Shymbulak, a placid mountain resort near the former Kazakh capital Almaty played host to an informal summit meeting of the presidents of 11 CIS countries on March 1. High-level meetings of the onetime friends are nothing new. This time, however, the summit initiated by Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev was joined by the leaders of Georgia and Armenia, potential hotbeds of armed conflicts in Caucasia. But it was the Russian president Vladimir Putin who, as often had been the case before, played the main tune.
On the whole, the Shymbulak summit can be seen as nothing more than a part of Russia’s strenuous efforts to regain control over a Central Asia that is increasingly drifting toward the U.S. At the same time, the last thing Russia wishes to do is to act like an “Empire of evil” seeking revenge on Central Asian countries for its weakening position in the region. To all appearances in this newly-shaped geopolitical situation, Russia cannot abandon its time-tested stick and carrot policy in its relations with CIS countries offering some economic gains in exchange for some political loyalty.
Russian president and Eduard Shevarnadze of Georgia used this summit to settle their controversies over American military presence in Georgia. President Putin spoke in an unusually conciliatory way, saying that “any nation has the right to ensure its security in a manner as it thinks fit”. The earlier controversies with Georgia, according to him, were generated by the fact, that Georgian leaders did not inform Moscow in a timely manner “on what was going on in the country”. In response to this remark, Shevarnadze said that the Georgian side had never kept secret the American intention to help Georgia build anti-terrorist forces. Both leaders tactfully sidestepped questions related to the disputed region of Abkhazia.
The only economic issue of some importance considered at the summit was the possibility of cooperation in the gas sector between Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. This issue, though purely economic at first glance, is very blatantly linked to Russia’s policy to regain its foothold in Central Asia, and if possible, to strengthen its geopolitical status in the region. The idea of a gas alliance promises economic advantages for everyone, especially for gas-extracting Turkmenistan and for Kazakhstan, which would be used as a transit route to vast European markets and Turkey via Russia. Uzbekistan and Russia could both benefit, if only the project were to be implemented, both as important gas producers and transit countries.
The leading position in this whole affair is understandably allotted to Russia, the main link in the transit route and the largest investor. Politically speaking, the proceeds from exporting Central Asian gas through Russia, according to experts, should considerably exceed the size of the American financial aid offered to Central Asian nations as a reward for their loyalty. It is not ruled out China, with its insatiable energy market, may also join in the game in future. The project, estimated at US$18 bln., demands huge investments. $12 bln. should be poured into the development of the Tarim gas field and an additional $6 bln. are needed for the construction of gas pipelines by Russia’s Gazprom company.
Of course, there is still a long way to go to turn the project into a flourishing and lucrative business for the whole of Central Asia. What makes experts cautious in their forecasts is that joint undertakings, in the realm of the Commonwealth of Independent States, rarely brings desired ends.Marat Yermukanov, Kazakhstan