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Shifting Tides Of Influence In Central Asia

  • Bruce Pannier

A Kazakh-Chinese gas pipeline is unveiled in 2008. China is one of the key players seeking access to Central Asia's resources.

A Kazakh-Chinese gas pipeline is unveiled in 2008. China is one of the key players seeking access to Central Asia's resources.

Eighteen years after the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia became independent, outsiders continue to jockey for position in the traditional contest for influence in the region.

The great powers -- Russia, the United States, China, and Europe -- follow two main strategies to gain or hold sway in the region: the provision of mutual security, and the use of financial measures and trade incentives in exchange for access to enormous energy reserves.

The five states of Central Asia -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- are majority Muslim states that mark the northern limits of the Islamic world. To the south are Afghanistan and Iran, countries that outside actors and the Central Asian countries themselves view as potential sources of security problems.

Neighboring Russia and China, meanwhile, see Central Asia as a hotbed of movements linked with opposition elements within their own borders.

Central Asia's vast deposits of oil, natural gas, and uranium are the modern-day lures of a region that has an ancient history as a crossroads for trade between the East and the West. And the five nations are showing an increased readiness to play that role again, but are finding they can now demand security and trade partnerships in exchange.

Russian Influence Waning


Russia has traditionally been the biggest regional player, having controlled Central Asia for more than 100 years, and more than 200 years in some areas.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan became independent republics, but their longstanding ties to Moscow left them bound to Russia throughout the 1990s and into this decade.

But this is changing, as James Nixey, manager and research fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, points out.

"It's not just Russia as the key player in the region,” Nixey said. “The fact of the matter is this is a contested land, it's a fought-over land, and the other people of interest are, of course: China; India to a lesser extent; the EU to a lesser extent; and the U.S. to a considerable extent, in political, cultural, technological, military and of course energy spheres."

This interest from outsiders suits the Central Asian states, who understand that Russia will always be a key regional factor, but seek leverage to counter Moscow's traditional dominance.

The model of Central Asia's balancing act is Kazakhstan, which has long borders with China and Russia. During President Nursultan Nazarbaev's rule, Kazakhstan has managed to develop strong political and economic ties with both Western and East Asian nations, while maintaining excellent relations with Moscow and Beijing.

Matthew Clements, a country risk analyst for Eurasia at the London-based IHS Jane's analytical group, says that when it comes to gaining economic leverage, the other Central Asian states have learned from Kazakhstan.

"I think that the other states in the region are perhaps taking some notes from [Kazakhstan's foreign policy] and seeing that they also have some things to offer the West and China that can give them economic benefits.... Only having Russia as a customer, only having Russia as a partner, is limiting their ability to get the most from these deals," Clements said.

Security And Oil

A relative newcomer on the scene, the United States was among the first countries to open embassies in all five Central Asian states after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and U.S. companies quickly descended on the region. Chevron, for example, signed a joint partnership in 1993 with Kazakhstan to develop the enormous Tengiz oil field, among the top 10 producing fields in the world.

With a wary eye on fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Central Asian states have also established new security partnerships, primarily involving the Russia-dominated Collective Treaty Security Organization (CSTO), as well as the United States.

Since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Washington's primary interest in Central Asia has been cooperation in ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban and extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda.

The Central Asians were eager allies, remembering that Afghanistan's problems spilled into Central Asia several times in the 1990s. The U.S-led coalition was allowed to use bases in Kyrgyzstan (Manas), Tajikistan (Dushanbe), and Uzbekistan (Khanabad).

A weakened Moscow grudgingly accepted the U.S. military presence in what it considered its backyard. But as Russia gained strength, it worked to remove, or at least curtail, U.S. influence in the region.

Playing The Powers

An opportunity arose as some of the states of Central Asia began to test their abilities to play Moscow and Washington, and sometimes Beijing and Brussels, off each other to serve their individual needs.

In 2005, for example, after the U.S. joined Western criticism of the Uzbek government's handling of unrest in the eastern city of Andijon, Uzbek President Islam Karimov called for U.S. forces in Uzbekistan to depart, and quickly received the backing of Russia and China.

After a stalemate, the Uzbek president was invited to attend a 2008 NATO summit. By the end of the meeting Uzbekistan agreed to allow NATO forces to use Uzbekistan's roads to bring nonlethal supplies to Afghanistan, and those shipments started a few weeks ago.

Additionally, a German-run base at the Uzbek border town of Termez was expanded, and U.S. military cargo planes now appear cleared to use the Navoi airport in northern Uzbekistan.

As the Kyrgyz government faced growing discontent over the social and economic situation earlier this year, President Kurmanbek Bakiev announced during a trip to Moscow that U.S. forces had six months to vacate Manas International Airport, a key part of Washington's war effort in Afghanistan.

At the same time, the Kyrgyz president announced that Russia had pledged to provide a $2 billion aid package for cash-strapped Kyrgyzstan.

After months of wrangling, the United States announced in June that it was prolonging its contract for using Manas. Under the new deal, Washington agreed to triple its annual lease payment (to $60 million) and to spend some $100 million more for airport improvements and programs to combat narcotics trafficking and terrorism.

Later that month, the Russian newspaper "RBK Daily" wrote that "despite $2 billion Moscow promised it, Kyrgyzstan never ordered the U.S. Air Force base in Bishkek shut down."

Beyond help with training, however, the United States is not in Central Asia to guarantee security against terrorism or extremism within the states' borders. That remains Russia's role, primarily through the CSTO, to which all the Central Asian states except Turkmenistan belong. Armenia and Belarus are the remaining members.

Russia currently has one military base in Tajikistan and operates an air base in northern Kyrgyzstan, specifically designated for counterterrorism operations. On August 1, Russia signed an agreement to open a new military base in Kyrgyzstan during an informal CSTO summit.

"In essence, this is not a Russian base. These are efforts in line with CSTO plans to set up a joint rapid reaction force," high-ranking Kremlin aide Sergei Prikhodko announced just days ahead of the July 31-August 1 meeting.

The summit has been dubbed informal, apparently due to uncertainty over whether Uzbekistan would attend the meeting. Uzbekistan and Belarus each declined to sign crucial documents on creating a CSTO rapid-reaction force earlier this year.

Tashkent's interest in the CSTO has waned noticeably since last November, when Russia refused to side with Uzbekistan in Central Asia's ongoing debate on regional water use.

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