Political instability along the Silk Road

Oct 11, 1999 02:00 AM

by Ben Aris

Humanity was born in the "Fertile Crescent", which stretches from modern Iran to Egypt. But over the last year, another crescent, located slightly to the north, has emerged: a crescent of violence and unrest stretching from Osh in Kyrgyzstan through to Grozny in Chechnya.
Behind it all is a poisonous cocktail of Islamic extremism, drugs and oil interests.
Over the last nine months, this crescent has suffered a series of crises:
- War is currently breaking out in Chechnya, through which runs one of the only two oil pipelines leading out of the region.
- Chechens attacked Dagestan in August, calling for the formation of a regional Islamic state.
- Not long after the outbreak of hostilities in Dagestan, several apartment blocks in Russian cities were bombed. Authorities in Moscow have blamed Islamic extremists from the Northern Caucasus for the incidents.
- On August 6, a force of 1,000 Islamist Tajik rebels invaded Kyrgyzstan, taking several villages and many hostages (including four Japanese geologists). Uzbek officials, fearing the rebels would enter Uzbek territory, bombed the rebels' base in Kyrgyzstan without asking Kyrgyz permission.
- In February, of group of persons described by the Uzbek government as "Islamic terrorists" detonated five car bombs in the capital, Tashkent, in a botched attempt to assassinate President Islam Karimov.

In all these events, "Islamic extremists" have been a convenient scapegoat. But there are other forces at work.Russia's recent actions in Chechnya, for example, are obviously motivated at least in part by political considerations. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin launched an offensive in Chechnya last month in response to the wave of apartment block bombings. Since then, his popularity ratings have skyrocketed.
Uzbekistan's President Karimov has also displayed an almost paranoid fear of Islamic activities in his country. The clerical community has for some time already been subjected to regular crackdowns, but following the bombings in February there was a general round-up of thousands of members of Islamic and political opposition groups.
Neither in Russia nor Uzbekistan has the government managed to substantiate its claims of a link between the attacks and Islamic groups. Both Putin and Karimov have been using the public outrage over the violent attacks as a convenient excuse to further their political agendas.
However, it would be a mistake to say that nothing is going on. Although there has been some measure of dissent by religious groups in the North Caucasus and Central Asia over the last eight years, the bombs in February in Tashkent seem to mark the beginning of a new phase of violent and overt action by these groups.
As such, it seems that all of the countries of the North Caucasus and Central Asia are now facing the same threat of religiously inspired instability. But is Islam the cause? Many analysts think not. They point to two other factors: oil and drugs.
A number of religious groups in the regions alsofunction as criminal organisations. They sustain themselves with the huge profits earned by smuggling drugs through Central Asia, with its porous borders, and on to Russia and the West.
"The Islamic assault against civilisation is a war between bandits and civil society," says Yevgeny Volk, a political analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Moscow. "Attacks are religious in motivation, but these groups have become criminalised by drug barons and are no longer genuinely Islamic."
The Osh bazaar in Kyrgyzstan is the first stop on the 5,000-km Golden-Brown Road that heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan -­ the world's largest producers ­- takes to the world markets. Chechens are reported to be heavily involved in the heroin trade business, distributing drugs through the large Chechen Diaspora.
Meanwhile, the oil producers of the Middle East are not unhappy about seeing Caspian crude exports held up by the region's instability. Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation in Washington speculates that either one of these two groups -- the drug mafias or the Middle Easterners -- might be encouraging Islam and civil disobedience in the regions on either side of the Caspian.
"These attacks have been happening across the whole soft underbelly of Russia," says Cohen. "The poor, unemployed Muslim youths of the region are easily radicalised. These attacks have been professional and well funded. The question is: Who has been paying for the training and arms?"
The Uzbek bombings, for example, had all the hallmarks of a military operation. Experts have pointed out that simply setting off five bombs in Tashkent (the capital of what amounts to a police state), all within half an hour of each other, is a feat that requires a great deal of expertise. And expertise is something that the Muslim groups of the Ferghana valley don't have. The Tajik rebels too are well armed and trained. Where are all their resources coming from?
The Taleban militia in Afghanistan, motivated by Islam and funded by heroin, is a likely sourceof some money and training. But what worries Washington is the possibility that other oil and drug interests are standing behind the Taleban. Pakistan is already suspected of sponsoring the militia for political reasons. Saudi-born millionaire Osama bin Laden is also believed to have links to both drug lords and Saudi oil interests.
Whoever the backers are, the results of increased instability are already being felt in the oil industry. The bottlenecks that led Enron and Unocal, both of the United States, to back out of Central Asian development projects late last year now seem more impassable than ever.
For example, the ropy old Transneft pipeline that runs through Chechnya from Azerbaijan's capital to Russia's main Black Sea oil terminal Novorossiysk has been closed since the fighting began in Dagestan in August. The leaves the small pipeline running from Baku to the Georgian port of Supsa in Georgia to carry all of the oil produced in Azerbaijan.
As such, the Azerbaijanis are in trouble. The Western route to Supsa can only carry 115,000 barrels of oil per day, woefully below production volumes. The Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC), which accounts for the majority of Azerbaijan's oil output, has already announced that it will reduce its budget and production outlays in 2000 because of transport constrictions.
Meanwhile, Russia, which is unable to fulfil its obligations to pump Azerbaijani oil, is talking again about building a dogleg pipe through Dagestan. This pipe would link Russia to Azerbaijan and skirt Chechnya altogether.
Some analysts believe that this Dagestan dogleg could eventually serve as the main export pipeline for Caspian oil exports, which suits Moscow just fine. The Russians do have the cost factor on their side; no one is going to want to invest the $ 2.7-5.0 billion that may be needed to build a pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan, on the Turkish Mediterranean coast. However, the question of whether Dagestan can offer any more stability than Chechnya persists.
This is not to say that oil companies cannot overcome the problems that go along with working in the new crescent of instability. These firms are used to operating in unsettled countries, and they work on a time scale of decades, not months. But the problems of the Caspian region look set to persist for the meantime, if not get worse.
"The only way to solve the problems in Chechnya is to kill all the Chechens," says Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "There is no other way out unless the Russians can find a political solution."

Source: NewsBase
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