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2005 In Review: The Geopolitical Game In Central Asia

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Astana in July (epa) The outside world has viewed Central Asia primarily through the prism of geopolitics at least since the 19th-century struggle between the British and Russian empires for dominance in Eurasia, when the phenomenon of great powers clashing against an exotic backdrop came to be known as the Great Game. The appellation, with its connotations of a swashbuckling duel in which local actors are reduced to supporting roles, has endured and even undergone a renaissance with the Soviet Union's collapse and the emergence of Central Asia's independent states. 2005 confirmed established patterns, with revolution in Kyrgyzstan, unrest in Uzbekistan, and the rising prominence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) all providing grist for the geopolitical mill.

But if the events of 2005 included significant geopolitical shifts -- most notably in Uzbekistan's foreign policy -- they also demonstrated that this shopworn view of the region may no longer be the best guide to understanding what is actually taking place in Central Asia. Central Asia is increasingly losing its coherence as a geopolitical entity, with individual countries embarking on courses of development sufficiently disparate to render a "regional" perspective deeply problematic. Moreover, the domestic imperatives of these five courses of development are now the driving force, if not the only force, in relations with the outside world and its great powers.


The reelection of President Nursultan Nazarbaev in December underscored not only Kazakhstan's geopolitical status as a state that grounds its relations with the outside world in its significance as an energy supplier, but also the likely continuation of Nazarbaev's policy of using this status as the continuing basis for his so-called "multivector" foreign policy.

Nazarbaev's reelection with over 90 percent of the vote showcased a political system that has all the earmarks of post-Soviet "managed democracy," as indicated by the OSCE's initial assessment that, "[d]espite some improvements in the administration of this election in the pre-election period, the presidential election did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections." Nevertheless, official Western criticism of the election was muted, and with Nazarbaev safely ensconced for another seven-year term, a number of European political figures expressed cautious support for Kazakhstan's bid to chair the OSCE in 2009.

An official photo of President Nazarbaev during this year's election campaign (official site)

Kazakhstan's multivector foreign policy manifested itself in an ongoing drive to diversify the country's oil export routes, thus reducing dependence on Russia, and to accommodate Chinese investment in the country's energy sector. On the eve of the 25 May opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) export pipeline, Nazarbaev met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and affirmed his commitment not only to export Kazakh oil through the BTC pipeline, but also to build an underwater pipeline linking the Kazakh port of Aktau to Baku. On 15 December, the Atasu-Alashankou pipeline linking Kazakhstan and China went into operation, with the first deliveries of Kazakh oil to China planned for mid-2006. In October, the China National Petroleum Corporation paid $4.2 billion PetroKazakhstan, a Canadian-registered company that conducts all of its production operations in Kazakhstan.

These moves took place against a steady drumbeat of high-level declarations that the maintenance of friendly Kazakh-Russian relations is a priority task for Kazakhstan's foreign policy. At the same time, Kazakhstan maintained its symbolically important contingent of roughly 30 mine-clearing experts in Iraq.

Regionally, Kazakhstan took a pragmatic approach to cooperation with immediate neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The relative vigor of the Kazakh economy in 2005 continued to draw hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from both countries, allowing Astana to navigate ties with its neighbors from a position of strength. Here also, multivector components -- in this case, pushes and pulls in relations with a single country -- were in evidence. For example, in July Kazakhstan declined to extradite Uzbek rights activist Lutfullo Shamsiddinov, a witness to violence in Andijon, to Uzbekistan; but in November, Kazakh authorities apparently acquiesced in the abduction of a number of Uzbeks from southern Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan, as Human Rights Watch charged in a 3 December press release on the organization's website.

Relations with Kyrgyzstan revealed a similar dynamic of pushes and pulls. Even as government-controlled Kazakh media portrayed Kyrgyzstan's 24 March revolution as an exercise in chaos and some former members of the Kyrgyz elite from the era of deposed President Askar Akaev fled to Kazakhstan, the Kazakh leadership cultivated cordial ties with its new interlocutors in Bishkek. Kazakhstan pledged to help plug a gap in Kyrgyzstan's natural-gas supplies when difficulties arose with Uzbekistan in August, and took a nonconfrontational approach in December to Kyrgyzstan's $18 million in arrears for gas payments.


The fall of the long-ruling Akaev amid street protests on 24 March and the ascent to power of the "tandem" of President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov had surprisingly little effect on Kyrgyzstan's foreign relations. With the exception of a conflict with Uzbekistan over refugees from Andijon, the primary concerns of Kyrgyzstan's new leadership were domestic.

Tensions flared with Uzbekistan when hundreds of refugees crossed into Kyrgyzstan after violence in Andijon on 12-13 May (see RFE/RL's special site Aftermath Of Andijon). Uzbekistan claimed that the refugees included terrorists and demanded their extradition, while Western countries urged their evacuation to a third country. In late July, 439 Uzbek refugees were airlifted to Romania. Uzbekistan reacted with predictable anger, but no significant escalation resulted.

The new leadership tried its hand at the multivector diplomacy that its northern neighbor has practiced with such skill. Kyrgyzstan continued to host two foreign military bases -- one American and one Russian. After Uzbekistan asked the United States to vacate its air base in Khanabad in late July, and as Russian officials showed interest in boosting funding and troop strength at their base in Kant, Bakiev indicated that he would like to see the United States make higher lease payments on its base outside Bishkek. On several occasions in 2005, Kyrgyz officials made a point of denying "reports" that China might open its own military base in Kyrgyzstan.


Unlike "oil-rich" Kazakhstan, "revolutionary" Kyrgyzstan, "isolated" Turkmenistan, and "volatile" Uzbekistan, Tajikistan's progress since its civil war ended in 1997 has not proven amenable to simple descriptions, and the country's relative obscurity was reflected in its low-profile foreign ties in 2005.

President Rakhmonov (left) with UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura in November (RFE/RL)

The main geopolitical trend in Tajikistan in 2005 was the continuing implementation of agreements reached between Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2004. Under those accords, Russia transformed its long-deployed 201st Motorized Infantry Division in Tajikistan into a permanent military base and Russian Aluminum (RusAl) agreed to invest more than $1 billion in the construction of aluminum-production and power-generation facilities in Tajikistan. Along the Tajik-Afghan border, Russia completed the process of handing over control of the frontier to Tajik border troops in 2005.

Close cooperation with Russia was evident in other venues as well. Mahmadruzi Iskandarov, the head of Tajikistan's opposition Democratic Party, vanished in Moscow in April, mysteriously reappearing in Tajik custody in Dushanbe later that month. He was subsequently put on trial on terrorism and corruption charges, one of a number of former Rakhmonov allies now sidelined from politics by legal difficulties.

Concerning relations with the West, Rakhmonov explicitly ruled out the possibility of any U.S. base in Tajikistan. France reduced its already small military deployment in Tajikistan. Cash-strapped Tajikistan's main interactions with the West, in fact, were with international financial institutions. In late December, the International Monetary Fund, which lists Tajikistan as holding $93 million in IMF loans, included Tajikistan on a list of 19 countries selected for "100 percent debt relief."


Virtually all of Turkmenistan's limited interactions with the outside world involved the country's exports of natural gas. The keynote was an effort to obtain higher payments from Russia and Ukraine amid continuing uncertainty over Turkmenistan's reserves and production capacity in 2006.

In September, an analyst with the Asian Development Bank stated that production forecasts for Turkmenistan's Daulatabad gas field may not be sufficient to justify the construction of a pipeline through Afghanistan to Pakistan. In June, Gazprom voiced concerns about Turkmenistan's reserves, noting that Ashgabat has been slow to provide a promised audit. The issue is particularly important to Gazprom, which is slated to boost imports from Turkmenistan to 60 billion-70 billion cubic meters a year by 2007, while Russian reports have suggested that current production levels are actually closer to 45 billion.

Meanwhile, Turkmenistan attempted in December to impose a price hike -- from $44 per 1,000 cubic meters to $60 -- on Ukraine and Russia for 2006 gas shipments, although it remains unclear whether Turkmenistan will be able to meet its planned contractual obligations to both countries. Negotiations with Russia have not yet produced an agreement, and Ukrainian claims that a deal with Ashgabat has been reached still lack Turkmen confirmation.

On the margins, Turkmenistan explored expanded energy cooperation with China. Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister Atamurat Berdiev visited China in early December, reporting back that China is interested in gas imports from Turkmenistan. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, who spent much of 2005 shuffling and reshuffling the management of the country's energy sector, is scheduled to take a rare trip abroad to visit China in April 2006.


Uzbekistan was the only Central Asian country that significantly altered its geopolitical orientation in 2005. But Tashkent's reasons for turning away from the West -- specifically the United States -- and toward Russia and China were firmly rooted in Uzbekistan's increasingly unstable domestic environment.

After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Uzbekistan positioned itself as a strategic partner of Washington in the freshly declared global war on terror, agreeing to allow U.S. forces the use of an air base in Karshi-Khanabad. The partnership was an uneasy one, with Uzbek President Islam Karimov clearly pleased to be recognized as an international player, but just as clearly unwilling to alter his hard-line domestic policies to accommodate Western criticism of human rights abuses and calls for a more open political system.

President Karimov (left) with Russian President Putin in July (epa)

As long-ruling leaders fell against a backdrop of large-scale demonstrations in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in 2003-05, Karimov soured on close cooperation with the West, adopting the status-quo view among authoritarian post-Soviet elites that the "color" revolutions were merely foreign-sponsored regime changes. This simmering sentiment came to a head in the wake of Andijon, where Uzbek security forces used massive force on 13 May to disperse a demonstration that followed an armed uprising in the city. The West called for an independent international investigation of eyewitness accounts that security forces perpetrated a massacre; Karimov refused, blaming the violence on religious extremists as government-run media depicted the Andijon uprising as an externally supported stab at regime change.

The fallout was stark. In late July, Uzbekistan gave the United States six months to vacate its air base in Karshi-Khanabad. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan drew closer to Russia and China, two countries that voiced unequivocal support for the official Uzbek version of events in Andijon. Karimov visited China in the immediate aftermath of Andijon, and Uzbekistan and China inked a $600 million oil joint venture. In September, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov visited Uzbekistan to observe the first-ever Russian-Uzbek joint military exercises. And in November, Karimov and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty providing for direct Russian military assistance in the event of "aggression" against Uzbekistan. Further bolstering Russian-Uzbek relations, Russia's Gazprom and LUKoil are planning to invest as much as $2 billion in Uzbekistan's energy sector, albeit over an extended period of time.


The overall thrust of geopolitics in Central Asia in 2005 is most clearly illustrated by the evolution of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which now includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan as members and India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan as observers. The SCO was increasingly active in 2005, leading some analysts to see the emergence of a potentially powerful regional grouping serving the interests of its heavyweight members, China and Russia. A summit of SCO leaders in Kazakhstan in early July appeared to confirm this, issuing a declaration with a call for the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition to provide a timeframe for withdrawal from military facilities on SCO territory, a thinly veiled reference to the U.S. bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Subsequent events showed that the SCO remains more of a forum than a force, however. Uzbekistan soon went beyond the declaration, evicting its U.S. base less than a month after the summit. As detailed above, the move fit in with Uzbek President Karimov's mounting suspicions that the West in general, and the United States in particular, had become a destabilizing presence that his regime could no longer tolerate. Kyrgyzstan's leadership simply set about negotiating more advantageous terms to host its U.S. base, with no mention of a specific timeframe for withdrawal.

The SCO's significance as a forum lies in its expression of a sentiment much cherished in both Moscow and Beijing -- and not only Moscow and Beijing -- that the region's regimes should be left alone to conduct business as they see fit at home. This forms a marked contrast to Western interactions with the post-Soviet world, which have been premised -- at least rhetorically -- on the idea of a transition not only to market economies, but also democratic political systems and greater respect for human rights. Yet as the cases of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan show, each country's leadership signed off on the SCO's status quo declaration and then proceeded to make decisions dictated by purely domestic concerns. Tashkent, feeling threatened, turned away from the West; Bishkek, still getting its sea legs, played for leverage within a multivector framework.

Kazakh President Nazarbaev starting the Atasu-Alashenkou pipeline between his country and China on 15 December

The lesson is that Central Asia is not home to client states, but rather to national ruling elites -- some weaker, some stronger; some more united, some less united -- that are able to reap certain benefits by accommodating the wishes of outside powers but are less beholden to external actors than they are to the imperative of maintaining their own continuity in power. In the case of Uzbekistan, for example, the lesson of Tashkent's turn from Washington to Moscow is not so much that "Russian has restored its influence in Uzbekistan," but rather that if Karimov was willing to risk a confrontation with the West because he felt, rightly or wrongly, that domestic considerations warranted it, he will be just as willing to move in the opposite direction if his reading of the all-important domestic tea leaves suggests to him that his fortunes are best served elsewhere. To varying extents, the same holds true for ruling elites throughout the region.

Finally, 2005 demonstrated that it is increasingly difficult to discuss Central Asia as a cohesive geopolitical entity. With regional integration initiatives making roughly as much headway in 2005 as they have in years past, the overriding impression was one of disparate developments. The president of Kazakhstan, a country now firmly established as the regional economic powerhouse, successfully picked up another seven-year term in office. The leader of impoverished Tajikistan is likely to attempt a similar feat under very different social and economic conditions in his country's 2006 presidential election. Kyrgyzstan, unsettled by a breakdown of managed democracy that toppled its president, faces a trying consolidation period with no clear outcome in sight. After violently suppressing the most serious outbreak of unrest he has yet faced, Uzbekistan's president, who had traditionally balanced his Interior Ministry against his National Security Service (SNB), now appears to be increasingly reliant on the SNB and proteges of SNB head Rustam Inoyatov. And Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov maintained his country's profound isolation from the outside world even as he engineered a wide-ranging purge that eliminated longtime allies, rendering speculation about the future of his maddeningly opaque regime more difficult than ever.

Yet Central Asia remains a single geopolitical entity, if only by virtue of geography. As the world discovered when a few hundred refugees fled from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan, crises do not always respect the borders that delimit political systems. Central Asia's five countries will continue down their various paths in 2006, with domestic factors playing the primary role in each case. But if any of those paths should prove to be a dead end, the consequences could move rapidly from the domestic level to the regional, and from there to the full-blown geopolitical.

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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