The re-election of President George W. Bush may raise concerns in the Central Asian capitals about the continuation of a unilateralist approach in U.S. foreign policy. Specifically, it will further reveal the nature of U.S. relations with Russia and their potentially significant impact on the region.
Three years after the deployment of U.S. and coalition military forces within Central Asia in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, there are clear indications that political leaders in this strategically sensitive region are becoming more conscious of how Moscow could react if further moves are made toward facilitating Western military and strategic objectives. But before the Bush administration can once again refocus the efforts of the State Department and Department of Defense on the promotion of regional stability, with further concrete bilateral measures being initiated and implemented, caution in Astana, Bishkek, Tashkent, and Dushanbe has surfaced over future Western regional aspirations. Simultaneously, each capital reveals an increased willingness to re-establish traditional security-cooperation ties with the Russian Federation.
During the recent regional tour by Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO Secretary-General, the Kyrgyz leadership welcomed signs of renewed Alliance interest in assisting the reform and development of its armed forces. Of course there were requests made for Western military weapons and equipment, which have become a standard feature of Central Asian defense diplomacy; regional leaders look to NATO to supply weapons that its member states wish to discard. Yet as Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev has noted, “Our republic can feel confident in the possibility of maintaining regional security only together with Russia. Those who do not acknowledge Russia’s role in ensuring stability and security at a regional level are mistaken. This is a world power which is capable of exerting a very serious influence on the course of world political events.” While Akayev has shown openness to deepening Kyrgyzstan’s partnership with the Alliance and seeking additional bilateral assistance from the United States, it has equally pressed ahead with strengthening the Russian airbase at Kant.
In Astana, de Hoop Scheffer reportedly expressed interest in the possibility that Kazakhstan may decide to increase its peacekeeping numbers in Iraq. However, the Kazakhstani Defense Minister, Mukhtar Altynbayev, explained that there was no current plan to do so, and the decision of the Hungarian government to withdraw its own forces from Iraq in May 2005 will lessen the likelihood that Astana will consider risking a greater commitment. Astana has repeatedly emphasized that its main ally continues to be Russia, especially in military-political matters. On October 6 Kazakhstan’s lower house of parliament ratified a protocol expanding the sphere of application of the Agreement on the Main Principles of Military-Technical Cooperation Among Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states, showing Astana’s keenness to pursue multilateral cooperation with Russia.
De Hoop Scheffer had to address the politically sensitive issue of democracy in Uzbekistan, which has shown little capacity to improve its human rights record or make progress toward democratizing the country. He sought to reassure the Uzbek government that NATO values the ongoing partnership with Uzbekistan. This was a difficult area, and one that raised eyebrows within Tashkent when de Hoop Scheffer drew attention to the democratic nature of the Alliance, saying, “We do everything that we can to protect specifically democratic values, and we hope that that these considerations will also be taken into account in our relations with Uzbekistan.” President Islam Karimov ignored the comment and chose to focus on future military cooperation. But the problematic issue cannot be ignored within the inner circles of Karimov’s regime, who are aware that by dealing with Moscow and developing security ties there are no such risks of criticism.
Although Uzbekistan remains outside the CSTO, it has actively sought warmer bilateral relations with Russia and plans to step up its security cooperation. One unambiguous indication of this was the decision reached in August 2004 to hold joint Uzbek-Russian anti-terrorist exercises next year in Russia.
Despite securing an important transit agreement between NATO and Tajikistan in support of the ISAF peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan, de Hoop Scheffer’s visit to Tajikistan came after an agreement to open a Russian military base in Dushanbe. In his meeting with President Imomali Rahkmonov, Scheffer downplayed NATO rivalry with Russia in the region. In de Hoop Scheffer’s view, the Russian military presence in Tajikistan would not interfere with cooperation between Tajikistan and NATO, though he believed the Alliance would be unlikely “to work directly with the Russian military.”
Across a wide range of military and security cooperation issues, though keen to leave the door open for further Western assistance, Central Asian states appear more comfortable in dealing with Russia, secure in the knowledge that Russia will not leave the region and place democratizing pressures on host governments in return for assistance. Bush faces a challenge in Central Asia, not only for U.S. foreign policy and strengthening the hand on NATO in the region, but in strategic bridge building with Moscow to create a real partnership and reduce the grounds for caution on the part of Central Asia’s Soviet-schooled leaders.
(Kommersant, Moscow, October 22; Interfax, October 22; Itar-Tass, October 21; Krasnaya zvezda, November 2).