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Central Asia news

American Road Map plan for Central Asia

30.01.2008 14:10 msk

Vremya Novostei


While some US senators are fighting tooth and claw for the White House, others seconded by the military make sure that the next US president will have bridgeheads in faraway countries to pursue his foreign policy in. Admiral William Fallon of the US Central Command completed his tour of Central Asian countries with an unscheduled visit to Ashkhabad. Fallon's tour began in Dushanbe and continued in Afghanistan. That done, he returned to Uzbekistan in the north and turned south (Pakistan) again. Stopover in Turkmenistan crowned the tour.

Richard Lugar, a prominent US Senator, completed his tour of the region several days before Fallon. His route, however, was somewhat different. Like Fallon, Lugar visited Ashkhabad. He also made stops in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and finally - on his way home - Ukraine.

No information is available on what Fallon discussed with Central Asian leaders. It stands to reason to assume meanwhile that the talks were mostly focused on coordination of efforts in Afghanistan: war on terrorism, trafficking, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. When in Uzbekistan, Fallon met with President Islam Karimov and attended consultations with defense and foreign ministers, secretary of the Security Council, and chairman of the State Committee for Border Protection. This part of the American's tour is shrouded in secrecy.

As a matter of fact, there was more to the visit to Tashkent than coordination of the Afghani effort. Portal Eurasianet.org appraises the admiral's appearance in Uzbekistan as "activization of the US efforts in Central Asia to prevent Russia from solidifying its energy positions in the region." Analysts recall that when Tashkent's relations with Washington and Brussels soured after the events in Andijan in May 2005, Uzbekistan turned to Moscow and Beijing and even joined the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization and Shanghai Cooperation Organization. "The Russian-Uzbek relations are somewhat less cordial now, and have been for months, and that offers the United States and EU a chance to execute some diplomatic maneuvering," Eurasianet.org stated.

As a matter of fact, Karimov himself was the first to mention this possibility. Delivering a speech at the ceremony commemorating the 15th anniversary of the Uzbek Constitution (see Vremya Novostei, December 10, 2007), Karimov made it plain that "certain discord" between Uzbekistan and the West had been successfully negotiated. "We will never turn aside from the road of mutually beneficial cooperation... with the United States and Europe among others," he said. This flattery must have bought Washington's loyalty in the matter of the presidential election in Uzbekistan last December that all but confirmed Karimov's president-for-life status.

When it comes down to the region near Afghanistan, stability takes precedence over legitimacy. It is an article of faith with the White House shared by the Kremlin with its own bitter experience of hostilities in Chechnya and development of the power vertical there afterwards.

As for Lugar, his interest in Central Asia was no less practical than Fallon's. Grizzled veteran of the US Congress, he said on return to Washington that Astana and Baku had demonstrated "complete understanding of the idea of alternate routes to world energy markets" and praised his interlocutors in both capitals as "quite sympathetic with American interests." It may be added that the Turkmen leadership earned no such plaudits from Lugar.

What information is available to this newspaper indicates that Lugar's negotiations in Ashkhabad were anything but simple. It was the US Senator's first meeting with the new Turkmen leader (unlike presidents of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan whom he had already known). Sources in Ashkhabad close to the negotiations say that the visitor tried to sell the Turkmens on the idea of the so called Road Map (a general plan the United States drew for every country of the region). On the other hand, this Road Map charted for the next 10-15 years will have to be run by official Washington yet. By and large, it suggests development of transboundary corridors bypassing Russia.

Talking to the new Turkmen leadership, Lugar made an emphasis on Turkmenistan's probable involvement in the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline - in the capacities of a transit country and exporter. Sources say that the visitor brought with him a promise from Astana to up annual gas transit across the Caspian Sea to 20 billion cubic meters by 2011-2012, but only if Turkmenistan played ball. The US Senator even said the US Eximbank might guarantee funding for the project.

Lugar promised Ashkhabad Washington's help in resolution of territorial disputes with Baku (over three oil fields in the center of the Caspian shelf) and Tehran (this latter claims certain oil fields for its own).

Arguments like that couldn't help impressing the Turkmen leader. When the visitor was gone, Gurbankuly Berdymuhammedov ordered establishment of a special team to study pros and cons (i.e. dividends and risks) of participation in the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline. Berdymuhammedov even decided to have national gas fields audited - much to everyone's surprise. There is no saying at this point what auditor (foreign or domestic) will be chosen or what gas fields will be examined first. Insiders assume that gas fields on the right-hand bank of the Amudarja will be the first audited. It is these gas fields that will send gas to China by the gas pipeline (30 billion cubic meters a year) whose construction is expected to begin later this year.

Arkady Dubnov, Vremya Novostei, No 11, January 29, 2008, p. 3. © Translated by Ferghana.Ru