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Russia: With U.S. Attention On Iraq, Moscow Wooing Central Asia

Russia appears to be taking steps to reassert its influence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Moscow's presence appeared to diminish after the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan brought Western troops and aid to the region. But with U.S. attention now focused on Iraq, Russia is once again courting the Central Asian states -- and finding a receptive audience.

Prague, 22 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's traditional interests in Central Asia suffered a setback in the months following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. With an influx of Western troops and financial aid to help in the antiterror campaign in Afghanistan, many observers suspected Russia's long-time influence in the region was finally fading for good.

Since then, however, the U.S. has largely shifted its focus to Iraq, and Russia has stepped in to fill the gap, taking steps to woo back the Central Asian states. Even more notably, the countries in the region -- for the most part -- appear to be welcoming Russia's renewed attention.

Saulea Mukhametrakhimova is the Central Asia project manager at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

"In the last several months, there were several developments which demonstrated that Russia is stepping up its presence in Central Asia," Mukhametrakhimova said. "But I think it will be fair to say that this is happening not because of Russia, but because some of the countries in Central Asia are themselves quite keen on reviving the traditional relations with Russia."

Mukhametrakhimova cites several examples of warming ties. There were the recent visits to Moscow by both Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and the usually reclusive Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. Kyrgyzstan will soon mark the opening of the base for the Russian-led rapid-reaction force for the Commonwealth of Independent States. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who visited Kyrgyzstan in December and met with Nazarbaev last week in Omsk, is also due to travel to Tajikistan at the end of this month.

Alex Bridau is an analyst at the New York-based Eurasia Group, a political risk-assessment group. Bridau says Russia is taking advantage of an opportunity to regain lost influence in Central Asia: "Russia maybe senses an opportunity at the moment, sensing that the U.S., in fact, is occupied with the war in Iraq and the situation there."

Bridau points to Kazakhstan's Omsk talks with Russia about forming a new economic bloc with Ukraine and Belarus as one example. One Russian daily ("Moskovskii Komsomolets") took that a step further when it noted last week that "[Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka is no longer the favorite. Will Russia unite with Kazakhstan?" The article alluded to the troubled Russia-Belarus Union and said "a more realistic union" would be between Russia and Kazakhstan.

Bridau suggests that with U.S. energy concerns now focused on Iraq, Kazakhstan may be interested in courting greater cooperation with Russian energy companies. There have been recent talks between Kazakh and Russian oil and natural gas companies: "With Kazakhstan, I would say certainly there would be some concerns about what's the energy relationship between the West and Kazakhstan going to look like with Iraqi oil potentially coming back on line."

Part of the talks between Putin and Nazarbaev in Omsk concerned cooperation in the energy field, particularly in the Caspian Sea. The bulk of Kazakhstan's oil currently is exported via Russian pipelines.

Putin's talks earlier this month with Turkmen President Niyazov also focused on joint energy projects and the roles Russian companies could play in developing and exporting Turkmen oil and natural gas. A 25-year contract signed between Turkmenistan and Russia's natural gas giant Gazprom gave Turkmenistan far more money than had previously been offered.

Russia, which may be anticipating its oil contracts with Saddam Hussein's regime will not be renewed under a new U.S.-backed Iraqi government, may logically be looking for new areas of opportunity in the energy field. Its more traditional partners in Central Asia could do much to make up for losses in the Persian Gulf.

Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan may also feel U.S. and Western companies have been less than enthusiastic lately about promoting Caspian Basin deals. Some Western companies have pulled out of deals, particularly pipeline projects. Others have complained about recent changes in local legislation that work to the detriment of foreign investors.

But it may be more than simple business interests that are moving Russia and Central Asia closer. The U.S. push for regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan could be unsettling to Central Asia's own entrenched leaders.

"Potentially another concern would have more to do with the politics," Bridau said. "Everybody has just seen the change in two countries -- Afghanistan and Iraq. And much of the emphasis with regards to U.S. goals in Iraq has been geared toward the installation of a new government, the removal of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. And so, I think, this may give some of the Central Asian leaders pause. They may be worried about whether or not they're going to be faced with new demands from Washington to liberalize their governments, to make concessions to opposition figures, to ease up on political repression. So really, [the Central Asian leaders] may be looking for some support from Moscow."

Mukhametrakhimova agrees. She says that while Central Asian governments may welcome U.S. financial aid, they do not necessarily support the principles espoused by the U.S.: "They realized that if you have to have a very close partnership then you will be able to get not only financial, economic aid, but you will also have to be perceived as paying a price for it -- improving the democratic situation in the country. And that's what the Central Asian leaders do not want."

Russia's potential superiority as a guarantor of Central Asian security is a factor as well. The U.S. campaign in Afghanistan scaled back the region's two major threats, the Taliban regime and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. But with Washington's focus now on Iraq, Central Asia may be looking to Russia for protection from future security threats.

Not all Central Asian states, however, are anxious to renew ties with Russia.

Uzbekistan was the among the first of the countries in the region to offer its support to the U.S. in its war in Afghanistan, and it was the first to host U.S. forces. It has shown little sign of switching allegiances now that the U.S. interest in the region has receded.

Mukhametrakhimova says Uzbekistan's reluctance to court closer ties with Russia may make it an appealing long-term partner for the U.S.: "There were some diplomatic sources in Central Asia which indicated that if you look at it from the United States' point of view it is particularly this attitude of Uzbekistan, this stance of Uzbekistan, of trying to be so independent from Russia, that increases its chance to stay a strategic partner for the U.S. for a long time."

For the U.S., influence in one out of five Central Asian states might be enough -- particularly if the one is Uzbekistan, the region's strongest military power. But Bridau says shifting alliances should not be interpreted as the U.S. and Russia carving up spheres of Central Asian influence. None of the states, he says, is interested in courting one patron entirely at the expense of another.

That said, Russia is a traditional ally -- and one, furthermore, that does not criticize the sometimes autocratic style of the Central Asian leaders.