Catalysts of conflict in Central Asia
By M K Bhadrakumar

Asia Times Online, Hong Kong
June 1 2005

In the wind-swept, remote Turkmen town of Krasnovodsk on the Caspian
Sea, on an obscure leafy street, an unpretentious shed stands with a
plaque announcing the place where the commissar extraordinary for the
Caucasus of the Bolshevik Party, Stepan Shaumyan, friend and long-time
comrade of Vladimir Lenin, George Plekhanov and Julius Martov,
was trapped by British interventionist troops the night before his
execution in the nearby desert in the early hours of September 20,
1918, along with 25 other Bolsheviks. The 26 "Baku commissars" had
a special place in the pantheon of heroes of the Russian revolution.

The objective of the British expedition, headed by Major General
Wilfred Malleson of the Military Intelligence branch of the Indian
Army, was to seize the great oil fields in Baku (Azerbaijan) ahead
of Enver Pasha's advancing Turkish troops (Army of Islam) or the
Kaiser's German troops - and to block a Bolshevik consolidation in
the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Of course, the "maximalist" agenda was a partition of Russia between
Germany and Britain - similar to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916
between Britain and France dividing the Ottoman territories in the
Middle East. Leopold Amery (who advised British prime minister Lloyd
George) proposed that Japan (which was in control of Manchuria and
part of eastern Siberia) and the United States should also be invited
to associate themselves in the enterprise of occupying the vast lands
from the Urals to Siberia.

Therefore, there was some degree of historical poignancy in the
ceremony in Baku last week signifying the formal opening of the
1,700 kilometer, US$3.6 billion Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline
(BTC) running from the Caspian Sea via Georgia to Turkey's eastern
Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. The BTC is the first-ever trunk route
for Caspian oil bypassing Russian territory.

It is, predictably, an American enterprise. In the fullness of time,
BTC will have a capacity to transport 1 million barrels of oil per
day. Considering that the world's daily consumption of oil is soon
expected to touch 90 million barrels per day, BTC's contribution
to the oil market at its optimal best five or six years hence may
appear negligible. BTC's immense geopolitical significance by far
exceeds its impact on the oil market. With BTC, the geopolitics of
the Caucasus and Central Asia are shifting to a new level.

Looking back, the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 had little to
do with the real world of Georgian politics or the global democracy
crusade of the George W Bush administration. Eduard Shevardnadze,
who was overthrown in that revolution, was a democratic hero for the
Americans. Georgia became the third-largest recipient of American
aid after Israel and Egypt. But Shevardnadze, who kept up old links
with Moscow dating back to his 30-year career in the KGB, the Soviet
state security ministry, had to go as a new leadership was needed
in Tbilisi that was exclusively, unreservedly oriented to the US.
Tbilisi could be a caravanserai of the Silk Road leading from China
as it leaps across to Europe - indeed, terribly important real estate.

BTC's passage through Georgia had met with popular resistance. It was
projected that pipeline companies would employ 70,000 Georgians. But
in the event, not more than 250 people will be hired in Georgia.
(About 45% of Georgia's population is unemployed.) Whole communities
were uprooted along the pipeline's route. Georgia will get $50 million
as an annual transit fee (which is not a small amount for Tbilisi,
with its budget under $1 billion), but unanswerable questions arise
regarding damage to the environment, including renowned regions such
as Borjomi, Kharagauli National Park (abode of the endangered Caucasian
leopard and some 1,600 unique plant species) or the unstable Caucasian
mountains perennially vulnerable to landslides. The pipeline makes
1,500 river crossings.

The saga leaps out of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The US
has so far spent $64 million to train Georgians in "anti-terrorism"
tactics for safeguarding the pipeline and has earmarked another $100
million for training and equipping a Caspian Guard that will protect
American oil facilities and key assets. This despite the question
marks about BTC's economic viability: Azeri oil wells are depleting
and Kazakhstan is yet to commit its oil for BTC.

Why should the US go to this trouble? Clearly, oil and gas do
not provide a complete answer. US experts estimate that proven
recoverable oil resources in the Caspian Sea work out to anywhere
between 10 billion to 32 billion barrels with possible reserves up
to 233 billion barrels. All the oil and gas in the Caspian Sea put
together might account for only 4% of world supplies.

So, what is the brouhaha about BTC? It is now becoming clear that
the US is keenly seeking three military-cum-air bases in Azerbaijan
(Kurdamir, Nasosnaya and Guyullah). That was the mission undertaken
by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on his low-key visit
to Baku on April 12. All eyes are on Baku. Moscow and Tehran are
watching: would Baku enter into a Faustian deal with Washington? Of
course, the phenomenon of "Velvet Revolution" is a real-time asset
to US regional diplomacy. But what complicates the equation is that
there is a three-way split in the Azeri polity - the Aliyev regime,
a secular opposition and a steadily expanding Islamist opposition. A
"Velvet Revolution" in Baku may prove to be indecisive, or worse still,
it may boomerang, like in Kyrgyzstan.

Tehran apprehends that any US bases in Azerbaijan would imply an
American arc of encirclement of Iran. Iran negotiated a defense
agreement with Azerbaijan in April so that neither side would allow
its territory to be used against the other. Tehran has proposed a
convention for building confidence among Caspian littoral states
as a step toward collective security of the region and preventing
a foreign military presence altogether. Russia and Kazakhstan favor
the idea. Iran has since shown interest in forming a "rapid reaction
force" with Russia in the Caspian. But as long as differences
persist among littoral states regarding the legal status of the
Caspian Sea, collective security remains a difficult idea, while
potentials for conflict arise, which, in turn, become a pretext for
American involvement.

Russian military analysts have warned that Washington aims at creating
a US-Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey alliance in the region and hopes to
rope in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as well - and that
radars installed in any American bases in Azerbaijan or Georgia could
cover Russia's industrial regions in the south of the Urals, which
play a vital role in Russia's overall defenses. Russian President
Vladimir Putin chose the eve of BTC's opening to convey that "I do
not want troops of third countries to be deployed in Georgia after
our withdrawal. This would threaten our security and the Georgian
partners should understand it ... Nothing requires the immediate or
rapid withdrawal of our troops. The Russian side believes that the
pressure from the Georgian side is unsubstantiated."

The point is Caucasus is a region of "frozen conflicts" -
Georgia-Ossetia; Ossetia-Ingush; Georgia-Abkhazia; Chechnya; the
Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict; ethnic conflicts involving migrant
Armenian communities in Kuban and Stavropol territories; divided
nationalities of Lezghinians, Ossetians and Avars; persecuted
Meskhetian Turks; Armenia-Turkey, and so on. It takes no effort to
stir up the pot. Moreover, Russia itself is a Caucasian state as 10
of its federal regions are located in North Caucasus. The territory
of North Caucasus is actually bigger than Georgia, Azerbaijan and
Armenia put together.

Suffice it to say that any US military bases along the peripheries
of Russia's North Caucasus regions would hold profound implications
for Russia's security. (Interestingly, the pro-Chechen lobby group
in Washington, the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, includes
such luminaries of neo-conservatism as Richard Perle, Elliot Abrams,
Kenneth Adelman, Midge Decter, Frank Gafney, Bruce Jackson, Michael
Ledeen and James Woolsey.)

Furthermore, the American move to secure bases in Azerbaijan
coincides with the renewed efforts lately by Moscow, Tehran and Baku
to collaborate on a North-South transportation corridor linking Russia
and Iran via Azerbaijan that could provide Russia access to the Gulf,
Middle East and South Asia. American policies throughout the 20th
century worked hard to deny Russia such access. (The Anglo-Russian
Entente of 1907 had much the same thrust - that imperial Russia would
stay off Persia and "the frontiers of Afghanistan and Balochistan".)

It comes as no wonder, therefore, that the doyen of Russian
orientalists (and former prime minister), Yevgeni Primakov said last
week, "Russia seeks stronger ties with its Chinese neighbor ...
Russia-China rapprochement is particularly essential in view of
some negative phenomena and processes in international affairs. Such
processes include the US's stated course toward 'exporting' democracy
to countries it deems it is lacking. Washington's plans to support
some Islamic movements are no less alarming. The US's contacts with
'Muslim brothers' seeking to change power by unconstitutional methods
.. aggravate the situation in some countries close to the Russian.
and Chinese borders. Therefore, consultations between Russia and
China and a common position in favor of stable regional and global
situation are becoming more and more important."

The struggle in the Caucasus and Central Asia is quintessentially a
resumption of the struggle 90 years ago in which the Baku commissars
laid down their lives. With the consolidation of the Russian revolution
by the early 1920s, with the deepening economic crisis in Europe in
the 1920s and the phenomenal rise of fascism, priorities had changed
and the struggle with Russia had petered off. The "foreign devils"
packed their bags and left inner Asia. Then came the world war, the
Soviet Union's emergence as a superpower, the revolution in China
and the 50-year Cold War.

With the dismemberment of the Soviet state, and the weakening of
Russia, the struggle in inner Asia is resuming. The BTC's opening
is a defining moment. At a minimum, the struggle is over control
of the Caucasus and Central Asia. On the very outside, it can mean
the breakup of Russia and China. Primakov put it succinctly when
he identified "China's rapid economic growth and Russia's economic
consolidation ... [and] accent on the political means of ensuring
China's territorial integrity" as Moscow's regional priorities.

The forthcoming foreign ministers meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization (SCO) on Friday and Saturday and the summit meeting
in Astana on July 5-6 will be momentous. Central Asian security has
deteriorated since SCO leaders last met in Tashkent in June 2004.

Acting president of Kyrgyzstan Kurmanbek Bakiyev told the Russian daily
Kommersant last week that a new military base would be opened in Osh
in the Ferghana Valley either under the auspices of the Collective
Security Treaty Organization or SCO in addition to the Russian base
in Kant. Felix Kulov, Kyrgyz leader in the forefront of the Tulip
Revolution, added: "There should be a Russian presence in the Osh
area ... we want to work in concert and Russia should agree to it,
because it is advantageous to Russia ... Russia is traditionally our
best friend and one cannot change friends."

The SCO has a lot to ponder over.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian career diplomat who has served in
Islamabad, Kabul, Tashkent and Moscow.