Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 24

Central Asia made its debut at NATO’s most prestigious public forum, the annual Conference on Security Policy, which was held in Munich on February 2-3. During the forum, the presentations made by the Kyrgyz and Tajik foreign affairs ministers reflected the unprecedented latitude in strategic choice that Central Asian countries now enjoy, thanks to the West’s post-September 11 entry into that region.

Their prepared presentations evidenced decisions, made in the respective capitals, to seize this historic opportunity for opting out of Russia’s orbit and staying out of China’s. Gone were the cliches about “strategic alliance with Russia” or the lip service to the CIS Collective Security Treaty, of which both countries are members at least pro forma. That ritualized language, virtually obligatory for the last ten years, seems to be evanescing from their international discourse as rapidly as the U.S.-led military deployments proceed in Central Asia. With Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov looking on, the Kyrgyz and Tajik presentations virtually ignored his country.

Kyrgyz Foreign Affairs Minister Muratbek Imanaliev’s paper may have raised some Western eyebrows with its stated aspiration for his country to become a connecting link between Asia and Europe. This and similar formulations strike many Europeans as paradoxical in every respect, beginning with the geographical and the cultural. To Kyrgyz and other Central Asian officials using this formula, it has a clear operational function: It expresses their choice of the West as partner in preference to Russia or China, and their expectation to benefit from the opening of West-East transit corridors and other Western-funded projects that would end Central Asia’s isolation from the world economy.

For his part, Tajik Foreign Affairs Minister Talbak Nazarov obliquely but unmistakably called for a long-term U.S. presence in Central Asia and endorsed the U.S. rationale for it. Reaffirming Tajikistan’s offer to support “the United States and other countries in the antiterrorist coalition,” Nazarov’s paper urged that the coalition “function on a long-term basis, and not be limited to just one antiterrorist operation.”

Departing from the Tajik government’s previous practice of covering up the true proportions of the drug trade in the country, Nazarov turned to the West for assistance: “Drug trafficking through Central Asia, first of all through Tajikistan, is undoubtedly a source of financial support to international terrorism. Unless radical measures are taken to block it, one can hardly hope for success [in the antiterrorist campaign].”

The admission and plea follow in the immediate wake of two significant decisions by Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov. In late January, he dismissed at one stroke the entire hierarchy–the commanding general and all of his five deputies, with general and colonel ranks–of the country’s border troops, tainted by suspicions of complicity in the drug trade or discredited by ineptitude in combating it. In an accompanying move, Rahmonov agreed with U.S. government agencies on a massive program to supply Tajikistan’s fledgling border troops with vehicles, communications equipment, night vision devices and modern detection equipment, as well as to train Tajik border troop officers. The program not only addresses Central Asia’s problems, but also dovetails with U.S. and international goals in Afghanistan, the source of the Tajik drug trade.

This program also responds–however implicitly–to Moscow’s view, as expressed by the Russian border troops’ commander, Colonel-General Konstantin Totsky, on several occasions in late January. Totsky stated that Russia would keep its approximately 10,000 border troops in Tajikistan for up to fifteen years, because it would take that long for Russia to train Tajik border troops and their officers. Totsky did not and could not have offered Russian technical assistance, Russia’s own border troops in Tajikistan being destitute of equipment and funds. He was reduced to welcoming the first, US$7 million installment of the U.S. assistance program for the Tajik border troops. The program, if pursued consistently, should remove any rationale for the Russian border troop presence in Tajikistan, and much sooner than Totsky’s timeframe. The Russian troops’ stated antidrug mission has failed to prevent the Afghan-Tajik border from becoming Eurasia’s largest drug sieve.

An analysis in last week’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta–a newspaper often hostile to the independence-minded CIS countries–focused on the reasons behind Kyrgyzstan’s and other Central Asian governments’ apparent decision post-September 2001 to cast their lot with a U.S.-led West: “The global military might of the United States and its political effectiveness have plainly demonstrated who can be the only arbiter of the tangled issues in Central Asia nowadays. It is indicative [of this fact] that the former Soviet republics, CIS Collective Security Treaty signatories included, so promptly and readily provided their air spaces and infrastructure to the U.S. armed forces…, Bishkek’s foreign policy decision essentially recognizes that it is impossible to provide for the country’s security in the CIS treaty’s framework, and [thus signifies] a unilateral withdrawal from the treaty…. That treaty’s advantages are highly dubious. Russia, the leader of that treaty, is not very predictable politically and not very attractive economically. And, in the final analysis, Russia’s way of life and the living standards of the majority of its population can hardly serve as a cultural example. Russia’s armed forces are no example either…. The Kyrgyz choice merely recognizes the real situation” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 21).

Central Asian governments must be scrutinizing every nuance of official Washington’s statements for clues to U.S. intentions. Occasionally, Central Asians may see discrepancies of nuance–which Moscow seizes upon and magnifies–between statements emanating from the U.S. Defense and State departments, respectively. Defense Department representatives maintain the appropriate degree of studied ambiguity befitting the situation, for example by disclaiming intentions to maintain a “permanent” military presence while leaving the door open for at least a medium-term presence, and reserving all options. For their part, some State Department officials tend occasionally to reassure Moscow that the U.S. military presence in Central Asia would be short lived. Moscow in turn professes to read into such statements more than they had intended to convey in the first place. On January 23-24, for example, Russian state television and news agencies attributed to Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage a statement to the effect that the United States “recognizes that this region is a Russian sphere of influence.” Moscow officials reflecting the Kremlin’s views welcomed the alleged wording of that statement.

However, one of the few remaining Russian democrats in the Duma, retired Colonel Sergei Yushenkov (a political scientist), expressed the hope that America would not commit such a blunder. It would–he declared with characteristically Russian reverence for “American pragmatism”–be a highly unpragmatic move on the part of the United States (Russian Television and news agencies, January 23-24, 29-31; Tajik and Kyrgyz foreign affairs ministers’ papers, Munich Conference on Security Policy, February 2-3; see the Monitor, December 11, 2001, January 2, 16, 22; Fortnight in Review, December 14, 2001, January 4).