Russian Energy Policy in the Caspian Basin

By Kubicek, Paul | World Affairs, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Russian Energy Policy in the Caspian Basin


Kubicek, Paul, World Affairs


Prior to the events of September 11, 2001, the geopolitical importance of Central Asia and the Caspian Basin primarily was defined by one factor: energy. Some hailed gas and oil deposits in the region as a second Persian Gulf, (1) and commentators began to speak of a new "great game" in the region that involved a variety of powers (the United States, China, Iran, Turkey, and, above all, Russia) and revolved around energy exploration and "pipeline politics." However, September 11 put this region on the radar screen of many policymakers for different reasons. Islamic fundamentalism, which emerged during and after the breakup of the Soviet Union, was identified as a new global threat, and local governments joined with outside forces to combat the threat, lest a new Taliban arise in the post-Soviet space. (2) Several states also lined up to contribute to America's war on terror, winning assistance from Washington, DC, in return for sharing intelligence and granting U.S. forces basing rights in the region. As a consequence, "geopolitical pluralism" emerged in a region that until then largely had been considered as being under the Russian sphere of influence. (3) In turn, Russia has had to adjust to this new situation and re-think its role in the region.

Energy concerns, of course, have not gone away, and given the instability in oil prices and the desire to diversify supply, the region's importance on this score may be even more important than it was pre--September 11. One might think, however, that other events and concerns have impinged on the energy question in the region and have affected the calculations and strategies of various states and companies involved in energy extraction and transportation. In this article, I will evaluate the politics of energy with primary consideration given to Russian policy in the region, especially with the main oil producers of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan (4) and with a particular eye on changes since September 11. My goal is not only to describe how policy on this question has evolved but also to situate the issue within broader questions of Russian foreign policy, paying special attention to what factors and actors shape it today.

THE RUSSIAN APPROACH TO THE REGION IN THE 1990s

Russian policy in Central Asia and the Caspian Basin in the 1990s went through several gyrations. (5) Moscow initially was intent on charting a course of Westernization and approached most of the region with what might be dubbed a policy of benign neglect. According to Aleksandr Livshits, "Some members of the Russian leadership believed that it was necessary to dispose of Central Asia as soon as possible since it would supposedly retard the implementation of economic reform in Russia." (6) Moscow was intimately involved in the civil war in Tajikistan and did not jettison all ties with these states. There was little push for close economic or political cooperation, however, and in the realm of energy, it remained more or less business as usual, with oil and gas flowing north through Russian pipelines, which conveniently meant that Russia controlled the economic lifeline of the region. (7) Although there was a clear recognition of the significance of the region's oil and gas deposits, in the initial post-Soviet years this factor did not take on immense political importance, and oil production actually declined from 1991-95. (8) Indeed, as Zviagelskaia notes, Kazakhstan remained on Russian policymakers' radar screen more than did other states, chiefly because of its large ethnic Russian population. (9)

The policy would begin to change in the mid 1990s, reflecting a broader shift in Russian foreign policy away from Westernization and toward what has been dubbed Eurasianism, or a Monroeski Doctrine, a policy that asserted special rights for Russia in the post-Soviet space (dubbed the near abroad), argued for a more assertive Russian policy in the region, and, in some variants, envisioned the reintegration of some post-Soviet states into the Russian state. …

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