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The struggle for influence in Central Asia

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The struggle for influence in Central Asia


Central Asia is one of the intersection spot of the multiple attempts of different stakeholders.

There are two kinds of external stakeholders, actors who want to maintain their influence, and subsequent consequential, seek to reduce those of other actors present; and those who, through opportunism or strategic objectives in the medium term or long term, tending to increase them, without necessarily get in direct confrontation with the interests of other powers engaged.

In all these different possible scenarios, do not forget the importance of continuing the strategic equation in risk analysis undertaken compared to the benefits you get out. This is what determines the degree of commitment of the reviewed country, and it is also what balances possible confrontations between the various conflicting influences. Besides, the worldwide situation about terrorism and fall of oil prices push states to grow their influence where their interests are at stake: policy domination in Central Asia is far from priority for many countries.

From these analytical methods, you can make two observations:

_ A growing difficulty to federate on a common vision and goals, because of interests generated by various ambitions too, and accordingly such a barrier.

_ A significant decrease of their dependence of Central Asians states using struggle of influences to play on several horses at once, even if the horses have changed along years.

To recover a semblance of lost unity with the virtual withdrawal (the collapse of the Soviet Union) and real (decline of the Russian presence) troops and the administration of the old regime had known states Central Asia in 1991, a first objective politico-military and economic and then had to be found between the different actors.

Although the need for security was particularly striking for the newly independent countries (include for example, countries in Eastern Europe who have entered the last ten years in a charm offensive of NATO, their interest has made the interest of the organization since its military borders should reach Bulgaria and Romania as 2004)1, a collaboration or an economic union between the Central Asian states could only benefit them; since by historical experiences, the regional economic stability has always been one of independence and promotion of its own power factor.


Russia, which is back from 2008 in newly independent countries, especially shown by Ukraine crisis in 2014, with its "special circumstances and [his] particular weight that is binded tightly '2 with each State were part of his empire for nearly 80 years, due to its geographical proximity, which facilitates deployment troops, and finally by his interest not to lose touch with a part of the world for its essential strategic focus on Afghanistan, drug trafficking, warm seas, energy resources of the Caspian Sea, ISIS terrorism, and also on the possibilities temporarily or permanently to weak the Chinese and Iranian response capabilities in the region, especially after the lift of sanctions for Iran in 2015; Russia was thus the first state, naturally we might almost say, to promote its sustainable presence in Central Asia.

The Eurasian Economic Union in 2015 and before the Commonwealth of Independent States in 1991 met this target. Both births could give hope to Moscow leaders that it would re-energize cooperation between the former socialist republics and put them together into a unifying framework. Ukraine crisis has blown it apart. As the substitute of economic part of CIS, the Eurasian Economic Union tries to unite countries under the patronage of Russia. To the satisfaction of the Kremlin, the Central Asian states not therefore decided and are not to depart too radically from the big "brother."

Without calling into question the voluntary nature of such commitments, the elites of these countries have certainly addressed the annoyances of a policy too openly hostile to that of Moscow; especially since no did not have the means or alternatives needed for such an attitude. However, the strategy implemented by the Kremlin with Georgia and Ukraine more recently explains the reluctance of Central Asians states to go further than an economic union which still remains vague.

Besides, nothing can predict the future of Eurasian Economic Union. One hypothesis would be a failure like the failure of the Commonwealth of Independent States: less than two years after these timid attempts to unify otherwise grouping, member states are not managed nor to agree on the purpose of the Community or to operate efficiently3.

A fracture increasingly visible at that time remains between the policies of states that were struggling the most to strengthen their sovereignty, such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and those States which were motivated by personal ambitions like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan . An integration policy supported by Moscow4 therefore opposed power politics. This failure of the Russian regionalization policy is symptomatic of the psychological trauma that has been suffered due to the loss of the Empire. Moreover, in a much more fundamental domain, the Caspian resources, Russia has lost the role it played before. Faced with the low competitiveness of its businesses and the economic crisis it experienced since 2014, its market share tended to dramatically reduce the profit of external investors and pipeline projects avoiding Russian territory even if reducing is always on the table5. The lift of sanctions for Iran will open new roads for Caspian oil.

The main brake of the Eurasian Economic Union spreading to Central Asia can be explained by the fact that communications between the republics are disastrous, for lack of political will, cooperation is minimized, each suspicious of his neighbor. For this, the only Russian presence in the region can be harmful because if we dislike the policy of "big brother", can be found in the enemy camps. They also must find alternatives to other potential stakeholders. This has had two consequences: the abandonment of any attempt by Moscow to unify the region, economic or military, and a thorough reflection on its failure with the former republics of the Empire. Also, we are seeing a real upheaval of the Russian approach to the region, from the late Yeltsin years but especially during the reign of Vladimir Putin. It was sort of the revival of the Russian policy in the region, Russian President would take a much more proactive than its predecessor: bilateral relations (the Kremlin talks of "integration speed and different levels," and while the economic dependence remained for some countries (Tajikistan, Armenia and Kirghizstan6) a means of pressure, he preferred the military means like in Ukraine in 2014

Between the ghosts of the rivalry and the contradictions between Central Asian states ( Uzbekistan relatively reluctance to Russia and Kazakhstan wanting to be the leader or the co-leader of the region, Turkmenistan diversifying its relations with the future rapprochement with Ankara and Tehran, and Kyrgyzstan struggling between inequalities between north and south, and also the specter of Islamic threat (a counter-terrorism center in Bishkek was created by the group of Shanghai7), Russia maintains strong military forces in the region: in Kazakhstan, the Russian military facilities occupy 4% of territory, even if Baikonour will disappear; in Tajikistan, thousands of men are stationed as guards borders with Afghanistan. Russia due to its proximity and its knowledge of the field, plays the role of guarantor of stability including face to China (which has brought the construction of a pipeline between Kazakhstan and her through Xinjiang). Meanwhile, Russian policy continues its economic interests, Moscow has agreed to deal with the Central Asian republics equitably (now Russia therefore pays its imports at market prices), even though Moscow's economic weight tends to prevent other investors from taking foot in Central Asia.

The last summit of CIS in october 2015 has brought the fight against terrorism as a way to unite forces in central asia. As Russian President's speech in Tashkent in 2000, where he clearly enunciated his intentions: "Everyone knows that is trying to cut the territories that were part of the Soviet Union in terms of criminal activity with the help of religious extremism and international terrorism. A zone of instability appeared in the republics which are the gateway to Russia. […]”, the last speech of Putin at the summit “The situation there really is close to critical; Terrorists of all kinds are gaining influence and do not hide their plans for further expansion. One of their goals is to break through into the Central Asian region. It is important that we be ready for coordinated action to respond to any such attempts. 5,000-7,000 people from Russia and other CIS countries are fighting on the side of the Islamic State and we must act to make sure that these people do not put the experience they have acquired in Syria to use here at home later.” shows that Kremlin would like to push its military presence across the region and creating a CIS border force will certainly fit this policy8. Obviously, the side of Central Asians groups and to whom they are affiliated with and links these affiliations have with the different actors that would drive individuals to joining a civil war far away from home is to define more precisely9.

Moscow already has a significant military presence in Central Asia which it plans to expand. Base lease to Russian in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were extended to 2042 and 2032. The Russian force in Tajikistan, already the largest outside of Russia, is scheduled to grow to 9,000 troops (up from around 6,000) by 202010.

In one hand the Central Asian States do not wish to annoy Moscow and at the same time strengthen cooperation with other external stakeholders to counterbalance the weight the Russian presence (Uzbekistan withdraw of Collective security organization (CSTO) in 2012 and neutrality of Turkmenistan), and since on the other hand, the Western do not wish to oust Russia from the region, especially after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, suspicion is enough to keep it away from its expansionist possible. When Brzezinski said Russia is too weak to restore its empire in Central Asia, and too strong to be excluded, it emphasizes the key point in Russian politics. It is a waiting game, in which the "stick" (the economic weapon, Russia interrupted the transit of Turkmen gas to Europe in 1995) and the "carrot" (the Eurasian Economic Union ratified for Kazakhstan in 2015) are the two complementary components of Russian policy.


Geopolitical position in the Central Asian Region seemed somewhat more optimistic compared to the Balkans and the Caucasus where the newly formed states were involved into internal and external conflicts. There-have-been no considerable interethnic or interstate clashes in Central Asia except the conflict in Tajikistan. Countries of the Region have managed to manage the required flexibility in interstate relationships as well as to achieve achievement to come to a level of internal stabilization. External Forces here have been not strong enough to present a threat to regional stability, even when NATO was involved in Afghanistan. One way or another, political elites of the regional states obtained some time since 1991 to strengthen their power and get established on the world arena.

The Eurasia became a challenge in mid 2000 for Western Europe and the United States because it represented a crucial region in the restructuring of the international system.
America continued a containment policy: thus they weave economic and military political ties and they require the presence of their troops in strategic locations. But since the pivot to East Asia has been confirmed, it would be interesting to see how Central Asia would be a part of this worldwide policy.

The policy developed by Washington summarized in six points, in a speech in October 1996 on the occasion of the inauguration of the Central Asia Institute of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies by J. Collins, Special Advisor the state Department for new independent states has not changed11:

_ Support for the independence, sovereignty and security of each state in Central Asia;
_ Assistance for the establishment of a market economy and a democratic government;
_ Assisting the integration of these states in the world community and financial institutions like the IMF and their participation in the Euro-Atlantic security dialogue;
_ Encouragement of Central Asia states to the pursuit of peaceful relations with their neighbors to create the conditions for better cooperation between them and contribute to the resolution of local conflicts;
_ Contributing to the prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking; support for US business interests.

For the new republics of Central Asia, any political union where Russia would be against is unacceptable. But by asserting their identity and independence, republics limited the number of candidates for hegemony and this particularly concerns Russia. Countries pushed the hegemonic attempts by Russia to rebuild their sphere of influence. The West as an attraction to face a threatening Russia was a reassuring solution for Central Asia and integration into political, economic and western military will be at the expense of the Russians.

Similarly US policy served to reinforce the strength of the new republics to Russian pressure and it is also the medium-term way to change the Russian attitude in Central Asia to the sense of cooperation and international responsibility. But The West faced considerable impediments to developing closer ties with Central Asia, rooted in the region’s geopolitics (lack of historical, cultural ties to the United States and Europe, and no strategic long term view of these actors with the region). Russia and China have closer ties and more significant interests with Central Asia. Together, these factors add up to an agenda for the West that is heavily skewed to emphasize the importance of Central Asia’s neighbors at the expense of Central Asia proper12.


Central Asia is on a different trajectory now. The region is in the midst of a major geopolitical shift that will diminish its ties to the Euro-Atlantic community and will elevate China’s influence in and importance to Central Asian states. Beijing and Moscow will be the region’s principal economic, political, and security partners due to China’s preeminent regional economic power and Russia’s residual presence13.

The withdrawal of Afghanistan has reinforced the need for Americans to have a stable and independent zone but it is no longer a strategic region for them. Between NATO and Kazakhstan within NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, a solid cooperation has been created but the rest of the region has been reluctant. The shift of the organization on threats like Russia in Europe or Middle East lowered the interaction of NATO in this region. Moreover, in an atmosphere of cold war increased, close contacts with the organization could create additional problems for some Central Asian states by triggering a negative reaction from Moscow.

Nowadays, American priorities that are the identification of threats and the fight against internal and external sources of instability – ISIS - are found through international cooperation on terrorism and the fight against money laundering and organized crime in the region in international for a such as the UN.
Intergovernmental, Washington opened the dialogue with each of the republics in the hope of encouraging reform in favor of democratization and liberalization of markets after the fall of the USSR. Due to its demographic weight, ethnic homogeneity, geographical and historical centrality in the region, Uzbekistan had become the anchor of US policy in Central Asia. The country supported the US policy in the region for stabilizing role service. However, the US wills are more now near a cooperation that would combine their policy with Uzbekistan and cooperation with Russia against drug trafficking and the terrorism.
Greater regional integration among Central Asian states has been a long-standing goal of U.S. policy: America’s NSR initiative was a significant project in this enterprise. However, with the United States not willing to provide financial resources, the results thus far have been disappointing, and regional economic integration is problematic at best for several reasons, sometimes intern to the region (With the exception of Turkmenistan, Central Asian states have shown little commitment to regional economic integration or to a north-south transportation network that would connect the region to its neighbors in South Asia).

Besides, China’s Silk Road Economic Belt offers Central Asia a compelling alternative to NSR with a potential $46-billion fund, as well as potential financing from the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

With the decline in the price of oil and changes in the global energy marketplace, region’s producers and exports have suffered but also dampened prospects for new investment in the energy sector. Central Asia is not an attractive target –with the exception of Kazakhstan.

These developments showed declining American presence in and influence over the region—and greater difficulty in transforming Central Asian states into democratic (obstacle of the region’s domestic politics—the closed political systems, abuse of basic civil rights, and lack of respect for the rule of law.), free-market economies together by regional economic integration14

Geopolitical shifts and internal dynamics are setting the stage for possible increased great-power competition in Central Asia between Russia and China when the region is becoming less hospitable to the projection of U.S. power and to the promotion of democracy.

In the meantime, China's presence and influence in Central Asia - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan - have been increasing. The "New Silk Road economic belt" highlights Central Asia's importance for Chinese development. Resources of Central Asia are attractive to China because of its proximity to which depends price and reliability of imports. China has been investing billions of dollars in the energy sector which include a series of contracts with Kazakhstan worth $30 billion, contracts for $15 billion value with Uzbekistan, and natural gas transactions with Turkmenistan in 2013, which reached about $16 billion. China provided loans to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan (8$ billion and 1$ billion each).

Central Asian countries are important allies in the fight against Islamic extremist for China’s west: as long as Xinjiang will have a sovereignty issue, there will be a mutual interest. Institutions such as the Shanghai Six have created a solid base for cooperation between Central Asia and China. The area has become an area of common interests between large panel of countries, which not prevent from conflict between them. However, reluctance and probability of crisis will not disappear as long as stability of region will not be solved.

1 La Mer Noire : frontière ou pont ? Les implications de l’élargissement de l’UE et de l’OTAN et la sécurité régionale, Gustavsson and Coskun, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2003

2 Andréï Kozyrev, ministre des Affaires étrangères, interview du 15 juin 1994, RFE/RL Reasearch Report, 15 juillet 1994, p.38

3 sur 880 documents signés, seuls 130 avaient été mis en œuvre, « Russie-Asie centrale : la fin d’un étranger proche », Anne de Tinguy, Revue internationale et stratégique, 1999.

4 « la politique stratégique de la Russie à l’égard des pays membres de la CEI », Rossiiskaia Gazeta, 23 septembre 1995

5 Alibekov, I, ‘While Russia watches, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan explore new ties’,, 11 March 2004

6 De Tinguy, A, ‘Russie-Asie centrale, la fin d’un « étranger proche »’, Paris, PUF, 1999

7 Commission sénatoriale, 'l'Asie centrale, dix ans après l'indépendance', 2000

8 As Abdujalil Abdurasulov commented in the BBC, 16 october 2015.

9 USAID, Tucker,

10 Catherine Putz,

11 Izvestiia , 4 juillet 1998





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