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Central Asian nations band together

04/06/07 MOSCOW. (Vadim Dubnov for RIA Novosti) –

When the presidents of Russia,Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan met in May, posing in front of a Caspian gaspipeline map, the occasion was described as a foreign policy breakthrough
for Moscow, which it partly was.

Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan appeared to have dropped the trans-Caspian gas
project (to build a pipeline across the sea bottom, bypassing Russia) and to
have opted for a land route around the Caspian (along the coasts of
Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Russia). However, many suspected that there was
a race to win two competitions at once. The first concerned two projects
equally very much in the air. The second dealt with being the front-runner
in a trio whose Russian leadership had previously not been challenged either
by Astana or Ashgabad. Putin’s meetings in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan
seemed to have gone a long way – though not all the way – towards resolving
both issues, and might be cause for celebration in Moscow.

Might be, that is, if it were not for a one-on-one meeting between two of
the participants – Presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and
Kurbanguly Berdymukhammedov of Turkmenistan – after the three-way get
together. Analysts at once smelled a rat: the conversation involved not only
the two eastern leaders, but, invisibly, their counterparts from neighboring
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and even Uzbekistan. And, aside from the latter, all
of them had a more-than-favorable attitude toward the subject discussed.

A new international structure – a union of Central Asian countries – was
going up before everybody’s eyes.

Generally speaking, this was bound to happen. These countries, sharing
similar political systems, ways of putting together their budgets,
mentalities and special relationships with the outside world, based on a
raw-materials economy, were confused even in the Soviet era, as the Baltic
capitals still are.

But a harsh global reality has emerged in recent years in addition to this
humdrum motivation. For many years Kazakhstan has masked its foreign policy
ambitions as proposals for further integration of the Commonwealth of
Independent States (CIS), and it could be suspected of nothing more than a
desire to play a greater role more or less equivalent to Russia’s. However,
awareness that it was useless to run neck and neck with Moscow grew as
Kazakhstan built up its economic independence, which Astana has rather ably
converted into a greater foreign policy weight.

On the other hand, Ashgabad, even under the late president Saparmurat
Niyazov, was ostensibly indifferent to “Commonwealth” games. His successor,
Berdymukhammedov, seems to need the CIS only to provide cover for his
unchanged course and his own political legitimacy. But, it appears, fears
concerning the latter may be dismissed as unfounded. Berdymukhammedov
combines his foreign policy activity, which has enabled him to establish
quick contacts with all players – Moscow, Brussels, Washington and Baku –
with steady moves to assert himself inside the country. This is indicative,
if not of a rebranding of Turkmenistan’s accepted image in the world, then
at least the beginning of its repositioning. Ashgabad, to judge from all
visible signs, is clearly aware of the present possible limits of its
breakthrough, and does not claim more as yet.

The picture is different with Kazakhstan. A country looking eagerly forward
to its OSCE rotating presidency in 2009 appears to have grasped that its
weight is so close to Russia’s that Astana no longer needs to vie for
leadership in the CIS. Kazakhstan can become a rival center of influence,
and a purge of President Nazarbayev’s opponents – the first victim of which
was his son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev – aided by constitutional changes, is
giving rise to Astana’s newfound confidence, especially on the world stage.
Kazakhstan is ready to take over Moscow’s role. However, rather than try to
exert wide-ranging influence, it will act where it can consider itself a
regional leader. And this new association can only be energy-based, which
makes the news all the more unpleasant for Moscow.

The battle for regional leadership is unfolding as the CIS, once the scene
of battling regional ambitions as well, fades away.

Who, from a pragmatic point of view, needs a Central Asian association, and
why? Or rather: what is it that the Central Asian nations cannot do without
such a union?

Nazarbayev, in chorus with enthusiastic supporters of new integration,
speaks of the Central Asian countries’ raw materials. However, it is
impossible even hypothetically to imagine a man bold enough to propose that
those countries unite into one. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, as is justly
noted, have not yet lost the chance to re-establish their lead in electric
power generation, which is of so much interest to their neighbors – but what
of it?

This all amounts to an economic division of labor, not integration, and it
has as much to do with a European Union kind of integration as the American
Revolution has to do with the New York Stock Exchange. Both Kazakhstan and
Turkmenistan would dearly like to preserve and multiply their choice of
transit routes for their underground and shelf riches, and act as founding
fathers of a new regional body independent of all the main energy players,
which is doubtless a logical step. It is a win-win situation because no
actual association is required.

Vadim Dubnov is a free-lance commentator.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not
necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.