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Whither the New Great Game in Central Asia?

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  • Foreign Policy Research Institute

Abstract

This paper represents an assessment of the present great game or new great game in Central Asia among the major external and internal political actors three. It finds that the game is probably intensifying and at the same time serves the purposes of Central Asian governments in helping them preserve domestic security. Thus the foreign rivalry serves multiple and paradoxical purposes. On the one hand states like Russia and China pursue great power aggrandizement and even neo-imperial policies there and on the other hand Central Asian states attach themselves to these countries in the hope of obtaining resources form them with which to augment their independence. At the same time as the United States announces its impending withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is already evident that the rivalry among the other major actors is heating up. Moscow is pursuing military bases the right to intervene in the domestic affairs of members of the CSTO and its customs union and China is strengthening its commercial primacy in the area. And while all this is occurring simultaneously we see concern over succession issues in several states, the possibility of something resembling the Arab spring occurring, an outcome that greatly alarms Russian, Chinese, and local leaders, and of course, the uncertain prognosis in Afghanistan. Thus the international competition within and around Central Asia is likely to intensify.
Whither the new great game in Central Asia?
q
Stephen Blank
Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013, United States
article info
Article history:
Received 12 October 2011
Accepted 27 January 2012
abstract
This paper represents an assessment of the present great game or new great game in
Central Asia among the major external and internal political actors three. It nds that the
game is probably intensifying and at the same time serves the purposes of Central Asian
governments in helping them preserve domestic security. Thus t he foreign rivalry serves
multiple and paradoxical purposes. On the one hand states like Russia and China pursue
great power aggrandizement and even neo-imperial policies there and on the other hand
Central Asian states attach themselves to these countries in the hope of obtaining
resources form them with which to augment their independence. At the same time as the
United States announces its impending withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is already evident
that the rivalry among the other major actors is heating up. Moscow is pursuing military
bases the right to intervene in the domes tic affairs of members of the CSTO and its customs
union and China is strengthening its commercial primacy in the area. And while all this is
occurring simultaneously we see concern over succession issues in several states, the
possibility of something resembling the Arab spring occurring, an outc ome that greatly
alarms Russian, Chinese, and local leaders, and of course, the uncertain prognosis in
Afghanistan. Thus the international competition within and around Central Asia is likely to
intensify.
Copyright Ó 2012, Asia-Pacic Research Center, Hanyang University. Production and
hosting by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Today Central Asia faces serious deeply rooted chal-
lenges from within and without that will likely only
intensify in the future. Indeed, Central Asia arguably stands
on the brink of profound strategic changes in the decade to
come. Although nobody knows how these changes will
affect the region, most observers of Central Asia generally
(though there are exceptions) argue that the regions
stability is precarious at best. For example, one Indian
account states that despite the relative and unexpected
stability of the last twenty years, the alleged stability of
the region can vanish in no time as it rests on a quicksand
(Kavalski, 2010, p. 93). Many of those changes pertain to the
interaction of external actors in Central Asia what might be
called the new great game.
An accurate perception of the new great game would
distinguish it from the old great game by virtue of the
number of players, the depth and scope of their interactions,
and the multi-dimensionality of their interactions (Blank,
2001,pp.123142). Both U.S. and foreign observers have
captured this process. S. Enders Wimbush observes that,
The competitive context in Central Asia is formed
primarily by two larger dynamics that sometimes
q
Paper presented to the OSW Conference on Central Asia, Warsaw,
November 9, 2011.
E-mail address: stephen.blank@conus.army.mil.
Peer-review under responsibility of Asia-Pacic Research Center, Hanyang
University.
Contents lists available at SciVerse ScienceDirect
Journal of Eurasian Studies
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/euras
1879-3665/$ see front matter Copyright Ó 2012, Asia-Pacic Research Center , Hany ang Univ ersity. Production and hosting by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j. euras.2012.03.005
Journal of Eurasian Studies 3 (2012) 147160
overlap, intersect, converge, or collide. The rst dynamic
is created by outsiders. Central Asia is a caldron of large
actors, including not only China and India but also the
United States, the Gulf Arab states, Turkey, and to
a lesser extent, Europe. Russias strategic interests in the
region continue; indeed they have intensied as the
presence of other actors has become more pronounced.
The second dynamic is created by insiders. Central
Asia today is a dynamic mix of local actors redening
themselves along both vertical and horizontal strategic
axes. The state of post-Soviet Central Asia today adopt
very different attitudes toward larger competitors,
including India and China, to the extent that they adopt
any attitude at all. Relations among these states are at
best cautious at worst hostile; they affect and project
different attitudes about their afnity for or antipathy to
the East and West. While their strategic visions are often
opaque or difcult to identify, little suggests that Central
Asian states see themselves on a common pathway to
the same future. (Wimbush, 2011, p. 260).
The Indian Kishan Rana similarly observes that to
understand Central Asia, we should,
Visualize a three-d imensional, multiplayer chessboard,
where a move by each protagonist produces eddies
and backows that affect all the others, and prompt
counter-movements. Factor into this, the time as
a fourth dimension, which takes this ana logy beyond
easy description. [Central Asia] resembles such
a turbulent, volatile, and unpredicta ble scene owing to
the mix of cooperation [and] contestation that marks
virtually each bilateral relationship. The situation is all
the more unpredictable because of the ab sence of xed
mooring points. [The regio n] thus offers a heady mix of
bilateral, regional, and great power diplomacy in
which the p layers weave bewildering nets of connec-
tions and counter arrangements. Some of the
emerging developments appear contradictory, under-
standable only in a uid context (Cited in Kavalski,
2010, p. 10 5).
When one takes account of the dynamics furnished by
Kiril Nourzhanov it becomes clear just how complex this
region truly is. Nourzhanov notedthe need to break away
from a Western-derived threat paradigm that sees every-
thing in terms of the great power rivalry commonly called
the new great game and the main internal threat to
regimes, namely insurgency (Nourzhanov, 2009, pp. 94
95). While these threats surely exist, they hardly comprise
the only challenges to Central Asian security. Thus he writes
that,
Conventional security problems rooted in border
disputes, competition over water and mineral resources,
ubiquitous enclaves and ethinic minorities, generate
conict potential in the region and are perceived as
existential threats by the majority of the local pop-
ulation. One of the very few comprehensive studies
available on the subject arrived at the following
conclusions. 1) relations among the countries of Central
Asia are far from showing mutual understanding on the
whole range of economic issues; 2) the most acute
contradictions are linked to land and water use; and 3)
these contradictions have historical roots and are
objectively difcult to resolve, hence they are liable to
be actualized in the near future in a violent form
(Nourzhanov, 2009, pp. 9495).
This is not just another academic analysis. In fact, border
problems, mainly between Uzbekistan and all of its
neighbors, have long impeded and today continue to retard
the development of both regional security and prosperity
(U
metov, 20 09). Indeed, it is not too far to say that given the
antagonism between Uzbekistan and its neighbors, espe-
cially Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, hostile relations and even
the use of force is never far from a possibility. As a result of
these trends a regional arms race has taken root in Central
Asia. In 2007 alone military spending in Kazakhstan,
Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan rose by 48% (Nourzhanov,
20 09, p. 95). As Nourzhanov further notes,
The bulk of the money would be spent on heavy
weapons, xed-wing planes, and navy vessels which is
hard to explain by the demands of a ght against
terrorism alone. Remarkably the danger of intra-
regional armed conict is not seriously analyzed in
any ofcial document. The current Military Doctrine of
Kazakhstan (2000) which talks about the tantalizingly
abstract probability of diminished regional security as
a result of excessive increase in qualitative and quanti-
tative military might by certain states, may be regarded
as a very partial exception that proves the rule
(Nourzhanov, 2009, p. 95).
Much evidence corroborates this last point. For example
Kazakhstan has increased defense spending by 800% in
20 0007 (Interfax-Kazakhstan Online, January 23, 2009a;
Open Source Center, 2009a). And the state defense order is
expected to double in 2009 (Kazakhstan Today Online,
20 09b ). Indeed, the trend toward militarization was
already evident by 2003 (Blank, 2003, pp. 5176).
Nourzhanov also notes that Central Asian leaders have
put themselves or been put in an impossible position by
having to recite public paeans to regional cooperation
when they are contradicting it in their actions. Likewise,
their invocations of Western threat scenarios that prioritize
terrorism and insurgency are belied by events since only in
Kyrgyzstan has there been an insurgency (Nourzhanov,
20 09, pp. 9495). Consequently the absence of regional
cooperation is not a surprise, if anything it is over-
determined, but it also facilitates the coinciding great
power rivalry (Allison, 2008, pp. 125142). Organizations
like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) serve
mainly to regulate Sino-Russian competition while allow-
ing the Central Asian states to prevent either Russia or
China from unilaterally playing games against them
while enabling them to secure much needed resources
from those two states. But it is hardly an effective security
provider (Trenin, 2011, p. 252, Weitz, 2008a, p. 31).
Yet at the same time this already intense great power
rivalry that is likely to intensify still further also represents
a factor of stability in Central Asia. Paradoxically the
geopolitical rivalry contributes to these regimes stability
even as it enmeshes them in a vortex of dynamic
S. Blank / Journal of Eurasian Studies 3 (2012) 147160148
relationships that nobody can control. These countries
simultaneously face the exigencies of both state-building
i.e. assuring internal security and defense against external
threats without sufcient means or time or resources to
compete successfully with other more established states.
Not surprisingly their primary concern becomes internal
security and their continuation in power, hence the
proliferation of multiple military forces, intelligence, and
police forces in these countries, often enjoying more
resources than do their regular armies, and their govern-
ments recourse to rent-seeking, authoritarian, and cli-
entilistic policies (Ayoob, 1999, pp. 247260, Ayoob, 2002,
pp. 127148).
These facts possess signicant relevance for any
discussion of security, particularly in the Third World,
including Central Asia, where the security environment is
one of reversed anarchy as described by Mikhail Alexiev
and Bjorn Moeller. Alexiev, quoting Moeller, observes that,
While in modernity the inside of a state was supposed
to be orderly, thanks to the workings of the state as
a Hobbesian Leviathan, the outside remained anarchic.
For many states in the third World, the opposite seems
closer to reality with fairly orderly relations to the
outside in the form of diplomatic representations, but
total anarchy within (Alekseev, 2003, p. 12).
Similarly, Amitav Acharya observes that,
Unlike in the West, national security concepts in Asia are
strongly inuenced by concerns for regime survival.
Hence, security policies in Asia are not so much about
protection against external military threats, but against
internal challenges. Moreover, the overwhelming
proportion of conicts in Asia fall into the intra-state
category, meaning they reect the structural weak-
nesses of the state, including a fundamental disjunction
between its territorial and ethnic boundaries. Many of
these conicts have been shown to have a spillover
potential; hence the question of outside interference is
an ever-present factor behind their escalation and
containment. Against this backdrop, the principle of
non-interference becomes vital to the security predica-
ment of states. And a concept of security that challenges
the unquestioned primacy of the state and its right to
remain free from any form of external interference
arouses suspicion and controversy (Acharya, 2007, p. 41).
Indeed, for these states, and arguably even for transi-
tional states like Russia, internal police forces enjoy greater
state resources than do the regular armies, this being a key
indicator of the primacy of internal security as a factor in
dening the term national security (Cooper, 2007). Never-
theless, at the end of the day, it also still remains true that if
they cannot defend themselves militarily against these
threats, which have arisen due to a previous failure to
provide security, they go under as classical thinking about
hard security would predict.
Even though these states acknowledge themselves to
face external threats of terrorism and narcotics trafcking
from Afghanistan that then corrupts and corrodes the
socio-political fabric in their countries, those threats are
second to the preservation of the status quo as we have
seen above. For example, after protracted bargaining in
20 06 Uzbekistan granted Russia the right to use its air
eld
at
Navoi as a base, but only under special conditions. Russia
will only be able to gain access to Navoi in case of emer-
gencies or what some reports called force majeure
contingencies. In return Russia will provide Uzbekistan
with modern navigation systems and air defense weapons.
In other words Uzbekistan wanted a guarantee of its
regimes security and Russian support in case of a crisis. But
it would not allow peacetime Russian military presence
there (Ferghana.ru Information Agency, December 22,
20 06).
Indeed, to a certain extent, as Anna Matveeva has noted
for Tajikistan, governments outsource part or most of the
responsibility for dealing with those issues to other states
and major power (Matveeva, 2005, pp. 133153, 2006, pp.
733). Similarly in 2007 Kyrgyzstan invited Russia to bring
its border guards back to Kyrgyzstan and to expand the size
of its Kant Air Base because Bishkek could not afford to raise
such troops on its own (RIA Novosti, 2007). More recently
some Kyrgyz leaders urged, ultimately successfully that
Kyrgyzstan, which is admittedly experiencing desperate
economic conditions, join the Russian-sponsored Customs
Union and thus sacrice its economy to Moscow in an
equally desperate effort to keep the state together (Eurasia
Insight, 2011c). Even though Kyrgyzstan has been
a member of the World Trade Organization for years and it
has much lower import and export tariff rates than does the
new Customs Union, it decided to assume the burden of
heavier import tariffs. Consequently it will pay higher pri-
ces for goods imported from Russia, Kazakhstan, and the
Middle East. Thus on top of everything else, it is forced to
subsidize noncompetitive Russian goods to stay alive
(Eurasia Daily Monitor, 2011).
This represents the ultimately destructive logic of
outsourcing security to stay in power. But as a short-term
expedient it has clearly proven its utility. Central Asian
governments have also shown considerable willingness to
associate themselves with Russia and China in regard to
issues like external calls for liberalization and democracy
because they regard democracy promotion from Wash-
ington as an outright threat to the status quo which, they
maintain, boils down to a choice between them and Islamic
fundamentalism. For that reason Central Asian think tanks
and analysts have urged that Washington pursue a different
strategy, one that emphasizes not democracy promotion
but regional economic integration among Central Asian
states and with neighbors like Afghanistan, India, and
Pakistan (McDermott, 2006). However, on the basis of
recent history there is little reason to believe that Wash-
ington can succeed in promoting genuine regional coop-
eration where the subjects of that cooperation are
themselves unwilling to act.
Indeed, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan
expressly linked the US failure to win success for its crusade
for democracy to the problems in Afghanistan. In
November 2006 he publicly connected his and presumably
his colleagues frustration with Washingtons democracy
promotion campaign in a country and region with no
democratic traditions to NATOs problems in stabilizing
Afghanistan. Obviously the new Northern Distribution
S. Blank / Journal of Eurasian Studies 3 (2012) 147160 149
Network (NDN) road through Central Asia to Tajikistan
exemplies a strategy that could give a greater impetus to
a focus on economic development and regional coopera-
tion, i.e. external provision of goods that Kazakhstan and its
neighbors could not provide for themselves (McDermott,
20 06). But for it to succeed a long-term US presence,
which is not in the cards, is essential.
As these examples show, states outsource aspects of
their security to stronger neighbors to acquire resources or
rents from the great powers which are then used to pay off
clients, grant them the rents they seek, provide for
domestic economic development, and stabilize both elite
relationships and the overall state. For if they do not
acquire these rents they have no choice but to turn quickly
to external patrons, undermining the domestic situation
and introducing political rivalries among the governing
elite with dangerous crisis potentials for those elites. The
Kyrgyz negotiations for the US to stay at Manas in 2009
openly illustrate this process, as does the aforementioned
gambit to join the Customs Union. These great powers also
include organizations within Central Asia: NATOs forces in
Afghanistan and the US forces in Central Asia, NATO assis-
tance in developing local militaries like that of Kazakhstan,
Russian forces in the TajikAfghan border, and the SCO as
a political security organization or Russias military alli-
ance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)
which allegedly is developing an ever greater capability for
bringing about security or using force against terrorist
offensives.
Through such multivector diplomacy to gain security
resources and assistance form the major external actors
local governments can mitigate their potential external
security dilemmas by exploiting great and major power
rivalries to secure tangible security assistance that they
could not otherwise produce on their own. Nazarbayevs
protest above against US policies illustrates just how he but
also his colleagues seek to sidestep the issue of democracy
at home, employing constant balancing policies to obtain
these goods from abroad like defense equipment, training,
investors, etc. while avoiding contentious issues. Thus by
securing Chinas commitment to build pipelines and buy
gas, Central Asian states were then able to force Russia to
pay higher prices for their gas and use the resources to
strengthen their domestic and international positions.
Through such diplomatic maneuvers they prevent or seek
to prevent any of those external powers from dominating
the regional security agenda if not the region. This external
assistance is becoming ever more costly as the cost of
energy and Central Asias ability to export it to diverse
markets rises and as the regions strategic importance
grows. Those factors make investment in Central Asia ever
more necessary for those powers who have interests or
wish to see themselves as great international actors even as
the costs go up. The security and material assistance they
provide allows Central Asian regimes to worry less about
external threats, and even to forego genuine regional
integration while they can concentrate on exploiting those
great power rivalries and the circumstances that grow out
of them like energy rivalry to increase their domestic
security, and leverage enough resources like energy rents
with which to keep domestic challenges at bay.
Similarly these governments can use their appeals to
major external actors to enlist their support for the local
regimes individual projects. The controversies among
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan over water use and
the way that Russia has gotten involved in them exem-
plies this process by which local governments solicit
external support against their neighbors and draw Russia,
who has ambitions to be the regional security manager into
a morass from which there is no escape. This also illustrates
how impossible it already is for Russia to realize these
ambitions and maintain the loyalty of all of these states
(
Blank, 2010a,
pp. 65107). The same thing has happened
recently to China who obviously does not relish being
caught between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (China Reform
Monitor, 2011).
Thus the new great game materially assists domestic
security in Central Asia and not only by reducing possibil-
ities for any one power to dominate it. One way it
contributes to regional security is through direct material
assistance, e.g. Chinas $900 Million loan to local govern-
ments after the SCO summit in 2005 and more recent
investments, NATOs help through the Partnership for
Peace, in building up Kazakhstans armed forces, U.S.
presence in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, Russias military
presence in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and more recently
Uzbekistan, and the growing scope of the exercises of SCO
member forces against terrorism, separatism, and
extremism, as displayed at the 2007 exercises. The SCO also
functions in this way on behalf of regional governments.
Such assistance not only brings rewards in itself it also
in turn stimulates anxieties about one or another power
winning forcing the other state to make greater regional
investments in Central Asia in order to retrieve their
inuence. Thus Chinese investments in pipelines from
Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have not only led Russia to
invest in building their own new ones from these countries
to Russia, it has also agreed to pay higher prices to gas
producing states, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and
Kazakhstan to ensure that their gas goes through Russia to
Europe not Asia (Graham-Harrison, 2008; Interfax-
Kazakhstan, 2008). Similarly the rivalry with the EU and
America for inuence over the direction of gas pipelines
has also led Russia to discuss new energy deals with
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan which both those states eagerly
want and which gives them more resources to meet
pressing internal challenges even if Russia raises its prole
in their countries (McDermott, 2008; Marat, 2008). Indeed
Moscows elite appears to view any gain by China or
America in Central Asia with unceasing paranoia. Thus its
media repeatedly speculates about Chinas economic
conquest of Central Asia and regards the handover of two
obsolete Huey helicopters by Washington to Astana as the
beginning of the end of Russian inuence there (Abdullin,
20 08; Panlova, 2007).
Alternatively the benets they gain from such multi-
vector diplomacy where other actors are allowed in to
provide security against domestic threats may be purely
political as in the case of the SCOs political dimension. For
Moscow and Beijing a key purpose of the SCO is to organize
and articulate regional support for the ouster of American
bases from Central Asia and to prevent the formation of any
S. Blank / Journal of Eurasian Studies 3 (2012) 147160150
kind of American-led security organization there. At the
same time, a second clear purpose of the SCO is to provide
a forum for its members virtually unanimous opinion that
Washington should not interfere in their domestic
arrangements. In other words, it functions, inter alia, as an
organization of mutual protection and for the granting of
the international legitimacy its members so desperately
lack and crave. All the members support the continuation
of the status quo and have united to reject calls for exter-
nally interested parties like Washington on behalf of
democratic norms. Thus Russia and China provide both
security and ideological cover for local regimes, allowing
them to continue on their preset course with some sense
that key players will back them up (Bailes, Dunay, Guang, &
Troitskiy, 2007). Uzbekistan in particular has been a master
of such oscillation between east and west. Indeed, Presi-
dent Karimov said as much in December 2007, i.e.
There are still those who claim that there are
disagreements between Uzbekistan on the one hand
and the United States and European states on the other.
It is not hard to see that they would like those
disagreements to exist in order to benet from them
Uzbekistan, in its foreign policy, has adhered to mutu-
ally benecial cooperation with and mutual respect for
its close and far neighbors, including the United States
and Europe. We will never change this policy. Moreover,
we can say with certainty that the foundation for equal
and mutually benecial relations that suit our national
interests is growing even stronger (Lillis, 2008).
In this fashion the SCO too acts to stabilize the domestic
situation by allowing Central Asian states to institutionalize
a forum where great power rivalries are visible but moder-
ated, they have a real voice in its decisions and can talk on
a collective basis to those great powers in order to get from
them the resources that they believe they need and which
the great powers feel they must contribute to their security.
In this fashion the SCO allows the smaller members to
exploit it for their own purposes in overcoming both the
specter ofreversed anarchyand great power domination.
Another likely manifestation of this process can already
be seen in these new CSTO developments. We are likely to
see increasing efforts by great powers to form partnerships
with one or more Central Asian state to advance their own
interests, or concurrently to block other powers interests.
China worked with other members of the SCO in 2008 to
frustrate support for the independence of Abkhazia and
South Ossetia in 2008. More recently it collaborated with
Uzbekistan to frustrate Russian efforts to intervene in Kyr-
gyzstans domestic crises in 2010 (Blank & Kim, in press).
1. Impending strategic transformations
Nevertheless Central Asia stands on the brink of major
and profound strategic changes many of which stem from
the dynamics of this new great game. These impending
changes derive from the following external factors: the US
withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014, well known over-
lapping and concurrent regional and global transformative
processes like the rise of China and of India, decline of
Europe, the centrality of energy and of the rivalries for
access to it, Islamic self-assertion that takes multiple
national or religious and often violent forms most notably in
Afghanistan, Indo-Pakistani rivalry, Russias unending quest
for a neo-colonial hegemony in Central Asia, most recently
expressed in Vladimir Putins call for a Eurasian union, and
the absence of any regional harmony among Central Asian
states themselves (Eurasia Insight, 2011b). Second, and at
the same time, every Central Asian states domestic gover-
nance has become a matter of international concern
because of the pervasive corruption, degradation of social
infrastructures and environment, misrule, authoritari-
anism, repression, and the widespread fear of a potential
Islamic insurgency. These widespread pathologies
not
too
strong a word lie at the root of these states vulnerability to
Islamic radicalism or to any of the forms that internal
upheaval might assume due to that misrule and the ensuing
degradation of social, economic, and environmental
conditions (International Crisis Group, 2009).
Third, the Arab spring, even if it is not likely to spread
anytime soon to Central Asia as most analysts seem to feel,
has heightened both Central Asian and Russian rulers
concern about these regimes stability. Thus on April 13,
2011 Russias anxiety abou t the possibility of the Arab
revolutions spreading to C entral Asia was the topic of
a public discussion in the Duma. Members of the Duma
and Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin called on
these states to make ti mely reforms from above lest they
be swept away like North African governments. Since
Russias goals are stability, without which these states
cannot draw closer to Russia he recommended the
format ion from above of a c ivil society, international and
inter-religious peace, responsibility of leaders for the
standard of living of the population, the development of
educa tion and work with youth (Duma.gov.ru, April 13,
2011). In other words, Karasin called on Central As ian
leaders to emulate Moscows own efforts to build
a Potemkin democ racy. Clearly this is not enough and no
mention is made of economic development or freedom or
genuine political reform. Clearly Russia is only willing to
tolerate cosmetic reforms and it is doubtful that Central
Asian leaders will even approach those limits let alo ne go
beyond them. Indeed, only Kazakhstans President Nur-
sultan Nazarbayev acted in this manner and typically he
preempted Russia.
What is equally important here is that Central Asian
leaders believe in this threat and act upon it. In particular
Moscow and Tashkent are alert to this possibility happening
in Uzbekistan. Thus on April 14, 2011 when President
Medvedev came to Tashkent Karimov told him that,
Nevertheless, I am convinced that everything
happening in Uzbekistan in terms of ensuring the
regions security and stability, the current events in
North Africa and the Middle East and the emerging
situation in Afghanistan are all issues that Russia and
Uzbekistan cannot disregard, primarily from the
perspective of synchronizing our positions and con-
ducting an open exchange of views on the situation and
the issues to be addressed in the nearest future. (http://
eng.kremlin.ru/news/2380, June 14, 2011).
Medvedev tellingly replied that,
S. Blank / Journal of Eurasian Studies 3 (2012) 147160 151
With regard to current international issues, you are
absolutely right: the world is facing very serious chal-
lenges. This year began with the so-called Arab Spring,
which has created a completely new situation in the
Middle East and North Africa. In all likelihood, the
international consequences of what has happened there
will persist over a considerable period of time. We are
certainly interested in ensuring that these events follow
a clear and predictable scenario, because we are bound
by numerous invisible threads with these countries, not
only economic relations and trade, but also extensive
humanitarian and cultural ties. They can be very posi-
tive or they can become quite complicated, and some-
times even destructive. Therefore, it is essential for us to
discuss everything that relates to our closest neighbors,
to ensure that we protect the national interests of our
states and our nations. Russia has always held an open
position in this area, we have discussed in detail nearly
all key issues over the telephone, decided on the steps
we will take and coordinated our foreign policy in many
respects. I think this is extremely valuable, and it is
areection of trust we have developed between our
states. We intend to continue in this vein in the future,
and I am very pleased that we are going to hold such
consultations once again now, although they will be
brief in terms of time but comprehensive in their
content, so I once again want to thank you for the
invitation. I hope that during my current working
visit to Uzbekistan we will cover a wide range of issues
of Russian-Uzbekistani cooperation, both bilateral
and multilateral. (http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/2380,
June 14, 2011).
Medvedev further stated, We are interested that
(future) events develop scenarios that are understandable
and predictable for us. (Chaihana, Radio Free Europe Radio
Liberty, 2011).
Both Moscow and Tashkent, to judge from their leaders
statements, charge that the Arab revolutions were insti-
gated by outside by unnamed actors who sought access to
Arab energy resources and sought to nd ways to cooperate
to forestall repeat performances in Central Asia (Orange,
2011). Thus Medvedev discussed plans to undermine
Russia by fomenting revolutions. In March 2011 he stated
that,
Look at the current situation in the Middle East and the
Arab world. It is extremely difcult and great problems
still lie ahead. In some cases it may even come to the
disintegration of large, heavily populated states, their
break-up into smaller fragments. The character of these
states is far from straightforward. It may come to very
complex events, including the arrival of fanatics into
power. This will mean decades of res and further
spread of extremism. We must face the truth. In the past
such a scenario was harbored for us, and now attempts
to implement it are even more likely. In any case, this
plot will not work. But everything that happens there
will have a direct impact on our domestic situation in
the long term, as long as decades (http://eng.kremlin.ru/
transcripts/180 4, February 22, 2011).
These statements clearly apply to the US and Europe as
Russian ofcials still publicly claim that the US had and still
has a conscious plan that it has implemented to promote
revolutions to democratize Central Asia (Nikolaev, 2011, pp.
5762). But while this is certainly not nor has it ever been
the case in Central Asia, it is Russia that instigated the
Kyrgyz upheaval in 2010 (Blank, 2010b).
Therefore we should be alert to the possibility of state
failure in one or more Central Asian states. Indeed, it could
happen almost suddenly without warning. A recent anal-
ysis of North Korea reminds us that the more repressive
and
articially maintained the regime is the more sudden
and precipitous is its fall. Likewise, the worse the level of
oppression, e.g. state violence as in Uzbekistan, is, the
greater is the nightmare upon liberation (Kaplan and
Denmark, 2011, pp. 1213). Succession crises may be not
only something Central Asian governments have in
common given the nature of their governance, but also in
each country such crises could become the major threat to
the stability of the state, not just the particular or current
regime there. In turn that succession crisis and ensuing
crisis of the state could then possibly create an opening for
a genuine Islamic movement to attempt to seize power.
Likewise, although it does not seem likely right now, in the
future one or more of these states could fall prey to a form
of unrest analogous to what we now see in the Arab world
(Clem, 2011, pp. 228241). Certainly in the past Central
Asian elites have viewed the prospect of civil strife in one
country as a harbinger of the spread of that unrest across
the region so this could actually come about in the future
(Blank, 2007).
Nevertheless, nobody has taken advantage of this
opportunity to institute reforms, quite the opposite. In
Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev called for an
instant election rather than a palpably stage-managed
referendum to give him life tenure because that latter
option was too egregious a move in the current climate.
Meanwhile in Uzbekistan, an already draconian state in
many ways, we see a further crackdown on mobile internet
media along with denials by government agencies
throughout the area that revolution is possible. Indeed,
Uzbekistan has taken control over cellular companies there
instructing companies to report on any suspicious actions
by customers and on any massive distributions of text
messages through their cellular lines (Lukyanov, 2011;
Sadykov, 2011). Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have also
instituted news blackouts (Fitzpatrick, 2011; Shestakov,
2011; Voloshin, 2011). Azerbaijan too has attacked Face-
book and Skype (Eurasia Insight, 2011a).
Such moves emulate the Draconian laws put in place by
Russia and, Iran, and Kazakhstan as a result of the earlier
color revolutions of 200305, the Iranian elections and
Xinjiang uprisings of 2009, and Chinas move to intensify
its already harsh controls on the Internet in 2011 (New York
Times, 2011). These harsh moves against electronic media
come on top of a situation demonstrating that press
freedom in Eurasia is at its lowest ebb in over a decade
(Maher, 2011). Meanwhile, in Azerbaijan, where unrest has
been growing since late 2010 in response to the regimes
moves to crackdown on dissent and Islamic agitation (not
necessarily the same thing), large demonstrations are now
S. Blank / Journal of Eurasian Studies 3 (2012) 147160152
occurring. Thus the Azeri government, seeing the failure of
earlier tactics is now trying to work with inuential
Western media outlets to change public opinion so that it
will believe no changes are expected even as mild criticism
is tolerated. Similarly the government will organize tours
from Western elites to persuade people that the West is
cooperating with Baku, and it will raise pensions, salaries,
and social services while either co-opting or suppressing
the opposition (Baku, Azadilq, in Azeri, April 27, 2011, FBIS
SOV, April 29, 2011).
Meanwhile Russia, joined by Central Asian states, seem
intent on snufng out reform and extending repression, not
reform. Thus they have agreed, with the notable exception
of Uzbekistan, to allow the CSTO, Moscows military alli-
ance with Central Asia, to perform the counterrevolu-
tionary mission of suppression of internal upheavals within
Central Asia, i.e. it is to be Russias and to a much smaller
degree, Central Asias gendarmerie in the region (Blank,
2011). As a result of these factors the ongoing great
power rivalry for inuence in Central Asia, great and
middle power rivalry has steadily intensied over the past
few years, and is likely to do so for the following reasons
which include the factors listed above.
Yet these are by no means the only sources of strategic
transformation that are likely to affect Central Asia. Other
factors making for transformation include:
The likely intensication of great power, middle power,
and Central Asian powers engagement in Central Asia as
the US withdraws and other actors strive to ll that
vacuum. That intensication is a natural reaction to the
downgrading of the US presence but it also reects the
following considerations.
Because few leaders or governments believe that the
Karzai government can survive a US withdrawal, the
fear of a likely Taliban victory will galvanize local and
nearby actors to compete to provide security as a much
greater perception of threat from Islamic movements
both from Afghanistan and Pakistan and from within
Central Asian states, China, and Russia will arise often
through deliberate government action. These factors
are naturally closely tied to the perception of a vacuum
in the event of a US withdrawal. Indeed analysts
publicly worry about the fact that there is no backup
strategy if the current ISAF/US strategy fails and in any
cases allied governments are already looking for the
exits. As US resources decline due to withdrawal and
likely pressure on the budget, as is already occurring,
regional anxiety will grow. Even if local governments
do not comment much publicly about their fears, they
are clearly hedging their bets and anticipating that
they will have to assume at least some of the burden
relinquished by Washington and NATO and that the
burden will be in Central Asia not only Pakistan.
Certainly Russian sources think this way and it is likely
that the Uzbek government does too (Olsson, 2011, pp.
710; Jurgens 2011, pp. 412).
The probable imminence of successions in Uzbekistan
and Kazakhstan during this decade are also likely in the
former case to lead to serious policy disruption if not
wo
rse. Indeed, we can already see the succession
dilemma playing out in Kazakhstan. Turkmen President
Sapirmurad Niyazovs sudden death in 2006 that led to
what essentially was a struggle between heirs and
a rapid coup detat by his successor Gurbanguly Berdy-
mukhammedov, reportedly forced Nazarbayev to start
thinking about succession in 2007 and it also alerted
these clans who had hitherto not challenged him or the
regime to follow suit. The result has been something of
a series of continuing intrigues around this issue.
According toStratfor.com,
Nazarbayev decided to step down in 2010 in order to be
able to bolster whoever succeeded him and keep the
peace. But the inghting proved too strong and risky,
compelling Nazarbayevs supporters to name him-
Leader of the Nation”–meaning he would always be in
charge, not matter the position. The declaration was
more a safety net than anything. The political theater
surrounding rumors of succession decisions grew more
dramatic over the past year, leading to the decision in
January to call for a snap election for April. (www.
stratfor.com, March 31, 2011).
At the same time he had originally planned to call for
a referendum to certify his position and make it unassail-
able till 2020. Unfortunately Western governments
communicated their unhappiness with this move and it
certainly seemed impolitic as the Arab revolution gathered
steam. So it was shelved and a snap presidential election
called, thereby anticipating what Moscow would advocate
in April 2011, namely the illusion of democratic choice
(Makarin, 2011, www.stratfor.com, April 4, 2011a). Never-
theless the election was widely reported to have major
shortcomings and Nazarbayevs political advisor Yermu-
khamet Yertsyayev told reporters that I think the presi-
dent is going to run the country for ten years more, and if
someone in the West doesnt like it, theyll have to get used
to it (Lally, 2011).
However, in the meantime a game of balancing rival
clans and factions continues while members of the inner
circle, especially his daughter and son-in law, Timur
Kulibayev, who are worth an estimated $2.5 billion,
become targets of corruption investi gations abroad and
bywords for corruption (Courtney, 2011). Under these
circumstances it is not surprising that in the wake of his
election Nazarbayev announced his intention to
strengthen the Parliament and regional governments
while deconcentrating central executive power (www.
stratfor.com, April 8, 2011b). Whatever democratizing
impli cations of his plan or ambitions for democracy Naz-
arbayev has, this move widens the circles of elites, dilutes
the clans and factions close to him, and strengthens hi s
hand to pick his successor while diffusing power so that
nobody ca n amass too much power in the future. Naza-
rbayevs charge to his new government is to reduce
corruption although that is hard to do given the corrup-
tion at the top. Second, Yertsybayev apparently envisages
reforms from the top to create state-led parties of power
and of opposition (So
cor, 2011). This system would alleg-
edly be a PresidentialParliamentary system able to
function in Nazarbayevs absence. And there are rumors
that Kulibayev would duly lead the opposition party, thus
S. Blank / Journal of Eurasian Studies 3 (2012) 147160 153
conrming the continuation of a kind of Potemkin
democracy (Najibullah, 2011).
This plan has apparently infuriated opponents of the
regime but they are in no position to stop i t. It would
appear that Nazarbayevs concept of reform is to ensure
a smooth transition to his successor whoever that may be,
not to strengthen the overall systems responsiveness to
society. Instead he apparen tly aims at building a relatively
closed but seemingly self-sustaining system of Presiden-
tialParliamentary relations hips. B ut this is likely to be
a chimera in the absence of the rule of law, governmental
accountability, and genuine reform. Indeed, it may lead to
new authoritarianism or to sustained political strife after
Nazarbayev leaves the scene (Kumkova, 2011a). Since the
succession remains unresolved and nobody can stop the
ruling familys corruption or machinations to revis e the
constitution whenever it likes, it is doubtful that genuine
democracy can be initiated from the top or that the nature
of the state will change substantially as lon g as Naza-
rbayev rul es and possibly for some time after that.
Whether it works or not, this and other trends in
Kazakhstan highlight the unresolved nature of th e
succession and the fact that the astute economic policies
foll owed until now depend too much on one mans
wisdom. Despite his great achievements this is not the
best augury for the future.
The situation in Uzbekistan looks much worse in the
event of a contested succession that seems likely from this
vantage point. A 2010 Norwegian analysis identied several
ashpoints around Uzbekistan as we go into the future and
a contested succession can only aggravate these challenges.
This analysis found that,
Uzbekistans economic and political setup are highly
problematic and involve issues that will have to be
resolved sooner or later, including widespread poverty,
tensions between radical Islamists and secular elites,
rapid population growth and environmental degrada-
tion. A combination of these problems may lead to an
armed conict with Uzbekistan, or to an Uzbekistani
attack on a neighbor to gain more land and resources, or
to rally the population around the regime and divert
attention from domestic problems. Around the Fer-
ghana Valley, in northeastern Turkmenistan and in
southwestern Tajikistan there are signicant groups
with more or less Uzbek identities that could play a role
in such a conict. (Anker, Baev, Brunstad, Overland, &
Torjesen, 2010, p. 136).
Accordingly the authors concluded that,
The biggest country in the region in terms of population,
Uzbekistan is at the same time the nation facing the
greatest danger of violent escalation of overlapping
social and political conicts. There is also a very
substantial risk of spillover of internal instability or
horizontal escalation of hostilities beyond Uzbekistans
borders. In all three of our scenarios, Uzbekistan is
a regional source of instability of some kind whether
through implosion and protracted war of attrition
between Islamic networks, political clans, and security
forces; or through aggressive actions toward its
neighbors or due to increasingly brutal authoritarian
rule. The proposition that Uzbekistan could reform and
become a positive force in the region has not been
judged plausible. (Anker et al., 2010
, p. 141).
S
till worse, at least two of Central Asiasstatesmayfairly
be described as failing states, i.e. K yrgyzstan and T ajikistan,
while Pa ul Quinn-Judge of the International Cri sis
Group believes that Uzbekistan is not far behind (Quinn-
Judge, 2009). T ajikistans pathologies are well known
(Inte rnational Crisis Group, 2009). And K yrgyzstan, which is
anything but an autocracy, is perched precariously on the
brink of ungoverna bility and subject at any times to mass
unrest, either ethnic or political, as its own ofcials admit. And
while its leaders claim to be building democracy, this only
applies to the ornamental or dignied parts of the state not its
effective governing aspects. Indeed, in some of their public
statements they openly worry about the country falling apart
(Marat, 2011a). In Kyrgyzstan these effecti v e aspects of
governance are often carried out not just on the basis of
regional, clan, tribal, or ethnic afliation, or by the govern-
ment, but also by thinly disguised criminal enterprises (Marat,
2006). Therefore rhetoric aside, we cannot and should not
term Kyrgyzstan a democracy or a state that is building one.
Indeed, it is barely a consolidated state and it is a cautionary
example to all of its neighbors who believe that it exemplies
all the dangers and none of the benets of democracy.
The possibility or even some would say likelihood of an
Arab spring or color revolution type of upheaval in one
or more country which could spread to neighbors and
now draw in the CSTO acting as the gendarme of Central
Asia. Also raises the specter of signicant strategic
transformation. Here it should be noted that the possi-
bility of a color revolution, Arab spring type upheaval,
or some other form of revolutionary crisis links together
related but ultimately different phenomena that are and
will be based on the peculiar individual characteristics
of each country. For instance, a succession crisis might
trigger what in other countries has come about due to
phony elections or in the Arab cases an expression of
pent-up anger at years of misrule, corruption, and
repression. The key point is that while there are simi-
larities in all these cases, the individual dynamics of
each country are likely to be the decisive factors behind
any such upheaval should one occur.
Other continuing factors making for meaningful stra-
tegic change include:
The intense rivalry among Russia, China, India, Pakistan,
and the West for energy access and energy security that
manifests itself in the rivalry for pipelines through
Central Asian states
The already visible commercial and strategic rivalry
between Moscow and Beijing for hegemony here at the
same time that they share a joint antipathy to the US
position in Central Asia which combines efforts at
enhancing the US military and commercial presence in
Central Asia, mainly through support for alternative
pipelines to Russias preferences.
S. Blank / Journal of Eurasian Studies 3 (2012) 147160154
Irans demand for a place in the sun in its region which
may include Central Asia and the Caucasus, including
Afghanistan, and which accompanies its unrelenting
efforts to gain a nuclear weapon.
Indo-Pakistani rivalry over both Central Asia and
Afghanistan as well as traditional areas like Kashmir
Transformations in the nature of war ranging from cyber
strikes in Central Asia, which have already occurred, to
nuclear proliferation among Iran, India, and Pakistan
(Kumkova, 2011b)
The inability of these governments to deal concretely
with pressing global economic and environmental
issues at a time of persistent, long-lasting crisis
2. The new great game
Although many scholars dislike the term great game
or new great game because to them these terms smack of
echoes of the imperial rivalry of the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries; the point of the term new great
game is precisely that we have surmounted the era and
what we see now is something entirely different. This
difference does not, however, mean that we have seen the
end of policies resembling those of the age of imperialism.
First, there is an enormous competition among the US,
Russia, India, and China for military bases in Central Asia.
All of these states either have bases, have had bases, or have
sought bases in Central Asia in the last decade and the
growth of the CSTO eloquently testies to the continuation
of the military dimension in the great powers search for
security in Central Asia. The different factor today is that
local governments of their own accord are actively solicit-
ing US military involvement if not that of Russia and China
for the reasons outlined above (Kucera, 2011a).
Similarly we see what amounts to naked land grabs by
the great powers, albeit on a relatively small scale in Central
Asia. For example, Tajikistan has been induced to surrender
to China 1100 square miles (2000 ha of land) to Chinese
farmers. Allegedly this rectication of the borders
ensures Tajikistans inviolability of its borders, denitively
solves its border problems with China, and ensures its
stability for decades to come. (Laruelle & Peyrouse, 2011c)
But that statement implies that without this agreement
Tajikistans security vis-à-vis China would have been
questioned if not at risk. And the further details of this
agreement indicate the visible presence of Chinese power
in Dushanbes decision-making.
This agreement, allegedly based on a prior accord
between the two governments in 2002 that was ratied
again in 2010 cedes about 1000 square km in the Pamir
Mountains to China, about 1 percent of Tajikistan, albeit
a sparsely settled area (Singh, 2011;
Pannier, 2011a, 20
11b).
Tajikistans government hailed this as a victory because
China had actually claimed some 28,000 km and settled for
only about 3.5 percent of its claims. Moreover, Shukhrob
Sharipov, Director of the Presidential Center for Strategic
Studies, argued that, If we hadnt decided to transfer the
land (at this time), we would not have been able to resist
Chinas pressure (Pannier, 2011a, 2011b). This remark
basically sums up the nature of Central Asian states rela-
tionship to China.
This agreement clearly also conformed to the pattern we
have seen in Chinas earlier expansionist activities vis-à-vis
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Worse yet, the raw material
resources in the land ceded by Tajikistan allegedly equals
the entire Chinese investment in Tajikistan to date. Thus
China has allegedly recouped its investment at no cost to
itself and has both the land and its resources as well as
maintaining its investments and penetration of Tajikistan
(Singh, 2011). On the other hand, these deals triggered
a strong political backlash in all three countries against
China and its perceived intentions. Perhaps Tajikistans
backlash was triggered more by the fact that between 1500
and 2000 Chinese farmers will settle another 2000 ha of
land beyond the border agreement (Pannier, 2011a, 2011b).
According to the opposition Tajikistan is becoming
increasingly economically dependent on China due to its
large investment in the area and this causes great resent-
ment. Attacks on Chinese workers in other countries also
testies to this backlash across Central Asia.
At the same time, we might also point to the following
likely developments in what presently constitutes the great
power rivalry for inuence in Central Asia. In the current
conguration it is not only the great powers: US, Russia,
China, India, and the EU who are pursuing inuence, access,
and leverage in Central Asia, indeed, middle ranking
powers: Pakistan and Iran are clearly enhancing their
efforts to improve relations with all the actors in Central
Asia as are South Korea and Japan in order to obtain
economic-political and possibly even strategic benets.
Third, beyond these aforementioned trends, regional
actors like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have already begun
to take actions to shape their security environment as their
power and wealth grows and second, in the expectation of
both the US withdrawal and concurrently intensied Sino-
Russian pressure upon them and rivalry with each other for
precedence in Central Asia. Indeed, we even nd Uzbeki-
stan and Kazakhstan thinking of projecting their inuence
and power into neighboring Central Asian states like
Kyrgyzstan either through investments as in Kazakhstans
case or in more direct military threats and interference in
other states economic activity as we often see with Uzbe-
kistan (Weitz, 2008b). But we also
nd
that on occasion, e.g.
during the Kyrgyz revolution of 2010, these two govern-
ments engaged each other in substantive disussions about
possible reactions and power projection into Kyrgyzstan.
Fourth, international nancial institutions (IFI) like the
Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the UN and its
agencies like the UN Development Program (UNDP), are
also heavily involved in major projects and policies here.
Finally, and perhaps most important, as a mark of distinc-
tion from the imperial past, each of the Central Asian states
is now a fully empowered (at least formally) state and
sovereign foreign policy actor. Consequently each one is
conducting its own version, insofar as possible, of a multi-
vector or more accurately balancing approach attempting
to balance all the multiple external sources of benets to
them to enhance their domestic stability.
Therefore, based on the foregoing we can point to
certain likely developments regarding interstate rivalry
and especially great or major power rivalry and competi-
tion in Central Asia for the foreseeable future. First, because
S. Blank / Journal of Eurasian Studies 3 (2012) 147160 155
the effort to dene and gain control over Central Asia or at
least gain lasting inuence over it coincides with the
escalation of the war in Afghanistan since 2008 the stakes
involved in the effort to direct the destiny of Central Asia
Central Asia have grown. Though the following assertion by
Ahmed Rashid may somewhat exaggerate the importance
of these stakes, from the standpoint of regional govern-
ments this is actually an understatement because they
believe their fate is linked with that of Afghanistan. Thus
Rashid writes that,
The consequences of state failure in any single country
are unimaginable. At stake in Afghanistan is not just the
future of President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan people
yearning for stability, development, and education but
also the entire global alliance that is trying to keep
Afghanistan together. At stake are the futures of the
United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO), the European Union, and of course Americas
own power and prestige. It is difcult to imagine how
NATO could survive as the Wests leading alliance if the
Taleban are not defeated in Afghanistan or if Bin Laden
remains at large indenitely.(Rashid, 2009, p. xxxix)
Those stakes also involve the other states of Central Asia
as well since it is widely believed that a Taliban victory in
Afghanistan makes them a prime target for insurgency in
the future. Especially in the light of fears for the stability of
the Karzai government and the overall region in the light of
a US withdrawal, every state, large or small, is jockeying for
greater capability and power in the region and some, like
Uzbekistan, clearly expect both to have to project power
and that they will be asked to project power to neighbors to
preserve stability in the area after 2014. Second, as Emelian
Kavalski has observed, the nature of what we call the new
great game, the proliferation of actors in a continuous
multi-dimensional struggle for inuence in Central Asia
precludes any one actor obtaining previous levels of
imperial or neo-imperial domination, though Russia still
tries for it, and has led to a situation where, given the
concurrent proliferation of actors and agents operating in
Central Asia,
The simultaneity of these two dynamics reveals that the
agency of external actors is distinguished not by an
imperial desire for the control of territory, but by the
establishment of niches of inuence. Consequently, the
notion of the new great game comes to characterize the
dynamics of processing, selection and internalization of
some externally promoted ideas and not others. (Rashid,
20 09, p. xxxix).
Third, in view of the impending US military withdrawal
it is not clear that Washington, confronted by wrenching
scal stresses, either has the vision or the means to develop
or implement a coherent post-Afghanistan Central Asian
strategy, a vacuum could well develop there with regard to
the US position that will inevitably be lled by other actors.
Certainly there is no sign yet of what will replace the US
military presence after 2014 and no sign of a formal
document worked out with Afghanistan that delineates the
extent to which a US presence in the region will look like. In
the absence of such a policy statement every regional actor
is hedging its bets and preparing for the worst in the future,
a trend that most likely means intensied competition
among the great, regional, and local powers for inuence in
Central Asia.
Indeed, arguably the US presence is the most important
stabilizing factor in the region, not only against the threats
posed
by the Taliban, Al-Qaida, and other afliated terrorist
groups. Of its own accord the US presence balances Russia
and Chinas efforts at either economic or military domi-
nation by virtue of the large infusion into the region of US
logistic support through the Northern Distribution
Network (NDN) that materially aids employment, invest-
ment, and infrastructural development, along with military
training for local governments. Likewise the US and ISAF
presence obviously protect the entire region against the
incursion of the Taliban and afliated criminal, drug-
running, and insurgent terrorist groups. Third, as external
observes, e.g. China, understand, the US presence provides
a huge enlargement of political and economic and military
space for actors like India, which still lags behind in Central
Asia as a competitor for inuence, to aspire to a role equal
to that of China or Russia in the future. Absent that US role
it is likely that despite Russian support, China and Pakistan
would succeed in checking any Indian ability to project
meaningful economic or military power into the region or
obtain genuine inuence or contracts for energy supplies.
Certainly China has far outpaced India to date throughout
the region despite Indias undeniable rising wealth and
power (Laruelle & Peyrouse, 2011b, Kavalski, 2010,
Wimbush, 2011, pp. 259282).
Only quite recently have US policymakers or former
policymakers like Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Evan
Feigenbaum been willing to concede that many US objec-
tives have failed to materialize(Tynan, 2011). This realiza-
tion also nds expression in high-level US think tank
reports with which Feigenbaum was involved but that
represented a consensus view among experts like the
recent Project 2049 study that atly said the US is failing to
realize its regional objectives in Central Asia (Project 2049,
2011). Thus both policymakers and expert thinking about
Central Asia has often become examples of dashed hopes
and defective analysis.
Meanwhile, the chief spokesman for US Central Asian
policy, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central
Asia, Robert Blake, testied before Congress that US policy
in Central Asia is (in terms of programs and relationships)
primarily bound up with the war in Afghanistan (Blake,
Testimony, 2011). Yet since US troops are beginning to
leave in 2011, and are supposed to be out of Afghanistan by
2014 except for a small training and advisory mission, and
European governments have long been essentially looking
for the exit, the question poses itself, can or will the United
States and/or the West devise a coherent Central Asian
strategy based on regional realities rather than external
needs and perceptions? Previous evidence should incline
us in all frankness to be very skeptical about this
happening.
Those actors who could supplant the United States
include not only the great powers but also middle powers.
We can already see these other actors positioning them-
selves to act in lieu of the US to secure their aims. For
S. Blank / Journal of Eurasian Studies 3 (2012) 147160156
example, it is already clear that Pakistan will sabotage any
effort to obtain a negotiated peace by killing its partisans
and encouraging the Taliban and other terrorist groups in
their campaign, thereby poisoning relations further with
Afghanistan and the US. Indeed, Pakistan, haunted by an
obsession that any non-Taliban or Paksitani-inuenced
Afghanistan will be controlled in some way by India, has
moved to improve relations with Central Asian states and
especially with Moscow and Beijing as its relationship with
Washington steadily deteriorates (Gilgit-Baltistan Times,
2011). But Pakistan is hardly alone in positioning itself for
the new post-American Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Russia has recently successfully forced Kyrgyzstan and
Tajikistan to accept new Russian leases on bases or new
bases that will last for years in those countries (Marat,
2011b; Kucera, 2011b). And Chinas burgeoning commer-
cial presence has apparently already eclipsed that of Russia.
And is likely to continue growing even if it is not sup-
planted by the overt deployment of military power in the
region (Trenin, 2011, p. 234).
3. Towards the future
We have already highlighted the centrality of US
strategy here and the fact that the absence of any clear
statement about its future direction fosters increased
rivalry and tension throughout Central Asia. Similarly the
threat from a Taliban victory to the area is well known
except for the fact that it is likely to intensify the already
visible ssiparous tendencies threatening Pakistan. In that
case both Central and South Asia could then be caught in
a reciprocal whirlpool whereby instability in one area adds
to instability in the second region and this process
continues in a continuously vicious circle (Laruelle &
Peyrouse, 2011a, pp. 145150).
Likewise we should be alert to the potential repercus-
sions of a more overt Sino-Russian rivalry as Chinas
superior power makes itself felt throughout Central Asia.
Russias example of coercive partnerships goes beyond its
quest for bases to it new effort at a Eurasian customs union
as part of its overall Eurasian Economic Union, EURASEC.
One of the key motives is Russias growing relative decline
in commercial competitiveness vis-à-vis China in Central
Asia, as this customs union clearly shows. Russian concern
for its position is quite visible but it is unable to voice
openly fears of rivalry with China due to reasons of its
overall partnership with China against the United States.
But what is happening in Central Asia is clear to observers.
When the global economic crisis hit China invited Russia to
join with it in contributing $5 Billion each for an anti-crisis
stabilization fund in the SCO to invest in Central Asian
infrastructure. Moscow demurred and set about its own
anti-crisis program for CIS members. China then went
ahead on its own and created a $10 Billion dollar stabili-
zation fund for such investments in Central Asian members
of the SCO in 2009.
Consequently Russian analysts already claim that the
interaction with China within SCO only weakens Russias
position in the long run (Teploukhova, 2010, p. 93). Maria
Teploukhova writes that,
Beijing is one of the major foreign policy partners of
Moscow, bilateral dialog is well set, and the SCO cannot
be regarded as a priority for further development or
interaction. Even for military exercises both parties do
not need the SCO they can simply continue them in the
bilateral format, as they do now. Meanwhile attempts to
compete with China within the SCO are also doomed to
failure, since for China the SCO is a matter of foreign
strategy and for Russia it is a matter of prestige. There-
fore, Moscow either has to agree to the position of
second player (as it does now), or to spend much of its
resou
rces on real rivalry. Cooperation between the SCO
and the Collective Security Treaty Organization helps to
improve the position of Russia, but again the overall
context implies that the structure is more oriented
toward Central Asia than the Rusian Far East.
(Teploukhova, 2010, p. 93).
Indeed, Chinas economic power grew so much in 2009
that Russia was forced to accept Chinas investments in
Central Asia as a positive phenomena. Deputy Foreign
Minister Sergei Ryabkov actually praised Chinese invest-
ment in Central Asia for its transparency (Open Source
Center, 2009b)
Ryabkov further claimed that,
We believe that our frie nds and partners in Central Asia
are appropriately meeting the situation and solving the
task facing them in the sphere of eco nomic and social
development using the opportunities that present
themselves as a result of cooperation with China. Hence
this can only be welcomed (Open Source Center,
2009b).
Given the consistent paranoia with Moscows elite has
hitherto appeared to view any gain by China, or for that
matter America, in Central Asia this is a profound change in
rhetoric if not policy and a major concession to China. As
a 2007 report of the Russian-Chinese Business Council
observed,
Being a member of the SCO, China views other members
of the organization as promising markets. It is China
that wishes to be the engine behind the trade and
economic cooperation within the framework of the SCO
Chinas intentions to form [a] so-called economic
space within the SCO are well known. Owing to that fact,
experts have been speaking about greater Chinese
economic expansion in various parts of the world,
including Central Asia. Beijing has activated ties with
all Central Asian countries and strives to comprehen-
sively strengthen economic relations and the depen-
dency of these countries on its market (Interfax, 2007).
Consequently in Central Asia,
China has steadily advanced, commercially speaking,
into Central Asia. It is now second to Russia as a trading
partner for Central Asia, and its volume of trade with the
three Central Asian states it borders is already equal to
that of Russia. China is also actively seeking to obtain oil
and gas directly from the region, bypassing Russian
territory and challenging one of Russias core strategic
S. Blank / Journal of Eurasian Studies 3 (2012) 147160 157
goals, monopoly control of energy ows in Eurasia.
China is already linked to oil elds in Kazakhstans
Caspian region and to gas elds in Turkmenistan by
pipelines completed in 2009 (Graham, 2010, p. 65).
Clearly one of the impacts of this customs union, is
therefore to divert Central Asian economies away from
China by coercing them into a partnership with Moscow
against Beijings economic power. Moscows quest for
military bases in Central Asia is also not merely an anti-
American maneuver, but also intended to keep China, who
has previously expressed an interest in bases there, out
(Mukhin, 20 05). And this many-sided struggle among all
the great powers for inuence and access in Central Asia
will undoubtedly continue if not grow in intensity as the US
winds down its military presence in Afghanistan.
Indeed, Russia is falling ever more behind China in its
ability to invest real resources and gain cooperation even
though Central Asian govenrments universally fear China
(Laruelle & Peyrouse, 2009) If present trends continue into
the long-term it is quite conceivable that the best Russia can
hope for is to be the gendarme for Chinese investments in
Central Asia and its younger brother there, a thoroughly
unappetizing role for Russia. Unfortunately that is not the
worst possible outcome. By continuing to pursue the will o
the wisp of empire Russia is systematically undermining
the capacity of these states to meet their own contemporary
economic and political challenges while essentially trying
to keep them in a state of neo-colonial backwardness for its
own benet. This is, sad to say, an old script, and we know
how it ends. If Russia is truly concerned about Central Asian
security then time is running out for it to change its strategy
and foster Central Asias sovereign entry into the contem-
porary world. Otherwise Russia will either be Chinas
gendarme or sitting atop a volcano or series of volcanoes
that will inevitably explode because of the pressure
imposed by Russian neo-imperialism and myopia. In
Central Asia and elsewhere Moscow claims a great power
status but it has neither the necessary vision nor capability
to provide the responsible leadership the region might
actually support. Here as elsewhere, to quote Robert Leg-
vold, Russia seeks status not responsibility (Legvold,1997,p.
67). Ultimately that quest, taken in the context of intensi-
ed geopolitical rivalry and threats to Central Asia and
given Russias capabilities and Central Asian realities, can
only end in a violent confrontation from which nobody will
benet. Finally we must remember that whatever we say,
Central Asians will have the last word and in that context
regime change and even crisis may come unexpectedly,
rapidly and with a surprise for all concerned parties. These
possibilities duly heighten the need for the US to announce
its future strategy and actually begin to implement it along
with its European and other allies. According to the Amer-
ican expert on Central Asia, Daniel Burghart,
For too long, Central Asia has been dened in terms of
what others sought to gain there, and to a certain degree
that is still the case. What is different is that since 1991,
the region has begun to dene itself, both in terms of
national identities that it never had before, and
a regional identity that it is trying to create. (Burghart,
20 09,
p. 123).
But if Central Asia and the great powers with major
interests there are to remain secure it is now time to see
Central Asia not in those terms but in terms of what we
need to invest in it to prevent the return or continuation of
all the dysfunctional pathologies of the present new great
game.
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S. Blank / Journal of Eurasian Studies 3 (2012) 147160160
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With renewed American involvement in Afghanistan, Pakistan's growing fragility, and China's rise in power in the post-Soviet space, Central Asia-South Asia relations have become central to understanding the future of the Eurasian continent. Mapping Central Asia identifies the trends, attitudes, and ideas that are key to structuring the Central Asia-South Asia axis in the coming decade. Structured in three parts, the book skillfully guides us through the importance of the historical links between the Indian sub-continent and Central Asia, the regional and global context in which the developing of closer relations between India and Central Asia has presented itself since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the precise domains of Indo-Central Asian cooperation, and studies three conflict zones that frame Indo-Central Asian relations: the Kashmir question; the situation in Afghanistan; and fear of destabilization in Xinjiang. The international line-up of established scholars convincingly demonstrate the fundamental necessity to define the Indian approach on these issues and provide cutting-edge insights on the tools needed to understand the solutions for the decade to come. © Marlène Laruelle, Sébastien Peyrouse and the Contributors 2011. All rights reserved.
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