Central Asia and the global agenda

11 December 2007

Dmitri Trenin, Deputy Director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, speaking at a Policy Dialogue organised as part of the EPC-Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF) ‘Asian Voices in Europe’ series, said that 16 years ago, when the Soviet Union was disintegrating, no one expected its 15 constituent republics to survive.

At the time, the five Central Asian Republics were considered “candidates for state failure”, yet 16 years later they have evolved into fully-fledged states. Some, for example, Kazakhstan, take an active role in foreign affairs, while others, like Turkmenistan have vast gas and oil reserves.

Russia and its successor, the Soviet Union, was an empire for over 500 years, and was expected to reconstitute itself as an empire in the next few years. However, this never happened, partly because of the rise of these “Stans” into new states and partly because Russia prefers to act as a great power, not an empire.

When Russia was trying to “wriggle out of the shell” of the Soviet Union, it decided to rid itself of any baggage, including the Central Asian Republics, hoping that afterwards it would be ready to “march into Europe or the West”, said Mr Trenin.

However, as the Kremlin’s illusions about integrating with the West on its own terms were dispelled, it adopted a policy of “limited integration” with these Republics - wanting them to remain loyal, but without any policies on what to do next.

This approach of inaction while retaining control over this territory ended in the wake of 9/11, when Russian President Vladimir Putin acquiesced to US requests to house military forces in the region as part of operations to defeat Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. He did so fearing that otherwise these Republics would transfer their allegiance to the West, even though having US forces in the southern portion of the former USSR was a threat to Russia’s national security.

The situation changed again between 2003 and 2005 when Russia began to see itself once more as a great power, so it “decoupled” from the West, with the intention of easing the US out of the region. Russia had been a founding member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) - comprising Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - and in 2005, it prompted the SCO to issue a statement denouncing the military presence in the region and requesting the US to withdraw.

Russia now views Central Asia both as an important energy resource and part of a strategic axis, so, given the security risks in the region, takes these countries more seriously.

Eugene Rumer, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies at the National Defence University in Washington DC, agreed that the Central Asian Republics were maturing beyond expectations, surprising many academics.

Immediately after the break-up of the USSR, Russia was concerned about bringing back parts of the nuclear programme from Kazakhstan to Russia, while the US wanted to expand the frontiers of freedom, democracy and markets, and put funds into the region.

Ironically, the Central Asian Republics were disappointed that Washington’s main concern was to establish the region as a “power-free zone”, rather than becoming an imperial power, as they would have welcomed a powerful US presence in the region. However, Washington preferred to see a stable region with good links to the outside world.

Later, as the US became more concerned with seeking oil resources and with other priorities, its interest in these Republics waned.

Mr Rumer agreed that all this changed after 9/11, given Washington’s need to establish a military presence in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The subsequent downfall of the regime in Afghanistan established US strategic domination in the region, displacing Russia and China.

Events in the region continued to be turbulent, said Mr Rumer, with the US pressing for reform and the development of a market economy, leading to revolutions - such as the Tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan - and counter-revolutions. Following brutal government repression of opposition in Uzbekistan, the US turned away from the region, showing the regimes that they could no longer rely on American support.

Mr Rumer believed that policies in the region had come full circle: George W. Bush’s administration feels that little is going to come out of its dealings with the Republics, so has turned to other parts of Asia. Russia, on the other hand, is now resurgent, and China has much greater economic and strategic power in the region. “Geography will determine its destiny,” he concluded.

Pierre Morel, EU Special Representative for Central Asia, acknowledged that the Union had only rather belatedly understood what was happening in the region, and that the five Central Asian Republics were disappointed that neither European countries nor the US had taken up the opportunities offered for partnership at the beginning of the 1990s. However, the EU has in fact been present in the region for many years, carrying out a poverty alleviation programme in Kyrgyzstan.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the EU found itself marginalised in the region, with the ascendance of Turkey and the overwhelming presence of Turkish businesses in Turkmenistan, and later the return of Russia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

The 2005 January embargo on Russian gas passing through Ukraine was the final “wake-up call” for the EU, which began to understand the region’s potential importance as an energy supplier or conduit, said Mr Morel. The EU’s new strategy accepts Central Asia is an opportunity which warrants long-term investment and support.

Creating the position of EU Special Representative in 2005 provided a second opportunity for positive engagement, he said, and the EU’s Regional Strategy Paper on assistance to Central Asia (CA RSP), adopted at the 2006 June European Council, laid out the programme. Its scope ranges from helping to develop the region’s oil and gas resources and uranium mining to drawing up strategies to meet current threats, such as military instability, environmental fragility and the growing drug threat, particularly increased heroin production.

These are not failed states, but “states in construction”, he insisted. They need institutional reinforcement for long-term stability, and most of the EU budget over the next seven years is going into integrated regional programmes. This will include supporting the rule of law, education, building up water and hydro-electricity networks and the Internet, and supporting dialogue between the cultures.

The EU has moved beyond “the great game” formula, said Mr Morel. Events in the region are not a revival of the past, and outside powers must treat the region with a mixture of competition and cooperation in future. It is important to create a triangle of Russia, the EU and the Central Asian Republics, based on a nucleus of common interests such as fighting terrorism and drugs, creating political stability and developing energy resources.