Remember meForgot password?
    Log in with Twitter

article imageDon't call it the Great Game: U.S. renews Central Asia ties

By Dave Clark (AFP)     Nov 3, 2015 in Politics

The great cities of the Silk Road were once thriving, cosmopolitan centers for the trade in goods, ideas and culture between the civilizations of Europe and Asia.

Today, the world's goods travel by sea and ideas over the Internet, while Central Asia is ruled by five authoritarian and at times brutal or eccentric post-Soviet regimes.

But the landlocked Central Asian republics, long isolated by their secretive governments, are once again attracting diplomatic attention.

Just don't call it the Great Game, diplomats accompanying US Secretary of State John Kerry on a tour of Kyrgzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan since Saturday insisted.

The term was coined to describe the 19th century battle for influence in central Asia between the British and Russian empires.

Today, China has replaced Britain as a global trading powerhouse and is investing heavily in industry and infrastructure in the region.

Russia also has interests in the Central Asian republics, from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan to a security network fighting drug trafficking and Islamist guerrillas.

- New Silk Road -

The United States once had a larger footprint, with a supply network for its troops in Afghanistan centered on the huge Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan that closed in 2014.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) is escorted by Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov at Ashga...
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) is escorted by Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov at Ashgabat Airport on November 3, 2015
Brendan Smialowski, Pool/AFP

But these days Washington sees its main role as building economic ties and pushing a "New Silk Road" project to ship gas south to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

China too has a vision for a new Silk Road, in the form of a rail network carrying its goods westward across the steppe to European and Mediterranean markets.

So, rival powers are competing once more for influence and profit in the closed societies of Central Asia.

But diplomats and expert observers are adamant this is no return to the days of the Great Game.

This time, they say, the governments on the ground have plans of their own.

They hope that by balancing sometimes competing interests all can win what Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov calls the "Great Gain."

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov leave after a m...
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov leave after a meeting at the Oguzkhan Presidential Palace on November 3, 2015 in Ashgabat
Brendan Smialowski, Pool/AFP

In his meetings with leaders and foreign ministers in the five countries, Kerry emphasised a similar vision of economic cooperation rather than great power rivalry.

Even in Turkmenistan, a closed society with a government credibly accused of corruption and rights abuses, he offered more US economic expertise and security assistance.

"We can do more together to be able to help more people develop the skill sets necessary in this modern economy," he told President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov.

Human rights defenders may be disappointed by the results of Kerry's trip, which was not marked by any release of political prisoners nor apology for past abuses.

In fact, Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Minister Erlan Abdyldaev extracted a partial apology from Kerry for having caused offence by giving a State Department award to a jailed Kyrgyz activist.

- Pliers, shocks and beatings -

The State Department's own reports on the region cite widespread torture and brutality by the security forces, and those by outside watchdogs provide grim reading.

US Secretary of State John Kerry tours the Hazrat Sultan Mosque on November 2  2015 in Astana
US Secretary of State John Kerry tours the Hazrat Sultan Mosque on November 2, 2015 in Astana
Brendan Smialowski, AFP/File

Amnesty International's 2014 report says Turkmen police submit suspects to "pulling of the genitals with pliers, electric shocks and beatings with chair legs."

There are similar reports from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, where authorities targeting alleged networks of Islamist sympathisers are said to regularly torture detainees.

Kerry did address human rights but rather than threatening the regimes, he described the gains they could expect if Washington felt able to work more closely with them.

In Tajikistan, where Muslim religious practice is tightly controlled, bearded men are forcibly shaved and children banned from mosques, Kerry pushed religious freedom.

There, the main opposition party was banned, and US officials argue religious and political persecution are more likely to stir radical sentiment than silence it.

After meeting President Emomali Rahmon, Kerry said he had urged Tajikistan to allow "people to participate in governance and particularly to be able to worship freely."

Rahmon, like many of his Central Asian colleagues, has been in power for a quarter of a century after inheriting a Soviet-style autocracy with a rubber stamp assembly.

US officials travelling with Kerry say a window opened up to talk partly because oil prices and cash transfers from migrant workers in sanctions-hit Russia are falling.

The Stans are looking for reassurance that America will help them diversify their economies and is not going to abandon their southern borders to Afghan rebels

Turkmenistan, best-known in the past for its golden statues of leaders on horseback, wants US firms to help it build the pipeline to supply energy to Aghanistan, Pakistan and India.

US Secretary of State John Kerry tours the Register on November 1  2015 in Samarkand
US Secretary of State John Kerry tours the Register on November 1, 2015 in Samarkand
Brendan Smialowski, Pool/AFP/File

The oil boom has made Kazakhstan's capital Astana a new frontier on the steppe for some of the world's greatest architects.

There, 75-year-old Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev has a 100-point plan to develop and diversify the economy and turn his country into an economic powerhouse and trade hub.

Kerry toured a plant in which US firm General Electric is building the fuel-efficient trains of the future and spoke to university students in Astana and the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.

Through all this, US diplomats insisted they are not trying to displace Russian and Chinese influence, simply to complement it and "have a conversation" about human rights.

"As much as these countries are squeezed between and among larger powers, they are also fiercely independent places that resist any outside domination," a US official said.

"I think it's clear they are working to strike a balance between having positive relations with bigger more powerful countries and maintaining a degree of independence."

The game has changed.

More about US, Diplomacy, casia, Trade, Rights
More news from
Latest News
Top News