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.  

The Western world is beginning to lose out economically by over-emphasizing this "war against terror." We are discouraging bold but necessary foreign investment. We are allowing some, like those mentioned above, to maintain some form of grip over countries that should be of extreme interest to us, enabling local regimes themselves to justify their frequently repressive policies towards their citizens and stay in power, at least unreformed. The "war against terror" should be directed, privately, by western intelligence agencies, but cease being beamed live, around the world, on CNN or Fox News 24-hours a day. It is a strategy of foolishness. This foolishness is reflected in Central Asia. Every attempt, on my part, to direct the conversation towards democracy, liberalization and privatization is punctuated with the refrain that it is impossible because they are fighting their own "war against terror." Yet, in my opinion, the only persons that are rendering themselves vulnerable to terror in Central Asia are the authorities themselves. By providing no secular alternative, what remains?

Only by adjusting the language will investment be assured, excuses crushed and influence assured. Central Asia's youth is desirous for change, but those that could, albeit gradually, engineer new mentalities are currently being molded into a familiar robotic nomenklatura. As hundreds of their countries' brightest fly off to western universities, some never to return, or at least for long, a concerted effort is not being undertaken to encourage Western higher education institutions to enter these virgin markets. A career in the civil service is still largely determined by education at selected state academies. While, without question, sincere, these local institutions will only contribute to maintaining the old language and dialogue, without guaranteeing new and more refreshing stimulation. Thus, beyond the institutional framework, much work will have to be expended, constantly engaging - through overseas invitations - senior members of these countries' Foreign Service to enable this language and dialogue to be adjusted in order to enable their younger members to be more courageous and bold in their own contributions. Until this is tackled, it will be naïve to expect the creation of democratic and liberal societies.

The danger is that we can continue to convince ourselves that we have, these past twelve months, established permanent footholds in Central Asia. Though military bases have their value, they only contribute to dialogues of (military) capabilities and mutually dependent friendships. Military cooperation cannot emphasize processes of democratization and liberalization.

While the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe continues its thankless task in Central Asia, these five countries remain excluded from membership of the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe, away from the media razzmatazz, continues its sterling work in, particularly, the "European" countries of the CIS (without forgetting its earlier achievements in Central Europe). However, to date, it has chosen not to extend its benevolent tentacles into the far more challenging but vital countries of Central Asia. While this policy of caution has, perhaps, been explained by the need to complete the jigsaw of Central Europe (only Belarus and Serbia and Montenegro remain), the United States should not remain aloof from the imperative of encouraging Central Asia's eligibility. Time, for now, should not be wasted endeavoring to admit four of the five states, but concentration should certainly be expended on Kyrgyzstan. If Kyrgyzstan were to inch closer to membership, I suspect Kazakhstan and Tajikistan would follow; but first of all, they have to be entitled and, if they are in Europe for the purposes of the OSCE, then they can be in Europe for the purposes of the Council of Europe.

These are defining years for the Western alliance. The next fifteen years will either determine whether the period after 1989 was just a brief space between the emergence of a multipolar (not bipolar!) world, or whether the gains of the past decade can be cemented. This is an opportunity that we must not squander, but we will have to be much more subtle to realize it.

Tim Potier is the executive director of the European Rim Policy and Investment Council (http://www.erpic.org). This article is based on his observations after an extended visit to Central Asia.

(1) See, for example, the debate over Central Asia between Andrew Bacevich and Charles Fairbanks in the Summer 2002 issue of The National Interest.