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  Central Asia: in the crossroad between Russia, China and the West

Vadim Volovoj, Doctor in Political Sciences
2009 09 07

Central Asia (CA) is an important region (both from the geostrategic and geoeconomic point of view) where the interests of Russia,China and the West (the United States and the EU) are intersecting. In order to meet national and (often) personal interests, leaders of CA states have to find balance between these two major transnational subjects.

Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are rich in oil and gas reserves; therefore the West, Russia and China are interested in them as perspective energy partners. The West, and first of all the EU, wants to diversify its energy import in order to reduce energy dependence on Russia. Meanwhile America is interested in CA’s energy potential more for geopolitical interests. The United States is interested in giving access to the EU to energy sources of CA instead of buying them via Russia, as well as in the slowest possible energy dialogue between CA states and China.

In its turn Moscow wants CA to remain (as long as possible) energetically „tied“ to Russia, however, recently its positions in the region became complicated. Although Kazakhstan is a loyal ally of Moscow, Astana also develops energy connections with China. Russia‘s co-operation with Uzbekistan in the sphere of energy is also successful.

However, the energy dialogue between Moscow and Ashkhabad has worsened recently. Initially problems emerged because of Russia‘s refusal to construct the pipeline „Centre – the Caspian Sea” without any guarantees that gas would run through it exceptionally for supply to the anticipated Trans-Caspian gas pipeline. Because of the crisis gas demand in Europe has decreased, but „Gazprom“ had to buy gas for the formerly agreed price. And then the gas pipeline connecting the two countries has unexpectedly exploded. Ashkhabad said that it was „Gazprom‘s“ fault. Currently the pipeline is functioning again, but export of Turkmenistan‘s gas has stuck. Moscow‘s steps made Turkmenistan to be more interested in Europe‘s proposals concerning construction of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline and possible gas supply to „Nabucco” pipeline. On 13 July the agreement on construction of „Nabucco“ was signed in Turkey.

Despite that, energy positions of Russia in CA are still strong: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are inclined to further sell own resources abroad via Russia, whereas Turkmenistan has a long-term gas supply contract with Moscow. However, in the future situation might change and in this case an unduly forthright Moscow‘s energy policy in the region, the approaching change of regimes in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and the increasing aggressive energy policy of China in the region might become critical factors.

The world observes a serious geopolitical fight of major global political „players“ for domination in CA region. It started after the fall of the Soviet Union. For CA America is a strategic bridgehead against Russia, China,Iran and, possibly, Pakistan. At the same time it is very important to have military headquarters in one of the region‘s states concerning the operation in Afghanistan.

In its turn Russia is not interested in the long-term America‘s existence in the neighborhood. The same is with China with its recent disorders in Xinjiang province and prevailing separatism moods. It is interesting to note that Beijing has indirectly accused Washington for organization of Xinjiang‘s events. However, both, Moscow and Beijing want the Americans to solve the problem of Afghanistan, since now Russia and China have neither will, nor serious opportunities of getting interfered into this matter.

Until a certain moment it was considered that Bishkek has evicted the Americans from the Manas aviation headquarters for a USD 2 billion Moscow‘s „bribe“.  However, after some time the object was given another status and the American troops stayed in Manas. It is difficult to believe that the Kirgiz authorities fooled Russia after having taken the „bribe“, but we could guess that Moscow allowed Bishkek to take this step in exchange of a certain decision from the side of the United States (e.g. not to re-arm Georgia and not to force Ukraine and Georgia‘s membership in NATO). On the other hand, presidential elections were impending in Kirgizia and its results were known in advance. But consequences were not clear, since the Americans could support the country‘s opposition to make it bring the nation into the streets.

Moscow cannot fully rely on I.Karimov, the Uzbekistan‘s president, who is not interested in co-operation with Russia within CSTO framework, suspended membership in the EurAsEU union and started active flirt with the United states and the EU. Russia‘s relations with Tadzhikistan are also far from good. Tadzhikistan is not happy about the perspectives of solving water resource problems on the regional basis and the delay of Russia’s investment into the country. On the other hand, quite a lot of the Tadjiks work in Russia and, consequently, contribute to their country‘s economy.

In any case, in the long-term perspective the Americans have no serious chances to settle in CA, since (a) this region is in the periphery of their foreign policy; (b) they function there without any serious strategy; (c) they do not want to interfere into local political processes of CA states all the above reduces attractiveness of the Americans in the eyes of leaders of CA countries. Finally, Kazakhstan remains relatively loyal Russia‘s partner in practically all strategic spheres.

Thus, we can say that Russia has better chances to dominate in CA than other „players“ of the international policy.  Russia still has strong leverages with respect to the region‘s countries (export of energy resources via own territory, employment of CA migrants in Russia, wide use of the Russian language in CA states, etc.), but its influence is gradually decreasing there, especially among the young people of CA who go for studies to America, Turkey and China and start thinking in nationalist categories.

If Moscow does not take relevant steps, in several decades CA would start speaking...no, not English, but Chinese. But by that time half of the Russians might also speak Chinese; thus, there’ll be no tragedy...

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