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Central Asia: Russia Reduces Its Role

  • Stuart Parrott

London, 26 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A leading Central Asia analyst says Russia is in process of an "involuntary disengagement" from the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia -- Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

Lena Jonson, of Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs, says this disengagement arises from factors beyond Moscow's control, and partly reflects confusion over what constitutes Russia's interests in an area that it has long dominated.

Jonson spoke on the theme, "Russian-Central Asia: a Break with the Past", at a one-day conference on the future of the Central Asian region staged at Britain's Reading University.

Jonson focused on all aspects of the relationship -- commercial ties, military security, natural resources and cultural links.

Jonson said Moscow has failed to integrate the economies of the Central Asians with Russia, and that trade is decreasing as other commercial partners, including China, become more important. Hardly any Russian private capital is being invested in Central Asia.

She noted that the Central Asians, without national armies after the break-up of the Soviet Union, signed bilateral agreements with Russia on military cooperation and border defense. But there is now a trend toward a reduced Russian military presence.

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are determined to reduce their military dependence on Russia. Uzbekistan has created a strong national army and does not allow Russian troops on its soil. Turkmenistan wants its border to be policed by its own troops.

She said Kazakhstan still has close military cooperation with Russia but is also looking in other directions for security guarantees.

She noted that all the Central Asians, except Tajikistan, are members of NATO's 'Partnership for Peace' program.

She also said Russia is now only one of several actors involved in the exploitation of the region's huge energy reserves, and no longer has a monopoly over the transport of its oil and gas. International consortia have moved into the region, and contracts have been signed for new pipeline systems on routes other than across Russia.

"To the east through China, to the south through Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia, railroads and motorways are being extended with links to neighboring countries."

Turning to cultural issues, she said the Russian populations of the Central Asian countries will always guarantee Russian cultural influence, but this is now being reduced.

She said there are several factors behind the trend of Russian "involuntary disengagement" from the Central Asian region.

They include the determination of the Central Asians to become part of a larger international network; new interest in the region from foreign governments and companies; and the weakness of the Russian economy since the break-up of the Soviet Union.

She said Moscow is unable to find a policy that attracts the Central Asian states, and "has been confused over what constitutes Russian interests in Central Asia and how to pursue them."

She said Russia, which has regarded the Central Asians mainly from a strategic perspective, sees its own decreasing importance, and the bigger role of foreign powers, with concern. She said: "There is a strong tradition in Russia of understanding the world as a 'zero-sum game' -- that is, what is won by one side is lost by another."

But, lately, Moscow has moved away from its emphasis on political and military concerns, and has adopted a geo-economic strategy, involving a determination to compete with foreign investors to secure Russian control of Central Asian resources.

Still, she predicts that Russia's role in the Central Asian region will be much reduced, in part because Russian firms are not strong enough to compete with Western and Asian investors .