The "new" U.S. strategy in Central Asia

04/ 04/ 2006

MOSCOW. (Andrei Grozin for RIA Novosti.) - U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel
Bodman said in Astana the other day that Kazakhstan should lead the effort
to develop the energy sector infrastructure and set up additional transit
routes for energy resources.

Although he talked exclusively about energy resources, it is worth noting
statements by high-level U.S. officials, if only to find out whether the
U.S. has embarked on a new policy in Central Asia.

At first, there was no new policy. Events in "the new Asia" were of interest
exclusively to its neighbors. Moscow and Tehran took an active part in the
settlement in Tajikistan and were successful. China not only reached an
agreement with Kazakhstan on localizing separatist movements, which tried to
set up strong points on Kazakh territory for action in Xinjiang in the first
half of the 1990s, but also resolved bilateral territorial issues.
Kyrgyzstan also worked toward settling the border problem with China.
Despite a host of subjective problems, Turkmenistan developed effective
trade and economic relations with Russia and Iran. Moscow and Beijing
facilitated the involvement of all postwar Asian republics, except
Turkmenistan, into the Shanghai Five (Shanghai Cooperation Organization -
SCO), which is seeking to implement a number of major transportation,
economic and trade projects and promoting good neighborly relations within
the SCO.

Until September 2001, the United States, and the West in general, paid
little attention to the region. They merely mentioned its huge energy
potential and were not too active in defending the few local dissidents. For
a long time, the U.S. had a very cautious, if not hostile, approach to the
newly independent Asian republics. The West was convinced that Muslim
Central Asia was a convenient bridgehead for the dynamic growth of Islamic
radicalism. But experience shows that post-Soviet Asia has proved capable of
political and business cooperation with the world powers, while Islamic
extremism has not yet become firmly established in the region. It has been
engaged in a long struggle for this goal, but quite often without much
success.

Until recently, Washington's economic and defense cooperation with these
countries was based on unilateral advantage and minimal costs.

There are reasons to believe that Washington has drawn some conclusions from
its Iranian experience of 1979, when the Islamic revolution destroyed in
less than a month and a half the United States' 10-year-plus work with the
Shah regime. The latter looked fairly pro-Western, but was burdened with
clan corruption and the poverty of more than 80% of its population. The
situation in the post-Soviet Asian space is pretty much the same.

The U.S. is pursuing its strategy on several levels. It is flirting with the
top echelons of local power, promising to help them solve their major
domestic problems, and making some moves to the West-oriented local
opposition, funding it through various NGOs as a potential "reserve." The
U.S. is stepping up its economic influence in the region, relying on its new
military bases.

At the same time, the U.S. effort to expand its military presence in the
area has led to negative domestic processes in newly independent Asian
countries.

The regime of Askar Akayev was toppled down in Kyrgyzstan in March 2005
after a week of disorders and pogroms in its southern regions and the
capital. Events of the last few months show that tensions in the republic
have been escalating. In all probability, it is bound for long-time
instability due to a violent change of power.

In the last three years, domestic protests have been growing in Uzbekistan
and the government will unlikely be able to suppress them. Given the high
birth rate, the skidding Uzbek economy cannot provide stable jobs and enough
pay for the residents of agrarian regions.

The Uzbek authorities counted on economic and military-strategic partnership
with the U.S. in hope of getting help in solving economic problems. But by
late 2002, Tashkent became wary of excessive dependence on the U.S. in
different spheres due to the appearance of American military bases on Uzbek
territory.

After the suppression of riots in Andijan, Western government and human
rights organizations launched a full-scale information war against
Uzbekistan. Tashkent parried the appeals for stronger economic and political
pressure on the regime with the withdrawal of the U.S. base from its
territory, the full-scale re-orientation of its foreign policy in regards to
Russia and China and entry into the Eurasian Economic Community.

Having lost its positions in Uzbekistan, the U.S. is rushing to build a new
strategy in Central Asia.

Now the U.S. is trying hard to turn Kazakhstan into its "strategic regional
partner." Washington has been very complimentary of Astana of late and is
even actively lobbying the idea of the Kazakh leaders (which appeared on the
eve of the presidential elections in the republic in December 2005) about
the republic's special mission as the regional leader in Central Asia and
the Caspian area. That is the gist of statements that the U.S. Energy
Secretary made in Astana. Mostly, he was talking about the U.S. desire to
achieve early completion of the Kazakh-Azerbaijani talks on transporting
Kazakh energy resources via the BTC pipeline.

It is easy to see why Washington is eager to see Kazakhstan in the role of
the leader - after a setback with Tashkent, it does not have other options
since Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are the only post-Soviet Central Asian
republics that can claim the role of regional leader. In addition, Astana's
pragmatic Caspian policy allows American multinationals to freely invest in
oil production and control a huge share of profits - if oil business is
based on physical control of oil reserves, the distribution of profits from
oil sales is even more important.

At the same time, the signing of the intergovernmental agreement on
Kazakhstan's joining the BTC pipeline has been suspended more than once and
Washington is getting nervous. Speaking of Astana's potential domination of
the region, the U.S. is striving for its own supremacy there. It presents
its desire to "rule" in the Caspian area in a very attractive package - a
stable and predictable investment climate in Kazakhstan will not only
attract more investment, but will also create more jobs, explained Bodman.
In the next five years, the amount of investment in Kazakhstan could double,
he said.

The Kazakh authorities keep talking about their country joining the ranks of
the top ten oil producers in the next 10 years. In light of this, it does
not make sense for Astana to give up its maneuvering between the world
centers of power, a policy which has brought it so many dividends.

But it should not forget that having launched several velvet-type
revolutions in post-Soviet space, the West has radicalized the struggle for
influence in the former Soviet republics since late 2003. They have
exacerbated the struggle of the political elites there. Eventually, all
these games in Central Asia could end badly. For all the talk about "a
strategic partnership" and promises of lavish investment, the U.S. will
never change its strategy of rotating elites in post-Soviet republics.

Andrei Grozin is the head of the department of Central Asia and Kazakhstan,
Institute of the CIS Countries.