Terrorism and security have newly become one of the top priorities in post-Soviet Central Asia. States are discussing how to face the threat of a strengthening of the terrorism and, in particular, of the Islamic State. The attention to this phenomenon has been growing in relation to the Russian involvement in the Syrian war and the risk of a “contagion” that, from North Africa and Middle East, could affect Central Asia.
Both internally and regionally, during 2015 there have been discussions about anti-terrorist measures to implement and focused on the security aspects. But, actually, what is the level of the threat the states are facing? In the face of concerns expressed by national governments, sources and analyses point out a more intricate reality that needs to be examined more in depth. The possibility of a strengthening of the radical groups is concrete and different elements prove it. There are no certain figures, but it is estimated that from these countries diverse thousands of youths joined ISIS or other Islamic radical groups in Syria and Iraq. Their presence is considered to be around 1.500-2.000 militants, up to a maximum of even 4.000 people. Official numbers, in fact, could also hide governments’ strategy to underestimate or exaggerate the number of foreign fighters, in order to purse their own internal purposes in facing radical groups. Beyond these figures, what concerns is the possibility of an “expansion” of the Caliphate in the Eurasian region that could take place also with the adhesion of indigenous militias to ISIS, its ideology and its strategy. An example of such risk comes from the pledge of loyalty made by the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan last August. However, it is not only a matter of ISIS, because another factor to be considered is the evolution of the fighting in Afghanistan. Taliban, indeed, could represent a potential element of instability for bordering countries, like Turkmenistan.
In the face with this situation, the Russian Federation is trying to play its role of leading actor in the region for security issues through the definition of a common anti-terrorism policy, involving all other Central Asian states. Moscow has direct interest in limiting the expansion of islamist groups, in stabilising bordering countries and in reducing the proliferation of radical elements in its territory. In addition to Central Asians foreign fighters, what worries Moscow is the presence of 1.500-3.000 Russian citizens in war zones. Moreover, Russia itself has become a land of recruitment for jihadist movements, which acquire new militants from the emigrants resident in the large Russian cities, where tough living conditions pave the way for cultural and social marginalization and the split up between young Islamic workers from the rest of the society. This evolution has made the Russian, the third language – after Arab and English – in Islamic State’s propaganda and recruitment activities.
By its own side, Moscow has military bases and the lead of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the most important regional security structure. In the last CSTO’s summits (in Dushanbe and Moscow) it has been underlined the risk for the five Central Asian states and Russia, but the path to a common anti-terrorist initiative it’s not easy. CSTO doesn’t include two key states like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Moreover, central Asians are wary over a possible return of Russian influence in the region. This concern is in part emerged with the constitution of the Eurasian Economic Union, but is much stronger in relation to the possibility of a Russian-led common defensive policy, because it could be interpreted as a blow to the sovereignty of these countries.
So, even if the issue of a coordinated policy is always on the agenda, the answers against terrorist threat have assumed different faces. Elaborated on the root of problems, prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic reminded us recently in his seminal piece ‘No more War on Terror, please’: “But, terror is a tactics, not an ideology. How can one conduct and win war on tactics? – it is an oxymoron.”
Turkmenistan, for example, has maintained his neutrality position and repeatedly underlined its will to protect the integrity of the state from any kind of intrusion. Even if it is one of those states forced to face the major threat – since reports pointed out incidents at its Afghan borders – Turkmenistan is contrary to any kind of “intrusion” in its sphere of sovereignty. Only in recent days, Ashgabat reached an agreement with Russia for security cooperation, which include the control of Turkmen-Afghan border, in order to limit eventual border crossing by Taliban forces. In other cases, instead, the menace might be used as an instrument through which governments can crack down opposition groups. Among states “suspected” of these practices there is Tajikistan. The country suffers hundreds of young in the forces of the Caliphate and recently even one of the most influential military officials, Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, abandoned institutional ranks to join ISIS. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon described the Islamic State “the 21st century plague” and started a crackdown on Islamic groups highly criticized, starting speculations about the real nature of the governmental intentions. Many suspects, in fact, that some measures – like the disbandment of the opposition movement Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, the ban of veil for women and the strong invitation for the men to shave their beard – have little to do with security issue. In Uzbekistan, where President Karimov is conducting a years-long war against terrorism, government decided to implement new anti-terrorist measures.
Kazakhstan, instead, has chosen another path. Recently, Astana declared to have allocated more resources for security apparatus, but there is more. Contrary to the other Central Asians republics, Astana has taken up the idea of a regional cooperation to this issue. Speaking to the 70th UN General Assembly last September, President Nursultan Nazarbayev advanced a proposal (previously presented in SCO summit in Ufa) for the creation of an “anti-terrorist global network” under the aegis of the United Nations and with the involvement of regional defense structures, like CSTO. Kazakh President underlined that global threats requires global answers, stressing the necessity to re-unite the different alliances constituted in order to coordinate them. A vision – this – that brings Russia and Kazakhstan even closer on security issue. Another element to underline about Kazakh strategy is the role conceded in its anti-terrorism law to social and cultural factors, in order to prevent the spread of religious radicalism and extremism. Only years to come will say if this particular approach will give its results.
The necessity of a common answer should start also by the consideration that the Eurasian one presents itself as an increasingly significant key region. The attention toward Central Asians states is determined by their relevance as raw materials suppliers, their strategic transit routes and importance for the political stability: single States’ instability – due to the rise of domestic radical groups or to the return of foreign fighters – can produce an impact on the whole area and even on Russia and China.
At the same time, is necessary a thought-out look about the real entity of the issue. Many reports indicate that Central Asians states are lesser in danger than other regions’ countries. According to the 2015 “Global Terrorism Index” Central Asia is less in danger than Europe. Eurasian states have “good performances” not only in respect of the most troubled nations, but even of their more influential neighbors, Russia and China. The five former Soviet Central Asian states have been included in the “lowest impact of terrorism” and “no impact” categories, ranging from 83rd rank (of 162 countries classified) of Kazakhstan to the last position of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
This standing can result exaggerated, especially in a phase in which terrorism is living a rising trend, but it can help to value the relative stability of these countries. Moreover, it can help in understanding that disproportionate reactions can lead to counterproductive effects in medium-long term. In some cases, restrictions and repressions seems to respond to necessities of internal politics. The real risk is that such measures might contribute to an increasing expansion of radicalism and dissatisfaction with the institutions. Poverty, social and cultural marginalization, ethnic discriminations, lack of efficient politics and the increasing economic difficulties in these states are among other factors able to strengthen radical groups beyond the “religious ideology”. The answer can’t include only security aspects, because fundamentalism can grow for economic, social and cultural reasons. In this regard, the aforementioned Kazakh law on anti-terrorism, with its comprehensive attitude toward the issue, could represent a viable approach in the fight against religious extremism and radicalism. Only time, however, can say if this kind of solution can work and if Central Asia can prevent the rise of terrorism and instability.
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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