The results of the official visit of RF President V.Putin to Tajikistan that took place on October 4-5 suggest there is a probability of increased tension in the Central Asian region within the nearest 9-12 months.
Moscow’s attention to Tajikistan should be discussed in the context of building up its presence in Central Asia (CA) within the framework of the attempt to create Eurasian geopolitical project. This project is expected to restore Kremlin’s geopolitical influence on the post-Soviet space under new political and economic conditions.
Availability of sufficient energy resources in the region allows some countries to claim to attempt conducting their own foreign policy. Russia’s loss of control over these countries will pose direct threat to both RF’s geopolitical model in the region and its monopoly/control over regular energy carriers transportation routes.
Today, Russia has opportunities for exercising full-scale influence only in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. However, one may say that Kazakhstan falls under the same influence because pro-Russia moods among local elites and their favouring preservation of Nazarbayev’s regime allows Moscow to overcome the country’s energy independence not least of all by means of involving Astana in the Customs Union. However, due to geographical location, economic potential and political regime Dushanbe still remains the most controlled Russia’s partner in the region helping to efficiently achieve its foreign policy objectives.
Regional Tactical Standpoint. Today, Moscow has faced the issues of developing its geopolitical projects on the territory of Central Asia. Key problems come from official Tashkent (Uzbekistan) which had already suspended its membership in EurAsEu, as well as in CSTO – in 1999 and 2012. As for the latter, Tashkent has not ratified a single significant document. According to our estimations, Uzbekistan’s distancing from CSTO is first of all related to expectations of profitable proposals regarding hosting US military bases on the country’s territory, as well as to the attempts to avoid entering Russia’s geopolitical arena and preserve opportunities for foreign policy manoeuvres. Moreover, Karimov’s regime has been lately under pressure, in particular in respect to businesses related to his daughter Gulnara, and opposition forces in exile declare their plans to organize civil disobedience in Uzbekistan aimed at overthrowing the antidemocratic regime. Similar situation forces Karimov to manoeuvre between Washington and Moscow and remain neutral, at the same time staying interesting and promising for both parties.
Probability of republicans rising to power after the next presidential election in the US will enhance American present in the region in future – especially in the context of conflict with Iran. Moreover, Uzbekistan is the most favourable base for the localization of a part of military forces removed from the territory of Afghanistan in case immediate return and deployment in this country is needed. The US is also expected to relocate to Uzbekistan a part of the armed forces remaining after withdrawing the coalition’s forces in Afghanistan in 2014.
Thus, Russia may face enhanced competition in CA on the part of the US and China within a short-term period. Such changes in the foreign policy situation require more drastic actions from Kremlin aimed at strengthening its influence in the region.
Military and Political Standpoint. According to the signed agreements, Russia has prolonged its military presence in Tajikistan for 30 years. Ministers of Defence signed a treaty replacing the previous one that came into force in May of 1993 and is going to terminate in 2014. Duration of the new treaty is 49 years.
The treaty is of great military and political importance since it stipulates that Russia will keep under control one of the largest exterritorial military groups in Central Asia. Firstly, this will allow Moscow to control security within the region after complete withdrawal of coalition’s military forces from Afghanistan. We believe that withdrawal of ISAF troops from Afghanistan will trigger rise of radical forces on the borders of Central Asian republics and will pose a threat to stability of these countries’ regimes. This process will be probably accompanied by increasing drug trafficking from this country. Therefore, Kremlin in its strategic model sees Tajikistan first of all as a border containing radical Islamic forces from the territory of Afghanistan. Secondly, 2013 will see presidential election in the country participation in which of the current president E.Rachmon may raise a question about legitimacy of the procedure and destabilize the situation in the country according to the “colour revolution” scenario. Thirdly, this will give Moscow a chance to achieve parity under conditions of probable deployment of American military bases on the territory of Uzbekistan.
Moreover, 201 Russian Military Base (RMB) and financial aid in the amount of USD 5 million will allow more effective prevention of drug trafficking towards Russia in which – as of today – some representatives of Tajikistan army and border troops are involved which is proved by recent event in Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAR). The same events showed that Tadjik authorities in fact have no control over about 45% of their territory, and there is a probability of another round of separatism and extremism in Gorno-Badakhshan. Back in 2010, confrontation tendencies here were enhanced after the breach of agreement between official Dushanbe and the groups controlling the Rasht Valley which the authorities failed to take under control. According to the operational report prepared by Da Vinci AG analytic group in February 2011, Tajikistan is the most vulnerable state in Central Asia for the implementation of “Arab spring” scenario. Therefore, Russian military presence will guarantee security to E.Rachmon’s regime and enhance stability of the regime and domestic policy situation in the country. This is also important considering the personal conflict between E.Rachmon and I.Karimov which, in our opinion, may turn into a military conflict in case of implementation of water and energy supply projects by Tajikistan which may cause water deficiency within the republic. Therefore, RMB 201 may influence the decision-making process in Uzbekistan regarding planning of acts of violence against Dushanbe.
All this strengthens RF’s position in the region, ensures stable implementation of integration projects for it, as well as enhances the role of CSTO as regional security organization.
Situation Forecast. We believe that Moscow’s medium-term tactics lies in the use of contradictions of Dushanbe for the purpose of strengthening its position in the region. Moscow will seek to keep influence on Tajikistan by means of providing military assistance, security guarantees and economic support in the form of liberalization of labour migration for Tadjiks and abolition of export duties on light oils. Plans to increase labour migration flow from Tajikistan aimed at reducing tension in this country caused by unemployment will probably be accompanied by tightening of migration policy in relation to migrant workers – including from Ukraine and Moldova. Introduction of new migration rules is quite advantageous for RF. 75% of migrants from Central Asia have families on their native land and send them money. Thus, by employing foreigners on its own territory Moscow reduces tension in Central Asian countries where male unemployment can stimulate growth of extremism. Moreover, 99% of them go to Russia seeking some earnings and do not plan on staying on its territory unlike representatives of European post-Soviet republics.
According to our estimations, Kremlin is interested in the creation of confrontation between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (and possibly Kyrgyzstan). For this purpose, Moscow takes measures to support implementation of infrastructure projects which pose threat to Uzbekistan’s security. It concerns construction of Rogun HPS and Kambar-Atin HPS-1. In case construction of dams on these two sites is completed Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will get an opportunity to regulate flows of trans-border rivers Naryn in Kirgizia and Vahksh in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, thus creating water deficiency there. Receiving control over water resources by means of investment projects with the participation of Russian companies RusHydro and RAO UES will allow Kremlin to get bargaining chips in the process of negotiations with Uzbekistan and offset its regional influence as a supplier of energy resources.
We suppose that there is quite little probability of implementation of this project by Moscow. Such implementation is rather risky considering the fact that the dam which is going to become the world’s largest is situated at the point of tectonic fault and high seismic activity. In view of the aforesaid, investments in the amount of about USD 3 billion managed by Russian companies are imposed to high financial and reputation risks and seem to be unreasoned from the economic point of view. However, results of V.Putin’s visit in October show that Russia for the first time got involved in Tadjik-Kyrgyz water-energy project in which it had been persistently staying neutral for several years. We believe that this is a part of a multi-move game in which Moscow provokes escalation of tension between Dushanbe and Tashkent and between Tashkent and Bishkek, and then will become mediator in the regulation process taking up issues of peaceful regulation of regional conflicts.
Moreover, as 2014 is approaching I.Karimov’s regime will seek foreign support and security guarantees on its southern borders. Despite the fact that the length of borders with Afghanistan for Uzbekistan is significantly less than for Tajikistan, infiltration of radical Islam into its territory, intrusion of armed troops into its territory from Afghanistan aimed at destabilization of the situation within the country and spread of influence of Uzbek sub-ethnic groups and clans of Afghanistan on Uzbekistan are quite likely. At the same time, Tashkent has no resources to maintain its positions on the southern border with Afghanistan and 100% of control over its own part of Ferghana Valley where chances are high that the activity will revive, nor to prevent revitalization of opposition forces. In view of the above, Moscow probably hopes that under such conditions Tashkent will not be able to show active resistance to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and will agree to trade-off alternatives of settling the issues, including within the framework of pro-Russian geopolitical projects.
However, we believe that the situation is not likely to take such turn. Moscow has 9-12 more months until the situation with the construction of hydro-energy sites brings Dushanbe to understanding of the fact that Kremlin uses it in its geopolitical strategy. There was a similar situation in the past when Russian companies refused to complete the construction of the very same Rogun HPS which caused cooling down of relations with Tajikistan. This may result in significant strengthening of China’s positions due to investment infusion in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and construction of transport communications in Ferghana Valley.
In our opinion, Russia’s policy in the region will result in the fact that Tashkent will use a manoeuvre aimed at imitation of return under Russia’s wing. In such case, Kremlin will face an issue of fulfilling obligations to Dushanbe because the strategic plan suggests that the importance of Uzbekistan for Kremlin is more significant. Such games will hardly bring a happy end to Moscow because weakness of national economies of most Central Asian countries facilitates growth of radicalism and reduction of stability, and variety of tribes and clans complicates consolidation of power and implementation of efficient domestic policy which allows to predict further development of the situation in some of them according to Libyan scenario. Moreover, RF uses contradictions of CA countries under conditions of non-conflict infiltration of PRC into this region. Therefore, Russia’s influence in the region may be significantly reduced in case of change of power in one of the countries: Uzbekistan or Tajikistan which will strengthen positions of China and the US.
Greater Eurasia: New Great Game formulate abundant possibilities for Central Asia
The title “New Great Game” became the most conversed topic in the contemporary realm of global politics. The heart of the Eurasian continent, the Central Asian region, already witnessed a colonial battle between Russian and Britain. The position of Geopolitical status more fueled up the conflict. The Great Game furnished an unpleasant impact on the entire Central Asian region; it grasps by the Russian empire. Russia’s century-long predominance over the Central Asia region concluded with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, it nevertheless has a massive impact over the countries of Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Following centuries, they were preceding reappeared different New Grete Game, where the foremost global power countries have engaged. The internal scenario of central Asian states is struggling over hegemonic power. Subsequently, the central Asian nations are well equipped with natural resources like oil, gas like Kazakhstan’s largest uranium producer, that attracts all major countries to penetrate in Central Asia.
The New Great Game impacted both as constraint and opportunity in Central Asia. The central Asian states are adopted the multi-vector approach to the foreign policy due to landlocked country. So, the developed countries are offered various development schemes in the region. Currently, three major powers are Russia, US and China compete with each other to become a prominent player in Central Asia. Every nation is looking for their interest through the region. Nowadays, Washington mostly engaged in the New Great Game, after the US entered in Afghanistan, and it required Central Asian states cooperation to expand the authority of NATO in Eurasian land. Although, following the attack on 9/11, the US mostly keep eyes on terrorism activities and central Asian states are becoming significant for security purpose. Moscow always indeed to the presence in Central Asian internal politics and seems to maintain its status quo. Russia always considered the Central Asian states as his campaign, with the significant military, economic and political influence. Moscow consistently rated Central Asian nations as “soft underbelly”. Russian culture, music, food highly incorporated with Central Asian states, but Moscow seems fallen the economic competition with Beijing. China is somewhat successful in pushing Russian influence in Central Asia.
China expands its control over in the pecuniary sector, Dragon becoming larger trade partner and investor in that region. China’s visionary project ‘Belt and Road initiative’ and China’s strategy to influence and grow its economic power over the Eurasian continent required Central Asian states linear involvement. China shared more than 3000 k.m of the direct border with CA, this is an opportunity for China to enhance its strength and became more dominant rather than other countries. Central Asia is a crucial component in the Geopolitical puzzle. The abundant of natural resource in CA is the primary purpose behind for more intense of New Great Game. The Caspian Sea contains a large amount of natural resource. The superpower countries followed up the pathway of the dependency model, and they create opportunity with precisely inside their acquisition. The new Great Game change the notion of Geopolitics on a broader level. China is steadily expanding its influence over the Eurasian mainland with hegemonic expansion over the south china sea. There is an appearance of another cold war (economic domain) between China and the US; both countries headed for intense competition for global supremacy. That’s why central Asia states played an essential function to determine immense superiority over the Eurasian landmass. All these countries participated in New Great Game implemented the soft power and made an effort to pull Central Asian nations through proffering opportunities. The central Asian States compensated relishes the possibility, although faced reluctance from significant players. The potential development of the Central Asian Region endures the growth of the Eurasian continent.
Territorial Disputes in Central Asia: Myths and Reality
One of the focal points of any state foreign policy is the issue of territorial disputes, irrespective of its geographical size, economic opportunities or geopolitical ambitions. At the same time, in the modern world, the scenario of the use of force as a possible option for China to resolve territorial disputes in Central Asia is hardly probable. None of the parties, including neighboring countries, are interested in intensifying territorial claims and initiating a real conflict. Despite the apparent advantages, a guaranteed response from the international community jeopardizes all benefits for the potential aggressor (for example, Beijing) from possible territorial acquisitions. In addition, the system of control and monitoring has been formed in the region with the direct participation of Russia. The guarantors of the system are, in particular, the SCO and the CSTO; the latter one has a sufficiently deterrent effect on the capacity of regional players to demonstrate invasive intentions.
Meanwhile, the international community developed a civilized way to resolve territorial disputes through diplomatic means such as long-term leasing of land, the creation of joint jurisdictions, etc. China has experience of transferring territories, for example, the 99-year lease of Hong Kong by the United Kingdom or the recognition of Macao as “Chinese territory under Portuguese administration” followed by the signing of the joint Declaration on the question of Macao. Since China became a successful economic power, Beijing has preferred to resolve territorial disputes through diplomatic instruments, rather than from a position of strength.
It should be pointed out that implementing its Belt and Road Initiative, China has never presented it as a charity project. Moreover, the initial goal was the development of the Central and Western regions of China. All foreign countries participating in the initiative expressed their desire to join it on the terms of mutually beneficial development. By accepting China’s offers and agreeing to its loans and investment projects, any of the countries had the opportunity to assess the risks and not participate in them, or to make a choice and develop their own economy on the terms of other financial institutions, such as Western ones. In this case, China acts in the Central Asian region like most major powers interested in strengthening their positions and promoting their political, economic and humanitarian agenda.
Possible allegations of Beijing concluding economic contracts on bonded terms should also be addressed to officials of the “affected” countries who agreed to these proposals from the Chinese side. At the same time, if it appears that one of the parties has not acted in its national interests, this is more a problem of the internal state structure of a particular country and its attitude to the work of its own officials, and to a much lesser extent – a claim to the development of bilateral relations with China.
It is also necessary to distinguish the official position of the state from the statements of individuals who often act in their own interests. For example, an article with the title “Why Kazakhstan seeks to return to China,” which is given as an example in the publication “Land leases and territorial claims of China in Central Asia and the South Caucasus,” was written by an anonymous blogger with just over 80 thousand subscribers (insignificant number according to the Chinese standards). An analysis of how the news was spread geographically by international media, as well as the contents of official statements, confirms the opinion of experts-sinologists that it was an attempt to gain popularity and “collect likes,” and has nothing in common with the official position of Beijing.
Another example of using the foreign policy agenda in the internal political struggle is the statement of the leader of the opposition party of Tajikistan, R. Zoirov, who accused China of moving the borderline 20 kilometers deeper into the territory of Tajikistan.
On the eve of the presidential elections in 2013, Tajikistan’s opposition once again tried to “accuse authorities of surrendering land to China” in the framework of the 2002 border demarcation agreement. China claimed 28 thousand square kilometers of Tajikistan’s territory, but as a result of the negotiations, it received just over 1 thousand square kilometers of high-altitude land unsuitable for life, without proven volumes of large deposits. The results of negotiations can be evaluated in different ways, but each country has the right to seek convenient forms of dispute resolution and debt repayment. In addition, this agreement was ratified by the government of Tajikistan only in 2011. The official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan described the statement of the opposition as a provocation, due to the fact that the author acts in his own interest. Later, it was revealed that Zoirov’s statement refers to 2011 and was “made two years ago and published just now.” According to R. Zoirov, he determined the distance to the border based on the statements of local residents. The official authorities of Tajikistan, China, Russia and other regional powers ignored information about China’s occupation of Tajikistan’s territory as unreliable.
Recognizing the high public sensitivity of transferring land from one state to repay credit obligations to another, it is necessary to proceed from the analysis of the contents of specific international agreements, the motives for signing them by current authorities, and the national interests of the parties involved. Otherwise, one is likely to discover a distorted interpretation of key events in line with the populist rhetoric of an unknown blogger or to be the recipient of information propaganda carried out by major powers competing for regional influence.
From our partner RIAC
From Central Asia to the Black Sea
In early June, China unveiled a new transportation corridor when a rail cargo of 230 tons of electrical appliances worth some $2,6 million arrived in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. Though distant from the South Caucasus, the development nevertheless has a direct impact on the geopolitics of the South Caucasus energy and transport corridor.
For centuries, Central Asia has been notorious for the lack of connectivity. Highways, railroads and pipelines were solely directed northwards towards Russian heartland. Geography also constrained the development of alternatives, but the problem is that other routes were also purposefully neglected during the Soviet times. Therefore, nowadays breaking these geographical boundaries equals to decreasing Russian influence in Central Asia.
Indeed, over the past 30 years, crucial changes have taken place where newly developed east-west transport links (from China to Central Asia, then South Caucasus) allow the region to be more integrated with the outside world. The primary motivator for this is China. The country strives to involve itself into the region’s economics and politics and, specifically, build ties with arguably the region’s most important geopolitical player – Uzbekistan. Beijing has already taken several important steps. For instance, China has become Uzbekistan’s top economic partner through growing trade and direct investment. Take the most recent example, Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will lend $100 million to Uzbekistan to help deal with the coronavirus pandemic and future public health disasters.
The new China-Uzbekistan corridor is some 295 km shorter and cuts five days off the standard 15 days-corridor which goes through Kazakhstan and Russia to reach Europe. As different forecasts indicate, the Kazakhstan-Russia corridor could lose some 10-15% of Chinese freight per year to the new China-Uzbekistan route – a significant number considering the massive amount of goods that move between between Europe and China.
What is crucial here is that the only viable route to ship freight to Europe from Uzbekistan is across the Caspian to Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Black Sea. Another possibility would be sending goods via the Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, then Iran and Turkey. However general insecurity along this route makes the Caspian option more promising.
These infrastructure changes in distant Central Asia as well as steady growth of shipments from China will further boost the fragile South Caucasus transport and energy corridor, which struggles to compete with enormous trade routes which go through Russia and elsewhere.
What makes the Caspian routes more interesting is the progress made in port development in Azerbaijan and Georgia. The ports of Baku and a small city of Alat have notably improved their infrastructure over the past several years. Located to the south of Baku, Alat is particularly promising as an estimated transshipment of the new port complex is potentially up to 25 million tons of cargo and 1 million TEU per year.
Similar trends of improving infrastructure take place along the rest of the South Caucasus corridor. In March, the Georgian government granted the APM Terminals a permit to start the expansion of Potin port. Essentially the project, which will add more than 1000 local jobs, involves the construction of a separate new deep-water multifunctional port (officially still a part of Poti port).
The project consists of two major phases: first stage of $250 million will take nearly 2-2,5 years to complete and will involve the development of a 1 700-meter-long breakwater and a quay with a depth of 13.5 meters. A 400-meter-long multifunctional quay for processing dry bulk cargo and further 150 000 TEUs will be added; the second stage envisages a 300-meter-long container quay. If all goes as planned, 1 million TEU yearly container capacity could be expected. What is more important for the infrastructure of the eastern Black Sea region and the geopolitics of transcontinental transshipment, the expanded Poti port would have the capacity to receive Panamax vessels.
Expansion of Poti will have regional implications. The port already enjoys the role of the largest gateway in the country and a major outlet for Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s trade with Europe. For instance, liquids, passenger ferries, dry bulk and container traffic go through Poti. Moreover, Poti port also serves as an alternative route for exporting wheat from Central Asia to the Black Sea and elsewhere.
As the work on the Poti expansion speeds up similar developments are taking place in Batumi. In 2019 Wondernet Express, Trammo and the government of Georgia announced plans to build a new terminal with total investment cap of 17,5 million euros. More importantly, the new facility will store up to 60 000 tons of mineral fertilizers coming from Central Asia through Azerbaijan.
From a wider geopolitical perspective, both port expansions enjoy US government support as American business interests are deeply intertwined. PACE terminals, a company which operates in the port of Poti for almost 30 years, is partially owned by a US-based company. This connection raises a possible longer-term vision of Poti’s and Batumi’s development as gateways not only for Georgia, but generally for the South Caucasus and Central Asia.
Overall, these connectivity trends will reinvigorate Trans-Caspian shipping. Moreover, though considered by many as unrealistic, the dormant Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), could gain traction. There is more to the story. I have mentioned the US support for the Georgian ports. Europe and Turkey share an identical position. All parties are interested in breaking Russia’s grip on gas export routes from Central Asia. Support for the east-west corridor across the South Caucasus has been present since the break-up of the Soviet Union, but rarely there have been such promising trends as there are now: steadily increasing China-Europe shipping; Chinese Belt and Road Initiative’s expansion into Central Asia; gradually improving rail-road and ports infrastructure in Georgia and Azerbaijan.
On a negative side, much still remains to be done. For instance, in Kyrgyzstan, through which the new China-Uzbekistan route goes, Chinese cargo has to be shipped by road which complicates shipment operations. Nearly the entire 400 km of the Kyrgyz section of the railway still needs to be built. So far, no solution is in sight as difficult mountainous landscape and Russian opposition complicate the issue. But the overall picture, nevertheless, is clear. Central Asia is gradually opening up, shipment across the Caspian increases and the expansion of the Georgian ports takes place creating a line of connectivity.
Author’s note: first published in Caucasuswatch
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