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Sino-Russian neighborhood policy: Kazakhstan – Euroasian heart of gold

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] Q [/yt_dropcap] uite untill recently Kazakhstan was commonly identified as an impervious, legendary and fascinating place, one of passionate, bloody dusks whose natural beauty, combined with the landscape diversity, made it the most seductive country in Central Asia. Today, though these features still distinguish it, it is placed in the new global scenario with a fully renewed guise which makes it the jewel in the area’s crown.

Over 20 years it actually managed to endow itself with its own structure and identity, doubtlessly more incisively and further reachingly than other ex USSR countries. This data may be even more appreciated if one considers its population, made up of only 17 million inhavitants, is subdivided into as many as 130 different religious confessions, which the state authorities were wisely able to harmonize, fleeing any attempt to ethnically-religiously characterize the Country. State modernization was also the fruit of smart economic choices, whose strategy did not stop on exclusively exploiting the huge energy resources available, but focussed on encouraging ambitious development projects based on the public – private partnership and attracting foreign investors tempted by the the privileged geographical position placing it near the greatest markets in Russia, China and India.

This geographical peculiarity makes Kazakhstan a transcontinental State and also a potential logistic platform for exchange between Europe and Asia and, in particular, in this moment which is recording an epochal change in geo-political, geo-economic scenarios which the greatest powers involved are also responding to via creating and planning great infrastructural works. In fact there is no doubt that in the emerging context, continental infrastructures form an essential moment for upturn, as they can influence both the technological modernization processes and foreign policy stability. As well as broadening works in the Suez Canals and Panama, which have surely stressed the role played by maritime links, one must in no way ignore the importance of the land ones, which see the Asian continent as one of the main characters.

Indeed, Asia – “pivot of the century”, which prof. Bajrektarevic describes as the place where “demographic-migratory pressures are huge, regional demands are high, and expectations are brewing” is the continent most interested in and involved by projects to create roads, tunnels and rail, infrastructures that should cross it from one strip to another. For example, China, which is playing a major role in this process, has for some years now got down to business, creating several strategic infrastructural projects that are useful in accompanying, protecting and raising the Country’s expansive capacities. This surely includes the great land and sea “New Silk Way” project, devised by Peking with the principal aim of moving China closer to the rest of the Euro-Asian continental mass, as well as developing the inland zones remaining behind the coastal strip. There can be no doubt that the full completion of this project will have weighty geo-political repercussions, if one just considers it focuses on linking Europe and Asia under an infrastructural, economic profile, and at the same time going against US replacing on the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean.

In this new picture, Kazakhstan, already identifying itself as as “bridge” and joining land between the economies of Europe and Asia, finds itself back in the heart of a new East-West efficiency logistic axis represented by the current surge of motorway, Railroad and pipeline constructions. This looks to new, ambitious business opportunities, some of them already grasped by Italian firms (like Salini Impregilo and Todini), already busy creating one of these international transit corridors, while others could be profiled following the passing of the new Nurly Zhol state development programme, “The Walk Toward the Future”.

This programme, which aims to modernize the infrastructure and internal transport apparatus, also in view of the Expo to be held in the very modern Astana in 2017, intends to encurage foreign investments in transport / logistic and industrial / energy sectors so as to make the Country more efficient and in step with the interconnection processes developing both on a global level and in the “Euro-Asian” strip. The Expo event is bound to contribute to giving gloss to the capital representing the perfect synthesis of modernizing processes launched in the last two decades as well as the last in the utopian cities chronologically.

Astana, bearing the signature of Japanese architect Kisko Kurokava with collaboration from artists and intellectuals, was devised to represent, despite its distinctive Winter temperatures, the perfect city of the future model and celebrate the growing power of Kazakhstan. A revolutionary city that expresses the vision of its its planner, man dominating nature, and also embodies environmental sustainability principles, breaking with traditional city structures. Astana was indeed planned and created in sectors, putting the zones in a row starting from the industrial one, located around the station so as to exploit transport possibilities, following with residential areas, with parks and gardens, with the government’s administrative ones and the diplomats’ zone. As well as Astana, Kazakhstan also dares on the maritime transport megastructures, suggesting a “Euro-Asian channel” so that its ships, starting from the Caspian Sea, can reach the Black Sea and from there, via the Bosphorus, the Mediterranean.

Should this proposal become reality, it could turn the Country, thanks mainly to its geographical position and its constructive big neghbours, into the great “Euro-Asia” logistic platform, a great centre to shift products and services and attract investments located in the golden “heart of the world”.

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Central Asia

Eurasian Economic Union Might Expand

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As the strained Russia-EU relations somewhat softened recently, and a rising cooperation is being seen over questions such as Ukraine and Moldova, Russia is on the economic offensive throughout the former Soviet space.

Valentina Matviyenko, a high ranking Russian official, announced recently that Uzbekistan had already decided to join the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and that final preparations are taking place in that regard.

Uzbekistan is arguably the most important country in Central Asia as it is the only state bordering all four “stans” (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan) of the region. From a purely geographic perspective, influence over Uzbekistan would increase Russian clout throughout the entire Central Asia.

Uzbekistan’s importance is also maximized by the fact that it possesses a pretty competitive industrial sector capable of producing various machinery and other vital products.

Uzbekistan’s membership of the EEU will also be a win for Moscow because of the latter’s quiet competition with the Chinese over the region, specifically in the economic and slightly military realms. As China rolls out its flagship Belt and Road Initiative, Uzbekistan is of primary importance to Beijing.

True, membership of the EEU will not mean cutting off trade between Uzbekistan and China, and the latter will certainly continue investing in the Uzbek economy. However, though no open animosity exists between Beijing and Moscow on Central Asia issues, Tashkent’s choice to become a member of the EEU will serve as a certain limit to rising Chinese ambitions.

On the other crucial front of Russia’s borderlands, Moscow is seemingly close to reaching a higher level of integration with Belarus (a country already an EEU member) by 2022. Though Minsk has officially refuted Russian plans on economic integration, it is clear that pressure from Moscow is indeed mounting and it is becoming increasingly difficult for Belarus to withstand various Russian moves.

Both events, which, at least according to the open source material, are likely to take place in the near future, will strengthen Russia’s position in Eurasia. It will also increase the EEU’s position and make the bloc economically more attractive for non-member former Soviet states such as Azerbaijan and potentially for Middle East powers (Iran and Turkey).

Though the expansion is a good indicator of Russia’s fortunes, in the long run it shows the limit of the EEU and Moscow’s strength. Still without Ukraine, the EEU is a constrained market, solely dominated by Russia, both economically, militarily and in terms of population numbers. In fact, as I have written in several articles for GT, nowadays the expansion of Russian economic (i.e. geopolitical) interests in Belarus and Uzbekistan is logical, as avenues for Moscow’s active foreign policy are limited to Central Asia and Belarus. Elsewhere (Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia), the Russian influence reached a certain limit, going beyond which would see Moscow needing to increase its military pressure in those countries.

Thus, Economic competition around Georgia and in wider Eurasia is intensifying, with large states increase their efforts to get smaller ones into their respective economic zones. All this is likely to build up geopolitical tensions in the super-continent.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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Unjustified Hope of Iran’s Central Asia Policy

Uran Botobekov

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The Washington factor has been and remains, if not the main obstacle, then at least a deterrent to Iran’s strengthening in Central Asia over the past thirty years. The former Soviet Central Asian Muslim republics – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – collectively known as the “Five Stans”, is a scene of the big game and intense rivalry. In view of geopolitical and geo-economic conditions, these countries have experienced ups and downs in collaboration with Iran. Amid the background of the intensifying Iranian crisis, this article presents a brief analysis of the cooperation between Iran and Central Asian countries, whose people are regional neighbors and have close linguistic, historical and cultural commonalities.

Iran’s “soft power” in Central Asia

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Iran was among the first countries to recognize the independence of the five Central Asian republics, intending to spread its influence through cultural, historical and religious commonalities. The establishment of the first diplomatic relations fell on Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was identified in Central Asia as a relatively moderate leader. He was well aware that after 80 years of communist influence, these “Stans” secular regimes would not accept any Islamic ideology. Therefore, in the late 1990s, his government sought to consolidate the foundations of cultural and historical ties as a tool of “soft power” of Iran’s Central Asia policy.

The main executive body for promoting Iranian “soft power” in the region has become the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO), a parastatal agency that is subordinate to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. This organization was considered Iran’s de facto public diplomacy organization and is under the control of the Supreme Leader’s office. By opening Iranian cultural centers in all Central Asian capitals, it has sought to institutionalize elements and patterns of its Persian language and culture in the region. Today, leading Central Asian faculties sufficiently promote Persian language courses that are supported by the Islamic Republic embassies.

In the light of the objectives of the present study, particularly Tajikistan case is seen as a tool of Iranian ‘soft power’ to create a “bridge” between Tehran and Central Asia and become a regional leader. These two ethnicities are considered relatively close, sharing the same Persian roots and constituting the basis of the “Great Persian World.”

Accordingly, with the financial support of Iran’s government, Research Projects such as the Tajik-Persian Culture Research Institute, the “Alhoda” bookstores and “Payvand” magazine have also had an important role in the regional influence. In accordance with the agreement on cooperation in the field of higher education, Tehran funded Tajik students to study at Iranian universities, especially in the modern Persian language and literature. In addition, in 2009, the Iranian state-run Persian News Agency opened its first office in Dushanbe. Correspondingly, Iran was able to represent itself as the main defender and provider of Persian heritage to the Tajik nation. 

Additionally, Iran has solidly invested in the Tajik economy, ranking itself as the second foreign investor after China. This was particularly seen during the rule of conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who due to the growing confrontation with the West, preferred cooperation with the northern post-Soviet countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus. His government funded the construction of the Anzob/Istiqlol tunnel through the Pamirs, and the Sangtuda-2 hydropower plant. Alongside its economic support, the Tehran government has been trying to implement its own nuclear project and receiving political support from Tajikistan.

A single geographical territory in the past made these countries to have closer cultural, economic and political integration. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to use the national-cultural identity as a starting point for creating a Union of Persian-Speaking Nations: Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Its first joint summit was held in Dushanbe onJuly 2006, when they decided to establish a jointly-run Persian-language TV channel called “Navrooz-TV”. Also Ahmadinejad’s initiative, the three states established the Economic Council of the Persian-Speaking Union in March 2008.

Regional Implications

The shift of political soft power is taking place at a time of intensified geopolitical uncertainty for Iran. Therefore, it is imperative to question whether Tehran’s ambitions to break out of international isolation was indeed successful. At first, the person spearheading this debate the most was none other than Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai, when the U.S. and NATO forces ensured country’s military, economic and financial stability of the country. Therefore keeping excessive close ties with Iran would damage its connections with powerful western partners. Secondly, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was negatively viewed at the new Persian Union as it has military and political leverage in Tajikistan. Consequently, Russia was firm in ensuring that Tehran would not strengthen its role in the region. Moreover, Iran’s activities in the Middle East, which caused inter-religious tensions between Sunni and Shia Islam, also affected the sentiments of Central Asian Muslims. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s historical rival, has taken active steps to reach out to Sunni Tajiks to bring them to its side. Over the past thirty years, the Gulf monarchy has spent billions of dollars on spreading radical Islam in the “Five Stans” and Iran’s retention.

Tit for tat

Relations between Tajikistan and Iran seriously deteriorated in 2015 as Tajik authorities accused Iran of supporting the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), attempting a coup d’état in the country and training Tajik Islamic militants in Iran. Iran incurred Tajikistan’s profound rage in December 2015, when Iran’s top leader Ali Khamenei received IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri, who left the country due to political persecution of the authorities. Dushanbe saw the hand of Iran in a terror act on July 2018, in Danghara where 4 foreign tourists were killed. Notwithstanding, Iran has diplomatically rejected the accusation, which deteriorated the relationship between the two Persian-speaking states.

The growth of anti-Iranian sentiment, accompanied by demonstrations in front of the Iranian embassy in Dushanbe, putting an end to Tehran’s initiative in creating a Union of Persian-Speaking Nations based on close linguistic, historical and cultural commonalities. Due to the opposition of regional players and the absence of a broad Shia base, Iran failed to implement the project of the “Great Persia” in Central Asia, as it tries in the Middle East.

As a result of growing tensions, Iran significantly reduced investment in the Tajik economy and closed its economic and cultural offices in the north of Tajikistan. To hold on to its strong lineage of refuting sanctions, Tajikistan banned the import of Iranian food and goods “due to poor quality”, abolished a simplified way of obtaining visas for Iranians, and closed the branch of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee.

After reaching the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and partial withdrawal of the international sanctions, the Rouhani government sought to resume broken relations with the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and East Asia. The result of this policy was a significant reduction in Iran’s trade with all the countries of Central Asia since 2016. According to official data, trade between Tajikistan and Iran decreased substantially more than three times, while Iran’s trade with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan experienced a significant loss in numbers.

Iran’s nuclear agenda in the Central Asian multilateral cooperation

The “diplomatic quarrel” and a “trade war” between Tajikistan and Iran negatively influenced Tehran’s ambition to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Even though Iran filed a formal application for membership in 2008, Tajikistan twice vetoed its admission and promptly placed its harsh posture against Iran. At the last SCO summit in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on June 2019, Russia and China firmly supported Iran and stated that the other members, despite the U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA, should respect the nuclear deal. Now that the temperature of tension between Tehran and Washington has reached its highest point, as the SCO has become one of the international platforms for Iranian President Rouhani, who accused the US of “serious” threat to regional and global stability.

Governments of the “Five Stans” seek to maintain a middle position on the Iranian nuclear issue, affirming the right of Iran to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Today, as the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy has cornered Iran and its economy has been in terrible pain, the new president of Kazakhstan, Kasymzhomart Tokayev, called for the resolution of nuclear contradictions through diplomacy. Being the country’s top diplomat and Prime minister in the 90s, Tokayev played a key role in eliminating Kazakhstan’s nuclear arsenal, inherited from the USSR, and gaining the status of a non-nuclear power. In the past, Kazakhstan has repeatedly called Iran to follow its example.

In addition, Iran and the Central Asian countries also cooperate within the framework of the OIC, the ECO and the CICA, whose platform Iran uses to accuse “American imperialism” and defend its nuclear ambition.

Conclusion

The ups and downs of bilateral and multilateral cooperation of Iran with the “Five Stans” over the past quarter-century have shown that Tehran failed to establish its zone of influence in Central Asia, in the same way as it has created Iranian proxy Shia groups in the Middle East. The main reason for Tehran’s inability to prove itself as an attractive economic partner in Central Asia is the US long-term strategy to contain Iran through economic sanctions and its confrontation with the West over its nuclear program. Therefore, despite the advantages of geographic, religious and cultural commonalities, Iran remains unable to open a “window” to Central Asia in conditions of international isolation and emerge as a regional power.

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Central Asia

Shifting Sands: Chinese encroachment in Central Asia and challenges to US supremacy in the Gulf

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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China and Russia are as much allies as they are rivals.

A joint Tajik-Chinese military exercise in a Tajik region bordering on China’s troubled north-western region of Xinjiang suggests that increased Chinese-Russian military cooperation has not eroded gradually mounting rivalry in Central Asia, long viewed by Moscow as its backyard.

The exercise, the second in three years, coupled with the building by China of border guard posts and a training centre as well as the creation of a Chinese security facility along the 1,300 kilometre long Tajik Afghan Border, Chinese dominance of the Tajik economy, and the hand over of  Tajik territory almost two decades ago, challenges Russian-Chinese arrangements in the region.

The informal arrangement involved a division of labour under which China would expand economically in Central Asia while Russia would guarantee the region’s security.

The exercise comes days after China and Russia operated their first joint air patrol and months after Tajik and Russian forces exercised jointly.

The “exercise represents a next step in China’s overall encroachment upon Russia’s self-proclaimed ‘sphere of influence’ in Central Asia,” said Russia expert Stephen Blank.

“Moscow has given remarkably little consideration to the possibility that China will build on its soft power in Central Asia to establish security relationships or even bases and thus accelerate the decline of Russian influence there,” added Eurasia scholar Paul Goble.

The perceived encroachment is but the latest sign that Russia is seeking to balance its determination to ally itself with China in trying to limit US power with the fact the Chinese and Russian interests may be diverging.

The limitations of Russian Chinese cooperation have long been evident.

China, for example, has refrained from recognizing Russian-inspired declarations of independence in 2008 of two regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia that recently sparked anti-government protests in Tbilisi.

China similarly abstained in a 2014 United Nations Security Council vote on a resolution that condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Meanwhile, Chinese dependence on Russian military technology is diminishing, potentially threatening a key Russian export market. China in 2017 rolled out its fifth generation Chengdu J-20 fighter that is believed to be technologically superior to Russia SU-57E.

Perhaps most fundamentally, Chinese president Xi Jinping opted in 2013 to unveil his Belt and Road initiative in the Kazakh capital of Astana rather than Moscow.

By doing so and by so far refusing to invest in railroads and roads that would turn Russia into a transportation hub, Mr. Xi effectively relegated Russia to the status of second fiddle, at least as far as the Belt and Road’s core transportation infrastructure pillar is concerned.

China’s recently published latest defense white paper nonetheless praised the continued development of a “high level” military relationship with Russia that is “enriching the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era and playing a significant role in maintaining global strategic stability.”

In a bid to ensure Russia remains a key player on the international stage and exploit mounting tension in the Gulf, Russian deputy foreign minister and special representative to the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov this week proposed a collective security concept that would replace the Gulf’s US defense umbrella and position Russia as a power broker alongside the United States.

The concept would entail creation of a “counter-terrorism coalition (of) all stakeholders” that would be the motor for resolution of conflicts across the region and promote mutual security guarantees. It would involve the removal of the “permanent deployment of troops of extra-regional states in the territories of states of the Gulf,” a reference to US, British and French forces and bases.

Mr. Bogdanov’s proposal called for a “universal and comprehensive” security system that would take into account “the interests of all regional and other parties involved, in all spheres of security, including its military, economic and energy dimensions” and ensure the provision of humanitarian assistance.

The coalition to include the Gulf states, Russia, China, the US, the European Union and India as well as other stakeholders, a likely reference to Iran, would be launched at an international conference on security and cooperation in the Gulf.

It was not clear how feuding Gulf states like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arb Emirates and Iran would be persuaded to sit at one table. The proposal suggested that Russia’s advantage was that it maintained good relations with all parties.

“Russia’s contributions to the fight against  Islamic terrorist  networks  and  the  liberation  of parts  of  Syria  and Iraq  can  be regarded  as  a  kind  of  test for  the role  of  sheriff  in  a  Greater Eurasia” that would include the Middle East, said political scientist Dmitry Yefremenko.

Mr. Putin this week  asserted himself as sheriff by signalling his support for embattled former Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev, a Putin crony who has been charged with corruption. Following a meeting in Moscow, Mr. Putin urged Mr Atembayev’s nemesis. president Sooronbai Jeenbekov, not to press charges.

At the same time, Mr. Putin, building on his visit to Kyrgyzstan in March, offered Mr. Jeenbekov a carrot.

Kyrgyzstan “needs political stability. Everybody needs to unite around the current president and to help him develop the state. We have many plans for cooperation with Kyrgyzstan and we are absolutely determined to work together with the current leadership to fulfill these plans,” Mr. Putin said.

Russia and Kyrgyzstan signed an agreement during the visit to expand by 60 hectares the Kant Air Base 20 kilometres east of the capital Bishkek that is used by the Russian Air Force and increase the rent Russia pays.

Mr. Putin further lavished his Kyrgyz hosts with US$6 billion in deals ranging from power, mineral resources and hydrocarbons to industry and agriculture.

Mr. Putin also allocated US$200 million for the upgrading of customs infrastructure and border equipment to put an end to the back-up of dozens of trucks on the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border because Kyrgyzstan has so far been unable to comply with the technical requirements of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyaev last month gave the EEU, that groups Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Belarus, and Armenia,  a boost by declaring that Uzbekistan would need to join the trade bloc to ensure access to its export markets.

EEU members account for 70 percent of Uzbek exports.

Said Russia and Eurasia scholar Paul Stronski: “China’s deft diplomacy towards Russia — along with both states’ desires to keep the West out of their common backyard — has kept tensions behind closed doors. But with China now recognising it may need to strengthen its security posture in the region, it is unclear how long this stability will last.”

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