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Russia's In The Driver's Seat, But China's Buying The Car

Is the writing on the wall for Russia's dominance of Central Asia -- no matter what Vladimir Putin may say?

Is the writing on the wall for Russia's dominance of Central Asia -- no matter what Vladimir Putin may say?

"Qishloq Ovozi" is pleased to once again feature the work of one of the up-and-coming authorities in Central Asia, Casey Michel. He has written a number of recent works on Central Asia's relationship with Russia and especially with China and he presents his views on the topic here for visitors to "Qishloq Ovozi." I will also mention Casey is studying at Columbia University and is in "one of the world's leading academic institutions devoted to Russian, Eurasian and East European studies," the Harriman Institute, both of which I am also very familiar with myself. -- Bruce Pannier

Outside the Russian Embassy in Bishkek, along one of the city's main thoroughfares, workers recently pasted a dozen bright, yellow pages for passersby to take in. The pages carried the transcript of Russian President Vladimir Putin's July 1 foreign-policy speech, cropped with photos of Putin beaming alongside Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, all formalizing the nascent Eurasian Union, all caught in the splendor of posed, postured celebration.

The speech presented Putin's latest and clearest attempt at formulating his foreign-policy theses: delineating notions of a "Russian world," detailing participating nations and ethnicities, and highlighting the responsibilities thrust upon a willing Kremlin. "I would like to make it clear to all," Putin's words read, "that our country will continue to actively defend the rights of Russians, our compatriots abroad, using the entire range of available means -- from political and economic to operations under international humanitarian law and the right of self-defense."

All means, as Putin relays, remain available to Moscow -- all methods to shield any who would wish to be part of this "Russky Mir" (Russian world). Economic pressure. Military presence. Protection from Western encroachment and the Russophobic masses, by any means necessary.

Indeed, the claim -- delimited by neither ethnicity nor border, but simply by putative desire -- is a remarkable one. Its neo-imperialistic subtext seethes through the transcript.

And its timing could not be more fortuitous, or necessary, for the Kremlin. For while Putin's words permit the protection of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, it is also a reminder Russia still views the wider post-Soviet space as the backyard it once maintained -- and that Central Asia continues to play an essential role in that worldview.

That the Kremlin would aim such rhetoric toward the five Central Asian republics is, on its face, perhaps a bit quizzical. After all, the Kremlin's leverage with the region remains far from insubstantial. Kazakhstan boasts nearly 4 million ethnic Russians, and remains the only country to have joined Russia in labeling Ukraine's Euromaidan revolution a "coup." Moscow also continues to maintain military bases in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, providing Russia with its greatest projection of hard power.

And the staggering remittance rates within those two countries only add to Russian supremacy -- all the more evidenced by a pair of laws recently proposed in Kyrgyzstan labeling certain NGOs as "foreign agents" and criminalizing homosexual "propaganda," which have come under the guise of Russian precedent.

Likewise, Russian media predominates through the region, painting Ukraine as the mecca of mayhem and the Maidan protesters -- just as those along Moscow's Bolotnaya Square in 2011-12 -- as foreign infiltrators, rather than as any homegrown discontent. It is little surprise to pass newspapers in Central Asia blaring on about the "Amerikansky Sektor," detailing all the ways Washington has founded and funded the expansive, marauding fascists of Right Sector now barreling through Kyiv.

All of this, too, is happening while the Americans finally uproot from the Manas Transit Center, departing their most substantive foothold in the region. While rumors abound of potential new military installations in the region, the reality remains that, as of July 11, the United States' presence in Central Asia has all but evaporated.

On its face, Russia stands resurgent in Central Asia. And with Putin now as the defender of post-Soviet sovereignty -- as the only wall between remaining civilization and Europe's fascistic, libertine waves -- it is Russia that stands as protector moving forward. This, as Putin notes, is Russia's right. This is its "droit de seigneur" (right of the lord).

And that may be true. But this is where the timing of the speech comes into play. For while Russia does maintain a series of levers in the region -- cultural, economic, militaristic -- these levers will not remain in perpetuity. Indeed, these are levers that, in the end, have a far shorter shelf life than Putin would wish, or Russia will claim.

But their decay is not due to any Western-backed "banderovtsi" or post-ISAF Afghan spillover; rather, Russia's regional hegemony comes with an expiration date due to the swell of its neighbor to the east. China doesn't yet dictate Central Asia's direction and sway, but, gaming certain trends out, it seems but a matter of time before Russia is forced to fold its faltering cards.

Central Asia, after all, presents the only amicable stretch of its border China currently maintains. The concerns around China's eastward squabbles are mirrored by the amity Beijing has found in its western neighbors. Tethered by parallel governing structures -- far closer to despotic mercantilism than maturing democracy -- China and Central Asia have grown steadily closer over the past decade, such that Beijing now dominates the trade turnover in the region far more than any other individual country, grabbing the title Russia once maintained.

And there is no reason to think this relationship will do anything but flourish moving forward. As detailed elsewhere, the energy rapport between China and Central Asia has both degraded Russia's position in carbon-based supremacy and allowed China an excuse to lend its finances toward Central Asia's infrastructural upkeep over the past few years.

Where U.S. and Russian expertise once vied for contracts, energy fields and pipelines now come online in Central Asia with an increasing Chinese clip. These projects culminated in the Chinese-Central Asia gas network that will stitch all the states together -- as well as provide China with nearly half of the natural gas it can realistically get in the near future, and far more than what Russia will be able to either provide or allocate.

Meanwhile, where Russian-led regional gatherings have seemingly existed solely for scrapbooks and empty arrangements, Chinese efforts at regional integration have only gathered pace. While the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and CIS muddle through and slough participants, and while the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) stands as a shell of what Putin had planned, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) expands and influences commensurately. Fyodor Lukyanov, one of the preeminent Russian analysts, gave voice to such reality recently, describing the SCO -- not the CSTO, nor the EEU – as "the most representative and influential structure" in Eurasia last month.

And the recent Chinese-led Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia, a heretofore underwhelming assembly, gained sudden notoriety when Beijing managed to ink a series of economic and environmental deals with Central Asia recently, with its energy expansion trundling forward through the region.

China's "March Westward," to be sure, isn't solely necessitated by the economic potential of the partnership. The security threats from and through Xinjiang provided rationale for Chinese expansionism, and as Xinjiang's tensions flare -- five years after the massive riots raced through the region, East Turkestan is once more seeing a substantial spike in ethnic targeting -- there seems little reason to believe China's security impetus would recede in the foreseeable future.

Central Asia's security concerns remain enmeshed in Russian pledges, and are almost certain to remain so. However, not only will such provisions remain a drain on the withering Russian economy, but China's ability to project securitization -- and their desire to do so, especially with NATO's Afghanistan pullout -- will remain, and swell.

But the factors pushing Central Asia toward China, rather than toward a wilting Russia, aren't solely economic or security-based. Unfortunately for the Kremlin, Russia's leadership saw fit to publicly, and remarkably, question the notions of post-Soviet boundaries, basing rationale around their self-appointed eminence.

And as Putin's July 1 speech illustrated, such rationale has not faded. Ignoring the economic and geopolitical repercussions, the Kremlin has extended its notion of right and might to any ethnicity, any "compatriot," so desiring Russian protection.

Central Asian leadership and elites are, understandably, shaken by this reality. As well they should be. While distance and degree remain between the Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan stands far closer to Moscow than Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan -- the reality continues: Putin has granted himself the right to intervene in any post-Soviet states' internal dynamics, so long as theoretical demand stands. While the "basmachi" and liberal usurpers haven't yet arrived, it would not, presumably, take much push for them to be provided -- say, following succession questions in Kazakhstan, or among certain secessionists in Tajikistan. All while the Americans depart, taking their mitigating potential with them.

This, then, is the atmosphere into which China steps. This is the geopolitical reality through which its economic pull reaches, and against which it stands. China, to those neighbors to the west, presents far more striking fiscal and infrastructural potential than Moscow could hope to provide. And while the mixture of Sinophobia and latent multivectoralism -- as well as Russian military presence -- remains, there is no reason to think that China will not continue subsuming the only region with which it maintains warm relations.

So, yes, Putin can prattle on about Russian hegemony, post-Soviet linkage, and cultural parallels, and his workers can plaster jaundice-colored texts outside as many embassies as they please. But that rhetoric -- that threat -- only expedites the reality. Central Asia is moving toward China. And Russian influence, or its long-term potential, is a mirage, fast fading.

-- Casey Michel

Casey Michel is a Bishkek-based journalist and a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute. He's written for "Foreign Policy," "The Atlantic," "The Moscow Times," and Al-Jazeera, and is a former Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteer. He's always looking for birding tips in Central Asia. Follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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