Central Asia in Stagnation

Russia can no longer afford to pay for its nominal allies with tax-payer money. Libya, Algeria, Syria, and Egypt all owed money to the Soviet Union, but what did we receive in return? And what do we expect to receive from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko? Russia has finally stopped lending large sums of money to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which is only natural because the economic and political returns have been so negligible.

Uzbekistan, for one, has shifted its foreign policy stance more than once: it entered the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and then left it, repeating the maneuver with EurAsEC. How should Russia build its relations with Central Asia in the future? How can it overcome the empty promises surrounding such major issues as the drug trade? Anchor of the Rossiiskaya Gazeta (RG) Discussion Club Yevgeny Shestakov discusses these questions with Ph.D. Alexei Malashenko, professor of history at the National Research University - Higher School of Economics and member of the Research Council of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Yevgeny Shestakov: Just several months ago, many commentators in the Western media openly speculated that the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia would be shortly followed by popular uprisings in Central Asia.

Alexei Malashenko: There won’t be any revolutions there, at least in the foreseeable future. To begin with, I’d like to note that we must stop talking about Central Asia as a single region. For all intents and purposes, it is a conglomerate of states with different national interests. Therefore, when we talk about influencing its politics, we must specify whether we mean Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, or Turkmenistan, and so on. Moreover, why not joke that the upheavals in Kyrgyzstan prompted Egypt? The events unfolding in Tajikistan follow their own logic, and it is ridiculous to assume that the local opposition is looking to repeat the Egyptian or Tunisian models due to their own discontent with President Emomalii Rakhmon. Tensions are already running high in that country, and it has enough problems without Arab Spring-style revolutions. It is hard to say much about Turkmenistan because, politically, it is a “dead sea” of sorts. I cannot imagine crowds of people protesting in the streets of Ashkhabad. Mentality is quite different there. One can legitimately ask whether two-thirds of the people there even suspect that Tunisia exists.

There are two more states in the region: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Their leaders – Nursultan Nazarbayev and Islam Karimov – have been presidents for more than 20 years now. But there are no forces there capable of mounting a revolution. There is no revolutionary fuse. I cannot imagine someone staging in Tashkent what happened on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The Arab revolutions have affected Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to a degree, and now Karimov and Nazarbayev can point at Tahrir and ask their compatriots: “Do you want us to have tanks and shootings like they had?” The people will respond in unison: “No, we don’t!” Tens of thousands, not to mention hundreds of thousands, will not be protesting there. The Kazakh and Uzbek ruling elites can only use “Arab Spring” as a vivid example of a “political nightmare.” Once, in the 1990s, the Tajik civil war was used in this way: there was democracy, and the Tajik Party of Islamic Revival opposed it. The result was a domestic armed conflict that took tens of thousands of lives. The Uzbek and Kazakh leaders are presenting the events in the Arab world as further evidence in favor of stability, their most precious asset.

People will only take to the streets in the case of an unsuccessful transfer of power from current to future leaders, but this will have no direct bearing on Egypt, Tunisia, or Syria…

Shestakov: Does this mean that the region is doomed to stagnation?

Malashenko: It does.

Shestakov: For how long?

Malashenko: I’d like to make a few comments about stagnation. Kazakhstan, for instance, is an exception. President Nazarbayev deserves credit in many respects. Kazakhstan has leapt into the lead. Incidentally, in the 1990s, Uzbekistan could have become an engine for reform, but it didn’t.

Today, the stagnation in Kazakhstan is different from that in Tajikistan. The latter is short of energy and goods, and people are displeased with Rakhmon’s regime. People in Kazakhstan live a better life, but their demands are also different. Here’s an example. Traffic jams in Alma Ata are almost the same as in Moscow. As for Kyrgyzstan, it is in economic and social stagnation, but its political life is far from calm. Something is being done in Turkmenistan, but we are well aware that, all things being equal, it could achieve more impressive results, especially by using the experience of the countries of the Persian Gulf. Alas, Kuwait is too far ahead, and Turkmenistan will hardly ever be able to match it.

Uzbekistan is also in stagnation economically, socially, and politically. The water is boiling under this stagnation, but, let me emphasize this again, not according to the Arab recipe.

Shestakov: Are there forces interested in “detonating” this region, or is it of little interest?

Malashenko: Let’s be pragmatic. Central Asia is not as important as the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan on the list of international priorities. But Kazakhstan is an exception for its importance in both extracting and transporting hydrocarbons and its location between China, Russia, and Central Asia proper.

Europe and Russia are primarily interested in Central Asia’s stability. The region is located close to conflict zones, primarily Afghanistan. Imagine for a moment what would happen if it were to receive impulses from Afghanistan and a strong push for political Islam appeared. The consequences could be devastating.

Central Asia is often viewed in terms of Afghanistan and Pakistan. U.S. political scientist Frederick Starr suggested a plan for Greater Central Asia and included Afghanistan in it. Under certain circumstances, this approach is justified.

Shestakov: If we employ such notions as “strategic ally,” “forced partnership,” or “cohabitation,” how would you describe Russia’s relations with Central Asian republics?

Malashenko: First, Russia and the Central Asian republics all have their own national interests. They may overlap, but they may also be mutually exclusive. One Central Asian vector is directed at Russia, another at China, and there are also American and Muslim vectors. Russia and these countries not only maintained economic, political, and cultural contacts over decades but also lived together in one country. However, this post-Soviet heritage must be approached with great caution. I don’t think that our common Soviet past means unqualified gravitation towards Russia. Its appeal is declining in Central Asia. They have their own national interests that overlap with those of Russia, but do not necessarily coincide. Russia cannot offer the Central Asian countries modern technology or, to put it simply, enough money.

Moreover, Russia committed many mistakes with regard to Central Asia. Sometimes Moscow approached this region as the former Soviet Union, but, on other occasions, it gave it complete freedom, telling it to go wherever it pleased. Russia failed to define its national interests in Central Asia and interpreted them too ineptly. It lost an opportunity to influence the domestic policy in these states. They don’t have a pro-Russian lobby anymore. There are individuals who, for personal reasons, would like to be closer to Russia, but there are no longer any parties or interest groups that would treat Russia as a primary strategic partner.

Russia has lost its cultural influence in the region, as the waning use of the Russian language shows. In Central Asia, young people do not speak Russian as well as their parents, even in cities, and it is very difficult to build normal relations without a cultural presence.

Shestakov: But isn’t the large-scale migration of Central Asian guest workers to Russia the best indicator of our country’s appeal?

Malashenko: We have appeal only because these guest workers cannot get to Belgium or the Netherlands. Russia’s appeal is limited to the chance to earn money. Migrants do not know Russia or Russian. They have come to make money, and they are lucky if they are not cheated, beaten, or even killed. Guest workers are not a factor of rapprochement or mutual understanding. People treat them well in some places, but are hostile to them in others.

And don’t forget that many of them are Muslims and need new mosques. When they return home, they do not bring Russian culture or even respect for Russia with them because they are cheated and even murdered here. So I wouldn’t look at guest workers as a strong bridge between Russia and Central Asia.

Nevertheless, it is probably possible to turn guest workers into a factor of rapprochement. But this is a formidable task, and there are many difficulties involved.

Shestakov: But if you look at the relations between Russian leaders and their counterparts in Central Asia, they seem all but ideal.

Malashenko: No, they are far from ideal. Look at their elites. By age and mentality, they are Soviet people, but they still treat Russia with suspicion.

Shestakov: But if we are losing these republics, who stands to gain them? To whom are they orienting themselves now?

Malashenko: This is not quite an appropriate question. When we say “gain,” do we mean a desire to establish control over them? The Americans view their presence in the region primarily in terms of Afghanistan. The Chinese are acting very slowly. They are moving in this direction like a quietly marching tide. Beijing plans its policy for 20 or even 50 years ahead. That is China’s political culture and tradition. Its presence in Central Asia is inevitable, and the Chinese don’t see it as expansion. They say: “We have different cultures, and we don’t want to suppress anyone. But a sea is always bigger than a pond.”

As to who needs Central Asia and who will be next to control it, the answer is nobody. Everybody will be present there.

Shestakov: Should Russia come to the aid of these former Soviet republics, or should it simply build equitable and pragmatic relations with them?

Malashenko: Russia should help them wherever it can expect returns on that help. Cooperation with Central Asia must be equitable and based on national interests. The times have passed when these republics were perceived as little brothers in need of our help under the same national flag. It makes no sense to buy their political attention by promising to pay more than the Americans. When Kyrgyzstan asks for money, we must ask whether it is able to spend it wisely to overcome the crisis or whether it is a form of political soliciting.

Shestakov: What do Central Asian states truly need from Russia? What do we have to offer?

Malashenko: Russia can offer to be a good neighbor. There is a famous Eastern saying: when a house is sold, good neighbors cost extra. Russia may become such a neighbor by upholding regional stability and helping these countries resolve their energy problems and build infrastructure. But there is no reason to hope that Russia will be able to interfere in their domestic affairs.

Shestakov: Many RG readers believe that Russia is obligated to help these former Soviet republics because they are our Soviet-era friends and brothers.

Malashenko: Russia doesn’t have the money for that. For instance, the $3 billion in loans that EurAsEC promised Belarus is Russian money. We must pay for our own regions before paying for “fraternal republics.”

Shestakov: We have always supported our strategic partners.

Malashenko: Russia’s strategic interests lie primarily in the Tambov and Smolensk regions, which are beset with problems. Spending money on supporting our neighbors means tossing them to the wind. And someone else will support these republics tomorrow.

Shestakov: But you’d agree that the Americans always heavily invest in those states whose loyalty they seek to secure, do they not?

Malashenko: The Americans can afford to do this, but Russia cannot pay for its nominal allies with tax-payer money. We’ve done so for years. Libya, Algeria, Syria, and Egypt all owed money to the Soviet Union, and what did we receive in return? And what do we expect to receive from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko?

Russia has finally stopped lending large sums of money to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which is only natural because the economic and political returns have been so negligible. Uzbekistan, for one, has shifted its foreign policy stance more than once: it entered the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and then left it, repeating the maneuver with EurAsEC.

Shestakov: Perhaps they are casting themselves around like that because we stopped giving them money? Our weaker neighbors could be looking for new patrons.

Malashenko: We don’t have the money to pay for allied relations. And why do we need them at all? For instance, there is a real problem in countering the drug trade. This is very important for all of Central Asia and Russia, but what is being done? The uninterrupted flow of drugs from Central Asia to Russia is surrounded by empty promises and a lot of idle talk.

Shestakov: Is it possible to speak of mutually beneficial projects that could unite the interests of Central Asian states and Russia?

Malashenko: There are common energy and infrastructure projects. Kazakhstan is very good at this. Central Asian countries are short of water, and Russia could become a good mediator in this respect, but, so far, this is all wishful thinking.

If Russia takes part in negotiating the supply of water in and to the region, it stands to gain quite a bit, but that’s a very difficult task, and all previous attempts to do so have fallen through.

This interview was originally published in Russian in Rossiyskaya Gazeta

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.