By Ian Bremmer and
(Christian Science Monitor)
International outrage over Russia�s Chechnya strategy once again draws attention to how energy markets affect the course of current events. In short, Russia�s ability to prosecute the war in Chechnya is abetted by the current high price of oil.
The rise in oil prices has given the Russian economy a boost, building acting President Vladimir Putin�s popularity and providing the Kremlin with funds to pay the last installment of debt to the International Monetary Fund.
This has led many to recommend that the US draw down its oil reserves to depress the market. When the price of oil drops, the reasoning goes, the Kremlin�s campaign in Chechnya will be severely impaired.
Whatever you think of the Chechnya crisis, this suggestion illuminates a paradox in the keystone of US policy on Eurasia - the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, a project of multinational oil companies aggressively lobbied for by the American government.
Stretching from Kazakhstan through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, Baku-Ceyhan is the only policy initiative for the region with wide bipartisan support in Washington.
The basic idea is to strengthen the nascent states of the Caspian region by weakening Russia�s hold over them. All but one pipeline originating in the Caspian presently travels through Russia. Accordingly, Russia benefits from the transit fees on oil and gas passing through its territory. Russia also benefits politically - by owning most of the routes to market it effectively has a stranglehold on the Caspian economies.
Therefore, Baku-Ceyhan subverts Russian influence in an effort to strengthen the independence of the new states of the so-called southern tier.
Baku-Ceyhan is also self-defeating - its success depends on conditions that undermine its ends.
The pipeline is extremely expensive; the estimated cost of construction is roughly $3 billion over the course of the next four to eight years. Thus the commercial viability of the project depends on high oil prices sustained over a prolonged period, because oil companies are not interested in making the capital investments required without margins sufficiently wide to justify the expense.
But high oil prices provide the Kremlin with the resources to be mischievous in Chechnya, exporting its power and ignoring international pressures.
Indeed, it provides the Kremlin with the resources to consider other forms of adventurism all along its southern border.
The conditions necessary for the construction of Baku-Ceyhan subvert the very goals its backers seek to achieve. Nor does Baku-Ceyhan advance US policy goals. The Clinton administration ostensibly supports continued engagement with Russia, working to bring Moscow closer to the Western orbit. But by supporting the construction of Baku-Ceyhan, the administration sends the message that it wants to weaken Russia�s influence, hardly the best way to solicit Russian cooperation. Indeed, by sending a hostile message to Russia, the administration�s policy provides the Kremlin with persuasive reasons to obstruct US initiatives in the region whenever it can - that is, whenever the price of oil rises.
With Boris Yeltsin gone, Russian foreign policy will become less quixotic.
Mr. Putin is a pragmatic statist, likely to attack attempts to undermine Russia�s influence in its backyard. With the resounding success of pro-Kremlin forces in recent parliamentary elections, Putin probably believes he would enjoy the public�s mandate to do so. So now is the ideal time to remold US foreign policy with an eye toward practical ways to meet policy goals.
Baku-Ceyhan is self-defeating, serves no one�s interests in the end, and will continue to undermine the stability of the Caspian.
By Bruce Pannier
Governments of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia have expressed concern about growing Islamic fundamentalism in the region. RFE/RL�s Tajik Service talked to leading expert Ahmed Rashid about the effects on Central Asia of the rise to power of Afghanistan�s Taliban rulers.
Prague, 17 Jan (RFE/RL)
The Taliban�s apparent ability to quickly generate or coerce popular support for its extremely orthodox version of Islamic law is a major source of alarm for Afghanistan�s neighbors. All those neighbors are Islamic countries, but most are moderate compared with Afghanistan. And all these neighbors have domestic political oppositions that, they fear, could turn in desperation to the Taliban for support.
The mainly ethnic-Pashtun religious student movement burst onto the scene five years ago when it came into Afghanistan from Pakistan. Now the Taliban controls at least 80 percent of the country, and the harsh form of Islamic law, or Shari�a, it brought has been widely criticized by Western governments as violating human rights, particularly the rights of women.
Ahmed Rashid is a well-known authority on events in Central Asia and the author of many books and articles. RFE/RL�s Tajik Service recently spoke with Rashid about the impact of Afghanistan�s Taliban movement on the CIS republics of Central Asia.
Rashid said it is not the Taliban, but rather the poor performance of the Central Asian economies, that is the main threat to security.
�The real answer to this is the economic crisis in Central Asia. The point is that none of these economies are doing well. All these regimes, Uzbekistan, even Kazakhstan with its oil and gas, all these regimes are doing very poorly economically. There is an enormous amount of unemployment and joblessness and precisely with their high level of education, when you put it together with joblessness you do create dissent.�
Rashid said the governments of these states, too, are responsible for creating their own enemies.
�There is no political avenue for political expression in these states. Political opposition has been crushed. There is no avenue for political parties or political expression, which means that everything tends to go underground. And when the political opposition goes underground, it becomes radicalized. And that is what happened especially in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The opposition has gone underground and come under the influence of this network of mosques and madresehs (religious schools) and has become Islamicized.�
Turning to the issue of Afghanistan�s Taliban movement, Rashid says it not exactly the Taliban itself, but rather the chaotic situation in Afghanistan in general, which aids radical groups in Central Asia. Rashid points out, however, that the Taliban is to a large degree responsible for the situation in Afghanistan.
�I think the issue of the Taliban is not so much the actual influence of the Taliban in such movements as the Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan. It is more the fact that the Taliban and the situation in Afghanistan allows these groups to be given sanctuary. These groups can come into Afghanistan, nobody bothers them, they can train, they can collect weapons, they can deal in drugs, they can raise money from drugs. It is basically a territory which is under nobody�s control.�
Many analysts have said there can be no true peace in the region until there is peace in Afghanistan. For the last few years, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance that is opposing it have been fighting for total conquest. Although the Taliban made great progress for the first three years, over the last two years its forces have been advancing and retreating along a line 40 to 60 kilometers north of Kabul. Rashid says the Taliban may advance no further and may even be thrown back.
�The Taliban are clearly wanting to conquer the rest of the country and to defeat the rest of the opposition. But we have seen in 1999 that they failed very badly. Actually, they have made no progress at all over the last 12 months. And now the opposition forces are being well armed, resupplied, and I think it will be very hard for the Taliban to defeat them.�
Attempts at talks between the two sides have failed miserably. Rashid explains that some of the stumbling blocks are ethnic rivalry and the Taliban�s perceived failure to include the opposition in a peacetime government.
�The Taliban refuse to talk to the opposition until the opposition accepts the leadership of the Taliban, which is unacceptable to the opposition. The other factor is that the Taliban do not really have any political mechanism by which they can bring in the non-Pashtuns � Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, Turkmen. The opposition, these groups, cannot accept Taliban leadership and the Taliban are not prepared to show some flexibility in bringing them into the Taliban power structures. �
Both in his conversation with RFE/RL and his recent article in �Foreign Affairs,� Rashid said the Taliban does not show any sign of moderating its stiff rule. The movement has proved very poor at running the country, and problems are breeding in areas under Taliban control. Afghanistan produces three times more opium than the rest of the world put together, according to Rashid, and almost all of it is cultivated in Taliban-controlled areas. As a result, he says, the number of drug addicts in Iran, Pakistan and western China are now counted in the millions.
The Taliban has also been criticized for hosting Osama bin Laden, who stands accused of international terrorism. And bin Laden is not the only reputed terrorist in Afghanistan.
Most of Afghanistan�s neighbors are aiding one faction or another in the war. Until they concentrate seriously on bringing the conflict to an end, Rashid says, war will continue. And that means Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan will have to reckon with the Taliban across their borders.
(Abbas Djavadi and Farangiz Najibullah of the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)
All Over the Globe is published by IPA House.
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