Russia is no longer likely to strive to take full responsibility on its own — a condition for this would be the total return of Central Asia to the imperial order controlled by Moscow, and there are no conditions for this, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev. Therefore, in the future, Russia will rely on the independent capabilities of regional states and interaction with China, which is no less interested in its internal stability than Moscow.
The recent armed border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as the extremely uncertain prospects for the central government in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the US and its allies, have forced us to re-examine the question of the extent of Russia’s responsibility for what is happening in Central Asia. Most of the countries in the region are formal allies of Russia, as members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation or, like Uzbekistan, on the basis of a bilateral agreement. The chances that other major powers will be able to provide their capabilities to ensure the security of Central Asia are negligible. At the same time, Moscow’s economic interest in this region is not significant, and therefore we can only talk in terms of pure geopolitics.
The defining condition for Russian policy towards the Central Asia region now is the absence of an immediate threat to national security in the form of a hostile alliance of states or one strong power. Russia does not come into contact with regional institutions, the collective interest of which could conflict with its interests and dictate the behaviour of its participants. The largest military power in the neighbourhood is China, with which Russia has friendly relations approaching those of an alliance. Central Asia itself does not represent an integral problem for Russia, like Europe or the South Caucasus; the concerns associated with it are quite occasional, although sometimes they can become urgent.
External challenges excluded, in the long term, the most serious issue in relations may be associated with the process of the formation of nation states in Russia and the countries of Central Asia, and the resulting grounds for alienation. The answer to this challenge can be in a more harmonic process of inevitable generational change, in order to preserve the integrity of the common space, regardless of the influence of the common historical experience. In other words, now it is necessary to strive to ensure that the countries’ common heritage serves as the foundation for a unifying tradition of co-development. Russia should not be misled by the fact that its culture, including pop culture, and its language are now predominant among the countries of Central Asia. At the same time, the countries of Central Asia should not be mistaken in their reading of Russian foreign policy — respect here is very easy to confuse with composure, which could have tragic consequences.
The factors that determine the nature of interaction between Russia and the Central Asian states include their shared geopolitical position. The border between Russia and Central Asia is a steppe that does not have natural obstacles. Its openness and its unsuitability for marking clear dividing lines is naturally transferred to the spheres of political, economic and cultural interaction across state borders. This leads to the fact that in the area from Southern Siberia to the foothills of the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains, a serious form of isolation becomes difficult for Russia to implement.
From the Russian perspective, Central Asia does not begin immediately, it gradually manifests itself in the individual features in the landscape, the appearance of cities, and the national and religious composition of the population long before the traveller crosses the state border. The formal national border between Russia and the Central Asian states is a man-made line, the existence of which is ensured by the good will of the states, and does not rest on such natural boundaries as mountain ranges, large rivers or seas. In fact, Russia and Central Asia is a common space, which determines and will determine the nature and content of relations between states. Amid such geographic conditions, traditional forms of interaction between powers acquire a specificity that distinguishes them from relations between countries which are clearly separated by natural barriers.
We must admit that, in a sense, Russia has always wanted to isolate itself from Central Asia as much as it sought to become a part of Europe, and both tasks appeared equally unsolvable. Therefore, the main attention of Russia in relations with regional states in the coming years can be focused on promoting their internal stability, preventing the large-scale archaisation of societies and, as a result, destabilisation with subsequent transformation into many local centres of religious extremism.
In the 30 years since the collapse of the USSR, the states of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — have gone their own way and, in each case, pursued original path of independent development. Due to the fact that they initially did not have the prospect of mechanistic inclusion in an alternative jurisdiction, as happened with the Baltic countries and could happen with other republics of the Western part of the so-called post-Soviet space, this historical experience turned out to be unique for each of the Central Asian states, although there are some features that unite them.
There are no prerequisites for the formation of an institutionalised association in the region that is an alternative to Russian interests, and now none of the integration groups, except the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which already includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, can consider these countries as their participants. At the same time, greater interaction between countries at that level within the region will bring Russia more benefits than concerns, since it will not be able to become a factor that forms an organised hostility towards Russian interests and values in these countries.
Russia and the Central Asian states jointly touch the southern belt of Eurasia, which includes such states as Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Their own scale and demographics make absorption and full integration with Russia and Central Asia impossible. At the same time, there are historically strong and fundamental ties between this region and such Central Asian countries as Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. Afghanistan itself is a clear dividing line between East and West, North and South, underpinned by its mountainous topography and complex ethnic composition. An important common task for Russia and the Central Asian states may be to maintain relative peace in this country after the changes that will occur in 2021, and its inclusion in international economic relations, including the main continental transport routes.
Iran, as one of the civilisational states of the modern world, will always remain a challenge for Russia and Central Asia. The scale of Iran and its cultural foundations form the country’s foreign policy, theoretically accessible for temporary force control from the outside, but not suitable for integration into wider communities. Iran’s intentions will always be vague to its neighbours. Turkey has an understandable desire to increase its interaction with the kindred peoples of Central Asia, but itself is experiencing colossal political and cultural pressure from the West, and does not have sufficient power to act as an alternative to the Russian pole of power in international politics.
India, in turn, is too big to develop within a community of states. China could theoretically offer Russia and Central Asia ideas and economic opportunities for joint development, but it has reasonable concerns about Central Asia’s openness to the Islamic world and the need to more actively interact in the region with a powerful ally such as Russia. The United States and other Western countries look at the region only in the context of their economic and diplomatic relations with the largest Eurasian powers — China, India and Russia. We can hardly expect that such an approach can serve as an external basis for the Central Asian countries to achieve their main development goals.
Europe ceased to exist as a factor in the development of the region after the disappearance of the British colonial empire in the mid-20th century, and will no longer be able to designate its presence here as a force influencing the security and development of states. This, however, cannot be a factor excluding the positive role of European, American or East Asian investments in increasing the socio-economic resilience of the Central Asian countries. However, this is not a merit of interstate relations, but a natural effect of the fact that the world keeps a relatively high degree of economic openness, and business is looking for ways to keep the most attractive investments for itself.
Thus, the Russian policy towards Central Asia has a fairly solid foundation and is much less affected by the negative factors that are now inherent in the international system. This, of course, creates a temptation for Moscow to consider the countries of the region lower in priority order than those directions of real threats (Europe and the Middle East) or pronounced economic opportunities (East Asia).