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Analysis: Central Asia Provides Window On Russia-U.S. Relations

When U.S. President George Bush meets with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Bratislava on 24 February, Central Asia will not be an agenda-topping item. But as a region where U.S. and Russian interests intersect, Central Asia provides a window on the dynamics that dominate the two countries' uneasy relationship in the former Soviet Union.

More importantly, current trends in U.S.-Central Asian relations showcase the contradictory impulses that might well determine the future policy context for the U.S.-Russian relationship.

Although it forms a convenient geographic entity bound by myriad cultural, historical, religious, and ethnic ties, Central Asia -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- has made little progress toward becoming a discrete geopolitical unit since the breakup of the Soviet Union. As a result, the relations of outside states with the countries that make up Central Asia occur first and foremost on the bilateral level, and only secondarily through the various regional groupings that have sprung up over the past decade. U.S. and Russian relations with Central Asia reflect this, making a country-by-country survey preferable to a regional overview.

Still Separate

Under the "multivector" diplomacy of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Kazakhstan has maintained good relations with Russia and the United States. An oil-rich country that boasts Central Asia's largest economy, Kazakhstan has attracted considerable foreign investment to its energy industry, much of it from U.S. companies. Major export routes lead through Russia. Kazakhstan has a large Russian minority but has successfully avoided serious ethnic tension. Potential sources of friction exist, such as the construction of alternate oil export routes through the Caspian, but no storm clouds line the immediate horizon.

Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian country that hosts both Russian and U.S. military bases. The official Kyrgyz position is that both contribute to Kyrgyzstan's security, with the Russian base at Kant providing an air-force component to the Collective Treaty Security Organization's (or CSTO, which comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan) rapid-reaction forces and the U.S. base at Manas providing air support for coalition operations in Afghanistan. The U.S. base opened in 2001, and the Russian base in 2003, contributing to a general perception that the two facilities counterbalance each other.

Recent events have suggested that Kyrgyz-Russian relations are warming and Kyrgyz-U.S. relations cooling. President Askar Akaev vehemently condemned the Rose Revolution in Georgia and Orange Revolution in Ukraine -- events that Russian and Kyrgyz official media have consistently suggested were orchestrated with the help of U.S.-sponsored NGOs -- and has made it clear that he does not want to see any repetition in Kyrgyzstan, which holds parliamentary elections on 27 February and a presidential election in October. During a visit to Moscow in late January, President Akaev told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that Russia is readying plans to invest $2 billion in the Kyrgyz economy. Not long after, Russian Air Force head Vladimir Mikhailov told ITAR-TASS on 10 February that Russia plans to double the amount of equipment and personnel, who currently number approximately 500, at the base in 2005. A few days later, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Aitmatov announced that Kyrgyzstan, after consultations with the CSTO and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), had decided against the deployment of U.S. AWACS surveillance aircraft at Manas.

Tajikistan has been expanding ties recently with Russia, where up to 1 million Tajik citizens are currently employed as migrant workers. During Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Dushanbe in October, the two countries signed agreements settling Tajikistan's Soviet-era debt to Russia, converting Russia's 201st Motor Rifle Division into a permanent military base and paving the groundwork for multibillion-dollar investments by the Russian company Rusal in Tajikistan's power and aluminum industries. At the same time, Russian border guards, who had been guarding the Tajik-Afghan border, handed over an 881-kilometer section of the frontier to Tajik jurisdiction in 2004, and will complete the transfer of the remaining Moscow and Panj sections in 2005.

The hermit kingdom of Turkmenistan has limited relations with the United States and strong economic ties to Russia in the form of a 25-year gas contract. The United States has criticized Turkmenistan's human rights record while maintaining arms-length ties, although a number of U.S. companies have done business with the country. Russia's state-controlled gas company Gazprom is a major buyer of Turkmen natural gas and is slated to increase purchases to 70 billion-80 billion cubic meters a year by 2009. Turkmenistan halted shipments earlier this year in an attempt to renegotiate its contract with Gazprom and win a price hike; talks are currently under way. A compromise is likely, as Turkmenistan currently lacks other export routes and debt-strapped Gazprom would like to use Turkmen gas to compensate for declining yields at current fields and put off the cost-intensive development of new fields. Against the backdrop of the Gazprom-Turkmen relationship, Russia has generally downplayed discrimination against the Russian-speaking minority in Turkmenistan.

War On Terror

America's other military facility in Central Asia is located in Uzbekistan, which has stressed its status as a U.S. ally in the war on terror, formalized in 2002 as the U.S.-Uzbek Strategic Partnership. The base at Karshi-Khanabad supports operations in Afghanistan and houses approximately 1,800 personnel, Central Asia security expert Roger McDermott told RFE/RL on 24 May 2004. Experts have described the U.S.-Uzbek relationship as problematic in light of Uzbekistan's human rights record, citing as evidence a State Department decision in July to withhold up to $18 million in aid for a "lack of progress on democratic reform" and a subsequent Pentagon decision in August to give Uzbekistan $21 million to prevent biological weapons proliferation. Critics of the partnership, such as former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Charles Murray, have argued that it is counterproductive for the United States to pursue the war on terror by supporting a regime that creates conditions for extremism with repressive policies. Since events in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, Uzbekistan has denied registration to a number of U.S.-based organizations such as George Soros's Open Society Institute and Internews. At a recent address to parliament, President Islam Karimov warned Western ambassadors against any attempts to use NGOs to spark political change.

Russian relations with Uzbekistan, which had been chilly for some time, underwent a rapprochement in 2004. In June, President Putin visited Tashkent, where he and President Karimov signed a strategic-partnership treaty. Russia's Gazprom and LUKoil pledged $2 billion in investments, albeit over an extended period. David Lewis, director of International Crisis Group's Central Asia project in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, told RFE/RL on 17 June 2004 that the treaty expressed Tashkent's frustration with Western criticism over human rights and lagging reforms and came as "a reaction against the failure of U.S.-Uzbek relations over the past two years."

Identifying The Trends

The preceding overview of Russian and U.S. relations with Central Asia reveals several trends. In Russia, where a majority of policy analysts assert that Russia has been "pushed out" of its natural sphere of influence in Central Asia and take a dim view of the U.S. military presence in the region, recent policy under President Putin indicates a push to restore lost influence. This has taken the form of reestablishing parity in military bases; but more importantly it has involved substantial investment commitments in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and possibly Kyrgyzstan, with state-owned and private Russian companies acting in concert with a broader policy initiative. Thus far, the move to strengthen ties has proceeded smoothly, although the long-term economic bases for cooperation remain untested.

Broadly speaking, there has been a tendency in Central Asia for closer ties with the United States to translate into cooler relations with Russia, although this is by no means true across the board. Moreover, the specter of the Rose and Orange revolutions in Central Asia, where political power has remained static for over a decade, is a phenomenon very much in flux, with uncertain implications for political change in the region and for U.S. and Russian relations with individual countries. Limited Western interest in the region and recent Russian official contacts with representatives of the Kyrgyz opposition suggest that the situation need not produce a standoff in which Russia supports the status quo.

While Central Asia will not be among the priority topics when Bush and Putin meet in Bratislava on 24 February, in one important sense it will loom large in the margins of their dialogue. Recent events in Russia, from the reassertion of state control over television to the elimination of elections for regional heads to the growing speculation over constitutional changes that might allow President Putin to remain in power after 2008, suggest a path of development reminiscent of Central Asia. Further underscoring the similarity, U.S.-Russian cooperation today focuses on the twin pillars of energy, the core element in U.S.-Kazakh relations, and security, which dominates U.S.-Uzbek relations.

So even if Central Asia is not a key theme when Bush and Putin talk, observers should heed the cooperation and contradictions that mark Central Asia's relations with the United States, for they might increasingly form the context for Russia's relations with the United States as well.

[Also see RFE/RL's dedicated Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan Votes 2005, and Tajikistan Votes 2005 webpages.]

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