Recent weeks were marked by an increasing war of words between Iranian officials and the U.S. as well as debates in Washington on the practical strategy of military action against Iraq's Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The emphasis that Saddam should be ousted by US troops due to Iraq's program of development of weapons of mass destruction and Baghdad's support for anti-Israeli terrorist groups in the Middle East, makes Tehran nervous about the future course of Washington policies, since the same accusations have already been voiced by US officials against Tehran. All these may force Tehran to re-consider its policy in Afghanistan and to look for new means and resources in possible standoff with America.
The beauty of the global war against terrorism for many of its part-time participants is exactly in the opportunities to reward themselves along the way with many long-coveted prizes. Nobody is more aware of that than Russia's President Vladimir Putin who in fact had started his own counter-terrorist crusade two years prior to 9/11 and now keeps flashing the 'I-have-warned-you' Cheshirean smile. He is into much more than just 'bandwagoning'. While proclaiming the desire to ally Russia with the West, he wastes no chance to advance its strategic interests in the Caspian area and - unlike in his European offensive - much prefers power instruments to diplomacy.
The post-September 11 emergence of a global consensus on fighting terrorism has created grounds for an opportunistic use of this broad objective by Central Asian countries, which have expanded suppression of opposition groups under the pretext of fighting terrorism. While the iron-hand policy towards opposition has been a fact of life in Uzbekistan since independence, the "democratic" regime of Kazakhstan has followed suit without concern about international condemnation. However, indiscriminate suppression of political dissent will not ensure the stability of the Central Asian political systems. Instead, it will contribute to the radicalization of their populations and to the growth of destabilizing extremist groups, and question the legitimacy of fighting terrorism as a global objective.
It is already clear that China is the big loser in the war on terrorism in Central Asia, if not elsewhere. Virtually every plank of its strategic policy for enhancing its influence and lessening American influence in the area has failed and its weaknesses have been cruelly displayed to the world. Therefore, Beijing is now searching for a new strategy with which to regain influence and reduce the threats it perceives from Washington's rising presence in Central Asia.
Recent leaks regarding a possible swap of territories that the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan might have contemplated in an attempt to settle the 14-year-old conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh have prompted much debate in the south Caucasus. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh as \"de facto independent state-de jure part of Azerbaijan\" no longer constitutes a major problem and a remaining hurdle in the peace process is the issue of land corridors. Some details of an alleged deal on the issue were recently revealed by Azerbaijani President Aliyev and, as a reply, by Armenian President Kocharian. The disclosures can be interpreted by an assumption that the idea of exchanging territories has proven to be unrealistic and is no longer on the negotiating agenda.
Recent reports suggest that large numbers of books and journals in the Uyghur language have been burned by the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang. Xinjiang University has also announced that it will no longer teach the majority of its courses through the medium of the Uyghur language, raising concerns about the long term future of this Turkic language and its culture. The latest campaign affects all Uyghurs, not solely the militants, and implicitly categorizes the Uyghur language as disloyal. This repression may be successful in the short-term, but only risks increasing Uyghur dissatisfaction in the longer term.
On June 19, Kazakh TV announced that the Pentagon had requested permission to use the Almaty civilian airport for U.S. military aircraft in the antiterrorist campaign in Afghanistan. This posed a dilemma to the Kazakhstani leadership, which is deeply divided on the whether Kazakhstan needs U.S. military bases. Kazakhstan remains strongly tied to the Russian security system through the CIS Security Treaty and bilateral security agreements. Opponents of the base argue that U.S. presence in Kazakhstan may jeopardize relations with Russia. Proponents argue that increasing U.S. military assistance to Tashkent has disturbed the strategic balance in Central Asia and given additional advantages to Kazakhstan’s long-time rival, Uzbekistan, and that only American help can restore that equilibrium.
Over the past five years, the United States and the European Union have emphasized the important role of countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia in the development of East-West energy and transport routes, linking Central and South Asia with Europe. Less noted, however, have been ongoing developments in the creation of North-South transport routes linking markets in South Asia with Europe via Iran and Russia. While recent analyses of Russian-Iranian relations have largely focused on weapons and technology transfers from Russia to Iran, the nascent North-South transport corridor signals an attempt to restore the historic trade of conventional commodities between South Asia and Europe. This project also demonstrates the common interest of regional countries to multiply the number of trade route options that extend north and south, as well as east and west.
India has sought the construction of an energy pipeline from Russia across Central Asia and China. This proposal shows the Indian wish to avoid energy dependence on Pakistan at any cost, despite the mounting energy needs in India. Although welcomed by Russia and China for further discussion, the feasibility of this pipeline project is highly doubtful for economic, technical, environmental, and security reasons. Whereas the idea could, if constructed, change the energy architecture of the region, it is highly unlikely to be endorsed by the Chinese government.
The new U.S.-Russian partnership expressly includes joint discussions and actions in Central Asia. As discussion on energy issues show, these discussions are not restricted to the war on terrorism. U.S. policymakers seem ready to grant Russia considerable influence in Central Asia, provided U.S. interests are also defended. This could become a durable basis for the external provision of security to the area, but there are potential problems that could erode the mutual confidence needed for partnership to work. One such problem is the future of Turkmenistan where the erratic and sultanistic regime of Sapirmurad Niyazov is clearly in grave trouble.