Washington and the 'Great Game' in Central Asia

By Rasizade, Alec | Contemporary Review, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Washington and the 'Great Game' in Central Asia


Rasizade, Alec, Contemporary Review


THE term 'great game' was originally coined by Rudyard Kipling to describe the nineteenth century Anglo-Russian rivalry for hegemony in Central Asia (see Contemporary Review, December 2001, p. 321). Now, this buzzword is being liberally exercised by scholars and observers of the region to describe the great powers and their various undertakings pertaining to Central Asia and ranging from their geopolitical strategy to mere competition for its energy resources and pipelines.

Imaginary Frontiers Become Real in Central Asia

In his 1920 Letter to the Communists of Turkestan (as the Russian part of Central Asia was known at that time), V.I. Lenin asked them to investigate how many national republics would be established there and how they should be named. Eight decades ago, the idea of sovereign ethnic-based states was alien and exotic for the local Muslim communities. The concepts on ethnic division of Turkestan were as vague then as they are now in contemporary multi-ethnic Afghanistan. The Bolsheviks applied to V. Bartold, the renowned scholar on Central Asia, with the question how they should divide the region. He warned them that Central Asia had no historic experience of the paradigm of an ethnic state, and it would be a great mistake to divide the region along ethnic lines.

Nevertheless, the present boundaries and infrastructure were designed by the USSR based on a strong belief of the unbreakable union of the fifteen Soviet republics. As a result the borders, in some cases disputed (with the most intricate maze of border patchwork being the Fergana Valley), were never delimited or demarcated.

The imaginary frontiers of Soviet times have now become real. Now the five independent -- stans are able to communicate with some of their own parts only across the territories of other neighbours. The new fragmentation of Central Asia is a painful process, which has become a serious impediment for cross-border migration of labour and trade. Some locals face real national borders for the first time in their lives, like the women from Uzbekistan crossing borders to collect cotton in Tajikistan, or the families from Kyrgyzstan going to work in tobacco plantations in Kazakhstan. Another tool of the 'cold peace' among Central Asian neighbours is the imposition of customs and visa duties. Their corrupt law-enforcement and customs officers have turned the borders into a new source of illicit income.

Since the 'war against terrorism' in Afghanistan, extra security measures have caused new problems for ordinary people: each Central Asian country started to expel visitors from neighbouring states, afflicting the poor and seasonal workers. During the ongoing Operation Migrant, for example, Kazakhstan has deported more than fifty thousand CIS citizens. (The CIS is the loose association of the former Soviet republics minus the three Baltic ones.) Security measures in Uzbekistan resulted in the shooting of Tajik, Kyrgyz and Kazakh citizens along the Uzbek frontier. There are many cases of Uzbek border guards moving their posts deep into the Kyrgyz and Tajik territories in order to punish real or imaginary rebels. Uzbekistan's decision to mine its border with Tajikistan has led to numerous deaths of seasonal migrant workers.

A new heated discussion is taking place now between the five Central Asian countries. The downstream Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan demand more water for irrigation from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which are located upstream in the region's river system. Both upstream countries have hydropower stations on rivers flowing to Uzbekistan, southern Kazakhstan, and eventually into Turkmenistan. The two main rivers Syr-Darya and Amu-Darya provide three quarters of the region's water. There is a competition for the Syr-Darya water between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan's ambitions to increase the area of irrigated land exacerbates tensions between Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over shares of the Amy-Darya water. …

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