Piecing It Together, Sort Of

by Joshua Foust on 12/27/2006 · 1 comment

A connection between Turkmenistan and Gazprom’s latest price gambles? Via STRATFOR:

For those of you familiar with Russia’s core foreign policy strategy of using energy as a level/hammer against competitors, the criticality of Turkmenistan suddenly snaps into place. Without Turkmenistan at least ostensibly in its orbit, Russia either has to switch off its own lights or the lights of its European and Turkish customers. Either way, its energy-empowered foreign policy strategy becomes stillborn. Moscow wantes Turkmenistan under its thumb, not in play.

If Russia is the player with the most to lose, Iran is the player with the most to gain. Iran was still in the early stages of recovering from the Iran-Iraq war when the Soviet Union broke up and proved unable, for a variety of reasons, to extend its influence into Central Asia. With the death of Turkmenbashi, Tehran now has a second chance, and how well it does in penetrating Ashgabat largely will determine its future fortunes in the region.

(Emphasis mine) Not quite, though I do like trying to piece the two events together. Where I part from Peter Zeihan’s analysis (aside from his description of Niyazov’s rule as “relatively benign,” which is puzzling and incoherent with reality) is his declaration that Iran’s only option is to invade the country. He’s making a critical mistake: assuming Iran’s only way of leveraging influence is through violence. While that was the case in Iraq, it hasn’t been the case in Afghanistan. Iran has made striking inroads through infrastructure and banking development. And Turkmenistan seriously needs cleverly managed economic development if it’s ever to exist without a strongman jailing everyone who is unhappy enough to speak out. If a closer alliance with Iran could provide that, then I’m sure the Ayatollahs would be happy to oblige—especially if it keeps the Russians’ influence to a minimum, which the Iranians are keen to do. They don’t want Moscow holding the nuclear issue over their head forever, as it is a prime reason they haven’t been more assertive in recent years.

Zeihan seems off on the rest of his analysis, however. I blame this on the almost exclusively geopolitical bent of the report. Though I recognize it is the “Geopolitical Intelligence Report,” keeping it so narrowly tailored limits how he can analyze the situation. He uses a geographical outline of the weird demographics surrounding the Ferghana Valley to surmise that Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan will all fall into hyper-violent, failed states once their respective leaders fall (again, in Kyrgyzstan’s case), or that Uzbekistan under Karimov might try to scalp territory away from the other Ferghana nations should their leaders die off, or… well, he’s not really clear. Tajikistan is a safe bet for violence, but that’s only because its warlord problem hasn’t been really solved, and, as New Eurasia has explored at length, is in dire economic straits. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, though both poor, don’t show the same potential for all-out war, and though the power struggle in Tashkent will probably have a violent element I wouldn’t consider it nearly on the scale Zeihan seems to imply.

His section on Kazakhstan is sparse and inadequate, relying on the old geopolitical tropes of assuming larger powers still invade smaller (i.e. less populous) countries for their minerals. That stopped with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait—and especially with all the energy assets involved, neither China nor Russia would be stupid enough to think it could invade a major oil producer without major reprisals from the U.S. and Europe. Today, it is far more useful to maintain a flimsy illusion of sovereignty while creating a subservient state wholly dependent on its larger neighbor for protection and trade—think China’s tack with North Korea, or the ways Russia used to control its near abroad. Zeihan’s invasion-mongering makes no sense, especially given the political climates in both Russia and China.

I also dislike how he dismisses American interests in establishing an influence beachhead in Turkmenistan, his absolute belief that under Russian or Iranian “mentorship” it will cease to be a country, and his glossing over of the growing pains in the former Eastern Bloc. Though they get barely a passing mention, Central Asia much more closely resembles the Balkans than Poland—a mixture of competing ethnicities smashed together willy-nilly in countries whose borders were drawn more for Moscow’s benefit than than any locals (this is important given the parallels he draws with Eastern Europe). With the exception of Tajikistan, I do not see nearly the same capacity for violence Zeihan (and, weirdly, Ted Rall) does; rather than violence being a tactic, none of the parties interested in major global suppliers of LNG and crude want to see the region devolve into chaos and violence. Civil wars are bad for oil and gas pipelines, as they are so vulnerable (dig “the flute” in Colombia). No one wants to embroil Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, or any of their neighbors in a brutal and violent power struggle, so much that I would not be surprised to see keeping the peace turn out to be a rare point of agreement between Tehran, Moscow, and Washington.


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– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Gene Daniels December 28, 2006 at 7:24 am

Joshua made this comment in his rebuttal of Stratfor:

“Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, though both poor, don’t show the same potential for all-out war, and though the power struggle in Tashkent will probably have a violent element I wouldn’t consider it nearly on the scale Zeihan seems to imply.”

I would agree with this analysis of Kyrgyzstan, the past 18 months have given the Kyrgyz many chances to go over the edge, but they have pulled back each time.

However, Uzbekistan may be a very different animal. I once talked at length with a former Uzbek KGB officer. He told me that we Westerners underestimate the potential for violence among Uzbeks. He forcasted an outright bloodbath at the fall of Karimov. He also predicted that Uzbekistan would devolve into 4-7 regional powers, reflecting the (officially denied) regional ethnic diversity of the country.

The fact that the man is an ethnic Uzbek made his blunt assessment all the more interesting. Perhaps the fact that the man just finished a MA from Princeton factors into all this.

Furthermore, I have heard basically the same analysis from a Kyrgyz friend who was well-placed during the Soviet days. Although I am sure there is a tinge of racism in this man’s analysis, he defines himself as a “Ferganna Valley Kyrgyz” which means he is as much Uzbek as Kyrgyz in his culture and values.

In the course of the past few years I have heard locals in Central Asia make many similar comments concerning Uzbekistan. So, perhaps Stratfor is not so wrong about Uzbekistan afterall.

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