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Russia/U.S.: Moscow And Washington Vie For Influence In The Caucasus And Central Asia -- Part 4

In the year since he succeeded Boris Yeltsin to the Russian presidency, Vladimr Putin has lost no time in trying to reassert Moscow's influence along its southern flank, especially in the Caucasus and Central Asia. At the same time, the U.S. is continuing to maintain a strong diplomatic presence in the region, both for security reasons and because of the region's vast energy resources. In the last of a four-part series on U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten examines the implications this regional rivalry will have.

PRAGUE, 21 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It was no accident that Vladimir Putin chose to make his first foreign trips abroad as Russian president to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan last May.

Two months later, Putin visited Tajikistan to attend a summit of the Shanghai Five regional economic and security group. He then followed that up with visits to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan later in the year.

Last month, the Russian leader paid a state visit to Azerbaijan, during which the two countries signed agreements upgrading their strategic partnership. Itar-Tass reports that Putin plans to travel to Armenia in May to attend a CIS security conference and is planning an official visit in the autumn.

After years of apparent neglect, Moscow has once again turned its attention to the countries which it still refers to as the "new abroad." The fact that several states in Central Asia and the Caucasus have acquired strategic significance for the United States due to their oil and gas deposits has led some commentators to wonder if a repeat of the 19th-century "Great Game" -- during which Western powers vied with Russia for influence in the region -- is underway.

The answer is 'yes' and 'no.' Visions of petro-wealth gushing from newly discovered oil wells along the Caspian Sea have greatly dimmed and Western investors are now taking a more sober view of the potential size of Caspian Sea oil and gas deposits. More importantly, getting that oil and gas to market is proving to be a political problem as well as a costly proposition.

The result has been a mutual re-evaluation by both Western corporations and regional leaders of the pros and cons of close relations.

Shirin Akiner, a lecturer in Central Asian Studies at London's School of Oriental and African Studies and an expert on the Caspian Sea basin, tells RFE/RL this more sober view by the West has led countries such as Azerbaijan, which once courted the West at the expense of Russia, to reconsider the benefits of a closer relationship with Moscow.

"There is a great deal more pragmatism and realism now in the attitude of the leaders in the region. Their great hopes for the West have been somewhat dashed and they are turning to Russia increasingly for support. That is not to say that they are in Russia's pocket by any means. They will pursue, of course, their independent policies. But certainly they do see that a relationship with Russia could be advantageous."

Robert Ebel of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies has traveled widely in the region. He previously worked as an oil expert at the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Federal Energy Agency. He believes that much could hinge on a recently discovered oil field in the Caspian Sea.

"Much depends on how much oil is in the Kashagan deposit, which is in waters offshore Kazakhstan."

Initial estimates indicate the Kashagan field could be the largest oil find in a quarter of a century, but more testing will be required to see whether this is borne out. At the moment, much of the Caspian's reputed oil wealth remains under the sea. The pipelines to carry this oil to world markets are still on the drawing boards. Plans remain for a Western consortium to open a pipeline running from Baku to the Turkish oil terminal of Ceyhan in 2004. Russia hopes to put into service another pipeline, running from Kazakhstan's Tengiz oil field to the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk by the end of the year.

One unpredictable factor is how Washington's relations with Iran will develop under the new U.S. administration of Republican George W. Bush. Vice President Dick Cheney, on the campaign trail, repeatedly underlined the importance of keeping oil supplies flowing to America. He stressed his opposition to U.S. sanctions against Iran for this reason. If Tehran and Washington were to strike a pipeline deal, it could prove a blow to the Caspian states' oil export hopes.

Apart from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, most of the rest of Central Asia and the Caucasus is not blessed with large oil or gas resources. Western interest in the region has been measurably smaller as a consequence, prompting states such as Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan also to seek closer relations with Moscow. Akiner says Russia's renewed interest in the region cannot be therefore seen as totally unwanted.

"Russia is certainly reasserting its influence in Central Asia, but I think this should be seen against a background of the Central Asians themselves wanting Russian involvement, firstly. Russia remains an important market for Central Asian goods. There were hopes that the Central Asian countries could find new markets in the West. This has proved to be something of an illusion, so for now, and for the future, Russia is likely to remain the main market."

Akin adds that when it comes to security threats from Islamic terrorists or drug smugglers, the Central Asians do not have the resources to face these problems alone. Here again, the help that Russia is prepared to give is seen as irreplaceable.

But Russia's ultimate hegemony in the region is not guaranteed.

Andrei Piontkowsky, the head of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies, says a lack of finances hobbles any colonial aspirations Russia might still harbor. In his view, the United States should not worry about a return of the Soviet or old Russian empire.

"In order to have integration, to have a new type of pseudo-empire, we would have to pay, with economic subsidies, cheap energy etc. [To] tie all these republics into some sort of union is something Russia won't do, simply for economic reasons."

Commentator Robert Cottrell, writing in the British daily "Financial Times" this week, cites another reason. He acknowledges that Russia is diplomatically active, including in the Caucasus and Central Asia, yet Cottrell writes that Russia may still not have a clear concept of its national interest.

He writes: "[Russia] is a democracy but not a liberal one. It is a poor and relatively weak country that demands for much of the time to be treated as a rich and powerful one." Cottrell continues: "Until it knows what sort of country it wants to be, it cannot know where its long-term interests lie."

In the meantime, pragmatism on all sides appears to be the order of the day. The Central Asian states and Azerbaijan, sensing cooling interest in their economic potential on the part of Western investors are sidling up to Russia. Moscow is doing what it can to maximize the relationship without spending too much of its own money, and the United States takes a cautious approach.

It remains to be seen who will be left with the better part of the bargain.