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Russia Watches US In Asia

U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Andrei Grozin
UPI Outside View Commentator
Moscow (UPI) Apr 06, 2006
U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said in Astana the other day that Kazakhstan should lead the effort to develop the energy sector infrastructure and set up additional transit routes for energy resources.

Although he talked exclusively about energy resources, it is worth noting statements by high-level U.S. officials, if only to find out whether the United States has embarked on a new policy in Central Asia.

At first, there was no new policy. Events in "the new Asia" were of interest exclusively to its neighbors. Moscow and Tehran took an active part in the settlement in Tajikistan and were successful. China not only reached an agreement with Kazakhstan on localizing separatist movements, which tried to set up strong points on Kazakh territory for action in Xinjiang in the first half of the 1990s, but also resolved bilateral territorial issues.

Kyrgyzstan also worked toward settling the border problem with China. Despite a host of subjective problems, Turkmenistan developed effective trade and economic relations with Russia and Iran. Moscow and Beijing facilitated the involvement of all postwar Asian republics, except Turkmenistan, into the Shanghai Five, or Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is seeking to implement a number of major transportation, economic and trade projects and promoting good neighborly relations within the SCO.

Until September 2001, the United States, and the West in general, paid little attention to the region. They merely mentioned its huge energy potential and were not too active in defending the few local dissidents. For a long time, the United States had a very cautious, if not hostile, approach to the newly independent Asian republics. The West was convinced that Muslim Central Asia was a convenient bridgehead for the dynamic growth of Islamic radicalism. But experience shows that post-Soviet Asia has proved capable of political and business cooperation with the world powers, while Islamic extremism has not yet become firmly established in the region. It has been engaged in a long struggle for this goal, but quite often without much success.

Until recently, Washington's economic and defense cooperation with these countries was based on unilateral advantage and minimal costs.

There are reasons to believe that Washington has drawn some conclusions from its Iranian experience of 1979, when the Islamic revolution destroyed in less than a month and a half the United States' 10-year-plus work with the Shah's regime. The latter looked fairly pro-Western, but was burdened with clan corruption and the poverty of more than 80 percent of its population. The situation in the post-Soviet Asian space is pretty much the same.

The United States is pursuing its strategy on several levels. It is flirting with the top echelons of local power, promising to help them solve their major domestic problems, and making some moves to the West-oriented local opposition, funding it through various non-governmental organizations as a potential "reserve." The United States is stepping up its economic influence in the region, relying on its new military bases.

At the same time, the U.S. effort to expand its military presence in the area has led to negative domestic processes in newly independent Asian countries.

The regime of Askar Akayev was toppled in Kyrgyzstan in March 2005 after a week of disorder and pogroms in its southern regions and the capital. Events of the last few months show that tensions in the republic have been escalating. In all probability, it is bound for long-time instability due to a violent change of power.

In the last three years, domestic protests have been growing in Uzbekistan and the government will unlikely be able to suppress them. Given the high birth rate, the skidding Uzbek economy cannot provide stable jobs and enough pay for the residents of agrarian regions.

The Uzbek authorities counted on economic and military-strategic partnerships with the United States as a hope of getting help in solving economic problems. But by late 2002, Tashkent became wary of excessive dependence on the United States in different spheres due to the appearance of American military bases on Uzbek territory.

After the suppression of riots in Andijan, Western government and human rights organizations launched a full-scale information war against Uzbekistan. Tashkent parried the appeals for stronger economic and political pressure on the regime with the withdrawal of the U.S. base from its territory, the full-scale re-orientation of its foreign policy in regards to Russia and China and entry into the Eurasian Economic Community.

Having lost its positions in Uzbekistan, the United States is rushing to build a new strategy in Central Asia.

Now the United States is trying hard to turn Kazakhstan into its "strategic regional partner." Washington has been very complimentary of Astana of late and is even actively lobbying the idea of the Kazakh leaders -- which appeared on the eve of the presidential elections in the republic in December 2005 -- about the republic's special mission as the regional leader in Central Asia and the Caspian area. That is the gist of statements that the U.S. energy sSecretary made in Astana. Mostly, he was talking about the U.S. desire to achieve early completion of the Kazakh-Azerbaijani talks on transporting Kazakh energy resources via the BTC pipeline.

It is easy to see why Washington is eager to see Kazakhstan in the role of the leader -- after a setback with Tashkent, it does not have other options since Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are the only post-Soviet Central Asian republics that can claim the role of regional leader. In addition, Astana's pragmatic Caspian policy allows American multinationals to freely invest in oil production and control a huge share of profits -- if oil business is based on physical control of oil reserves, the distribution of profits from oil sales is even more important.

At the same time, the signing of the intergovernmental agreement on Kazakhstan's joining the BTC pipeline has been suspended more than once and Washington is getting nervous. Speaking of Astana's potential domination of the region, the United States is striving for its own supremacy there. It presents its desire to "rule" in the Caspian area in a very attractive package -- a stable and predictable investment climate in Kazakhstan will not only attract more investment, but will also create more jobs, explained Bodman. In the next five years, the amount of investment in Kazakhstan could double, he said.

The Kazakh authorities keep talking about their country joining the ranks of the top 10 oil producers in the next 10 years. In light of this, it does not make sense for Astana to give up its maneuvering between the world centers of power, a policy which has brought it so many dividends.

But it should not forget that having launched several velvet-type revolutions in post-Soviet space, the West has radicalized the struggle for influence in the former Soviet republics since late 2003. They have exacerbated the struggle of the political elites there. Eventually, all these games in Central Asia could end badly. For all the talk about "a strategic partnership" and promises of lavish investment, the United States will never change its strategy of rotating elites in post-Soviet republics.

Andrei Grozin is the head of the department of Central Asia and Kazakhstan at the Institute of the CIS Countries in Moscow. United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.

Source: United Press International

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