Buffeted by Big Powers, Central Asia Gravitates Closer to Russia's Orbit Series: CENTRAL ASIA. EMPIRE'S ORPHAN. Part One of a Three-Part Series. First of Two Articles Appearing Today

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IF ever someone could be said to have too many friends, it is Central Asia. The five nations that emerged after the fall of the Soviet empire are being courted by plenty of big-power benefactors eager to spread their influence.

Yet these new friends are unlikely soon to return Central Asia to its medieval glory, when it was at the nexus of the world's key trade routes via the Silk Road. The region has grown too poor to carry much sway of its own, and the landlocked states must beg access to the oceans that link the global economy. Buffeted by the conflicting ambitions of the much stronger nations at its doorstep, Central Asia may not carve out its own political niche for decades, experts in the region say.

From the north, the region's former Russian masters want to manage its trade and arrange the defense of its borders. From the south, Iranian mullahs seek out millions of its lapsed Muslims.

To the west, Turkey is eager to cash in on shared ethnic roots. To the east, an unevenly booming China is hoping Central Asian consumers will buy its exports. Western nations want to teach Central Asia Capitalism 101 while exploiting its mineral reserves.

Inevitably, the biggest problem for the five Central Asian countries created in the breakup of the Soviet Union is their relationship with Russia, to which all of them are still linked via the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). To the West's relief, the CIS has turned out to be little more than an expensive talking shop.

"Of the 500 documents adopted at the various levels by the Commonwealth, few are being carried out," complains Abdulaziz Kamilov, the foreign minister of Uzbekistan.

Sounding Soviet

Now Russia has come up with a new idea seen in the West as a genuine threat to the independence of Central Asian nations. It is offering them a customs union as a way of rebuilding the economic ties severed by the Soviet Union's collapse. Kazakstan has already joined, along with Belarus. Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have also said they will join, although the latter two are haggling over the terms of entry.

The customs union commits members to synchronize their trade laws and tariffs, meaning in practice the acceptance of rules set by Russia. It also allows Rus-sian troops to take part in the patrols of member nations' borders. And it sets the long-term goal of a common monetary policy.

"This doesn't sound to me like a customs union. It sounds to me like the Soviet Union, and I think a lot of nations in the region feel the same way," says a senior Western diplomat in Central Asia.

Indeed, the Russian lower house of parliament passed a resolution on Friday saying that the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union was illegal. And the Russian Communist Party on Sunday unveiled its desire to restore the Soviet Union, though not by force.

"But many {Central Asians} also feel that they don't have a great deal of choice, because their situation is one in which they are in many ways tied to {Russia} economically; in which their own attempts at reform are not proceeding so very well," he adds. "Their backs are up against the wall."

Russia helped put them in a corner by jealously guarding its natural gas and oil pipelines to Western Europe. Turkmenistan, a major natural gas producer, has been allowed to export only to other CIS states, which have run up huge debts and are now trying to use barter to pay for deliveries.

Oil-rich Kazakstan must also reckon with Russian control of its export markets. When the US-based Chevron Corp. began developing the country's huge Tengiz oil field three years ago, it hoped to pump 700,000 barrels of crude a day. …