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Central Asia: Caspian States Steer Independent Line

London, 27 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A recent report says one of the major geopolitical surprises since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been the "robust" independence of the new Caspian states, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

The report says these new countries have mostly been quick to exert their independence and to forge distinct national identities. They have also proved extremely skilled at playing off outside interests -- including Russia, Turkey and Iran -- against each other.

The report, "Strategic Survey, 1997/8" is published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, an independent London think-tank that focuses on problems of global security.

The report highlights the new strategic interest in the Caspian Basin states sparked by their large oil and natural gas reserves.

Many analysts after the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union placed great stress on the competition for influence between Turkey and Iran. They assumed that the former Soviet republics around the Caspian Sea would simply divide into blocks, partly determined by considerations of language groups and religion.

Other analysts took a different view: that the Caspian states would soon see a return to complete hegemony by Russia which has dominated the area since Tsarist times. This view was reinforced by the fact that all the communications, transport and economic links of the area were designed in the Soviet era to run to the center and not radially. The deliberate aim was to "dampen any centrifugal forces and frustrate the viability of independence movements."

But the Institute for Strategic Studies report says that neither scenario -- domination by Iran and Turkey, or by Russia -- has materialized. As well as exerting their independence, and forging national identities, the Caspian states have steered skillfully between Iran and Turkey, U.S and Russia and China and the West.

The report cites the case of Azerbaijan which "very deliberately" weighed up its foreign policy interests when deciding on the composition of the Azeri consortia to develop its oil sector.

The report says that an analogy is often drawn between modern-day competition for influence in the Caspian Basin area and what the British writer, Rudyard Kipling, called "the Great Game" of 19th century regional competition between Russia and Britain.

But the report says any parallels between the strategic position in the Caspian region today and that of the 19th century are fairly meaningless; that talk of a new "Great Game" is a journalistic cliche.

The report notes that the rivalries of the last century were played out between just two world nations in a complete power vacuum. Today, the number of external players is larger -- the U.S. and China also have a big interest in the Caspian region -- and their aims are more complex. The report also says -- given the robust independence of the Caspian states -- there is "no longer such a convenient power vacuum for the external players to fight over."