The summit-meeting of the five Caspian Sea countries in Iran on October 17, and the suspension of the European Union’s sanctions on Uzbekistan have focused attention on how the US, Russia, the EU and China are vying with each other for the rich energy resources of the Central Asian states in the region. The two events also drew attention to the maintenance of military bases by theUS and Russia in the Central Asian states, showing that their desire to seek military links is as intense as their competition for energy resources. The three Central Asian rulers attending the summit – Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov of Turkmenistan and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan – provided no reason for anyone to question the soundness of conclusions reached as a result of the international attention focused on their countries and themselves.
There is no doubt that the three have a firm control on power in their own countries, having ruled them first as communist bosses and since the fall of communism as ‘presidents’. All three have passed new laws to entrench their hold on power, removing any ‘democratic’ procedures that might have enabled other politicians to challenge and replace them. For instance, president Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989. After changing the rules, he is now widely regarded as “de facto president for life”. But even worse, these rulers also use mass murder as a means to suppress any challenge they consider to be serious. Yet the US and EU countries, despite priding themselves on spreading ‘democracy’ to the rest of the world and on fighting despotism worldwide, are competing with each other to secure the friendship of the despotic and bloodthirsty Central Asian rulers. The motive is to gain access to the region’s oil and gas resources, and to use certain areas of their territory for military bases and manoeuvres.
Kazakhstan – which is territorially the world’s ninth-largest country, though it has a population of only 9 million – has found new oil-reserves and is expected to triple its oil-production by 2015, putting it in the worlds top ten producers of crude. The US and the EUare busy wooing president Nazarbayev, who has disposed of the constitutional limits on his time in office and is now engaged in building a strong power-base. Nazarbayev is not only wasting the wealth Kazakhstan earns from selling its oil to those countries on dubious projects designed to boost his public standing, but also uses it to buy the support of influential Kazakhs and to enrich himself, his family and his friends. But the US and the EU – which claim to be opposed to “corruption in developing countries” – ignore Nazarbayev’s conduct and still prefer to “do business” with him. It may not be an exaggeration to claim that in doing so they are a party to the increasing corruption in Kazakhstan.
But it was in mid-October, when the EU suspended its sanctions on Uzbekistan, that it became clear how low Western governments and companies can sink in their efforts to gain or retain access to oil and gas resources. EU foreign ministers agreed to lift travel restrictions against the Uzbek defence minister, Ruslan Mirzayev, the national security chief Rustam Inoyatov, and six others, explaining that their decision to lift the restrictions was designed to “encourage the Uzbek authorities to take positive steps” to improve the human rights situation.
The travel restrictions were introduced after the massacres perpetrated by the Uzbek regime in the town of Andijan in May 2005 had shocked the world. Uzbek troops, eager to prevent any demonstration against president Islam Karimov, opened fire on unarmed crowds of people who had gathered in the town’s main square for peaceful protests: hundreds were killed, including many women and children. The authorities admitted to killing “only 187” people and claimed that they were all terrorists or guerrillas.
Since then nothing has changed in the Uzbek human-rights situation, and there is no indication that any improvements are impending. For instance, there are thirteen human-rights activists in jail there at the moment, despite a call by the EU for their release; there is no indication that they will be released any time soon. Not surprisingly, analysts and human-rights activists laughed at the EU’s decision to suspend the restrictions and at the reason given to explain it, dismissing it as a step designed to achieve access to the Uzbekistan’s gas and oil. For example, Veronica Szente, the advocacy director of Europe and Central Asia for Human Rights Watch, and John Macleod, a senior editor at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, were both quoted in newspaper reports on October 17 as making remarks to this effect.
“Beyond the negative impact on human rights in Uzbekistan, it [the decision to rescind the travel restrictions] also seriously undermines the EU’s own standing as a protector of human rights,” Szente said. “This is happening in the broader context of the EU trying to [extend] its cooperation with Central Asia ... including gas and oil.” Macleod, who also made similar comments, and concluded that “when it comes to the crunch, the EU puts pragmatic advantage over human rights concerns.”
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that both Western rulers and Central Asian despots are keen to do business with each other at the expense of moral and legal values, with the former ready to bribe and the latter eager to be bribed. To take only one example, Germany – which has a military base in the southern Uzbek city of Termez and competes with China and Russia for Central Asia’s oil and gas resources – was instrumental to the decision to suspend the EU sanctions. On the Central Asian side, Azerbaijan’s president, Aliyev, said in an interview with a German daily on October 8 that his country was “highly interested in supplying Europe with oil and gas” and that it “plans to use its soaring oil revenues to buy stakes in German and other European companies.”
There is hardly any doubt that Germany and other European countries will be keen to import Central Asian oil and gas supplies and to see the revenues from those supplies invested in their own economies (rather than in Central Asia’s economies), and that they will even pay bribes (also known as commissions) to fulfil their ambitions. Equally, the Central Asian rulers and elites will be prepared to receive those bribes. Other Western countries, including China and Russia,, that are competing with the EU for those supplies and investments are equally prepared to bribe.
In these circumstances it is reasonable to conclude that the Central Asian people will be the last to benefit from the energy resources of the region that is their homeland, and from the revenues that those resources generate.