- Independence and Integration in the Caspian Basin 1
Click for larger view
View full resolution
The stripling states of Central Asia and Transcaucasia often find themselves typecast as faceless victims in Western accounts of post-Soviet politics. The colorful lines all go to Russia, which, as the villain, seeks with great bravado to impose its will on a hapless mass of nationalities trapped between it and the poor states of Asia. One especially compelling script adds a few more characters, spinning an epic tale of the Great Game, a chess match writ grand in which enduring geopolitical imperatives drive the Turks, the Persians, the Russians, and the British to pursue the age-old urge to dominate this oil-rich periphery.
But while the new states of the Caspian Basin have certainly met their fair share of suitors, they have been anything but unified in their plight and have developed discrete aims and ambitions of their own. While Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia have clung closely to the Russian bosom, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have struck out on a much more independent course, often at great cost to themselves. These patterns of behavior are of immense importance, since they will not only determine whether Russia can reestablish its imperial sway in the region, but will also decide who gains access to the vast underground riches of the Caspian Basin, home to energy reserves at least as great as those of the North Sea.
To understand these patterns, we must avoid treating the very distinct countries of Central Asia and Transcaucasia as an undifferentiated lump of weak statehood, but must instead identify [End Page 163] the widely varying security and economic imperatives that confront each young government. In the pages that follow, I argue that the most important factors driving some republics out of Russia’s grip are energy wealth, secure outside borders and, ironically, hamhanded efforts by Moscow to preserve its hegemony. These factors help us understand why the Central Asian Union may supersede the Customs Union of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), why the CIS itself is becoming an increasingly anti-Russian institution, and why Russia lost its battle to claim the right to veto all Caspian oil development.
Russia as a Source of Security and Development
Why have some Central Asian and Transcaucasian states sought to tighten ties with their enormous neighbor to the north while others have fought fiercely for their freedom? In order to understand the international politics of Eurasia, we must focus first on economics and security. Russia often claims to be a source of wealth and a provider of security, but many in the West suggest it is the source of all geopolitical evil. The reality not only lies between these extremes, but differs depending on the newly independent state in question. Georgia’s image of Russia is very different from Tajikistan’s, and Turkmenistan’s perspective is different still. The following sections explain these different images of Russia in its “near abroad.”
It is not hard to see why Russia has a public relations problem with its closest neighbors. First, it inherited the most powerful political institutions of the Soviet Union, the regime that maintained Russian dominance over many parts of the empire it once vowed to free. While Boris Yeltsin’s new and improved Russia brought a welcome change in style, top government officials and politicians across the political spectrum have continued to view “reintegration” as inevitable and natural, and many have advocated outright coercion as the best way to bring their “deluded” separatist neighbors to their senses. Strong evidence suggests that Russian forces have intentionally manipulated armed rebellions in states like Georgia and Azerbaijan in order to drive them back into the imperial domain. Even where the Russian Federation has not used force, it has claimed for itself the right to act as “protector” not only of any ethnic Russians “stranded” outside of the motherland (and there are some 25 million of these), but also of virtually anyone who claims Russian as a first language or who has coethnics residing in Russia, as do...