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Central Asia/Caucasus: Analysis From Washington--The New Geopolitics Of Oil

Washington, 23 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The United States wants to promote a new geopolitics of oil in Central Asia and the Caucasus, one in which all involved can come away winners.

That optimistic goal was sketched out in a speech in Washington on Monday by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. He said that the Clinton Administration wants to avoid a repetition of the nineteenth century "Great Game" between Russia and Britain.

That struggle for power, influence and oil was "very much of the zero-sum variety," Talbott said, one in which every victory by one side represented a defeat by the other.

In the future, Talbott continued, "what we want to help bring about is just the opposite. We want to see all the responsible players in Central Asia and the Caucasus be winners."

Talbott's sketch of a new kind of geopolitics comes at a time of dramatically expanding U.S. interest in this region. Last week, Washington hosted Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. Next week, Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev will arrive for talks.

In the fall, First Lady Hillary Clinton is scheduled to visit Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. And Armenian President Levon Ter Petrosyan may visit the American capital sometime later this year.

Meanwhile, both Congress and foreign policy experts have pressed for expanded American attention to the Caspian Sea basin. Following a speech on this subject to the Heritage Foundation on Monday, Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) yesterday chaired a hearing on this subject.

And the American press has been filled with opinion pieces calling on Washington to pay greater attention to this area. Among those speaking out on this subject was former Secretary of State James Baker.

The reason for all this attention, of course, is the American interest in gaining access to the vast reserves of oil and gas in the region. But is the new kind of geopolitics sketched out by Talbott actually possible?

There would appear to be at least three serious obstacles to his optimistic plan. First, Talbott suggested that the United States wants "all the responsible players" to be winners. But there are two groups of people that he and Washington are likely to exclude.

On the one hand, Washington is unlikely to include Iran in that category because of Tehran's past support of terrorist acts against the West.

And on the other, the U.S. is unlikely to press to include a number of groups in the region -- such as the Chechens and Lezgins -- who currently lack statehood but who live along proposed pipeline routes.

And to the extent that they are excluded, they will feel fully justified in meddling, something that even the smallest groups are capable of doing against pipelines.

Second, the argument about having everyone be a winner presupposes that all the players define winning in much the same, economic way. But many of the countries in the region define winning in an entirely different way.

Some in Russia have made it clear that Moscow would like to prevent oil from flowing out of this region in order to keep countries there weak and politically dependent on it.

The Armenian government has explicitly said that it will not allow oil to flow until there is a settlement of the Karabakh dispute.

And still other groups may see the political victories they can achieve by holding hostage those interested in exporting oil as far greater than any financial rewards the flow of oil might bring them.

And third, even if over time all potential actors in this drama did accept economic profit as the measure of winning, there would still be a competition among some of them over who would win and who would lose.

Russia, for example, is a major exporter of both oil and gas. If other countries in the region are able to export these commodities, that will inevitably put on a hold on price increases and thus reduce the potential profits of Russian exporters.

The American approach to the region sketched out by Deputy Secretary Talbott may in fact help the geopolitics of this region move away from the old zero-sum game. But there seems little chance that the result will be a world without losers as well as winners.