TASHKENT, UZEBEKISTAN — IF ever someone could be said to have too many friends, it is Central Asia. The five nations that emerged after the fall of the Soviet empire are being courted by plenty of big-power benefactors eager to spread their influence.
Yet these new friends are unlikely soon to return Central Asia to its medieval glory, when it was at the nexus of the world's key trade routes via the Silk Road. The region has grown too poor to carry much sway of its own, and the landlocked states must beg access to the oceans that link the global economy. Buffeted by the conflicting ambitions of the much stronger nations at its doorstep, Central Asia may not carve out its own political niche for decades, experts in the region say.
From the north, the region's former Russian masters want to manage its trade and arrange the defense of its borders. From the south, Iranian mullahs seek out millions of its lapsed Muslims.
To the west, Turkey is eager to cash in on shared ethnic roots. To the east, an unevenly booming China is hoping Central Asian consumers will buy its exports. Western nations want to teach Central Asia Capitalism 101 while exploiting its mineral reserves.
Inevitably, the biggest problem for the five Central Asian countries created in the breakup of the Soviet Union is their relationship with Russia, to which all of them are still linked via the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). To the West's relief, the CIS has turned out to be little more than an expensive talking shop.
"Of the 500 documents adopted at the various levels by the Commonwealth, few are being carried out," complains Abdulaziz Kamilov, the foreign minister of Uzbekistan.
Now Russia has come up with a new idea seen in the West as a genuine threat to the independence of Central Asian nations. It is offering them a customs union as a way of rebuilding the economic ties severed by the Soviet Union's collapse. Kazakstan has already joined, along with Belarus. Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have also said they will join, although the latter two are haggling over the terms of entry.
The customs union commits members to synchronize their trade laws and tariffs, meaning in practice the acceptance of rules set by Russia. It also allows Rus-sian troops to take part in the patrols of member nations' borders. And it sets the long-term goal of a common monetary policy.
"This doesn't sound to me like a customs union. It sounds to me like the Soviet Union, and I think a lot of nations in the region feel the same way," says a senior Western diplomat in Central Asia.
Indeed, the Russian lower house of parliament passed a resolution on Friday saying that the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union was illegal. And the Russian Communist Party on Sunday unveiled its desire to restore the Soviet Union, though not by force.
"But many [Central Asians] also feel that they don't have a great deal of choice, because their situation is one in which they are in many ways tied to [Russia] economically; in which their own attempts at reform are not proceeding so very well," he adds. "Their backs are up against the wall."
Russia helped put them in a corner by jealously guarding its natural gas and oil pipelines to Western Europe. Turkmenistan, a major natural gas producer, has been allowed to export only to other CIS states, which have run up huge debts and are now trying to use barter to pay for deliveries.
Oil-rich Kazakstan must also reckon with Russian control of its export markets. When the US-based Chevron Corp. began developing the country's huge Tengiz oil field three years ago, it hoped to pump 700,000 barrels of crude a day. But that won't happen until it builds a new pipeline to complement the one that snakes through Russia: For now, Russia has limited exports to just 60,000 barrels daily.
Another problem is that Central Asia's best alternative export route, via Iran, is politically unacceptable to the United States. "Geographically, if not politically, by far the easiest way to get the oil out is through Turkmenistan to Iran and on to the Persian Gulf. It's a short, easy route," says one United Nations official. Yet that option remains a pipe dream given last year's strengthening by the United States of the ban on US business investment in Iran.
Piqued over pipelines
There are expensive plans afoot to bypass both Russia and Iran by building a pipeline beneath the Caspian Sea and across the Caucasus Mountains to Turkey or, more improbably, across China to the Pacific for export to East Asia. America's Unocal Corp. is working on a project to pipe Turkmen natural gas across Afghanistan and burn it in new power plants in Pakistan.
Iran, too, has not lost hope for an economic stake in the region. If it cannot export Central Asia's oil, it can at least take advantage of the new nations' demand for consumer goods. Iranian products are already available in the Turkmen capital of Ashkhabad, just 30 miles from Iran's border. A new rail link between the two countries is due to be opened with much fanfare in May.
Along with Pakistan and Turkey, Iran is linked to the Muslim states of the former Soviet Union through the Economic Cooperation Organization, a loose trade club. But Central Asian consumers are growing frustrated with the second-rate goods that these countries and China are bringing to their bazaars and store shelves. Small-scale Kyrgyz and Uzbek traders are starting to shop in Germany and the United Arab Emirates.
Turkish efforts to draw Central Asia into its cultural orbit have also failed to bear fruit. After more than a century of Russian rule, the Turkic peoples in the region have more in common with the Russians than with their ethnic cousins in Turkey.
Russian TV channels are a top draw in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, despite the fact that residents must pay a fee to receive the full schedule of broadcasts. Free Turkish broadcasts, easily understandable to the Uzbeks, lag behind even the dull local outlets in popularity.
Western involvement in the region has been limited to a few high-profile investment projects, a thin sprinkle of aid dollars, and lots of free advice. "There is a game being played here, and it's a very interesting game," says the Western diplomat. "To be a player, one has to ante up. And these days our available resources are so small that it's difficult for us to enter a high-stakes game in this part of the world, especially as we are already committed to another one in Bosnia.
"That doesn't mean we aren't interested," the Western diplomat adds. But it does mean that Russia won't lose its leverage here any time soon. Its defense of the Tajik-Afghan border against guerrillas fighting the Tajik government is seen as a major barrier to the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. And its economy is crucial to neighbors' growth.
"Our fate, our history is such that we ended up in Russia's orbit. And you know very well that once a planet ends up in orbit around one star, it is hard to move it into an orbit of another star," Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev says in an interview.