Central Asian energy resources the focus of US-Russian politicking

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In recent months the war of words between the West and Russia has escalated, with president Vladimir Putin delivering the three strongest attacks on the West of his seven-year rule. Not surprisingly, the two summits held between the US and Russia and the European Union and Moscow, on May 15 and May 18 respectively, failed to resolve the energy war between the two sides. But as Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, explained, the confrontation between the two has nothing to do with ideology. The cold war is over and the Soviet Union is dead, after all, while both sides are fully and firmly committed to the new anti-Islam agenda that lies behind the so-called war on terrorism.

Ms Rice, while conceding that tension between the US and Russia is high, asserted that it is well below a new cold war. “I don’t throw around terms like new cold war. It is a big complicated relationship, but it is not one that is anything like the implacable hostility that clouded ties between the US and the Soviet Union,” she said. “It is not an easy time in the relationship.”

But despite the confrontation between the West and Russia, the US government, which is controlled by neo-conservatives and Christian extremists, would rather not classify Russia as its main enemy, preferring to side with it against the rising tide of Islamic radicalism. As Victor Kremenuk, deputy director of the Institute of US-Canada Studies, told the daily Guardian on May 15, “President Bush doesn’t want to add Russia to his list of grievances right now,” he said. “He already has Iraq, Iran and Congress.”

Kremenuk’s remark is particularly interesting: it implies that Bush considers the US Congress –” particularly the House of Representatives, which is controlled by the Democrats, who have been instrumental in the decline of his influence and reputation –” as a greater enemy than Russia. There is, of course, nothing remarkable about the reference to Islamic Iran, which is known to be regarded by the US government as its main enemy: this explains why analysts and observers worldwide assume that Bush is preparing to invade it. In fact, one of the reasons why Washington will not seriously antagonise Moscow is to secure its backing for the anti-Iranian schemes it is pushing through the UN security council, and to persuade it not to react strongly to any invasion of the Islamic state.

The main concern of the US and the EU about Russia is its control of the gas and oil resources of the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, which has become even tighter in recent weeks. At a summit in Turkmenistan on May 12 –” 13, the leaders of the three republics called for a new pipeline along the coast of the Caspian Sea to carry additional central Asian natural gas north into Russia. They also agreed to expand an existing gas pipeline to Russia, which at the moment is central Asia’s only major gas outlet.

The agreements are a setback for the US and EU, which have been urging the central Asian republics to reduce their dependence on Russia by building pipelines across the Caspian Sea to carry oil and gas to Turkey and Europe. Russia already supplies its own oil to Europe, but with the added control over Central Asian energy resources the EU and the US will be directly dependent on it as far as the entire region’s resources are concerned. Hence, the ferocity of the energy war between Europe and the US on the one hand and Russia on the other.

But one of the worst aspects of the conflict about energy is that the US and the EU are prepared to go to almost any lengths to appease the central Asian dictators. Both have been boasting that they are determined to see democratic rule introduced into the developing world and human rights respected. So, when president Nursultan Nazarbayev recently transformed himself into president for life and presented this trick as a constitutional reform, they backed it as a democratic development.

It was on May 18 that Nazarbayev was effectively declared president for life. The state parliament voted to allow him to run for the presidency an unlimited number of times. Not surprisingly, the opposition strongly condemned the ill-conceived process, while the UN ambassador praised it as a “step forward”. Pleased, but presumably not surprised, Nazarbayev signed his elevation to permanent power into law on May 21 –” only three days after the scheme had been put before parliament.

One consequence of the energy war is the very high price of petrol in most places. But one thing is certain: the Muslim owners of the energy will not obtain the true value of their coveted resources. Moreover, when the US and the EU put pressure on Moscow to improve its human-rights standards, it will not be the Muslim victims –”such as the Muslims of Chechnya –” that will benefit. Most of the highly exaggerated improvements will probably accrue, for instance, to the Christians of Georgia, the Ukraine, and other non-Muslim areas of the former Soviet Union.

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