The Art of Survival for Central Asian States

2021 marked the 30th anniversary of independence of the five Central Asian republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. These former Soviet Union republics straddle the vast terrain between Russia, China, India, and the Middle East, and today are a critical group of burgeoning states and economies in the geographical center of the Eurasian continent.

Leaders and elites from the region understand the constraints and limits upon their power within the geopolitical arena. While neither fully democratic nor politically stable, the regimes are united by a shared understanding of how to navigate the complex quagmire of power relations between multiple, neighboring superpowers and regional hegemons. Balancing, hedging, and engaging conditionally a variety of external actors is thus a matter of necessity.

The present times mark an unprecedented period of transformation for the region. In a recent article reviewing the three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared that Beijing and these five states have “helped each other through thick and thin” through robust and increasing security ties. Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan engaged in joint military efforts near the Afghan border at the height of the Afghan crisis. Commentaries have called upon the United States to revitalize its presence in the region, as a means of constraining and curbing the rise of the Sino-Russian alliance.

With China’s Belt and Road Initiative and expansionary ambitions offering an alternative to the conventionally Russia-dominated regional economic and military spheres, as well as the precipitously ebbing American influence within the region, the question remains: What’s next for Central Asia? It goes without saying that the states in question are heterogeneous, and should not be treated as a cogent whole, yet there are undergirding similarities that are well-worth noting for analytical purposes. Here, we look at the plethora of techniques embraced by Central Asian states in preserving their core national interests while entrenching their regional presence – which should also offer us a glimpse or two into their future trajectories.

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Making Central Asia Useful for Multiple Parties

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Central Asian states have long benefited from making themselves useful – simultaneously and conspicuously – to a multitude of actors and regional powers. In the 1990s, the newly independent economies were renowned for their abundant energy resources, yet lacked substantial infrastructure and consolidated human capital. That deficit placed them squarely at the periphery of international economics. Since then, regional governments have sought to harness their resource wherewithal and geographic-strategic advantage (given the prime locations they occupy in relation to trade routes and military zone planning), and cultivate deliberate ties of co-dependence and collaboration with both Russia and China.

Moscow has typically served as the security partner to the region, with the various states reciprocating in providing a ready land-route access to West Asia and the Indian subcontinent for the sprawling state. Through entering into multilateral security institutions – such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and bilateral military agreements between Russia and these various states – the leaders of Central Asian states assumed the mantle of important military partners to Russia. On the other hand, the relative efficiency and absence of structural accountability among the flawed democracies of Central Asia render the regional states ideal trade and investment partners to Beijing as it advances its economic interests in the region through mechanisms such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Russia views Central Asia through primarily ideological and quasi-irredentist lenses – for Putin, in particular, the region comprises a cornerstone to the rejuvenation of the Eurasian vision and aspirations that have underpinned the Russian outlook on geopolitics since the Tsarist period. For China, under Xi Jinping, access to Central Asia is vital in securing internal stability along its Western borders, as well as guaranteeing unfettered and open passage for the “Silk Road” trade pivotal to Xi’s “China Dream.” It would be erroneous to portray Central Asian economies as passive recipients that merely make peace with the whims of these external parties – the agency of their leaders in courting, registering, and drawing upon support from these prominent players cannot be overstated.

When it comes to Washington’s Central Asian strategy, we must be cognizant of two key considerations – first, the military establishment’s keenness on forging a stable backdrop against which its operations in Afghanistan could occur; second, its attempts to court the support and trust of Eastern European states through preserving energy and trade security in Central Asia. Once again, whether it be the pro-Western rhetoric of Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov or the historic meeting between Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev with Donald Trump, one fact was clear: leaders of Central Asian states have been keen to have the West on their side, at least nominally and symbolically.

Balancing Competing Interests Through Strategic Ambiguity

Making oneself useful to multiple parties is instrumental but by no means sufficient. A further condition must be met – the competing interests of regionally dominant players and superpowers must be managed. Here, Central Asia states have two options. The first is to reconcile the differing and plural interests of stakeholders; the second is to manage their divergences through prudent balancing. The heightening animosity between Washington and Moscow in the aftermath of the 2014 annexation of Crimea, as well as the escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing in view of perceived Chinese aggression, attest to the fact that reconciliation of such drastically divergent preferences concerning the alignment of the region is – at best – futile. The alternative, then, is delicate balancing.

Several case studies serve to illustrate how such balancing has taken place. Consider, for instance, the ascent of Kazakhstan to non-permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council during 2017-2018, which coincided with a period of substantial regional upheaval. Kazakhstan opted to pursue a distinctive departure in stance from that of Russia over issues such as the Syrian and Ukraine crises. On the former, Nur-Sultan sought to mediate between the al-Assad government and the rebels, as opposed to openly embracing the regime, as the Kremlin did; on the latter, Nur-Sultan remained tardily ambiguous in its stance until well into the crisis. Much of this coincided with Nazarbayev’s seeking to court investment from the European Union and United States, as well as managing backlash from Ukraine, a growing trade and political partner to Kazakhstan.

Equally, Uzbekistan has steadily maintained its distance from the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), remaining an observer instead of a full member. Tashkent is openly embracing the Belt and Road Initiative instead as a stepping stone to dialing up trade and capital flows from China. Indeed, under late President Islam Karimov’s leadership, Tashkent withdrew from the Moscow-led CSTO, a move that accompanied and precipitated heightened isolationism on the part of the country. Uzbekistan’s taciturn foreign policy is echoed by Turkmenistan’s abstaining from most regional groupings.

The upshots of such balancing are apparent. First, individual Central Asian states thus cultivate a level of resilience and autonomy over vital interests of concern. To cite one example, through aligning itself with Ahmad Massoud’s resistance, Tajikistan opted to align with the West (and not the Sino-Russian duo) over Afghanistan, a move that affirms both its economic interests, through ties with the United States, and security interests (in terms of eliminating the Taliban’s presence in the region).

Second, the equilibrium fomented by such balancing has enabled leading countries in the region – such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – to play a mediating role in regional crises. Indeed, Kazakhstan provided a “neutral” venue for negotiations over both the Syrian crisis (through the Astana Peace Talks) and the Iranian nuclear program (via the Almaty dialogue). Nur-Sultan also played a constructive role in tackling the military deadlock between Turkey and Russia during the heated altercations between the two states. For its part, Uzbekistan has vastly boosted its international profile through hosting Afghan peace talks since 2018. The latest High-Level Central and South Asia Conference in July 2021 assembled representatives of nearly 50 states and 30 international organizations, as they collectively sought to address the challenging situation in Afghanistan while drawing upon the balance of powers and interests in the region.

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Cultivating Regional Solidarity – Could There Be a Central Asian Consciousness?

Last but not least, Central Asian states have thrived largely on the basis of their seeking to cultivate some degree of common solidarity and consciousness amongst themselves. Both Nur-Sultan and Tashkent realize that the consolidation of their status as new peacemaking and mediating forces in international politics would require them to foster genuinely constructive and collaborative dialogue in the region.

This was by no means easy. The collapse of the Soviet regimes led to the shelving of much of the talk of developing concrete alliances across countries. Despite early attempts to establish the Central Asian Union (CAU) in the early 1990s by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, the CAU lacked political capital and failed to gain traction.

There have been other attempts. In 2004, Japan sought to initiate a “Japan + Central Asia” multilevel coordination mechanism in the region, as a tool of shaping economic and humanitarian dialogues, which would in turn allow Tokyo to benefit from prospective energy-based projects in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Similarly, South Korea in 2007 launched its dialogue platform with Central Asia to diversify its trade and economic relations in Eurasia. Yet such ventures were externally driven and lacked regional buy-in from the above players.

An alternative was the U.S.-led “C5+1” regional platform, which was initiated in 2015 under the Obama administration. Washington’s approach shared similar traits with other dialogue mechanisms in prioritizing improving economic and transport ties, yet placed a greater emphasis on the political sovereignty of Central Asian states. The C5+1 initiative was further consolidated under the Trump administration. During a visit by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February 2020 to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, a nascent American strategy concerning the region was unveiled, which sought to render the region a lynchpin to Washington’s Afghanistan strategy. With the recent disastrous evacuation of the American troops from Afghanistan, it became apparent that the U.S. strategy was in need of serious revision. The corollary here was clear: Central Asian states cannot count on Washington to provide a reliable, consistent, and sustainable basis for regional cooperation. An alternative was needed.

The narrative of Central Asian cooperation regained new breath after the current president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, came to power in 2016. The momentum for strengthening regional cooperation became more visible after the first Consultative Meeting of the heads of Central Asian States in Nur-Sultan in 2018 and later in Samarkand in 2019. The third Consultative Meeting was held in August 2021 in Turkmenistan. The main objective of this nascent alliance is to improve the development of interregional cooperation across the socioeconomic, political, and cultural levels. The question nevertheless remains – in Spivakian parlance, can Central Asia speak, for themselves, and as a unified entity?

The past three decades of conflicts persist till this very day; consider, for one, the border skirmishes and territorial tussles between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. With all that said, the above strategies – delicate and multivectoral balancing, making themselves useful, and cultivating some degree of regular cooperation across countries – could well pose the key to unlocking more permanent peace in the region. It would be foolish to write off the prospects for Central Asian solidarity just yet – just as it would be premature to conclude that rapprochement between the five states would be easy. It won’t be.