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Central Asia Report: March 23, 2004

23 March 2004, Volume 4, Number 12

CENTRAL ASIA: THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. A high-profile official visit topped the regional agenda, as EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten traveled through Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Patten met with the presidents of all four countries, carefully accentuating the positive while sounding the occasional critical note. Predictably enough, the major theme was EU-Central Asian cooperation on such perennial hot-button issues as promoting economic and political reform, combating the drug trade, and discouraging religious extremism. The trip produced no sensations, rhetorical or otherwise. Notably absent in Patten's itinerary was increasingly reclusive Turkmenistan.

Two hotly debated bills finally cleared Kazakhstan's legislature. On 15 March, a joint session of parliament approved a new constitutional law on elections. Hailed by some as a major advance over existing legislation, the bill drew criticism from others for failing to ensure impartial regional electoral commissions. On 17 and 18 March, both houses of parliament approved a conciliatory commission's amendments to a new media law. Drafted by the country's Information Ministry, the bill has garnered harsh reviews from independent journalists and media watchdogs, who claim that it fails to meet international standards and will strengthen official control over the press. Both bills now await President Nazarbaev's signature.

Meanwhile, observers of Kazakh politics continued to discuss the previous week's events -- the appointment of longtime Nazarbaev loyalist and reputed "gray cardinal" Nurtay Abiqaev as speaker of the Senate and the abrupt dismissal of Emergency Situations Chairman Zamanbek Nurqadilov after he urged Nazarbaev to resign. Various theories emerged, some seeing Abiqaev as aiding the ascent of Nazarbaev's daughter, Darigha, and others seeing him as a potential rival to her. At present, the only consensus is that Kazakhstan's political elite is in for interesting times, what with U.S. courts gearing up to take a closer look at alleged oil company bribes to high-level Kazakh officials and parliamentary elections looming on the calendar in the fall.

Tajikistan's Drugs Control Agency arrested an Uzbek citizen on 15 March with three grams of weapons-grade plutonium, worth approximately $20,000. He told investigators that he had hoped to sell the plutonium in either Afghanistan or Pakistan. The container in which the material was stored appeared to indicate that it originated in Russia, IWPR reported on 19 March. The quantity would be insufficient to produce a nuclear weapon, but could be mixed with conventional explosives to make a "dirty" bomb.

Four members of Tajikistan's opposition Taraqqiyot (Progress) Party announced at a news conference on 18 March that they were ending the hunger strike they began on 12 March to protest the Justice Ministry's delay in registering their party. While admitting that a registration process that is supposed to take one month has dragged on for nearly four, the Justice Minister insisted that the review of the party's documents will continue for "as long as is necessary."

POST-IMPERIAL EURASIAN GAMES. Central Asia has the unique misfortune of laboring under not one, but two cliches. But while references to the Silk Road are an obvious absurdity in an impoverished region crisscrossed by mined, closed borders, the Great Game continues to seduce. Still, as tempting as it may be to recall the swashbuckling 19th-century rivalry between the British and Russian empires for hegemony in Asia, a closer look at today's regional conflicts and conundrums reveals an expanded cast of characters scrambling to secure a plethora of interests.

An atmosphere of great power gamesmanship surrounds several issues that have been prominent of late on the Central Asian agenda -- pipeline politics in Kazakhstan, the division of the Caspian Sea, and the Russian effort to establish a permanent military base in Tajikistan. But how real is the gamesmanship? How great are the powers?

Kazakhstan's Lifelines

Kazakhstan's unabashed ambition is to use its ample natural assets to vault itself into the ranks of oil-exporting powerhouses. Unfortunately, the geology that has been so generous to Kazakhstan is wedded to an inconvenient geography, as all of the country's existing or potential export routes either cover vast distances or cross national borders. Most current exports are transported through Russia. But new projects are slated to come on line in the next few years, and Kazakhstan hopes to boost exports and reduce dependency on its northern neighbor. The two most likely solutions are a new pipeline to China and a connection to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline.

The pipeline to China is a long-term, multistage project. KazMunayGaz, Kazakhstan's state-owned oil and gas company, announced on 24 February that the construction of a 1,300-kilometer-long stretch from Atasu, Kazakhstan to China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region has finally begun. A 450-kilometer leg between Atyrau and Kenkiyak in Kazakhstan was finished in December 2002. The $3 billion Atasu-Xinjiang leg should be ready in two years, China's "People's Daily" reported on 11 March. The entire pipeline, which could eventually deliver 20 million tons of Caspian crude annually to western China, may not be ready until 2008, however, a KazMunayGaz official told "Platts" on 25 February.

The 1,767-kilometer BTC is slated for completion in late 2004, with the first shipments of Azerbaijani oil to arrive in Turkey's Ceyhan Port in early 2005. The pipeline's capacity will be 50 million tons per year. At a recent meeting between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Nazarbaev spoke out unequivocally in favor of exporting Kazakh oil through the BTC. Kazakh Deputy Energy Minister Lyazzat Kiinov announced in Baku on 10 March that Kazakhstan hopes to transport 20 million tons of oil a year across the Caspian from Aqtau to Baku by tanker, Azerbaijan's "Zerkalo" reported on 12 March. Lyazzov added, "If the amounts exceed 20 million tons a year, we'll build a pipeline to Baku on the bottom of the Caspian."

The geopolitical complexities surrounding the future development and export of Kazakhstan's hydrocarbon reserves are formidable however. The pipeline to China is inherently risky as an export route dependent on a single customer. Moreover, China's increasingly voracious appetite for oil has also raised the possibility of a competing Russian pipeline, from Angarsk in Siberia to Daqing in China. For now, the Angarsk-Daqing project seems to have stalled -- its major backer, Yukos, stands at the center of an obscure, and as-yet unresolved, conflict within the Russian elite, and Japan has been lobbying heavily for its own pipeline from Siberia, even offering to pony up the requisite financial support. With the fuss over Russian President Vladimir Putin's re-election out of the way, Russia's resource clans are now sure to turn their attention back to traditional red-meat issues like oil and money. If, as seems likely, this results in a renewed consensus and subsequent movement on a Siberian pipeline project, the Chinese could begin to play Kazakh and Russian projects off each other to maximize their own advantage.

But for now, it is Kazakhstan's increasing commitment to the BTC that has raised hackles in Russia. Viktor Kalyuzhnyi, Russia's deputy foreign minister and presidential envoy for Caspian issues, lashed out at the BTC last week, calling it a "purely American" project, reported on 18 March. According to Kalyuzhnyi, "This is an anti-European project. Not one ton of oil from it will end up in Europe." Kalyuzhnyi has also spoke out against the idea of an Aqtau-Baku pipeline under the Caspian, citing environmental risks.

Such Russian outbursts can touch raw nerves in the reaches of the former empire. Kalyuzhnyi's thinly veiled opposition to the prospect of Kazakh oil flowing to western markets through the BTC drew a catty response from Azerbaijan's "Zerkalo" on 12 March: "By all appearances, the habit of 'sticking one's nose in other people's business' is becoming a part of Russian national policy. Highly placed Azerbaijani officials did not make a single comment about the conflict between Russia and Belarus [over natural gas]. Thus, it seems to us that Russia should not advise...Kazakhstan...where it should look. It seems, however, that it will take Russia a long time to forget its 'imperial ways.'"

Even this much-simplified overview of Kazakhstan's oil export options demonstrates that the issue involves not only multiple actors but actors of varying types. China's external energy policy, for example, is part of the centralized state's larger foreign policy. Russian energy policy is substantially more complex, involving less-than-transparent interaction between state-owned or state-controlled companies (Rosneft, Gazprom), private companies (Yukos), and a presidential administration that has often had difficulty setting coherent foreign-policy priorities based on a clearly defined understanding of the national interest. (Though there are some signs that this may be changing, Russian foreign policy has often seemed to derive more from the particular interests of specific groups within the state than from any shared definition of the national interest, a tendency especially evident in external energy policy.)

The situation is even more complex in Kazakhstan itself, where policymaking suffers from confusions similar to those found in Russia, albeit in conditions of less diffuse ownership and somewhat greater executive control. The heavy involvement of foreign capital and foreign companies in the development of Kazakhstan's oil industry is an additional constraint.

Carving Up The Caspian

Some of the prickly comments by Viktor Kalyuzhnyi quoted above were delivered at the 13th meeting of the Caspian Sea working group in Baku on 16 and 17 March. The group's purpose is to devise a comprehensive legal solution to the problem of demarcating and dividing the Caspian between the littoral states of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan. As the number of sessions suggests, progress has been halting.

The main stumbling block in negotiations over the Caspian's legal status is Iran's insistence that it should receive a 20 percent share of the inland sea. Using a division formula called the "median line," Russia has made independent bilateral agreements with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The formula calls for divvying up the seabed while leaving the water above it to be shared. But the "median line" formula leaves Iran with only 13 percent of the seabed, a figure Tehran refuses to accept.

The working group's most recent session produced little movement. Mahdi Safari, Iran's special envoy for Caspian affairs, reiterated his country's commitment to a uniform solution between the five littoral nations, going so far as to term existing bilateral and trilateral agreements illegal and a source of complication, IRNA reported on 17 March.

More colorful were statements by Russian Envoy Viktor Kalyuzhnyi in response to recent comments by U.S. military visitors to Azerbaijan. On 13 March, General Charles Wald, deputy chief of the U.S. European Command, told a news conference in Baku that the United States has no plans to set up permanent military bases in Azerbaijan, but military cooperation with Azerbaijan could involve training exercises for marine and ground units to improve their antiterrorism capabilities, Interfax reported on 13 March. Azernews reported on 18 March that Admiral Gregory G. Johns, commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe and commander in chief of NATO forces in Southern Europe, contributed the following on 13 March: "Azerbaijan has rich natural resources in the Caspian Sea. The cooperation between the U.S. navy and the Azerbaijani navy may ensure the security of these resources. Joint activities in programs on nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction are also included in the sphere of this cooperation."

Kalyuzhnyi shot back at a 17 March news conference, telling reporters that Caspian littoral countries should be able to reach an agreement to keep naval fleets out of the sea if there is no external interference, Azerbaijan's ANS Television reported the same day. When asked whether "external interference" referred to a U.S. presence, Kalyuzhnyi responded sarcastically, "By the way, I wanted to say that we have an interest in the U.S. Great Lakes. I will soon ask my government to set up a Russian representative office for these lakes." In other comments, Kalyuzhnyi allowed that the demilitarization of the Caspian could take up to 30 years. "But today," he said, "when there's a zone of tension, when there are U.S. bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, I feel that it's not the right time to talk about demilitarizing the Caspian," Interfax reported on 18 March.

Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have not played a prominent role in Caspian talks, a tradition they maintained through the working group's 13th session. Though Turkmenistan's policy is subject to the whims of one-man rule, recent signs point to closer coordination with the Russian approach to Caspian division. For its part, Kazakhstan has been content to let others cross swords over the issues.

Caspian discontent stems from two factors -- Iran's desire to wrest an advantageous legal settlement from the collapse of the Soviet empire, and Russia's desire to prevent outside influences from encroaching on a region it has seen as its sphere of influence for centuries. Though Iran and Russia are more often working at cross-purposes than directly against each other, the result thus far has been deadlock. As Azer Mursaliev, an observer for "Kommersant-Daily" told the BBC on 17 March, "Iran has no need to divide the Caspian quickly. It has its oil-rich shelf in the Persian Gulf. Iran's oil fields are mainly located in the south, so Iran can drag out this question interminably. The situation is different for the post-Soviet countries, which need to produce and sell this oil today." The next round of Caspian talks, this time at the ministerial level, is set for April.

Troops In Tajikistan

Tajikistan lacks enticing natural resources, but its location represents for Russia a remaining military foothold in Eurasia, and for drug traffickers a crucial corridor between Afghanistan's opium fields and Europe's lucrative heroin markets. The recent seizure of three grams of weapons-grade plutonium in Tajikistan shows that drugs are not the only substances that can travel along established smuggling routes.

Russia's 6,500-troop 201st Motorized Infantry Division is a unique Soviet holdover. The division has been "temporarily" deployed in Tajikistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia would dearly like to consolidate it into a permanent military base, but talks appear stalled. As a 17 March report by IWPR detailed, financial issues and questions of ultimate command are the sticking points. According to information leaked to the press by Russian sources, Dushanbe wants Moscow to write off Tajikistan's $600 million sovereign debt and cough up an additional $50 million in cash for the use of a military communications facility in Nurek. More galling to Russia, Tajikistan apparently wants the right to take command of the 201st should an "emergency situation" arise.

Russia has used several bargaining chips in the talks. Russian authorities extradited Yoqub Salimov, a former supporter of Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov who fell out of favor in the late 1990s, to Tajikistan on 24 February. But as, an independent Soros-funded Uzbek Internet newspaper, commented on 18 March, Salimov "didn't add up to an entire military base."

The Tajik-Afghan border is another bargaining chip. When a 10-year bilateral agreement allowing Russian troops to guard the border ran out on 25 May 2003, Tajikistan chose not to renew it. Russia has fought to stay. As recently as 15 March 2004, RFE/RL quoted deputy Russian border-guard commander Aleksandr Manilov as saying, "We believe it is absolutely necessary to guard the Tajik-Afghan border together. The expiration of the agreement doesn't mean we should just pick up and leave." But in an extended interview with official "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 16 March, Russian Federal Security Service First Deputy Chairman Colonel-General Vladimir Pronichev, who also heads the Russian border service, held out the possibility of turning the entire Tajik-Afghan border over to Tajik control. In a remarkable turnaround, Pronichev said, "Tajikistan is a sovereign state with which we have friendly relations. We feel that there shouldn't be two masters on the border."

Meanwhile, Tajikistan has been ramping up its cooperation with the United States, NATO, and the European Union. reported that Tajik border guards have received 40 all-terrain vehicles -- Russian-produced, ironically -- from the United States and will soon receive 20 trucks and 4,000 summer uniforms, aid totaling $1.2 million. "GazetaSNG" reported on 16 March that the EU is allocating 12 million euros ($14.8 million) in aid for Tajikistan to improve border security.

But drugs are not the only concern along the Tajik-Afghan border. As IWPR reported on 19 March, the Tajik Drugs Control Agency arrested a man on 15 March with three grams of weapons-grade plutonium. According to the report, "there seems to be little doubt that the plutonium came from Russia." The smuggler told Tajik authorities that he planned to sell the plutonium, worth approximately $20,000, in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Published reports provided no further information about potential buyers. The quantity confiscated would be woefully insufficient to produce a nuclear weapon, but it could be mixed with conventional explosives to produce a "dirty" bomb.

Tajikistan's impoverishment, porous borders, and proximity to unstable, drug-exporting Afghanistan are its dubious claims to fame on the international arena. The conundrum for Tajikistan is to leverage those concerns into concrete benefits without alienating players -- Russia, the United States, and the European Union -- whose interests may not be entirely compatible. An equally important factor is the role of non-state actors such as international narcotics-trafficking rings and the pervasive corruption that allows them to operate freely and profitably.


All the above paints a selective and incomplete portrait of Central Asia's geopolitical terrain, which also includes Russian-Turkmen gas deals, Uzbekistan's contentious role in the struggle against terrorism, U.S. and Russian military bases in Kyrgyzstan, the rights of ethnic minorities throughout Central Asia, and frequently quarrelsome relations between the five countries that make up the region proper. Despite this multiplicity of nations, international issues, and non-state actors, a post-Cold War version of the "great game" paradigm remains the most popular tool for applying an orderly veneer to disorderly reality.

The conventional view is one of expanding U.S. influence, rising Russian resentment, and a mad scramble for control of hydrocarbon resources. The American historian and political scientist Stephen Cohen provided a classic statement of the thesis in remarks delivered to students at the Russian State University of Trade and Economics on 18 March and reported by Rosbalt the same day. Describing the context as a new "cold war," Cohen said, "American military bases are getting closer and closer to Russia's borders. American bases already occupy, or will soon cover, the Baltics, Central Asia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan. The main reason for NATO's advance to the east is oil. And Moscow has to conduct a policy response." Similar statements pepper the Russian press and permeate coverage on state-controlled Russian television.

While this view cannot be dismissed out of hand, it reduces all of the complexities evident in the three examples discussed here to a single rivalry over a single substance. Important regional actors such as Iran and China vanish, the five countries that make up the region proper lose any semblance of agency, and the internal policymaking dynamics of the two powers presumed to stand at the center of the "new Great Game" fade into obscurity.

Of course, the "Great Game" thesis has two great virtues to recommend it -- it is easy, and it is entertaining. The painstaking analysis of complex relations between a large number of actors with widely varying capabilities and interests alternately contradictory and complementary is, unfortunately, neither easy nor especially entertaining. Such, however, are the rules of the game.