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Moscow, Central Asian warlords, use the bogey of Taliban to maintain grip on region’s resources

Zafar Bangash

Old habits dies hard. This time-worn refrain is as applicable to Russia today as it was when it existed in its communist mutation. Moscow has traditionally used the bogey of non-existent threats to maintain its grip on countries that it perceives as falling under its sphere of influence. The US, the claimant to sole superpower status, is even more guilty of such tactics.

The Russians were at it again last month in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. While maintaining a 25,000-strong army of occupation along the Tajik-Afghan border, the Russians are crying wolf over the Taliban’s successes in neighbouring Afghanistan. The Taliban threat is as far removed from reality as the zionists’ claim that they fear the Arab regimes on their borders.

Following the April 5 meeting, the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and Russia’s first deputy foreign minister, Boris Pastukhov, issued a joint declaration expressing fears about the spill-over effect of the fighting in Afghanistan. They also pledged to take ‘joint action’ to protect their common borders. Turkmenstan remained neutral and did not send a representative to the talks.

Russia’s over-bearing presence was evident throughout the talks. It is clear that the more things change in Central Asia, the more they remain the same. The Central Asian republics are supposed to be independent of Russia now but this exists only on paper. The thousands of Russian soldier along the Afghan border are but one element of this scenario.

Ironically, while the Russians and Central Asian rulers complain of a spill-over effect from Afghanistan, Ahmed Shah Masoud, a one-time enemy of Russia, is allowed to use a Tajik airbase to carry out bombing raids against Taliban positions inside Afghanistan. Masoud was formerly defence minister in the Rabbani-led government in Kabul, and the west’s favourite commander in Afghanistan. When the Taliban captured Kabul last September, Masoud was out of a job.

While Masoud is carrying out bombing raids and transporting supplies from across the border in Tajikistan, Kazakh foreign minister Kosymzhomart Tokayev had the gall to suggest on the eve of his departure for Dushanbe on April 4: ‘We want to discuss the situation in the region and particularly the influence of Afghanistan.’ Tajik president Imomali Rakhmonov also met the visiting ministers briefly on the day of the meeting.

A Tajik official cited Rakhmonov as saying that, if urgent measures were not taken, the situation in Afghanistan could spin out of control, undermining security not only in Central Asia but throughout the ex-Soviet States. The official said Rakhmonov had called for the creation of an international forum to find a political solution to Afghanistan’s long-running civil war, involving all factions and other interested countries.

In addition to undermining their fragile stability, the Central Asian warlords fear a refugee crisis if the Taleban push northwards against rival factions in the spring. While such fears may be grossly exaggerated, what is indisputable is Moscow’s desire to continue to maintain a tight grip on the resources of Central Asia.

There are rich pickings to be made. There are at least 7.5 trillion cubic metres (cum) of known reserves of natural gas in Central Asia and Azerbaijan. Undiscovered reserves are estimated at 20 trillion cum, according to the Petroleum Economist’s report, ‘Gas in the CIS, 1996: A special Report’ (p.26).

The lowest estimates of the region’s oil reserves are 20 billion barrel but oil industry specialists say that Kazakhstan’s Tengiz oilfield alone has 22 billion barrels of known reserves and perhaps a potential of 50 billion barrels. Even Turkmenstan’s reserves of oil are estimated at 37 billion barrels. Such vast gas and oil reserves have western and Russian oil men salivating.

Yet the west, especially Washington, is using Moscow to keep control of the region and to ensure ‘stability’ùa euphemism for not allowing popular governments to emerge in the region. The Central Asian rulers are all old communist apparatchuks who can only survive in the warm embrace of Mother Russia. When any of them try to stray too far, the Russian bear is there to bring them back into line.

Moscow has successfully forced the Central Asian States to export oil and gas only through pipelines passing its territory. Anyone who dares step out of this regime is quickly brought to heels. For instance, Turkmenstan was forced to export oil and gas to members of the CIS who cannot pay for it. And for two years, Russia did not allow any Turkmen gas to go to Europe. Such blackmailing tactics work wonders since there are no alternative outlets available.

Turkmenstan has opened a rail link through Iran to the port city of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf. At full capacity, this will carry 8 million tonnes of goods annually. Iran has also entered into an agreement with Kazakhstan. In return for Kazakhs delivering oil to Iranian cities on the Caspian Sea, Tehran will load an equal amount in tankers on the Persian Gulf on behalf of Almaty. This arrangement helps provide an alternative route to the Central Asian Republics.

Turkmenstan’s neutrality vis-a-vis the Dushanbe meeting is also motivated by other considerations. The US-owned Unocal and the Saudi Delta company are anxious to build a pipeline from Turkmenstan’s Daulabad oilfields through Afghanistan to Quetta in Pakistan. From there, it will be transported to Karachi for onward shipment or even used domestically in Pakistan.

Moscow is anxious to prevent these pipelines from being constructed. Judging by the fact that it has prevented Turkmenstan from using an existing Iranian-Turkish pipeline means that it will be able to brow-beat its former colonies into toeing its line. The non-existent threat of the Taliban, who incidentally eschewed on April 6 in a statement in Kabul any desire to meddle in the affairs of neighbouring countries, is being used to keep the Central Asian regimes in check.

The meeting’s venue, Dushanbe, is also significant. It is in Tajikistan that Russia has its largest contingent of troops outside its borders. Also, the Rakhmonov regime is involved in a bitter power struggle with the Tajik mujahideen. A 10-day meeting in Tehran has not yielded the kinds of results that the Islamic opposition had hoped for.

Under the cover of a security threat, Moscow and its Central Asian puppets are really trying to secure control of the vast resources of the region. These will be exploited not to benefit the people but fatten Moscow and Washington as well as line the pockets of the Central Asian warlords.

Muslimedia - May 1-15, 1997

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 5

Dhu al-Hijjah 23, 14171997-05-01

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