A dictator's sudden death almost always triggers political instability. But it is doubly dangerous when it poses a risk of regionwide destabilization and a scramble for influence among the world's greatest military powers — the United States, Russia and China.
The sudden death in late December of Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan's authoritarian president-for-life who declared himself "Turkmenbashi" (Leader of all Turkmens), jeopardizes stability in a country that is an increasingly important supplier of energy to Europe. Worse, given the absence of a clearly designated successor and the weakness of civil society and other political institutions, his death could have repercussions across Central Asia.
Indeed, Niyazov's demise highlights the broader problems of Central Asia's post-Soviet regimes, which, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, are run by Soviet-era bosses who, while not nearly as eccentric or egomaniacal as Niyazov, tolerate little dissent or opposition. Most of them are old, some of them are unwell. So, in the next few years, Central Asia will face leadership change on many fronts, with security apparatuses — which, as in Turkmenistan, have been crucial to buttressing these countries' regimes — likely to be important players.
How these transitions turn out will matter for several reasons. First, Central Asia is an important source of energy. The Caspian region accounts for 2 percent to 3 percent of the world's known oil resources — about equal to that of North Sea oil. While far smaller than the deposits in Saudi Arabia or Iran, Caspian oil could prove important if oil production falls or is reduced for political reasons elsewhere.
Much of this Caspian oil is in Kazakhstan, giving that country a critical role in the regional energy market. Moreover, Kazakhstan's strategic importance has increased as a result of recent revelations that the country's Kashagan oil field will produce 25 percent more than initially expected at peak production.
Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are also major exporters of natural gas. Russia depends heavily on Turkmen gas for domestic consumption and export abroad, which could prove vital as demand rises over the next decade.
Second, Central Asia's leadership transitions could tempt outside powers to exploit the resulting instability and spark a struggle for influence. Because the region was part of both the Soviet Union and the Russian empire, President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin regards it as part of Russia's natural sphere of influence. Putin's efforts to transform Russia into a major energy power and use energy as a tool of Russian foreign policy make the region all the more strategically significant.
Moreover, China has sought to improve trade and transit ties with Central Asia over the last decade, reflecting its growing interests there. Not only is the region important for meeting China's growing energy needs, but the Chinese authorities also are concerned about separatist pressures among the Uighur population in Xinjiang province and the impact of ties with Uighurs in neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Like Russia, China wants a reduction of the U.S. military presence in Central Asia. Both powers have sought to use the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — a regional grouping that includes Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — as a vehicle to pressure the U.S. to withdraw its military forces from the region. However, this cooperation represents a short-term, tactical marriage of convenience rather than a budding new strategic alliance. In the long run, Russia and China are likely to be rivals for power and influence in Central Asia.
Iran could also view the transitions in Central Asia as an opportunity to expand its regional influence, particularly given its close ethnic and cultural ties with Tajikistan and its long border with Turkmenistan. And, like China and Russia, Iran has no desire to see the U.S. fill any security vacuum that could emerge as a result of leadership changes in Central Asia.
Pakistan and India — especially the latter — will also watch carefully how the transitions play out. Both countries have growing strategic interests in the region. Like China, India views Central Asia as an important future energy supplier. As a result, India has quietly begun to strengthen its military ties to countries in the region, particularly Tajikistan, where it has a small base.
Finally, the transitions in Central Asia could have a strong impact on U.S. interests. As long as the U.S. remains involved militarily in Afghanistan, access to facilities in Central Asia will remain important. With the loss of the use of the base at Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan, access to Manas airfield in Kyrgyzstan has become the main means of re-supplying U.S. troops in Afghanistan from Central Asia.
However, the political situation in Kyrgyzstan is far from stable. Discontent with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's rule is rising. A leadership change or increased Russian and Chinese pressure on Kyrgyz leaders could precipitate calls for a renegotiation of the agreement regarding access to Manas — or even demands for its termination altogether.
In the 19th century, the struggle for mastery in Central Asia between the Russian and British empires was called "The Great Game." Today, there are many more players involved, and the stakes — energy security, above all — are far higher now. America, India, Europe and Japan will face increasing tension between their short-term military needs in the region and their long-term goal of promoting political reform in order to create more stable and reliable partners.
Indeed, the key challenge in the years ahead will be to find the proper balance between these two objectives. Given the prospect of further leadership changes and increasing instability, meeting that challenge has never been more important.
F. Stephen Larrabee holds the corporate chair in European security at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This op-ed originally appeared on www.project-syndicate.org.
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