Great Game awaits new Central Asia

September 24, 1997|By Trudy Rubin

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan -- Here's a geography quiz. In what region of the world did Alexander the Great score great victories, the Silk Road flourish, Islam produce some of its most renowned scholars and Tamerlane build the fabled monuments of Samarkand?

Hint: Russia and Britain staged their 19th-century ''Great Game'' of spies and skirmishes across this region's forbidding deserts and mountains.

Don't feel bad if you can't come up with a name. This region is just emerging from 70 years of Rip Van Winkle-like isolation from the world under Soviet rule.

Central Asia, where the great civilizations of East and West made contact over the centuries, is set to play that role again, now that its peoples have become independent from Moscow. This grouping of five predominantly Muslim countries -- Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakstan -- already has become a strategic focus for the United States.

The reasons? Oil and geography.

Central Asia's place on the map practically guarantees that it will once more become an East-West crossroads. The region bumps against Russian Siberia to the north and China's rebellious Muslim Xinjiang province to the east. To the south are the radical Islamists of Iran and Afghanistan, whose influence many fear may spill over into the region.

''If you draw out the lines from Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, they all intersect here,'' says a savvy Western diplomat in Tashkent, describing Central Asia's immediate or near neighbors. ''The Central Asian region has been a cockpit of confrontation in the past, and it could be again.''

These days any Central Asian confrontation is more likely to be economic than military (with the exception of Tajikistan).

Kazakstan and Turkmenistan, which sit on the oil-rich Caspian Basin, possess huge, undeveloped reserves of oil and gas that experts liken to a second Kuwait. They could lessen Western dependence on the Persian Gulf.

Central Asia's natural riches have attracted the attention of the United States, Russia and China, as well as Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan and the Middle East. If a new Great Game of political intrigue overtakes Central Asia, reminiscent of the 19th-century competition between Britain and Russia, oil and gas will replace a passage to India as the prize.

This region includes the endless grassy steppes of Kazakstan, where Genghis Khan roamed and where the Kremlin sent troublesome minorities and Russian settlers. It also includes the Turkmen deserts and the towering mountains of tiny, poor Kyrgyzstan.

In the middle of the region lie the agricultural heartlands of Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous country with 24 million people, where Islam has the deepest roots.

Diverse roots

Wander into a traditional wedding in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat, where women wear long purple velvet dresses and men dance wildly with one another, and you will find that the music is Afghan and Persian but the lyrics are Turkic. In Uzbekistan, locals still drink green tea out of bowls, a legacy of their Silk Road trade with ancient China.

Given their minimal contact with democracy, Central Asians tend to gravitate toward strong leaders. This is a region where authoritarian presidents build huge palaces and spread the wealth among family and friends.

Central Asian leaders are struggling to create new cultural identities for their countries and to compensate for decades of repressed history and the economic free fall that has followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Turkmen leader Saparmurad Niyazov has fostered a personality cult. Uzbek President Islam Karimov is restoring Islamic monuments, as the symbols of his people's historic greatness.

Future prosperity will depend on Central Asia's ability to develop its natural resources. But would-be oil and gas investors are caught up in the geopolitics of Great Game II. Central Asia is landlocked, and its only existing pipeline network runs through Russia. Some Russian politicians and ministries want to block new Central Asian pipelines that would circumvent Russia, because of the competition.

U.S. policy calls for building more pipelines, including some that circumvent Russia, to promote Central Asian independence. The U.S. embassy in Almaty gives out ''Happiness is Multiple Pipelines'' bumper stickers. More pipelines also will help major U.S. oil firms, which are leading international consortiums that will build them.

In a rational world, all players in Central Asia would benefit from multiple pipelines, even Russia. But in the real world, Central Asia isn't likely to be so lucky. Russia isn't reliable, and the best alternative route to Russia, via Iran, is ruled out by U.S. opposition.

This means that East-West jockeying in Central Asia is likely to continue. Now that Central Asia has been rediscovered, it seems destined to be sucked into a new, if less virulent, Great Game.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pub Date: 9/24/97

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