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Last Updated: Sunday, 15 May, 2005, 23:16 GMT 00:16 UK
The Great Game: Round two

By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

In November 1996, the British government launched a modest diplomatic initiative in Central Asia to increase its influence in the newly independent countries which had spun off from the Soviet Union and whose names all seemed to end in "stan".

One of these countries was Uzbekistan.

Uzbek petrochemical plant
Central Asia has gas and oil reserves to rival the Middle East

The initiative took the form of a visit by the Prince of Wales and, although the prince appeared more interested in the ruins and monuments of the ancient Silk Road than he did in contemporary politics, it was a sign that outside governments were deeply interested in this remote part of the world.

They were just as interested in the 19th Century, when Britain and Russia fought what Rudyard Kipling popularised as "The Great Game" in the mountains and deserts of Central Asia in a battle for control to the approaches to the jewel in the British imperial crown, India.

Rich rewards

In 1996, pre-9/11, the interest was principally in oil and gas.

In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, it was mainly gas, in Kazakhstan oil.

Only lowly Kyrgyzstan, which has now had its own democratic revolution, appeared to lack natural resources, so there, instead of receptions with Western oil executives and explorers, Prince Charles was sent to a dilapidated home for Red Army veterans with whom he discussed his grandmother.

He seemed much happier.

It was obvious to the handful of journalists along for the trip (on two comfortable RAF 146s) that the West was going to have to deal with some pretty rum characters.

Central Asia was not Eastern Europe, which by then had emerged into its democratic dawn. The sun had not even risen here.

In Turkmenistan, for example, Saparmurat Niyazov, who had modestly given himself the title of Turkmenbashi or "Leader of the Turkmen", was already installed as effective dictator and his picture was everywhere. I think his writings now also enjoy similar exposure.

He entertained Prince Charles at a bizarre pink palace in the desert, where mint tea was handed out in cushioned comfort by a bevy of highly attractive attendants one can only describe as handmaidens.

Then the guests were taken outside to see a display of the president's own Arabian stallions. Prince Charles' unease as the president grabbed his arm to walk him through the stables was interesting to watch.

The beauty of Bukhara, masks its grislier side - its notorious bug pit

There must have been a meeting with the Uzbek President Islam Karimov, still president today, though I cannot recall it. Uzbekistan was not very press friendly even then, and I think we were kept away.

The country was already developing advanced signs of becoming a neo-Soviet state. It was also busy rewriting history. A museum had been built in memory of the medieval conqueror Tamburlaine the Great. Under Soviet rule, Tamburlaine's reputation was doubtful, though his great buildings in Samarkand were of course highly regarded. In the new era of Uzbek independence, he was repositioned as a great hero as well.

Breach of protocol

It was in the oasis city of Bukhara that this modern diplomatic mission came face to face with an earlier and rather different British endeavour.

In 1838, the British government sent Lt Colonel Charles Stoddart to Emir Nazrullah Khan to try to get him to end slavery. The Russians had been using the enslavement of Christians as a pretext for their move south and the British wanted to remove this excuse.

The trouble was that Colonel Stoddart lacked diplomatic skills. He refused to dismount from his horse on arrival in Bukhara as protocol demanded, and the emir was insulted that there was no signed letter from Queen Victoria.

Vehicles on the Silk Road
The Silk Road made the region strategically important

Stoddart was promptly thrown into the city's notorious "bug pit".

This unpleasant hole, in which prisoners were left to share their remaining time with tics and other assorted insects and snakes, is still there and Prince Charles was able to inspect the prison of his forebear's representative.

Another British officer, Captain Arthur Conolly, who was the first to use the phrase "great game" (he also called it a noble one) was despatched to seek Stoddart's release, only to find himself also put in the bug pit. The unlucky officers were subsequently beheaded.

In "The Great Game", there were some ups and some downs.

In the modern equivalent, there are also strange bedfellows and unpredictable events in the struggle for influence, as Uzbekistan is currently showing.

Saparmurat Niyazov
Turkmenistan is covered in images of its leader, Saparmurat Niyazov

The Americans and the British - despite, in the British case, vehement protests from former ambassador Craig Murray - have both supported Mr Karimov, who has rewarded Washington with an airbase convenient for fighting in Afghanistan.

The Uzbek government has also handed over intelligence on al-Qaeda suspects, again much to the anger of Mr Murray, who says that torture is used to get such intelligence.

In their book on the original "Great Game", Tournament of Shadows, Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac conclude of this re-run of history:

"Six new republics, predominantly Islamic but vibrantly distinct, are grouped around the Caspian Sea, the current landlords of untapped oil and natural gas reserves that rival those in the Persian Gulf. Pipelines, tanker routes, petroleum consortiums and contracts are the prizes of the new Great Game."

The Islamic element, including the possibility that an Islamic government might one day control one of these "stans", is an added factor in the post 9/11 world, making Western responses even more closely watched.

See the scenes of chaos and violence in Uzbekistan

In pictures: Uzbek stand-off
13 May 05 |  In Pictures
Uzbek media continue to play down unrest
15 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Uzbekistan's 'Islamists'
15 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Key excerpts: Karimov address
14 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Eyewitness: Uzbek protests
13 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
What lies behind Uzbek protests?
13 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Uzbekistan
14 Dec 04 |  Country profiles


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