Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 23

Russia Casts a Long Shadow over Central Asia

By Dr. Evgueni Novikov

For the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, thereare no easy answers to national security concerns. They haveemerged from the international isolation of Soviet times to findthemselves in a very complex geopolitical situation.

The national security of these newly independent nations willbe affected to a large degree by the foreign policy choices whichthey make. Foreign policy choices will also have an impact onhow they restructure their own political and economic systems.Will they forge closer ties with, and model their internalreforms on, the East or the West? Or is it possible to find somebalance between them, creating hybrid systems which incorporatethe best of both worlds?

In their search for solutions, the Central Asian states findespecially attractive the idea of a rapprochement with the neighboringpeople to the East with whom they share a common ancestral heritage.This is evidence that the people of Central Asia are graduallyovercoming the alienation from their Islamic cultural heritagewhich they suffered under Soviet rule.

Following the demise of the USSR, analysts, both in Russia andin the West, assumed that Central Asia would quickly dismantlethe Soviet political system, as Russia had done. These expertsengaged in endless debate over whether Turkey or Iran would bethe model for the newly independent Central Asian nations. Butto everyone’s surprise, the Central Asian nations have chosenneither of these countries as a political model. Instead, CentralAsia has opted to keep its Soviet institutions.

Now the future political and economic development of the regionwill depend on whether these new states can find a balance betweentheir traditional ties with Russia and their need to develop closecontacts with the leading states of both the East and the West.

Russia’s policies toward the Central Asian nations are of specialsignificance. Whether Russia, the center of the formerruling power, will truly recognize these nations as independentand sovereign states, or after emerging from her own politicalcrisis, will try to regain control of them, is a key questionin the minds of Central Asian leaders.

In my view, Russia’s politicians and some of her analysts continueto display an arrogant, if not imperial, approach to the republicsof Central Asia. The Russian government has not accepted theidea that these republics are independent states which are freeto choose their own paths. The Kremlin is uncomfortable with thefact that its former subjects can ignore the failed model of Russianreforms and find another model.

This attitude is described by Umirserik Kasenov, the directorof the Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Research for the Presidentof Kazakhstan, in an article published in the newspaper Aziya:"Far from everyone in the corridors of power in Russialikes this [independence of Central Asian states]. To this day,publications appear in the Russian press about the competitionof contiguous and overseas states for influence in Central Asia.In these publications, the right of states and peoples to definefor themselves with whom to create alliances and on what basis,is completely forgotten. Not all Russian politicians, ideologists,and analysts proceed from the position that their independenceis real and permanent." (The New Role of Central Asia inContemporary International Relations, in Aziya No. 39(77)October 1993.)

Political developments within Russia will have a bearing on whetheror not the Central Asia states can remain sovereign. The CentralAsian leaders, and those of the other former Soviet republics,have to be disturbed by the current round of campaign speechesby Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and formerRussian vice president Aleksandr Rutskoi, who openly call forthe restoration of the USSR with its former borders.

Aggressive themes also resound in statements made by a numberof Russian analysts. For example, Major General I. Danilenkoof Russia’s General Staff Academy, thinks that the withdrawalof the Central Asian states from Russia’s geopolitical space isseen in Russia as a threat to her security. An analyst of theInternational Research Center of MGIMO (Moscow State Instituteof International Relations), discussing Russia’s policy towardsKazakhstan, suggests "if the power structures are destabilizedbecause the population in the southern part of Kazakhstan adoptsa position of national extremism… we should return to the partitionof Kazakhstan into an older zhuz (a clan-based territorialdivision in Kazakhstan), pulling towards Central Asia, a youngerzhuz, pulling back towards Russia, and a central zhuz,in the capacity of a security buffer zone." (Mezhdunarodnayazhizn. No. 4, February 1993)

In Russian academic publications, two primary themes can be foundwhich, if the Russian Communists or nationalists come to powerin the parliamentary elections scheduled for December, could findtheir way into official Russian foreign policy doctrine.

The first is that Central Asia is in the sphere of Russian geopoliticalinterests exclusively, and that Russia will not tolerate the intrusionof other states in that part of the world.

The second theme is an attempt to intimidate the new independentCentral Asian states by warning them that if they fall out ofthe Russian geopolitical sphere, they would come under the controlof another less desirable power. This position ignores completelythe fact that the independent states of Central Asia are not onlyobjects, but also subjects of international relations, who havethe sovereign right to develop relations with all states in theworld, and not to be the exclusive sphere of influence of anyone of them.

What can Central Asia do to protect itself? In the opinion ofRajan Menon, Rathbone Professor of International Relations atLehigh University and a visiting scholar at Columbia University’sHarriman Institute, the countries of the region could neutralizethis pressure through participation in CIS structures with Russia.The conditions of a collective treaty could restrain Russia fromaggressive actions in its "near abroad."

This is logical and consistent with a number of factors. First,the Central Asian states receive some benefits from the CIS structure,the primary benefit being economic aid. Russia’s own economicproblems prevent it from providing significant financial supportto the CIS nations. Nationalist political forces cite Russia’sown economic woes to argue in opposition of economic aid to theCIS nations.

Second, Russia would like to use the CIS to maintain a USSR-likestructure in the region, which would inevitably succumb to Russiandomination. But for the time being, the CIS remains basicallya weak organization. CIS statements on economic, military andeven political policies are unenforceable recommendations. Tothe extent that the CIS member states exercise their own freewill and don’t follow these decrees, Russia is restrained.

Another way to neutralize Russia’s power in the region wouldbe to create of an alliance of Central Asian states. But differencesamong these states could prevent such an alliance from forming.A regional security system would in all likelihood be dominatedby Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan, in particular, would find this objectionable.The rivalry between these two Central Asian states could overshadowtheir differences with Russia.

In addition, the presence of a large Russian-speaking populationin Kazakhstan

could prevent the formation of an anti-Russian regional alliance.The Cossacks in this region, who are forming their own militaryregiments, have received support from Moscow.

The Cossack communities could, with Russia’s help, provoke theRussian population in northern Kazakhstan to participate in anationalist movement in support of secession.

A third possible buffer against Russian aggression would be thecreation of bilateral coalitions with other strong states, likeUkraine, Turkey, Iran, or China. It is not hard to imagine analliance between Kazakhstan with Ukraine, two states with significanthuman and economic potential. But their combined potential poweris nonetheless less than Russia’s, and the anti-Russian directionof such an alliance could be quite risky for both states wherethe Russian population is great.

It is also unlikely that the Central Asian states will form analliance with either Turkey or Iran. The differences between theirforeign policy goals, culture, and political systems will notpermit them to create an effective system of collective security. In addition, both Turkey and Iran have their own strategic plansto maintain good bilateral relations with Russia, which preventsthem from entering into an anti-Russian alliance with the CentralAsian states.

An alliance of the Central Asian states with China is also unlikely.The relationship between Kazakhstan and China is strained becauseradioactive fallout from China’s nuclear explosions lands onKazakh territory. In addition, Kazakhstan fears that such an alliancecould lead to the spread of nationalist challenges from the TurkicMuslim peoples who live in the Chinese provinces bordering CentralAsia. Admittedly, Kazakhstan’s president recently made severalserious steps towards normalizing relations with China. Kazakhpresident Nursultan Nazarbayev made an official visit to Chinabetween September 11 and 14 during which he signed a number ofagreements with Chinese president Jiang Zemin. They reached anagreement on the Sino-Kazakh border treaty, and agreed that thetwo Defense Ministries would cooperate in some areas. An agreementwas signed allowing Kazakhstan to use China’s Lianyungang portas a transit point for its exports. The Kazakhstani presidentalso urged the Chinese people to invest in his country, notingthat the country’s new constitution provides more security toforeign investors. (OMRI, Inc. No. 177, Part I, September 12,1995.)

The US and other Western countries will not enter into any anti-Russianalliances with the Central Asian states, if only because CentralAsia has not yet entered into the circle of their vital interests.It is also unlikely that NATO would take these states under itsumbrella. NATO is preoccupied with Bosnia, and so far, has notdecided to open its doors even to the countries of Eastern Europe.The OSCE could take on the role of security guarantor for theCentral Asian states. But the OSCE has a weak institutional base,and, moreover, Russia has veto privileges there.

None of these options for coalitions and alliances in the CentralAsian region will ensure peace and security. Long term securitycan only be achieved when democracy has been firmly implantedin both Russia and in the Central Asian states. Democracies donot fight among themselves. History bears witness to this. Therefore,it is incumbent upon the West to offer all possible means of supportto the development of free markets and democratic institutionsin the countries of the former USSR, including the Central Asiannations.

Dr. Evgueni Novikov is a professor at the George C. MarshallCenter for Security Studies at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.