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Central Asia: Russia Comes On Strong (Part 2)

Vladimir Putin Russia emerged as a major investor in Central Asia in October. Images of Russia as an economically challenged former superpower faded as President Vladimir Putin and Russian companies visited the area making new deals in the region's energy sector. But Russian gains in Central Asia in October weren't confined solely to investment. In this second of a two-part report, RFE/RL takes a closer look at Russia's moves on Central Asia last month.

Prague, 17 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Backed by unexpected revenues from oil and gas sales at record prices on the world market, Russia went on what one analyst termed a "shopping spree" in Central Asia.

Lena Jonson of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and author of the book "Vladimir Putin and Central Asia" listed some of Russia's gains in the region during last month.

"Russia got quite a lot. It got the rights to continue using the space monitoring station Okno. They have this military base, which gives it a status for the future and also you have agreements with the hydroenergy sector and also the aluminum sector," Jonson said.

During President Vladimir Putin's visit to Tajikistan in mid-October, deals were signed that promise Russian investment of some $2 billion dollars in projects in Tajikistan over the next five years.

Russia's Unified Energy Systems promised to invest $200 million in Tajikistan's Sangtuda hydropower station. The Rusel aluminum company pledged to invest $560 million into a dam at the Rogun hydropower plant and further investments in Tajikistan's current aluminum plant, one of the country's major export producers, and build a new one as well.

Just a few days after these deals were announced, Yuri Lebedev, the economic adviser at the Russian Embassy in Uzbekistan made another announcement. He said the Russian company Gazprom plans to invest $1 billion to develop gas condensate fields in Ustyurt region and $15 million to extend the life of the Shakhpakhty field. Lukoil plans to invest more than $995 million for natural gas extraction in Bukhara-Khiva region.

Russia's seeming economic success in Central Asia in October was accompanied by political successes. During Putin's visit to Dushanbe, he and the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan signed documents admitting Russia to the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO).

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov greeted the organization's new member.

"Everyone [attending the meeting] has agreed that Russia's full participation in the Central Asian Cooperation Organization will increase the potential and the dynamics of our organization," Rakhmonov said.

CACO, through its various stages of evolution since its 1994 founding, has not proven a very effective organization, but Jonson of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs said Russia's entry was still significant.

"It reflects this interest of Russia in Central Asia and it gives [Russia] a better possibility to act within the region and to become part of agreements in the region," Jonson said.

Russia's military also got a firmer foothold in the region. Following 11 September, the United States was given permission by the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to station U.S.-led coalition troops on their soil for the campaign in Afghanistan. Many in Russia, particularly in the military, have been upset by this new foreign presence in what many regard as Russia's backyard.

Russia already had troops stationed in Tajikistan, the 201st Motorized Rifle Division. The Tajik government has always been glad to have the unit stationed there, but until Putin's mid-October visit the unit and its bases had no legal status in the country.

That problem was quickly resolved. As part of Russia's debt forgiveness to Tajikistan, Russian assumed control of the Okno space observatory high in the Tajik mountains, a facility that has both civilian and military uses.

Besides the unit in Tajikistan, Russia also commands the Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan, located some 40 kilometers from a U.S.-led coalition base used for support operations in Afghanistan. At the start of October, the commander of the Fifth Corps of the Russia Air Force, Yevgeny Yurev, said more warplanes and helicopters will be coming to Kant base, and that the number of Russian troops will be increased by as much as four times, to about 1,000 personnel.

While in Tajikistan, Russian President Putin noted the now legally stationed Russian unit in Tajikistan would be part of a security network for the region that included the Kant base.

"This base, along with the air base at Kant, Kyrgyzstan, will be an important part of the united system of collective security for the region," Putin said.

Kant provides an excellent example of better Russian-Tajik ties. Last year, when the Kant base opened and Putin was in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan refused to give permission for Russian warplanes of the 201st to fly the short trip to Kyrgyzstan for the opening ceremony. Planes had to fly in from Russia instead.

The high revenues from Russian oil and gas exports may not last but Russia for now appears determined to maintain its investments in Central Asia's energy projects for years to come.

John Schoeberlein, the director of Harvard University's program on the Caucasus and Central Asia, said it is still too early to tell how far Russia's move into Central Asia will affect the region.

But despite the fact that Russia has yet to fully deliver on its pledges, Schoenberlein says he believes Moscow's vow is genuine.

"I think it's clear that Russia is seeking a stronger position. How much actual meaning these steps will have remains to be seen but there's a clear commitment on the part of the Putin government to strengthen its strategic ties with Central Asian countries and to impose a greater presence even. So they're working hard on various fronts to assert a new role for Russia and to make sure that Russia stays there and that that Russian presence is felt," Schoeberlein said.

Alex Vatanka, the senior editor at the London-based publication "Russia-CIS Security Assessment Binder," also said Russia's commitments in Central Asia are real.

He added Russia may be prepared to bring new energy to the region.

"This is not just going to be about rhetoric and CIS-related treaties being signed when everybody knows it's going to be words on paper and no more. [Russia is saying:] 'We're going to make it a bit more concrete, we're actually going to show people that Russian involvement can result in economic generation,''" Vatanka said.

No one doubted Russia would remain a player in Central Asia, but the Kremlin is now taking full advantage of unexpected revenues to replant its influence firmly on familiar territory.

To read part 1 of this series, click here.

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