Could the disappearing Aral Sea become geopolitically the New Caspian?

Nov 24, 2008 01:00 AM

by Paul Goble

Scientists have discovered massive quantities of oil and gas below the floor of what used to be the Aral Sea, and as a result, that soon-to-be former body of water is rapidly becoming the new Caspian Sea, with an analogous competition for these resources and the resulting political fragmentation along its former shoreline.
In an article, Aleksey Leonov describes the geopolitical consequences of the discovery of large quantities of oil and gas on the former bottom of the Aral Sea.

On the one hand, a desire to gain access to them has led Tashkent to turn its geopolitical focus away from Moscow and Astana. And on the other, it has sparked the rise of separatist sentiments in Karakalpakia, the autonomous region in the portion of Uzbekistan adjoining the Aral and one of the poorest and most environmentally impacted places on the face of the earth, with extremely high rates of cancer and miscarriages and equally extremely low life expectancies.
If the first of these shifts, which involve most recently Uzbek President Islam Karimov's decision to withdraw from the EurAsian Economic Commission, the second, which could pose an even more serious threat to stability in the region has largely been ignored, Leonov suggests.

But Karakalpakia now, thanks to the drying up of the Aral Sea, is increasingly important. As much as 75 % of the oil and gas resources of Uzbekistan are located on its territories, and two of the highest volume Eurasian gas pipelines, the Central Asia-Centre and the Bukhara-Aral routes, pass through the republic.
Separatist attitudes began to appear in Karakalpakia as early as the 1980s when an underground group, Halk Tapi ("The Interests of the People"), formed and issued proclamations. But concerns about mounting ecological problems "eclipsed" all discussions about the possibility of independence.

Uzbek officials dismiss the idea of independence for Karakalpakia as absurd, noting that only 30 to 35 % of the population there are members of the titular nationality. (Karakalpak activists insist that their community forms "a minimum of 55 %"). Moreover, they are encouraged by one thing most people have overlooked.
Under the terms of the Uzbek constitution, Karakalpakia has the right to declare itself independent. But just as with that same "right" in Soviet constitutions, no one in Tashkent or indeed anywhere else thought it would or even could be exercised.

But now that oil and gas have entered the equation, there are at least some national activists in Karakalpakia, Leonov says, who are "thinking about the possibility of uniting with neighbouring Kazakhstan," a country whose leadership considers the Karakalpaks "part of the Kazakh people" and which at one time even controlled the territory.
Whether Astana is in fact ready to pursue such an arrangement, of course, is far from certain.

There are several other possibilities: The Karakalpaks may be making a threat to get a better deal from Tashkent, Tashkent may be raising this possibility to justify a crackdown, or Moscow may be stirring the pot to weaken the independent-minded Uzbek leadership.
But however that may be, the profits from oil and gas under the Aral Sea are sufficiently large that some or all of these factors may be at work, yet another way in which the territory around the disappearing Aral Sea mirrors the situation in the countries located around the Caspian.

Paul Goble is a long-time specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy.

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