in bringing the current government to power but has lost influence to Russia. The main opposition, drawn from other regions of the country (Garm and the Pamir mountains), includes democrats, Islamists, and nationalists, and is largely based among the Tajik refugee population in northern Afghanistan, which receives support from international Islamist groups. Within the past year, a third faction emerged in Khujand (Leninabad) province in the north. This more fully developed region, from which the Soviet era leaders of Tajikistan came, called on Kulabi fighters to defend it from the opposition in 1992, but then lost power. Its leaders now demand a separate seat at the negotiating table and recognition as a power in their on right. They have support from Uzbekistan.
Five years after independence, the international orientation of the states of Central Asia began to diverge and stabilize. Tajikistan remained a Russian protectorate in all but name, with its security precariously protected by Russian troops and its budget more dependent on Russian subsides (70 percent, by some accounts) than during Soviet times. The other states, to varying degrees, had begun to mark their differences with Russia, though these did not follow the simplistic cultural lines predicted by some in the immediate aftermath of independence, with Turkic states gravitating toward Turkey and Tajikistan toward Iran. Kazakstan, with its large Russian population mostly living in several northern oblasts adjacent to Siberia, had to maintain close relations with Russia simply to assure its existence as a state. Turkmenistan, however, defined itself as a neutral country and hoped to use its vast oil wealth as a magnet for investment. If declined to participate in CIS military exercises, distanced itself from Russia’s concern about the taliban, and actively pursued economic cooperation with Iran. Iran placed great importance on its relations with Turkmenistan, the only Central Asian country with which it shares a border and hence key to Iran’s plan to become the major outlet to the world market for Central Asia’s hydrocarbons and other products. In April, Iran established the first rail link between Central Asia and the countries to its south, effectively linking the region to the Persian Gulf.
Uzbekistan, however, went the furthest in demarcating an independent position. In June,President Islam Karimov visited Washington and met with President Clinton. Significantly, Karimov then left Washington for meetings with businessmen in Houston and Denver. As a result of this visit, Uzbekistan turned over to the U. S. detailed information on its economy, including data previously regarded as soviet state secrets, leading to a protest from Russia. The visit highlighted Uzbekistan’s attempts to establish close relations with the U. S. as a counterbalance to Russia. The establishment of seemingly permanent Russian bases in Tajikistan and the rises of nationalism as a force in Russian politics seems to have convinced Karimov even further that Russia had become a threat to the independence of the Central Asian states. Lacking a border with Russia or a large ethnic Russian population, Uzbekistan as the most populous Central Asian state, could try to use American support to become the dominant regional power. Karirnov had been seeking a visit to Washington for years but had been denied it on human rights grounds. Apparently, he agreed to make at least cosmetic improvements in return for the visit, but these appear not to have been sustained. The idea of a strategic relationship with Uzbekistan found some supporters in the U. S., where the Russophilia of the immediate post Soviet era was wearing thin. Though the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe engaged in some quiet diplomacy in support of human rights, most states and international organizations praised the country’s independent path.
ENERGY AND THE INTERNATIONAL MARKET
Kazakstan and Turkmenistan are potentially major oil producers (though not in the same league as the major suppliers in the Persian Gulf), and Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan also have significant gas reserves. Under the Soviet system, all the energy systems of the region were under tight central control, and all pipelines were structured so as to ensure this control. Control of the energy infrastructure of the former Soviet Union remains one of Russia’s most important sources of leverage over the successor states. Even energy rich Kazakstan and Turkmenistan are dependent on Russia for refining and transit and have so far not realized the benefits anticipated from economic independence.
In 1996, however, competition over the southern transit routes for Central Asian energy and trade heated up. As mentioned, Iran established the first link between its rail network and that of Central Asia (via Turkmenistan). It also established a free trade zone on the border with Turkmenistan. Specifically in the energy area, it concluded agreements with both Kazakstan and Turkmenistan on what are known as “swap deals”. Even with the rail link, it is still prohibitively expensive to transport Central Asian oil and gas to Iranian ports and oil terminals on the Persian Gulf, as the proposed pipe line has not been completed, in part because the U.S. has blocked all international financing for it. Most of Ian’s oil and natural gas resources, however, are located on the Persian Gulf, in the southwest of the country, and it is expensive to transport them to consumers in the north. Under the agreements. Kazakstan and Turkmenistan will deliver oil an gas to Northern Iran. in return for which Iran will export an equivalent amount of its own production from the south on behalf.of the Central Asian countries. This indirect route constitutes the first link between Central Asian and Persian Gulf hydrocarbon resources.