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Big powers jockey for oil in Central Asia

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 2007



DUSHANBE, TAJIKISTAN

Here at Dushanbe airport, French Air Force planes sit on the tarmac, their blue, white, and red roundels looking a bit incongruous against the backdrop of the soaring, snowy Pamir Mountains.

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A dozen miles away, Indian engineers are quietly reconstructing a former Soviet airfield. In central Tajikistan, Russia maintains a motorized infantry division of 10,000 men at a sprawling outpost, while the US is reportedly training Tajik forces in counterterrorism techniques.

They're all piling into a modern replay of the 19th-century "Great Game," in which the contending Russian and British Empires vied for land and influence amid these same Central Asian desert wastes and towering mountain peaks.

In this round, the main prize is control over pipelines that will deliver an estimated 5 percent of the world's dwindling energy reserves to market. And the players are far more diverse: In addition to the US, China, France, and India, the region's five post-Soviet states are getting into the game, giving the local hazards that stalk them – including faltering authoritarian governments, rising Islamic militancy, and a wave of drug trafficking that originates in the poppy fields of Afghanistan – a new international dimension.

"The game in Central Asia is very much about competition between the powers," says Dmitri Suslov, an expert with the independent Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow. "But this time the countries of the region are players themselves, using the contradictions between Russia, the US, the European Union, and China for their own benefit. It's becoming very complicated."

It's not only Tajikistan where world powers have taken to flying their flags, especially since the 9/11 attacks focused attention on the dangers of state failure in this volatile region.

In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, gleaming rows of US Air Force KC-135 midair refueling tankers line the airstrip at Manas International Airport; Russia flies Sukhoi-27 fighters from its base at nearby Kant. China is said to be eyeing its own Kyrgyz military presence. And Germany stations 300 troops with helicopters at Termez, in next-door Uzbekistan.

West seeks Russia-free energy

On Tuesday and Wednesday this week, a delegation of European Union officials, led by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is meeting with foreign ministers of five Central Asian states in the Kazakh capital, Astana, to discuss deepening ties. The EU has declared an "Energy Dialogue" with Central Asia a key foreign policy goal, as part of a general effort to wean Europe from a perceived overdependence on Russian supplies. That coincides with US purposes in the region and, experts say, this is the main play to watch as the game develops.

"The Central Asian countries are still very much locked into the Russian pipelines and infrastructure and must sell their oil and gas to world markets on Russian terms," says Ivan Saffranchuk, Moscow director of the independent World Security Institute. "The Western idea is that these countries will have real sovereignty only when they are able to independently sell their resources."

The US strongly backed the recently opened $4 billion Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, which carries Caspian oil to the West without Russian participation. Mr. Suslov says that Washington is urging hydrocarbon-rich Kazakhstan to break free from Russia's grip and build links to the Baku- Ceyhan network. China has recently managed to buy a key Kazakh oil company and in 2005 a 1,000-mile pipeline began carrying Kazakh crude to China. It reportedly has plans to extend the pipeline westward by 2011 to funnel Caspian oil eastward.

Fears of instability, Islamist influence

Two years ago this week a lightning revolution overthrew Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, and the little mountain state has been mired in unrest ever since. A few weeks later a putative Islamist uprising at Andijon, Uzbekistan, was brutally put down by forces loyal to Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov. That rang alarm bells about the dangers of regionwide destabilization.

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