General discussion


Central Asia: The next Iraq?

By deepsand ·
Central Asia, i.e. the "Stans," have been, for the most part, frozen in time since the passing of the Sovit Union. Each, in it's own way, has continued to be governed in the old Stalinist style.

Now, however, with the death of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, and the soon to be expected passing of the one or more of the leaders of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the stage is being set for geo-political conflict between Russia, China, Iran, Europe and the U.S. on a scale that would make the conflicts in the Balkans and the Middle East look like mere brush fires in comparison.

And yet, given the absence of press coverage, how can we know if our respective governments' leaders are even thinking about the problem, let alone making any plans for dealing with it? I, for one, would like to know. And, given the less than effective manner in which the "war on terrorism" has been prosecuted, I've little reason to trust on faith in our elected "leaders" to see us safely through the coming troubles.

See below STRATFOR Report for detailed background information.


Stratfor Geopolitical Intelligence Report

Strategic Forecasting


Post-Turkmenbashi: Gaming the Five 'Stans
By Peter Zeihan

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov died at 1:10 a.m. local time Dec. 21. He leaves behind a remote patch of impoverished desert in Central Asia and no hint of a capable successor, much less a government. Niyazov was an eccentric leader who was able to rule largely because there was no real challenge to him at home or abroad. Niyazov carved out a little piece of the world for himself and named much of it after his self-styled title: Turkmenbashi. Turkmenistan features a Turkmenbashi Palace, Turkmenbashi theme park, Port Turkmenbashi, even Turkmenbashi vodka. It was a dictatorship, to be sure, but as things go a relatively benign -- if surreal -- one.

Yet his funeral attracted quite a guest list, including leaders from Russia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Georgia, Pakistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Why all the attention?

Normally, the death of such a remote, eccentric and minor player on the world stage -- much less his funeral -- would not elicit much interest from those of us at Stratfor. But this is Central Asia, a portion of the world of which most Americans are at best casually aware. It is not so much that the world works differently here (although it does), but that the end of the Soviet period impacted this region the least. Here, history is just now getting started.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia went through a rollicking period of shock therapy and kleptocracy that led to the resurgence of Russian fortunes under President Vladimir Putin; the Baltics sprinted headlong toward the West, reversing the winds of history as they went; and the Caucasus descended into war. Central Asia, in comparison, changed very little. The authoritarian political and economic system of the Soviets was simply replaced by the authoritarian political and economic system of the region's Soviet-era bosses who became the first crop of presidents. Ultimately, this is why Niyazov's death is so significant: That first crop of presidents has been the only crop of presidents. Central Asia has largely been frozen since 1992.

True, there was a false start in the mid-1990s. Turkey and Iran attempted to force their way in as the Russians retreated, and there was much talk of NATO or China establishing a new security perimeter. Ultimately, however, distance and despotism prevented the accrual of all but the smallest threads of influence by outsiders. So Turkey focused on the Caucasus, Iran began to prepare for weakness in Iraq, China obsessed over coastal development and NATO decided Central Asia was just a bridge too far. The geopolitical free-for-all that marked the end of the Soviet period in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus has yet to begin in Central Asia.

Or, more accurately, it had not until Turkmenbashi keeled over in the early morning hours of Dec. 21.

Most of the outside players now have options regarding Central Asia. Reeling from Europe's cultural, political and economic rejection, Turkey needs a new strategic vision to replace the quest for EU membership -- and here beckons Central Asia. Iran is flushing ever deeper with success in Iraq and also has the bandwidth for a new Central Asian vista. China is aiming to push its economic miracle inland and needs both more resources and more security -- Central Asia could provide both. The Russians are reawakening, and are gazing at the familiar southern horizon with the idea of empire in their minds. The West, while lacking the proximity to be a major player, is still a dominant influence in terms of energy development, and has bought for itself a place at the table.

On Dec. 20, all of Central Asia was in geopolitical stasis; on Dec. 21 Turkmenistan was in play. And this time, the stakes are higher -- much higher.


For now, Turkmenistan is being ruled by interim President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov, a man who is rumored to be Niyazov's illegitimate son. The fact that one of Berdimukhammedov's first acts was to prepare amendments to the Turkmen Constitution to solidify his rule (and, incidentally, allow him to run for president) certainly seems to support the son-of-'Bashi theory. But even if true, his real experience in running the place is limited to his stint as health minister. He is not exactly what one would call presidential timber.

Members of Turkmenistan's exiled political opposition have pledged to agree on a single opposition candidate, but at this point it is unlikely they will even be able to re-enter the country. The Berdimukhammedov government has flat-out warned them of arrest should they return, and one of the few who remained in the country (and the most likely joint candidate), Nurberdy Nurmammedov, was arrested himself Dec. 23. The United States' preferred successor, Boris Shikhmuradov, remains firmly in jail, where he has languished for four years now.

But, unless Berdimukhammedov proves to be made of far sterner stuff than his predecessor, Turkmenistan's future will not be determined by its "leaders" but by foreign powers.

Like all of the Central Asian states, Turkmenistan enjoys relatively friendly relations with its former colonial master, Russia. Of course, the key word here is relatively. Russia likes allies that do what they are told, and Turkmenbashi was a mercurial character. The basis of the Russian-Turkmen relationship has always been Turkmen natural gas exports to Russia. Yes, Russia via state firm Gazprom is the world's largest producer and exporter of natural gas, but Russia consumes so much of the stuff itself that it cannot both fill the domestic market and meet its export obligations without also importing extra supplies from Turkmenistan. It should not come as a shock that one of the members of the Russian delegation at Niyazov's funeral was Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller.

For those of you familiar with Russia's core foreign policy strategy of using energy as a lever/hammer against competitors, the criticality of Turkmenistan suddenly snaps into place. Without Turkmenistan at least ostensibly within its orbit, Russia either has to switch off its own lights or the lights of its European and Turkish customers. Either way, its energy-empowered foreign policy strategy becomes stillborn. Moscow wants Turkmenistan under its thumb, not in play.

If Russia is the player with the most to lose, Iran is the player with the most to gain. Iran was still in the early stages of recovering from the Iran-Iraq war when the Soviet Union broke up and proved unable, for a variety of reasons, to extend its influence north into Central Asia. With the death of Turkmenbashi, Tehran now has a second chance, and how well it does in penetrating Ashgabat largely will determine its future fortunes in the region.

Just as Tehran lives in fear of being invaded from whoever rules Baghdad and so takes steps to extend its influence west, Tehran lives in just slightly less fear of who rules the desert to the north. Saddam Hussein's 1980 invasion of Iran was only the most recent attack; historically, Iran's northern border is vulnerable as well, with the last attack coming from none other than the Soviet Union in 1941. The United States' problems in Iraq are in a large part due to Iran's working behind the scenes to further its own interests and secure its western border.

Now a new opportunity presents itself to the north. The death of Turkmenbashi grants Tehran the chance to secure control over the only point north that could be used as a launching pad to attack Iran. The majority of Turkmenistan's population lives in a series of oases and river valleys crowded against the Iranian border. Control that and any aggression into Iran would have to be launched from the other side of the Karakum Desert.

The problem Iran faces is that, if it decides to grab the brass ring, it cannot act with subtlety as it has in Iraq. In Iraq, Tehran is tapping the Iraqi Shia -- a people who share a religion and who, for centuries, have regularly intermingled across the frontier. There are few mysteries for Iran in Iraq.

Turkmenistan is different. The Turkmen border has been virtually sealed not just during Niyazov's reign but as far back as the October revolution and even before (it is not as if the Persians got along well with the czarists). The Turkmen are Turkic while the Iranians are Persian; the Turkmen are Sunni and somewhat Russofied while the Persians are Shia and Islamified. If Tehran is going to influence Turkmenistan's development, it cannot just send in advisers or improvised explosive devices -- it needs to invade.

One can imagine how the Russians would feel about that. Right now, the Iranians need the Russians to provide them with diplomatic cover for their Iraq and nuclear activities. Invading a country that the Russians have targeted to be their next client state would obviously put the existing Iranian-Russian relationship under strain. Tehran is likely embroiled in some agonizing decision-making right now. In less than three years, Iran has been presented with two opportunities of the millennia: Iraq and Turkmenistan. The Iraqi opportunity the Iranians have seized, the Turkmen opportunity the Iranians both dare not and must.

If Iran moves, its military conquest of sparsely populated Turkmenistan after years of Turkmenbashi purges would be child's play, and it would secure Tehran a springboard from which to influence all of Central Asia. The cost, however, would be Tehran's placing itself in opposition to Moscow as well as to Washington. If Iran sits on its hands, the Russians will eventually call all the shots and Tehran's chances of influencing Central Asia will dwindle to nothing.

Which brings us to the rest of the region. Niyazov was hardly the oldest of the Central Asian leaders and, as such, was not expected to die first. Death is certain to come to the region's remaining leaders sooner rather than later, and the Iranian-Russian tussle over Turkmenistan is nothing compared to the fights to come.


Upon transition, Tajikistan will likely immediately break into war. Here President Imomali Rakhmonov has ruled with all the techniques and skills the world has come to expect from post-Soviet apparatchiks, but he rules at the pleasure of a group of warlords delicately balancing power among themselves. Add in zero economic future and a long border with Afghanistan and you have a desperately poor country that has become a smugglers' haven. Afghan drug lords regularly run the borders, often with the collaboration of a Russian border force that is ostensibly there to prevent such activity. Since Tajiks are ethnically Persian, the Iranians have succeeded in injecting a certain amount of religiosity that is largely lacking in the other four Central Asian states.

But the real problem is simply the geography of the country. In order to sabotage the futures of the Central Asian states, Josef Stalin redrew the maps so the region's densest population center, the Fergana Valley, would be split among three states. Tajikistan controls the access to the valley, but this chunk of territory is on the wrong side of the mountains and is separated from the rest of the country. All in all, Tajikistan is a state fractured by Stalin-inspired ethnic and geographic fissures and involved in the one thing it really does not need -- a tristate territorial dispute.


The second Fergana state is Kyrgyzstan, to which Stalin gave the valley's highlands, locking it into perpetual conflict with downstream states over water rights. Unlike the other four Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan has already overthrown its president, Askar Akayev, and is now undergoing its own transition from strongman to absolute chaos. Like the rest of the Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan had no clear idea of what the "Kyrgyz" nationality was when the country became independent, and that certainly remains the case post-revolution. With a population split between Kyrgyz and Russians in the north and Uzbeks in the south, Kyrgyzstan has had precious little opportunity to form a distinct and cohesive national identity.

Most depressing, while all of the other states have an outside power interested in them, few are concerned about what happens to tiny, geographically confused Kyrgyzstan. It has no resources of note and is located at the corner of No and Where. In the end, the country is likely to be parceled up among its neighbors. It is only a question of which neighbors.


The state with the most interest in biting a chunk out of Kyrgyzstan (and Tajikistan) is the final Fergana state, Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is in both the best and the worst position in the region. Best in that there are more Uzbeks than any other Central Asian nationality, and Uzbeks exist in substantial numbers in every other of the four states, granting Tashkent a useful lever in dealing with -- or against -- them all. Uzbekistan also lacks a border with any of the major powers -- Russia, China, Iran -- that ring Central Asia, so it is relatively insulated from their geopolitical desires. At the same time, it is the only state in the world that borders all four 'Stans. Uzbekistan has both the size and opportunity to deeply impact all of its less-powerful neighbors.

However, Stalin's cartographic creativity kicked into overdrive when he sketched out Uzbekistan's borders, so while Tashkent commands the bulk of the Fergana -- which comprises nearly half of Uzbekistan's population -- Tashkent lacks the ability to reach it easily. And though bordering none of the major powers insulates Uzbekistan, it also isolates it; Tashkent has to strike a deal with at least one neighbor in order to access international markets.

Yet Uzbekistan is changing, too. While color revolutions appeared to be homing in on Tashkent, the Uzbek government of Islam Karimov quickly devolved from arrogance to paranoia. Far from persisting in trying to achieve its previous goal of becoming a regional hegemon, Uzbekistan is now like a schoolyard bully who has discovered he is not the biggest boy on the block. Uzbekistan will now sign nearly any deal with anyone who is willing to commit to helping Karimov remain in power, no matter how oppressive his culture of fear gets.

Indeed, under Karimov Uzbekistan has become one of history's most oppressive states. While Turkmenbashi rooted out all opposition, he did so in an almost whimsical way. Totalitarian, sure, but many people had the option of exile. Not so in Uzbekistan, where political opponents -- and people who theoretically might one day join them -- are routinely rounded up, tortured and, if some reports prove true, boiled alive. In the end, Karimov's strategy has created a country full of the very sort of hostile, rebellious citizens and regional power centers that he set out to prevent.

As a result, it is Uzbekistan that will most likely face the most violent transformation once Karimov is gone. Like Turkmenbashi, Karimov has no clear heir (his oligarch, music video-making daughter is a nonstarter from the point of view of the country's regional clans), and the profiles of outside powers have been kept scrupulously low. Unlike Turkmenbashi, Karimov has created a culture in which violence, torture and murder are all part and parcel of normal governance. For the past three years, the country has been a pressure cooker with the lid held on only by Karimov's oppressive rule. When he breaks, his country is likely to break with him; the various regional -- and rival -- clans that control what little Karimov does not control will then use Karimov's tactics to take his spoils.


The final Central Asian state, Kazakhstan, is the most important of the lot -- and it certainly has the most players mucking around in its business. Kazakhstan shares a massive border with both China and Russia, who are battling for control of the country's energy export routes, and boasts more energy reserves than all the other four 'Stans combined. The majority of these reserves are being developed by Western consortia. Kazakhstan also has received more foreign direct investment than any other former Soviet state, Russia included.

In general, Kazakhstan is the only state in the region that the West pays attention to. Fourteen years after independence, Kazakhstan is now exporting more than a million barrels of oil per day because of Western investments -- a figure that Astana hopes to triple in the next 10 years. Chances for a messy secession battle are less in Kazakhstan because President Nursultan Nazarbayev has not made it a policy to kill all those with whom he does not agree.

But that does not mean the process will be tidy (or that Nazarbayev is a particularly nice man). Kazakhstan's biggest problem is its geography. The country is roughly three-quarters the size of the United States but has a population of only 15 million people. And there are no natural barriers separating it from Russia or China. Even if Nazarbayev or his successors do everything perfectly, this is a country that is impossible to rule without the express permission of one's larger neighbors. Should either Beijing or Moscow decide to make a concerted attempt to control Kazakhstan's mineral wealth, no one could stand in the way -- except, possibly, the other.

The Post-'Bashi Free-for-All

Once Turkmenistan's future gets nailed down in the weeks ahead, there is going to be considerable rejiggering of the regional political structure. Regardless of whether Ashgabat is controlled de facto by the Russians or outright by the Iranians, the other players in the game are going to take extraordinarily sharp notice of the shift in circumstances. When Central Asia is a no-man's-land ruled by local despots, there is room for all outside actors to play in the sandbox -- and play they have. But the calculus shifts once an outside player establishes pre-eminent control of a 'Stan. In a region with so few people and so much land, success and a lack of geographic barriers tend to beget more success.

Playgrounds are all well and good. Exclusive spheres of influence, however, force outside players to evaluate which of their interests are worth fighting over. With every dead leader the stakes will rise as more territory comes up for grabs. Looking at the almost certain instability that will erupt in each Central Asian country in the coming decade, the states eyeing Turkmenistan -- Iran and Russia -- must think not only about what they need now out of Turkmenistan but also about where they want to be positioned as the rest of the region explodes. This is a time for planning decade-long strategies, and then acting upon them within days and weeks.

And once Turkmenistan, for all practical purposes, ceases to be, the local powers themselves will need to place their bets. For Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, this will be a little more complicated than picking a preferred ally and suing for terms (with crossed fingers). But in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, this evaluation period will be far more serious. Despite all their weaknesses, these two states do, after all, possess powerful remnants of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons facilities.

When the Cold War ended, there was a transfer of control from Soviet authorities to national/Western authorities in a belt of states running from the Baltics to the Balkans. That process, for all the rhetorical fury it evoked, was remarkable in its tidiness and lack of violence. That was because there was only one player acting (the West) and the belt of states in question wanted to move.

With history now unfrozen, it is Central Asia's time to shift. But there is not one but five opposing players -- Russia, China, Iran, Europe and the United States -- seeking to influence the outcome, with different goals for each of the five Central Asian states. And, unlike Central Europe, the 'Stans do not agree on much of anything. Russia, by dint of proximity, history and infrastructure, enjoys a sizable lead but, with so many variables at play, calling the results of this race is impossible. Central Europe's transformation was remarkably peaceful. We do not expect Central Asia's transformation to be anything of the sort.

This report may be distributed or republished with attribution to Strategic Forecasting, Inc. at .

? Copyright 2006 Strategic Forecasting Inc. All rights reserved.

This conversation is currently closed to new comments.

Thread display: Collapse - | Expand +

All Comments

Collapse -

I will email your post

by jardinier In reply to Central Asia: The next Ir ...

to a journalist friend in Moscow who will undoubtedly have some solid information as well as projections.

Collapse -

Excellent idea.

by deepsand In reply to I will email your post

That this subject has been so completely ignored by the press here in the U.S., and elsewhere perhaps, is more than a bit disconcerting.

It makes one wonder, for example, how much warning we'll be given before the next asteroid strikes Earth.

Collapse -

Message from Moscow

by jardinier In reply to I will email your post

Here is a brief reply:

The situation in Turkmenistan is an odd one. Like it is pointed out in that post it was, and is a dictatorship but as far as they go it is a rather benign one and is less corrupt than those in Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan, Gerorgia or the complete and utter corruption in Ukraine and Georgia. The only one of the "stans" that remained a part of the Russian Federation is Tatarstan which has always been an automomous republice cooperating with Russia only in international dealings. It is also the only one that has maintained a 1st world standard of living. The others are ecomomical basket cases with an infrastructure that degrades more with each passing day. Within a few years they will be on the same order of Afghanistan and with the same kind of oppressive quasi-religious dictatorship in place. They are close now.

(Emphasis mine, but it directly addresses the topic of the thread).

I thought you might like to read his bio. He will be contributing to a new website of mine about orphans in third world countries.

Dr. J(ames). Lee Choron is a journalist and writer living in Mamontovka, a suburb of Moscow, Russia. He has resided in the Russian Federation for over nineteen years, and is a former senior executive with the Eastman Kodak Company. Prior to joining Eastman Kodak in 1987 and moving to Russia, Dr. Choron was a professional member of the United States Military.

James Choron was born in Dallas, Texas, in December 1953, and raised in the small East Texas town of Center, where his parents still reside. He is a graduate of Center High School, and Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches Texas as well as a graduate of Moscow State University. Dr. Choron has been working journalist for just over thirty-seven years, and has columns appearing in numerous publications in both Russia and the United States.

He has numerous hobbies, primarily related to humanitarian, social and ecological causes and historical research, both of which he has been involved for many years. He has published a number of independent articles in such prestigious journals as Texas Escapes Magazine, Texas Highways, Military Magazine, Phenomenon Magazine and Fate Magazine, the Moscow Times, Moscow Tribune and Kommersant Magazine. He is a staff member on several on-line publications and forums dealing history, humanitarian subjects and political issues.

Dr. Choron is a noted and vocal advocate of cancer and AIDS research, children?s rights and the plight of orphans around the world. He has seen each of these issues ?up close and personal? by residing in over 20 different nations on 4 continents. He is a multiply published author of book-length works with his collection of Russian folk tales and legends entitled ?Footprints in the Snow? currently in publication with Zumaya Press in the United States and Canada. He has two historical novels ?Avondale? and ?Sisters of Sorrow? currently in publication by the Illya Resnik Library in the Russian Federation. A third novel, entitled ?Soldier Boy? and a collection of nostalgic articles entitled ?Lost in the Fifties? are scheduled for release in mid 2007.

Dr. Choron may be reached by email at:

Collapse -

Why do our leaders so often prefer jailed dissidents?

by Absolutely In reply to Central Asia: The next Ir ...

"The United States' preferred successor, Boris Shikhmuradov, remains firmly in jail, where he has languished for four years now."

I understand that sometimes good guys get imprisoned, and in bad countries they get imprisoned for being good, but this casual observer says that in cases other than South Africa, where momentum to end apartheid was already evident, US expressions of 'support' would be more effective if directed at desired behaviors than at particular imprisoned individuals. Such a policy would even seem more likely to effect such persons' release sooner than the more meddlesome, confrontational approach of directly expressed support for opposition candidates or leaders of subversive groups. Not an expert opinion, but a carefully considered one.

Collapse -

Smoke signals.

by deepsand In reply to Why do our leaders so oft ...

By "annointing" one who is not free to ascend to the throne, one signals tacit support for those who have a shared interest in the cause(s) espoused by the imprisoned person, with the hope that his supporters might take courage in such to the extent of offering even greater opposition to those presently in power.

Of course, one need only look to the Iraqi Shia & Kurds to see how unwise such may turn out to be.

Collapse -

They should stick to Morse Code, or some other signaling they understand.

by Absolutely In reply to Smoke signals.

Clearly, they have not learned smoke signaling from a qualified warrior. Iraqi Shia & Kurds left hanging by GWB #41 are one case in point. The failure of the War on Drugs in South & Central America, exacerbated by support for murderous Contras and other vicious, but anti-communist powers, provide many other such examples. This failed policy should be scrapped, but The People need to understand why and dictate same to our 'leaders' before they will cooperate with reality.

Collapse -

It's a way of getting others to fight your battles, ...

by deepsand In reply to They should stick to Mors ...

, whether covertly or overtly, with a generally lesser risk to yourself if the endeavor fails.

Done skillfully, it can be both quite effective and efficient; contrarily, it can be disasterous for all involved.

Recorded history tells us that such is a both a strategy and a tactic oft times employed.

Collapse -


by onbliss In reply to Central Asia: The next Ir ...

You wondered if leaders are thinking about Central Asia and issues surrounding the region.

If, in 1974, NSSM-200 could be createed (a.k.a "The Kissinger Report"), then one can be reasonably certain that leaders are thinking about such things.

So who is thinking about the plight of the common man - who is going to be directly affected - is a deeper question in my mind.

Collapse -

Relevancy of "Food as Weapon" is ... ?

by deepsand In reply to NSSM-200

And, while Kissinger may have been thinking about worldwide population group 32 years ago, it does not necessarily follow that our present regimes are adequately aware of the potential for a cataclysmic geo-political upheaval arising out of the coming transitions in Central Asia, let alone that they have or will be well prepared for such.

Collapse -

CRS Report for Congress, re. Kyrgyzstan

by deepsand In reply to Central Asia: The next Ir ...

Kyrgyzstan's Constitutional Crisis: Context and Implications for U.S. Interests

Note This is a 73 KB PDF file.

Related Discussions

Related Forums