US-Russian alliance against ‘terrorism’ changing Central Asian geo-politics

Russia and the US have established reasonably friendly ties in order to avoid conflict between their interests, and occasionally to cooperate for those interests. Moscow’s support of Washington’s war against ‘terrorism’ and the Taliban in return for a free hand in Chechnya is such an occasion. The forthcoming meeting between presidents Bush and Putin is widely expected to be the occasion for the settlement of differences between them over the US’s missile-development project and its proposals for the modification of the Anti-Ballistic Treaty (1972). But Putin also needs to show that he is protecting Russia’s spheres of influence in the former Soviet Central Asian republics, to placate conservative politicians and generals at home, while Washington is interested in developing ties with the republics because they have common borders with Afghanistan, and for economic reasons.

Putin’s departure from Shanghai to go to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, to meet the leaders of the Northern Alliance, composed mainly of representatives of Tajik and Uzbek minorities in Afghanistan, showed that he would not allow any American influence over the NA, insisting that only Moscow would provide the military and economic assistance that the NA need to overthrow the Taliban. He also rejected the US’s proposal that ‘moderate’ Taliban be allowed a role in a future Afghan government.

Moscow is also determined to retain all five Muslim republics (Khazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) within its own sphere of influence. It demonstrated its weight by forcing them to seek its permission before they could cooperate with the US against Afghanistan. Uzbekistan, for instance, has allowed US airmen into its territory only after getting Moscow’s leave. But there are no Russian troops in those republics except Tajikistan, and at least two of them (Uzbekistan and Khazakhstan) have developed strong economic and political ties with the Americans. Both, though members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, to which China and Russia also belong, are distrustful of Moscow, and both have rejected Putin’s offer to send troops to defend them against the local Islamic movement, which they claim is threatening their security.

Uzbekistan and the US announced on October 12 that they had signed what appeared to be a security pact. The joint statement referred to a confidential agreement between the two, signed on October 7, which it said had established “a qualitatively new relationship based on a long-term commitment to advance security and regional stability”. According to the statement, the two governments said that their cooperation against terrorism would include “the need to consult on an urgent basis about appropriate steps to address the situation in the event of a direct threat to the security of territorial integrity of the Republic of Uzbekistan.”

American officials in Tashkent could hardly conceal their delight. “This is quite historic,” said one; “it is the first time something like this has been done with any country that was part of the Soviet Union.” But he was reluctant to describe the accord as a security pact, no doubt as part of Washington’s effort not to embarrass Russia, which is sensitive about its right to be treated as a world power, now that it is no longer a ‘superpower’. Asked whether the agreement was effectively a US guarantee of Uzbekistan’s security, the official said: “We did not use that word.”

According to observers, Islam Karimov, the autocratic Uzbek president, wants the US not to pull out of the region after the Afghanistan operations. He also wants to build a pipeline through US-controlled Afghanistan to a port in US-friendly Pakistan to export his country’s oil. Uzbekistan, like the other four ex-Soviet republics, has no pipeline. Russia held the rest of the Soviet Union with an iron grip and confined pipelines to territories nearer home, building hardly any infrastructure in other areas: a lack that it is now exploiting to force the oil-rich republics to use Russian pipelines. This will not only secure vast royalties for Moscow but also give it strong political and diplomatic levers over those republics. The cheapest route for their oil and gas would be through Islamic Iran, but Washington will not allow that.

In competing for the energy resources of the Central Asian republics, Moscow and Washington will also exploit the various ethnic rivalries in the region. For instance, in the Vergana valley, three republics have large ethnic groups that are barely able to contain their discord. The Northern Alliance is also bedevilled by similar differences.

Moscow and Washington will obviously try to prevent their competition for control from getting out of hand. The Americans, in particular, must be gripped by a feeling of deja vu, as the republics are very similar to the Gulf region, where there is also a mix of oil and gas resources with autocratic and dynastic rulers who have to be protected for fear of something worse replacing them.

Another part of that mix is the growing Islamic revival, which, since September 11, has made the Western powers wary of Muslim rulers, even trusted surrogates. In fact, according to newspaper reports, Moscow is now trying to persuade the US to stop relying on Gulf oil, and sign permanent energy pacts with Russia. But the Russians will first make sure that they also control the resources of the Central Asian republics, in order to avoid having to compete for the US’s energy markets.

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