Thu, Jan 18, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Central Asia's coming energy power struggle

By F. Stephen Larrabee

A dictator's sudden death usually triggers political instability. But it is doubly dangerous when it poses a risk of regional destabilization and a scramble for influence among the world's greatest military powers.

The sudden death last month of Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan's authoritarian president-for-life who declared himself "Turkmenbashi" (Leader of all Turkmens), jeopardizes stability in an increasingly important supplier of energy to Europe. Worse, the absence of a clearly designated successor and the weakness of civil society and other political institutions could have repercussions across Asia.

Indeed, Niyazov's demise highlights the broader problems of Central Asia's post-Soviet regimes, which, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, are run by Soviet-era bosses who, while not nearly as eccentric or egomaniacal as Niyazov, tolerate little dissent or opposition.

Most of them are old, some of them are unwell. So, in the next few years, Central Asia will face leadership change on many fronts, with security apparatuses -- which, as in Turkmenistan, have been crucial to buttressing these countries' regimes -- likely to be important players.

How these transitions turn out will matter for several reasons. First, Central Asia is an important source of energy. The Caspian region accounts for 2 percent to 3 percent of the world's known oil resources. While far smaller than the deposits in Saudi Arabia or Iran, Caspian oil could prove important if oil production falls or is reduced for political reasons elsewhere.

Much of this oil is in Kazakhstan, giving that country a critical role in the regional energy market. Moreover, Kazakhstan's strategic importance has increased as aresult of recent revelations that the country's Kashagan oil field will produce 25 percent more than initially expected at peak production.

Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are also major exporters of natural gas. Russia depends heavily on Turkmen gas, which could prove vital as demand rises over the next decade.

Second, Central Asia's leadership transitions could tempt outside powers to exploit the resulting instability and spark a struggle for influence. Because the region was part of both the Soviet Union and the Russian empire, President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin regards it as part of Russia's natural sphere of influence. Putin's efforts to transform Russia into a major energy power and use energy as a tool of Russian foreign policy make the region all the more significant.

Moreover, China has sought to improve trade and transit ties with Central Asia over the last decade, reflecting its growing interests there. Not only is the region important for meeting China's growing energy needs, but the Chinese authorities are also concerned about separatist pressures among the Uighur population in Xinjiang and the impact of ties with Uighurs in neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Like Russia, China wants a reduction of the US military presence in Central Asia. Both powers have sought to use the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- a regional grouping that includes Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- to pressure the US to withdraw from the region. However, this cooperation represents a short-term marriage of convenience rather than a budding new strategic alliance. In the long run, Russia and China are likely to be rivals for power and influence in Central Asia.

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