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New Moves On An old Board: Geopolitics in Asia and the Caucasus

Washington, May 13 (RFE/RL) - Today's opening of a rail link between Turkmenistan and Iran, this week's meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organization in Ashkhabad, and last week's Transcaucasian shuttle diplomacy by Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov underscore the extent to which the countries of this region are once again in play on the world's geopolitical stage.

The opening of the rail link is perhaps the most important new factor. It means that the countries of Central Asia -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- now have a trade route to the West that Russia does not effectively control.

This must be a real shock to many in Moscow. Having calculated that the West would never do business with Central Asia or the Caucasus via Iran and that Tehran would always be grateful for Moscow's sale to it of nuclear materials, the Russian government now sees the Iranians going ahead with a project that inevitably weakens Moscow's hand.

Such conclusions may have even led some in Russia to decide to help promote the recent anti-Tehran demonstrations by ethnic Azerbaijanis in northern Iran, one of the means Moscow has traditionally employed to put pressure on the Iranian government and one that in the current situation would exacerbate relations between Tehran and Baku.

Almost equally troubling from Moscow's point of view is the meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organization this week. Founded in 1985 by Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, the ECO now includes Afghanistan and all the historically Islamic former Soviet republics. And as such, it is perhaps the most important economic organization of the Islamic world.

While Russia and other states will be represented at the meeting, the main players will be the Islamic countries, a point that will be lost on no one as the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus seek both to define their identities and to find new markets.

And what is most important and to a certain extent surprising is the following fact: In this context, Iran and Turkey are not the competitors many have assumed they must always be but partners in promoting the opening of a part of the world long dominated by Russia.

And last but by no means least is the meaning of Russian Foreign Minister Primakov's travels in the Transcaucasus. His visit suggests that Russia's longstanding strategy in this region -- seeking to exclude outsiders through a policy of frozen instability while gradually expanding Moscow's influence -- now features three new tactical moves:

First, Primakov is clearly trying to cement a tighter relationship between Armenia and Russia, one that Yeltsin can announce before the Russian elections as a triumph of the Russian president's policy of drawing in the former Soviet republics. Russian pressure on Armenia has been increasing in recent months, and Erevan has indicated ever greater willingness to be drawn back into the Russian orbit.

Second, by becoming more publicly involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, Primakov is trying to make sure that Russia will be the dominant if not the only power involved there. His highly publicized involvement in the exchange of prisoners between Armenia and Azerbaijan is an obvious response to the apparent failure of the West's diplomatic initiative last month.

And third, Primakov is certain to try to rein in Georgia, whose parliament has demanded that Russian troops leave Georgian territory next month unless they act in accordance with existing agreements. Yeltsin undoubtedly cannot afford to take such a step, and Primakov's presence in Tbilisi seems intended to send that message.

Moscow has a variety of means available to counter some of these developments in Central Asia and the Caucasus; indeed, these events make it more likely that Moscow will put them in play. And that in turn could mean an all too exciting summer throughout this region.