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Sunday, November 14, 2004

Central Asia, Part Three

Lutz Kleveman The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia

part one and part two

The newly independent nations of Central Asia, the oil and gas states of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and their neighbors Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, are all ruled by strongmen dictators, men who seamlessly moved between Communist and nationalist authoritarianisms as the Soviet system crumbled. As in Russia itself as well as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union the years since independence have been very difficult for the average citizen of the Central Asian republics. Closing factories, collapsing public services, mass emigration (especially of European ethnic groups such as the Russians and the Germans), and rising crime and insecurity were the themes of the 1990's for most people in the region. The uneven move away from the Russian embrace has also slowly brought Islam back as a popular force among the various Turkic-speaking ethnic groups who make up the majority of the regional population.

For some, though, the years since the end of Communism have been very good. Just as in Russia, which in the 1990's saw one of the worst thefts of public wealth in history at the hands of the 'oligarchs', the presidents, senior officials, and a few well-connected families and businessmen in the Central Asian states have conspired to a frankly incredible defrauding of their people. Perhaps the perfect exemplar of this trend is Nursultan Nazarbaev, the president of Kazakhstan, a man who rose from blast furnace operator to the head of the Communist Party in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan to member of the Politburo in Moscow. Nazarbaev's family alone are believed to have pocketed billions of dollars through skimming the state budgets and pocketing payments from western oil compains like Chevron and Mobil who moved very quickly into joint ventures with the Kazakh state to exploit the oil fields at Kashagan and Tengiz.

"(In the mid-90's) Nazarbaev had his puppet parliament rubber-stamp a new law granting him lifelong immunity from prosecution for misdeeds committed in office. Since independence up to a fifth of the country's wealth is believed to have ended up in Swiss bank accounts, so for good measure, Kazakh parliamentarians also voted for an official legalization of money laundering. Kazakhs are now free from having to account for funds brought back to the country, much less pay taxes on them. Who stands to benefit the most from this new law is not difficult to figure out." (p. 82)

Turkmenistan, where only eighty years ago much of the population lived as horse-borne nomads, is the home of a far stranger dictator: Saparmyrat Niyazov, aka Turkmenbashi, 'Leader of the Turkmen'. Niyazov has busily spent the proceeds from his fiefdom's natural gas fields building one of the modern world's most perverse personality cults, a nation that Kleveman called "Stalin's Disneyland". Most egotistical strongmen dictators tend to follow similar patterns: put your face on the currency, make sure your picture is omnipresent throughout the country, have the state-run media report on you and nothing but you. Not content with these garden-variety authoritarian tactics, Niyazov has busily spent his time pushing back the boundaries of how weird you can take your tyranny in the modern era. His only real competition in this regard is Kim Jong-Il of North Korea, although Niyazov's reign has been nowhere near as terrible as that of the film fanatic kidnap-enthusiast Stalinist who oversaw the famine death of three million Koreans in the 1990's.

Kleveman's descriptions of his travels around Turkmenistan, from his arrival at the port of Turkmenbashi (formerly know as Krasnowodsk), show the country in the grip of an ego that few people not living in such a country can fathom. Perhaps Stalin himself was not as enthusiastic as Niyazov at stamping his name on the land. Besides the aforementioned port Turkmenbashi is also the name of thousands of things, from streets and roads to airports, mosques, stadiums, a sizeable meteor crash site in the north of the country, and whatever else he felt needed a dose of Turkmenbashi. Of course, he also has his picture on all pieces of currency, and thousands of statues and paintings and photographs of him festoon the country. Other eccentric projects include a 120 foot tall gold-plated statue of himself in the middle of the capital Ashkhabad that rotates in order to always face the sun, and a giant waterpark in the middle of the desert. His own Ceaucescu-style monstrous residence in a lovely shade of pink. The Fascist-style slogan 'Halk, Watan, Turkmenbashi' ('People, Fatherland, Leader') that can be seen on all government buildings (and a great deal of ordinary ones as well), and that all schoolchildren are required to recite. A walkabout around Ashkhabad discovers hidden speakers permanently broadcasting his interminable speaches to passers-by. And the coup de grace: the Ruhnama, a 'spiritual guide' from the president himself that all citizens must own and carry with them, and that all children must study in school. Quotations from this pseudo-rustic collection of folklore and parables adorn the mosques and many other buildings. In schools and universities the Ruhnama has become the central focus of education. The state-run television and radio networks, when they aren't relaying the latest exploits of Turkmenbashi, feature talking-head discussions of the president's book as well as acted-out scenes and readings from comely young women in traditional dress.

"Obscure anecdotes about Turkmenbashi abound in Ashkhabad. "The other day he must have wondered in his palace if the people really loved him as much as his ministers assured him. So he glued a false black beard to his face and drove to the outskirts of the city to ask common men in the street for their opinion." Needless to say, nobody in Turkmenistan dares to publicly express their true views on political issues. "Even less so if the interviewer arrives in the president's armored, dark Mercedes limousine, and has a false beard dangling off his chin."" (p. 152)

Niyazov is undoubtedly one of the world's stranger leaders, and there are few other dictators of recent times who can compete with his eccentricity (Enver Hoxha of Albania is one that comes to mind, though). Without Turkmenistan's vast natural resources he would probably be left alone to continue on his path, unhassled except by the odd human rights activist (although it should be pointed out that, unfree as his country is, Turkmenbashi tends not to engage in the sort of extreme repressive measures that are par for the course elsewhere in the region). Yet the vast stockpiles of oil and natural gas that lie under the ground and under the sea mean that this odd character must be wooed by the various business and political representatives of the main competitors.

One nation that is playing an increasing role in seeking the riches of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan is China. Since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping said "to get rich is glorious!", China has experienced one of the largest and fastest economic expansions in human history. This enormous growth has created a vast thirst for energy, a thirst that China's own dwindling oil reserves cannot hope to slake. In the early 1990's China was a net exporter of petroleum; ten years later it is a net importer, and every year the amount that has to be brought in from the rest of the world grows. As a result of this growing need China has been hungrily moving into the oil fields of the Caspian, with plans to construct a pipeline from Kazakhstan to China's westernmost province, Xinjiang, and from there all the way across the nation to Shanghai. Xinjiang is the home province of China's Uighurs, a minority group with close ethnic, linguistic, and religious links to the various Turkic ethnic groups of ex-Soviet Central Asia. As their cousins in the neighboring states have achieved independence, the rebirth of nationalism and Islamic consciousness in those countries has reached across the border and stirred the Uighurs, increasingly restive in the face of the ongoing and heavy migration of Han Chinese from China's heavily overcrowded east. The 1990's saw a campaign of assassination and bombings waged by Uighur separatist groups, leading the Chinese government into a severe crackdown on political and religious dissent, as in the more famous repression of Tibet. In Urumqi, the capital, Han Chinese already outnumber all local ethnic groups.

"The Chinese juggernaut of modernization has not stopped outside the fabled medieval city quarters (of the Silk Road city of Kashgar). Large parts have been torn down to create space for new roads and high-rise office blocks. Ten of thousands of residents, all of them Uighurs, have been forcibly moved to modern settlements on the city's outskirts. "For the government, this is all about destroying our culture and shattering all Uighur communities," Mamtimyn believes...In 1949 there were only about three hundred thousand Chinese among the five million inhabitants of Xinjiang. Now they make up close to ten million. "Many of those Chinese act toward us like colonial lords," says Mamtimyn." (p. 105)

For the Chinese government the province of Xinjiang is absolutely essential to the future growth of the entire nation, because, despite only containing one-sixtieth of the population, it has within its boundaries three-quarters of all of China's mineral wealth. Also, it is the only logical place for a pipeline from Kazakhstan to pass through, bringing with it the even greater riches from the Caspian. Throughout the last ten years the state-owned China National Petroleum Company has been engaged in a global buying spree, buying into oil fields from Venezuela to Sudan to Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan especially, the Chinese see the potential solution to the looming fact that they will have to import tens, even hundreds, of millions of barrels of oil to keep the economy roaring forward. For now, their biggest concern is America's deepening political, military, and economic ties to the Caspian Sea states, a worry voiced by Zheng Chendu, the CNPC director general in Kazakhstan, when he spoke with Kleveman.

""The US troops are here in order to control the oil reserves in Central Asia...The control works indirectly...Since U.S. troops have moved up to its gates, the Kazakh government prefers once again to sign contracts with Western corporations - and not with us." If current developments continued, Beijing could very well face having to write off the big pipeline to the East. "In Kyrgyzstan the American military is stationed very close to the Chinese border. The United States has bases in Japan, in the Phillippines, in South Korea and Taiwan. And now here - China is going to be encircled!"" (p. 115)

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