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Central Asia: Powers Replay Great Game

  • Stuart Parrott



London, 3 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- It used to be known as the Great Game, the intense 19th century rivalry between the Russian and British empires for power and influence in Central Asia.

The Great Game faded away earlier this century as Russia was engulfed by revolution and Britain retreated from the world stage.

But today the Great Game, or, at least a new variant of it, is being replayed as various states and multinational firms compete to construct pipelines to transport oil and natural gas from Central Asia and the Caucasus to world markets.

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and their Caucasus neighbor, Azerbaijan, all former Soviet republics, are the site of the world's second largest oil and gas reserves after the Persian Gulf.

The region around the Caspian Sea, where these energy fields are located, is landlocked and relatively inaccessible, meaning that exit routes, or pipelines, have to be built for oil and gas exports.

Gareth Winrow, a British academic at Istanbul's Bilgi University, says in a recently published book the pipeline politics "game" is "highly-fluid, fast-moving and unpredictable", and involves a big cast of players.

They include states which are producers of oil and gas -- Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- and also states -- Russia, Iran and probably Azerbaijan in future -- that transport energy produced by other countries across their territory.

Other likely oil and gas transporters are Georgia, Turkey and, possibly, Bulgaria, Greece, Ukraine and Afghanistan.

Winrow says geography, politics and economics are linked in the pipelines "game". For example, oil and gas producing countries need to stay on good terms with transporting countries if their exports are to reach world markets. Transporting countries, in turn, have an interest in good relations as they earn transit royalties.

Winrow says: "Prestige, political influence, and even political control may ensue through transporting oil and gas of other states."

The big powers are closely caught up in pipeline politics.

The U.S. opposes transit corridors through Iran for the Caspian oil and gas, saying Teheran has not renounced terrorism and seeks weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. favors multiple pipelines, including a link between Baku and the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

But Iran says it is the logical route for transfer of Caspian oil to world markets and denounces U.S. Congressional legislation which requires the President to impose sanctions on foreign firms investing more than $20 million a year in Iran's energy sector.

The U.S. stand has put it on a collision course with the Europeans. The U.S. was concerned by last year's $1.2 billion French-Russian-Malaysian deal to develop an Iranian gas field. The European-based firm, Shell, has since embarked on a survey of a 1,600 km pipeline to carry Turkmen gas through Iran to Turkey.

Pipeline politics? Two other powers, Russia and Turkey are competing to transport Caspian oil. Both want to carry via pipelines across their territory oil produced by three Caspian offshore fields.

Moscow wants the oil to be carried on an existing pipeline running from Baku, on Azerbaijan's Caspian coast, to Novorossiisk on the Black Sea. But Ankara wants it to be routed on the proposed pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. In a related dispute, Russia and Turkey are at loggerheads over a Russian desire to increase the amount of oil tanker traffic through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, so that eventually oil from the Caspian can be brought to world markets via Novorossiisk. But the Turks say their vital seaways are already dangerously congested.

China is also caught up in pipeline politics. China, the second largest energy user in the world after the U.S., has a vital interest in the development of the Caspian oil and gas fields, particularly since they are located in its "backyard", west of the province of Xinjiang.

Beijing reached a provisional agreement with Kazakhstan in September which, if implemented, would involve construction of a 3,000 km pipeline linking energy fields in Kazakhstan with Xinjiang.

But the deal has a political dimension. According to Winrow, China wants closer relations with Kazakhstan "in order to increase its influence in Central Asia and discourage Kazakh authorities from sheltering groups which support Xinjiang's secession from China" -- a reference to unrest by Turkic Uighur people in the province.

Pipeline politics have many other dimensions. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan dispute the ownership of various Caspian oil fields. Bulgaria, Greece and Russia are arguing about transit tariffs in a proposed oil shipment scheme. Analysts say there is a security risk in carrying Caspian oil across Chechnya . . . Arguments are endless.

A U.S. speaker at a recent Oil and Money conference in London rejected the concept of a new Great Game in Central Asia, saying it was a "fiction invented by journalists who have transferred a 19th century framework to the last days of the 20th century."

But Winrow disagrees. He says: "There is a Great Game of a sort. The cast of players is many, the rules do not appear to be fixed, and there is competition and also cooperation between players." He says: "The end is not in sight, but the game has certainly commenced."

("Pipeline Politics and Turkey, A New Great Game in Eurasia?", by Gareth M. Winrow, Istanbul Bilgi University)
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