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Central Asia: Analysis from Washington -- Oil Defines The Geopolitics Of The Countries

Washington, 20 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev's visit to the United States this week is the latest indication of a fundamental shift in the West's understanding of the geopolitics of Central Asia.

Immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Western governments viewed the emergence of independent countries in Central Asia as the start of a new "great game," this time between pro-Western Turkey and anti-Western Iran.

But that vision of the map of Central Asia, one that defined the region exclusively in cultural and religious terms, quickly dissipated as it became obvious that neither Turkey nor Iran was posed to become the predominant influence in the region.

While Turkey had many advantages -- linguistic, secular, and financial -- it was not geographically situated next door to any of the Central Asian countries and thus has not played the role many in the West had hoped for.

And while Iran had one great advantage -- geography -- its Shiia brand of Islam, its relative poverty, its willingness to cooperate closely with Russia, and its cultural arrogance limited Tehran's ability to project influence on the countries of Central Asia.

As the cultural definition of the map of Central Asia receded, a new economic definition took its place, one that focused on the enormous natural resources -- especially oil and gas -- that several of the countries there, including Kazakhstan, have.

Many Western firms hurried to invest in what they came to believe was the deal of the century. But the narrow economic definition of the region on which their actions rested quickly demonstrated its limitations.

First, these firms discovered that the geography of the region made exporting any of these things difficult, if not impossible. And consequently, their involvement in the region became dependent on the politics of pipelines across other countries, including Russia.

Second, these firms learned that the central governments were often too weak to be able to enforce agreements they made with foreign firms. That led the companies in some cases to back more authoritarian regimes in order to guarantee their investments.

And third, these firms and the governments standing behind them came to understand that the countries of Central Asia are extremely diverse both internally and among themselves.

If none of these countries is simply an outpost of Islam, none is simply an economic entity either. All of these countries are complex combinations of all the things that help define countries elsewhere.

And if these countries have shared a similar fate in the past of Russian and Soviet occupation, they are now becoming ever more different one from another.

That recognition in turn has been reflected during Nazarbayev's visit to the United States. As commentary in both Washington and Almaty has made clear, both Nazarbayev and his U.S. hosts now see the map of Central Asia in far more complex terms.

Both sides clearly recognized that American interests in the region are not defined exclusively by economics or by culture or even by geopolitical considerations.

Instead, in their various public announcements and at an international conference of specialists that accompanied the meeting, both Americans and Kazakhs stressed that the map of Central Asia was now just as differentiated as that of any other region.

Such a statement may seem trivial. But in fact, it marks a major transformation in the way both the West and the countries of Central Asia are likely to do business in the future.

In less than six years, Kazakhstan and its four neighbors have moved from the world of myth to the world of maps. And having gained that status, these countries are not likely to give it up, regardless of what pressures the future may bring.