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Central Asia at Play in Latest 'Great Game'

The post-Sept. 11 struggle for influence pits Russia and China against the U.S. in the pursuit of oil, trade and the war on terrorism.

October 09, 2005|Kathy Gannon | Associated Press Writer

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — When Sergei Pashevich looks at the map of Central Asia, he sees a chessboard on which a replay of the Great Game is unfolding, with oil, trade and the war on terrorism as the big global issues at stake.

The Great Game, a term invented to define the imperial rivalries and ambitions of 19th century Russia and Britain, now applies, in Pashevich's view, to a new, post-9/11 struggle for influence that is pitting Russia and China against the United States.

"Right now the whole Central Asian region is a field for geopolitical games," he says.

The stocky, square-shouldered Kazakh was decorated for bravery in the Soviet war against U.S.-backed Muslim rebels in Afghanistan. Now he is one of several big-picture analysts in Almaty, the main city of Kazakhstan in the heart of Central Asia, who are poring over this new political and diplomatic battlefield.

Another is Venera Galyamova, a short, intense woman with a deep knowledge of Central Asia and its neighbors. A researcher at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, she sees Central Asia becoming "the arena for the battle between the United States on one side and China and Russia on the other side. For China, influence in the region also means asserting itself as a global power to rival the United States."

China's exploding economy thirsts for oil, and within two decades Kazakhstan is expected to be a leading oil exporter. Russia has plenty of oil, but its clout in the region has diminished. It lost control of Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian republics when the Soviet Union collapsed, and it has suffered further losses of influence lately in Georgia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan's neighbor, Kyrgyzstan.

The United States, meanwhile, has an interest in the oil as well as the bases it runs in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to back up its operations in Afghanistan to the south.

Here are some of the signs the analysts in Almaty are watching:

* In July, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, made up of China, Russia and nearly all the central Asian states, asked the United States to set a deadline for quitting the bases.

* In August, Russia and China, former military and ideological enemies, put their armies together for the first time in military exercises on the Shandong peninsula, in the Yellow Sea.

* On May 25, China gave a red-carpet welcome to the president of another Central Asian state, Uzbekistan, days after his crackdown on protesters killed hundreds and raised serious questions about the human rights record of a valued Washington ally. China congratulated President Islam Karimov on his handling of the incident.

The future of the U.S. base in Uzbekistan is finite while in Kyrgyzstan it remains cloudy, given to contradictory statements by the hosts. But the Shanghai group's resolution, at a meeting in Astana, the Kazakh capital, caught the United States by surprise.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the bases were still needed for the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, and speculated that the smaller central Asian countries signed onto the resolution at the behest of their larger neighbors, Russia and China.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was more blunt, telling a reporter: "Looks to me like two very large countries were trying to bully some smaller countries." Moscow protested the remark.

Washington wouldn't give a deadline for withdrawing, so at the end of July Uzbekistan's Karimov set his own -- 180 days.

"It was China that wanted the deadline," said Galyamova, of the government-run Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies.

"Beijing believes that the bases are to be used not only for fighting terror but also for the purposes of reining in an expansionist and politically ambitious China," she said.

Dosym Satpayev, who heads the privately run Assessment Risk Group in Almaty, says Washington's presence has been a disappointment to the post-Soviet strongmen ruling the Central Asian republics. Having initially welcomed the Americans, they now see Washington's preoccupation with human rights and democracy as a threat to their survival, and find China's policy of non-interference appealing.

"The Kazakhstan government really worries that U.S. influence will bring political change to our country," Galyamova said.

Meanwhile, China offers sympathy and hefty trade. In Beijing, Uzbekistan's Karimov signed 15 accords covering everything from tourism to telecommunications, topped by an agreement on a petroleum joint venture worth $600 million.

The deals more than make up for the financial losses that would be incurred by closing the U.S. base 180 miles from Tashkent, Pashevich said.

Kyrgyzstan's new president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was swept into power after a street revolt in March, has also sent out mixed signals about the U.S. base near Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital.

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