Events in Azerbaijan have also heightened concerns about a crisis that could affect the game of pipeline politics. Haydar Aliyev, who headed Azerbaijan’s Soviet government until 1982 and retook control in 1993 after Azerbaijan’s defeats by Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, collapsed twice during a televised address in late April and is now hospitalized in Turkey. Aliyev has backed the BTC pipeline project and previous Western oil ventures in Azerbaijan, although unsurprisingly little of the wealth generated has found its way to the common people. He has been grooming his son Ilham for the Presidency, but the situation resembles that in Syria before the elder Assad died—what happens when an iron-fisted father tries to hand his power to an untried son, especially when the father’s polices have alienated the country’s most powerful neighbor (in this case Russia) and when the senior leaders of the country aren’t willing to follow the putative heir? Most of those leaders are pro-Russian for a variety of reasons, while the common people would follow anyone who could bring back the relative “prosperity” of Soviet days—a situation very similar to that in Georgia, caused by the same sort of corruption and the bigger issue of breaking up the unified Soviet economic system. In this case, a pro-Russian government in Baku would completely undercut the basis of our energy policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Rhetorical question: How are the “neocons” and oilmen who make policy in the Bush Administration likely to react to this possibility? Again, there has been almost no attention to this in the Western press—and given the crisis next door in Georgia, I doubt most people realize what is at stake, or the potential for disastrous consequences.
A similar situation exists in both Central Asia and Western Europe in the post-Iraq world. A few weeks ago, Putin met with the leaders of Belarus, Armenia and all the former Soviet Central Asian states excepting Uzbekistan’s Karimov and Turkmenistan’s Niyazov. The purpose of this meeting was to invigorate the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization—specifically, by creating a new Russian-dominated Combined General Staff, standing up the Russian-dominated Rapid Reaction Force, and deploying Russian aircraft to Kant, Kyrgyzstan (only a few miles from the U.S.-occupied airbase at Manas, which supports operations in Afghanistan). The motive, underlined by Belarus’ President Lukashenko, was to create a counterbalance to U.S. forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and would have been unthinkable as recently as a year ago. Niyazov, after years of isolation and neutrality, independently moved to tighten Turkmenistan's bonds with Russia, partially driven by fears of a Saddam-like overthrow and lingering paranoia that the U.S. supported dissidents who tried to assassinate him last year. Uzbekistan still remains relatively friendly to the U.S., but a glance at the map shows that it is effectively encircled, and has already been strong-armed out of GUUAM, the anti-Russian group that Shevardnadze helped create and effectively leads.** As I noted before, the “Stans” have only as much freedom of maneuver as Russia allows—and the sudden change in Russia's willingness to tolerate the same is linked to perceived U.S. aggressiveness.