There is a direct parallel between the current Russian-American rivalry in Central Asia and the military-diplomatic duel that the Russian and British empires were waging in the Eurasian heartland in the 19th century, the analysts say. Both Moscow and Washington deny they are intensely competing in the strategically important region, but the two sides’ deeds are more eloquent than words.
Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s pivotal state, appears to be in the center of the two great powers’ geopolitical tug-of-war. During U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s October 10-13 tour of Central Asia, Tashkent was demonstratively excluded from her itinerary. Symptomatically, a few days prior to Rice’s visit to the region, Uzbekistan joined the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Community (EEC), thus having made another regional grouping – Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO) redundant (See EDM, October 11). Tashkent’s move, the regional experts argue, has intensified Moscow-sponsored integration process in the post-Soviet lands and given Russia additional economic and political clout in what it regards as its natural zone of influence.
Washington intended to punish the authoritarian Uzbek President Islam Karimov for backtracking on democratic reform, ruthless suppression of the May 14 riots in Andijan and, last but not least, eviction of American troops from the Karshi-Khanabad base. Rice, who visited Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan but bypassed Tashkent, gave Karimov, in the words of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried, a “very clear message.” Now, Fried added, “We have to see how he responds.”
In fact, the Uzbek strongman responded even before receiving the signal from Washington, as he clearly anticipated what this message might be. On September 19-24, Russia and Uzbekistan conducted joint military maneuvers in Uzbek territory. The war games, billed as “anti-terrorist exercises,” appear to be a sign of growing Russian-Uzbek military ties. Their goal, according to Uzbek military sources, was to train Russian and Uzbek forces together to quickly put down an armed rebellion in Uzbekistan similar to the Andijan uprising but larger in scale. And last week, while in St. Petersburg, Karimov called Russia the “center of gravitation” for the post-Soviet states and invited his hospitable host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to upgrade the relationship between their countries from the level of strategic partnership to that of full-blown alliance. Not surprisingly, most Russian analysts approved the Uzbek leader’s “correct geopolitical move,” with some commentators adding– in a seeming allusion to his previous skillful maneuvering between Moscow and Washington – that this time Karimov had made his “final strategic choice.”
There are several issues vital for the political elites of the Central Asian states on which Russia and the United States appear to have different perspectives. The paramount one is securing and perpetuating the rule of the local powers that be. There is a general consensus within Russia’s policymaking and analytic community that it was primarily U.S. pressure and the fear of a possible “color” revolution that pushed Karimov back into Moscow’s fold. The majority of Russian experts share a view that the post-Soviet leaders of Central Asian states are particularly wary of Washington’s democratization drive and of what they perceive as America’s plan to install pro-Western regimes in the region. Bush administration policies, one regional expert contends, scared Central Asia’s autocratic rulers and forced them to “seek protection under the Russian security umbrella.” Remarkably, speaking on October 12 in the Federation Council, the Russian parliament’s upper chamber, at the special hearings on Russia’s policies vis-à-vis the CIS countries, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov energetically advocated further strengthening Russian-Uzbek ties, adding that any economic or political sanctions against Uzbekistan are useless.
The second issue is the outside powers’ military bases in Central Asia. While happy to get lavish payments from the Pentagon for American use of the local military facilities, the region’s rulers are uncertain about Washington’s true strategic intentions. They also know the U.S. forces will be reluctant to get involved in any local political conflicts and will not support the local regimes militarily if the latter are challenged in any kind of mass uprising or “revolution.”
By contrast, Russia, while seeking to beef up its military presence in the region, is keen to give the Central Asian regimes the guarantees of its readiness to provide military assistance in the time of dire need. Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha announced on October 11 that a “large group of forces” would be created in Central Asia, similar to the Russia-Belarusian and Russian-Armenian integrated army groups. (The CSTO comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia.) Bordyuzha said that the Central Asian army group would be composed “not from battalions, but from regiments and divisions and, in the event of a serious military conflict, it will defend CSTO members from all sides.”
Most Russian experts see Secretary Rice’s Central Asian tour as an attempt at countering the growing Russian influence in the strategically located and energy-rich region, although Fried and other U.S. officials specifically stressed that Washington did not view Central Asia as a battleground of the Russian-American Great Game. But the leading Moscow analysts are not convinced. For them, Russia and the United States are locked in the classic geopolitical “struggle for the leadership position in Central Asia.” Local security specialists seem to agree: “Some time ago we were talking about the Cold War,” commented Col. Gen. Abdygul Chotbayev, the former commander of Kyrgyzstan’s National Guard. “It ended, having been transformed into a geopolitical rivalry between the two world powers – the United States and Russia — over spheres of influence in Central Asia.”
(Rossiiskaya gazeta, October 13, 12; Vremya novostei, Gazeta, October 12; RIA-Novosti, Kommersant, October 11; RFE/RL, October 11, 5; Washington Times, October 9)