UZBEKISTAN AT THE CENTER
Central Asia, scene of the Great Game between England and Russia in the nineteenth century, is once more a key to the security of all Eurasia. Since the fifteenth century the region has mainly been politically organized from without; from the 1870s Russia controlled most of its vast territory. The collapse of the Soviet Union four years ago left five new states and placed the area's fate in question. Whether stability comes, and how, will affect Eurasia as a whole, and particularly Russia in its transition to democracy.
Central Asia--Afghanistan and the five former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan--is strategic despite its seeming remoteness. It borders China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan and the four major cultural zones they represent; Islam is a significant force without and within. The region possesses some of the world's largest deposits of oil, natural gas, gold, and uranium. The site of the bloodiest war of the past generation, between Afghan rebels and Soviet troops, the region is now roiled by civil wars in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Huge stores of conventional weapons in several of the countries pose problems. The area also produces or acts as a conduit for much of the heroin reaching Europe. For these reasons alone Central Asia cannot be ignored.
There are three possibilities for the region. It could come under the hegemony of one or more outside powers, Russia being the most likely candidate. It could lapse into chaos--Tajikistan and Afghanistan already have--threatening the security of adjoining regions. Or it could achieve equilibrium and coherence from within, through the emergence of an anchor state or states.
The growth of one or more strong centers would fill a political vacuum in Central Asia, eliminating what has long been the main rationale for foreign encroachment and so helping protect Russia's fragile democracy from the potentially fatal temptation of expansionism. Most important, a Central Asian stabilizer would quickly become the third leg of a tripod of power
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