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Great Game Redux

Der Spiegel breaks a big story:  Central Asia is still important.  Just because Washington has given up on the region doesn’t mean that Russia, China, and Europe are still engaged.

Turkmenistan, the least populous of the five nations between the Caspian Sea and the Pamir Mountains that emerged from the former USSR, is a perfect example of why Central Asia will play an increasingly important role in world politics. With new pipelines planned for Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the region will be critical to the future energy supply of Europe, as well as to China and India. The West is also determined to stem the flow of drugs to Europe via Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as to put a stop to a wave of Islamist terror coming from Central Asia. In a modern-day version of the “Great Game” of the 19th century, today’s major powers are competing for strategic interests and military bases along the old Silk Road.

Despite the lack of unity among the rulers of the five Central Asian countries, who are at loggerheads over borders and the use of water rights, their forms of government are similar. They believe that the only way to stay in power is to rule with a heavy hand. This explains why a bizarre, irrational cult of personality in Central Asia does not contradict a policy that cleverly plays off the major powers against one another. President Berdymukhammedov is a case in point. He claims to be neutral and open to offers from all sides, while unscrupulously taking advantage of his opportunities to engage in highly lucrative deals.

Russia, of course, is not exempt from the list of dupes.  By the looks of their latest energy spat with the Turkmen leadership, it may be a long, cold winter.