CENTRAL ASIAN STATES: BALANCING OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES
Dr. Mansour Rahmani, Resident Representative of the Iranian Institute for Political and International Studies in Sweden
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the emergence of the independent states of Central Asia coupled with vast resources of oil and gas in these countries, have increased the strategic importance of the region. The Central Asian states have also been eager to reduce their dependence on Russia and to develop political, economic, and security relations with the outside world. Consequently, this region became not only the object of constant competition for influence and access to oil and gas resources among the external powers but also it turned to be an arena of struggle for hegemony between Russia and the United States.
Some argue that this struggle for hegemony is a new “Great Game” being played out by Russia and the United States in Central Asia, comparing it to the struggle for hegemony between the Russian and British empires of the 19th century in the center of the Asian continent. Nevertheless, this historical comparison does not take account of the emergence of the new regional actors: the Central Asian states themselves are also active players in this struggle for power. These newly independent states seek not only to preserve their independence and sovereignty through building a new defense policy but also to foster regional and international cooperation. Since 1991, bilateral and multilateral programs for economic, security and political cooperation have grown significantly in the region. The Central Asian states have welcomed the commercial, diplomatic and even in some cases military presence of other countries.
At the same time, however, the Central Asian states face several challenges. They are potentially weak and unstable, and confront serious political, economic, ethnic, religious, and social challenges in their quest for security. They are also the focus of attention from Russia, the United States and neighboring powers due to their potential for great wealth and due to the risks that arise from dangerous circumstances. Russia sees Central Asia as a natural part of its sphere of influence because of its contiguous borders, centuries of domination, and the large number of ethnic Russians living there. It fears the expansion of Islamist movements on its borders and worries about the expanding U.S. military presence in the region. The United States has also become more active in Central Asia in recent years. Washington’s geostrategic and geo-economic priorities consist of having access to the region’s energy resources and containing hostile policies and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the region.
Regional powers have also visions of playing “Big Brother” to the newly independent states of Central Asia, hoping that shared histories, ethnicity, or common language will help shape these states in their neighbor’s image. Turkey’s regional vision stresses Turkish-style secularism and democracy, while Iran assumes it is the natural protector of Central Asia because of long historical, ethnic, linguistic, and religious ties. China also seeks to become a more important player in Central Asian energy politics while it keeps an eye on ethnic unrest among its Uighur minority on the borders with Kazakhstan.
For Central Asian states, therefore, the internal evolution as well as the external orientation presents both opportunities and dangers that could have implications for their policies and interests. This article focuses on both opportunities and challenges which lie before these states in their efforts to gain independence and sovereignty; and, on how they manage their relationships with Russia, the United States and regional powers and what consequences this might have for the regional countries.
Instrument of Sovereignty: Building a Defense Policy
After independence, the Central Asian states tried to build an independent military system; they undertook a broad reorganization of the military forces inherited from Soviet times. However, their efforts did not achieve the same result. For example, while in Uzbekistan the authorities were able to create a military that could affirm itself as a principal military power in Central Asia, in Kazakhstan, the military apparatus still remains highly dependent on Russia’s support.
Uzbekistan: First Military Power in Central Asia
Since independence, the immediate environment of Uzbekistan has been characterized by the relative instability because of volatile situation in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and the presence of Islamist movements; that is why this country has given top priority to its defense policy.
Uzbekistan’s defense policy consists of two main axes: the “nationalization” of the military personnel and the reorganization of defense system. In the process of “nationalization” of the personnel, the Uzbekistan authorities created the first Academy of Armed Forces in Central Asia in 1994 to provide education for senior officers, who can enroll in the advanced Military Sciences program offered at the Academy. They also asked the Western countries, mainly the United States, to assist them in training the military personnel. These initiatives were successful because the share of Uzbek personnel passed from 6% to 80% in the army between 1992 and 1996.
Since the increase in tensions in the area, Uzbekistan has also decided to reorganize its defense system. Its priorities have been a better distribution of the military units on the territory of the country, professionalization of the military and a progressive move away from the strategic and material dependence on Moscow. To organize an efficient command system, five military districts have been created in Uzbekistan, headed by a commander-in-chief. In addition, a state committee on border guards has been established with the aim to prevent the penetration of terrorist groups from neighboring countries into Uzbekistan, an issue that Uzbekistan’s new defense doctrine identifies as a significant short-term threat. Uzbekistan is determined to create a professional corps of officers who are both “well-qualified and dedicated to the independence of the country” and “open to ideas about approaches to the development of the country.” For this purpose, Uzbekistan declared to be “open to military contacts and cooperation with all countries, and sends its officers abroad for specialized training.”1 In this process of reform, the Ministry of Defense was given, in October 2000, for the first time, to a civil personality, Mr. Kadir Gulomov, who was also responsible for the command of the Ministry of Interior guards, and border guards as well. The aim of these reforms was to strengthen the government’s authority in the whole country.
Uzbekistan’s military reform is however made more difficult because of the financial limitations the nation faces and the army’s dependence on Russia for the maintenance and the renewal of its materiel.
Kazakhstan: Russian Alliance
Two principal features characterize the defense policy of Kazakhstan: one is the maintenance of special relations with Russia that seems to be the best guaranty for Kazakhstan’s vast territory; another is carrying out the reform of the military forces in the long term.2
Since independence, Kazakhstan had initially declared in favor of a united army within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). But when the attempt to create a united military force failed, this country turned to a national system of defense. It however preserved close connections with Moscow not only within the framework of the CIS (a Collective Security Treaty (CST) concluded on 15 May, 1992) but also by bilateral agreements with Russia, which illustrated Kazakhstan’s desire to preserve special relations with Moscow.3 These relations facilitated the transfer of all the nuclear armament stationed on the Kazakh territory to Russia—which completed in April 1995. In March 1994, Kazakhstan had indeed abandoned its nuclear position.
This country however started to express its desire to reform its army and to diversify its partners in the field of defense while turning to China4 and the western countries, such as the United States.5 The military forces of Kazakhstan, composed of approximately 34,000 men, were created on the basis of the Soviet army on 9 May, 1992. The military equipment was inherited from the former Soviet army in the Kazakh territory. As a result of the division of the Soviet military property, Kazakhstan received its share of the equipment, but the newest military technology was left in or moved to Russia.
Therefore, Kazakhstan had been in need of improvement of its military forces. Since 1998, the armed forces have been engaged, by the initiative of President Nazarbaev, in a deep reform which will spread out until 2030: this reform consists of creating a new legal framework and reconstructing the military units (until 2005), and then, modernizing the equipment (from 2006 to 2015) and from 2016 to 2030, reconstructing the army structure.6 With the aim of modernizing the Kazakhstani Armed Forces, the Defense Ministry has recently “approved a plan for up to 2005, providing for a whole range of measures to strengthen military discipline and law and order in the army, specifically, by recruiting psychologists and sociologists for military units, creating legal guarantees for the safety of military service.”7
Of course, Kazakhstan, like Uzbekistan, needs an adequate budget to assume these reforms. Actually, the budgetary resources are 1% of the GDP, about 200 million dollars in 2001, an amount which doesn’t seem sufficient for carrying out the reforms, and does not allow, at least in the short run, the Kazakh authorities to be able to build a professional army.
Outside Powers: Interests and Challenges
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had created a strategic vacuum in Central Asia and favored the United States’ penetration into an area, where it was hitherto absent. This evolution reached to limits set by Russia, which remains the first partner of the new republics and tries today to regain the influence that it lost before. It is important to underline that this balance of power is not just the result of rivalries between the two great powers, as it was the case in the 19th century, but it is also the consequences of the competitive interests of other regional powers and the Central Asian states. Undoubtedly, such an evolution is one of the principal changes introduced by independence.
1. Russia’s “Return” to Central Asia
It will be an exaggeration to speak about Russia’s “return” to Central Asia, because Russia never ceased being present in the region. Nevertheless, Moscow’s influence had been confronted during the last decade with the combination of several factors: the new states’ striving for independence, ambitions of the other powers as well as the United States to enhance influence in Central Asia and, of course, Russia’s own weaknesses.8 Mr. Putin’s election to the presidency and particularly his regional policy illustrate Russia’s will to stop this decline and to regain the lost positions, not by reviving an old empire’s power, but by pursuing a pragmatic policy which takes better account of the aspirations of Central Asian independent states.
Russia has always attached great strategic importance to Central Asia particularly as a buffer zone against possible influence and expansion of the Islamic movements and due to the interests related to the rich resources of the area, and to a strong Russian human presence mainly in Kazakhstan. It is thus evident that Moscow sees the new republics as its “special neighbors.” Founding the Commonwealth of Independent States on 8 December, 1991, was an effort to make these newly independent republics integrated on an old Soviet Union model but on the new basis. Similarly, during the last decade Russia tried to maintain a kind of military solidarity by concluding the Collective Security Treaty in May 1992, and to ensure advantageous economic relations.
However, the cooperation during the last decade shows that these initiatives are far from being successful. For example, out of 886 documents signed by the Heads of State and Government of the CIS, only 130 were actually implemented. From the economic point of view, the level of trade transaction among CIS member states largely decreased: it represents only about 27% of the total imports and 40% of exports.
The main cause of this situation is the Russian policy which is often more anxious to preserve its own interests than to transform the existing economic dependence into a coherent and mutually advantageous and thus durable situation. It is also the result of Central Asian governments’ will and determination to protect their way to independence from Moscow.
Meanwhile, each of Central Asian republics acts in keeping with its view of its relations with Russia: Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan maintain very privileged relations with Russia which help their sovereignty, and Tajikistan, also very close to Russia, continues to maintain its military forces under the Russian military command; while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan try to keep their distance from Russia without going so far as to break its relations with Moscow.
The case of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is particularly illustrative, because of their positions inspired by constraints of a different nature.
Kazakhstan considers Russia as a “strategic partner” because of a common border of 7,500 km, the presence of a large number of Russian residents in the republic (35% of the population) and Kazakhstan’s dependence on exports of its oil through the Russian territory.
Kazakhstan’s government is however anxious to avoid the direct influence of its big neighbor: it prefers a multilateral framework of cooperation within the CIS in order to avoid an unequal bilateral discussion. If it tries to find solution to the bilateral problems with Russia by negotiation, it does not mean that it accepts any compromise, such as the maintenance of the Russian space base of Baikonur or the Caspian Sea problem. Moreover, Kazakhstan has until now pursued a linguistic policy and a policy of “nationalization” of the administration, which are not in favor of the immediate interests of the Russian community.
Uzbekistan has not been under such constraints. Its striving to independence was initially expressed from the economic point of view; although this country was, before independence, the most integrated republic of the Soviet Union, the share of its exchanges with the CIS gradually decreased: 60% in 1993, 40% in 1995, and 28% in 1999. In the defense area, Uzbekistan always rejected the presence of Russian troops on its territory. In February 1999, it withdrew from the Commonwealth of Independent States Collective Security Treaty9 and chose to remain only in the bilateral treaty of cooperation signed in December 1999. In addition, on 24 April, 1999, it became a member of the GUUAM, whose explicit objective is to avoid any return of the Russian hegemony.
Since the election of Mr. Putin, Russia has chosen a new policy in Central Asia, but this new policy concerns more the methods than the objectives. Conscious of the importance of the support that the CIS member states can give to Russia thus strengthening its role on the international scene, Mr. Putin knows that this support could not be imposed. The Russian diplomacy in the area thus holds better account of the aspirations of the new republics, at the political and economic level.
At the political level, Moscow shares the same perception of the Islamic threat considered as a real danger to the stability of the region, if it extends to Central Asia and the Caucasus. The new republics are aware that Russia is the most important neighbor who could effectively contribute to their security. At the same time, the Russian inefficiency to resolve the Chechen problem raised some doubts about Moscow’s capabilities to guarantee their security: it shows more the limits of Russia’s capability to provide useful help than its desire to threaten the sovereignty of the states.
For example, the evolution of the situation in Uzbekistan is particularly significant in this respect. This country, which is most directly confronted with the Islamic threat and concerned about keeping its distance from Moscow, welcomed the new Russian policy. It was particularly significant that President Putin made his first official trip abroad to Tashkent in May 2000. At the same time, the Uzbekistan authorities acknowledge the importance of their relations with Moscow. They recognize for example that the Uzbek army is mainly made up of Soviet weapons and equipment and it is difficult to replace these with other military resources; so they believe they don’t have other choices but a cooperation with Moscow. On the other hand, they have shown very firmly that they have no desire to be integrated into a “military bloc” which could undermine their efforts to gain independence: the relations with the Russians must lie within a purely bilateral level in conformity with the interests of Uzbekistan.
Russia’s more pragmatic policy also continues at the economic level. Moscow seems now more willing to entertain its relationship with the Central Asian states on the principles of equality. Thus, since 1999, the purchases of cotton from Uzbekistan have been paid according to the free market prices. Russia agreed also in November 1999 to halve its transit taxes. However, sometimes Russia prefers short-term cooperation to longer and more expensive investment. This position, which takes into consideration the immediate mutual interests, also shows the limits of Russian engagement.
2. The U.S. Role
The U.S. policy in Central Asia is based on searching for several aims: strategic (to benefit from Russian withdrawal, to limit the influence of Iran, to promote the role of Turkey, to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction), political (to encourage democratic government, to maintain stability in the area, to support the development of common solidarity, to combat drug trafficking and terrorism), economic (to support the development of the energy resources and free market economies).10 But the main drivers of U.S. policy consist of gaining access to the region’s energy resources and pipeline investments for U.S. companies and reducing the U.S. dependence on Persian Gulf energy supplies. Depending on the status of relations with Russia, Turkey, and Iran, U.S. policy interests in the region could also be shaped by a desire to contain one and reward another.
In its relationship with the Central Asian states, the U.S. was initially to support the reforms, and then to encourage the military cooperation.
From Support for the Reforms to Security Cooperation
Shortly after the Central Asian states’ independence, the United States supported the promotion of the political and economic reforms. In October 1992, the Congress adopted the Freedom Support Act defining the base of cooperation with these newly independent states intended to support their transition to democracy (to support legal reform, development of the political parties and organization of free elections).
Later, the U.S. realized the importance of security as a factor of stability.11 The countries of Central Asia thus could take part in the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program created by the NATO members in January 1994 in order to participate in the common operations. Military-to-military contacts began to expand after all, and Tajikistan joined the PfP program. Through this mechanism, the Central Asian states’ contacts with Western military officials multiplied, and they began taking advantage of opportunities to gain technical assistance, training, and equipment from the NATO states. The cooperation was also extended within a bilateral framework, particularly with Uzbekistan. For instance, Washington has contributed actively to the reconstruction of Uzbek military by granting an assistance of 100 million dollars. Furthermore, the United States, which was particularly anxious about the possibility of nuclear proliferation inside the region and to other countries, was very pleased with the denuclearization of Kazakhstan in 1996.
The situation in Afghanistan during the Taliban era was another reason for reinforcing the security cooperation: during her visit to Central Asia in April 2000, Mrs. Madeleine Albright, the then U.S. Secretary of State, proposed for each visited state an amount of 3 million dollars as security assistance. This support, according to Madeleine Albright, was indented to “provide equipment and training to help Uzbekistan combat terrorism and the illicit trafficking of weapons of mass destruction, conventional arms and narcotics and the assistance will be provided through the State Department’s antiterrorist assistance program, non-proliferation export control and border security assistance programs and counter-narcotics and law enforcement training programs.”12 The same amount and type of assistance went also to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
U.S. Economic Relations with Central Asia
Over time, U.S. foreign policy has shifted toward economic issues, especially in the energy sector. The U.S. sought to gain access to the newly discovered oil reserves in the Caspian Sea and Central Asia in order to lessen its dependence upon Persian Gulf oil. Due to the substantial amount of region’s oil and gas reserves, Strobe Talbott, then Deputy Secretary of State, stressed conflict-resolution as “Job One” for U.S. foreign policy in the region.13 The resolution of conflicts in Central Asia and the Caucasus is considered essential to attract the much-needed foreign investment to develop and market these oil and gas resources. The U.S. companies are particularly present in the oil sector, for example Chevron in Tengiz, Exxon Mobil in the Okiok consortium in charge of the exploitation of the Caspian offshore oil. Washington’s underlying goal in Central Asia has been the creation of a stable political and economic climate favorable for American economic interests.
3. The Role of Regional Powers
The main policy of the other regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, and China is based on promoting the Central Asian governments’ aspirations for more independence, as an essential condition to extend their own sphere of influence in the region.
The example of Turkey seems particularly significant in this regard. Turkey was among the first countries to recognize the independence of Central Asian states, and over time, relations intensified in diplomatic, political and economic areas.14 In its first steps, the Turkish government showed great ambitions in Central Asia by trying to extend its linguistic and cultural relations with the area. But very soon it realized that the relations mainly based on “pan-Turkism” did not have the expected results and never prevented the new republics from insisting on their own national interests. That is why, since 1994, Turkey has adopted a more pragmatic position.
Today, Turkey’s policy focuses on the economic cooperation with Central Asia.15 Turkey, like many other countries, developed interests in the vast energy resources of the region. It has a fast-growing demand for energy consumption domestically and sees additional revenue opportunities in the transportation of these resources to world markets through its territory. In addition, the Turkish companies are present in Central Asia, in particular in certain sectors such as construction.
The cultural relations constitute the other priority of the Turkish diplomacy in this region: the creation of an agency of cooperation with Central Asian countries as well as the annual offer of scholarships to Central Asian scholars and students show the Turkish generous cultural policy pursued with respect to these countries. Beyond cultural cooperation, the Turkish model of development of state based on secularity can also constitute a reference for the new republics.
Recently, due to the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States and the U.S.-led military operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan, there has been a shift from an agenda dominated by economic, cultural and social factors toward a more marked military character. In fact, Turkey’s bilateral military contacts with countries in the region began well before NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, which provided the multilateral framework for military cooperation. Within this context, Turkey continues to provide military assistance to most of the region’s countries, especially in areas such as the training of military officers and students. Each year, large numbers of students are trained in Turkish Military Academies, while others receive Turkish language training. Turkey’s military presence in the region with western allies will give it a chance to improve and intensify relations with other Central Asian countries.
Iran initially tried to resort to diplomacy based on ideological principles. But subsequently Tehran, like Ankara, redefined its approach and pursued a more pragmatic policy. From this position, Iran has had some success in projecting a more positive image in the region. It has been quite careful not to give the image of trying to destabilize the region by its revolutionary rhetoric. In this, Iran’s close relationship with Russia and understanding regarding preservation of stability on the southern border of the Russian Federation have played an important part.
It must be kept in mind that Iran had the longest border with the U.S.S.R. and expanded cultural, historical, and ethnic relations with many of the republics that have recently become independent in the southern part of the former Soviet Union. Therefore, Iran in particular, has been influenced by these changes. As a matter of fact, an important part of Iran’s foreign policy during the past few years has been directed toward safeguarding Iran’s security and interests against the potential negative changes that have been taking place in the northern neighboring countries.
Moreover, Iran’s long contiguous border with Central Asia and the Caucasus provided it with an unavoidable geographic advantage over Turkey. In addition to convenient land access to the outside world bypassing Russia, Iran offers different alternatives for transferring the region’s oil and gas resources to world markets. Already, agreements have been signed between Iran and Turkmenistan on the construction of a pipeline for Turkmen natural gas and between Kazakhstan and Iran on an oil swapping arrangement.16
However, Iran’s endeavor to expand ties with the newly independent countries has some limits. It is first of all confronted with the presence of the U.S., whose policy is to a great extent based on preventing and curbing Iran’s influence in the region. It is also affected by the policies and activities of Russia and other regional countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, and Israel and even some Arab countries. Another influential factor is the mutual ties between Iran and the Central Asian states. Although many of the Central Asian states have positive viewpoints regarding Iran and welcome expanded political and economic ties with Tehran, they, highly influenced by current international and regional policies, sometimes consider Iran as a potential threat. For a period of time Iran’s relations with Uzbekistan deteriorated because of the latter’s concern over claimed Iranian intervention in its internal affairs. Uzbekistan was reported also to have supported U.S. drive to impose a comprehensive trade ban on Iran. So far, these factors have become a barrier and hindered Iran in reaching its goals. These factors will continue to influence Iran’s ties with the Central Asia countries. In this process, the relationships between these countries and Russia and the U.S. will also be important and determining factors.
Moreover, the domestic changes and events occurring in these regional countries will also affect the nature of Iran’s relationship with them. This is especially true that such changes will influence the policies adopted by the political leaders of the regional governments. Consequently, the future of Iran’s ties with Central Asia depends greatly on the course these countries choose. Finally, the changes that have occurred in the ties between Iran and the main actors on the international and regional scene will influence its relations with the Central Asia states.
China has a relatively important role in the Central Asian region. The Chinese strategy toward the region is to ensure that the Central Asian states will have no fear of the Chinese military power, while seeking to extend the relationship with these independent states in political, security and economic spheres.
China’s primary aspiration that motivates Chinese policy toward Central Asia is related to the stability in Xinjiang, the northwest province of China that borders Central Asia and is home to an Islamic indigenous Uighur population.17 The Chinese leadership thinks that this area has the potential to destabilize the situation in China by seeking independence. Intending to maintain stability in Xinjiang, Beijing wanted to be sure that the Uighur separatists did not have any support from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. That is why the settlement of the boundary dispute inherited from Soviet times was a priority; finding solution to this problem was one of the aims of the SCO created in 1996 by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In fact, within the SCO, China and the Central Asian countries agreed to collaborate on trade, energy issues, and the delineation of borders, and China pledged to supply economic and military aid to Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. In return, all Central Asian leaders agreed to support China’s efforts to suppress Uighur nationalist organizations in their own countries.18
China has also an important position in the Central Asian economy, especially in the energy sector. Motivated by its increasing demand for energy, China has already begun to invest heavily in the oil-rich states of Central Asia. Chinese investments have increased rapidly after 1997 when the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) acquired the right to develop two potentially lucrative oilfields in Kazakhstan. In exchange for development rights, CNPC is committed to build pipelines to Xinjiang to enable the large-scale export of up to 50 million tonnes per year of Kazakh oil to China. Feasibility studies are also underway for the construction of over 3,000 kilometers of gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Xinjiang. These Chinese investments will have fundamental impact on regional infrastructure and the economic development of Central Asian states, and it will also lessen the dependence on Russia and western governments for transport routes of Central Asian oil and gas.
China has already granted loans to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan to import Chinese goods. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation has established commercial centers in several cities in Central Asia with the specific purpose to increase trade between China and the Central Asian states.19
For the Central Asian states too, China represents a dynamic and accessible export market and a vital non-Russian conduit through which the region can move goods to the broader international market. China’s geographic proximity to the region is significant, and ethnic ties between Central Asia and minority populations in Xinjiang, now free to reestablish contacts after decades of enforced separation, will also increase China’s interaction with the region. The smaller Central Asian countries on China’s border—Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—are the most likely candidates to remove from Russia’s sphere of influence by expanding cooperation with China. This process may already be evident in Kyrgyzstan. During the past decade, China was Kyrgyzstan’s largest official export market and one of the largest official sources of imports.20 Some observers note that China is in a position to dominate Kyrgyzstan’s economy within the next years if unofficial trade is counted.21 China also offers Kyrgyzstan the commercial cooperation between the border regions. For this purpose, an official delegation from the Kyzyl-Sui Autonomous Region of China visited Bishkek in February 2002. This visit has already opened another new channel for the development of the economic and commercial links between China and Kyrgyzstan.22
Although China’s main policy priorities involve avoiding instability in the region, securing access to energy resources, and expanding economic cooperation, Beijing is unlikely to employ political or military coercion in pursuit of its interests in Central Asia. Now, there is no need for China to do so. Moreover, whether China could bring sufficient military or political pressure to bear on an individual Central Asian republic is open to question. Despite its growth since 1991, China’s political influence in Central Asia remains modest. China’s military can suppress separatist elements in Xinjiang, but it would face tremendous difficulties in trying to exercise power across its rugged Central Asian border. Of course, this situation will change as China’s economy continues to grow and its military modernization progresses.
At first glance, history and geography seem to dictate the rules of the “Great Game” to Central Asia and make the region to remain a sphere of the great powers’ influences and of external competition. However, the new independent states knew how to benefit from the great powers’ competition and come out from their sphere of influences. They have made significant move toward political independence and economic stability. Their political independence has been established, and their northern neighbor would be unable to reestablish its domination. They have also begun to renovate their military and defense structures and move slowly toward diversifying their security partners. They have made high-profile moves toward cooperative regional structures, notably the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Aral Sea water management and Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) program. Central Asia has become a far more stable region than many observers believed possible at the time that these states emerged on the international scene.
Of course, many constraints still continue to weigh on the independent states: lack of market access, serious institutional weaknesses, ethnic strife, enforced migration, economic deprivation, widespread unemployment and so on, provide tremendous challenges to each of the Central Asian states. These internal challenges are greatly complicated by the external regional environment influenced not only by Russian-American competition but also by the activities of China and other regional neighbors.
Although Russia no longer dictates developments in Central Asia, it is at the same time unwilling, or unable, to fully withdraw from the region. The Russian government believes that it must continue to defend Central Asia’s borders in order to keep Russia itself safe. In part, this is because millions of ethnic Russians still live in these countries and the Russian government is not willing to abandon these people to whatever fate may have in store for them. Russia is also attentive to its own Muslim population, and has a desire to remain on good terms with the Central Asian states to appease a Muslim and not just a Russian political constituency. Nor Russia is willing to withdraw economically from Central Asia. Leaders in Moscow continue to assert their right to profit from Soviet-era investments made in this region and they are particularly eager to get access to the plentiful oil and gas reserves of the region. In addition, from the Russian point of view, what is most irritating is the growing U.S. presence in the region, through American military contacts and investment in the energy industry.
The U.S. bilateral and multilateral programs for military contacts, training, and assistance have grown rapidly. The Central Asian states welcomed the U.S. commercial and diplomatic presence, and—after some initial hesitation—they have also welcomed contacts with the U.S. military and various forms of its security assistance. Denuclearization, arms control, and help with defense conversion were important aspects of the early U.S. relationship with Kazakhstan. Military-to-military contacts began to expand with the Central Asian states within the NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. The investments of American companies particularly in the energy sector are another aspect of the U.S. presence in the region.
Central Asia’s nearest neighbors are also very interested in what goes on in this region. Turkey, Iran, and China’s political leaders all look carefully to the events in each of the Central Asian states. Turkey, seeing itself as a potential “big brother” to the Turkic states of Central Asia, expanded its political, economic, and cultural ties with the newly independent states. Turkey has become one of the important players in a region where it previously had only a marginal influence and no active involvement. Iran’s influence in Central Asia has been expanded during the last decade due to its important geopolitical situation, its expanded market and comparatively advanced communication network. Nevertheless, Iran’s ties with these countries have been highly affected by current international and regional policies as well as weaknesses such as deficient financial and technological resources. As far as China is concerned, given its geographic proximity and political dynamism, it should be no surprise that its political and economic role in Central Asia has expanded dramatically since 1991. China’s priorities consist of promoting economic cooperation, securing access to energy resources, and avoiding instability in the region, particularly in its province of Xinjiang.
In short, Turkey, Iran, and China, like the United States and Russia, not only consider Central Asia as a region of vast resources of oil and gas and as a new market of fifty million people, but also want to help these states secure their place as big powers. And of course, their influences create new opportunities as well as new challenges to the Central Asian governments. How each state of Central Asia is able to deal with interests and policies of outside powers and confront and resolve the internal problems will determine the region’s ability to emerge as a viable force in this struggle for power, in this new “Great Game.”
1 On 31 October, 2000, Kadir Gulomov, Minister of Defense of the Republic of Uzbekistan, spoke at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace about security challenges in Central Asia (see: “Regional Security Issues in Central Asia,” Meeting Report, Vol. 2, No. 8, 3 November, 2000).
2 See: D. Vertkin, “Prospects for Stability—The View from Kazakhstan,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, Vol. 6, No. 6, June 1994, p. 287.
3 See: A. Kortunov, Yu. Kulchik, A. Shumikhin, “Military Structures in Kazakhstan: Aims, Parameters, and Some Implications for Russia,” Comparative Strategy, Vol. 14, No. 3, July-September 1995, p. 306.
4 Kazakhstan signed a military agreement with China in the fall of 1997.
5Acceptance of the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s terms by the Kazakh government and a liquidation of nuclear weapons in the territory of Kazakhstan was the main attraction for the United States. At the same time, the nuclear weapons factor affected the extension of U.S.-Kazakh relations to the military field. The Charter on Democratic Partnership of 1994 can be seen as a continuation of the U.S.-Kazakh Agreement of 1992, which opened the way to developing bilateral military relations [http://www.freenet.kz/~alumni/doulatbek/book1/us-azakh_military_cooperation.htm].
6 See also: “Kazakhstan to Strengthen and Modernize Missile Troops, Artillery,” Interfax-Kazakhstan News Agency, 23 November, 2002.
7 Interfax-Kazakhstan News Agency, 3 December, 2002.
8 See: S. Blank, Energy, Economics, and Security in Central Asia: Russia and Its Rivals, Carlisle Barracks, Strategic Studies Institute, 1995; J. Snyder, “Russian Security Interests on the Southern Periphery,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, Vol. 6, No. 12, December 1994, p. 551.
9 The treaty was originally signed in Uzbekistan in 1992, and was often referred to as the “Tashkent Treaty.”
10 See: J. Nichol, Central Asia’s New States: Political Developments and Implications for U.S. Interests, CRS Issue Brief for Congress, 18 May, 2001 [http://www.ncseonline.org/NLE/CRSreports/international/inter-26.cfm?&CFID=6369808&CFTOKEN=46829712].
11 See: S.J. Blank, U S. Military Engagement with Transcaucasia and Central Asia, Carlisle Barracks, Strategic Studies Institute, June 2000.
12 B. Pannier, “Central Asia: Albright Discusses Security and Other Issues”, RFE/RL, 20 April, 2000 [http://www.rferl.org/nca/features/2000/04/F.RU.000420133824.html].
14 See: Gareth M. Winrow, “Turkey and the Newly Independent States of Central Asia, Central Asia and the Transcaucasus,” Meria Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2, May 1997; Patricia M. Carley, “Turkey and Central Asia: Reality Comes Calling,” in: Alvin Z. Rubinstein and Oles M. Smolansky, Regional Power Rivalries in the New Eurasia: Russia, Turkey, and Iran, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., New York, 1995, pp. 169-197; Ph. Robins, “Between Sentiment and Self-Interest: Turkey’s Policy Toward Azerbaijan and the Central Asian States,” The Middle East Journal, No. 4, Fall 1993, pp. 593-610.
15 See: E. Urazova, “Trends in Turkey’s Economic Cooperation with Post-Soviet Turkic States,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 5 (11), 2001, pp. 114-121.
16 See also: Ch. Recknagel, “Iran: Khatami Tours Central Asia To Press For Iran Energy Routes, Lower U.S. Presence,” RFE/RL 25 April, 2002 [http://www.rferl.org/nca/features/2002/04/25042002095614.asp].
17 See: Lillian Craig Harris, “Xinjiang, Central Asia and the Implications for China’s Policy in the Islamic World,” The China Quarterly, No. 133, March 1993, p. 112.
18 BBC Monitoring, June 4, 2002; “China’s Islamic Concerns,” BBC News, 30 April, 2001 [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/monitoring/media_reports/1304652.stm].
19 See: N. Swanström, “China Conquers Central Asia Through Trade,” Analyst, The Johns Hopkins University, SAIS, Wednesday/11 April, 2001 [http://www.cacianalyst.org/April_11_2001/CHINA_CENTRAL_ASIA_11_april_2001.htm].
20 See: M. Burles, Chinese Policy Toward Russia and the Central Asian Republics, RAND, Santa Monica, California, 1999, p. 52 [http://www.rand.org].
21 See: Ibid., p. 53.
22 See: Iu. Razguliaev, Kitaiskie kirgizy vspomnili o svoei rodine, 7 February 2002 [http://pravda.ru/main/2002/02/07/36741.html].