The New Great Game
Matteo Tacconi 9 June 2010

In the 19th Century the British Empire and Tsarist Russia competed for hegemony in Central Asia. London fought to slow down Moscow’s expansionism, fearing that tessera after tessera Russia would have reached the borders of India, which was Britain’s most prized possession. Russia instead worked to restrict British influence, in a region perceived both as its own backyard and as a buffer zone. The comings and goings of spies and wheeler-dealers, ruthless traders and officers, the ups and downs of plots and intrigue, double-crossing and diplomatic discourtesies reported between the Caspian and Kabul during the 19th Century were catalogued under one single heading, the Great Game. The copyright, it is said, came from Arthur Conolly, an English secret agent serving with the East India Company. The novelist Rudyard Kipling took possession of the saying, bringing it to the attention of the public.

Times change, as do situations, empires die and imperial democracies are born, but Central Asia, this vast portion of the world bordered on the west by the Caspian, on the east by China, on the north by Russia and on the south by Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, continues to be the theatre of significant manoeuvring. It is no coincidence that geopolitical analysts call it the New Great Game. China, Russia and the United States are the leading players in this competition, a trio of powers competing in a region that is crucial for global balance. The match is particularly intense in Kabul, Islamabad and Tehran, as confirmed by news reports. But the Great Game is also played in the five “stans” – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kirghizstan – born from the fall of the Soviet Union, which together with Azerbaijan, also a former USSR republic, form the heart of the Central Asian region. Although less visible in the headlines of the world press, the debate here is equally inflamed, certainly more fluid and hence more uncertain.

The Great Powers court these states, attempting to drag them to their side and they do so insistently; because these lands are the centre of gravity, the main junction, the barycentre of the gigantic interests at stake in Central Asia. The most evident is control over energy resources. The Central-Asian subsoil is rich, extremely rich in oil and gas. Fields that churn out thousands of barrels of crude every day, crude that according to experts is of excellent quality, and that yield billions of cubic metres of “blue gold” every year. Not only. This area is crossed by kilometres and kilometres of pipelines. The priority is to get one’s hands on oil and gas fields, not to speak of the large network of pipelines, reaching agreements and signing trade contracts with local governments. But not everything revolves around energy. The post-Soviet part of Central Asia is also of extremely important political significance. Neighbouring with China can, both from an American and Russian point of view, be helpful in containing Beijing, which instead intends to “colonise” this region with the objective of placing one foot in Russia’s backyard and upsetting America’s plans.

Central Asia is also a breakwater for terrorist activities along the Afghan-Pakistani ridge as well as the excesses of the Iranian ayatollahs. Controlling the area can mean “fencing in” the al Qaeda galaxy, monitoring its activities and studying countermeasures. This is why after the attack on the Twin Towers, America’s attention for the five Central-Asians ‘stans’ considered almost marginal during the Nineties, became so insistent. In the beginning, American penetration was a success. Riding the wave of international solidarity that followed 9/11 and the ability with which American diplomacy had managed to create alliances in the name of the ‘global war on terror’, former President George W. Bush obtained from countries in the area the right to use a number of military bases in exchange, however, for massive financing. Then the picture started to change. The turning point was the revolt in Andijan, the Uzbek town where in 2005 the government violently repressed a protest rally, killing about 200 people, pretending it was an Islamic revolt. The Bush Administration severely reproached the government in Tashkent, which, annoyed, ordered the Americans to leave their air base in Karshi-Khanabad, leased since 2001.

This event also had repercussions in other countries. In a Kirghizstan racked by internal power struggles, the concession for Manas Airport, at the gates of the capital Bishkek, has been at risk for some time and after the recent coup which removed President Kurmanbek Bakyiev from power, the new government has raised the economic and political price of the lease of this base. Since this location is fundamental within the framework of the war in Afghanistan, Washington appears resigned to submit to requests from Bishkek. This would also mean tolerating the lack of democracy and a monstrous level of corruption that exists within the state’s nerve centres. The credibility lost by Washington in recent years has contributed to America’s loss of momentum, as does the fact that the war in Afghanistan has been anything but a blitzkrieg, the fact that Bush’s star stopped shining, and that, at least in those regions, Obama’s does not shine, as has the fact that terrorism has not been destroyed. Anything but.

Putin’s cure

One must, however, bear in mind that the erosion of Washington’s influence also has resulted in Russia’s influence rallying. In 2001, Moscow was still weak and affected by the syndrome of the Nineties, a transition period during which the country experienced a severe economic crisis and had no influence on the world agenda, allowing the Americans to quite easily access the Central Asian backyard. Later, however, the country changed gears thanks to the effects of the “Putin cure.” With debatable but effective methods, Moscow regained strength and confidence, and thanks to the rise in the cost of energy, the Kremlin ruthlessly used its energy weapon Gazprom, blackmailing and cajoling in all directions. The fragrance of roubles enticed Central Asia, which, after its pro-American “infatuation” allowed itself to be re-tamed by Moscow, and quite willingly too. The Central Asian quintet then cooled its relations with America, also because obviously tempted by promises of massive contributions, precisely at a time when the region jointly agreed, which was certainly no coincidence, to Russian plans of creating a mixed military contingent, trained by Russian officers, to oppose terrorism and the opium trade. These are two issues that Russia has at heart – since it believes that the expansion of the terrorist area of influence could have devastating effects in the Russian Caucasus and is anxious that Afghan opium, considered one of the main threats to its national security, might arrive in large quantities inside the federation’s borders with all the economic, social and political consequences that would arise.

According to analysts, Moscow does not only want America to ‘roll back’ but also wishes to maintain its distance from China. Officially, relations with Beijing are good, but, as known, appearances can be deceptive. The point is that, in perspective, Putin and Medvedev, because of Moscow’s birth-rate crisis and China’s staggering demographic power, fear that Beijing may engulf Russia, sanctioning its irreversible decline. Working to avoid the “Middle Kingdom” getting to close is therefore part of the Kremlin’s agenda, with the Russians attempting to build a great wall. America is doing the same. By placing an army in Central Asia, in fact, Bush intended not only to answer the terrorist threat, but also to move the centre of gravity towards the Chinese borders, creating an outpost from which it was possible to observe and monitor the country’s growing power. One can be sure that Obama and Hillary Clinton are also more or less of the same opinion.

Neither Russia, nor America however are managing to contain Beijing, also because they are involved in competing with each other. Generally speaking, this means that when two dogs fight, a third one gets the bone. China precisely. Increasingly active on the Central-Asian front, China’s products have invaded the region. The government finances the exploration of new oil fields, enters agreements for creating great infrastructures and signs contracts for building pipelines capable of transporting oil and methane gas to Beijing, satisfying the country’s need for energy. Then there is also the Xinjiang. Advancing into Central Asia will be useful on this front too, creating a buffer zone between this province and the post-Soviet ‘stans’. In the Great Game, therefore, after America’s initial predominance and Russia’s revenge, it is now Beijing’s turn. Will the Dragon dominate in the future? Analysts believe that China has a good chance of succeeding. However, they also say that the Central-Asian countries do not intend to yield completely. They prefer instead to keep channels open with all the three powers involved in the region, to always do business but never have masters. The Great Game has only just begun.

The Islamists

Take the nearby war in Afghanistan and borders that are not exactly watertight, take poor living conditions, a precarious economy, governments that are somewhat kleptomaniac and grab everything (oil and methane gas) giving nothing in exchange, and take the absence of a constitutional state. Then take a religion such as Islam, which was severely repressed in the days of the Soviet Union. The mix of all these ingredients – identity, frustration, poverty and anger – could be explosive and result in extremism, facilitating the penetration of “Talibanism.” To tell the truth it seems that this has already happened. For some time now analysts have been reporting that the Afghan winds have started to blow over Central Asia’s former Soviet Republics, where Islamic radicalism, characterised by elements of armed struggle, is no longer just a phantom, but something that is tangible and real, especially in Kirghizstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In the first of these three countries the Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation Party), a group banned by local authorities, inspired to a philosophy involving the reintroduction of shari ‘a, has allegedly – according to recent news reports– abandoned the objective of pursuing its objective in a peaceful manner and has embraced the military option.

In Uzbekistan the Islamist phenomenon is even stronger. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, that carried out a number of armed attacks ten years ago with the objective of reunifying the Uzbek people (this is why in the past members of this organisation attacked a number of villages with an Uzbek majority of inhabitants situated in Kirghiz territory), has now become far more prominent since it is capable of recruiting and demonstrating military strength. A number of its militiamen, ideologically close to the world of terrorism, have “served” with Al Qaeda, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Some have remained in these countries, but there are also some who returned home imparting guerrilla tactics learned in Baghdad and Kabul. They have resumed not only the objective suspended in the past, and hence the liberation of the Uzbek people, but have broadened their sphere of influence to the entire region with the aim of creating a great caliphate. If, as seems true, an increasing number of people in nearby Tajikistan are joining the Islamic Movement, then the idea really is taking hold.

The birth of a regional Islamist network, founded on a militant ideology and inspired by the will to create, in the name of shari ‘a law, a sort of macro-region, is the new element in this more recent period. Paul Quinn-Judge, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, an authoritative think tank in Brussels, has written that the militancy and the armed struggle “conceal in these areas an overall mobilisation of jihad.” Military mobilisation, certainly, but also a didactic one. As reported by Radio Free Europe’s website, a rising number of Koranic schools of radical inspiration, not recognised by the governments, are being opened in this area. Faced with a similar scenario, euro-Atlantic forces fear the Afghanisation of Central Asia. At the end of January, Danish NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, emphasised that this hypothesis is not at all remote. “If Afghanistan becomes a free port for terrorists, terrorism could spread throughout Central Asia,” he said, adding metaphorically “Afghanistan is not an island, hence the solution for Afghanistan cannot come exclusively from within its borders.” White House Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke too has explained that one must bear in mind not only the Afghan-Pakistani frontier, but also, precisely, Central Asia as a destabilising element.

Will there be a domino effect? Such a risk exists, and, in addition to the Americans and the NATO countries involved in Afghanistan, Russia too fears this possibility. In Moscow the thesis is that if the Afghan front spreads to Central Asia, it is possible that it will then also expand into the borders of the Federation, reigniting the never-sedated separatist desires of Islamic movements in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, always rather active on the stage. But the risks do not end here. According to the respected and authoritative analyst Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the world of the Taliban, to the rise of radicalism one must also add another danger; the prospect of a regional conflict, pitting any one of these former Soviet republics in Central Asia against the other. According to Rashid such a war could break out due to a number of border controversies, widespread poverty and the chronic lack of water. On the other hand, it is known that the intense exploitation of water basins in Central Asia in the days of the USSR has added to the more recent effects of global warming, which have slowly melted part of the surfaces of glaciers situated locally at high altitudes. This has resulted in each of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia becoming annoyed and blaming their respective neighbours. The bomb may not necessarily explode. The fuse, however, has been lit.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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