It is not quite clear if China would ever dream of gaining political weight in Central Asia, but, as China has repeatedly declared, it is vital for the Middle Kingdom to secure this region as a stable and more or less prosperous one, where the three Chinese-style evils — terrorism, extremism and separatism  — formally declared war upon by means of China’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, could not take hold. It is also quite improbable that the American “enfant terrible” (designated so in a sense that the US is partly responsible for its radicalization), Iran, will be able to project any influence over Central Asia, as the Muslim share of Central Asian politics has been more confidently taken over by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, all of them maintaining friendly and sometimes even allied relationship with Washington in the teeth of Tehran.
But the door for more active regional engagement remains open, and no one can say for sure, taking into account Russia’s protracted weakness, what this vacuum will be filled with. What is important to note is that Russia keeps its airbase in Kyrgyzstan 20 km east of Bishkek. At the same time, 23 km southwest of Bishkek, the American transit center at Manas  is still operational. The overthrow of ex-President of Kyrgyzstan Kurmanbek Bakiev, whose political mistakes would comfortably fit into a separate book, may be also interpreted as the result of the lasting tension between Russia, on the one hand, and Kyrgyzstan, on the other, given the official decision of the latter to close down the American military base and its further annulment after Russia had provided Kyrgyzstan with a multimillion-dollar credit. The Eurasian Balkans shared between Russia, China and — albeit indirectly — by the United States are somewhat reminiscent of the old European Balkans, where the Russian Empire tried to obtain access to Bosporus and the Dardanelles by acting through its Slavic proxies of Bulgaria and Serbia, challenging the grasp of the Ottoman Empire, and was consistently resisted by the great European powers sponsoring the Turkish sultans (namely Britain).
From the economic point of view, Central Asia is the Eldorado of Eurasia. Though the American attention has been traditionally riveted to the Persian Gulf, and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein orchestrated under the banners of unscrupulous democracy promotion was intended to secure untrammeled access to the Middle East oil, the US is more and more concerned about its presence in the Central Asian steppes. Kazakhstan is the second largest producer of oil in the former USSR. Turkmenistan has huge reserves of natural gas. Both countries border on the Caspian Sea, thus having access to the Caucasus, another choke point, in Brzezinski’s terminology. Moreover, Kazakhstan is famous for its uranium deposits  which are deemed to be the largest in the world and can be easily used by foreign powers for the consolidation of their existing or would-be nuclear arsenals (as far as Kazakhstan has renounced all nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet era). Kazakhstan has successfully integrated into the Baku-Tbilisi-Çeyhan pipeline system, which means it is now possible to pump in Kazakh oil and transport it all over to Turkey without any Russian involvement. The Nabucco gas pipeline  is still in the blueprints and is supposed to become operational by 2013-2014. It will empower Turkmenistan to sell gas to Europe via Azerbaijan, giving it more dependability vis-à-vis Russia. Although Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are not that rich in mineral resources, their strategic location vital for the maintenance of the whole system of collective security in Central Asia gives them a possibility of moral choice between sustaining stable oil and gas supplies or disrupting them.
As the world markets are now overwhelmingly responsive to any political tumult, after the nasty experiences of the first and second oil shocks in the 1970s, the destabilization of Central Asia may require increased military presence of either Russia alone or both Russia and China within the framework of regional cooperation, and will definitely entail fluctuations of prices for local oil and gas. The economic importance of Central Asia is very acutely felt in Europe. The Caspian Sea area teems with European and American oil companies whose unrivalled expertise and network of contacts have secured them a worthy share of Kazakhstan’s oil revenues. At this point, it is worth remembering the case of James Giffen, an American businessman whose personal connections with the Soviet and Kazakh authorities helped him win a number of large-scale oil contracts for the American companies whose interests he was taking pains to promote. The affair disclosed at the end of the 1990s led to Giffen’s arrest in 2003, as he was trying to board a plane headed for Paris. The prosecution stated later that the then government of Kazakhstan had received almost 80 million US dollars’ worth of bribes. This case is good at demonstrating to what extent the pursuit of economic benefits is important for foreign companies, all wishing to take over larger parts of the local markets in Central Asia, which is a no-brainer, given the spread of corruption and absolute lack of transparency.
Lastly, from the political and security points of view, as terrorism has become an unidentifiable enemy of the West and started to challenge the very basis of Western civilization, Central Asia is growing in importance. The past experience of those countries that thought that it was possible to shut themselves off from their supposed adversaries, and thus preclude their deleterious impact, has proved to be distressful. The Berlin Wall finally collapsed; the Israeli West Bank barrier is now under construction. It is evident that the survival of the State of Israel will largely depend not on the existence of any physical separation, but on the ability of the Israeli nation to arrange with its allies and enemies for the purpose of reaching a sustainable status quo that would satisfy all the parties to as much extent as practically possible, given the exacerbated animosity full of historical premises. The case of Central Asia is not the Israeli-Palestinian one, though it has potential for tensions.
The importance of Central Asia is its peculiar location in the immediate neighborhood of the world’s most troubled region. Instead of building up walls, reinforcing military presence and promoting individual visibility giving way to even increased competition, it is important to secure this region as an oasis of peace and relative stability. Thus, any crusade ostensibly for the sake of democracy and human rights, albeit made popular by the string of peaceful transitions of formerly socialist Eastern European countries to the rule of law, may be overwhelmingly destabilizing. Such a course either triggers another bomb which has lain unheeded under the debris of former regimes or strengthens the stranglehold of dictatorships, intrinsically averse to any high-flown anti-authoritarian rhetoric. This last factor is far from being taken into account, which makes Central Asia both the battlefield of ideologies and the testing site of antithetical beliefs, the amalgamation of which results in the heap of irreconcilable parodies. Only broad cooperation between all the stakeholders may permit Central Asia to become impenetrable to yet more destabilizing ideologies of violent fundamentalism and extremism. But this cooperation is almost impossible in a place where diverging interests clash so unpredictably. It is now time to have a brief look at the major players in Central Asia and the level of their engagement.