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For centuries Central Asia has been an inter-civilizational crossroads. The meeting point of the Slavic, Islamic, and Chinese worlds, it was the route of the legendary Silk Route from China to the Middle East. Many of the most legendary cities of the medieval world lay along this route, cities that are again returning to prominence as Central Asia slowly returns to the consciousness of the world after decades of being closed off in the Soviet empire. Bukhara. Samarkand. Almaty. Tashkent. In the nineteenth century these areas, as well as Afghanistan to the south, became the setting for what was called The Great Game, the machinations, proxy wars, shifting alliances, espionage, trade, and diplomacy that occurred as Tsarist Russia, pushing south from the Siberian heartlands, met Imperial Britain, pushing north from the Indian colonies. Now, as this book explains, we are seeing a New Great Game.
As complex as the issue of where the main pipeline from Baku will go, it is nothing compared to the fiendishly Byzantine chess game being played out on the other side of the Caspian Sea. There, endowed with absolutely immense natural resources, you will find the ex-Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, two nations that are, if anything, even more obscure in the Western mind than Georgia and Azerbaijan. Indeed, such is the profound lack of knowledge of these nations in the West that the British comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen (aka Ali G) chose Kazakhstan as the homeland for his brilliant creation Borat Sagdiyev, the sex-obsessed Kazakh television reporter, because, as co-creator Dan Mazer said "We chose a country such as Kazakhstan as we were confident that there was little chance of meeting anyone who knew anything about it."
This is unfortunate, because this is a region in which what may turn out to be the great story of the twenty-first century is slowly taking shape. Having disappeared in the long years they were in Moscow's orbit, the nations of Central Asia (the Caspian states plus their eastern neighbors of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgizstan to their east) are now at the heart of a new geopolitical contest between the main regional and global powers. The United States, through both military bases and business deals, is seeking to wrest these countries permanently out of Moscow's orbit while at the same time completing the military encirclement of Russia itself. Russia, after a decade of utter economic disaster, is starting to pick itself up off the floor and once again glance a covetous eye towards the jewels that fell from the crown when the Soviet empire imploded. Iran, where the mullahs who run the country, increasingly loathed by their own people, are betting their futures on trying to repeat China's trick of generating the sort of economic growth that will dampen calls for political change. And, finally, perhaps most importantly in future terms, there is China itself, the waking giant, whose incredible growth is rewriting the rules in the region, and whose growing thirst for energy to power the behemoth is drawing it deeper and deeper into the machinations of Central Asia.
"One of the Kyrgyz truck drivers drives me through no-man's land to the Chinese border post. His Russian Kamaz truck and the trailer are loaded, like all the other trucks on this road, with huge chunks of scrap metal, the remnants of factories shut down and dismantled in Kyrgyzstan and the other ex-Soviet republics. Chinese businessmen buy the metal in order to melt and reuse it for the construction of new factories, a rising empire robbing the corpse of a fallen one." (p. 97)
In July 2000, geologists discovered an oil bubble in the northern Caspian Sea off the Kazakh coast over twenty-five miles across, making it the most oil found in one place since the discovery at Alaska's Prudhoe Bay in 1970. This is the Kashagan field which could, once it has been fully measured, be in among the five largest petroleum fields in the world. As the political and social situation in the Middle East slides ever further towards explosion the potential importance of the Caspian producers only increases. This factor, of Central Asia and the Caucasus as placid and stable in case of some sort of regional war in the Arab world, is at least as important as the proven finds in the minds of the businessmen, soldiers, and diplomats now flocking to the shores of the Caspian.
In the Central Asia republics, as in their counterparts in the southern Caucasus, the central issue is getting the oil and gas to the outside markets, a difficult logistical process even if you ignore the various geopolitical machinations of the larger powers. Complicating matters even further, the existing energy infrastructure is even more rudimentary than in the Caucasus. The existing routes out of the region all go to the north, into Russia. After centuries of Russian domination there is a deep reluctance on the part of both the Kazakhs and the Turkmen to hand the old master complete control over the economic fate of their newly independent nations. To counter the return of Russian dominance new options are being explored. To the south lie Iran and Afghanistan. Again, like in the Caucasus, the obvious route, in this case south through Iran, may not be the most politically viable one.
The Iranian government desperately wants to cut a deal with their neighbors to the north, despite having sizeable energy reserves of their own. This is because the vast majority of Iran's population lives in the north of the country, and the oil and gas is located in the far south near Iran's Persian Gulf coast. The Iranian government has proposed a swap deal with Kazakhstan, whereby Kazakh oil is shipped to Iran's Caspian port of Neka for easy distribution around the urbanized north, while Kazakh-chartered ships pick up Iranian oil from ports on the Persian Gulf to take on to other markets. A small natural gas pipeline from the main Dauletabad fields of Turkmenistan to Tehran has already been built, with plans to increase the capacity if possible. This is part of a plan for economic development by the religio-economic elite, the alliance of the mullah-backed 'religious charities', which have now evolved beyond their humanitarian origins to their new status as secretive cartel-like operations of enormous economic power, and the traditional bourgeouisie, the bazaari. With the traditional aristocracy and the most prominent business families either liquidated or exiled in the Islamic Revolution these groups stepped in and have now become the main economic power-brokers of Iran. Their corruption and thuggery has become legendary, and although on the surface Iran remains an officially religious society, the mullahs face a never-ending erosion of their moral authority, and exponentially increasing unrest from the country's army of youth, as their wealth grows and society stagnates.
"More than 75 percent of all Iranian youths do not pray, according to a recent poll commissioned by the government itself. There are far fewer mosques in Tehran than in Cairo or Amman, and only rarely a muezzin's call to prayer can be heard. "The young people do not put up with everything anymore, and they turn their backs on Islam. In reality, Iran is a secular society. Not even the mullahs still believe in what they preach," observes (Amir) Loghmany. "By elevating Islam to a political state ideology, it has practically been destroyed as an authentic religion in Iran."" (p. 126)
In order to preserve their political and economic power in a time when their religious and moral authority is in tatters the Iranian elite is pegging its hopes on the sort of economic boom that, like in China, would essentially buy off the middle class from political agitations. A key part of this strategy involves cutting deals with their northeastern neighbors for the transit of energy resources. Of course, this is considered completely unacceptable by the corporate and political leaders in the West, particularly in America, who have been devoting ever more time to strategic planning in Central Asia. They would much prefer if Kazakh and Turkmen oil and gas were to avoid Iran altogether. Two potential alternatives have been mooted by the Americans. One, for the resources to go to Baku and on to Ceyhan, either by being shipped across the Caspian or by possibly travelling through a mooted new pipeline to be built along the sea bed. Alternatively, the pipeline runs southeast from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to the Pakistani port city of Karachi. This route has been on the cards for many years, even during the Taliban's time in power.
The chaos of Afghanistan's civil war put that idea on ice until America's removal of the Taliban regime after the 9/11 attacks allowed the deal to be signed. As Afghanistan, by its standards anyways, calms down, the news for the US government from that country has generally been quite positive, certainly in comparison to the chaos in Iraq. Not only have millions of refugees returned to the country, but the recent elections there has confirmed Washington's man Hamid Karzai as president.
So, America seems to have won out, at least for now. But what of the terminus of this planned pipeline, Pakistan? And what about China? And how likely are Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to stick to the script?
to be continued here...