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    Central Asia
     Jul 13, 2005
Foul play in the Great Game
By M K Bhadrakumar

In a landmark speech at Johns Hopkins University in 1997, the then-US deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, said: "For the last several years, it has been fashionable to proclaim or at least to predict, a replay of the 'Great Game' in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The implication of course is that the driving dynamic of the region, fueled and lubricated by oil, will be the competition of great powers to the disadvantage of the people who live there.

"Our goal is to avoid and to actively discourage that atavistic outcome. In pondering and practicing the geopolitics of oil, let's make sure that we are thinking in terms appropriate to the 21st century and not the 19th century. Let's leave Rudyard Kipling and George McDonald Fraser where they belong - on the shelves of historical fiction. The Great Game, which starred Kipling's Kim and Fraser's Flashman, was very much of the zero-sum variety. What we want to help bring about is just the opposite, we want to see all responsible players in the Caucasus and Central Asia be winners."

The chancelleries in the region, and indeed all chroniclers of Central Asian politics, studied Talbott's speech with interest. Talbott's erudition as a scholar-diplomat in Russian language and literature, history and politics was worthy of the highest respect. Of course, the Bill Clinton presidency was at its high noon and it was the first time that US policy towards the "newly-independent states" of the Central Asian region had been spelt out authoritatively.

Yet, eight years on, precisely what Talbott was keen on avoiding seems to be unfolding in Central Asia. The geopolitics in Central Asia have lately begun to engender rivalries. The summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held in Astana on July 5-6 draws attention to it. The summit's call on the US-led "anti-terrorist coalition" to define a deadline on its military presence on the territory of SCO member countries is a strong signal. Washington tried to deflect SCO's call by claiming that it was guided by bilateral agreements with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Thereupon, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry promptly clarified in a statement that no future scenarios of the US military contingent operating out of its territory had been envisaged under its bilateral agreement with Washington other than "the desire of Uzbekistan as a proactive member of the anti-terrorist coalition in Afghanistan" - virtually echoing the SCO's call. Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Minister Roza Otunbayeva also joined issue with Washington: "All of us are part of the anti-terrorist coalition, including our country. However, there is a time limit for everybody who comes to stay somewhere. We are members of the SCO. We raised this issue together with other member states."

Despite these blunt Uzbek and Kyrgyz statements, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice parried at a press conference in Beijing on July 10. Rice said that it was for Afghanistan to decide on the presence of US troops and "there is still a fight going on in Afghanistan ... there is still a lot of terrorist activity in Afghanistan ... the terrorists still have to be defeated in Afghanistan ... and so it is our understanding that the people of Afghanistan want and need the help of US armed forces." Besides, Rice claimed that it was not a matter of US forces alone since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) also had contingents in the region.

Just a day later, Kyrgyzstan gently but firmly nudged the discussion back to where it belonged. In his very first remarks on July 11 after his resounding victory in the Kyrgyz presidential election, Kyrgyz leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev said politely but firmly: "Afghanistan has had presidential elections. The situation there has stabilized. So now we may begin discussing the necessity of US military forces' presence. When and how it will happen, time will show."

The "dialogue" between Washington and the Central Asian capitals is indeed becoming curiouser and curiouser. The "Tulip" revolution was supposed to have been Washington's finest hour in Central Asia. President George W Bush eloquently cited the "regime change" in Kyrgyzstan as an inspiration for all freedom-loving peoples - and as a vindication of his democracy project. Yet, it is no longer feasible to obfuscate the reality that Washington's influence in Bishkek has touched its nadir.

Bakiyev won on a platform offering "stability". His huge mandate tapped into people's fears about a recurrence of the upheavals that they twice witnessed in the recent months - in their own country and in next-door Andijan in Uzbekistan. Russia played a crucial role in bringing together Bakiyev and the prominent leader from the north, Felix Kulov, which became the winning ticket in the Kyrgyz election. Moscow is not hiding its joy in Bakiyev's victory. Washington's best hope now would lie in the Bakiyev-Kulov combine falling apart. That is a pretty thin hope to cling on to, after aspiring to be the kingmaker.

It is extraordinary that the US's prestige and influence as a superpower has plummeted dramatically in Central Asia in such a short span of time since October 2001- so much so that Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which used to be overtly keen to be friendly, have today become thoroughly disillusioned with Washington's regional policy. How could this have happened?

The fundamentals of the US policy in Central Asia as spelt out by Talbott eight years ago identified four dimensions: promotion of democracy; creation of free market economies; sponsorship of peace and cooperation within and among the countries of the region; and the integration of the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus with the larger international community.

But what has changed is that the Bush administration has surreptitiously redefined the thrust of priorities towards the region in terms of its global policies. The result is that the US no longer has a policy intrinsic to the pressing demands of the transition economies in the Central Asian region - the substantive theme in Talbott's speech. Today everything has become relative in the US calculus - everything in Central Asia needs to be factored into the priorities of policy toward Russia or China. By "promotion of democracy", for example, Talbott envisioned a slow and gradual process of the US assisting Central Asian countries in evolving the "requisite institutions and attitudes" conducive for the growth of a democratic culture. He admitted candidly that this would be a long haul as "the very newness of democracy was itself a major obstacle to the process of democratization" in Central Asia.

There was, evidently, no scope for "color revolutions" in Talbott's scheme of things when he involved civil society in the Central Asian region and the Caucasus as the handmaiden of the democratization agenda. Again, with regard to the security dimension of US policy, Talbott emphasized American assistance in "the resolution of conflicts within and between countries and peoples in the region". Regional stability and reconciliation had a centrality in Talbott's policy framework, whereas they took a back seat in the Bush administration's priorities. Interestingly, Talbott pinpointed "internal instability and division" as having historically provided "a pretext for foreign intervention and adventurism" in the region.

Thus, though the US had profoundly differed from the Russian perspectives on the Tajik civil war (1992-96) and would have had some good reasons to work against the Tajik settlement in 1996 (put together by Russia and Iran), Talbott said, "The difficulties in implementation are sobering, but the recent accord provides a real opportunity for reconciliation, not only within Tajikistan, but with benefits for the surrounding countries as well."

In the period of the Clinton presidency, US prestige and influence in Central Asia peaked. The Bush administration, ironically, reaped a good harvest of this legacy. The openhearted welcome that Central Asian leaderships extended to the US military presence in their region in 2001 testifies to that. But the ease with which Washington squandered such enormous goodwill is appalling.

The "Rose" revolution in Georgia in December 2003 was the turning point. It usually takes 10 years' hindsight to cast an aspersion on current history, but a question is bound to come up: what, ultimately, has the US gained by deposing Eduard Shevardnadze? Do the gains outweigh the losses?

It was in Georgia that the cutting edge in the Bush administration's regional policy came into full view - aimed at dominating the region; establishing unilateral advantage over other powers no matter their legitimate interests; and, shepherding the region into a security architecture notionally headed by NATO but firmly under US command. Russia's Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov and then-US secretary of state Colin Powell worked in tandem behind the scenes to ensure that the transfer of power from Shevardnadze to Mikheil Saakashvili did not degenerate into a Caucasian street brawl. (They had a similar compact in ensuring the transition in Baku from the late Hydar Aliyev to his son.) But once Saakashvili was safely ensconced in power in Tbilisi, Washington left Moscow high and dry. The "Rose" revolution showed that the Bush administration preferred to compartmentalize the relationship with Russia. This impacted on Russian policy.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said recently, "We do not accept the attempts to place post-Soviet states before a false choice ... either with the US or with Russia. We are ready for cooperation on a basis of mutual consideration of interests ... We understand the West's objective interests in the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] space and only want that the methods of realization of these interests should also be understandable, transparent, that they would rest on the universally recognized rules of international law, and not infringe either on the rights of the peoples of the CIS countries to decide their future themselves, or on the lawful rights and interests of Russia in this space, where we want to develop equal, mutually beneficial cooperation with our neighbors."

Shevardnadze's fall sent shockwaves through Central Asia. He was an iconic figure, a tough veteran of Kremlin politics - by far senior to the CIS leaders in the Soviet hierarchy. And how Washington rubbished its old, time-tested ally ("Shevvy") was for Central Asian leaderships a morality play about the ephemeral nature of American friendships. Such betrayals do not look good in the Orient. The Central Asian leaderships began edging away from the US and closer toward Russia and China. In the face of this, the US response was to push for "regime change" in Central Asia as well. But the macabre events in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in March and May this year had a totally unexpected outcome.

The indications are that a review of American policy toward Central Asia is underway in Washington. It cannot be a difficult exercise. It is easy to pinpoint when things go horribly wrong. A good starting point would be Talbott's prescient speech exactly eight years ago.

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

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