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Pepe Escobar
Pepe Escobar
Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for the Asia Times.
Could the Arab revolt hit 'Pipelineistan'?
In Central Asia, battles for geopolitical control over oil resources play out against a backdrop of popular anger.
Last Modified: 15 May 2011 11:03
The president of Kazakhstan, wants to make his country into an "Asian tiger", but since tigers are not native to Kazakhstan, he promises instead to turn his country into the Central Asian "snow leopard" [GALLO/GETTY]

In spite of Tunisia and Egypt, those "happy" days of total power are still alive and kicking all across the world, from North Korea to Myanmar, from Saudi Arabia to Central Asia.

Early last month, Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev won another election by the Kim Jong-ilesque margin of 95.5 per cent of the vote. There was virtually no previous political debate, because - no irony involved - all three of his rivals wanted him to win. 

Nazarbayev, 70, is in power in Kazakhstan since the country's foundation in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Snow Leopard was not an Apple operating system in the first place; it's how the Nazarbayev system has been selling Kazakhstan to the wider world. The idea is for the country to become an Asian tiger. There are no Kazakh tigers, but a few remaining snow leopards. Thus the Nazarbayev promise that, "by 2030, Kazakhstan will become the central Asian snow leopard".

Now, confronted with the Great 2011 Arab Revolt, Nazarbayev said that what the snow leopard needs is "stability" above all. Translation: snow leopards don't need to feel the scent of jasmine. Moreover, the prime leopard is virtually assured to die in his throne.  

Gas, gold and… leopards

Kazakhstan is Central Asia's top economy, wallowing in a wealth of strategic superlatives; 9th largest nation in the world, largest landlocked nation, nearly 7,000 kilometres of northern borders with Russia, linking to China in the east to the Caspian Sea in the west, loads of oil, gas, gold, manganese and uranium.

The only problem is of a Saudi Arabian variety; not a lot of humans, only 16 million (less than six people for square kilometre).

Kazakhstan had to be a key player in the New Great Game in Eurasia, which most of the time flows across that complex steel chessboard, Pipelineistan - absolutely crucial for the energy future of Asia, especially China and India, as well as Europe.

As much as the Middle East, Central Asia is ultra-strategic for both Washington and NATO - which is already deeply implanted in Afghanistan.

As long as no jasmine scent is felt in energy powerhouses Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, Pentagon strategists don't feel the need to quake in their combat boots.

Much as in the Middle East, regional leaders such as Nazarbayev, Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov and Turkmenistan's spectacularly named Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov always stress the "stability" motto to drive home the perennially familiar message; it's either us or al-Qaeda - "al-Qaeda" meaning a loose network of Islamist/jihadi groups, the most notorious of which is the Taliban-connected Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). 

But as much as Snow Leopard Number One - as well as the Pentagon - may feel secure, there's no historical reason the scent of jasmine from Northern Africa cannot migrate to the Central Asian steppes. The key elements are all there - from social inequality to high unemployment among the young, from stratospheric corruption to presidential offspring looting the treasury. 

Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan (in the Caucasus) are in fact cousins of Arab rentier oil states. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, for their part, depend heavily on labour migration, especially to Russia, and a steady flow of remittances - much as Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen.

All of the Central Asian "stans" felt the sting of the global financial crisis as well as the global food price hike caused essentially by speculation. Over 40 per cent of Central Asians live below the poverty line.  

Kyrgyzstan - the Switzerland of Central Asia, more for the sublime scenery than the standard of living - has already been through a colour revolution and its aftermath, with president Bakiyev thrown out of power last year and once again lots of turbulence convulsing Osh, in the Ferghana valley, with hundreds of dead and over 300,000 displaced.

By the way, Nazarbayev himself got away with the hegemonic take on Central Asian colour revolutions and counter-revolutions; he said some "stans" were malfunctioning because their leaders were weak. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, had "a powerful president".

In terms of political repression, both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan - usually blasted by Amnesty International - manage to upstage Kazakhstan. For those who still had any doubt, WikiLeaks cables describe Uzbekistan as a nightmare of corruption, forced labour and torture.

The key point is the need for "security" in Afghanistan (military bases, complex supply routes) and the push to secure ever-more-complex oil/gas deals trumps the possibility of the West supporting local pro-democracy protests.

Not gone with the wind

Nazarbayev, the oldest son of a shepherd, a former steelworker, former first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, can easily boast he's shepherding the top success story among the former Soviet republics east of the Caspian Sea.

Many balked when in 1997 he moved Kazakhstan's capital from pregnant-with-history Almaty to the mercilessly windy steppes of Astana - now the second-coldest capital in the world after Mongolia's Ulan Bator.

But if you can frolic in the snow in the Dubai desert, now you can also frolic among the palm trees of balmy Khan Shatyr - the world's largest tent, designed by Sir Norman Foster, a heaven of translucent plastic towering over an elliptic base the size of 14 football fields.

The snow leopard of course is much else beyond post-mod tents. It's all about China vs the US in the New Great Game. Chinese oil majors now control 22 per cent of Kazakh oil production. China buys virtually any oilfield available. It's not exactly an apocalyptic scenario when compared to the American stakes in the oil industry - 24 per cent. China anyway has already built an oil pipeline to Xinjiang, and is now building a gas pipeline. The average Kazakh's fear of China gobbling up much of his country is now a fact of life. 

Snow Leopard Number One, meanwhile, is not worrying about his succession; it's bound to remain a family business. He's now dreaming of a Central Asian union. He's trying to resuscitate an old Soviet idea of diverting large Siberian rivers to Kazakhstan, thus improving "the water supply for the entire Central Asian region" and, in theory, uniting the squabbling former republics.

But still those nagging winds of freedom won't die down. Egypt and Syria proved it; once the wall of fear is broken, even leopards may drown in a sea of jasmine.

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009). He may be reached at pepeasia@yahoo.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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