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New players in an old game.

A century ago, Russia and Britain played what was known as "the Great Game" as they sought to outmanoeuvre one another on the frontier between their Asian empires. As Moscow's control has receded with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the struggle for influence throughout the region, and in the neighbouring Caucasus, has begun. Only this time, the major players are Turkey and Iran. In this month's Cover Story. The Middle East begins by outlining the rules of the game. Andrew Apostolou examines the nascent Muslim republics, while Amberin Zaman and Naritza Matossian look at the war in the Caucasus from the Turkish and Armenian perspectives.

ALONG THE Middle Eastern borders of the former Soviet Union, eight ethnic groups are reasserting their independence identities. Georgians, Armenians, Azeris Turkmen, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kirghizians and Kazakhs are going their separate ways, uncerntainly and often none too peacefully.

The natural inclination of most of the Muslim republics of Central Asia is to foster their ethnic and cultural links with Turkey. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are all Turkish-speaking and plan to replace the Russian Cyrillic alphabet with Roman script. Only Farsi-speaking Tajikstan has opted for Arabic-Persian script. Geographically, however, Iran is closer to the republics and has the advantage of offering the landlocked republics access to the outside world via the Gulf.

Socially and politically, Turkey offers a Westernised, secular and economically successful model to replace the bankrupt Soviet system which appeals to the leaders of the new republics (most of them former Communists now dressed up as nationalists). Iran, on the other hand, preaches Islam and in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikstan it is Muslims who have formed the core of the opposition to the established order inherited from the Soviet Union.

Oil and gas are seen as the keys to prosperity in the resource-rich but economically underdeveloped Central Asian republics. "We were a colony and we remain a colony," complains Rustam Azimov, the young chairman of Uzbekistan's National Bank for Foreign Economic Activity. The difficulties faced b Uzbekistan are typical of the region. It suffers from a monoculture of cotton growing imposed by the Soviet Union and the export to Russia of its energy and mineral raw materials. Less than 10% of these are processed internally; the rest have traditionally been shipped off wholesale northwards.

Turkmenistan is an extreme example of the lopsided development of Central Asian economic resources. It is the world's third largest producer of natural gas, but has only 3.5m inhabitants and consumes only a tiny proportion of its output. The remainder has always gone to Russia. Now it hopes to send natural gas to Iran. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan is buoyed by recent discoveries of oil in the north and Kazakhstan has signed agreements with Elf-Aquitaine of France and Chevron of the United States for development of its oil fields.

But how is the oil and gas to be exported to new markets? There is agreement in principle between Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey for a pipeline which would pass through Iran south the Caspian to Turkey. But both Ankara and Tehran are pushing their alternative pet projects. The Turks favour a pipeline through Kazakstan, running north of the Caspian and linking up through Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, effectively cutting out Iran.

Tehran, on the other land, has proposed a pipeline which would link Central Asia and the Gulf, leaving Turkey out. Just to confuse matters, there is also a scheme on the drawing board for a pipeline through Iran to Pakistan.

The confusion generated by this plethora of projects was evident in May at the economic summit meeting in Ashkhabad, capita of Turkmenistan, attended by the Turkmen, Kazakh, Uzbek and Kirghiz leaders, as well as Suleiman Demirel, the Turkish prime minister, and President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani of Iran. No final agreements on oil and gas export links could be reached and a coordinated development strategy for Central Asia remains, almost literally, a pipedream.

One problem common to all the schemes on the table is who will pay for them. Although both Turkey and Iran have offered trade credits, neither has the cash to finance such grandiose projects. "If they decide to finance an oil and pipeline themselves to tap Central Asia, the Iranians will simply ruin their already weak economy," one Turkish economic adviser said in Ashkhabad.

Even more problematic for economic developmentt plans is the prospect of political turbulence in the region. Much needed foreign capital will not materialise until stability is assured.

So far, instability in Central Asia has been restricted to sporadic internal disturbances. The Caucasus, however, offers an exemplary warning of the way in which pent-up rivalries unleased by the disintegration ofthe Soviet Union can turn into all-out war. The apparently unresolvable conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is a major argument against proceeding with Turkey's plans for a trans-Caucasian pipeline from Central Asia.

Both Turkey and Iran say they want to reduce tension, but both are being inexorably forced to take sides. Long-standing Armenian bitterness towards Turkey has prompted Ankara to be protective towards the Turkish-speaking Azeris. Iran has engineered short-lived truces between the warrning parties, but fearful of the effect of Azerbaijani nationalism on its own Azeri population is widely suspected of secretively assisting the Armenians.

Could the same disruption recur in Central Asia? The borders of the Muslim republics are still those arbitrarily drawn up by the Soviet Union and there is plenty of scope for friction. If it became critical, it is hard to see how outsiders could a avoid being drawn in, however reluctantly.

The Islamic factor cannot be discounted. Religion is not deeply rooted, especially among the Kazhaks and the Kirghizians, and the Sunni majority is not particularly fertile ground for Shia Iranian proselytising. Islam, however, provides what focus exists for opposition to the established ex-Communist bosses.

Dedehan Hassan, a Muslim political leader in Uzbekistan, believes that it is too early to think of creating an Islamic state. The main task of religous opposition is to "explain true Islam to our Moslems" so that supporters of an Islamic state can take power in the future. The Islamic opposition is not made up of extremists. It is just waiting for its turn to come.

The old guard is well aware of this and seeking Russian support. Last month, Kazakhstan was the first of the republican leadership to sign a security agreement with Moscow. If Islamic fervour were ever to take off, Iran could hardly stand by. Neither could Turkey. Suleiman Demirel has shown in the Caucasus that he has no desire to become embroiled in post-Soviet conflicts, but he has to pander to nationalist feeling in his country. After a visit in April to the Central Asian republics, even he talked grandly of a Turkish-speaking community of states "stretching from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China". The seeds of conflict have been sown.
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Title Annotation:struggle for influence in the Middle East
Author:Apostolou, Andrew; Zaman, Amberin; Matossian, Naritza
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Next Article:Between competing traditions.

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