Posts Tagged ‘Russia-Central Asia’

Another piece for the excellent Nikkei Asian Review, this time trying to make the point that there is a missed opportunity for the west in Central Asia. It is a not a new point for me, but it does seem to be something which is all the more relevant given current events in Ukraine. The title is a bit more blunt about the great gaming element of the intended idea than was meant, the idea was really about getting the west to focus on the region and highlight the region’s agency a bit more.

Western powers should exploit Central Asia’s unease over Ukraine war

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have both distanced themselves from Moscow

Demonstrators take part in an anti-war rally in support of Ukraine in Almaty on Mar. 6: Kazakhstan has allowed large protests against the war.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire” (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been received differently around the world, especially in Central Asia, where the two most powerful countries have both expressed clear signs of concern at Moscow’s behavior. There is an opportunity here for the West if they have the agility to take it.

While the modern countries of Central Asia were among the last to separate from the Soviet Union, since then, they have embraced independence and sought to forge a sense of nationhood. Still, when it comes to Russia and its potential to behave like an overbearing bully, there remains a lurking sense of trepidation, even though Russia remains vital to their development, security and future.

Nowhere is this more true than in Kazakhstan, where a similar narrative that Russia has used to invade Ukraine twice and Georgia can also be applied.

In the north of Kazakhstan, there is an ethnic Russian community that makes up around 20% of Kazakhstan’s total population. At the same time, Vladimir Putin sometimes takes digs at Kazakhstan’s legitimacy as a state; a theme periodically picked up by Russian nationalist commentators and officials who like to claim that Kazakhstan or at least part of it is theirs.

While few in Central Asia were surprised by Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine, this had not diminished their horror at what was unfolding there. For the region, Ukraine was an important partner as well as a fellow former Soviet state.

Central Asia has expressed concern about Russian behavior before. In 2008, they criticized Russia’s actions in Georgia, while in 2014, they sought to try to find ways of encouraging Moscow to peacefully resolve its dispute with Ukraine. In both instances, Russia sought to pressure the Central Asian powers to back its actions.

This time around, the Central Asian powers have been even more vocal. While Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have stayed predictably quiet, the Kyrgyz have made positive remarks seemingly supportive of Putin’s actions but also allowed protests against the war. But the two most powerful states, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, have made clear signs of wanting to highlight their independence.

Neither country has acceded to Russia’s request to formally recognize the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kazakhstan has allowed large protests against the war, sent aid to Ukraine and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has held talks with Putin and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In Uzbekistan, while public opposition to the war has been more limited, influential Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov declared his support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Moscow has also not been oblivious to the mood in Central Asia. In mid-March, Russia held large-scale training exercises in Tajikistan, while Russia’s Minister of Economic Development Maxim Reshetnikov spoke at a Tashkent trade event highlighting the opportunities for Uzbekistan in the wake of Western sanctions on Russia, as well as encouraging Uzbekistan to play a more active role in Eurasian Economic Union.

Central Asians only need to look back to last August at the fall of Kabul to remember how Moscow rushed in with military aid and support to defend themselves from the unfolding chaos in Afghanistan, while it was Russian soldiers who were called on by Kazakhstan to help stabilize the country during violent protests at the beginning of the year.

Collective Security Treaty Organization peacekeepers are on guard in Almaty on Jan. 11: It was Russian soldiers who were called on by Kazakhstan to help stabilize the country. (Handout photo from Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)   © AP

All of which makes the signals from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan over Ukraine all the more striking. While the criticism may be tempered, it is nevertheless a sign that both countries are eager to show they are not in lockstep with Moscow.

The most recent sign of this was Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko telling German newspaper Die Welt last week that Kazakhstan did not want to be on the wrong side of a new Iron Curtain and would welcome any companies who were finding themselves obliged to exit Russia as a result of Western sanctions.

This was an opportunistic statement and a clear message that Kazakhstan has little desire to be consigned to simply being part of the Russian space involved in a geopolitical conflict with the West. Instead, Kazakhstan wants to maintain its links with the West, something reinforced by the reforms President Tokayev has announced in the wake of the civil unrest earlier in the year.

All of this presents an interesting opportunity for Western countries if they can figure out how to take it. Central Asia’s two most influential players have hinted at a desire to assert their independence from Russia, but Western powers have largely taken their eyes off Central Asia in the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. This disinterest was compounded by the unrest in Kazakhstan earlier in the year, which highlighted the region’s volatility, as well as the fact that a tendency toward repression still exists.

For Western powers eager to find ways of shaping the new global order to their advantage, however, Central Asia is an interesting theater to explore. Increased Western support for Central Asia would create some complexity for Russia on its other flank while also helping encourage regional powers to continue on their stated paths of greater openness, governance and the rule of law.

More catch up posting from last month, this time a short piece for the wonderful Nikkei Asian Review looking at how Central Asia is likely to suffer from the chaos generated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Have a few more since this which make similar points but through different lenses, but for now enjoy this.

Central Asia braces for economic catastrophe

Sanctions aimed at Russia will have serious knock-on effects

Migrant workers from Uzbekistan collect potatoes at an agrarian field in Beryozovka near Russia’s Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk: their remittances to their families back home are a crucial source of income.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire” (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Across what is still referred to as the former Soviet space, there has been a sharp intake of breath. While many have grown accustomed to overbearing Russian behavior, few expected the dismemberment of Ukraine.

For Central Asia, the consequences go deeper than worrying whether they might be next. The intertwining of their economies with Russia means the drastic sanctions being imposed on Moscow will likely hit them too. And for a region that is increasingly being targeted by the West, this will further exacerbate economic suffering.

It is not so long ago that Central Asia was actively calling for greater Russian military support. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, Russian forces rushed in to undertake joint training exercises with Tajik and Uzbek forces, while Moscow sped through military sales to customers across the region.

In January, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on Russian forces, under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to help reestablish control in the wake of violent protests wracking his country.

For Central Asians, Russia remains an essential security partner. While China is seen as ascendant, it is Russia that remains hugely significant in political, economic and security terms.

The truth is that while Beijing may be the rising power, China tends to be quite passive, as its responses to the crises in Kazakhstan and Afghanistan have shown. Similarly now with Ukraine, Beijing appears largely content to talk rather than actually try to do something on the ground.

While China sees Central Asia as five nations it wants to do business with, Russia takes a more paternalistic view, in some cases even questioning their viability as states. Vladimir Putin has on occasion questioned Kazakhstan’s nation status, just as he has with Ukraine. This worries Central Asians.

Take Kazakhstan, which has a population of around 3.5 million ethnic Russians, nearly 20% of its population, concentrated near its border with Russia. It is very easy to envisage a scenario where Moscow stakes a claim to these people back in much the same way as in Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 first crystallized this concern. At the time, Moscow not only sought regional endorsement through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but recognition of the two breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that Moscow claimed it had gone in to defend. This appeal was roundly rejected, with China in particular horrified by the precedent that Moscow was setting.

Fast forward to today, and while it is clear that Central Asians are uneasy, there is a lot less condemnation. In fact, in a conversation with President Putin, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov appeared to support Russia’s position, prompting Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to withdraw his ambassador from the capital Bishkek.

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Sadyr Japarov during a meeting in Strelna on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg, in December 2021: the Kyrgyz President appeared to support Russia’s position. (Handout photo from Kremlin Press Office)    © Reuters

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both found themselves pulled into the information war, with both being forced to deny that they supported Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Kazakhstan that they had been asked to participate in the fighting by Moscow. In Uzbekistan, the government issued a statement pointing out that any national who was found to be fighting for a foreign army would be prosecuted upon return home.

Ultimately though, it will be economic questions that will dominate minds across Central Asia. Millions of Central Asian citizens work in Russia, and their remittances to their families back home are a crucial source of income, something that will be hit by the abrupt drop in the value of the ruble.

The collapse in the value of the Russian currency has also led to massive knock-on devaluations across Central Asia as markets reflect on the consequences of Russia’s exclusion from the international economy.

Russia is a major investor and partner to all five countries. Russia has reportedly invested around $40 billion in Kazakhstan alone since the fall of the Soviet Union, while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are bound intimately to the Russian economy as members of the Eurasian Economic Union.

All of this means that when Russia suffers economically, Central Asia feels it. Now, the region is bracing for the worst. Central Asia may have experienced something similar following the 2014 sanctions leveled against Russia, but this time the hit is likely to be exponentially harder.

All of which comes at a moment of great flux in a region still suffering from the fallout from COVID. Add to that, Kazakhstan is still recovering from the national unrest that rocked the country in January, Turkmenistan is in the midst of a leadership transition, and Tajikistan appears to be on the cusp of something similar.

Many geostrategists may be tempted to conclude that Beijing is likely to benefit. And there is no doubt that this will strengthen Chinese options in the region. But the reality is that Central Asia will still be very much tied to Russia, with all the consequent loss of income that will entail. Central Asian migrant labor will struggle to find the same opportunities in other countries.

Now entirely encircled by countries that are being targeted by escalating Western sanctions — Afghanistan, Iran, China and Russia — Central Asia is increasingly finding itself between an economic hard place and a politically precarious one.

Pushed into a corner not of its choosing, the collateral damage to Central Asia from Putin’s Ukrainian invasion is likely to be considerable.

With this piece I finally catch up to current events in my writing on Central Asia. I realize have been writing a lot about it late last year, and thus far don’t think events have vastly disproved what I wrote. Certainly, did not predict things, but then no-one really did. This short piece for my UK institutional home RUSI in the wake of events in Kazakhstan has I think stood reasonably well so far, but it remains still to be seen what the longer-term impact of events in Kazakhstan at the end of the year might be.

Kazakhstan in Crisis: It’s About the Country, Not Big Power Politics

The true significance of current events in Central Asia’s biggest country remains domestic.

Protests in the Kazakh city of Aktobe, 4 January 2022. Courtesy of Esetok / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The sudden and chaotic start to the year in Kazakhstan has taken even the most seasoned Central Asia watchers by surprise. The extreme and widespread violence and protests have been made even more shocking by the extraordinary decision of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to request the deployment of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help bring stability back to the country. Given wider global tensions with Russia, the prospect of a Russian-led military deployment in the country has been interpreted through the lens of Russian geopolitics and President Vladimir Putin’s aspirations, but this misses the degree to which this is about events in Kazakhstan.

Well-Concealed Cracks

For years, Kazakhstan has been considered among the most stable and prosperous of the belt of countries surrounding modern Russia. Endowed with enormous mineral wealth, the country seemed to be tacking a very different path. Autocratic and ruled largely by the same group who had been in power at the end of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan’s elites had also used their wealth to foster a growing middle class, which included large numbers of smart young Kazakhs whose education was paid for to help the country develop. Glittering events and buildings showcased the country to the world as a very different sort of post-Soviet state.

Yet, cracks existed beneath this façade. The ruling class was dogged by tales of massive corruption. Protests would periodically emerge, a sign of deep unhappiness in parts of the country that had not benefitted in the same way as the capital city. But the country was also home to a thriving NGO community and an active (if controlled) media, and was considered a place where a certain degree of openness was permitted. The government would tolerate some dissent, but would ensure that it never challenged its authority.

This generally positive trajectory clearly masked a more brittle structure than was generally thought. While regional watchers were unsurprised by the violence that marred Kyrgyzstan’s elections in October 2020 – the latest in a sadly long history of such violence – the sudden and widespread protests and subsequent violence in Kazakhstan have come as a shock. While it remains to be seen how organised any of it has been, there seems little doubt that underpinning it all is a deep well of local anger.

Botched Handling of Crisis

Part of this can be seen in the government’s initial reaction. Recognising what was happening needed a dramatic response. President Tokayev initially responded by removing from power the cadre of officials linked to the country’s founding President Nursultan Nazarbayev who were blamed for much of the corruption and inequality in the country. The father of the nation who had shepherded his country out of the Russian-Soviet yoke, Nazarbayev had formally stepped down as president in January 2019, handing over the reins of power to Tokayev – a longstanding member of his close cabinet. President Nazarbayev retained his influence, however, including as Chairman of the powerful National Security Council. His family and allies continued to control key parts of the country’s wealth and hold great power. The smooth transfer to Tokayev, however, was praised, although it was never entirely clear how much had actually changed.

Yet Tokayev’s sop to the protestors did not work. Pictures emerged from around the country of police putting down their weapons and joining the protestors. The decision to remove Karim Massimov, a close ally of Nazarbayev, from his role as head of the National Security Council showed how little faith Tokayev had in his own security forces, while also firmly cementing the removal of Nazarbayev’s cadre from the central leadership.

Pulling Out All the Stops

Hence, the decision to call in the CSTO. Fearing that the chaos in the country was escalating out of control and that his own security forces would not hold muster, it is clear that Tokayev felt he needed an external hand to help steady the ship. Russia initially seemed to dismiss the issues in Kazakhstan, with presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling the media ‘we are convinced that our Kazakh friends can independently solve their internal problems’. The Kremlin also warned others not to interfere in Kazakhstan, while various Russian commentators took this one step further and accused the US of being involved in instigating the trouble in Kazakhstan.

While the subsequent Russian action in sending its forces into Kazakhstan as part of the CSTO mission seems to entirely contradict these Kremlin statements, it is a response to events on the ground and requests from Kazakh authorities. This is not an informal invasion, or a way for Russia to firmly embed itself in Kazakhstan to draw the country back under Moscow’s sway. The truth is that Kazakhstan will always likely be tied to Moscow, no matter who is in charge. The country is bound through treaties, geography, infrastructure and population to Russia. Whoever is in power in Nursultan will have to have a good working relationship with Moscow. And while there has undoubtedly been a growth in anti-Russian sentiment in the country over the past few years as the government has sought to develop its own national identity and pride, Moscow is still an important partner (and locals tend to be even more sceptical of other partners like the US or China).

And even if Kazakhstan were to choose a different path, it would likely be towards China. In fact, both Nazarbayev and Tokayev have sought instead to strike a path between Russia and China, leveraging Kazakhstan’s natural wealth to foster an independent, ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy which attempts to stay somewhere in between the two (and even close to the West, where possible – Europe and the US are important economic partners for Kazakhstan).

Implications

Clearly, the credibility of this narrative is now in question. But this should not be interpreted as the success of Russian adventurism. Rather, it should be seen as a reflection of realities on the ground in a country whose government clearly did not appreciate the depth of its people’s unhappiness, which was playing out some complicated internal politics and which was always likely to rely on its traditional security partner, Russia, to play a supportive role in extremis.

The world should not be confused by the tweeting of Russian commentators in the West and meddlesome pro-Kremlin commentators in Moscow – echoed by parts of the Chinese state media – who suggest a larger plot which encompasses Ukraine and Belarus and falls into the geopolitical confrontation between Russia/China and the West. These events are about Kazakhstan.

This is not mere sophistry. For, if the events are seen only through the lens of confrontation between the West and Russia, then current developments could lead Kazakhstan to turn away from the Western direction it has kept trying to steer itself towards. If, however, the emphasis is placed on the issues underpinning the violence in the first place and efforts are focused on persuading the government to try to actually address those problems, it is possible that a better outcome can be found.

Of course, this will be hugely complicated by the presence of Russian forces under the CSTO banner. And it is possible that we will discover the levels of violence that took place over the past few days will fundamentally change things on the ground. But Kazakhstan is a country whose natural wealth and confidence does give it options – even if, at least for the moment, it seems to have taken the wrong ones.

More catch up posting from last month, this time again a look forwards on what the year holds for Afghanistan and Central Asia for Nikkei Asian Review. Wasn’t expecting the chaos in Kazakhstan that followed, but I think the broader trends pointed to will hold and the trouble in Kazakhstan will play into it as well.

2022 look ahead: Central Asia will cement its turn against the West

Expect China and Russia to step in and take advantage

U.S. Marines are on guard during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 20: policymakers in Washington have decided to leave the morass of middle Eurasia to others. (Handout photo from U.S. Marine Corps)   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).”

While this year may have appeared momentous, the truth is that we have not yet seen the full effect of the Taliban taking over in Kabul. This will only emerge as potential opposition forces organize themselves, the regional geopolitics fall into place and the unfolding economic catastrophe starts to bite.

At a wider level, the impact of the American withdrawal from the region will also be felt as the region is pushed closer toward Russia, Iran and China as those three powers continue to square off in an anti-Western geopolitical alignment.

One result of today’s intense and never-ending media cycle is the difficulty to judge the gap between cause and effect. If a particular outcome has not occurred within a day or so, the issue slips from the news pages and we forget about it, only to find ourselves shocked when it later reemerges.

After Afghanistan did not slip back into the brutal civil war that many expected, much of the world’s attention moved elsewhere. Instead, a slow-moving economic crisis has created a catastrophe largely taking place out of our field of vision. But the ramifications of this crisis will emerge.

First, the parlous economic situation will drive many people to seek a life outside Afghanistan. While most will head south to Pakistan or over the border into Iran and even onward to Europe, a growing number of Afghans will flee into the Central Asian region, most likely Tajikistan.

People from Afghanistan cross into the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman, Pakistan, on Sept. 7: the parlous economic situation will drive many people to seek a life outside Afghanistan.   © Reuters

Second, the Taliban is unlikely to feel the need to contain the country’s narcotics industry, whether by design or lack of capability. Given its status as a high-value cash crop, we can expect more Afghans to turn toward narcotics production, with consequences for criminal networks and corruption across Central Asia, as well as greater fragmentation within Afghanistan.

Third, we can expect some sort of opposition to the Taliban to materialize beyond Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), which has so far been the only group to consistently target the new government.

While there is some truth to rumors of former regime soldiers and other disaffected groups joining ISKP, the group is unlikely to garner much in the way of international support.

This suggests a vacuum that will eventually be filled by a constellation of the various factions who were ejected from Kabul in August. Currently, the most likely candidates appear to be gathering in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, although a credible and effective leader has yet to emerge.

But the problems inside Afghanistan will pale in comparison with the larger geostrategic shifts taking place in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.

While many in Washington were at pains to deny it, there was little hiding the fact that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was more about enabling the U.S. to focus more attention on the Indo-Pacific. It seems clear that policymakers in Washington have decided to leave the morass of middle Eurasia to others.

This does not mean that the West has completely withdrawn from the region. The U.S. and Europe will continue to be major investors and providers of aid and other forms of support across the region. But it does mean that Central Asia will receive less attention from Washington and Brussels.

Expect China and Russia to step in and take active advantage to affirm their increasing control of the Eurasian heartland.

Bordered by China, Russia, Iran, all of which suffer varying degrees of Western sanctions, Afghanistan and Central Asia will be almost entirely surrounded by countries whose relations with Washington are hostile.

That will likely result in a very hard-nosed form of geopolitics dominating regional discourse. Relationships will be entirely transactional and based around ensuring stability at whatever cost.

At the same time, we are likely to see a fairly cynical approach as to how this is achieved, with China and Russia increasingly refusing to go against each other. Unlike in the past, the confrontation with the West has escalated to the point that Moscow and Beijing see a greater strategic utility in keeping differences — Russia’s 2008 intervention in Georgia, for example — out of public view.

The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping are scheduled to meet early next year, the first such in-person summit for President Xi in almost two years, is a reflection of how close the relationship has become.

At an economic level too, the continued economic tightening resulting from COVID-19 is likely to strengthen Beijing’s hand in Central Asia, where many regional economies are already bound to China through investment and trade links.

The current COVID-related stasis favors Chinese trade, which is increasingly delivered through online platforms that are becoming ubiquitous across the Eurasian space and can be delivered along rail and road routes that extend outward from China.

In contrast, shipping goods into China is becoming ever harder, though raw materials seem able to continue to flow without too much difficulty.

The net result is an increasingly one-way Belt and Road Initiative, which will only serve to strengthen China’s economic ties across the region and make countries more dependent on Beijing in ways that will ultimately not help their own economies to diversify.

This is likely to be the story of 2022 for Afghanistan and Central Asia: a potentially unstable Afghanistan alongside a strengthening of Beijing and Moscow’s hands across the region. That is when the gradual freezing of the West from the Eurasian heartland will really start to harden.

Another piece on Afghanistan, this time for RUSI looking through the lens of Central Asia to understand better how the region is worrying about what is going on and trying to engage with major powers to mitigate its risks. Been doing quite a bit on Afghanistan in its region of late, and a few more short pieces to come, as well as (hopefully!) some longer ones. All of this of course helps tee things up for the book early next year. As ever, comments, thoughts, criticisms, and more welcome!

Central Asia and Afghanistan: Old Fears, Old Actors, New Games

The countries of Central Asia have reason to be concerned about Afghanistan in the wake of the Western withdrawal. Yet it remains unclear how they will mitigate the security risks, and what major power support to do this might look like.

Leaders attending the 18th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Qingdao, China in June 2018 pose for a group photo. Courtesy of Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo


Just over 20 years ago, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was founded, with mitigating risks from Afghanistan as one of its key objectives. In his opening comments at the first session, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan characterised the country as ‘the cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremism’. Two decades later, security concerns around Afghanistan remain alive and well in Central Asia. This was evident recently in Tashkent, as Uzbekistan hosted a major summit focused on Central and South Asian connectivity. One of the first large-scale international events since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, much of its focus was on Afghanistan, a country which ties the two regions together.

Traditionally, international attention towards Afghanistan has tended to focus on its southern border, given the Taliban’s deep links with Pakistan, as well as the Pashtun communities that tie the two countries together across the still ill-defined border. The attacks of 11 September 2001 brought the focus of international terrorism concerns to Afghanistan. Yet long before 2001, Central Asia had many reasons to worry about security threats emanating from Afghanistan.

The five-year Tajik Civil War which raged during the 1990s was in part fuelled by groups operating out of bases in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan was invaded by militants linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the summer of 1999 and 2000. And in February 1999, a series of six car bombs in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent killed 13 people. All of the networks and groups behind these incidents had links to Afghanistan, highlighting President Nazarbayev’s concern over the country, and providing an animating issue for the SCO to group around.

Yet, despite the SCO being created as a vehicle which could – among other things – help coordinate a response to the problems emanating from Afghanistan, the organisation did nothing. In fact, following the September 11 attacks and the abrupt US return to the region, the Central Asian members quite rapidly pivoted to support the renewed US push into Afghanistan. US bases were welcomed into the region, to veiled scepticism in Beijing and Moscow. And for two decades, the SCO did very little practically in support of Afghanistan.

China’s Stake

This was not for want of China trying. Beijing sought to push the SCO to do more in Afghanistan, bringing the country into the organisation as an observer member and fostering the creation of an SCO–Afghanistan Contact Group. But these efforts achieved little. Ultimately, Beijing lost its patience and ended up doing more bilaterally with various partners around Afghanistan than through the SCO.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent tour of the region again served to highlight this approach. He attended an SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, stopped off in Tashkent for a regional security conference organised by the Uzbeks, and completed his tour in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. At each stop he held high-level bilateral engagements and talked about working together on Afghanistan in vague terms, focusing on border security, cooperation and working towards an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned solution. No clear or new answers were proffered within or outside the SCO format.

US Involvement

At the same time, the US has participated in a series of engagements in the region. On the fringes of the Tashkent conference, the US held the latest C5+1 format session, bringing together the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries and the senior US representative attending the conference. The final statement emerging from the meeting focused heavily on Afghanistan, highlighting a desire to encourage trade links, improve regional connectivity with Afghanistan, and ensure that the country would not be a threat to the C5+1 or others.

Eager to highlight its particular brand of diplomatic nous, Uzbekistan also managed to work with the US to establish a new regional Quad grouping of Afghanistan–Pakistan–US–Uzbekistan to support an ‘Afghanistan-Peace Process and Post Settlement’. What this all means in practical terms, however, remains unclear, with many of the statements repeating what has been seen and heard before. The US is a major investor in Central Asia, but it demonstrates little committed strategic attention in a region where high-level geopolitics is the order of the day.

… And Russia

Not to be left behind, Russia has also stepped into the game, generously offering to let the US have access to its bases in the region – a move that highlights Moscow’s habit of forgetting that the Central Asian states are now independent. But at the same time, Russia announced military drills with Uzbek and Tajik forces near the two states’ respective borders with Afghanistan, something the Central Asians have welcomed. They have deep historical links to Russian security forces, and Tajikistan hosts a base, Kyrgyzstan an airfield and Kyrgyzstan a missile testing range used by Russian forces. In the wake of the recent escalation in fighting in Afghanistan, Tajikistan called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a Russian construct which seeks to retain some of the security links that existed during Soviet times – to come to its aid. While it is not clear whether the entity itself will respond, Moscow has demonstrated a willingness to come to Dushanbe’s aid, boosting its capabilities in particular at its military base in the country near the border with Afghanistan.

Rising Concerns

As the fighting in Afghanistan gradually moves closer to its neighbours’ borders, Central Asian concerns are increasing. In early July, hundreds of Afghan soldiers and some civilians fled across the border into Tajikistan. The Tajiks let them in, though they ultimately repatriated some of them. In Uzbekistan a similar scene played out, though the Uzbeks were much faster in turning border-crossers around. In Turkmenistan, fighting at the border became so bad that shells started to land in Turkmen territory, leading senior Turkmen officials to reach out to the Taliban to try to bring an end to the fighting.

Prior to this, the region had been somewhat unclear in its response to the unfolding situation in Afghanistan. It had sought to engage with both the Taliban and the government in Kabul, though with varying degrees of publicity. The Tajik government has played a major diplomatic role this past year, hosting high-level sessions of the SCO, the CSTO and the Heart of Asia/Istanbul process – a Turkish-Afghan initiative seeking to focus on Afghanistan’s regional connections as the answer to its long-term problems. Meanwhile, the recent summit in Tashkent is the latest effort by the new government in Uzbekistan to try to tie Afghanistan closer to Central Asia, and Kazakhstan has sought to initiate other regional diplomatic engagements as well. But through all of this, it is not clear that the region has developed a firm plan for how it will manage the potential chaos in Afghanistan in the future.

While all the Central Asian countries now seem to agree that Afghanistan is a key part of their region, they do not seem quite as clear on how to deal with it collectively. Their continuing need and desire to engage with large outside powers as part of their response, however, highlights a concern about being left to cope with this responsibility alone. What is striking is that among the big powers, Russia remains the only one that continues to offer practical answers to the problems Afghanistan might present to Central Asia.

While China has been far more active in its engagement recently across the board in Afghanistan, it is still not clear that Beijing has much intention of stepping in to fill the vacuum left by the US. Rather, it seems that Beijing is eager to soothe regional concerns, while Washington is merely talking about them; only Moscow is stepping in to actually do something. The key unanswerable question at this stage is the degree to which Beijing and Moscow are coordinating their activities, and whether this is the solution that Central Asia actually wants. It is, however, likely to be what it will get.

Another piece on China in Central Asia, this time for the Straits Times looking at the question of competitive vaccine diplomacy in competition with Russia. All of this is teeing up the book, and a few more bigger pieces due out at some point during the year. Am also maybe hoping to revive the website, though that is going to take some work.

Wooing Central Asia, over Covid

Russia deployed vaccine diplomacy. China brought in not just vaccines, but equipment and medical aid. Who won?

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Trapped between China and Russia, Central Asia has always found itself stuck between empires. In earlier times, it was conquerors from the region such as Tamerlane who built Eurasian empires, but increasingly the countries find themselves trying to thread a diplomatic needle between competing external powers.

Currently, it is medicine that is defining the struggle in the region, as both China and Russia compete for influence through their medical diplomacy.

While Beijing appears to have the upper hand in terms of volume, it is Moscow that appears to be winning over the hearts and minds.

As Kazakhstan embarks on a vaccination drive using Sputnik V, China could ask itself why its medical diplomacy in Central Asia has not worked as it hoped it might. Rather than turn the region towards Beijing, it appears to have simply exacerbated existing tensions and suspicions towards China. The region has benefited from China’s support and largess, but Central Asians still tend primarily towards Moscow.

First, a bit of history: Russian strategists tend to see the world through spheres of influence. From their view, Central Asia is seen as “theirs”. From before the Soviet Union, the nations of Central Asia were part of the wider Russian Empire. During the 1800s, Imperial Russia expanded up to Afghanistan, and the original Great Game was born between the competing English and Russian empires as they sought to keep each other at bay in distant Asia.

At the time, China was an inward-looking power. The Qing Dynasty was fighting wars against encroaching European empires, and Chinese Imperial expansion into Central Asia had stopped far earlier, after the Battle of Talas in 751AD. Xinjiang under the Qing was a far-flung corner of China which was far from the Emperor’s attentions.

BALANCING ACT CONTINUES

Today, the countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are independent states with their own governments and agency. This year, they celebrate their 30th independence anniversaries from under the Soviet yoke. But they remain landlocked and bound to their neighbours, stuck in an awkward balancing act between China and Russia.

Moscow is keen to stay influential. There is an economic and security interest. Human connections persist with millions of Central Asians working as low-wage labourers or workers in Russia. The remittances generated provide huge inflows of currency to Central Asian economies, while Russia gets the benefits of a cheap workforce. The region is also attractive to Russian companies that see opportunity in a region where they share a language and many cultural practices.

At the same time, Moscow also sees the region as a buffer from the violence and drugs that emanate from Afghanistan, investing considerable amounts in supporting security institutions across the region.

And Russia has sought to strengthen this connection through a constellation of post-Soviet multilateral institutions such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called part of an attempt to re-Sovietise the region, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Commonwealth of Independent States. (The former grew out of the framework of the latter.)

Not all Central Asians are willing participants, though in the case of the EAEU, it was an idea which was proposed by Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.

CHINA’S FOCUS: STABILITY

Modern China wants to expand into the region to protect itself from any threats that might emerge, as well as profit from the potential it offers.

Since then Premier Li Peng’s foundation-laying tour of the region in 1994 – which established the contours of the area’s contemporary relationship with China – the focus has been on economic links and trade corridors articulated under the phrasing of silk roads. This has sat alongside a persistent fear that Uighur groups might use the region to foment trouble within Xinjiang.

The answer, from China’s perspective, is a growing security footprint focused on its own interests and concerns, alongside a surge in economic links and investment which ultimately seek to improve stability and security in the region and Xinjiang. China is not really interested in conquering the region or creating a sphere of influence like Moscow, but rather it wants guarantees and stability to ultimately help foster stability and security at home.

And so far, China is playing a winning game. It is now the main trading partner with all the Central Asian powers, and has been increasing its investment.

Traditionally perceived as being focused on natural resources such as metals, oil and gas, Chinese companies are, in fact, increasingly present across Central Asian economies – from online traders like Alibaba or Taobao, to agriculture and food products, and infrastructure construction of every sort – from roads, rail, telecoms and more.

This flow of investment and trade is followed by a soft-power push in education and training, which is increasingly normalising China’s presence in and links with the region.

RUSSIA’S FOCUS: INFLUENCE

Russia continues to keep its hand active, though. China may be rewiring the region, literally as well as metaphorically, so all paths lead back to Beijing, but Moscow continues to be the first capital politicians will visit. And Russia remains the pre-eminent security partner in training, military sales and security ventures.

Technology is the one space where it is hard to see Russia competing with China, but Moscow has sought to find other ways of maintaining a significant role, including through influencing legislation.

But there is a tension between the two powers. Russia can see it is losing ground, but feels it is unable to do too much because it lacks China’s resources. It also prioritises a geostrategic relationship with Beijing over whatever happens in Central Asia.

There is little appetite in Russia for Central Asia to become an impediment or complicating factor to its relationship with China. Ultimately, Moscow is more interested in ensuring Beijing is onside in its greater confrontation with the West than the concerns Russia might have with Chinese encroachment into Central Asia. But there is a growing concern in Moscow that they might find Central Asia becoming the soft underbelly through which China can undermine Russia.

MEDICAL DIPLOMACY

This leads to pushback, the most recent expression of which can be seen in the vaccine diplomacy being deployed across the region.

Central Asia’s response to Covid-19 was spasmodic at best. Turkmenistan, for instance, has yet to admit it has suffered any cases, though foreign diplomats have perished from Covid-like diseases and the country has ordered vaccines. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have all suffered cases, but the numbers have been relatively low. At this point, the region does seem to have turned a corner in dealing with the coronavirus, in part due to the interventions from its two giant neighbours.

In the Russian case, it has been through the Sputnik V vaccine, while China has provided protective equipment, medical training courses and webinars as well as planeloads of aid from Chinese companies, regions and institutions. Additionally, Chinese vaccine producers have used Uzbekistan as a site for phase three testing, while deliveries of their vaccines have started to arrive in the region.

But this Chinese dominance has not translated into popularity. According to data from the Central Asian Barometer, when asked which country would be most likely to help them manage Covid-19, 52 per cent of Kazakhs, 58 per cent of Uzbeks and 76 per cent of Kyrgyz surveyed said Russia was most likely to be able to help. Only 20 per cent of Kazakhs, 14 per cent of Uzbeks and 8 per cent of Kyrgyz believed the same of China.

These numbers echo surveys done pre-Covid-19 which showed that across the region Russia was most popular, with China and the United States competing for second place.

For all its efforts, China’s medical diplomacy and growing investments do not appear to have delivered popular success in the heartland of Eurasia.

Bound still by linguistic, cultural and economic links, and a media which has great penetration throughout the region, Russia remains the more dominant actor within Central Asia. The region’s population still looks primarily towards Russia for its external support, something left over in part from history, but also out of a growing sense of concern about the meteoric rise of China around the world and in their immediate neighbourhood.

This will ultimately be reassuring to Moscow, as it realises it has a few cards that it can play against Beijing. For now, medical diplomacy is one of those cards as clearly Central Asians look more favourably on medical care from a bear than a dragon.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia.

A new post this time on the other topic that occupies a lot of time, looking at China and Russia’s relations with Central Asia. It is in essence the transcript of a presentation Sarah and me did in Washington at the kind invitation of the fantastic Marlene Laruelle of George Washington University and Director of their Central Asia Program. As ever, more on this topic to come, more stuff can always be found on China in Central Asia.

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China and Russia in Central Asia: Cooperation and Conflict

Despite the significant rise of China’s economic influence in the region, Russia continues to maintain its political leverage in Central Asia. In contrast to China, it explicitly states its intention to keep its grip on this influence, as highlighted by Medvedev’s speech in 2008. This declared commitment to preserving Russia’s ‘spheres of privileged influence’ certainly includes Central Asia. The key aim for Russia is to ensure, at least in theory, loyalty to the Russian government, seeking countries it can depend on for support. The various alliances Russia plays a crucial role in alongside the Central Asian states, such as the EEU, SCO, CSTO and CIS, also have a utility of legitimizing Russia’s position in a visibly multipolar world. Indeed, the SCO is a platform shared with China, but they all act as a way of overtly demonstrating structural equivalents of Western-dominated organizations such as the EU and NATO.

The Ukraine crisis has undermined Russia’s legitimacy by raising suspicions for both Central Asia and China about Russian intentions in the region. The prevention of color revolutions, which was enshrined in the recently updated version of Russia’s Military Doctrine, has potential implications across the former Soviet space. Indeed, Russia’s commitment to protect Russian- speakers and ethnic Russians abroad causes concern for Central Asians. Although Russia has almost exclusively acted on this in the more Western-leaning post-Soviet countries, such as Ukraine and Georgia, a speech by Putin that addressed Kazakhstan was provocative in light of events in Ukraine. Not only did Putin praise Nazarbayev, but he also highlighted that Kazakhs realized the value of being part of the “greater Russian world,” which raised alarm bells in Astana. Russia has proven it has no issues in leveraging its position over former Soviet states for certain self-interested strategic purposes.
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It is worth noting that, despite this political leverage Russia has over its former empire, the Central Asian states are by no means passive in their relationship with Russia. Independence of action varies between the five states, but it has expressed itself in subtle ways. For example, in the UN vote on Crimea, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan abstained from voting. Although potentially more symbolic than reflecting real intention, Nazarbayev has made statements in which he says Kazakhstan will leave the EEU if it ceases to be in Kazakhstan’s economic or political interests to be a member.

An area of general agreement between Russia and Central Asia, however, is the definition of and desire for political stability in the region. Although there are certainly concerns around how Tajikistan is currently handling its fragile political situation, the Central Asian states are as averse to abrupt regime changes or color revolutions threatening the status quo as Russia. This allows for a consensus between Russia and Central Asia towards political and governance norms.

China is certainly engaging in a different way politically with Central Asia compared to Russia. China’s political role in the region could be described as latent but one that has not yet manifested itself so overtly. It is certainly a more subtle political actor than Russia. However, there are indications that Central Asia plays the role of testing ground for Chinese foreign policy efforts, meaning Central Asia forms what could be described as China’s “inadvertent empire.” The belt and road vision is a prime example of this. It was significant that Xi Jinping announced the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) at Nazarbayev University in 2013. This represented a vision that built on something that had already been happening for years in Central Asia. China had long been building infrastructure using linked loans, which allowed domestic companies to “go out” and build in Central Asia. The announcement showed Xi Jinping stamping his name and authority onto a coherent foreign policy that was based on existing activities. China’s “testing ground” has also manifested itself in other formats, particularly those that are multilateral. The SCO is the best example of a structure through which China can test its security policy in the region.

Moreover, a contrast between Russian and Chinese foreign policy in Central Asia is that China’s policy is closely linked to addressing domestic concerns. For China, it is much more about ensuring stability and development in Xinjiang. Central Asia is an important trade link to ensure access and opportunities for Xinjiang back home. Thus, it is much less about spheres of influence for China. Rather than ensure explicit political loyalty to China within Central Asian governments, which features more importantly in Russia’s foreign policy, China strives more towards developing good economic ties. Of course, political allegiance and support assists doing business in the region, but the ultimate aim is economic utility for China.

One question, the answer to which is not yet clear, is when does this economic power express itself politically? There are a few examples of how this might express itself. For example, in Kyrgyzstan there have been cases of Chinese businessmen facing serious trouble with local corrupt officials when they have failed to pay off the right people, often ending in violence. The Chinese Embassy in certain cases has expressed anger directly to the government of Kyrgyzstan, demanding for an apology. For the most part, however, China’s political role has continued to be consistent with non-interference. China is happy to be the largest investment partner to the region, but does not wish to own the political and security problems of Central Asia in the same way Russia is prepared to do.

Therefore, in the security sphere, Russia still seems to be the dominant player. The Chinese have been active in terms of border security, military aid and some arms deals. It has conducted training with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in particular, which it views as weak links from a Chinese security perspective. Again, engagement primarily reflects China’s domestic security concerns rather than a willingness to project itself as a security power in the region. China still appears content deferring to Russia on this broader security agenda.

A good example of this reluctance to intervene in domestic issues can be seen in Pakistan. Some of the recent issues around the China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC) illustrate this. China’s priority is to build a corridor from Kashgar that ends in either Karachi or Gwadar, gaining sea access. However, it appears China was not quite prepared for Pakistan’s internal disputes over the route and is not clear on how to mediate this discussion. The Chinese Embassy in Islamabad was forced to issue a statement on this, essentially sending the message that CPEC is a project that should benefit the entire country. It is up to Pakistan to handle the local politics. Looking back to Central Asia, tensions in regional politics certainly present challenges to China’s intended implementation of the SREB. These are challenges that China will be reluctant to mediate directly.

Both Russia and China clearly provide economic incentives for the Central Asians to cooperate with them. It seems that Russia is much more willing to leverage these incentives, and indeed pressure Central Asian states economically when useful, particularly to extract political gains. A prime example of this pertains to the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan. When Kyrgyzstan was discussing closing access to the base for the US in 2009, Russia offered a huge aid package to Kyrgyzstan as an incentive to terminate the US contract. When Bakiyev went back on this deal, Russia used its soft power as a tool to pressure Kyrgyzstan to reconsider, particularly pushing stories of Bakiyev’s involvement in corruption as a way of de-legitimizing the leader. This demonstrates Russia’s approach of rewarding, but also punishing, the Central Asian states to act in a way that benefits Russia. Another example of an economic pressure point is migrant workers. In January 2015 new rules came into force that made it more difficult for migrant workers to work legally in Russia, such as mandatory Russian language tests and increased costs for documentation. This in particular affected Tajik workers, which led many to believe this was Russia’s way of pressuring Tajikistan to join the EEU.

It is easy to interpret every policy Russia has towards Central Asia as a form of leverage. This is not only an over-simplification but also may be unfair to Russia. However, some of the pressure points Russia can exploit are vulnerable, indicating that the Central Asian states are by no means inevitably tied to Russian foreign policy. For example, given the economic situation in Russia, remittances are dropping. These constitute an economic life-line to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in particular, and if they drop there is less incentive for these countries to respond to some of Russia’s more political demands. Russia has had to cancel hydropower projects in Kyrgyzstan, which it had pledged to fund, not only showing Russia as unreliable but simultaneously reinforcing the perception that China is the real economic player. Although in the long-term it is unlikely that Central Asia-Russia economic ties can be severed, it still shows that some of Russia’s points of leverage are far from guaranteed.

The EEU is Russia’s big economic draw, and tool, for the region. Although in principle it could be positive in furthering economic integration, it so far has shown many negatives. For example, in the first three months of 2015, inter-member trade actually dropped. The fact that Ukraine is unlikely to join unless there is another domestic political pivot means there are huge limitations to the benefits that the Central Asian members can reap from the union given the over- dominance of the Russian economy. Moreover, given the rhetoric from Nazarbayev on the EEU, there are also clearly fears that it is used by Russia as a political tool.

The failures of this Union have manifested themselves in the protectionist measures initiated by member states. For example, Kazakhstan has implemented oil embargoes against Russia. There are complaints from Kyrgyzstan regarding the lack of benefits the EEU brings the country, whilst highlighting that it had no choice in joining. Obviously this also plays into Kyrgyzstan’s interests of extracting more economic incentives from Russia. But fundamentally there are question marks as how political, rather than economic, the strategy is behind the implementation of this project.

China in contrast is investing in Central Asia at a rate that Russia knows it cannot compete with. China is now the biggest trading partner of the Central Asia region, having displaced Russia. There are also risks for Russia that at least symbolically Central Asia becomes a Chinese foreign policy project. Having been very cautious about endorsing the SREB, Russia supported the project by agreeing to find ways to integrate the SREB with the EEU. The practicalities of such integration are unclear given the difference in structure of each strategy. However, it is likely instead that the EEU will be subsumed rhetorically by the SREB project, i.e. that the EEU becomes a part of the bigger Chinese project. This signifies a loss of prestige for Russia.

One unknown for the Belt and Road project is how the economic slowdown in China might affect the project’s implementation. There have already been some frustrations voiced in Central Asia on this front. For example, Nazarbayev noted that Kazakhstan is being affected negatively not only by the economic slowdown in Russia, but also by that which is occurring in China. Turkmenistan is struggling to find consistent gas demand in China, and subsequent pricing, as planned. The enthusiastic push to making TAPI a reality speaks to the urgency of Turkmenistan’s need to find new gas markets. There have also been challenges in Xinjiang’s own domestic build-up, the powerhouse of the SREB policy. The planned robust economic development there does not seem to have taken off at the speed required. This will have knock- on effects across the border. On the other hand, the Belt and Road presents a potential outlet for the challenges causing the slowdown in China. If the infrastructure construction market is slowing down at home, and there is excess capacity in companies and materials at home, exporting it abroad is a strategy for, at least in the short-term, ameliorating this.

Another challenge in the Belt and Road discourse pertains to the huge loans that China is dispensing to the Central Asian states, with little confidence that they will be paid back. Although economically this may not make sense, it does speak to the longer-term perspective that China takes with such loans. They are much more patient about such debts. Moreover, the way these deals are structured has an added benefit to China. For example, China’s Eximbank will grant a significant loan to the Tajik government to implement a series of projects on the condition that a Chinese company will implement it. Often this means that the money never really leaves Beijing – it is simply shifted from one Chinese state bank account to another.

Thus, in conclusions, there is always potential for conflict between two great powers such as China and Russia in Central Asia, but currently there seems to be a useful division of labor between the two. There are overriding geopolitical dynamics between Russia and China that mean they gain more from avoiding confrontation. China does not seem perturbed by Russia’s desire to maintain its neo-imperial approach to the region, as long as it does not conflict directly with China’s economic interest. Russia is aware it cannot compete with China in terms of economic investment but knows that it can maintain the security mandate in the region. This creates a genuine mutual respect between the two in Central Asia. Moreover, there is an informal consensus on the need for political stability between Russia, China and the Central Asian states. That is not to say that tensions are absent. People we have spoken to in Beijing hint that the Russians are difficult to work with. People we have spoken to in Moscow are innately suspicious of Chinese geopolitical intentions in the region. So far, however, it is difficult to see where full-blown conflict between the two might occur.

More catch-up, this time a longer magazine sized piece for the excellent current affairs journal Current History. This explores the China-Russia relationship with a particular focus on Central Asia sitting in between them. Clearly more on this topic to come – including a piece soon focused a bit more on the econ and geopolitical equation more broadly. I have pasted the first paragraph below to give you a flavour, but the whole thing is available as PDF below as well.

China and Russia’s Soft Competition in Central Asia

China and Russia have a long history of conflict and competition in Central Asia. Sitting between the two great superpowers, the landlocked Central Asian nations appear to have little choice or control over their destiny, and are often considered to be pawns in a perpetual great game. Yet this narrow view misses the broader picture of the Sino-Russian relationship. It is undeniable that the region has been slipping out of Russia’s immediate economic sphere of influence for some time, but China has been making inroads with Russia’s full acquiescence. For Moscow and Beijing, Central Asia is increasingly a region of soft competition where they are very aware of and attentive to each other’s interests, rather than a source of conflict and tension.

Overriding any differences concerning the steppe are the larger realities of the Sino-Russian strategic relationship on the international stage, where the two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council continue to support each other’s refusal to bow to a Western-dominated global order. Russia may appear to be the loser in Central Asia, but the two powers have established a modus vivendi that suits the interests of both. The real geopolitical losers are likely to be the Central Asians, slowly slipping from Russia’s orbit into China’s.

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