ISLAMABAD - Tuesday, August 14, 2012 -
With the initial outburst of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, and the fatal consequences in a few states such as Libya, a wave of fear ran through the Middle Eastern and Central Asian states.
The fear turned into extremist elements taking over the helm of state affairs. This led to spontaneous bars on social media and freedom of expression in many of these states, not to forget Egypt that had strict filters over usage of the internet and the social media in order to curb any possible movement against the Mubarak regime. Interesting to note in many of these states were the common factors: dictatorship, control over the state media and internet, high level of poverty and unemployment, and no room for political activity from opposition parties.
The reason I include the Central Asian region in my analysis is that because the region constitutes the heart of Asia, coupled with providing the main route to the New Silk Route, a future venture that may lead to a face-off between Washington and Moscow. The formation of the region’s states makes it interesting to monitor for a neutral observer.
Although the U.S. national foreign policy would never keep the region at its top priority, implicit indications from the word go provided a fair picture of what the US was after. The former U.S. National Security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski once referred to Central Asia as a hotbed of conflict and one of the most strategically important parts of the world, as the ‘Eurasian Balkans’.
One may get the impression that Central Asia is traditionally a Russian-operated and influenced region, but that is not the case. States like Uzbekistan make the situation complex where its president, Islam Karimov, even with a dark history on his back, is supported by the U.S. administration, solely because of his strategic location just north of Afghanistan.
Tajikistan is also somewhat similar. People mostly rely on Russia for their livelihoods and in turn make up a good chunk of their country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and foreign reserves from what they earn there. But on the state level, recent events, such as the pilot sentencing saga, where two Russian and Estonian pilots were arrested and jailed on charges of smuggling, depict that the policy makers want to obtain the U.S.’s soft corner for further aid and support.
Tackling this situation, Russia, along with the help of China, has somewhat indicated and strived towards a New World Order by channeling the foundation and functioning of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO, comprising of Russia, China, four Central Asian states excluding Turkmenistan, and observer members including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Mongolia, can develop into an influential regional watchdog on the pattern of NATO.
With recent meetings and joint statements at the SCO, it is obvious that this body, unlike NATO, has a peaceful Asian region on its agenda. The recent SCO summit sent out a clear message that it wants a peaceful and stable Afghanistan soon after the evacuation of the coalition forces. Such an agenda may directly collide with that of NATO’s.
While NATO is seeking further military bases and installations, the SCO seeks peace and not conflict. The SCO clearly stood against the Libyan intervention and is now opposed to such type of intrusion in Syria. The SCO, mainly Russia and China, has been vocal in all major sanction resolutions against Iran and Syria in the United Nations Security Council. Finally, it would do its best to prevent any conflict in the larger Eurasian region in order to maintain peace and stability.
The four Central Asian players involved with the SCO were also invited to the NATO Chicago summit. The message was simple. As three Central Asian states — Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan — provide alternative supply routes to the NATO forces, they could well be beneficial members not only for this supply but also for a long-term agenda, including natural resources, military bases, and regional-political manipulation.
Breaking these states off from SCO for NATO may take the region on a collision course in the form of the New Great Game. With these states under the wings of Russia and China, such a venture may reap no dividends, as both these powers would not make any bargain on regional stability, which in turn is directly related to economic prosperity and development. This makes it clear that in this new round of the New Great Game, the ‘democracy-seeking’ West may encourage some Arab Spring winds to hit the Silk Road.
The writer is a research analyst, programme consultant and editor at the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. Presently, he is pursuing his Masters in Public Policy from Germany. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org