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New Regional In-Security System in Central Asia

OSW Studies

Key Points

1. Ten years have passed since the Central Asian states declared their independence, but their relationship with Russia still remains close, and the latter treats them as its exclusive zone of influence. A crucial reason for keeping Central Asia within the orbit of Moscow·s influence is the fact that Russia exercises control over the most important transport routes out of the region of raw materials for the power industry, on which the economic development of Asia depends on. But this is the only manifestation of Central Asia·s economic dependence on Russia. Moscow lacks solid economic instruments (i.e. investment input or power industry dependence) to shape the situation in the region. As the present forms of political cooperation within the CIS, Customs Union etc. are not bringing the expected results, it is the regional security system based on military dominance, developed by Russia, which is particularly gaining in importance. Russia treats its direct military presence as a condition for full implementation of its policy towards the region and towards Afghanistan. For two years Moscow has been successful in this area.

2. The basic reason why the Central Asian states are compelled to participate in building regional order with the help of Russia is the threat posed by the activities of fundamentalist Islamic movements. The most serious manifestations of this threat were the two Batken-area crises in 1999 and 2000. The fear of the results of the current civil war in Afghanistan is constantly growing. It is in Russia·s interest to maintain the state of threat and tension in Central Asia, and Russia fuels it and benefits from it.

3. Central Asia is also an area of influence-building for some Western countries (mainly Turkey and the United States). Since last year, in response to a system of regional security developed under the aegis of Russia, the United States and Turkey have been trying to get involved in military cooperation in the region. Such measures do not constitute a counterbalance to the Russian presence, but they do extend the room for political manoeuvre of the diplomacies of the countries in the region.

4. Afghanistan and the civil war there is having a great impact on the situation in Central Asia. The military success of the Taliban in summer 2000 considerably enhanced their prestige and increased fears that the conflict could expand. They also made the Central Asian countries revise their policy towards Afghanistan. On the one hand, this means seeking protection against the Taliban from Moscow, and on the other hand preparing to negotiate a peaceful relationship (particularly in the case of Uzbekistan). The war in Afghanistan and the increasing involvement of Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan and the United States have more and more influence on the political situation in Central Asia.

5. The Central Asian countries lack capacities to find a sovereign solution to their regional problems, particularly the political ones. This is due to the internal weakness of these countries and the strong influence of Russia in the region. (This applies to Tajikistan the most, Kazakhstan the least). For them the most effective way to pursue strategic goals is to take advantage of the interests of foreign powers that are engaged in the region. This gives the opportunity to manoeuvre between Moscow, Washington, Islamabad and others, which they are trying to do.

6. The key country for security issues of the region is Uzbekistan. At the same time this is the country that faces the most serious threat from fundamentalism, and the one which is Russia·s most inconvenient partner due to its independent policy. All the problems related to security, Russia·s military position and the future political shape of the region will be handled with Uzbekistan·s participation. The latter is, and will remain, the main addressee both of cooperation offers (i.e. from America and Turkey) and attacks (from Russia).

7. Despite Uzbekistan·s position and its significance for political stability, it is Kazakhstan that is now strengthening its role of a regional leader. This is due both to its natural advantages (natural resources, geographical location, distance from the focus of unrest) and (relatively) reasonable and balanced domestic and foreign policy of the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan is the most stable and the most promising, economically and politically, country of the region. 

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