May 31, 2007 (the date of publication in Russian)

Maxim Kalashnikov


Revival of the "River Diversion Project" as the fulcrum of New Russian Policy in Central Asia

The collapse of the Soviet Union separated Russia from the countries of Central Asia. For its peoples, the 1991 collapse became a far larger drama than for Russians. On the one hand, the newly-established states found themselves expelled from the community of technotronic age, descending into the rank of outsiders and being plunged lower and lower by new wars, domestic brawls and terrorism. On the other hand, massive migration of Central Asia's population into Russia represents a menace of new conflicts.

Can this situation be changed? For the present Russian Federation, this is hardly possible. However, a rising and stronger Russia could afford the task of re-establishing political influence along its southern borders.



In 1991, some Russian idiots were ecstatic over the separation of the "unneeded" Turkestan with its excessively prolific population, as well as expenses for irrigation and heritage of centuries-old ethnic conflicts in Ferghana and other flash points. Most delightful seemed to be the prospective of replacement of an Uzbek vendor by a Slav in a fruit market, enabling – allegedly – to save billions.

The economic reality has wrecked those naive illusions. Fruit markets, along with the rest of economy both in Russia and Central Asia was overtaken by the "elite" of gangsters. Eventually, it became clear that Russia still has to use the abandoned Caspian ports and transport facilities, as well as the Baikonur spaceport – but for a high price; that establishing new borders requires enormous costs; that before any borders were established, millions of new immigrants had arrived in Russia from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

The reasons for this flight were obvious. Left alone with themselves, the newly-independent states of Central Asia, despite promises from the West, failed to achieve a decent role in the global economic system. They could not create sufficient jobs for their population. They could not attract high tech assembling, unlike China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mexico or Turkey.

Central Asian governments unsuccessfully tried to negotiate with European high tech producers. VESTEL, a major producer of household electronics, rival to South Korean and Chinese producers, needed to minimize expenses for labor force. Still, this company, as well as many others, preferred Turkey to Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. Today, a huge assembling complex, dubbed VESTEL City, is deployed in Manis, Turkey.

On the one hand, the labor force of the post-Soviet Central Asia was not sufficiently qualified to meet the demands of high tech corporations. On the other hand, Central Asia's goods, like Kazakh grain and Uzbek cotton, were not demanded by relevant global markets, while local tourist industries, without modern hotels and entertainment centers, were not competitive either.

The social disaster arouses massive disappointment and therefore, a massive ferment of radicalism. Impoverished people easily get fascinated with ideas of a just and borderless Caliphate. We have serious grounds to expect that the inevitable withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan result in a mass destabilization and bloody chaos across Central Asia. Extremists from a new generation, taking lessons from Taliban's "students", are likely to invade the post-Soviet republics from the south, in order to overthrow secular governments and set up a "decent" Wahhabite rule. Still, the new Talibs won't bring any jobs, bread, and fresh water to their people. Instead, they would try to solve their problems by means of expansion – northward, to the borders of Russia.

This means that the problem of Turkestan is likely to re-emerge in a far larger dimension than before. Necessary measures are to be envisaged today.



Russia has to return to Turkestan. In order to build up a great innovational civilization with a qualitatively new aerospace industry, Russia requires a lot of natural resources, including not only oil and gas but also uranium, gold, bauxites, chromium, and manganese. Meanwhile, Turkestan is a real thesaurus of mineral resources and hydrocarbons.

Russia's return does not necessarily suppose revision of borders. The Russian Empire respected the existing borders of the Khiva Khanate and Bukhara Emirate. This design could be used again – however, without military means of expansion.

A better option is to provide Turkestan with a resource which is excessive in Russia and dramatically scarce in Central Asia – a resource which the region can receive neither from the United States nor from China, the Turkish or the Arabic community.

Fresh water – that is what may pinion Turkestan to Russia stronger than hundreds of divisions and billions of dollars. This construction material would keep Russia and Central Asia together for decades or even centuries.

The dramatic water crisis started yet in the times of the USSR. The two great rivers of Turkestan, Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya, are practically used up. Towns, villages and agroindustrial capacities consume the whole of the water supply. Without irrigation, Central Asia would face famine. Water can be delivered solely from Russia – from its powerful Siberian rivers.

No money can substitute water. Neither military bases – of the United States, China or both, nor the status of an Arabic protectorate can increase water supply. "We are not nostalgic about the USSR", recently said Uzbek President Islam Karimov. This is not more than bravado. Our sources from Uzbekistan don't take it seriously: "You ARE nostalgic", they argue, addressing Mr. Karimov. "You are nostalgic, as one morning you may find yourself without water".

According to a 2002-issued CIA handbook, all of the Central Asia nations desperately lack water. In each of them, this problem is likely to exacerbate. Uzbekistan, almost territorially equal to California, has got a 25-million population, with an annual rate of surplus comprising 1.6%. But only 10% of this country's land is in agricultural use. In a matter of five years, the country will not afford feeding the increased population.

Things are even worse in the case of Tajikistan, with a square of 142, 700 square kilometers and a population of 6.5 millions, increasing with a rate of 2.12% – while agricultural use encompasses only 6% of the nation's land. The soil, abandoned by Russian melioration workers, is rapidly salinized; the desert expands. How will nine millions of Tajiks feed themselves in twenty years?

The great Kara Kum desert, engulfing almost the whole territory of Turkmenistan, is also expanding. The huge territory of 448,000 sq. km is inhabited by only 4.6mln people, but the population increases with a 1.9% rate, while only 3% of the land is used for agriculture.

In a 198,500 sq. km Kyrgyzstan, a 4.7mln population is increasing with a 1.4% rate. Only 7% of land is used, leaving the population in great need of water, especially clean water. In 2000, then-President Askar Akayev promised to supply every Kyrgyz with a liter of fresh water. He failed to fulfill his obligation, as well as his successors. Irrigation, still performed in a barbarian way, results in salinization; people still have to pump water from polluted wells.

The problems of these countries may be solved solely by Russia. How is that possible? Only by means of transferring a share of the Siberian rivers' discharge to Central Asia.

The relevant project, initially scheduled for 1984, was abolished two years later, under the rule of Mikhail Gorbachov. At that time, the "democratic community" violently attacked the initiative, spreading delusional rumors about ensuing environmental disasters in the Arctic and drought in Siberia. However, this campaign appeared to be steered from outside, predominantly from the United States.

In his book "Civilization versus Nature", Rudolf Balandin describes the brawl around the project, in which top party functionaries, including Gorbachov, have allied with rabidly anti-Soviet "democrats" and monarchists, Russophiles and Russophobes, "patriots" and "Westernists", academicians and housewives.

This concord reflected a strong ideological intervention from outside, which was not surprising – as according to the project, water was going to be used for supplying also the Southern Urals, along with Western Kazakhstan. The implied intention was to integrate Russians and Kazakhs through a mutually favorable "exchange" of water for mineral resources and food. The so-called "River Diversion Project" suggested not a real reverse of rivers but transfer of several per cent of their discharge to Central Asia.

Rudolf Balandin describes the design as quite reasonable and not at all harmful for Mother Nature. Still, the United States focused on undermining the "imperial design", while arbitrarily redistributing domestic water resources.



Today, the problem exacerbates even more. Recently, Turkmenistan decided to create an artificial lake in the Kara Kum Desert. Water is going to be borrowed from Amu-Darya, though Uzbekistan badly needs it for its own economy.

Russia should use this opportunity as a pretext for returning to the agenda of 1984. The renewed River Diversion Project should be introduced, however, not as an act of charity but as an agreement with clear and strict conditions. Water is to be exchanged not only for valuable minerals but also for Russia's military policy influence in the region. Yeltsin’s lenient approach is not acceptable: it must be clear from the beginning that a double game or flirt with the US side would be followed with the contract's denunciation, with all the unpleasant consequences.

Are Russia's conditions likely to be accepted? No doubt. In this way, Russia would manage to greatly increase its influence across this strategically important part of Eurasia, and to restrict the activity of other actors in this region.

Is it profitable for Russia? More than that: without shedding a drop of blood, we achieve indispensable resources for a breakthrough into the era a "Russian miracle". Simultaneously, we acquire an impetus for the development of Siberia's economy. We also prevent migration pressure from the south. Finally, we create a political and public lever, protecting Central Asian nations from a Wahhabite invasion.

Is it favorable for our partners in Turkestan? Make no mistake. Averting famine, they will be able to employ millions of people, to supply them with salaries and food, and to guarantee the desired stability.

A new empire, eventually established in this way, would develop not as "an empire for itself" but as an empire for the sake of prosperity and security. Such an empire would serve to a better future for both Russians and their closest southern neighbors.

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