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Caucasus/Central Asia: Study Considers Western Influence 'Mixed' Success

  • Ben Partridge



A new study focuses on the expansion of Western influence in the Caucasus and Central Asian nations since their independence in 1991. In the first of two stories on this topic, NCA correspondent Ben Partridge finds the region has proved more resistant to the West's political and economic agenda than had been foreseen.

London, 2 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- An Oxford professor, Neil MacFarlane, has recently considered the question of Western influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In a study entitled Western Engagement in the Caucasus and Central Asia, MacFarlane ponders how successful Western efforts in the region have been since the end of the Cold War. He concludes it's been a mixed bag.

The study focuses on the three South Caucasus nations, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and the five Central Asian states, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,

In the Soviet era, many outsiders saw this region as "terra incognita," or unknown territory, because it lay behind one of the longest and most tightly sealed borders in the world. It was largely cut off from the political, economic and cultural influences of the West.

Since 1991, a wide array of Western state, inter-governmental and non-state organizations have expanded into the region. Western diplomats, businessmen, advisers and consultants have arrived in droves. The extent of this western penetration is reflected in growing diplomatic links, bilateral political relations, trade and investment ties, and military and other exchanges.

Interested governments include those of the US and the EU, regional agencies include the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe and, to a lesser extent, NATO; and NGOs include human rights and other groups.

OSCE spokeswoman Melissa Fleming says her organization, which seeks diplomatic solutions to regional conflicts and encourages free and fair elections, has been playing an ever-greater role.

"It's continuously increasing. We have always been involved in the Caucasus, in particular by trying to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. We have been heavily involved in Georgia, in the conflict over South Ossetia. We have a quite active mission in Georgia. We just actually last week opened an office in Armenia and we will be doing the same in Azerbaijan. And we have similar offices in each of the Central Asian states."

The study poses a fundamental question: why are all these western organizations drawn to this relatively remote and landlocked region? A short answer is that independence for the region's republics coincided with optimism in the West as to the triumph of Western modes of governance and management of the economy. The end of the Cold War, and the resolution of the conflict between two competing social systems, was seen as an emphatic victory for the West's credo of democracy and economic liberalism.

Many assumed that the Western model could be transferred, not only to the newly free states of Central and Eastern Europe, but also to the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union.

Accordingly, the former Soviet Union was "perceived to be a new frontier for the propagation of the 'Western way.'" Hence Western organizations and agencies have been pressing a political agenda aimed at making the former Soviet republics 'more like the West.'

Western preoccupation with the region partly reflects a growing interest in its energy resources, a recognition of its geo-political significance, a desire to balance Russian influence, and also to help a region that could be a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism.

Western politicians and officials have been urging Caucasus and Central Asian leaders to embrace democratization, the rule of law, economic reform, the concept of civil society, and the integration of the region into global economic structures. Western state and private commercial concerns have pursued their own economic agenda: above all, access to the Caspian region's oil and gas.

Many former Soviet republics perceive the engagement of these western organizations as one way to balance what the study calls the "otherwise overpowering Russian influence in their affairs."

But, despite US and EU efforts on this score, many in the Russian elite see the maintenance on Western influence on the former Soviet south as an effort to displace Russia and, thus, a strategic threat.

But OSCE officials are surprised by claims in the new study that many Russians see organizations like their own as "stalking horses," or screens behind which the West's real intentions are concealed.

"We have never actually had any complaint from Russia. In fact, they are very pleased that we are in many of the countries that were their former territory . . . So I would say quite generally that we have very good support from Russia, and we need Russian support in order to be successful in these areas."

Leaving aside the geopolitical dimension, the study poses the question: after almost a decade of engagement, to what extent has the western agenda been realized in the Caucasus and Central Asia?

The study comes to a somewhat pessimistic conclusion. It says, in 1999, much of the early optimism of the post-independence era has been lost as states and societies have "turned out to be more resistant to . . . the Western agenda than had been foreseen."

The situation differs from country to country. But, in general, there has been little real movement towards democracy. The rule of law is often notional. Political parties and legislatures remain weak, structures of power tend to be personalized, and judicial structures are arbitrary and often used for political purposes. The rights of the media and individuals are frequently violated.

Movements in directions favored by the West have been more substantial in the economic sphere although reform has been slow and hampered by institutional resistance and corruption. But the region's states have, on the whole, made some progress in economic stabilization, privatization, and on market legislation and regulation.

Still, the study concludes that the record of Western engagement in the Caucasus and Central Asian countries has been "mixed and ambiguous" and has failed to meet the early hopes of the optimists.

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