The Near Abroad
The end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union brought two kinds of renaissance to the lands of Russia's southern flank, or "near abroad". As countries such as Kazakhstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan became independent for the first time in decades or centuries, they had to sort out their own styles of government. Recent events show that this process is still unfolding. At the same time, a region that had been shrouded in mystery and romance has again become a place of interest to the rest of the world. Initially, attention focused on the energy-rich countries bordering the Caspian Sea. Now, this focus is broadening to include the Black Sea countries that are crucial to the transit of Caspian oil and gas to the West. The Economist refers to this as a new Great Game.
The original Great Game referred to the rivalry between Russia and the British Empire over much of the same territory, with British India representing the ultimate prize. (This history of that period makes fascinating reading.) Subsequently, this term was conflated with oil exploration and applied to the competition for various new oil provinces, including the Caspian region itself in the 1990s.
In the case of the Black Sea Great Game, the rivalry is again with Russia, which has lost one round with the opening of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which follows a route scrupulously chosen to avoid Russian territory. Despite its proximity, Russia is at a disadvantage currently, because of the distrust that the new nations along its periphery hold for their old masters. Western capital and friendship with America must seem attractive counterweights to Russian influence. For that matter, some of the territory on the Russian side of the border doesn't look much more stable. The Caucasus is a multi-ethnic patchwork of republics, oblasts, and krais--including Chechnya--that are left over from the Czarist conquest of this region in the 18th and 19th centuries. It remains to be seen whether Russia can hold this fractious district together.
Don't count Russia out, though. It still owns a lot of key infrastructure on its territory, and its aggregate oil and gas reserves dwarf those of its former provinces. The absorption of much of Yukos into the Russian state oil company, and the relationship between Rosneft and Gazprom, are sure to have implications for the balance of energy power in the Black Sea and Caspian regions. Nor should we discount the possibility that a future US administration might exchange some of our new influence in this region for closer ties with Russia, which could be worth much more in the long run. While Central Asia and the Caucasus may never be as important as the Middle East, they are back on the map and will retain a higher profile than they have had in a very long time.