Rene — Foul play in the Great Game

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Asia Times
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.