Central Asia Is Turning Back to Moscow

By Lindsey Kennedy, Nathan Paul Southern – Foreign policy.

On the sleeper train from Tashkent to Nukus, a drunk Uzbek army officer wants to know where we’re from. “England” is met with a noncommittal shrug. On hearing “Scotland,” though, his face lights up. “Scotlandia!” he slurs, miming bagpipes. “Braveheart!” In a mix of fluid Russian, broken English, and animated mime, he expresses a sentiment we hear again and again, all across the country: Scotland is to the United Kingdom as Uzbekistan is to Russia—only in Uzbekistan’s case, independence was won. Then, with no apparent sense of irony, the officer takes out his phone and shows us his background of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He gives a thumbs-up. “Putin, I love.”

This is all the more jarring given that we’re on our way to Karakalpakstan, one of Uzbekistan’s bleakest regions. Here, stranded husks of rusting fishing boats and a smattering of seashells are a lasting testament to Soviet mismanagement that redirected the area water supply to the overstretched cotton industry. The Nukus city museum of art banned under communism abounds with paintings of fishermen on the once vast Aral Sea, but the real sea has shrunk to nothing.

Despite such legacies of Russian rule, many Uzbeks—indeed, many Central Asians—share the officer’s enthusiasm for the country that once colonized them. But then, at this stage, where else would they turn for friends?

A woman walks past the main mosque and city museum in Andijan, Uzbekistan, on Jan. 16, 2019.

A woman walks past the main mosque and city museum in Andijan, Uzbekistan, on Jan. 16, 2019. LINDSEY KENNEDY FOR FOREIGN POLICY

After two decades and a trillion dollars spent on war, the United States is finally out of Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s neighbors have been watching intensely as an era of U.S. involvement in Central Asia closed, one that promised much but never quite delivered.

The United States won’t be missed that much. The end of communism was supposed to usher in a new era of freedom, democracy, and prosperity, but it was a resounding failure in Russia’s backyard. Central Asians might not be mad at the United States, but they’re certainly disappointed.

Over the past two decades, the war next door incentivized some U.S. aid and investment, mostly in the form of training troops and leasing military bases in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. With troops gone, the United States seems increasingly unlikely to pay the region much thought—unless China is involved. A growing Washington consensus that Beijing is the main opponent of the next decade or more has also drawn attention to China’s heavy investments in Central Asia.

But for the Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—the old occupier, Russia, and, increasingly, China are often more tempting prospects. For the elites in these countries, Moscow and Beijing are inherently more attractive options than Washington. Unlike Western liberal democracies, China rarely expresses interest in human rights or fair governance and certainly never demands to see evidence of this as a precursor to investment. For Beijing, the important thing is not the mode of government but consistency: So long as a partner country is politically stable enough for China to keep building and mining, and willing to back Beijing on the international stage, it’s happy.

As Mathieu Boulègue of Chatham House put it, any discussion of human rights or democracy is a red line that Russia and China have no interest in crossing, while liberal democracies’ insistence on doing so means their partnerships can only ever be “second tier and not a deeper, comprehensive relationship.”

Fires burn from the tops of tall stacks at the Tengiz oil field, on the northeastern shore of the Caspian Sea, in Kazakhstan in Sept. 1, 1997.

Fires burn from the tops of tall stacks at the Tengiz oil field, on the northeastern shore of the Caspian Sea, in Kazakhstan on Sept. 1, 1997.REZA/GETTY IMAGES

The initial U.S. interest in Central Asia, however, had much less to do with human rights and more with natural resources. In the years following independence from the Soviet Union, Central Asian states looked forward to a lucrative new Great Game in the region. According to estimates by the U.S. Energy Information Administration as of 2003, the Caspian Basin contained between 17 billion and 33 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and around 232 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, attracting much initial interest from overseas. This enthusiasm gradually trickled away, though, as prospective investors realized that getting to these energy sources would be much harder than first anticipated.

“Projections in the mid-’90s exceeded what was actually available,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The shallow waters of the Caspian Sea meant excavation was extremely complex, exacerbated by geopolitical barriers in Russia and Iran, which blocked construction of pipelines needed to move reserves out of landlocked states and into the global marketplace. Most of the available reserves remained in the hands of local oligarchs, who were able to take advantage of existing pipeline infrastructure.

“You have this language of economic reform but nothing to show for it,” said Edward Schatz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and author of a recent book on anti-American sentiment in Central Asia.

After 9/11, the situation shifted. Initially, there was an outpouring of solidarity with the United States throughout Central Asia, including support for the invasion of Afghanistan—after all, many of these countries had their own issues with Islamist militancy and were happy to have the United States intervene on their side. But according to Schatz, the declaration of war against Iraq provoked bafflement. By the time anti-Iran rhetoric had begun heating up, many people had become deeply suspicious that the United States might be driven by anti-Islamic sentiment or even Soviet-style radical atheism—especially in Tajikistan, which gets much of its media from Iran and shares closer linguistic and cultural ties.

And while oligarchs benefited, the post-Soviet years proved deeply disappointing to ordinary citizens throughout Central Asia.

A worker performs maintenance at the oil refinery of Canadian oil company Hurricane Kumkol Munai in Chemkent, Kazakhstan, on Dec. 21, 2002.

A worker performs maintenance at an oil refinery of the Canadian oil company Hurricane Kumkol Munai in Shymkent, Kazakhstan, on Dec. 21, 2002. OLEG NIKISHIN/GETTY IMAGES

In the 25 years following the fall of the Soviet Union, household income fell by 27 percent in Uzbekistan and more than halved in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. While the economies of oil-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have ballooned, there is little evidence that any of this wealth trickles down to the general population. Life expectancy there, as in the rest of Central Asia, has worsened since the 1990s, as the provision of state-funded health care and other social safety nets evaporated. Access to education, transport, and basic infrastructure also declined.

Bruce Pannier, a Central Asia correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who has been reporting from the region for almost 30 years, echoes this view. While “there wasn’t much of everything” under Soviet rule, he said, there was generally enough to survive—and in rural areas in particular these resources were far better managed. Pannier describes how the Soviet system demanded that local administration chiefs ensure farmers’ fields were ploughed, their tractors had gasoline, and machinery deliveries to their farms arrived in time for harvest. When this centralized government collapsed, individual farmers were left to sort out the logistics on their own, hindered by local corruption that pushed them into debt just to cover the bribes necessary to stay afloat.

It’s not as if such hardships can be attributed to the price of freedom, either. Free and fair elections are thin on the ground, and while Uzbekistan recently took steps toward strengthening democratic process, any progress is slow, modest, and easily reversed.

“People in the early ’90s were like, democracy and markets are the only game in town,” Schatz said. “You had the rapid discrediting, at least for the time being, of communist ideology, so its polar opposite started to seem self-evidently true, and the U.S. and Western Europe didn’t do much to undercut people’s overblown expectations.”

As Schatz sees it, liberal democracies such as the United States did a great job of convincing breakaway states that communism was a deviation from the norm that had interrupted their path toward development. All Central Asian countries had to do was pivot toward capitalism and democracy, and the money would flow in, and people’s lives would rapidly improve. When that didn’t happen, it left many Central Asians feeling nostalgic for Soviet times or, at the very least, more amenable to the overtures of Putin’s Russia than an unreliable, uncommitted United States.

Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan take part in a joint military exercise on the Harb-Maidon military training ground on Aug. 10.

Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan take part in a joint military exercise at the Harb-Maidon military training ground on Aug. 10. NOZIM KALANDAROV/TASS VIA GETTY IMAGES

With the supposed benefits of freedom nowhere to be seen, it’s little wonder that many Central Asians have become nostalgic for the strength and stability Russia claims to provide. It helps that Russian culture still plays a powerful role. Ethnic Russians make up a fifth of Kazakhstan’s population, and despite their shrinking numbers elsewhere (as these groups migrate steadily back to their homeland), the Russian language is widely spoken throughout the region.

Russian media, especially TV, are the main sources of news for many people. In Uzbekistan, Russian media help establish pro-Putin interpretations of events abroad as uncontroversial fact and blur the lines between Russian and Uzbek loyalties, even among the fiercest nationalists. Over dinner in Ferghana, a teacher (who asked not to be named) argued forcefully for Moscow’s right to “protect” its people in Crimea and to absorb South Ossetia and Chechnya—a rarity in a country where most people shut down at the first hint of political discussion.

People walk by fresh graffiti depicting Vladimir Putin in Simferopol, Crimea, on Aug. 17, 2015.

People walk by fresh graffiti depicting Putin in Simferopol, Crimea, on Aug. 17, 2015. ALEXANDER AKSAKOV/GETTY IMAGES

The idea of legitimizing the Taliban through peace talks was hard to swallow for Central Asian governments that hoped to see this threat crushed once and for all by the U.S.-led coalition. The Russian public relations machine certainly wasted no time in seizing on this concern. In the months that followed then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s order to withdraw 7,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Russia quickly stepped up warnings that Afghan troops and returning Central Asians who left to join the Islamic State would pose a new security threat, with Putin touring four of the five Central Asian states to offer military assistance.

Such rhetoric builds on the strongman image that Russia has aggressively augmented over the past decade or so through successive wars with Georgia and Chechnya, the annexation of Crimea, and heavy involvement in conflicts outside the Soviet sphere of the past, notably Syria and, more recently, Zimbabwe. As a source at Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office told us, Russia’s wider political interest “is about their own place in the world and wanting to see themselves at the top table on key international issues.” Russia had no problem opening diplomatic relations with the Taliban after the eventual U.S. withdrawal—but it offered a clear warning to the group to keep within Afghanistan’s borders.

While such shows of brute strength might worry Central Asian leaders, Russia has also made itself a useful and enthusiastic ally in containing domestic unrest, supporting the Tajik government during its civil war, and stepping in to replace NATO military cooperation with Uzbekistan after the Andijan massacre. Conflicting priorities made then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s government highly reluctant to intervene during ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, but when Bishkek’s pleas for support were also ignored by the United States and the European Union, Russia eventually took the lead on reaching a diplomatic resolution through the Collective Security Treaty Organization. As pro-Putin Uzbeks are quick to tell you, when their country has security problems, Russia is the ally they turn to for help. The West, they say, simply drops them when the going gets tough.

But there are plenty of notes of skepticism. While Moscow is able to control the narrative, it can’t always disguise facts on the ground. The visible scars left by Russian colonialism and communist rule remain—stark warnings of the risks of trusting too much in the powerful neighbor to the north. Ongoing ethnic tensions and occasional bursts of violence in the Ferghana Valley stem back to a Stalinist policy of drawing lines through, rather than between, rival groups, rendering populations less coherent and able to rebel.

Russia’s shock-and-awe tactics in bringing Ukraine, Georgia, and Chechnya to heel also keep alive the notion that Putin’s vision is a restored regional hegemony over the old Soviet empire. As Jonathan Evans, former head of Britain’s MI5, put it simply: “I am absolutely sure that Russia will do everything it can to have a position in any parts of the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] because that’s kind of what they do.”

Central Asian countries are all too accustomed to being exploited as Russia’s buffer—what Evans called “its [strategic] cordon around itself”—and to their leaders trusting naively in Putin’s offers of friendship. Uzbekistan, for example, has traditionally been wary of overreliance on either Russian or U.S. military aid, maneuvering between the two as the circumstances demand. “Isolated and isolationist” Turkmenistan would, as Olga Oliker, the International Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia director, put it, “rather have its people starve than be too close to anybody.” Tajikistan, which works closely with Russia on issues of national security, does so because it has to: The Taliban proved to be a genuine threat there, supplying fighters to the rebels during the country’s civil war, and other military allies are hardly forthcoming.

That said, this caution will likely waver with each political generation. “The new leadership doesn’t have that same negative experience of the Russian Bear,” said Dina Rome Spechler, a specialist in Soviet and U.S. foreign policy at Indiana University. “They may not have the same determination to keep Russia at arm’s length.”

Indeed, when it comes to choosing powerful allies, they may have little choice.

“The more the U.S. leaves the region and the less influence it has on local policy, the more it leaves open cracks that China and especially Russia can exploit,” Boulègue said. “And Russia is really good at exploiting the cracks that we leave open.”

But Moscow may not be the biggest winner of the post-American era. There is one other serious contender for control in Central Asia: China.

Through participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the deepening of trade and energy ties with the former Soviet states, China has rapidly expanded its economic presence in Central Asia. The most significant investment, though, is through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), originally supposed to connect Beijing with European markets via Central Asia but which has turned into a complicated mess of clashing investments and demonstrations of political loyalty. China has committed to spend at least $1.4 trillion on BRI projects, principally developing infrastructure and high-speed rail networks.

Yet the BRI is a point of serious contention all throughout the region. Here, as in countries such as Sri Lanka and Cambodia, what seemed like generous offers at first have increasingly emerged as huge debt traps that have left countries deeply obligated to Beijing. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are already rated at high and moderate risk of debt distress, respectively. As Boulègue put it, “There’s only so much these countries can deal with China before they actually sell their soul.”

At the same time, as Oliker points out, while Central Asian governments may fret over the long-term implications of involvement, they’re equally worried about being left out of the mix.

Even Turkmenistan, with its isolationist attitude, succumbed to the allure of the BRI—and essentially became captive to Chinese energy interests when they set up a monopsony on the country’s gas reserves in the process. “It’s why they have no money,” Boulègue said.

At a community level, too, China has few cheerleaders in Central Asia. Beijing’s paranoid obsession with Islamist terrorism and long history of inventing, or at least wildly exaggerating, the Islamist threat in Xinjiang have hardly endeared it to this majority-Muslim region.

A Uyghur man sits outside his café in the Old City of Kashgar, Xinjiang, on Oct. 21, 2016. Most of Kashgar’s ancient buildings were razed in 2009, with a small section reconstructed as a tourist center.

A Uyghur man sits outside his café in the Old City of Kashgar, Xinjiang, on Oct. 21, 2016. Most of Kashgar’s ancient buildings were razed in 2009, with a small section reconstructed as a tourist center. LINDSEY KENNEDY FOR FOREIGN POLICY

A Uyghur woman weaves through motorbike traffic in Kashgar on Oct. 16, 2016.

A Uyghur woman weaves through motorbike traffic in Kashgar on Oct. 16, 2016. LINDSEY KENNEDY FOR FOREIGN POLICY

The Uyghurs who bear the brunt of China’s persecution at home not only share Central Asians’ faith; they are close ethnic and cultural cousins of the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmens, and Uzbeks nearby. That a number of well-known Chinese Kyrgyz artists and academics have disappeared into China’s detention camps only intensifies suspicions that China is more adversary than friend.

Meanwhile, Beijing has made little attempt to win over the hearts and minds of the various local populations it comes into contact with. A common criticism is that China treats the BRI as a useful mass employment vehicle for its own workers, without boosting local employment in any meaningful sense. While local communities appreciate the extra work that comes their way during large-scale construction projects, there’s lingering resentment at what are considered short-lived, badly paid gigs and a relationship that’s skewed in China’s favor.

Pannier describes how, as Chinese-financed construction snaked through Kyrgyzstan, people in towns awaiting the arrival of the project had nothing but positive views on the Chinese investors, while those left in its wake saw things differently, complaining of poor pay and broken promises.

“When the promise of money is there, everything seems good, but once they’re gone, you get the old prejudices again,” he said. “I kind of wonder what the Central Asian view will be in a few years, when they realize the Chinese aren’t coming with a new project. That they’re not going to employ any more locals because they’re done working on everything now, but the bills are still there. The loans are still there.”

While Central Asian governments try their best to keep a lid on these resentments, tensions are beginning to erupt. Kazakhstan has seen anti-China protests in response to the construction of Chinese factories. In August 2019, Kyrgyz locals attacked Chinese mine workers. In both countries, governments have cracked down on those who criticize Chinese investment (as well as Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs), leading to fines and arrests.

Rifts are emerging between low-income Central Asian workers suspicious of China’s motives and concerned about job security and those at the top of the pile seen as benefiting from the BRI. It doesn’t help that investment is often linked to the corruption of government officials. Or that Tajikistan’s likely president for life, Emomali Rahmon, handed over a literal gold mine in repayment for a power plant funded by Chinese loans—while borrowing another $230 million to build himself a swanky new parliament complex.

It’s unsurprising that Central Asians tend to be more comfortable working with Russia than with China. Many speak Russian, use the Cyrillic alphabet, and, due to their political history, understand Russia’s institutions and business culture. Russian-language (and Russian-owned) news and entertainment dominate Central Asian media, disseminating pro-Putin messages, encouraging an affinity with Russian culture—and, at times, highlighting concerns over Chinese corruption in BRI countries. By contrast, very few people in the region speak Chinese, and Sinophobia runs deep. For example, 65 percent of Kazakhs believe Chinese influence poses a clear or emerging threat to their country.

But while at times Russian media appear actively hostile to the BRI, in reality China’s and Russia’s primary activities are not in direct competition with each other. Russia simply doesn’t have the capital to rival Chinese economic expansion—especially with the extra pressure of international sanctions to contend with. Instead, it focuses on security, providing extensive military aid in the region, running joint military and counterterrorism exercises, and collaborating closely on anti-drug trafficking efforts, which inevitably sees Russia closely involved with border security in countries such as Tajikistan. It also maintains a heavy military presence through a string of bases and airfields in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.

Meanwhile, despite having one of the largest defense budgets in the world, China tends to steer away from military intervention beyond its borders. It prefers to wield power economically, largely through predatory loans that a U.S. State Department spokesperson described in a phone interview as “debt trap diplomacy.”

In Central Asia, this has developed into a rough division of power between the two superstates, with Russia dominating the security side, and China cornering infrastructure and development. Opinion is split on whether this arrangement represents a tacit agreement between Moscow and Beijing, or whether it’s a case of both sides playing their strongest hand in a bid to come out on top.

“I think Putin and Xi Jinping can see their differing skill sets as complementing each other,” said Philip Ingram, a former British Army colonel and now a security and intelligence analyst. “I wouldn’t say it’s a rivalry, more an emerging longer-term, complementary relationship.” Ingram believes a future military alliance between China and Russia, however distant, could be on the cards.

Spechler disagrees. Russia, she says, has not and would not willingly cede influence to China, making the idea of a quasi-Gentleman’s Agreement impossible. She points to Moscow’s ongoing efforts to create a regional economic trade union that excludes China, and Beijing’s paranoia about Islamic terrorism in Central Asia—which has manifested in some joint counterterrorism operations with Kabul, such as patrolling the Wakhan Corridor between Afghanistan and Xinjiang. According to Spechler, the idea that China and Russia could reach an understanding to stay in their respective lanes belies the fact that they continue to operate as rivals.

Whether the current allocation of power is the product of collaboration or circumstance, China is clearly the stronger partner here—and Russia knows it.

An Uzbek girl attends a wedding, where traditional carpets adorn the tables and walls in Oykabura village in the Fergana Valley region of Uzbekistan on Aug. 13, 2006.

An Uzbek girl attends a wedding, where traditional carpets adorn the tables and walls, in Oykabura village in the Fergana Valley region of Uzbekistan on Aug. 13, 2006. URIEL SINAI/GETTY IMAGES

It’s safe to say that the United States squandered its chance to earn affection or admiration from Central Asians after the fall of the Soviet Union. Beyond mocking Trump’s inability to point out their country on a map, college students in Uzbekistan, for example, seem more indifferent to the United States than anything else. Compared with the strong emotions elicited by Russia and China, attitudes toward America seem tepid at best.

One young man in Andijan explains that his English teacher, an American woman, has persuaded him to apply for scholarships in the States for his master’s degree, not only to Russian universities as he initially planned. His only question is whether he can earn a decent wage to send home to his family while he studies. Beyond financial opportunity, the West has little appeal. “What is there out in the world that is better than Uzbekistan?” he asks in earnest. Pressed whether there’s anywhere he’d like to see, he replies at once, with feeling: “Mecca.”

It’s a common refrain. Central Asians of all ages are seizing the opportunity to reconnect with religious and cultural identities that were stifled by Tsarist Russia and then the Soviet Union. Devout Muslims from every strata of society in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan save for years to go on Hajj, a core tenet of Islam. In Kyrgyzstan, where GDP per capita is just under $1,270, private companies can charge nearly $3,000 to organize the trip. During the “mini-Hajj,” families cram train stations, weeping as they send elderly relatives off on the first leg of a pilgrimage they’ve waited their whole lives to undertake. Bemused staff at Tashkent Airport deal patiently with nervous, first-time fliers. On the plane to Istanbul, from where most other passengers will continue to Saudi Arabia, the atmosphere is festive.

Ordinary Central Asians may not be interested in American ideas, but they do want to continue enjoying this religious freedom. Beijing’s virulent Islamophobia and persecution of its Uyghur population makes clear its feelings on the religious rights of Muslims—and Kazakhs and Kyrgyzstanis are already being arrested in their own countries for speaking out. If the United States wants to regain influence in the region, it would do well to position itself as an investor and job creator that will respect local culture and support religious freedom, not hinder it. Central Asia has had enough of colonial mentalities.

Sources at the U.S. State Department stress that their vision for development in Central Asia entails grants and investment—a “clear alternative” to Chinese loans—and that protecting the independence and sovereignty of these states is a “top priority” for the current administration. This is promising, but to rebuild trust and to present itself as a serious alternative, the United States needs to seriously up its commitments in the region.

This won’t work unless the United States is seen as a serious partner, worth giving up other opportunities to pursue. Central Asian organizations looking to work with Russian companies, particularly those with close ties to the Kremlin, can be hit with secondary sanctions by the United States, which ironically serves to push them closer to Russia—or, at the very least, positions China as a comparatively hassle-free partner. The United States will need to work hard to position itself as a reliable alternative.

The West’s lengthy neglect of Central Asia has served to undermine faith in democracy while making it easier for opportunistic regimes to establish exploitative relationships that will last for generations to come. Similar stories are emerging in countries throughout Africa, where China and Russia continue to carve up control along comparable lines. Political isolationism and inward-looking policies will only make this worse. As Ingram put it: “We take our eye off the ball at our own peril.”

Lindsey Kennedy is a journalist and documentary filmmaker covering stories related to development, global security, and abuses of civil and human rights. She is the director of TePonui Media. Twitter: @LindsAKennedy.

Nathan Paul Southern is an investigative reporter and security specialist. He covers non-traditional security threats, Chinese expansionism, organized crime, and terrorism. Twitter: @NathanPSouthern

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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