Former Oberlin College
A little-studied region of the world that could become the
next global hot spot will be the focus of a new center opening in
September at the Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International
Studies in Washington.
Frederick Starr, former president of Oberlin College and founder of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Wilson Center in Washington, joins SAIS as chairman of the new Center for Central Asian Studies. The center will concentrate on the six historically Muslim republics in the region bounded by Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan on the south and Russia on the north, but will also concern itself with neighboring countries, especially in the Caucasus, that impinge on this core area.
It also sits on one of the largest known major reserves of oil, fields estimated to be close in size to the entire Middle East.
"This region is an enormous repository of oil, natural gas and minerals," said Starr, who is a noted Sovietologist and the only non-Russian laureate of the Moscow Literary Gazette. "In fact, the full scale of its natural energy resources is not known."
Not only is the region rich in those resources likely to become increasingly scarce in the next century, it also occupies a strategically significant position between East and West. "It's the broad region that encompasses the old silk route between Europe and China, the region where Alexander the Great led his armies to the conquest of the East," Starr said.
Traditionally considered part of the Middle East, the region contains such fabled cities as Bukhara and Samarkand and is comprised of the now-independent countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tadshikistan and Kirghizia. Culturally similar Azerbaijan and the other Caucasian republics of Armenia and Georgia are the channel through which oil and communication in general with the West will probably take place. The entire region's population is predominantly Turkic and Muslim, although in more than 70 years of Soviet domination many Ukrainians, Russians and others moved in to take advantage of the relatively high-paying jobs made possible by a concentration of energy and mining-related heavy industries there.
Membership in the Commonwealth of Independent States--the loose confederation of former Soviet Republics that evolved with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and exists largely on paper--leaves each country free to establish its own internal laws and pursue its own foreign policy. Recently, Uzbekistan announced plans to purchase the former Canadian embassy building located next door to SAIS to turn it into its Washington embassy, a jolting reminder of just how much things have changed in the past few years.
One of the center's early missions will be to try to get a sense of the depth, breadth and meaning of that change.
"You had what was fundamentally a colonial situation suddenly coming undone," said Charles Fairbanks, a longtime research professor of international relations at SAIS and the newly appointed director for the Center for Central Asian Studies. "Independence for all these countries came rather suddenly, and in many ways there was very little preparation. The way in which the various internal and external relationships evolve in the coming years could be extremely significant for the future."
Fairbanks believes five overriding issues will occupy the center's scholars and other participants as the region struggles for some sense of cohesive autonomy in the coming years.
"First and most significant is the relationship with Russia now that the Soviet Union is gone," he said. "There is a widespread belief among the elite in Russia that there is a compelling need to reintegrate the former republics into some kind of a tighter union. Some of the other republics, such as Byelorussia, have gotten tighter with Russia. But there is resistance to the idea in many of the central Asian republics, and it remains to be seen how it will play out."
A second issue propelling the republics toward a closer relationship with Russia is the tremendous problem of isolation faced by most of the central Asian countries. Landlocked in the heart of Asia, Russia itself has often impeded communications with the outside, according to Fairbanks, and relations with other bordering states are no less fraught with difficulties.
"Afghanistan is in chaos, China is nervous because there are shared nationality groups on both sides of the border that might start agitating for independence, and Iran is not a viable option, at least from an American perspective," he said.
All of which leads to the third great issue the region faces, which is when--or if--its vast energy resources will be fully exploited. "Russia has attempted to block the export of oil from the region, and other routes are problematic," Fairbanks said. "Oil seems about to flow from Azerbaijan through Russia and Georgia, but currently routes from Central Asia itself are still speculative."
Two final issues--the relative weakness of government and the lack of structures ordinarily associated with Western-style civil society--are in fact issues which, in some degree, plague all the former republics of the Soviet Union, including Russia itself.
How these problems ultimately resolve themselves may well be far beyond the ability of Washington, or any Western nation, to influence. But the Center for Central Asian Studies will at least provide objective, research-driven criteria by which to measure progress--or the lack of it. It will be the nation's only fully staffed center devoted to the study of geopolitical issues in the region, Starr said.
"I think this part of the world is really the last frontier for the U.S. in a way," said Fairbanks of the excitement he feels in helping establish and direct the center. "An old social order is being swept completely away, and no one knows what will follow in its place. Our goal is to try to play a real role in helping define what happens there."
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