In terms of Russian foreign relations, the countries of Central Asia remain the most stable in the former USSR. There is no state or association for which the fight against Russian interests would be a central foreign policy strategy. Potential challenges and threats to stability are primarily related to internal factors, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
The dramatic developments in Eastern Europe are not directly related to the main challenges and threats faced by the states of Central Asia and Russian policy in this strategically important region. What’s more, the issues that had occupied everyone’s attention just a few months ago — especially the fate of Afghanistan following the fall of the pro-Western regime there — have been moved to the background. However, the degree to which the European security crisis has indirectly affected the main processes in the region may turn out to be significant, if not decisive in terms of the ability of states to achieve their own development goals and repel the main threats to their stability, forcing them to adjust their foreign and domestic policies. From the point of view of Russia, this means the need to maintain attention to the most important processes and events affecting Central Asia, and that the influence of the scale and significance of the military-political clash with the West mustn’t be neglected.
At the same time, the most important feature of the impact of developments in Europe on Central Asia is that the consequences will by primarily long-term in nature. This means that the governments of the countries of the region cannot now fully assess the scale of this influence, and determine exactly what challenges it brings and what opportunities it opens. This seriously complicates decision-making and requires greater restraint in setting priorities for internal development and directions for seeking external resources. We cannot say with certainty what long-term consequences a partial severance of economic ties between Russia and the West will have on Central Asian countries, with respect to trade, their ability to solve some of the problems of socio-economic development through the export of labour to Russia, the creation of new transport and logistics routes, and connections to existing ones.
At the same time, the Central Asian states must implement elements of the strategy created in the historical period preceding the European crisis, while realising at the same time that the final results will inevitably be influenced by it. An alternative solution could be a transition, or a return, to a policy of closeness, but now not all the significant countries of the region are ready for this, for internal reasons.
The Russia-West collision, however, has effects that are more obvious among the Central Asian states. First of all, this entails, if not the complete destruction, then a significant weakening of the entire international order that emerged after the Cold War, which was based on openness and a free market economy. During their sovereign history, all the countries of Central Asia proceeded from the fact that the world around them is developing within the framework of immutable laws and principles that have practical expression in the most advantageous and generally accepted ways: of carrying out international trade, attracting investment, and creating jobs aimed at strengthening socio-economic stability. To a large extent, the Chinese Belt and Road strategy was also aimed at utilising the opportunities of globalisation, and the states of Central Asia placed serious hopes on the process.
However, any attempt to completely exclude a country as large as Russia from globalisation, especially given its position in a number of sectors of international trade and the transport and logistics system of Eurasia, can lead to fundamental changes. It cannot be ruled out that the consequences of these changes will be so severe that they will require Central Asian governments to rethink projects and plans that just recently seemed to make the most sense from the point of view of market logic.
In the political field, we can now count on the fact that the Ukraine drama experienced by the European part of former USSR will become a factor in the temporary or permanent consolidation of political regimes in the countries of Central Asia. The tragic fate of Ukraine only emphasises the importance of a consistent policy of state building, taking into account the geopolitical situation, and now all countries in the region have demonstrated a high degree of understanding of this reality. At the same time, we cannot rule out that the accumulated internal structural problems could still come to the surface and sooner or later lead to a repetition of situations similar to the dramatic events in Kazakhstan. The state was on the brink of an abyss and only the decisive actions of its leadership and CSTO assistance prevented Kazakh society from sliding into the abyss of civil war.
The Collective Security Treaty Organisation, as well as bilateral relations between Russia and Uzbekistan, have continued to play a central role in the ability of the countries of the region to repel external and internal terrorist and military threats. In this regard, the crisis in Europe has not led to significant changes, and the future is unlikely to have any serious impact on the overall balance of power. Russia and China remain the main powers driving foreign and security policy for the states of Central Asia. For the United States, this region is of interest only from the point of view of diplomatic interaction with Moscow and Beijing. In this regard, we can expect, in the medium term, an intensification of US attempts to undermine stability in the countries of Central Asia, possibly with Washington’s traditional reliance on the most radical religious elements. Summing up, we can admit that in terms of Russian foreign relations, the countries of Central Asia remain the most stable in the former USSR. There is no state or association for which the fight against Russian interests would be a central foreign policy strategy. Potential challenges and threats to stability are primarily related to internal factors, and only the interaction between Russia, China and the states of Central Asia determines how dangerous these challenges and threats may turn out to be in the coming years.