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Central Asia: Experts Debate Terrorism Influence

Analysts debate the effect of the terrorism crisis on the Caspian region and Central Asia. Some find more welcoming of a Western presence for the sake of stability, while others see continued resistance because of competition for oil.

Boston, 10 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Experts are divided on whether attitudes will change toward a Western presence in the Caspian and Central Asian regions as a result of the war against terrorists based in Afghanistan.

Some analysts believe that cooperation between the United States and Russia in the fight against terrorism could open a new chapter in relations, particularly in Central Asia. There seem to be more questions about whether the same spirit will extend to the Caspian and Caucasus areas.

Fiona Hill, a fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told RFE/RL, "It already seems to be a fait accompli that there's going to be some kind of a long-term presence in the region, for at least six months."

So far, Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed the U.S. military response to the attacks of 11 September, including limited operations in Uzbekistan. Although Russian airspace has been officially opened only for humanitarian purposes, Putin said on 8 October in Moscow that U.S. and British air strikes on Afghanistan were justified and showed the "unity of humanity" against terrorist acts.

On 9 October, Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo said that cooperation with the United States could be expanded, RIA-Novosti reported. At a CIS collective security meeting in Dushanbe, Rushailo said that the new activities "should naturally be registered juridically and limited by the time of the antiterror operation, possibly by means of signing special agreements with the U.S."

Fiona Hill of Brookings said that Russia may be trying to establish its own presence in Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov has withdrawn from CIS collective security arrangements. While Russia has up to 22,500 troops under its command in Tajikistan, it has no similar presence in Uzbekistan. This year, Russia signed an agreement that could increase its troop strength in Tajikistan to 50,000.

Hill said, "The feeling may be that if the (United States) is going to be in Uzbekistan, the best thing would be for the Russians to join them."

While Karimov is likely to be wary, there seems little doubt that the events of 11 September have changed attitudes in the region, at least in the near term.

Sensitivities to the idea of a Western presence were raised in 1999, when the security adviser to Azerbaijan President Heidar Aliev, Vafa Guluzade, urge the establishment of a NATO base in his country. While there has been no sign that United States ever sought such a facility, the call sparked strong opposition in Russia and Iran.

Iran has been particularly on guard against any U.S. influence as a result of oil development in the Caspian region, while Washington has tried to promote pipeline routes that avoid Iran.

Martha Olcott, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said some of the wariness among other countries about a U.S. presence may have changed as a result of the security crisis.

Olcott said, "Now half of the world is willing to give us a NATO base." At the same time, she said the growing understanding with Russia opens the possibility that "the whole nature of NATO will change to be more inclusive."

Olcott added: "That changes the whole question of bases in the region. That makes it much less controversial."

The question in Olcott's mind is whether Central Asian nations will prefer Russian protection out of fear that a Western presence could prompt further resentments and risks to their stability.

Hill believes that U.S. influence in the Caucasus and Caspian regions will be more problematic for Russia because of the oil issue. Others argue that demilitarization is the only solution in the long term.

Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, made the case that the eventual withdrawal of all military forces from the region is the only way that long-term stability can be achieved.

Starr argued that all major forces in the Caspian, including Russia, Iran, and Turkey, have recently made bold military moves that have raised tensions, even before the conflict over the 11 September attacks.

Caspian nations have been on edge since last 23 July, when an Iranian gunboat threatened two oil survey ships from Azerbaijan in contested waters. The event led to a show of Turkish air power on behalf of Azerbaijan. The dispute remains unresolved.

Starr said, "This is the kind of situation where we could make a grand understanding: no foreign troops in the region." He added, "We should be saying, look, we're not going in, but you stay out."

Others say that demilitarization now seems a long way off.

Olcott said, "It may be what's best for the world, but I wouldn't see much of a chance."