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Russia and Central Asia: Between Pragmatism and Geopolitics

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The recent armed border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as the extremely uncertain prospects for the central government in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the US and its allies, have forced us to re-examine the question of the extent of Russia’s responsibility for what is happening in Central Asia. Most of the countries in the region are formal allies of Russia, as members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation or, like Uzbekistan, on the basis of a bilateral agreement. The chances that other major powers will be able to provide their capabilities to ensure the security of Central Asia are negligible. At the same time, Moscow’s economic interest in this region is not significant, and therefore we can only talk in terms of pure geopolitics.

The defining condition for Russian policy towards the Central Asia region now is the absence of an immediate threat to national security in the form of a hostile alliance of states or one strong power. Russia does not come into contact with regional institutions, the collective interest of which could conflict with its interests and dictate the behaviour of its participants. The largest military power in the neighbourhood is China, with which Russia has friendly relations approaching those of an alliance. Central Asia itself does not represent an integral problem for Russia, like Europe or the South Caucasus; the concerns associated with it are quite occasional, although sometimes they can become urgent.

External challenges excluded, in the long term, the most serious issue in relations may be associated with the process of the formation of nation states in Russia and the countries of Central Asia, and the resulting grounds for alienation. The answer to this challenge can be in a more harmonic process of inevitable generational change, in order to preserve the integrity of the common space, regardless of the influence of the common historical experience. In other words, now it is necessary to strive to ensure that the countries’ common heritage serves as the foundation for a unifying tradition of co-development. Russia should not be misled by the fact that its culture, including pop culture, and its language are now predominant among the countries of Central Asia. At the same time, the countries of Central Asia should not be mistaken in their reading of Russian foreign policy — respect here is very easy to confuse with composure, which could have tragic consequences.

The factors that determine the nature of interaction between Russia and the Central Asian states include their shared geopolitical position. The border between Russia and Central Asia is a steppe that does not have natural obstacles. Its openness and its unsuitability for marking clear dividing lines is naturally transferred to the spheres of political, economic and cultural interaction across state borders. This leads to the fact that in the area from Southern Siberia to the foothills of the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains, a serious form of isolation becomes difficult for Russia to implement.

From the Russian perspective, Central Asia does not begin immediately, it gradually manifests itself in the individual features in the landscape, the appearance of cities, and the national and religious composition of the population long before the traveller crosses the state border. The formal national border between Russia and the Central Asian states is a man-made line, the existence of which is ensured by the good will of the states, and does not rest on such natural boundaries as mountain ranges, large rivers or seas. In fact, Russia and Central Asia is a common space, which determines and will determine the nature and content of relations between states. Amid such geographic conditions, traditional forms of interaction between powers acquire a specificity that distinguishes them from relations between countries which are clearly separated by natural barriers.

It can be assumed that this is precisely why the issue of “dissociation” from Central Asia remains so painful in the Russian narrative — due to the perceived impossibility of doing this in reality. The region’s significant demographic potential looked frightening for Russia within the framework of the USSR. It became one of the reasons why in 1991, Moscow easily went about guaranteeing the secession of the Central Asian republics, effectively getting rid of them in its quest to renew the Russian state, its economy and society. Rapprochement and integration with this region has never been seen in Russia as a priority of national foreign policy, in contrast to relations with Europe or the Slavic states of the former USSR — Belarus and Ukraine.

We must admit that, in a sense, Russia has always wanted to isolate itself from Central Asia as much as it sought to become a part of Europe, and both tasks appeared equally unsolvable. Therefore, the main attention of Russia in relations with regional states in the coming years can be focused on promoting their internal stability, preventing the large-scale archaisation of societies and, as a result, destabilisation with subsequent transformation into many local centres of religious extremism.

In the 30 years since the collapse of the USSR, the states of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — have gone their own way and, in each case, pursued original path of independent development. Due to the fact that they initially did not have the prospect of mechanistic inclusion in an alternative jurisdiction, as happened with the Baltic countries and could happen with other republics of the Western part of the so-called post-Soviet space, this historical experience turned out to be unique for each of the Central Asian states, although there are some features that unite them.

There are no prerequisites for the formation of an institutionalised association in the region that is an alternative to Russian interests, and now none of the integration groups, except the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which already includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, can consider these countries as their participants. At the same time, greater interaction between countries at that level within the region will bring Russia more benefits than concerns, since it will not be able to become a factor that forms an organised hostility towards Russian interests and values in these countries.

Russia and the Central Asian states jointly touch the southern belt of Eurasia, which includes such states as Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Their own scale and demographics make absorption and full integration with Russia and Central Asia impossible. At the same time, there are historically strong and fundamental ties between this region and such Central Asian countries as Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. Afghanistan itself is a clear dividing line between East and West, North and South, underpinned by its mountainous topography and complex ethnic composition. An important common task for Russia and the Central Asian states may be to maintain relative peace in this country after the changes that will occur in 2021, and its inclusion in international economic relations, including the main continental transport routes.

Iran, as one of the civilisational states of the modern world, will always remain a challenge for Russia and Central Asia. The scale of Iran and its cultural foundations form the country’s foreign policy, theoretically accessible for temporary force control from the outside, but not suitable for integration into wider communities. Iran’s intentions will always be vague to its neighbours. Turkey has an understandable desire to increase its interaction with the kindred peoples of Central Asia, but itself is experiencing colossal political and cultural pressure from the West, and does not have sufficient power to act as an alternative to the Russian pole of power in international politics.

India, in turn, is too big to develop within a community of states. China could theoretically offer Russia and Central Asia ideas and economic opportunities for joint development, but it has reasonable concerns about Central Asia’s openness to the Islamic world and the need to more actively interact in the region with a powerful ally such as Russia. The United States and other Western countries look at the region only in the context of their economic and diplomatic relations with the largest Eurasian powers — China, India and Russia. We can hardly expect that such an approach can serve as an external basis for the Central Asian countries to achieve their main development goals.

Europe ceased to exist as a factor in the development of the region after the disappearance of the British colonial empire in the mid-20th century, and will no longer be able to designate its presence here as a force influencing the security and development of states. This, however, cannot be a factor excluding the positive role of European, American or East Asian investments in increasing the socio-economic resilience of the Central Asian countries. However, this is not a merit of interstate relations, but a natural effect of the fact that the world keeps a relatively high degree of economic openness, and business is looking for ways to keep the most attractive investments for itself.

Thus, the Russian policy towards Central Asia has a fairly solid foundation and is much less affected by the negative factors that are now inherent in the international system. This, of course, creates a temptation for Moscow to consider the countries of the region lower in priority order than those directions of real threats (Europe and the Middle East) or pronounced economic opportunities (East Asia). If, after 2021, Central Asia faces an immediate threat from the south, Russia will need to increase its military cooperation with the governments of this region. However, Russia is no longer likely to strive to take full responsibility on its own — a condition for this would be the total return of Central Asia to the imperial order controlled by Moscow, and there are no conditions for this. Therefore, in the future, Russia will rely on the independent capabilities of regional states and interaction with China, which is no less interested in its internal stability than Moscow.

From our partner RIAC

PhD in Political Science, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club; Academic supervisor of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, HSE University, RIAC Member

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Central Asia

China and Russia Build a Central Asian Exclusion Zone

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Last month, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted the China+Central Asia Foreign Ministers’ meeting in the Chinese city of Xi’an. This is the second such meeting, which increasingly focuses (with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan) on geopolitical issues. More broadly, it signals China’s lack of concern for what Russia considers its vital economic and political interests in the region. Top of the agenda was Afghanistan, as China worries about possible spillover to Central Asia and its eastern provinces as U.S. and allied troops prepare to evacuate in September.

Yet the greatest issue in Central Asia’s changing geopolitical landscape is economics and trade. China promised a number of new projects during the Xi’an gathering. Increased cooperation was pledged in agriculture, health and education, trade, energy, transportation, and even archaeology. More importantly, China vowed to help Kyrgyzstan to alleviate its debt pile and pressed it to approve a railroad linking China to Uzbekistan. Set to play a major role in connecting China with the Middle East and South Caucasus, the project has seen constant delays. Partly, that is due to economic and political troubles in Kyrgyzstan, but Russia too is partly responsible, fearing the corridor would divert a significant portion of transit cargo from its railroad tracks. Regardless, the direction of travel is clear: each economic agreement makes the region more closely aligned to China.

China has recognized that large and unwieldy summits often fail to provide the expected results and now increasingly favors small meetings. It does the same with other regions, including South-East Asia. This is far more efficient and as by far the biggest power in the room, it can dominate the agenda and outcome.

Naturally, these developments have a significant effect on Russia, the traditional powerbroker in Central Asia, and invites the question of whether it has been eclipsed. It certainly maintains significant military capabilities — recently improved — through bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and intermittent military cooperation with the region’s other countries. Russia is also a powerful economic player: it is a major trade partner for the five states, a vital source of investment, and a significant source of remittances from Central Asian migrant workers. Furthermore, Russia has joint security and economic initiatives in the region such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Last but not least, the region is close culturally to Russia through the use of Russian as the lingua franca.

China has taken aim at every sphere of Russia’s influence, and it would be surprising if these developments did not cause grievances. Certainly, there is a growing narrative in the West about an impending geopolitical showdown between the two sides in Central Asia.

The reality, however, might be more nuanced and the analysis mere wishful thinking.

To understand the nature of the China-Russia competition in Central Asia it is crucial to look into the evolving world order and what non-liberal powers seek to achieve. One of the peculiarities of the post-liberal order is the extreme regionalization of geopolitically sensitive areas. Large powers neighboring the region seek to exclude third powers. Russia pursues it successfully in the South Caucasus where together with Turkey and partially Iran, it seeks to dislodge the collective West. A similar process is underway in Syria and can be applied to the South China Sea, where China tries to settle territorial problems directly with its neighbors and without U.S. involvement.

Appearances might be deceptive. Russia and China are competitors, but they are unlikely to turn into rivals. The West should reconsider some fundamental aspects of its thinking in regards to this Central Asian partnership.

Engagement with Central Asia could certainly help, and its absence would simply hand over Central Asia to the two powers. The region is in a dire need of rebalancing, and more room to maneuver. Both Russia and China are appreciated and feared in Central Asia. The West’s position will be critical though, and it must formulate a coherent strategy for economic and political engagement with Central Asia, or be locked out.

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Kazakhstan under President Tokayev – transformation in all spheres

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Around two years ago, a change of leadership took place in Kazakhstan, when Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took over as Head of State following presidential elections. Since then, numerous reforms have been implemented in the country. Prior to these elections, Nursultan Nazarbayev was the president for almost three decades until 2019 and built a foundation that enabled Kazakhstan to become the biggest economy and top investment destination in the region. Under Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan also managed to build good relations with all its neighbours, as well as with Europe and the United States.

There has been a shift in focus after 2019. President Tokayev is concentrating not just on economic reforms and foreign relations, but also on political changes in the country. Prior to change in leadership, the country primarily focused on economic development and investment attraction. Indeed, Kazakhstan still has the ambition to become one of the top 30 most developed countries in the world.  Yet according to Kazakhstan’s current president, political changes are necessary to achieve economic development. One may wonder why these reforms matter outside of Kazakhstan. Yet the country is the top trading partner in Central Asia for the European Union and plays a key role in facilitating trade between China and the rest of the world through the Belt and Road project. Kazakhstan is also a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union and is an active member of the international community, supporting the United States, Russia and other global powers in the resolution of conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan. Ultimately, the political and economic course of Kazakhstan impacts not only the country itself, but also the wider region and beyond.

One of Tokayev’s most significant changes is bringing the population closer to politics, and establishing what he calls “a listening state” – a government that listens to the feedback and criticisms of the population. To enhance dialogue between the government and the people, a National Council of Public Trust was established by Tokayev in 2019. Its aim is to develop specific proposals for reforms and legislation, taking into account the suggestions of civil society and the wider public. Making the national and local government more accountable improves its effectiveness and enables it to better fight long-lasting problems, such as corruption. In this regard, the country’s legal system has been transformed by transitioning it to a service model of work, which calls for a more active and responsible role for law enforcement personnel.

Public administration also required substantial reform as it is plagued by serious bureaucracy. As such, Tokayev instructed the government to reduce the number of civil servants by 25% while also hiring younger cadres. The President, who himself frequently uses social media, also made it a priority to digitise government services to increase efficiency.

In addition to political reforms, Tokayev has prioritised diversifying the economy to avoid excessive dependence on natural resources. For this reason, despite the lure of focusing on oil, gas, uranium and other raw materials that Kazakhstan exports, Tokayev has instructed the government to maximise the potential of agriculture, especially due to the fact that Kazakhstan neighbours China and other rapidly developing Asian countries, which require vast amount of seeds, grains and livestock.

Social reforms have also been realised. Tokayev recently stressed that “economic reforms are justified and supported only when they increase the income of a country’s citizens and ensure higher standards of living”. In practice this means protecting the most vulnerable, as well as individuals and companies that depend on loans to start a business. As such, Tokayev is aiming to expand the amount of bank loans, and direct them to companies that increase value by means of innovation, while reducing the number of inefficient enterprises run by the state. To support those that suffered the most from the economic consequences of the pandemic, the president offered his support to cancel penalties for bank loans.

Another interesting social measure that is likely to have long-term effect is Tokayev’s attempt to gradually revert the idea that higher education should be the ultimate goal of every student. Instead, Tokayev aims to reduce the number of universities to promote vocational centres and colleges that teach specific technical skills. The belief is that this is necessary in order to adapt to the needs of the market, which requires a variety of specialists.

Overall, while it is too early to assess the long-term impact of Tokayev’s presidency and his reform programme, it is clear that he is trying to fight old demons domestically, by shifting Kazakhstan away from old Soviet thinking and system of governance. The interplay between the domestic and external challenges aggravated by the test of COVID-19 and its consequences, will demonstrate whether Tokayev’s reforms are strong enough to help the country cope with the new era.

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The Turkish Konrul: How Ankara Uses the Turkic Council to Re-Engage in Central Asia

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The countries of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — are divided between the remaining influence of Russia, the heir of the Soviet Union, which plays a considerable cultural and military role (e.g., within the Collective Security Treaty Organization) in the region, and the growing economic influence of China. Nevertheless, this apparent bipolar balance is incomplete, as the weight of a third country, Turkey, needs to be taken into consideration when we speak about the future of Central Asia.

Although Ankara is not in close geographical proximity to the region or has no nuclear arsenal, and therefore cannot be considered a superpower like Moscow and Beijing, it has managed to maintain its influence in Central Asia for several centuries—thanks to religion (Islam) and the Turkish language, whose significant impact is still felt in the region. Therefore, whereas China is now the first economic partner in the area, while Moscow is in charge of regional security, it is Turkey that has the most considerable soft power, an asset Erdogan is trying to reinforce through the Cooperation Council of the Turkic-Speaking States (the Turkic Council) to increase its global influence.

While it offers an alternative to the vision of a Central Asia under the bipolar influence of Moscow and Beijing, the Turkic Council is no less imperfect, as this article aims to show, but it has potential for development that might open up Central Asia and bring it closer to the Middle East, while allowing Turkey to reconnect with the glorious history of the Ottoman Empire.

In the end, it is through the Turkic Council that Ankara could become a global power again and, like the Konrul (a Turkish version of the Western phoenix), assert itself as a great power on the international scene, without having to resort to obtaining any nuclear arsenal.

The Turkic Council in the spotlight

The Turkic Council is an international organization founded on October 3, 2009 in Nakhchivan in Azerbaijan, comprising some of the Turkic countries—states which are Turkic-speaking, of Turkic origins, or both—consisting of Turkey, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, so to say most of Central Asia.

It is noteworthy that the idea for the Council did not come from Turkey, which at the time was mainly focused on EU integration, but emerged from Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2006, the same political leader who proposed the idea of a Eurasian Union, which became a reality in 2015.

The premise was simple enough at the time. Countries, like Kazakhstan, needed to find a way to be connected to the rest of the world. While the Eurasian Union could increase the economic and military relations with Russia, the Turkic Council would represent the cultural and religious interests of the Central Asian countries.

As many of Nursultan Nazarbayev’s projects, the Eurasian Union and the Turkic Council have moved on. The Eurasian Union has turned into a solely economic co-operation, and the Turkic Council is struggling with integrating states such as Turkmenistan, which is currently not a member of the Council because of its neutral status.

Nevertheless, the Council is among the fastest growing international organizations, and on 30 April 2018 it was announced that Uzbekistan would join. The country attended the summit of the organization before officially applying for membership on 12 September 2019.

Interest is growing and since the end of 2018, Hungary has had observer status and could potentially apply for full membership. Furthermore, in 2020, the Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister, Emine Ceppar, stated that Ukraine wanted to be an observer like Hungary. Meanwhile, on 3 May 2021, Afghanistan officially applied for observer status. Overall, the potential is impressive as Turkish influence in the world remains substantial and could interest some countries with Turkic minorities, such as Gagauzia in Moldova, and possibly states, such as Germany, due to the Turkish diaspora (3-7 million people of Turkish origin currently live in Germany).

Differences between the participating states are evident, and while the Central Asian states are interested in membership to avoid dependence on Russia and China, some countries, such as Azerbaijan, are doing so to strengthen the relationship with Turkey and gain more support in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In its turn, Hungary is prospecting alternatives to the European Union.

The projects are clustered into six cooperation areas: economy, culture, education, transport, customs and diaspora. Examples of projects include the establishment of the Turkish University Union and the drafting of a common history textbook. The Turkic Council is also working on ways to stimulate economic development and functions as an umbrella organization for cooperation mechanisms such as:

– Parliamentary Assembly of the Turkic Speaking Countries (TURKPA) in Baku;

– International Organisation of Turkic Culture (TURKSOY) in Ankara;

– International Turkic Academy in Nur-Sultan;

– Turkic Cultural Heritage Fund;

– Center of Nomadic Civilisations in Bishkek;

– Turkic Business Council in Istanbul.

Unlike many other international organizations, the Council presents itself with labels of ‘family’ and ‘brotherhood,’ emphasizing the difference with the Western world. As such, the ties between members are rooted in blood and Islam, certainly a more emotional component than in the case of the EU or the Eurasian Economic Union.

FinTech and crypto-currencies: A missed opportunity

In 2021, there are no plans to establish a digital currency or to adopt a common crypto-currency for all Council members. This approach may come as a surprise, as each member country has its own currency with significant fluctuation rates, which hinders the implementation of common projects and exchanges, in fine leading to the adoption of the U.S. dollar for large-scale projects.

The adoption of a new or existing crypto-currency (e.g., Stellar), whether centralized or decentralized, by all the states of the Turkic Council would strengthen economic cooperation between the members. Turkey’s recent attitude on this issue in the spring of 2021 could nonetheless delay the adoption of this technology.

A Turkish or Central Asian institution?

Looking at all elements, one can argue that Ankara is the main country interested in the Council because it remains the largest military, economic and demographic power there. Moreover, it reinforces Turkish influence, as joining the European Union is not a target to Ankara anymore.

Nonetheless, from the Central Asian states’ perspective, the Council seems to be more of a Kazakh project because it avoids the containment of Central Asia and provides an alternative to the two surrounding giants, Moscow and Beijing. As such, Central Asian states strengthening their ties with Turkey aims to ensure respect for Muslim values and develop new partnerships to export gas abroad, with Turkey being a large market. The Turkic Council thus seems to represent the variety of interests in the region, with each country having an interest in joining it.

A modern view of Islam?

Another interesting element is that the Turkic Council promotes a different view of Islam, which can be seen as a ‘soft’ Islam. The member states of the Turkic Council are less fundamentalist than the countries in the Middle East and there is no ban on alcohol consumption, while many families are monogamous. This is crucial as it could have an impact on the practice of Islam amongst prospective new member states, such as Afghanistan.

While Western organizations often enter into confrontation with the Muslim world (e.g., Iran-United States relations), the Turkic Council might present a better way to engage with other Muslim countries, as it is a softer version of Islam that nevertheless shares the same religious beliefs.

Opportunities and challenges of the Turkic Council

Although it has ambitions, the Council remains a complementary alliance and cannot substitute for security organizations (NATO for Turkey and the CSTO for the Central Asian states). Moreover, while it strengthens economic partnerships, China remains the main actor in Central Asia, and it is not possible for the Council to become an alternative to establishing commercial ties with Beijing.

The same is true for Azerbaijan, and while Baku has received support from the Muslim world in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the main decision-maker on the outcome of this conflict remains the Kremlin, as Russia is a nuclear superpower.

Another limitation of cooperation is that Beijing may want to strengthen its soft power in Central Asia in the coming years. So far, China has accepted to remain a mere economic power (with an attempt to strengthen its military power in the Wakhan corridor). Nevertheless, Beijing is expected to take a more active soft power approach by increasing its investment in promoting Confucianism and the Chinese language around the world, and more so in its neighborhood.

The Turkic Council has carried out many valuable projects, particularly in the field of education, and while its potential remains substantial, the Council’s members must ensure that it will work in line with Chinese interests in Central Asia and the Middle East to avoid a confrontation.

Ultimately, the Turkic Council is a valuable tool for building up Turkish religious approach and soft power in Central Asia, but the economy and the implementation of cutting-edge technologies are likely to remain in Chinese hands, while Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union are complementary and might contribute to the emergence of a tripolar order in the region.

From our partner RIAC

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