6: Energy and great power games
Central Asia is rich in natural resources – especially large oil and gas deposits in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan call for foreign interest. The central location near Afghanistan also gives the region great military strategic importance . Both global and regional powers are trying to strengthen their position. At the same time, the old hegemonic power Russia seeks to defend the remnants of its influence.
The Turkmen gas deposits have been the subject of geopolitical tug of war . The EU has wanted Turkmen gas to supply the planned Nabucco gas pipeline – which will provide Europe with an alternative to Russian gas – but has so far been left out in the cold. Russia has opposed the Europeans’ project and pushed for continued export of Turkmen gas through its own pipelines. At the same time, China and Iran have each built their own pipeline to Turkmenistan. The closed regime in Turkmenistan has gained greater traction with both Russia and the EU through cooperation with China and Iran.
Even more important than Turkmenistan is Kazakhstan, which has the world’s 11th largest proven reserves of both oil and gas. Both the USA, Russia and the EU are very active in the oil industry, which has developed remarkably fast since the turn of the millennium. China is still the most important player: Chinese companies have invested more than 9 billion dollars and alone account for more than a quarter of oil production. Both gas and oil pipelines from Kazakhstan will supply the fast-growing Chinese market in the future.
Despite the large investments and the insatiable market for their raw materials, many Central Asians still have a deep distrust of China’s real intentions: Beijing’s latest offer to lease a staggering 10,000 km 2 of agricultural land in Kazakhstan to cultivate it with the help of Chinese farmers. triggered anxiety about colonization and mass immigration. The offer was rejected in cash.
The proximity to Afghanistan makes Central Asia an important support point for NATO . After 9/11, therefore, the United States entered into agreements to establish military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Both countries saw themselves well served by a powerful ally to keep Moscow at bay.
However, the wave of color revolutions in 2004 and 2005 brought Uzbekistan safely back into Moscow’s arms: After the regime massacred hundreds of “extremists”, mostly peaceful protesters, the United States and the European Union were forced to impose sanctions. Uzbekistan responded by forcing the United States to leave the military base and re-entered into a military alliance with Russia. Thus, the whole of Central Asia was again allied with Moscow. The exception was Turkmenistan, which stubbornly adheres to a strict policy of neutrality.
Emerging regional powers such as Iran and Turkey play an important role in the Central Asian game: Both actively invest and draw on common cultural roots. As Turkey seems to have to give up the goal of EU membership, the old dream of a “Turkish union” seems to be given a new lease of life: a “Turkish Cooperation Council” between Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is just stapled. At a summit in Kyrgyzstan, Turkey’s foreign minister recently announced that the “Turkish-speaking countries must be as united as the EU.”
According to COMPUTERDO, Iran, for its part, is active in Tajikistan. President Ahmadinejad has claimed that Iran and Tajikistan are “one soul in two bodies”, and cooperation between the three Persian-speaking countries Iran, Tajikistan and Afghanistan has gained momentum, although the Tajik regime is skeptical of too close an embrace by Iran.
However, the most important international organization in the area is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) . Here, the great powers Russia and China are cooperating with the Central Asian countries on both security policy and economic issues. Skeptical Western observers sense the contours of a future global counterweight to the United States and NATO.
More sober voices point out that the antagonisms between Russia and China are far too great for them to ever form such a “Eurasian bloc.” Behind the cooperation facade, the organization itself is an arena for a game of power politics : Russia is trying to balance China’s dominance by wanting to give India – and perhaps also Iran – full membership in the organization.
China stubbornly opposes this and instead supports membership of Pakistan, India’s arch-rival. For the Central Asian countries, the organization is a useful instrument for playing off the great powers against each other and gaining its own leeway. SCO’s real significance is therefore to maintain a fragile balance of power, rather than to develop a broad collaboration.
In a decade, Central Asia has gone from being a “black hole” to attracting increasing international attention . Norway is also taking part in this development and has just opened an embassy in Kazakhstan. At the same time, Central Asia faces enormous challenges. There is intense rivalry within the region.
In particular, the populous and militarily strong Uzbekistan competes with the prosperous Kazakhstan to take a leading role. Kazakhstan currently has the strongest cards, with a much larger economy, more efficient state apparatus and a much better international reputation. At the same time, the concentration of power in a few hands makes the impending successor issues in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan an unpredictable drama. At the same time, the circles around those in power have little to gain from a profound political change. Stability can therefore be another word for stagnation.