A Realignment of the -Stans

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are both poor-man’s North Koreas, which makes their increasing dalliance of late unsurprising. What is surprising is the fairly uninspired commentary on their increasingly close relations, including a high-level summit late last month, almost all of which revolves around the close relations between the kleptocratic and corrupt Islam Karimov and the corrupt and kleptocratic Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

Ashgabat and Tashkent have very closely-aligned interests between them and externally that make a closer alliance all but inevitable: solidarity in the fact of international rights criticism, fending off Russian and Chinese power politics, ending ethnic strife, and getting lower prices on Jennifer Lopez concert appearances. But while all of these, especially the Lopez concerts, are important, what few observers realize is that these two hell-holes can between them slightly re-align the balance of power in the region in critical ways that will advance all of these goals and promote both nations at the same time.

It all comes down to trade and energy.

It’s largely forgotten now, but Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan sit at what is historically the crossroads of Eurasia. Great powers, brutal tyrants, religious movements, and commercial concerns fought for control of the area as power changed hands and collapsed altogether with some frequency. Today, as Russia and China tussle over the post-American world on the continent, Ashgabat and Tashkent can become secondary beneficiaries of this struggle and the energy and commerce that will move through the area.

Rail and natural gas lines are already expanding into the breach, and Uzbekistan wants in — and Turkmenistan would love the additional capital and support from what it perceives as a junior partner. With Russia having accomplished much of its goal in the so-called Eastern Partnership nations, Moscow can turn East again, and both countries want to maintain at least some nominal independence from their traditional imperial overlord.

So ignore all of the hugs and warm press releases, and instead focus on what matters: the money.

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