The Central Asian Conundrum

in Program

By Judith Oliver – Last month, Vladimir Putin took his first trip to Iran for a summit with the leaders of other Caspian Sea border nations including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The historic visit, the first to Iran by a Russian premiere since Stalin’s 1943 participation in the Tehran summit, signaled Putin’s intention to exert Russian influence in Central Asia once again.  It was also an opportunity for Russia to signal its differences with the international community over possible responses to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  Putin’s comments after the summit were telling in this regard.  He suggested that no Caspian nation should offer territory to a third party to use as a base for an attack against another nation within the region.    

Fifteen independent nations were born from the remnants of the socialist republics that constituted the Soviet Union.  Because of their traditional nomadic tribal populations, the new nations of Central Asia, the Stans” – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, were left vulnerable.  Soviet-era apparatchiks remained in positions of power and found themselves in new roles in name only.  Rich in natural resources such as oil, natural gas, cotton and minerals, these fledgling nations lacked the stable means of production and distribution.       

While the US focuses on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the “Stans” find themselves stuck in a hard place.  The region lies within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence due to their historic political ties.  But China also seeks access to sources of oil and natural gas that reside there.  Western China’s Uighurs share similar ethnic and religious ties to their Central Asian neighbors. More Chinese are finding work in the Central Asian energy sector, especially in Kazakhstan, where one of the pipelines into China originates. The result is a triangle of nations – Iran, Russia, and China who are ready to project strength and sow unequal partnerships with their younger, less sophisticated neighbors.   

What is at stake for the US in its relationship with these Central Asian nations?  After the September 11th attacks, the US reached agreements with both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to use two air bases in their respective territories as access points for forward action in Afghanistan.  NASA must work with Kazakhstan for some years since the Russian space station actually lies within its territory.  Tajikistan is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.  Turkmenistan’s self-styled “president for life” died last year, paving the way for the US to re-examine that bi-lateral relationship.  Oil and natural gas reserves are plentiful in the region and the US has engaged in foreign aid and direct investment to secure these sources.  Central Asia has much work to do to address the intractable security issues it faces, including the threat of Islamic extremism, transnational crime – especially drugs, porous or ill-defined borders, authoritarian regimes and political corruption, water shortages and environmental damage, and the continuing war in Afghanistan.    

Recognizing borders and sharing resources is an ongoing process in the “Stans.”  The Caspian Sea has not yet been fully delineated or seabed depth and territory agreed upon.  Water infrastructure such as dams and treatment plants is in trouble. The water from the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya rivers is almost entirely used up before they reach the Aral Sea.  Russia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan signed an agreement last May to develop a new pipeline to rush oil to market in Europe.  The project has stalled because it is held captive to power-plays and individual states’ competing interests. 

Drugs and organized crime along with government corruption is prevalent in the region too.  The porous border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan especially allows for drug traffic to flow to and fro with relative ease.  Uzbekistan has the capacity to squeeze its smaller neighbors.  Every winter, Tajikistan faces a severe electricity shortage.  The country recently signed an agreement whereby Turkmenistan will supply electricity, but the lines must travel through Uzbek territory.  Uzbekistan remains non-committal and points to poor infrastructure as the reason the lights are out in Tajikistan.   

The lack of access to independent information and general disregard for the freedom of the press mean reforms are slow to take hold.  The Committee to Protect Journalists lists Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as two of the ten most-censored countries in the world in 2006.  The rate of cell phone use and internet penetration in the region is curtailed by crumbling or non-existent telecommunications infrastructure.  The outmoded and outdated telegram and telegraph stations are still a main form of communication in significant sections of Turkmenistan. 

There are small but growing signs that these Central Asian nations are exercising sovereignty and independent thinking.  They are establishing bi-lateral connections that lie outside their traditional relationships.  There is a proposal for a renewed “Silk Road”- to improve roads and rail lines to link Europe and Asia overland once again.  These fledgling nations have the will and the capacity to continue on this path.  They will ultimately be viewed as autonomous actors in the region.                       

 Judith Oliver is a Congressional Fellow with the Security for a New Century Study Group at the Stimson Center.

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