No Single Power or Power Centre Can Have Exclusive Sway Over Central Asia: A Geo-Political Analysis

 -Jyotsna Bakshi, Research Fellow, IDSA


It appears that on the chess-board of Central Asia an open-ended game is being played, the final outcome of which or at least a more stable equilibrium, has yet to emerge. Central Asia can emerge as a stable and prosperous region thanks to its immense oil and gas reserves and other mineral and metal resources and an educated and skilled manpower, the credit for which largely goes to the spread of literacy and the inculcation of a scientific and secular, tolerant approach during the long decades of the Soviet rule. It is also possible that the region may degenerate into inter-ethnic clashes and conflicts over oil and gas pipelines, which may also lead to economic disparities within the region and concomitant discord. If the leaders of the Central Asian states play a wise and mature role and the outside powers also play a positive role and do not try to accentuate existing contradictions in the region, there is greater likelihood of the first possibility taking shape. One thing that is certain is that it is impossible for any single power or power centre to establish its exclusive hold over the region.

The five former Soviet republics of Central Asia, viz., Kazakhstan, Kyrygzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, appear to be a separate world in themselves, different from the states towards their south. The state and political structures inherited from the Soviet Union have survived its disintegration. The ex-Communist ruling elites continue to rule there albeit under different party names, upholding the banner of nationalism and following the policy of flexible pragmatism. Although the elements of pluralism have been introduced in politics, economy and social life, in contrast to the Soviet totalitarianism, they continue to be strong authoritarian states. Priority is given to the tasks of maintaining security, stability, ethnic peace and nation and state building rather than to immediate shift to democracy, despite democratic pretensions. Unlike Russia, the Central Asian states have treaded rather cautiously in introducing market reforms and privatisation, avoiding "shock therapy" and transition to capitalism at "break-neck" speed. Prices of essential goods and food items were not immediately freed and the social security work-net was maintained which ensured stability in the region and imparted a certain legitimacy to the regimes.

None of the Central Asian states is homogenous. Present state borders created under the Soviet times cut across nationalities and ethnic groups. All the Central Asian Republics (CARs), however, recognise the importance of maintaining the present borders and not opening the pandora's box that may put the region into the throes of ethnic discord and conflicts leading to destabilisation.

Despite many similarities, each of the CARs has its own distinct inner dynamics. Thus, the central problem before Kazakhstan is to build a Kazakh state and identity while accommodating the aspirations of the large Russian population (constituting more than 32 percent of the total population of the country) concentrated in the more industrialised north adjacent to Russia.1 The socio-political fabric of Tajikistan--the only Central Asian state ethnically and linguistically closer to Iran--was torn apart by years of civil war between the ex-Communist and the Islamic forces, receiving sanctury and sustenance from neighbouring Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan wants to maintain excellent relations with Russia while cooperating with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in promoting regional integration within Central Asia, which Russia looks at with apparent suspicion. Turkmenistan, from its very inception, has kept away from all multilateral bodies and commitments and is following a policy of positive neutrality while a personality cult is being built around Turkmen supremo, Saparmurad Niyazov. Uzbekistan, the most populous of the CARs has adopted a marked pro-West stance in a bid to strengthen its independence and attract Western investments.

Thanks to the Soviet legacy, despite being overwhelmingly Muslim majority countries, all the CARs have enshrined the principle of secularism in their respective Constitutions. The present ex-Communist ruling eliltes in Central Asia have most to fear from Islamic fundamentalist forces seeking to strike roots and gaining in strength in their Muslim-majority republics. With the demise of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Communist ideology, the resulting vacuum tended to be filled by the resurgent Islam which had remained suppressed during the Soviet years as indeed was the case with all other religions. The Central Asian ruling elites seem to have come to terms with the role of Islam in the cultural sphere and are not opposed to making use of Islamic symbolism in deference to popular sentiments. However, they are all opposed to militant and political Islam that can, above all, threaten their own rule. It appears that after generations of Soviet rule, the general ethos in Central Asia is not conducive to extremist and orthodox and puritanical Islam. Moreover, the Central Asian Islam belongs to liberal and tolerant Sufi and Jadid traditions. Extremely puritanical and orthodox Wahaabi Islam which derives its inspiration from Saudi Arabia is alien to the Central Asian milieu.

In the second half of the 19th century, Western Turkestan or the region that constitutes the present day Central Asian Republics fell under the control of the Tsarist Russian imperialism. With the emergence of the Soviet Union following the October 1917 revolution, Soviet power was established in Central Asia. The Soviets divided Western Turkestan into five republics on the basis of ethnicity and nationality. Present-day Central Asian states, thus, were created under the Soviet Union. The Eastern Turkestan had fallen under the Chinese rule in the mid-18th century and is known today as the Xinjiang province of China.

Thus, from the second half of the previous century till 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Western Turkestan or the present-day Central Asian Republics remained under Moscow's absolute and exclusive control.

Russia's Role in The Region

Russia's role in the region may be seen in terms of three reference points: (1) the exclusive hold that Moscow wielded in the region prior to the Soviet collapse; (2) the maximum level of influence that Moscow desires to maintain in the region in keeping with its historical legacy; and (3) the level of influence that it can possibly and actually wield in the area given the totality of the situation and the constraints on its own power projecting capability—both military and economic.

The former Soviet Union was a highly centralised totalitarian state. In theory, the right of national self-determination was recognised. The Constitution imparted various degrees of autonomy to the constituent republics--the highest being the right to secede from the union which was given to the 15 Union Republics. However, in reality, the Communist Party and the centralised state structure controlled every aspect of life and economy. Gosplan officials made grandiose plans for the whole country. The central leadership had complete control over the resources of the whole country and distributed funds and revenues as it thought fit. The leaders at the republican and regional levels were expected to fufil and "over-fulfil" the planned targets assigned to them. For seventy years under the Soviet system, the country experimented with "socialist integration" that closely knitted together the economies of all the republics and promoted complete interdependence among them. Thus, a single large plant produced a specific commodity or a part thereof that was to serve the needs of the whole country. The economic development of Central Asia under the Soviet system is generally regarded as rather skewed and not very balanced. Cotton monoculture was imposed on the Central Asian Republics to the detriment of food and other crops. The general neglect of environmental considerations resulted in the shrinking of the Aral Sea and the environmental hazards caused by industrial and toxic wastes. Nonetheless, the region made significant progress under the Soviet system in the spread of literacy, in providing a network of health care system, in liberating the women of the Muslim majority Central Asian Republics from purdah and making them a part of the workforce, in the development of agriculture and industry in general and in creating a well developed system of transport and communication. The Central Asian Republics received annual subsidies from the federal budget to the tune of about 20 billion roubles. The standard of living in the Soviet Central Asian Republics was agreed to be generally higher than in the neighbouring southern states. Despite these achievements, the fact remained that all the decisions concerning their economic and political life were taken by Moscow and not by the Central Asians themselves or their leaders. Despite cultural and linguistic rights and freedoms given to them by the Constitution, the Russian language reigned supreme and there were attempts at Russification of the Central Asians which they resented. All the transport and communication links of Central Asia moved northward in the direction of Moscow and Russia as did also all the oil and gas pipelines. They did not have the freedom to establish independent links with the outside world. The Central Asian Republics--as indeed all other former Soviet republics--remained within the exclusive domain of Moscow.

It is significant, however, that the demand for greater independence from Moscow's hold during the perestroika and glasnost years on the eve of Soviet disintegration was louder and more vociferous in the more advanced of the former Soviet Republics than in Central Asia. In fact, the nationalist sentiment was growing within Russia, the largest and the most dominant of the Soviet Republics. A feeling was growing within Russia that it was shouldering the burden of the empire and that it was being "sponged". It was calculated that if Russia's trade with other republics was conducted on the basis of world prices, Russia's profits from such trade would rise by 5 to 10 per cent.2 On the eve of the Soviet collapse, an attempt was made to form a Slavic triumvirate of the three most prosperous and advanced republics--Russia, Ukraine and Belarus--and keep the more "backward" Central Asians and the rather "troublesome" Transcaucasians out of such a confederation. However, this plan did not materialise, others joined in--the Central Asians et al--and a rather loose union of 11 (later 12) former Soviet Republics called the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed on the territory of the former Soviet Union. One thing is clear from the above account that only if on the basis of economic argument, any resurrection of the former Soviet Union is not feasible. Russia is neither in a position to pay the price for, nor willing, to resurrect the empire. Note may also be taken of the existence of a Slavophile opinion in Russia represented by the famous Nobel Prize winning Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn that tended to regard Russian entry into Central Asia as a mistake. If given a say, such an opinion would not favour re-amalgamation of Central Asia into Russia. Moreover, after having tasted independence, the Central Asians would themselves oppose the restoration of the empire.

During the period immediately after the Soviet demise, the entire orientation of Russian policy was towards the West. Also, as it was preoccupied with more pressing problems at home, Moscow was probably willing to leave the Central Asians to themselves. Much was written during this period about the rivalry between Turkey and Iran trying to fill the vacuum in Central Asia. The outbreak of the civil war in Tajikistan raised the spectre of growing Islamic fundamentalist threat to the whole region and aroused the concern of the Central Asian regimes as well as Russia. The latter also felt a threat to its southern flank--inhabited by a large number of Muslims--from growing Islamic fundamentalism in the region. In keeping with the collective security agreement signed at Tashkent in May 1992--in the making of which the Uzbek President Islam Karimov had played a particularly active role--Russian security cover was firmly established in the region. Moscow deployed the 201 Motor Rifle Division to protect Tajikistan's borders with Afghanistan as well as to protect key government installations there. The Russian troops strength is estimated to be around 18,000 in Tajikistan (12,000 Motorised Rifle Division plus 6,000 Border Guards).3

The strong showing of the nationalist and Communist Parties in the State Duma (Lower House of Parliament) elements in Russia in December 1993 and 1995 respectively, prompted the Yeltsin Administration to adopt some of their positions in order to take the wind out of their sails and be on the right side of the dominant mood in the country.4 This, along with other factors, including a certain disenchantment with the West, resulted in a shift in the Russian foreign policy. Thus, during 1993-94, Russia's policy became more assertive in the "near abroad" as the other former Soviet Republics are called in the Russian parlance. In the Russian military doctrine of November 1993, special attention was given to military cooperation with the CIS countries. Among the threats identified by the military doctrine to the security of the Russian Federation were the introduction of foreign troops into the territory of neighbouring countries (meaning thereby the former Soviet Republics); the training of armed groups in other countries for the introduction into the territory of Russia or its allies (the "near abroad" countries), and attacks on the border installations of the Russian Federation and its allies. The deployment of Russian troops and military installations in the "near abroad" was justified in the interest of maintaining stability in the region and on the ground of existence of such military installations on the border of the former Soviet Union and the difficulty in creating their replacements on the borders of Russia within a short period. The military doctrine implied Russia assuming the role of the defender of the CIS borders. The former Soviet position of no-first-use of nuclear weapons was abandoned in the military doctrine of the Russian Federation. It was made clear that Russia would use nuclear weapons as a deterrence against aggression against itself and its allies.5 Thus, the Russian nuclear shield was extrended to the countries of the "near abroad". What was more, Russia claimed special peace-keeping rights within the former Soviet space. Russia sought international approval of its peace-keeping role on the territory of the former Soviet Union. It was widely commented that Russia had proclaimed its own "Monroe Doctrine" regarding the former Soviet space.

Russia also took upon itself the right to protect the rights of the Russian diaspora in the other former Soviet republics.6 It is estimated that in Central Asia there are nearly 10 million Russians, although their number is declining because of continuous emigration. The protection of the rights of the Russians and Russian-speakers was advanced as the reason justifying intervention in the former Soviet Republics.

Russia has inherited from the Soviet Union almost total control over the transport and communication links of the Central Asian Republics with the outside world. All the oil and gas pipelines from these republics also moved northwards in the direction of Russia. Russia's place in their external trade remained preponderant. Its presence loomed large on the newly-independent republics of Central Asia in both security and economic fields. The Central Asian Republics are trying to diversify their economic and political ties with the outside world and thus broaden the base of their independence. However, it was reported in 1993-94 that Russia resisted the moves aimed at eliminating its monopoly over Central Asian oil and gas pipeline links with the outside world.7

However, owing to Russia's persisting economic woes, the deeper malaise in its body politics that even affected the fighting fitness of its once proud Army, foreign policy goals and objectives, including the ones enunciated in the country's military doctrine could not be effectively pursued. Russia's military action against the breakaway republic of Chechnya that began in the closing days of 1994 and continued till the signing of the peace accord with the separatists in September 1996 further exposed Russia's military weakness and its inability to impose its will on the Chechen separatists. It became clear that Russia was not in a position to militarily back its goals and objectives in the former Soviet region as desired by it and proclaimed in its military doctrine and the Foreign Policy Concept.8

Russia is also neither in a position, nor willing to shoulder the aid burden to the new republics, make sizeable investments in their economies, give them technological and other assistance. On sheer economic grounds, even Russia would not like full-fledged union with the new republics, not to talk of the republics who have tasted real independence and liberty from Moscow's hold. No wonder, the new republics, including the CARs are diversifying their political and economic ties with the outside world, which, in turn, would also give substance to their new-found independence. It is becoming increasingly clear to Russia that the other former Soviet Republics have become fully independent states, subjects of international law and recognised by the rest of the world and that it would be naive to think that the process could be reversed and they could be brought back to Moscow's fold again. Moscow is realising that relations with them must now be built on the realities of the day.9

The Western Designs and Ambition

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cold War and the all-encompassing global political, ideological and strategic rivalry between the two power blocs has given way to a new understanding and partnership. But the West, and the USA in particular, is keen to ensure that no single power or power centre should again emerge in Eurasia that can pose a challenge to it like the former Soviet Union did for so many decades. Hence the US interest in ensuring the "independence" of the new republics in Eurasia. The USA is particularly interested in bolstering the independence of Ukraine in Russia's south-west, and of Uzbekistan in the south, as a check on the resurgence of Russian power.10 Besides the US/Western geo-political stakes in the region, the lure of abundant oil and gas reserves is attracting huge Western investments in the energy and infrastructure sectors in the region. "Oil and gas," remarked President Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan, "will determine our life in the next few years."11 There is little doubt that the West and the states that are a part of the overall Western system have a monopoly over the investible capital and the state-of-art technology. They also have the dominant say in the multilateral lending institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), Asian Development Bank, etc. No wonder, all the CARs are looking towards them for funds and investments and technological assistance to overcome their present economic difficulties and to bring about smooth transformation of their economies from state-controlled economies to market-oriented ones.

The biggest oil deposit in Kazakhstan, the Tengiz oil field on the Caspian shore, is being developed with the help of the US oil giant Chevron. Another US oil giant, UNOCAL, along with Delta Oil Company of Saudi Arabia is planning to build gas and oil pipelines from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. German firms are involved in building large infrastructural projects in CARs, like power stations, telecommunications, etc.12 The US, Japanese, British and Canadian firms are involved in prospecting for gold in Uzbekistan.13 The EBRD has agreed to participate in the development of transport and communications, oil and gas and light and food industries in Turkmenistan.14 Uzbekistan has become the second biggest trading partner of the USA among the former Soviet Republics.15 Countries like Japan and South Korea have made significant investments in the region. In fact, in October 1997, South Korea was reported to have emerged as the biggest invester in the economy of Kazakhstan.16 In order to tide over the grave economic crisis and extreme liquidity crunch, the CARs sold major shares to foreign companies in their industrial units and mines, etc., the management of which passed under foreign control.17

The United States has named Central Asia, with its oil and gas fields, a sphere of American interests.18 It has caused apparent discomfiture in Moscow. According to the modern version of the old practice of the flag following the trade, growing US interest in ensuring the safety of its own and the Western investments in general in the region is underlined by considerable interest that it is showing recently in developing defence and security links with some of the CARs. Kazakhstan, territorially the largest, and Uzbekistan, the most populous, have attracted special US attention. Tiny Kyrgyzstan under its academician-turned-politician President Asghar Akayev is regarded as the most democratic of the CARs and has attracted US aid in that capacity.19

In July 1994, all the former Soviet Republics along with Russia joined NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme. From September 15 to 21, 1997, military exercises were held in three of the Central Asian States--Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan--under NATO's PfP programme. The exercises were truly historical in the sense that it was the first time that the US and other Western troops had set foot on the Central Asian soil, which had remained hitherto a Russian preserve. It went against the spirit--if not the letter--of Russia's November 1993 military doctrine. Russia, no doubt, felt concerned but had no answer to it, and, in fact, acquiesced by sending in its own token presence in the exercises. The projection of US presence was particularly high profile and dramatic as 500 paratroopers from 32nd Airborne Division of the US Army flew non-stop for 19 hours covering a distance of 12,320 km to participate in the multinational exercises.20 The purpose of the exercises was explained as fostering cooperation among the participants in carrying out joint peace-keeping and humanitarian operations should situations like that in Bosnia arise.21 A Central Asian peace-keeping battalion comprising troops from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan also participated in the exercises. The staunchest criticism of the exercises came from the Communist-dominated State Duma of Russia which issued a formal statement saying that the "statements on the peace-keeping nature of such manoeuvres are camouflaging an intensive development of new potential war theatres in direct proximity to the borders of the Russian Federation by the army of the United States of America. We cannot exclude the possibility that such super-long air-lifting operations are used to train in delivering the units of the army of the United States of America to the territory of the Russian Federation." The Duma statement called on the government to "take into consideration the growing military activity of the NATO states close to the borders of the Russian Federation" while elaborating the "concept of the military reform, whose draft proceeds from the assumption that there is no military threat to the Russian Federation."22 From the administration's side also, concern was voiced when the head of the Defence Ministry's international military cooperation directorate, Leonid Ivashov, was reported to have remarked that Russia views very negatively even exercises held within the framework of the PfP.23

The Central Asians themselves have a different view of NATO and its PfP programme. Thus, the Uzbek President, Islam Karimov, is of the view that NATO may become "a stabilising force not only on the European continent, but also through strengthening its political structure and the 'Partnership for Peace' Programme it may influence the vast Eurasian region." He regards Uzbek participation in the PfP as "strengthening our independence and sovereignty."24 And the Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan remarked that while the Kazakh authorities understood Russian concern over the eastward expansion of NATO, they did not regard its expansion as a threat to their own security. Speaking in a Press conference in Alma-Ata on September 16, he added that Kazakhstan's relations with NATO were not limited to the joint military exercises. The two sides cooperate in defence technology and the representatives of the republic attend the meetings of NATO on security isssues.25

Russia also has not succeeded in keeping its monopoly on the flow of oil and gas pipelines from the region. Western oil multinationals have entered into deals with the CARs for laying down pipelines towards the south and west, by-passing Russia. In December-end 1997, the Iranian President inaugurated a gas pipeline taking Turkmen gas from the Caspian Sea basin to Iran. The 200-km pipeline has been financed by Iran and is, indeed, a blow to both Russia and the USA. All these years, the USA had been resisting the laying down of pipelines across Iranian territory.26 From Iran, the pipeline is to be extended to Turkey for export of Turkmen gas to the European markets. The USA has chosen not to oppose the deal as it is not a position of doing so and does not want to isolate the American companies from a share in the lucrative oil and gas business in the region.

The Western Limitations and Instances of Russo-American Joint Approach

It is true that the USA, the European powers, Japan, etc. have most of the financial resources and technology to invest in the crucial energy resources of Central Asia and seek to establish their domination over the region. However, they do not have direct access to the region. They are dependent on some of the regional countries bordering on Central Asia to provide them access. Thus, in a bid to avoid the Iranian route, the USA is known to have tacitly supported Pakistan's Taliban venture in Afghanistan to secure the laying down of gas and oil pipelines from Turkmenistan to Pakistan by its oil giant UNOCAL. The Taliban experience has proved that the country on which the USA relies (in this case Pakistan), would have its own agenda and limitations which would not fully serve the US interests.27 Russia, on the other hand, remains the territorial power in the region with still considerable--if not exclusive--weight and leverage. It seems that if Russia cannot have its exclusive and predominant hold over the energy resources of the region and must reconcile to the outside powers having an access to them, as the second best and a realistic option, it would like to be associated with the multinational oil and gas deals and have a share in them. Thus, an objective possibility is emerging for some kind of a joint approach of Russia and the USA and other Western powers towards the region, while the inherent rivalry in their respective interests continues. It is likely that the West would not like to annoy and antagonise Russia and would seek the latter's cooperation and participation in the oil and gas business in the region. It is significant that in the recently signed agreement at the Turkmen capital Ashkhabad on October 25, 1997, setting up a consortium to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan, a share--albeit small--has also been given to the Russian gas giant Gazprom. The consortium is based on a protocol between the government of Turkmenistan and Pakistan and an alliance of the US oil company Unocal and Saudi Arabia's Delta Oil. Unocal has a controlling stake in the consortium, while Gazprom and a Japanese-South Korean-Pakistani company have each been granted a 10 per cent holding. During his visit to the USA, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed on November 19, 1997, in the presence of US Vice-President Al Gore two agreements worth $26 billion with a consortium of international companies to develop gas and oil fields in the north-west Kazakhstan and in the Kazakh sector of the Caspian Sea. The agreement again showed a certain coming together of the Russian and Western oil giants. Thus, in the agreement for the development of the Karachanganak gas field, Russia's LUKOIL will have a 15-per cent stake, Texaco (USA) will get 20 per cent and Italy's Agip and British Gas will each have a 32.5 per cent stake. At the signing ceremony, Al Gore remarked that Kazakhstan was becoming the US' strategic partner in the Central Asian region.28 The peace accord signed in Moscow on June 27, 1997, between the ex-Communist President of Tajikistan Rahmanov and the Islamic Opposition leader Abdullo Nuri reflected growing cooperation among various countries interested in the region. Thus, while the peace accord was largely the result of Russian and Iranian joint efforts, the USA underlined it by extending a $35 million loan to Tajikistan. The international financial institutions dominated by the USA like the IMF and World Bank also offered loans for the reconstruction of the economy of the mountainous former Soviet Republic ravaged by years of bloody civil war.29

Russia continues to be the dominant country in the former Soviet space. It accounts for more than two-thirds of the GDP of the region. No doubt, Russia is losing its former commanding position in the economies of the CARs. Russian share in the trade turnover of the CARs is declining. Thus, overall trade turnover between Russia and Tajikistan (where Russia's 201 Motor-Rifle Division is protecting the borders of the republic with Afghanistan) declined 14 times in the past five years relegating Russia to the fifth position in Tajikistan's foreign trade.30 Nezavisimaya Gazeta of December 23, 1997, published an article under the caption "Russia Being Ousted from the Uzbek Market." According to the article, the trade between the two countries was decreasing. Russia's investments in Uzbekistan were on the decline while South Korea, the USA, Japan, Turkey, Great Britain, Germany, etc. had become the major investors in the Uzbek economy.31 The fact remains, however, that Russia's place in the economies of the CARs is still quite considerable. Owing to the past seventy years of socialist integration, the Central Asian economies are still closely tied to the Russian economy. No doubt, the Central Asian states are trying to establish communication and transport links with the outside world and lay oil and gas pipelines in the direction away from Russia. Still, the CARs remain crucially dependent on the Russian transport infrastructure for the present. In fact, Russia is in a position of imposing economic blockade on them if it so wished. The alternative routes and pipelines have yet to become fully functional. The early Caspian Sea oil from Azerbaijan is being transmitted to the European markets through the Baku-Grozny-Novorossisk pipeline. Oil from Kazakhstan's biggest oil deposits--the Tengiz oil fields--is proposed to be transported to the West via Russia's Black Sea port of Novorossisk. The construction of the Tengiz-Novorossisk pipeline across the Russian territory of Astrakhan is to be launched in 1998 and be completed by the year 2000. The Caspian pipeline consortium formed in 1992 and reorganised in December 1996 reflects growing cooperation between Russia, Kazakhstan and Western oil companies. The Russian government holds 24 per cent stocks in the consortium, the Kazakh government 19 per cent, the ruler of Oman 7 per cent, and the rest of the stock is owned by the Western, Russian and Kazakh companies.32

Moreover, Russia is in a position of making use of inter-ethnic and inter-republican rivalries and contradictions in order to assert its dominant role. Of late, Russia is seeking selective integration with some of the new republics that are more inclined towards Moscow. Thus, the union of the two (Russia and Belarus) and the union of the four (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) are aimed at providing a nucleus for a new reintegrative process in the former Soviet space. Lately Tajikistan has also joined the custom union of the four mentioned above. It seems that not only no outside power, but even a regional power like Uzbekistan cannot establish its domination on the whole of Central Asia by playing a pivotal role in Central Asian regional integration. Uzbekistan is seeking to cement a Central Asian bloc of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan with a view to consolidating the new-found independence of these republics. Externally, Uzbekistan is trying to forge close and multifarious ties with the USA and other Western countries as a check on Russian ambition to dominate the entire post-Soviet space including Central Asia. The move to bring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as also Tajikistan closer to Russia is the Russian answer to counter Uzbek attempts to move decisively towards the West as well as cement a Central Asian bloc. It may be kept in view that because of its large Russian population, Kazakhstan would not like to antagonise Russia. Tiny Kyrgyzstan has more to fear from its more populous Central Asian neighbour, Uzbekistan, on whom it depends for crucial gas supplies than Russia with whom it does not have a contiguous border.

Moreover, Russian military presence continues in four of the Central Asian Republics with the exception of Uzbekistan. Russian troops are deployed in the Baykonur space station area leased by Kazakhstan to Russia, in Kyrgyzstan Russian troops are posted on the border with China, in Tajikistan they are protecting the border of the republic with Afghanistan, and in Turkmenistan they are deployed on the republic's border with Iran. All the Central Asian states with the exception of Turkmenistan have entered into collective security arrangements with Russia according to the Tashkent Agreement of May 1992. Turkmenistan prefers to have bilateral security arrangements with Russia. In October 1997 at the Kishinev Summit of the CIS, the agreement on the unification of CIS air defence was signed by the heads of Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine. Thus, all the Central Asian states have joint air defence agreements with Russia within the CIS framework.33 In fact, commenting on NATO military exercises under the PfP programmes with the sizeable participation of the US troops, a Russian analyst said that "Central Asia is very close to Moscow and very far from Washington. The US should try to remember this."34

China--Opportunities and Apprehensions

The disintegration of the mighty Soviet Union removed the security threat to China emanating from the rival Communist superpower. The two shared a long and hotly disputed border. In March 1969, the Sino-Soviet border on the Ussuri River was a scene of intense clashes between the two. The emergence of independent Central Asian states bordering on China presented unforeseen opportunities to China to forge close economic and political ties with them and seek to expand its own influence in the region. With its growing military and economic might, China is fast emerging as a potential superpower, while mired in grave economic and systemic crises, Russia is just a pale shadow of the former Soviet Union. There is no doubt that China is bound to become a major player in Central Asia. Eastern Turkestan is already under Chinese control as the Xinjiang province of China. The prospects of Chinese influence engulfing Western Turkestan also comprising the present day Central Asian states, is a geo-political anathema to other major powers that have interests and stakes in the region. China quickly established diplomatic relations with all the Central Asian states. Rail and road links were established with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan bordering on China. Cheap Chinese consumer goods flooded the Central Asian markets. China emphasised the prospects of regional economic cooperation between Central Asian states and its Xinjiang province.35 China and the three contiguous Central Asian states--Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan--have inherited Sino-Soviet territorial disputes. It is significant that all these states decided to negotiate the border issue with China collectively along with Russia under the CIS joint commission thus avoiding direct bilateral negotiations from a comparatively weaker position. The sides also made progress in reducing border tension through confidence-building measures. In December 1992, China and the CIS joint commission agreed to establish a 200-km stability zone of "decreased activity along the border." The first border demarcation treaty was signed between Kazakhstan and China in April 1994, and understanding was reached on the Sino-Kyrgyz and Sino-Tajik border also.36 In April 1994, Chinese Premier Li Peng paid a high profile visit to the four Central Asian states except Tajikistan, emphasising peaceful coexistence, common prosperity, freedom of choice of development model and regional stability.37

With its fast growing economy and increasing energy requirements China is deeply interested in Central Asian oil and gas wealth. During Prime Minister Li Peng's visit to Alma-Ata, China and Kazakhstan signed on September 24, 1997, a $9.5 billion agreement for the development of oil and gas fields in western Kazakhstan with the Chinese aid. China is to receive 60 per cent of the oil thus produced. The agreement also envisages the construction of a 3,000-km pipeline from Kazakhstan to China. President Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan described the agreement as the "contract of the century."38 Russian companies may provide the pipes and take part in the construction of the pipeline. China may also provide links of these states with Japan and Korea which are emerging as major investors in the region and are deeply interested in having an access to the energy resources of Central Asia.

Nonetheless, the emerging Central Asian geo-political scenario does not envisage the possibility of the CARs passing under the shadow of the Chinese. The geo-political centre of gravity of China remains towards its vast Pacific coastal region for the foreseeable future. Moreover, the Central Asian states border on those regions of China that are inhabited by the disaffected minorities. People belonging to the same ethnic groups viz., the Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and the Uzbeks live on both sides of the border. The emergence of independent nation states in Central Asia based on the recognition of separate ethnic and national identities can fuel similar hopes and demands in Chinese Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia. China is already facing intermittent and sporadic national separatist movements in these regions.39 In fact, China is rather on the defensive while dealing with these states. It is trying to elicit promises and commitment from these states that they would not support separatist groups in Chinese Xinjiang, particularly the Uighurs. The Central Asian regimes and China have displayed a joint interest in the maintenance of stability and territorial status quo in the region. Moreover, the CARs and China share a common interest in preventing the influence of Islamic fundamentalist and militant forces from spilling over to the region from turbulent Afghanistan.

Once the Central Asian states grow into stable and prosperous countries upholding their independence and sovereignty, they are bound to emerge as a very attractive model to emulate for China's disaffected minorities in the adjoining regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, even though the regimes there do not deliberately support the separatist movements in China.

Right now China and Kazakhstan have found one factor of common interest. Kazakhstan is deeply interested in turning the Russian-Kazakh ratio in the country decisively in favour of the Kazakhs which is already taking shape unmistakably owing to the higher birth rate of the Kazakhs and outmigration of the Russians and other Russian-speakers. Ethnic Kazakhs and the Uighurs are reported to be migrating from the Chinese Xinjiang and they are being settled in the Russian-dominated northern Kazakhstan with the support and connivance of the Kazakh authorities. The Chinese are also equally interested in the emigration of possible trouble-maker Kazakhs and Uighurs from Xinjiang for their own reasons. The decision to shift the capital of Kazakhstan from Alma-Ata to Akmola in the north is also aimed at reasserting Kazakh authority in the Russian-dominated north. Nonetheless, the very ethnic composition and geographical location of Kazakhstan dictates that the country seeks close and friendly ties with Russia.

Turkey, Iran and Pakistan--The Ethno-Religious Ties

Turkey, Iran and Pakistan along with the fractious state of Afghanistan are the Muslim countries in the south and the south-west of the CARs. Turkey, Iran and Pakistan shared in the past common foreign policy orientation as they formed the strategic "northern tier" in the Western military alliance system directed against the former Soviet Union. The three were the original members of the regional Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) that originated from CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation).

The emergence of Muslim-majority CARs and Azerbaijan as independent states was enthusiastically welcomed by these Islamic countries. It had an electrifying effect on Turkey where it was seen as the opening up of a large Turkish world that extended from Istanbul to the Gobi Desert. Four of the CARs with the exception of Tajikistan as well as Azerbaijan belong to the Turkish stock. It revived the memories of the old Turkish imperial glory and fuelled Pan-Turkic and Pan-Islamic ambitions. Iran occupies a crucially important geographical location contiguous to the CARs and Azerbaijan. It can provide these landlocked states the easiest access to the Persian Gulf and the sea routes connected with it. In view of continuing bloodshed and civil war in Afghanistan, the Iranian route acquires additional importance. Tajikistan with its ethnic and linguistic affinities with Iran is a part of the Iranian cultural world. Although in contrast to Shiite Iran, the Tajiks are mainly Sunni Muslims. Moreover, bound by common Islamic religion, Islamic radical Iran hoped to extend its political, economic and religious-cultural influence among all the CARs. Pakistan began to entertain ambitions of creating a regional Islamic bloc where it hoped to play the leading role and which could provide it the much needed "strategic depth" in its endemic rivalry with India.

Soon after gaining independence all the CARs joined the ECO in 1992. They were keen to establish relations with the outside world and seek transport and communication links with the countries towards their south and get an outlet to the sea. However, while joining the organisation, all the CARs made it clear that they wanted to emphasise economic cooperation and avoid controversial political issues.

The CARs have also joined the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), where they have been called upon to support anti-India resolutions on the Kashmir issue routinely and unanimously adopted under the influence of Pakistan.

Nevertheless, there is hardly any possibility in the foreseeable future of common ethnic and religious bonds leading to the CARs passing under the exclusive influence of Turkey or for that matter of Iran and Pakistan. All these three Islamic countries--despite their common membership of the ECO--have tended to pursue competitive goals in Central Asia rather than act in unison.

Initially the Turkish model of development was vigorously advanced by the Western and Turkish media as the desirable model to be followed by the newly-independent Central Asian states and Azerbaijan in contrast to the radical Islamic model of Iran. Turkey was a secular Islamic country and was closely allied with the West through NATO and the European connection. There was much enthusiasm for Turkey even among the central Asian states themselves. Turkey made significant and energetic moves to expand its presence and influence in Central Asia. It signed numerous framework agreements (approximately 170) with the Central Asian states soon after establishing diplomatic relations with them. In order to spread its cultural influence in the region, it instituted ten thousand scholarships for Central Asian students. Attempts were made to promote Turkish (with the Latin alphabet) as the lingua franca of the new states. Turkish broadcasts through its Eurasia channel were beamed on these countries. However, it seemed that there is big difference in the Turkish spoken in present-day Turkey and its dialects spoken in Central Asia. The Russian language continues to be widely used in Central Asia as the language of inter-ethnic and inter-republican communication and as the language of higher learning.40 Turkey has emerged as a significant economic player in Central Asia. It is the third biggest trading partner of Kazakhstan. More than 300 Turkish companies are operating in Kazakhstan. During his visit to Alma-Ata in September 1997, the Turkish Prime Minister, Mesut Yilmaz, announced a $300 million credit in support of small and medium size enterprises there.41 Similar efforts have been made by Turkey in other Central Asian states also. On November 18, President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and the Turkish President Suleyman Demirel signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation at Ankara. 42 In an interview to the Uzbek Radio prior to his departure for Ankara on November 17, Karimov made known his preference for the new government of Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, which replaced the Islamist government of Necmettin Erbakan earlier in the year. 43 However, Turkey's efforts in Central Asia are constrained by its limited capacity to make huge investments in the region and provide state-of-art technology, for which the CARs are turning towards the Western powers, Japan, South Korea, etc. Turkey is also constrained by the absence of contiguous borders with these states as it cannot provide them direct access to the sea. An excessive increase in Turkish influence in the region is bound to invite counter-moves by Russia that views Turkey as a geo-political rival in the entire arch from Central Asia to Caucasus. Moreover, Turkey itself is divided between very strong pulls towards Europe and the lure of reviving its influence in Central Asia based on ethnic-linguistic and religious affinities. What is particularly important, the Central Asian states are not interested in coming under the exclusive influence of yet another outside power under whatever pretext after having gained their independence from Moscow.

The geographical position of Iran is of great significance in providing the CARs an outlet to the sea. Iran is naturally interested in making use of its geo-political importance by seeking to expand its political, economic and cultural influence in the new republics. The experience of the civil war in Tajikistan has made the Islamic Republic of Iran more cautious in dealing with the ex-Communist regimes in Central Asia, which are opposed to Islamic fundamentalism and militant and political Islam. It has been pointed out that if they have to choose between Western-style democracy and a radical Islamic government like the one in Shiite Iran or the one offered by the orthodox and fundamentalist Sunni Muslim Taliban forces in Afghanistan, the Central Asian regimes would prefer the former, as it would provide them an opportunity to survive--even if in the Opposition—take part in the political processes and even contest for power in a democratic setting.44 Iran is also cautious and wants to avoid hurting Russian interests in Central Asia. In view of persistent US hostility and antipathy to Iran, ties with Russia, particularly in the military-technological field are considered to be very important. The victory of Pakistan-supported Islamic fundamentalist Taliban forces in Kabul in September 1996 further aggravated Iranian and Pakistani rivalry in the region. It has tended to bring India, Iran and the Central Asian countries closer. Iran has preferred to emphasise economic diplomacy more in dealing with the CARs rather than seeking to export its version of Islam in the region. It has provided road and rail links to the CARs through neighbouring Turkmenistan and an outlet to the sea through its port of Bandar Abbas. India, Iran and Turkmenistan have entered into a tripartite agreement providing for the surface transportation of goods from India to Central Asia via Iran and vice versa. Iran has also constructed, as has been mentioned earlier, a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Iran which will be further extended to Turkey for the export of Turkmen gas to the European markets. However, the Iranian capacity to provide investment and technology to the new republics is limited and remains a constraint on its goals and diplomatic endeavour in the region.

Pakistan's hopes and ambitions regarding Central Asia have been frustrated due to the continued civil war and bloodshed in Central Asia. Its attempts to pacify and control the war-torn Afghanistan by backing the Islamic-fundamentalist Taliban forces and thus open and secure the route to Central Asia across Afghanistan have rather had the counter effect of scaring off the ex-Communist regimes in Central Asia.45 It is clear that no single ethnic and political group can control the whole of Afghanistan, nor can Afghanistan itself be exclusively controlled and dominated by any outside power. Afghanistan can attain long-cherished but still elusive peace through the joint and sincere efforts of all concerned. Only then goods and traffic as well as oil and gas pipelines can freely and safely move between Central Asia and the Pakistani cities of Peshawar and Karachi and indeed beyond them to the larger Indian market.

Pakistan follows an activist policy of expanding its political, economic and cultural relations with the CARs. But it is nowhere near being a leading player in Central Asia. In fact, the Pakistani propensity of mixing religion with politics and its known involvement with training and harbouring of Islamic militants from various countries have tended to put off the Central Asian states in their dealings with Pakistan. Recently, on February 16, 1998, Abdulaziz Kamilov, the Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan, made a public statement in Tashkent categorically stating that Pakistani soil was being used for training Islamic militants operating in his country. The Foreign Minister said that "according to information available from different sources, about 400 people from Central Asia, first of all from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are undergoing training at the present moment in the clandestine training centres on Pakistani territory." The Uzbek Foreign Minister gave names and places of these centres in his public indictment of Pakistan. He even expressed the aprehension that such activities were beyond the control of the Pakistani government. The Uzbek Foreign Ministry urged the Government of Pakistan to put an end to these activities.46

Indian Interests and Stakes

Although India does not have direct borders with the Central Asian Republics, it is situated in close geographical proximity to them. India has deep geo-political and geo-strategic interests in the region. From times immemorial, India and Central Asia have had close and multi-farious ties. The developments in Central Asia have always tended to have a spill-over effect on India. The troubled Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir is already feeling the brunt of militant Islamic fundamentalism in neighbouring Afghanistan, and the proxy war perpetrated by Pakistan. If the Central Asian region passes under the influence or control of hostile forces, it would indirectly impinge on India's security concerns. The basic geo-political interests of India and the Central Asian Republics tend to converge in the region. India does not even remotely figure in the threat perceptions of these republics or of Russia. India is rather seen as a friendly and a helpful moderating and stabilising factor. India also has an inherent interest in the emergence of the Central Asian Republics as stable, strong and prosperous states who can hold their own and do not pass under outside influence. Both India and the Central Asian Republics have a common interest in countering the growth of Islamic fundamentalist and other extremist forces in the region. Putting an end to international terrorism, and curbing arms smuggling and drug trafficking in the region are in the common interest of India and the CARs.

Although India is mainly relying on "economic diplomacy", in this geo-politically important region, its place in the economic map of the region is very insignificant as compared to other countries that are trading with the region or have made investments there. Despite the oft-repeated statements of India's crucial geo-political interests in the region, India's diplomacy and economic activity in the region seem to lack vigour and necessary will. It is true that India does not have surplus capital to make huge investments in the region, still there is great scope and unexplored possibilities for further enhancing multifarious cooperation and exchanges in various fields between India and the CARs, which would be in the mutual interest of all. India's energy requirements are growing. The Central Asian states have huge oil and gas reserves that they want to export. India can seek access to them through the Iranian route, the Russian route through the port of Novorossisk or even the Afghanistan-Pakistan route as and when it opens and becomes operational. The Central Asian states as well as the oil and gas multinationals who would make billions of dollars of investment in the construction of the oil and gas pipelines would like to extend them to the much larger and lucrative Indian market and not stop in Pakistan. India as well as the Central Asian states can gain from expanding their mutually beneficial economic cooperation and trade transactions. India can help these countries in their nation and state building efforts, their economic transition to a free market economy and in the training of their cadre according to the current requirements of their economy and society at large.

The emergence of prosperous, stable and secular Central Asian states would also not go against the long-term interests of a democratic, prosperous Russian Federation. Without having to shoulder the burden of the empire and an anachronistic autocratic system, Moscow would remain one of the most important capitals in the former Soviet space. The policy-making circles in Russia are known to be giving increased attention to Central Asia in order to stem the tide of eroding Russian influence in the region. It is increasingly being realised that "Russia must not leave Central Asia."47 Russia is stated to be deputing of late its most skilled and talented diplomats to the Central Asian capitals. Significantly, Russia is currently emphasising the joint Indo-Russian interest in the region. The Indo-Russian joint declaration issued at the time of Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's Moscow visit in 1994 for the first time underscored "their deep interest in promoting peace and stability in the area between the borders of the Republic of India and the Russian Federation" meaning thereby Central Asia and Afghanistan. This position has been reiterated since then. Both India and Russia have underscored their common interest in peace, stability and economic development of the region and in ensuring that the region does not pass under the influence of hostile forces.

It may be said by way of conclusion that if no single power or power centre can establish its exclusive control over Central Asia as this analysis envisages, and the Central Asian states are able to consolidate their independence in the course of time, it would only serve India's current and long-term geo-political interests.



1. The percentage of the Russians is continuously declining because of their emigration to Russia. Till some time back their percentage was cited as 37 percent. According to the figures reported in Central Asia Monitor, no. 4, 1997, pp. 2-3, Russians today constitute 32 percent of the population of Kazakhstan, while the Kazakhs, who were earlier in a minority now account for 51 percent of the country's population.

2. See, for instance, International Affairs, 7, July 1991, pp. 5-6 and Newsweek, September 9, 1991, p. 13.

3. Spencer D. Bakich, "The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation: Working Document or Anachronism?" Conflict Studies 301, July/August 1997, p. 17.

4. Jyotsna Bakshi, "Yeltsin's Presidency and Russia's Democratic Development", Mainstream, October 5, 1996, pp. 33-34.

5. Bakich, n. 3, p. 6.

6. Economic and Political Weekly, November 13-20, 1993.

7. See, for instance, James P. Dorian, Ian Sheffield Rosi and S. Tony Indriyanto, "Central Asia's Oil and Gas Pipeline Network: Current and Future Flows" Post-Soviet Geography, vol. 35, no. 7, September 1994, pp. 423-424.

8. Bakich, n. 3.

9. See, for instance, Izvestia, January 22, 1998.

10. See, for instance, Zbigniew Brzezinski, "A Geostrategy for Eurasia", Foreign Affairs, September/October 1997, pp. 50-64, passim".

11. SWB, SU/ 3048 G/1, October 13, 1997.

12. SWB, SUW/0502 WE/1, September 5, 1997.

13. SWB, SUW/0502 WE/3, September 5, 1997; SWB, SUW/0505 WE/2, September26, 1997.

14. SWB, SUW/0510 WE/3, October 31, 1997.

15. SWB, SU/3087 G/3, November 27, 1997.

16. SWB, SUW/0509 WE/1, October 24, 1997.

17. According to a report in September 1997, President Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan called for limits on the proportion of shares sold off to foreign buyers. He said that no more than 30-40 percent of shares should be sold to outsiders and "the rest must wait for home-grown capitalists with money". He added that "the point is not that we are changing course. We will go on liberalizing and privatizing. But we must take under control the big industries, the basis of the Kazakh economy today". SWB, SUW/0504 WE/1, September 19, 1997.

18. Moscow News, no. 44, November 6-12, 1997, p. 5.

19. SWB, SUW/6510 WE/2, October 31, 1997. Of late, President Akayev is also showing signs of growing impatience with opposition and is resorting to rule by decree.

20. In all, 1,400 troops from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, USA, Russia, Turkey, Georgia and the Baltic states participated in the exercises. A newly-created Central Asian peace-keeping battalion from Kazakhstan, Kyrygzstan and Uzbekistan also participated in the exercises.

21. See SWB, SU/3026 S/2, September 17, 1997, and SWB, SU/3028 SI/2, September 19, 1997.

22. Text in Rossiskaya Gazeta, October 8, 1997.

23. SWB, SU/3031 SI/1, September 23, 1997.

24. Islam Karimov: Uzbekistan on the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century- - Threats to Security, Conditions of Stability and Guarantees for Progress, (Tashkent, Uzbekistan: 1997), p. 262.

25. SWB, SU/3027/G/2, September 18, 1997.

26. International Herald Tribune, January1, 1998.

27. See, for details, Jyotsna Bakshi, "Pakistan's Geopolitical Game Plan in Afghanistan", Himalayan and Central Asian Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, July- September 1997, pp. 33-62.

28. SWB, SU/3083 G/3, November 22, 1997.

29. SWB, SU/3047 G/2, October 11, 1997.

30. Russia's trade with Tajikistan reportedly declined from $2,900 million in 1991 to $215 million in 1996. See Krasnaya Zvezda, January 28, 1998.

31. Mekhman Gafarly, "Russia Being Ousted from Uzbek Market", Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 23, 1997. The article stressed that in the meanwhile foreign capital is strengthening its position in the Uzbek market. The total foreign direct investment in Uzbekistan has already exceeded $6.2 billion. The companies of South Korea led the line with more than $1 billion investment, the US investment was $600 million, and Japan with $500 million investment occupied the third place.

32. Valentin Alexandrov, "Tengiz to Black Sea", Vek, no. 40, October 1997.

33. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 25, 1997.

34. Fred Weir, "A Brigade of US Troops to Parachute into Kazakhstan", The Hindustan Times, September 15, 1997.

35. See, for instance, Mohiaddin Mesbahi, "Regional and Global Powers and the International Relations of Central Asia", in Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parrott, ed., The Making of States in Eurasia, (NewYork, London: M.E. Sharpe 1995), p. 233.

36. Ibid., p. 234.

37. Ibid., 233..

38. SWB, SUW/0508 WE/2, October 17, 1997.

39. See Felix K. Chang, "China's Central Asian Power and Problems", Orbis, vol. 41, no. 3, Summer 1997, pp. 401-425, passim.

40. Mesbahi, n. 35, pp. 218-219.

41. SWB, SU/ 3011 G/2, September 11, 1997.

42. SWB, SU/ 3083 G/3, November 22, 1997.

43. SWB, SU/ 3080 G/2, Novemebr 19, 1997.

44. Mark N. Katz,, "Emerging Patterns in the International Relations of Central Asia", in Dawisha and Parrot, ed., n. 35, pp. 355-356.

45. Bakshi, n. 27.

46. Amit Baruah, "Uzbek Charge Embarrases Pakistan", The Hindu, February 19, 1998.

47. V. Strugovets in Krasnaya Zvezda, January 28, 1998.