IN an echo of the "Great Game" played by European imperial powers as they vied for influence in Central Asia at the turn of the century, Turkey and Iran are now scrambling for footholds in the region, to the consternation of its most recent master, Russia.
The view from Moscow of the former Soviet republics on Russia's turbulent southern flank is also darkened by the prospect that Islamic fundamentalism could find fertile ground in the predominantly Muslim states as religious freedom blossoms.
"This is very dangerous for us if the region becomes an area of conflict not just between Christianity and Islam, but also between Turkey and Iran, between Sunni and Shiite [Muslims]," warns Leonid Medvedko, a former adviser to the Soviet military.
Although the six new states - Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan - have all joined the Commonwealth of Independent States, deep religious, cultural, and historical differences divide them from the Slavic center of the former Soviet Union, and many analysts here fear further upheaval.
"There will be new breaks between the Muslim parts and the Slavic parts," predicts Sergei Tarasenko, an aide to former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. "The fragmentation is not completed yet, and different realignments will emerge."
The sense of Russian insecurity this provokes is only heightened, he points out, by the range of countries with interests in the area.
"Many powerful actors - China, India, the Gulf states, Turkey, and Iran - all of them will have some say in the future of the area," Mr. Tarasenko argues.
As the new, economically weak states struggle to make their independence a reality, they will need assistance from outside, says Sergei Blagovolin, who heads the independent Institute for National Security and Strategic Studies.
"The structure of their economies will not allow them to live independently," he believes. "They will seek someone to help them, and if it is not Russia, they will try to seek support from states like Iran. This is really a very, very dangerous situation."
Standing by to help are the two largest regional powers with historical ties to the area, Turkey and Iran, which have both been diplomatically active in the newly independent Muslim states. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati visited all six states late last year, prompting what Mr. Blagovolin calls "a lot of suspicions, quite legitimate suspicions," among Russian officials. Islamic links with Iran
Tehran can hope for particularly strong ties with Tajikistan, where the language is of Persian origin, and with Azerbaijan, which shares Iran's Shiite sect of Islam. Islamic fundamentalists in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have already developed links with mullahs in Iran, and are agitating to turn their countries into Islamic states along Iranian revolutionary lines, says Tair Tairov, a political scientist from Uzbekistan.
"Islam does not represent purely religious values," he says. But particularly in most of Central Asia "it is more of a cultural phenomenon, a way of life, a search for identity."
How that might develop in the future, argues Vitaly Naumkin, deputy chief of the Institute of Oriental Studies, "depends on the economic situation. If there is very strong social unrest against the economic reforms, against the authorities, there is no alternative to the present course other than fundamentalism."
But for the time being, he says, "most of the Central Asian societies are deeply secular, and for them the Turkish model is the most attractive one." Turkish influence greater than Iran's
Turkey has rivaled Iran in its show of interest in the republics, opening diplomatic relations with all six and quickly building economic ties such as a deal to buy natural gas from Turkmenistan.
"The Turks feel they have historical kinship" with Central Asia, "and they have much more influence than Iran," Tairov says.
Certainly, the Azeris, despite their common religious ties with Iran, say they are more keen to link themselves to Turkey.
"We want close relations with the best countries in the world, with the most civilized and the most modern," explains Dr. Zaur Rustam-Zade, head of Azerbaijan's mission in Moscow. "Our priorities in foreign policy are those countries which have achieved political and economic development, and we like the Turkish example of turning all heads to the West."
Moscow would clearly be happier to see Turkish influence in Central Asia grow faster than Iranian contacts, says Blagovolin, because "Turkey is much more involved in Western structures. They are in NATO, they will join the European Community one day, and Turkey has an interest in living in a more or less secure environment."
Secular states on the Turkish model would also pose a lesser threat to the 11 million ethnic Russians who live in the predominantly Muslim belt of former republics, Blagovolin points out.
But the ethnic, religious, and political brew in that region still threatens to seethe over into Russia, home to 20 million Muslims.
The explosive violence that has pitted Azeri against Armenian in Nagorno-Karabakh for the past four years, for example, could be a harbinger of the future elsewhere, Dr. Rustam-Zade says.
"If the Russian government does not put a stop to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh," he warns, "it will lead to the dissolution of Russia itself. Because they have 100 nationalities there, and there is enough ground for problems."