Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 8

By Peter Rutland

A decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the consensus on the countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus seems to be somewhat gloomy.

Some fifty scholars and diplomats gathered at Yale University from September 19-21 to discuss “The Silk Road in the 21st Century,” at a conference organized by Strobe Talbott, formerly Clinton administration deputy secretary of state, head of the Institute for the Study of Globalization at Yale and recently appointed president of the Brookings Institution. Presidents Askar Akaev of Kyrgyzstan and Haidar Aliev of Azerbaijan participated live through a satellite link.

In the opening panel chaired by Stephen Sestanovich, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union, Lehigh University professor Rajan Menon joked that presenters were divided into two groups–Cassandras predicting imminent catastrophe, and Pollyanas hoping for future progress despite evidence to the contrary.

Regional cooperation, all agreed, is vital to tackling the problems facing the region, those problems being economic stagnation, water shortage, disease, drug trafficking and international terrorism. Yet effective cooperation is nowhere in sight, with each of the region’s leaders jealously guarding their national sovereignty and competing with each other for the patronage of the international community.

The session invoked the fabled “Silk Road” but it is more realistic, former Georgian Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili noted, to talk of a “Drugs Road”–thanks to the “very well organized international mafia” that brings heroin to Europe from Afghanistan, now the world’s principal source of supply. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist from Johns Hopkins, noted that the increased supply of heroin is creating a surge of intravenous drug users from Sinkiang to Iran, which may in turn trigger a massive HIV/AIDs epidemic.

There was some debate about the relevance of another cliche typically invoked about Central Asia: the “Great Game.” Sestanovich noted that the overwhelming preponderance of U.S. power compared to potential rivals means that it does not see itself having to compete for influence. Yale professor Keith Darden said that the United States has very limited goals in the region, suggesting that its prime objective here is stability, a goal that Russia shares. Shireen Hunter and others noted the active presence of many players in the region, such as Turkey, Iran and China, further complicating the “Great Game” analogy.

September 11th focused the attention of U.S. policymakers on Central Asia, and one might have assumed that this would bring greater resources, increased security and a fresh chance to tackle the region’s problems. Georgian scholar Ghia Nodia argued, however, that the main impact was an “increased volatility, a sense of new opportunities for local political actors and a lowered threshold of violence.” Rather than cooperate with neighboring countries, leaders are once again competing to be the most-favored U.S. ally. In a process London’s Roy Allison characterized as “reverse leverage,” they have taken the renewed U.S. attention post-September 11 as an opportunity and an excuse to crack down on domestic political opposition. This means progress towards respect for human rights and rule of law is a still more distant prospect. Lehigh professor Rajan Menon warned that “the other side of engagement is entrapment.”

This behavior, Wisconsin professor Michael Barnett remarked, is also typical for the leaders of the Middle East, who have followed Nasser’s lead in using the international system as a resource bank for consolidating their personal grip on power, extracting “security rents” from the great powers. Barrett characterized this process as “not imperialism by imposition, but imperialism by invitation.” Rafis Abazov from Kyrgyzstan concurred, arguing that while the international community talks about regional cooperation, their actions actually encourage national competition

The presentations by Presidents Akaev and Aliev showed them to be personable and adroit politicians, but shed little new light on their countries’ prospects.

Aliev devoted most of his remarks to the Karabakh conflict, reproaching the great powers for failing to intervene more decisively to resolve that and other conflicts of the region, pointedly tying the war on terrorism to the problem of separatism. On demarcating the Caspian Sea, he said that there was “no problem with Moscow” and that that bilateral agreement is ready for signatures. [The document was in fact signed in Moscow by Vladimir Putin and Haidar Aliev on September 23.] And though relations with Iran were damaged by that country’s military actions against oil exploration vessels inside Azerbaijan’s zone last summer, Aliev noted that he had visited Teheran in May of this year.

Akaev brazenly said that he now realizes that Kyrgzystan’s problems stem from a “democratic deficit.” He enumerated the steps being taken to address this, such as the appointment by parliament next month of an independent human rights commissioner. But when attorney Scott Horton asked about the fate of jailed opposition leader Feliks Kulov, Akaev disingenuously replied that Kulov’s case is now before the courts, and the president is therefore powerless to intervene.

Tajikistan’s Kamoludin Abdullaev struck what was perhaps the most positive note. The Islamic Revival Movement reached a peace agreement with the Tajik government in 1997, ending three years of civil war. This, Abdullaev said, is the sole instance of an Islamist guerrilla organization entering a secular coalition government. The peace, he pointed out, was the product of fruitful cooperation by Iran and Russia, who persuaded their allies in Tajikistan (the guerrillas and the government respectively) to sue for peace. He also noted popular revulsion with the ongoing war, which led to the emergence of a new, “unexpectedly strong” sense of Tajik national identity.

No one seemed to hold out much hope for resolution of the “frozen conflicts” in Georgia and Azerbaijan in the immediate, or foreseeable, future. Ghia Nodia argued that peace negotiations are a “hoax”, killing time pending hoped-for great power intervention. Former Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Gerard Libaridian said that the emphasis in negotiations over Karabakh seemed to have shifted from a “package deal” approach to a more modest, step-by-step solution. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliyev rebutted rumors that Baku is interested in a land swap as part of a solution.

Several panels were devoted to the role of Islam. Larry Goodson from the U.S. Army War College insisted that militant Islam is a real threat to U.S. interests and regional stability, and that the problem is not confined to Afghanistan. Most of the other presenters, such as author Barnett Rubin, rejected this notion, arguing that Islamic doctrine pulls in different directions, and is being used instrumentally as a mobilizing tool by ambitious leaders who have a narrower agenda of ethnic or regional self-determination. A questioner from Uzbekistan failed to get a clear answer to the tricky “Algeria question” he posed: What happens to democratization if it looks like an Islamist militant party will win the election?

The conference included several presentations by academics who have completed multicountry, quantitative analyses of the causes (or more exactly correlates) of conflict and civil war, most notably those by Stanford’s David Laitin and Yale’s Bruce Russett and Nicholas Sambanis. Wars happen, they concluded, not because of the “clash of civilizations,” nor because of specific grievances to do with religious, linguistic or economic oppression. Rather, low levels of democracy and economic development lead to weak states, unable to impose order by force or inducement. (Laitin also found that a mountainous country is twice as susceptible to civil war as flat country!)

Despite this finding that economic development seems to be key to conflict prevention, there was surprisingly little discussion of economics at the conference, in part, one suspects, because there was little good news to report. This despite the fact that just one day before the conference opened, ground was formally broken in Baku for the construction of the long-awaited oil export pipeline through Georgia to Ceyhan on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Moscow economist Maria Vlasova noted that intra-regional trade is anemic, with the oil sales of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan accounting for the bulk of the region’s exports. Tariffs and other barriers to trade have been increasing rather than decreasing in recent years, in part because such controls are instrumental for leaders seeking to consolidate their personal power though the politics of permit patronage.

Professor Darden suggested that the only viable answer to the region’s problems is a “collaborative regionalism” involving the “pooling” of sovereignty, of the sort seen in the European Union. Most other commentators dismissed this approach as unrealistic and utopian. David Laitin suggested, on the basis of experience in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere, that the only way to prevent future conflict in the region is a kind of neoimperialist intervention, with each conflict tackled by a single leading country, with the rest of the international community providing moral support and material assistance. But few of his colleagues seemed to regard this as an attractive or viable proposition.

Peter Rutland is a political scientist at Wesleyan University.