New `Great Game' In Central Asia
In the southern reaches of the former Soviet Union, Turkey and Iran play out old rivalries among populations with new dreams
THE Araz River wanders like a blue highway across the vast basin ringed by snow-capped mountains, green fields spreading out from both of its banks. From north of here, beyond the towering twin peaks of Mt. Ararat, to close by the shores of the Caspian Sea, this wandering waterway marks the end of the southern march of the Russian empire.Skip to next paragraph
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Here, in the 19th century, the armies of the czar drew the line with the rival empires of the Ottoman Turks and the Persians to the south. Behind the fading eastern empires stood the British lion, battling to bar the Russians from the doorstep of its empire in the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East.
The geopoliticians of London had a name for this rivalry played out along deep valleys and dusty plains: the Great Game.
Now the Great Game is on again. The players are the same but their positions in the field have changed. The British and the Americans are relative spectators, and the collapse of the Soviet empire has sent the Russians into retreat. Now the Game is being played in earnest mainly between the modern-day successors of the Ottoman and Persian empires - Turkey and Iran.
The envoys of these two neighbors cross each other's paths as they vie for influence in the capitals of the newly independent states of the southern rim of the Soviet empire - from Christian Armenia and Shiite Muslim Azerbaijan in the Caucasus across the Caspian to the five Muslim nations of Central Asia.
This reporter encountered them numerous times during his recent travels in the southern reaches of the former empire. Exiting from an interview with Azeri President Yagub Mahmedov in the dusty port capital of Baku, I found three officials of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, their close-shaven bearded faces leaning across a table as they talked to the Azeri foreign minister. The Iranians were due to leave the next day for the Armenian capital of Yerevan, attempting to mediate a shaky cease-fire between warri ng Armenian and Azeri armies in Nagorno-Karabakh.
A couple of weeks later, in the distant Central Asian capital of Alma-Ata, I encountered the new Turkish ambassador as he arrived to present his credentials to Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The next day, a small jet with the markings of the Islamic Republic of Iran stood on the tarmac.
The game even goes on in odd corners of the globe such as the autonomous republic of Nakhichevan, this Azeri enclave enclosed by Armenia on three sides and the Araz River on the fourth. In the anteroom of the Nakhichevan leader, Geidar Aliyev, we mingle with Turkish journalists and business-men. Weeks earlier, Mr. Aliyev visited Istanbul, emerging with a $100 million credit from the Turkish government. The business-men are here to help him spend the money, but the newsmen also have dreams.
According to a 1920 treaty between Turkey and the new Soviet state, one of the Turkish newsmen tells me, the Turks are the "guarantors" of the security of Nakhicheven. "Have you ever been to the Turkish republics?" he asks, referring to the Central Asian states inhabited by mostly Turkic peoples. Soon they will be joined in a union, he predicts, a Turkish version of the European Community.
Later, in Alma-Ata, President Nazarbayev is about to leave for a April 22-23 meeting of the leaders of Central Asia and Azerbaijan. A Turkish proposal to form a "Eurasian Union" is on the agenda, he says.
While waiting for their audience, the Turkish journalists engage in animated talk with a local politician. The young Azeri nationalist regales them with tales of Turkic peoples across the former Russian empire now seeking to regain their ethnic identity. The dream of a pan-Turkic state, is growing, he says.
The Turkish party came by car to Nakhichevan, crossing the river at a 12-mile stretch of border with Turkey. The border is still patrolled by former Soviet border troops.
The traffic is freer across the border with Iran. Azeris live on both sides of the border. The 7 million Azeris in Soviet Azerbaijan claim about 20 million brothers in Iran. But the border was closed by Joseph Stalin in 1946 when Soviet troops were forced to abandon a wartime occupation of northern Iran.
In Nakhichevan people used to gather on the banks of the Araz River and shout news across to their relatives. A couple of years ago, they demonstrated in tens of thousands for the border to be reopened. The border is now open on certain days of the week.
While these links might seem to benefit the Iranian cause, the effect is perhaps quite opposite. As Azeris rediscover each other, they are also reawakening the dreams of a "Greater Azerbaijan." Soviet Azeris have found that while the communist state deprived them of their religious heritage compared to their cousins across the border, their national identity is stronger. Iranian Azeris speak Persian, having been denied the education in their mother tongue that Azeri communists allowed.
In Baku, the Iranian attempt to mediate the Karabakh conflict with Armenia is seen as a conspiracy against the Azeri national cause. "The 20 million Azeris in Iran have less rights than the 500,000 Armenian minority there," historian Rauf Asadov says. "There are 60 Armenian schools but no Azeri schools.... The Iranian clergy are afraid Azeri nationalism will influence Azeris in Iran. It is a bomb under them."
Turks may take heart at such sentiments, seeing in them evidence that their brothers in the Russian empire favor the "Turkish model" of secular nationalism over the Islamic ideology of Iran. But perhaps they should listen to what Isa Gambarov, deputy head of the nationalist Azerbaijan Popular Front and chairman of the parliament's foreign affairs committee, says about closer ties to Iran and Turkey. "We did not fight against Russian domination to place ourselves under the dominance of Turkey or Iran."