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Central Asia: Book Examines Failing Russian Dominance

  • Ben Partridge

London, 6 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A new book says Russia's financial crisis, which erupted in August 1998, will speed up what the author calls Moscow's "involuntary disengagement" from Central Asia, hastening a process that began after the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union.

The study also says that the influence of Russia, the dominant power in Central Asia for more than a century, is waning relative to other powers -- such as China, the U.S., and European Union nations.

"Russia and Central Asia: A New Web of Relations" was written by Lena Jonson, a senior research fellow at both the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm and the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. It was published in Britain last month.

The book examines the rapidly changing political scene in five Central Asian nations -- Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. It focuses on the impact on these new nations of Russia's economic crisis following last year's devaluation of the ruble, its default on internal debt and moratorium on repayment of foreign debt.

The study notes that Central Asian leaders initially played down the effects of the Russian crisis on their own economies. Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev said the two countries' financial systems "divorced long ago" and that the Russian ruble accounted for only 7 percent of commercial transactions with his country.

But if the Russian crisis continues, the effects on the Central Asian economies may be much more significant. In a bid to defend their economies, the five states are expected, in the book's phrase, to further "reorient their external economic relations away from Russia."

Jonson writes: "By the time Russia regains any strength, the Central Asian states will already have secured a considerably more diverse set of external relations with Asian and Western countries."

She says that Central Asian leaders are reaching outwards, stressing they will strike deals with whomever offers the best commercial conditions. This is a radical departure for a landlocked region long sealed behind the Soviet border and, for even longer, regarded as Russia's "near abroad."

The study notes that foreign capital from Europe, the U.S. and Asia is being invested in all the Central Asian states -- particularly in the rich oil and gas fields of the Caspian Sea region. By mid-1997, Kazakhstan, the largest Central Asian nation, had the fifth largest foreign-investment inflow of all post-communist countries, in per capita terms ranking second only to Hungary.

Uzbekistan, with the largest population in Central Asia, also has pressed ahead with a drive to seek Western investment. It is no longer reliant on Russian energy imports, having laid 1,000 kilometers of fuel pipelines a year and sharply cut domestic consumption.

China is a growing market for Central Asia, especially for Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Last year, China became Kyrgyzstan's largest trade partner with an estimated 30 percent share of its total trade (in 1995, China was only in fifth place as a trade partner). China has also risen to second place in its share of overall Kazakh exports, chiefly raw materials and technical equipment.

The diversification of Central Asia's trade and other links is being accelerated by the extension of railways and roads that connect with its neighbors to the east and south -- China and Iran.

There are also ambitious plans for modernizing and extending existing railroad systems to link Europe and Asia, by a so-called "Trans-Asian Railway" from China's Yellow Sea port of Lianyungang in the east to the Dutch port of Rotterdam in the west (via Urumchi, Almaty, Tashkent, Ashgabat, Istanbul and Budapest). This project forms part of a larger Eurasian transport and energy corridor made up of interlocking ferries, pipelines and communications systems.

The Central Asian states have stepped up cooperation among themselves as well. In 1994, the Central Asian Union (CAU) was created by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan joined last year but Turkmenistan still remains outside. Russia has observer status. The objective of the CAU is to create a common political, economic, and cultural space through regional integration.

An agreement on a Central Asian Economic Union (CAEU) was signed and a Central Asian Bank for Cooperation and Development set up. In December 1997, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan agreed to establish a what they called "a common economic space."

Jonson notes that the leaders of the CAU countries say the organization is only a sub-grouping within the CIS, but it "is obvious they also view it as an alternative to the stagnating CIS."

The Central Asian states are stepping up cooperation with CIS states other than Russia. Ukraine and Georgia have been active in developing relations with the region. Both are interested in energy deliveries along alternative routes to the Russian ones.

The book says that the U.S. is among the countries now playing a pivotal role in Central Asia. In 1997, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott declared the entire Caucasus and Central Asia to be of strategic interest to the U.S.

The book also says that all the Central Asian states appear to share Kazakh Foreign Minister Tokayev's words that while "we give priority to our relations with Russia, China and other neighboring states...we are interested in having the U.S. presence strengthened."

With regard to military issues, too, the Central Asian states are searching for wider international structures and the means of decreasing their dependence on Russia. All except Tajikistan became members of NATO's Partnership for Peace program in 1996.

Jonson concludes that a new network of international relations is evolving as the Central Asian states try to diversify their foreign relations. She writes: "A new map of political cooperation is thus developing on former Soviet territory beyond Russian control, with sub-groupings being created and contacts and exchange schemes developing with non-neighboring countries."

Her study argues that the trend toward involuntary Russian disengagement is reflected in the commercial, military, security and cultural fields. They can be summarized as follows:

-- The relative importance of trade between Russia and the Central Asian states is decreasing as other trading partners become more important. Hardly any Russian private capital, other than in the energy sector, is being invested in Central Asia.

-- Left without national armies after the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian states signed bilateral agreements with Russia on military cooperation and border defense. But there is now a trend toward a diminished Russian military presence.

-- The Russian population in Central Asia will always guarantee a degree of Russian cultural presence. But as the Russian population shrinks, and Central Asian governments promote their own cultural heritage, Russian cultural influence in time will be reduced.

-- Russia's role in the exploitation of oil and gas is being reduced to that of only one among several players. Russia still controls the pipeline system, but agreements are being signed for new systems to be built along routes that do not cross Russia.

The book says Russia is still the strongest foreign power in the region but that its influence is waning relative to other countries, a development that may be seen as a natural process following the 1991 break-up of the Soviet empire. It concludes: "For Russia, it is a painful experience. Just how radical a break with the past it will be and how marginalized Russia will become in Central Asia's politics are as yet unknown. Both are contingent on Russia's capability to adapt to the new situation."