Beyond Pipelines: the West's Central Asian challenge

If the world did change after 9/11, the post-Soviet states of Central Asia seem to be the main beneficiaries.

If the world did change after 9/11, the post-Soviet states of Central Asia seem to be the main beneficiaries. The last twelve months have given these five countries (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) a unique opportunity to command a certain degree of attention. To date, this attention has gone relatively unchallenged. However, the West should not be shy to take its opportunities also. (1) 

For almost a century, the Caspian has been recognized as an economic gold mine. Removed from the West's policy-making attention because of the existence of the Soviet Union and emergence of the Cold War, United States' government energy experts today estimate that the wider Caspian region could hold 270 billion barrels of oil and 576 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves.

The developed world still relies too much on the energy resources of the Arab world; a dependence that, if anything, is expected to burgeon during the next twenty years. The Department of Energy estimates that the Gulf share of worldwide petroleum exports will have increased to almost 60percent (from 45percent today) by 2020. This occurs at a time when the Arab world remains dominated by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, underemployment, anti-Americanism and a failure of democracy. Oil dependence on the Middle East has either contributed to this state of affairs or perpetuated it. If we are to make progress in the Middle East, alternative sources will have to be found; otherwise we will remain weakened by our lack of any serious diplomatic leverage.

We are faced with certain advantages in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Although composed of a European or a European-leaning population that is, still, generally, highly-educated and, at least amongst its youth, desirous of embracing the American dream, the much-used phrase ‘American culture' is just as inappropriate here as it is anywhere else. Naturally, the authorities in the ‘five' are desperate to find new markets for their subterranean wealth, but are hoping to manipulate this condition so as to ensure that they remain uniquely in power. Thus hoping to convert these countries, whether consciously or not, into a 21st century (albeit non-Islamicized) Arabia. Their device and expectation would be easier to frustrate were it not for the neighboring influence of Russia and China that, just as the situation in Iraq continues to show, can be used to frustrate Western-inspired change. Our challenge will be to secure these new markets and facilitate reform without throwing these countries (back) into the clutches of nations who still, have yet to demonstrate a truly consistent (rather than simply diplomatic) commitment to liberal and democratic ideals.

China has made up for earlier disadvantages in Central Asia. Presented with the specter of Uighur separatism, China, during the past six years, has pursued an unrelenting and, to date, successful policy in directing the security policy of the five. This has been particularly concentrated in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (founded in 1996), with its increased focus on the fight against terrorism, is the product of this work.  

Russia has perhaps been less sophisticated in this field (preferring military bases in Tajikistan, as if an Islamicized Tajikistan would make any difference to Moscow). Russia has been able, much more passively, to exploit the physical barriers that conflict/instability and disagreement present to block or frustrate direct and involved links between the region and the West.   

One must not assume that true Western influence in the post-Soviet states of Central Asia will come swiftly or easily. It will require enormous patience and a sustained commitment. However, to become successful, a number of wider decisions will have to be reached.

This will begin with an accelerated entry into these countries' non-energy markets. While nobody can deny the bravery of some oil companies in individual countries, they remain isolated, prone to competitive drowning and vulnerable to the petitions of shareholders arising from social/political upheaval. If reform is to be managed in the Arab world, dreams will have to be converted into wider non-oil/gas coordination in the Caucasus and Central Asia. I add nothing new by stressing that through economic assistance comes influence. This has yet to be solidified in the region.