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Alexander Cooley: 'Great Games' Undermine Human Rights In Central Asia

Kyrgyz security forces in Bishkek stand in formation during preparations for heightened security measures ahead of a presidential election in the Central Asian country in 2011.
Kyrgyz security forces in Bishkek stand in formation during preparations for heightened security measures ahead of a presidential election in the Central Asian country in 2011.
In his new book on Central Asia, "Great Games, Local Rules," U.S.-based author Alexander Cooley paints a picture of the intense competition between China, Russia, and the United States for influence in the region. RFE/RL's Rikard Jozwiak spoke with Cooley about military-base rights, political influence, and access to natural resources in this strategically important part of the world.

RFE/RL: One of the central arguments in your book is that the five Central Asian states are not just pawns in the struggle for influence between China, Russia, and the United States, but that they actually set the local rules for this struggle. What do you mean by "local rules"?

Alexander Cooley: One of the take-home messages of the book is that there has been an increase in interaction amongst China, Russia, and the [United States].

Some of it was competitive, some of it was cooperative, some of it was the powers emulating each other, all giving aid, or all cooperating in terms of security, educational exchanges, this kind of stuff.

But the local rules have structured the game. By local rules, I refer to the regimes using external interests, external resources to maintain their grip on power, as well as, in certain cases, to actually enrich themselves in a private setting.

RFE/RL: In the book, you say that among the three great powers engaged in the region, China wins on points. Why is this?
Alexander Cooley
Alexander Cooley

Cooley: I think we have to judge the relative success of the external powers by what their strategies and starting points [were]. So, 10 years ago, China still had border disagreements with these places, its level of trade was very low. It was an aspirational player and within the course of a decade, it has founded an international organization called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It has become the region's leading trade partner. It has actually built actual pipelines that take Central Asian oil and gas eastward, not just talked about building them, and it has concluded security cooperation types of agreements with all Central Asian states as well as border agreements. So, comprehensively, it has fulfilled its agenda.

RFE/RL: Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to visit Pakistan in October, which will reportedly be the first-ever visit by a Russian head of state to Islamabad [Editor's' note: this visit is now being rescheduled]. Is this an indication of Russia's expanding sphere of interest in the region, as the United States runs into trouble?

Cooley: Yes, absolutely. I think that Russia, in general, wants to tack eastward and, certainly, given the sort of Chinese-U.S. competition for influence on Pakistan -- although both counties would deny that they are in competition for influence, but certainly, the Pakistani government quite publically plays them off each other -- I think you will see Russia, too, try to make Pacific engagement and South Asian engagement more of a priority.

The problem is [that] this region regards Russia more as a European power, more as a post-Soviet player. So, it is going to be very difficult for Russia to actually offer an actual vector of cooperation to a lot of these countries.

RFE/RL: So far, there haven't really been any flashpoints between the three great powers in the region. Do you think we might see some sort of clash in the future?

Cooley: I am not sure necessarily we will see that. The thing that we should not forget is that the overall goals of each of the three main players are different, so that they can coexist, mostly.

For the [United States] it is to secure cooperation, the security and logistical support, for the campaign in Afghanistan.

For China, it is to help develop and stabilize the neighboring region adjacent to Xinjiang, and for Russia it is less material. It is more about pride, prestige, securing great-power status, deference, and respect.

So, in most cases, these three goals have been able to coexist, even as the interactions have intensified.

RFE/RL: Do you agree that it appears that the real loser in this three-way power struggle for influence in Central Asia has been human rights?

Cooley: I think that that is definitely one of the casualties, and there is no way of sugar-coating it. Look, by any kinds of indicators on democracy, governance, human rights, the situation over the last 10 years has worsened.

Some people, very legitimately, have criticized me and said, "Look weren't the trends going negative anyway," and that is absolutely true, but what I try to do in the book is spell out how the interactions between the powers -- intentional or not, and I want to stress that -- have worsened the human-rights situation...

...[T]here are a lot regions in the world where human rights have suffered at the hand of counterterrorism. I know of no other region, though, where three great powers have all conducted extra-legal renditions of political prisoners with very scant attention to international law.

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