Power of the pawn

Central Asia, which includes the five ex-Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as Afghanistan, is vast, bounteous in places, and hurting. The potential of this region has been overshadowed by chronic poverty and growing economic instability. Now, at the center of international attention, will the region benefit?

First, the new U.S. administration announced that Afghanistan and Iran were its top priorities. Second, energy security and alternatives for Europe are again the subject of intense discussion, and this region has huge hydrocarbon deposits. Third, the Central Asian countries themselves have suffered badly from the economic crisis and are in need of urgent help.

Kyrgyzstan's decision to ban the U.S. from using the Manas military base has sounded a warning to Washington: Nothing can be achieved here without Russia's consent. Yet Moscow has stated that it is ready to expand its support for the efforts of the United States and NATO to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan.

The U.S. military bases appeared in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as the result of an informal agreement between Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush in the autumn of 2001. It later became clear, however, that the two sides had different views on this development. Russia felt it had taken a huge step by allowing U.S. armed forces to be stationed in its "soft underbelly." It was expected that this gesture would be taken in good faith.

For its part, the United States took Moscow's actions for granted. First, to leaders such as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, Russia seemed insignificant. Secondly, in the spirit of the "battle against world evil" proclaimed by Bush after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there was not supposed to be any reward for supporting the "forces of good," because fighting the "enemy of humanity" was perceived as a common good. America then shifted its focus to Iraq, but did not plan to withdraw from Central Asia.

As the United States became more active on post-Soviet territory and the competition for energy resources stepped up, the atmosphere between Russia and America was souring. On the whole, the Russian leadership was deeply disillusioned with its anti-terror cooperation with Washington, feeling that it had given much but in return had only seen the United States intruding on the territory of the former U.S.S.R.

Today, a new chapter is opening. Barack Obama intends to focus on the Afghan war, because the Western coalition is almost on the brink of defeat there. At the same time, Afghanistan is a unique case in which the interests of virtually all the influential actors coincide - Russia, America, the E.U., India, China and even Iran do not want the Taliban to return to power. That's why the White House reckons it will be easier to reach agreement on the problem of Afghanistan.

Russia is assuming that Washington has no alternative to serious cooperation with Moscow. Stepping up its military operations in Afghanistan will require increased logistical support.
There is no confidence in Pakistan as a transit point for supplies - the situation there is becoming increasingly threatening.

Finally, the countries of Central Asia are in a fraying economic situation. For Moscow, keeping them afloat is not just an opportunity, but essential. A social and economic collapse in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan would play out negatively for Russia.

It seems that in the run-up to the April meeting between Presidents Medvedev and Obama, both sides will raise the stakes. The ousting of the U.S. from Manas could be met with a press for Russia to reduce its nuclear arsenal. However, there is still a feeling that while both sides have little mutual trust, there is a desire to improve this situation.

Fedor Lukyanov is editor-in-chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal

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