As we’re receiving conflicting reports today about the health of Uzbek president Islam Karimov — official sources say he suffered a stroke and has been hospitalized, other outlets report he’s dead — I thought it worth reiterating the geopolitical importance of his country.
Central Asia has long been stuck between a rock and hard place in terms of its geopolitical environment. Landlocked, with China to the east and Russia to the north and west, Central Asian leaders have had to balance their alliances with the powers that surrounded them.
In pre-Soviet times, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Uzbek leaders would utilize relationships to gain wealth for their countries. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union it became more about security, making sure the newly-formed states were not overrun by the bigger boys. To this end, Central Asian states entered into regional cooperative organizations with China and Russia like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in the hopes of controlling the influence each power exerted on the five nation states.
25 years on, this struggle to balance relations has failed and China is now poised to make a spectacular economic conquest of Central Asian markets.
In 2015, China became Uzbekistan’s largest trading partner with $3 billion worth of trade and Kazakhstan’s largest investor with 33 deals delivering $23.6 billion to the nation.
China has also focused heavily on Turkmenistan’s energy sector, where it has been purchasing some 30 billion cubic meters of gas a year since 2009 while providing substantial military aid. China also took over in Kyrgyzstan last month as the builder and partner in two hydropower projects. Read more “Why Is Central Asia Dumping Russia for China?”
The centennial of the Sykes-Picot Agreement has flooded the better-informed parts of the Internet with everything from the depressingly familiar (blaming the treaty for all the Middle East’s problems) to the refreshingly critical. There seems to be more and more of the latter, which is heartening.
Sykes-Picot was after all not the only plan to partition the Ottoman Empire after World War I, as Middle East expert Adam Garfinkle writes in The American Interest. And blaming it, or any Western design, for imposing “artificial borders” on the region is a dangerous proposition, as the Atlantic Sentinel has argued. Taken to its logical conclusion, the idea that only borders that perfectly encompass certain ethnic groups are legitimate invites more conflict, not less.
Short of Westernizing and accepting that no European power has any designs on Russia anymore, the country’s strategic priority must be to restore preponderance in the “near abroad” in order to satisfy its insecurity complex. Once that it accomplished, Russia can start thinking about forming global alliances to challenge the world’s dominant oceanic power, America.
Even the Soviets, for all their early internationalist pretensions, found they could not ignore Russia’s geopolitical imperatives. The First World War had left Russia bereft of an empire. Finland, the Baltic states, the Western Borderlands, including Ukraine, and the Trans-Caucasus were all lost. Germany was defeated but the new states of Eastern Europe were too weak to resist it. Read more “Imperial Restoration: Russia’s Foreign Policy Imperatives”
On the day President Vladimir Putin visited former Soviet republic Uzbekistan, Russia’s Finance Ministry said it would write off most of the country’s $890 million debt.
Talks between Putin and Uzbek leader Islam Karimov, who has been in power since the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, were also expected to focus on increasing Uzbek agricultural exports to Russia. Russia needs new suppliers after banning various European food imports in retaliation against Western sanctions over its aggression in Ukraine.
Karimov has staked out a more independent course from Moscow that most Central Asian leaders but nevertheless praised Russia on Wednesday for its “stabilizing” influence in the region.
The outcome of Tajikistan’s November presidential election is easy to predict. Emomalii Rahmon will be reelected in a landslide. However, the ballot will also list Oynihol Bobonazarova, a secular lawyer and human rights activist recently tapped by the opposition, including Central Asia’s single legal Islamist party, to run against the first and only president of the former Soviet republic.
Bobonazarova is at first glance an odd choice for the United Reformist Force, an opposition coalition comprised of Islamists, social democrats and several nongovernmental groups.
The Islamists boycotted the 2006 election and failed to put up a candidate for a 2011 by-election for a vacated parliament seat, saying in conjunction with the boycotting social democrats that until election laws were changed, government officials will always be able to manipulate the outcome in advance. Although the Islamists did not encourage their members to boycott the 2011 election, it is clear the opposition forces in Tajikistan are dejected about their chances of electoral victory in any settling.
The upcoming presidential election marks a potential breaking point for perennial president Rahmon. Elected in 1994 and again in 1999. A 1999 referendum extended the presidential term from five to seven years, and a 2003 package of constitutional amendments included a provision permitting a second consecutive term. Although the limit of two terms exists on paper, supporters of Rahmon argue that the limit only applies to elections following the 2003 adoption of the amendments. Rahmon is set to run again this November. Read more “Tajikistan’s Islamists Back Secular Candidate to Send Message”
While the American “pivot” to Asia seems stalled in light of the Syrian crisis, China’s pivot west, to Central Asia, is in full swing. Crisscrossing the region, in a path reminiscent of the Silk Road, President Xi Jingping has been making numerous well received speeches and deals from Ashgabat to Astana.
Unsurprisingly, many of the agreements arising from this trip relate to the energy sector. In Turkmenistan, the Chinese leader helped inaugurate the start of production at the world’s second largest gasfield, Galkynysh, while also finalizing a deal for the Chinese state-owned energy corporation, China National Petroleum Corp, to build facilities which should process 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year. Read more “Chinese Leader Follows Silk Road, Signs Energy Deals”
Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted overwhelmingly on Thursday on end the United States’ lease on the air base at Manas which has been a critical transit hub for American troops and material moving in and out of Afghanistan. The Americans are expected to vacate the facility by July of next year when they will be in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan.
Unable to use the Manas facility, the last American troops leaving in 2014 might have to exit through Pakistan, with which American relations are strained, or Russian air bases. The United States will also be harder pressed to send troops into Afghanistan post 2014 when the civilian government is likely to struggle to prevent the Taliban, who ruled the country between 1996 and 2001, from resurging.
Indian foreign policy has started to morph in recent years from the idealistic and sometimes naive notions of Cold War nonalignment into a more realistic strategy that recognizes the country’s changing interests. India’s alliance building in Central Asia is emblematic of this policy shift.
Walter Russell Mead recently blogged that in the past, Indian policymakers would list three enemies: Pakistan, Pakistan and Pakistan. But the old rivalry of South Asia now only has an emotional, not a rational connection with either the present or the future. India and Pakistan are working to improve their bilateral relationship. During his second visit to Islamabad last week, India’s foreign minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna reiterated his country’s wish to see a peaceful and prosperous neighbor.
One of the reasons for India’s continuous engagement with Pakistan is that it is on the road to Central Asia. The former Soviet satellite states in the region possess vast energy reserves and have attracted the attention of nearby great powers. Read more “Central Asia: India’s New Strategic Neighborhood”