Russia, China warily watch for American intrusion in Central Asia

  • From: "Muslim News" <editor_@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Muslim News" <submit@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sat, 4 May 2002 12:09:15 +0100

As small Central Asian countries have struck military alliances with the United 
States, their leaders have asserted their own power more aggressively. At the 
same time, the presence of American soldiers threatens to dilute Russia’s and 
China’s power to influence the region’s politics and economics. Since September 
2001, Russia and China have cooperated with Washington’s moves and generally 
affirmed its aims. But as the fighting in Afghanistan winds down, hard-liners 
in both countries are expressing resentment and apprehension about a prolonged 
American presence in a region they consider their backyard. 

Where elites from smaller Central Asian states revolted after their leaders 
gripped power more tightly bureaucrats in Russia are pressuring President 
Vladimir Putin to resist American maneuvers that would make the United States a 
fixture in the region. As six American F-18 jets arrived in Kyrgyzstan on April 
20, Russia’s Duma disavowed a promised rescheduling of Kyrgyzstan’s $133 
million debt to Moscow. President Askar Akayev was forced to strongly deny 
speculation that American bases could "conflict with Russian interests" or 
start "limiting [Russia’s] influence in the region or pushing Russia out 

To this point, Moscow and Washington are officially partners in the 
antiterrorism coalition. For China, whose relations with the Bush 
administration have been rough, the presence of American soldiers is more 
ominous. Soldiers in Bishkek are only 200 miles from the Chinese border, and 
Chinese officials vocally worry about mischief. "Beijing’s policy is against 
strategies of force and the US military presence in Central Asia," President 
Jiang Zemin said on April 21 while visiting Tehran. 

China does not fear an invasion so much as a costly, time consuming struggle 
for control of the region’s natural and capital resources. American silence on 
its long-range plan feeds those fears. Says a European ambassador in Kabul: 
"The danger of a new Great Game in Central Asia between the US, Russia and 
China is very real unless the Americans spell out their intentions." 

Putin has already put down Russia’s marker. As Russia tries to boost its own 
oil production and sale, the president has warned Americans that he will not 
refrain from working without their cooperation. In a January 21 meeting with 
Turkmen President Saparmyrat Niyazov, Putin raised the idea of creating "a 
Eurasian alliance of gas producers." While Putin did not address the transport 
of oil, this idea endangers American efforts to guide the construction of an 
enormous pipeline from the Azerbaijani capital of Baku through the Georgian 
capital of Tbilisi to Ceyhan on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. 

The pipeline, if it comes together, would carry Kazakh oil and oil from other 
former Soviet states but would bypass Russia and Iran, denying those countries 
shipping and construction revenue. While machinations surrounding that pipeline 
continue, Chinese interests have invested as much as $6 billion in Kazakhstan’s 
oilfields, for potential pipeline delivery into China. 

Whatever these games cost, they could end in shame unless Central Asia becomes 
a stable place to work and live. Without democratic reforms and with corruption 
rampant, all Central Asian economies suffer from high unemployment, poor public 
health and flimsy public education. The United Nations estimates that 70-80 
percent of the populations of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan lives below the poverty 
level. In parts of Kyrgyzstan, one hears of people eating rats and dogs. Such 
conditions prevent people from organizing to effectively demand reform.

Fundamentalism grows in response to the same factors that drove Turkmenistan’s 
Boris Shikhmuradov and other elites into exile: suppression of secular 
democratic political parties, tight state control over local media and 
multiple, persistent corruption scandals. While nobody expects an Islamic 
revolt like the one that changed Iran in 1979, some elites have concluded that 
– in the shadow of American, Chinese and Russian intrigue – their leaders are 
unwilling or incompetent to reform their political systems. "All the regimes 
have escalating political problems and we don’t know if it will take one year 
or three years to see major changes," says a political analyst in Washington. 

As heads of state have stalled, international organizations have stepped in 
with their own agendas – potentially further reducing Chinese and Russian 
influence. The World Bank plans to loan $1.5 billion in the region over the 
next decade; the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has announced 
plans to lend $300 million this year. 

They will bring political influence with their money. "Since September 11, a 
lot of our shareholders discerned the importance of this region, and we are 
going to take advantage of that to wield a cohesive policy," World Bank 
President James Wolfensohn told reporters in Almaty on April 9. Central Asian 
presidents may not hear a warning in Wolfensohn’s talk of "cohesive policy." At 
the same conference where Wolfensohn spoke, Kazakhstani political advisor 
Ermukhamet Ertysbaev gave his boss license to continue deferring elections. 
"Foreign investors don’t care where they are investing money, be it in a 
dictatorship or democracy," he said. 

As long as American policy in the region emphasizes troops over reform, some 
fear this calculation may be right. "The Americans make statements that don’t 
tie them down to anything and which are ignored by the Central Asian regimes," 
says Emil Aliev, leader of Kyrgyzstan’s opposition Ar-Namys party. 

Even if the United States has refrained from sternly demanding reform, some 
observers say, its presence is making some leaders act so outrageous that the 
opposition is growing more vocal. If that continues to happen, Washington may 
have to decide whether to cast its lot with largely discredited rulers or work 
to promote messy transitions to democracy. The dilemma grows murkier when one 
realizes that many of the new opposition leaders have been timeservers in the 
regimes they now criticize and many are also engulfed in corruption scandals. 

As opposition forces coalesce, Russia and China will also have to make 
long-range decisions about how and when to intervene. So far neither Russia nor 
the United States is openly supporting the Turkmen opposition. Uzbek President 
Islam Karimov signed a treaty on March 13 that gives Washington something of an 
out. While the United States pledges to "regard with grave concern any external 
threat to Uzbekistan," it also obligates Karimov "to intensify the democratic 
transformation of [Uzbek] society politically and economically." Meanwhile, 
China and Russia are nervously watching to see if that transformation pits them 
against the United States or throws the region into chaos. 
Source: EURASIA 

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