CENTRAL ASIA AFTER THE OPERATION IN AFGHANISTAN
Nikolai Kuzmin, Director, Foreign Policy and Analysis Center (Almaty, Kazakhstan)
There is one trap into which all Western political scientists and even experts in Central Asia fall: they tend to look at the five states as one single whole. More often than not they ignore not only the local specifics (such as the cultural differences between the land tilling and nomad peoples) but also facts and figures. They apply blanket descriptions such as “oil- and gas-rich countries” to all of them while in fact neither Kyrgyzstan nor Tajikistan can boast of oil and gas reserves. They speak about all of them as “countries with the rapidly growing populations” while since 1991 the population of Kazakhstan has been dropping; they describe their economies as stagnating while in 2001 the GDP of Kazakhstan increased by over 13 percent; they say that all of them are headed by former communist party apparatchiks while President of Kyrgyzstan Askar Akaev has never been one; they say that there are radical Islamic parties and groups in all of them while there are none in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
Descriptions of the region are peppered with such terms as “five stans” or even the “pipelineistan.”1 This prepares the reader for information that American military aircraft landed on an airfield at Bishkek in Tajikistan. Indeed, does it matter which of the “stans” is called what—the main thing is: how many kilometers separate a newly acquired American base from the Chinese border. These scientists do not regard the Central Asian republics as entities of international relations per se but rather as an arena of a new Big Game.
Even the authors of “The OSCE in Central Asia: A New Strategy” report compiled by the International Crisis Group published in September 2002, who undertook to provide specific recommendations for each of the region’s states, slipped into generalizations.2
In fact, the five Soviet Central Asian republics had little in common in the past. There are even fewer common features today when the Soviet Union had fallen apart. This applies to their foreign policies, too. In 2002, Kazakhstan completed delimitation of its southern border, thus formally registering the limits that have been separating it from its neighbors for several years. The situation in Central Asia is uniform to the same extent as the situation in the former Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia: the differences between Slovenia and Bosnia cannot be ignored.
The terrorist acts of 11 September and the military operation in Afghanistan have probably changed the geopolitical situation in the region but have not added to the region’s homogeneity. The distinctions between the five post-Soviet states are piling up, therefore all attempts at talking about a policy common to the Central Asian states as well as about a policy in relation to the region as a whole are fruitless.3
Classification of Operation Enduring Freedom
Back in the middle of the 20th century Martin Wight, British political scientist, said: “There are many kinds of wars: aggressive wars and preventive, prestige wars and wars of security, idealistic wars and perhaps even just wars. But it is convenient to classify them under three chief motives: wars of gain, wars of fear, and wars of doctrine.”4
To borrow his classification one can describe the operation in Afghanistan as the “war of fear” as it is interpreted by the White House for domestic consumption.5 It was caused by the need to wipe away the main base of international terrorism, the Taliban, together with Washington’s main enemy, al-Qa‘eda. The international coalition and NATO, which for the first time in its history used Art 5 of its Charter, were guided by the same considerations. The majority of states closed ranks under the banner of struggle against international terrorism—this was a sign that a war against common enemy was unavoidable.
Immediately after 11 September Washington declared that the terrorists had delivered a blow at America as the leader of the Western world and that consequently they had been aiming at the West as the vehicle of “Western values.” President Bush deliberately used the term “Crusade against terrorism.” Both the al-Qa‘eda terrorist acts and the operation in Afghanistan are of an openly doctrinal nature. “Enduring Freedom” is not a chance code name for the counter-terrorist operation. Both American allies and partners in the antiterrorist coalition and those of the organizations, groups, and movements that approved of the acts of 11 September as a just retribution for American’s policies agreed on this.
It should be said, however, that there is a number of unofficial opinions that describe the operation as an effort to establish control over Central Asia or, rather, over its huge hydrocarbon resources and to provide the future oil and gas pipelines with military-political support.6
This prompts several questions: Why did the United States station its troops in Central Asia as part of its operation in Afghanistan? Was this prompted by its desire to prevent the threat from spreading across the region? Was this prompted by its desire to encourage democratic developments in the Central Asian countries? Was it prompted by its desire to establish American control over the local oil and gas resources?
The affirmative answers to the above are correct. There are probably other factors behind the American policies in the area—today it is hard to identify which is the key one.
According to K. Syroezhkin, a political scientist from Kazakhstan, “the United States has acquired a legitimate access for its military units to the very heart of Eurasia together with future advantages: control over the Caspian region, containment of China and a possibility of destabilizing the situation in it, limiting Russian and Iranian presence in the area or even their complete removal, a possibility to influence the situation in the Central Asian countries with a prospect of succeeding where the Clinton Administration failed and, finally, creating pro-American alliances in the region and putting pro-American forces at the helm in Afghanistan.”7
Today we can only talk about the degree to which the operation in Afghanistan, and America’s military presence in Central Asia, have changed the situation in the region and the policies of its states.
Nothing Has Changed in Central Asia
In 1995, Martha Brill Olcott, an American researcher with the Carnegie Endowment delivered a report entitled “The Twelve Myths of Central Asia.” Today there appeared another myth about cardinal changes in Central Asia brought about by the counter-terrorist operation in Afghanistan.
Certain political scientists are convinced that the United States has performed a geopolitical leap and landed in the rear areas of Russia, China, and Iran. American entrenchment in Afghanistan and Central Asia will change regional geopolitics for many decades to come.
M. Ashimbaev, Director of the Kazakhstani Institute of Strategic Research, believes that “until recently neither the United States nor China claimed a military-political role in the region. They agreed that this role belonged to Russia. By the middle of 2001 there existed a certain balance of forces among the U.S., Russia, and China that had taken shape by default: Russia was exercising its military-political presence through the Collective Security Treaty and the 201st Motor Rifle Division; the United States was striking root in the strategic economic spheres, in the oil and gas sphere in the first place, while China was concentrating on export of its commodities and raw material import.
“The balance was disrupted after 11 September. Today the United States is turning into a military-political force in Central Asia and is moving into the niche that was Russia’s.”8
If we ignore for a while what the above authors have written about China (whose role, for some reason, was reduced to export and import), we shall see that the thesis about Russia’s military-political presence is applied to all five states. This is wrong: Russia has been, and is, absent from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Today there is no American military-political presence in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan while the level of Russia’s military presence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is higher by an order than that of the U.S. Russia has preserved its military domination in the area, which was confirmed in August 2002 by the Russian military exercises in the Caspian Sea in which Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan also took part.
I am convinced that the operation in Afghanistan has brought no radical changes. One has to admit that there is no longer any threat from the south (if such threat did exist in the first place). Some experts believe that the Taliban nurtured no aggressive plans against other countries—it even tried to warn the United States about al-Qa‘eda’s terrorist plans.9 At the same time, drug trafficking and illegal trade in arms, two plagues of the countries bordering on Afghanistan, have not gone away. Obviously, these problems will defy the American troops and the peacekeeping international contingent stationed in Afghanistan.
Has American influence in the Central Asian countries increased? It has increased at the level of political rhetoric alone. In March 2002, the United States and Uzbekistan signed a declaration on the key elements of their strategic partnership and cooperation. Immediately after his Washington visit President Karimov announced in so many words that the United States, its determined actions and well-trained armed forces, rather than members of the Collective Security Treaty led by Russia, had been instrumental in relieving tension along Uzbekistan’s southern borders. While the preparations for the SCO summit (an organization in which Russia and China play the first fiddle) were in full swing, Tashkent refused to take part in the sittings that discussed regional security. Can this be taken for a sign of the U.S. stronger positions in the region? This rather speaks of the fact that very much as usual Tashkent preserved its skepticism about the alliances and integration structures of all sorts in which Russia plays the leading role. It suspects, with good reason, that such alliances and structures are symptoms of the Kremlin’s Eurasian trends and its desire to restore, in any form, Soviet political expanse. It was in spring 1999 that Uzbekistan withdrew from the Collective Security Treaty.
Martha Brill Olcott was quite right when she wrote: “Although the United States and other NATO members are providing military training and some military assistance to several of the states of the Central Asian region, this should not be misread as a sign that direct military assistance would be forthcoming in the event of a foreign threat to any of these states. Caspian oil may be promising to the West, but it is not yet vital to Western security interests.”10
Can one say that the processes of democratization and economic liberalization in the Central Asian countries have accelerated? The answer is “No.” In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan economic legislation moved closer to international standards long ago while no changes took place in other countries. History has shown that the mere presence of American military bases in any state does not automatically result in more democracy and sustained economic growth. South Korea and the Philippines are relevant examples together with a more recent case of Saudi Arabia. The countries that received the American military on their territories may count (if they want it) on Washington to ignore the discrepancies between their political and economic processes and the principles of democracy, human rights and the liberal market economy. In the past, much that was going on in the countries that served as a dam against the communist threat was ignored. Today, the White House has a good reason to treat the countries that serve as an outpost in the anti-terrorist struggle with condescension.
Any advance toward more democracy is caused by the will of the leaders to move in this direction, to cooperate with the OSCE as the only organization wishing to achieve tangible results in this sphere. The same applies to liberalization of the local economies: some of the countries want to join the WTO, others prefer to preserve the state’s full control over their economies irrespective of whether Russian or American military are stationed on their territories.
The discussions around the agreement on setting up a nuclear-free zone in Central Asia are an ample illustration of different foreign-policy priorities of the region’s countries. It is expected that the document will apply to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The document allows other states having common borders with the initial members to join the nuclear-free zone. Disagreements between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan (the pro-Russian countries and members of the CST), on the one hand, and Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, on the other, were related to Art 12, about the document’s compatibility with the earlier agreements, and to Art 4 related to transit rules that confirmed the right of the member countries of the zone to independently decide whether to let nuclear armaments, other nuclear devices, equipment, and materials and radioactive waste across their territories.
Smile of a Dragon
China is regarding its relations with the Central Asian countries in the context of ensuring stability in its western provinces. All bilateral documents China has already signed with the region’s countries contain a thesis of rejection of separatism together with a clause refusing to recognize Taiwan as an independent state. At bilateral meetings of all levels the Chinese side invariably demands that the Central Asian countries should tighten their control over the local Uighur organizations which Beijing suspects of cooperation with the separatists.
China was not overjoyed to see troops of the United States and its allies moving into Central Asia. The campaign in Afghanistan probably revived memories of August 1900 when murders of foreign diplomats in the course of the Boxer Rebellion brought an international corps composed of Russian, Japanese, British, American, French, German, Italian, and Austro-Hungarian troops to Peking.
Still, China sided with the international counter-terrorist coalition and actively supported the resolutions on terrorism the U.N. Security Council passed on 12 and 28 September, 2001. It supplied Washington with the intelligence obtained by its special services as well as did everything to identify financial structures of suspected terrorists. In response Washington entered the Uighur separatists of Xinjiang in its list of terrorist organizations. The Chinese leaders acquired an opportunity to resolve its major domestic problem: suppression of terrorist activities of the national-separatist movement in XUAR and other areas.
The already firm economic interdependence of China and America was completed with their growing mutual understanding on the entire set of problems of strategic security and opposition to the new threats. International Herald Tribune quoted a Chinese political scientist as saying: “In terms of regional security, proliferation, terrorism, international crime, drug trafficking, environmental issues and trade, our interests are increasingly aligned with the developed world.”11
The Chinese visit of the State Secretary of Kazakhstan Kasymzhomart Tokaev that took place in May 2002 was scrutinized through the prism of American military presence in Central Asia. It was expected that the main issue to be discussed in Beijing would be whether Americans and their NATO partners would be allowed to set up military bases in Kazakhstan. Some of the local media reported about this as an accomplished fact while Astana’s permission given to American aircraft to land in Kazakhstan in case of emergency was presented as the first stage of American presence in our republic. This invited an inevitable conclusion that relations with China would worsen. Even if the issue was discussed in Beijing, it did not slip into the concluding official statements. Indeed, talks behind the closed doors are diplomacy, not propaganda.
One can say that American bases alone were not responsible for mutual suspicions and unresolved problems that tainted the relations between the two countries. Kazakhstan is still apprehensive of “crawling China-zation” that may completely engulf the country. The PRC, in its turn, does not like the fact that Uighur extremists from Xinjiang find refuge and support in Kazakhstan. The problem of transborder rivers has not yet been resolved—this issue requires something more than merely political will.
At the same time, Beijing supported President of Kazakhstan Nazarbaev who called for a summit on cooperation and confidence-building measures in Asia. This is a sure sign that the sides’ ideas about the regional security problems coincide. What is even more important, they are identical with the interests of Russia that is actively supporting the idea.
The Future of Eurasia
As distinct from many other post-Soviet states, Kazakhstan has never been allergic to integration processes that involved Russia. It even initiated many of them. It was President Nazarbaev who forwarded an idea of a Eurasian alliance translated into the Eurasian Economic Community. Kazakhstan is one of the most active members of the Collective Security Treaty and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
The republic’s economic interests are connected with Russia to a great extent: Russia is the main trade partner, it is across its territory that Kazakhstan exports the bulk of its oil. The trade and investments legislations of the two countries are very close while their economies are moving toward greater liberalization.
Kazakhstan’s trade with two other neighbors—Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan—presents a striking contrast to its relations with Russia. Trade turnover with Uzbekistan dropped from $2.6 billion in 1992 to mere $423m in 1995 and to $204m in 2001. Over the last 9 years it has become 10 times smaller. The problem of gas deliveries from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan remains unresolved as well as the transit of Uzbek commodities across Kazakhstan and the joint use of the transborder water resources.12 Trade turnover with Kyrgyzstan dropped from $202m in 1995 to $90m in 2000.
Kazakhstan’s national interests, no matter how formulated at any specific moment of its history, have included and will include in future friendly and allied relations with Russia. This cooperation rests on long-term geopolitical factors that have already determined much that is in common between them. Kazakhstan is a Central Asian country to the same extent as Britain is a European country, therefore there is an analogy, albeit an extremely slight one, between the special relations between the U.S. and U.K. and between Russia and Kazakhstan. In fact, today the Soviet formula “Central Asia and Kazakhstan” looks more apt than before.
There is a significant entry in a preamble to the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance between the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation that speaks about special relations between the two countries: “…being resolved to continue building the democratic states of Kazakhstan and Russia ruled by law…” The Treaty on Eternal Friendship between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan contains no mention of democracy.13
Martha Brill Olcott has said that the future of certain countries in the region will for a long time remain associated with Russia. Russia will also be especially important for Kazakhstan forever. One wants to add: Kazakhstan will also be especially important for Russia forever.
Today there are two trends simultaneously unfolding in Russia, both connected to its quest for a new national identity: a traditional one (that is, Eurasian) and a Western one (or European). The first consists in attempts to restore Eurasia that geographically coincided with the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union as well as in trying to conclude geopolitical alliances with the leading Asian countries (the so-called broader Eurasia). Those who want to move westwards are never tired of saying that Russia is unable to play the first fiddle in potential alliances with India and China while the prospects of economic cooperation with Asian countries can hardly tempt it. Russia’s export is very limited (weapons and military technologies) while the investment potentials of Asian countries are fairly low. These people say that there is no choice but to “join Europe” and enter into an alliance with the West. This is an alternative to Russia’s Eurasian hypostasis and an option that meets its long-term interests.
Moving eastwards, the NATO is shedding its military dimensions and is turning into a structure engaged in organizing the European expanse politically, thus completing the continent’s unification. If the majority of Central and East European countries join the NATO, and the European Union at a later date, the West (that for a long time remained a Protestant-Catholic civilization) will change a great deal. The fact that the threats to the continent’s security are no longer associated with a possibility of another world war serves as a favorable factor for Russia joining Europe.
If Moscow moves toward Europe together with Astana, this will be a kind of a symbiosis of the Eurasian and European vectors. In fact, in the long-term perspective Kazakhstan’s Western orientation looks much more plausible than that of Uzbekistan. Today Russia can reassert itself as a great power through a full-blooded partnership with the United States and the West based on mutual trust and recognition that a new system of international security and stability is an absolute priority. Kazakhstan as the most consistent ally of Russia with a fairly high level of economic cooperation and a fairly great involvement in a political dialog with the West regards this as its own priority.
Politically, Central Asia was structuralized even before 11 September. This structure remained the same throughout the counter-terrorist operation in Afghanistan. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan remained members of regional organizations led by Russia. It should be said that the countries became even more different economically and politically while the leaders rejected all regional integration projects.
Kazakhstan will continue its course toward integration with Russia while their political vectors will face the west rather than the east. The two countries will increase the economic gap between themselves and the rest of the Central Asian countries and will attain higher democratization levels.
The differences between Moscow and Astana over certain issues such as moving Kazakh oil through the CPC pipes or the joint use of Baykonur will not go away, yet they will be addressed as a matter of fact and will not affect the allied relations.
The contradictions between Russia, the United States, and China will be resolved with an understanding that Central Asia belongs to the Russian sphere of influence. In any case the relations between Kazakhstan and America will match the level of closeness between Russia and the United States.
1 Jessica T. Matthews, September 11, One Year Later: A World of Change, Moscow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 18 Special Edition, August 2002. See also: P. Escobar, “Pipelineistan, Part 1: The Rules of the Game,” Asia Times Online [http://atimes.com/c-asia/DA25Ag01.html].
2 The OSCE in Central Asia: A New Strategy, 11 September, 2002. ICG Asia Report #38, Osh-Brussels.
3 This is clearly realized in the Central Asian countries. I. Ismagambetov has written: “The region is incapable of being an integrated geopolitical entity” (see: T. Ismagambetov, “Structuring Central Asia’s New Geopolitical Space: Regional Characteristics and Prospects,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 2 (14), 2002, p. 8).
4 M. Wight, Power Politics, Penguin, London, 1978, p. 138.
5 By fear M. Wight meant that the state was aware of an outside threat to its security (see: M. Wight, op. cit, p. 139).
6 See, for example: P. Escobar, op. cit.
7 K. Syroezhkin, “God posle tragedii,” Kontinent (Almaty), No. 18, 18 September-1 October, 2002.
8 M. Ashimbaev, M. Laumulin, “Trudny put’ k regionalnoi bezopasnosti,” Kontinent (Almaty), No. 10, 15-28 May, 2002, pp. 22-23.
9 See: B. Crossette, “America’s Error over the Taliban,” International Herald Tribune, 14-15 September, 2002.
10 Martha Brill Olcott, “Revisiting the Twelve Myths of Central Asia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. WORKING PAPERS, Number 23, September 2001, p. 9.
11 “CHINA: A Change in How It Deals with the World,” International Herald Tribune, 25 October, 2002, p. 4.
12 See: S. Emelianov, “Za ramkami ‘glavnogo’ voprosa,” Kontinent, No. 20, 16-29 December, 2002, pp. 24-25.
13 Sbornik dokumentov po mezhdunarodnomu pravu, Vol. I, Almaty, 1998, pp. 60-64.