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The Great Game, Part II

It has become fashionable to refer to the current jockeying for influence and resources in Central Asia as the new Great Game. Is there a "Great Game II" as there was a World War II? And is that a useful template for understanding that part of the world today?

The original Great Game was the rivalry between the Russian and British empires for the markets of Central Asia. There was an overlay of ideology -- bringing Christianity and civilization to the heathen who, then as now, displayed a proclivity for beheading. But the real issue was whether Central Asians "shall be clothed with the broadcloth of Russia or of England" and purchase "implements of steel from St. Petersburg or from Birmingham." Great Game I began in 1807, when Napoleon proposed a joint attack to Tsar Alexander I on the jewel of the British Empire, India, and ended in 1907, when the two sides formally agreed on spheres of influence. That century of suspicion and deception resulted in some bloodletting, but the two great powers, though they came close, never went to war with each other

Some see the Cold War as an extension of the Great Game, but if anything it was the collapse of the Soviet Union that brought the game to life again. Great Game II has some familiar aspects, some utterly new. The main players are Russia, China, the United States and Iran. As in the 19th century, ideology plays a secondary role, as the real stakes are gas, oil and strategic advantage. Unlike the 19th century, the Central Asian states are now primarily sellers rather than buyers. As always, these states prove adroit at playing the great powers off one other.

The complicated politics of Great Game II -- Turkmen gas is shipped to Europe through Russian pipelines that pass through Ukrainian territory -- is magnified by terrorism. Uzbekistan, the Belarus of Central Asia, granted the United States rights to use an airbase to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida but withdrew those rights when the United States criticized Uzbekistan for the still-murky slaughter in Andijan in May 2005. Russia deftly moved to fill the vacuum. By September Russia and Uzbekistan held joint military exercises and two months later signed a treaty promising mutual military assistance in case of aggression.

Some observers doubt the existence of any new form of the Great Game. In a summer 2006 Washington Quarterly article titled "Averting a New Great Game in Central Asia," Richard Weitz wrote: "Concerns about a renewed great game are ... exaggerated. The contest for influence in the region does not directly challenge the vital national interests of China, Russia, or the United States." The point is not well taken. No vital interests were directly at stake in the original Great Game either. In fact, Europe needs gas and oil from Russia and Central Asia more than England ever needed to sell broadcloth in Bukhara.

Besides, more than energy resources are at issue. The political fate of Central Asia is at stake. Is there an authoritarian Moscow-Tashkent-Beijing axis forming? Russia, Uzbekistan and China are all key members of the suddenly prominent Shanghai Cooperation Organization. All the same, their repressive natures give these states an inherent instability that makes competition volatile and dangerous.

The United States now has troops in an arc from the Caucasus to Kyrgyzstan and has made no secret of its position on Caspian oil and the Baku-Tbilisi-Cejan pipeline, its ambassador to Azerbaijan, Ross Wilson, saying, "The oil will never go through Russia."

Alexander Maryasov, Russia's longtime ambassador to Iran, has said, "As soon as our economy regains its strength, we will re-establish our old relations with Central Asia and the southern Caucasus, and reassert our sphere of influence in that region."

Sounds like rivalry to me. Great or not, the game is afoot.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."

(RFE/RL 26.vi.06)

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