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Central Asia: U.S. Interests Suffer Setbacks

  • Bruce Pannier

If diplomatic activity is any indication, U.S. influence seems diminished in CIS Central Asia, while that of Russia and China is growing. Those two countries recently sent their presidents to Central Asia, while the United States sent only its secretary of state. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier reports that the U.S. now looks like a lesser partner -- but it may just be taking a longer view.

Prague, 18 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. envoy Stephen Sestanovich visited Central Asia last week to follow up on work done by his boss, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in April. Sestanovich traveled to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

Although his agenda varied from country to country, his general message boiled down to this:

"We aim to deepen our cooperation in a whole series of areas, whether it's by finding ways to increase educational exchanges, or to prepare for joint military exercises, or to share perspectives on multilateral diplomacy."

That was Sestanovich in Kazakhstan last Tuesday.

He has reason to seek deeper cooperation. CIS Central Asian governments have adopted a somewhat chillier attitude toward the U.S. recently. Since Albright's visit in April, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been in the region twice, and Chinese President Jiang Zemin was there at the start of this month. In a region where leaders once eagerly courted ties with the U.S., Washington may now be third, or farther down, on the list of Central Asia's friends.

Sestanovich's first stop was Turkmenistan, a country where U.S. influence has particularly suffered.

Two U.S. companies, Bechtel and General Electric, last month pulled out of an international consortium that was to build a pipeline to carry Turkmen natural gas across the Caspian Sea. Sestanovich attempted to convince Turkmen officials that the departure of the two companies did not mean the project was dead. But Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov told Sestanovich the deal as it stands now is not in the interests of Turkmenistan.

While the trans-Caspian pipeline deal was starting to unravel, Putin visited Turkmenistan in May. And as of this month, exports of Turkmen gas to Russia, via a Russian pipeline, were reportedly reaching 100 million cubic meters daily.

Meanwhile, Jiang Zemin came to Turkmenistan with officials from the China National Petroleum Corporation. They signed deals to help Turkmenistan develop oil and gas fields and construct a 5,000-kilometer oil pipeline from eastern Turkmenistan to China.

The U.S. secretary of state, however, did not visit Turkmenistan during her trip to Central Asia in April. But Albright did travel to the next three countries on Sestanovich's schedule -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

Putin also visited Uzbekistan, in May. And he met with the Uzbek, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz presidents at the CIS summit in Moscow in late June. Then Putin met them all again in Tajikistan at the start of this month, when the Shanghai Forum met. Jiang was also at that summit and met with the four Central Asian presidents before traveling further to meet the Turkmen president.

The CIS summit and Shanghai Forum summit focused Central Asian attention on the region's security problem. An assassination attempt on the Uzbek president's life last year and an invasion of southern Kyrgyzstan by Islamic militants later that summer has made that amply evident.

The U.S. has provided money and advice on security. But, not least because of geography, the U.S. cannot compete with Russia and China in helping Central Asia combat its immediate security threats.

The Central Asian leaders received promises of military assistance from the presidents of China and Russia. What they received from Albright in April was vocal support in their fight against terrorism and the small sum of $3 million each for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan to bolster their border defenses.

The U.S. emphasis on democracy building might further encourage the Central Asians to turn to their less exacting neighbors. Both Albright and now Sestanovich told Central Asian countries they need to improve in that area. And the U.S. agreed with international bodies that criticized the most recent elections in the region. Russia and China, in contrast, maintain that the internal affairs of Central Asian countries are their own business.

Putin and Jiang have also aimed some criticism at the U.S. by raising the issue of U.S. plans to build and deploy a national missile defense system. Both Russia and China said deployment would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Now, the Central Asian leaders are echoing that line. Sestanovich did not appear to have accomplished much last week. No deals were signed, and no joint statements came out of any of the meetings he had with regional leaders.

Still, as the Asian Wall Street Journal points out, while Russian and Chinese efforts to boost their influence may be working for now, "these authoritarian governments have failed to acknowledge that the best defense against extremism is democracy and economic opportunity."

The U.S. policy toward Central Asia is based on this idea.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)