Global Governance
Russia in Central Asia: No One Is Running Anywhere
List of speakers

What do the “naive children of the steppes” expect from Russia? Does the bear need to run when the sun rises? Why has the language of values become the weapon of Europe? Is it capable of communicating with countries like Russia and the nations of Central Asia using the language of interests? What will happen if the world is divided into “clean” and “dirty” countries? On May 21, the Central Asian Conference of the Valdai Club ended in Kazan. We will tell you what the experts of the fourth and fifth sessions talked about and what conclusions they came to. 

Russian Policy in Central Eurasia and Its Perception by Regional Powers 

The second day of the Central Asian conference of the Valdai Discussion Club opened with a session dedicated to the role of Russia in the development of the region. The discussion was held according to the Chatham House rules, so we will omit the names of the speakers. 

Over the past thirty years, Russian policy in Central Asia has been quite volatile. This is partly due to the fact that historically, Central Asia has not posed any threat to Russia, and there are no forces hostile to Russia or military blocs. In recent years, Russia has become more open in this direction; it welcomed China’s Belt and Road initiative, hoping that Chinese economic power would provide a new impetus to the economic development of Central Asia, and that Russia would be able to share responsibility with another major player. 

The Sun Is Up — You Have to Run 

Experts from Central Asia began their discussions of Russia’s relations with the countries of the region with a parable. The sun rises over Africa, and a gazelle wakes up. She knows that she has to run so that she is not eaten. Then the lion wakes up, who knows that he needs to run faster than the gazelle in order not to die of hunger. It doesn’t matter if you are a gazelle or a lion: when the sun rises, you have to run. 

The same is true with politics: in order to be successful, a nation’s potential must be realised. Central Asia wants to see a strong and decisive Russia, which will clearly say what it needs, what it plans to do, and what kind of relationships to build. A Russia which broadcasts strategies and does not want to follow them is like a running general who causes laughter in peacetime, and panic in wartime. 

Now the threat of military hostilities looms, and Russia’s reluctance to interfere in the affairs of the region has caused great concern among the Central Asian countries. The sun has already risen, and we must run. 

Making a Window to the North 

Partly in response to this speech, the Russian experts tried to figure out why, in fact, Russia needs to cooperate with the Central Asian countries. 

What has determined Russian politics from the beginning? 

In the nineties and at the turn of the millennium, security issues came to the fore. On the one hand, it was said that the Central Asian countries are not strangers to us, and therefore we cannot leave them. On the other hand, the worry existed that Central Asia is an axis of instability. In 2002, amid these debates, the creation of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) was announced. Of course, Russia could not abandon its neighbours, but at that time it was also unable to do anything more for the region. A few years ago, it finally realised that it was capable of doing more, but it turned out that the Central Asian countries were no longer ready for this. 

Russia has jealously observed the actions of foreigners affecting security issues — not only the Americans, but also India and China. The logic was the following: let no one interfere here, we will do everything ourselves. Now the Americans are leaving Afghanistan and the Western threat is disappearing. Russia no longer feels any discomfort in this regard. 

Thus, over time, both of these factors fizzled out, they do not determine current Russian policy in the region. Russia has recognised that there is agency there, but not regional, only local. Therefore, now the worries about the imbalance have subsided — we do what we can, we do not seek to jump over our heads. The same is with the EAEU: it is not possible to deepen integration, and it is not necessary — this means that the EAEU is pursuing a different path of evolution. Russia has resigned itself to the fact that the EAEU has stalled in an intermediate state, and, most likely, Uzbekistan, as an observer, will end its expansion. 

What determines Russian politics now? 

Over the past 150–170 years, two attitudes have developed in Russian strategic culture: 

The first (which was already visible in the 19th century) is the instinct to go South. The goals and motives changed from time to time: India, Britain, Americans, warm seas. 

The second was a legacy of the Soviet Union: fencing the mental field — cultural, historical, ideological and geopolitical. Some regions were used as a springboard for advancement or as a civilisational border for defending one’s own. 

Now as the Americans are leaving Afghanistan, Russia is free to go South. However, it isn’t certain that this will happen. The idea of moving to the South was driven by a variation on Peter the Great’s idea of a window to Europe. Now, as Russia is seriously investing in the Northern Sea Route, the question has arisen of whether this “southern” stratagem will survive. The desire to go South is no longer so rational, since the window to the North will be huge. 

Where will the border in Eurasia be? Who will be the buffer? 

Over the next five to seven years, Russia will not be able to make a choice between two stratagems — to move to the South or to the North, outlining that space (we are not talking about political boundaries, but about civilisational and economic ones, and the latter are extremely important) where we can support stability and determine the rules of the game, primarily economic ones. Russia will gradually turn to one or the other, and after the choice is made, it will determine its policy for several decades at once. 

What are Russia’s Central Asian friends to do with such a neighbour? 

A window of opportunity has appeared for Russia’s historical friends in the region. They have a chance to demonstrate their independence without playing the geopolitical games of the 2000s. At that time, many of Russia’s neighbours tried to use the country, playing on its relations with the United States and the West in general. Those who did this did not finish well, since playing the game with the Americans is possible only in accordance with their rules: first they buy you, and then they pursue regime change. 

Russia has made its choice and the West as a whole is leaving the region, there is more China in the region (however, Central Asia is not a target for capture, but only a transit platform which it wants to go through), so the countries of the region have more freedom. Thus, in five to seven years, we will be able to understand what the countries of the region can do themselves. This will set the objective limits of their political, economic, and socio-cultural sovereignty. Then it will be easier to make decisions about regional cooperation, individual policies and integration associations. 

The Naive Children of the Steppes 

This hypothetical scenario for the development of Russia and the region worried experts from Central Asia. They explained that the situation looks completely different from their side. When the EAEU was created, they, the “naive children of the steppes”, thought that they would come to Russia and the markets of Siberia would immediately open to them. What happened in reality was that customs posts were removed and sanitary ones were installed instead. It is clear that Russia is a great power, and its actions can always be explained. But the rules of the game changed very quickly. 

In Russian cinema (“Ilya Muromets”, “Dobrynya Nikitich”, Nightingale the Robber“) there is one motive: cunning Asians smile and hold a dagger behind their backs. But in reality, Asians are very naive and simply expect quick, tangible benefits from Russia. For example, Russian goods are available in all stores in Kazakhstan, while Kazakhstani goods in Russia can only be bought if ordered in advance. 

Within the framework of the EAEU, Russia often fails to comply with the agreements it has concluded. It turns out that there are strategies, but no concrete deeds. There is a lack of sincerity in good-neighbourly cooperation between Russia and the Central Asian countries. The EAEU could be much more attractive. 

However, another, more optimistic point of view was voiced — that just recently a new atmosphere of trust has formed in the region, which has become an integral part of world processes. Relations between Russia and Central Asia are determined not only by economic interaction, but also by close cultural and humanitarian ties, as well as mutual attraction. The Central Asian states traditionally view Russia as their most stable ally and partner. This, first and foremost, concerns security, trade and education. 

Global Transformation à la China 

If Russia and the Central Asian countries are rather inward-looking, then China thinks more about external challenges that can affect the development of the region and trilateral relations. From the Chinese point of view, global transformation should not split the world into two parts: democratic and non-democratic. The greatest achievement since the end of the Cold War has been that we must rely not only on markets, the rule of law and democratic values, but above all on sovereignty, and respect for countries which wish to pursue their own path of development. This is the most important norm in international relations to have emerged since the Westphalian system. 

Despite the global changes in recent years, China, Russia and Central Asia have demonstrated a high degree of cooperation and maintain stability in the region, which has only become possible as a result of the joint efforts of all parties. Although, of course, Russia plays a key role in Central Asia. 

To ensure a stable future, it is necessary to strengthen political security by preventing “colour revolutions”, fighting Western sanctions, and strengthening industrial ties between China, Russia and Central Asia through the creation of direct sustainable industrial chains. 

The Middle East’s Dream of a Strong Russia 

The Middle East has its own vision of the development of Central Asia and the presence of Russia there. For example, Iran and Central Asia are linked not only by projects, but also by a common cultural and historical heritage. 

Iran’s approach to Central Asia has changed. At first, especially towards the end of Soviet rule, many expected Central Asia to return to the embrace of the Islamic world. Then the ideological component faded into the background, and economic ties prevailed. A symbol of the beginning of such cooperation was the visit of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to Central Asia in the early nineties. Economic pragmatism prevails in relations now. Naturally, Iran, which is virtually unable to cooperate with the West, is paying more attention to the East. Iran is in contact with the EAEU, SCO and other organisations, and cooperates with the countries of the region on a bilateral basis. 

Iran’s relations with Central Asia do not hinder cooperation with Russia, although there is a political and strategic barrier — sanctions. Iran takes into account Russian interests in Central Asia and vice versa. The points of view of Russia and Iran regarding opposition to the hegemony of the West and security in Central Asia are very similar, they have no disagreements. However, a strong Russia would be really useful both for the region and for Russia itself. 

The sun is up, but there’s no need to run 

Inspired by the parable of the gazelle and the lion, Russian experts noted in turn the metaphor is appropriate if it takes into account local peculiarities. There is a familiar image: Russia is a bear. When the sun rises, he does not run anywhere. He sits calmly and looks around attentively. And when something seems important to him, he calmly approaches and eats it. He is confident in his abilities and does not waste time running around like a gazelle or a lion. 

The Future of “Special” Relations Between Russia and the Countries of Central Asia 

The final open discussion, led by Alexander Rahr, Research Director of the German-Russian Forum, was held in an interesting format. The “Old World” moderator asked the audience provocative questions. They, who mostly hailed from the East, were nearly at a loss for words; when they did answer, they were extremely emotionally and to the point. 

Opening the discussion, Alexander Rahr spoke about why Europe’s policy in Central Asia had, in fact, failed. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Europe viewed Central Asia as an element of stability. It tried to establish interaction by creating its own “Silk Road” through the Central Asian countries to China. However — and this was their main mistake — instead of cooperating with the region, the Europeans positioned their “Silk Road” as a way of transferring Western liberal values. That is why Europe was unable to strategically take root in Central Asia. To this day, it stands its ground and only cooperates with countries which profess Western values. 

On Values 

In general, the issue of values that are necessary, but often used by the West for speculative purposes, was raised more than once during the Valdai Club Central Asian Conference. The day before, experts from Central Asia were asked whether Central Asia could develop its own values, similar to those in the West, which would unite Eurasia. The Eastern experts replied that in this regard, the region is not lagging behind the West — it is also committed to the values of the UN and complies with the principles spelled out in the declaration of the organisation. 

In the course of an open discussion, the question of values returned to the representative of the West. Timofei Bordachev, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, reminded Mr. Rahr that the West and East have certain values in common, but in reality they must be supported by common economic and political interests. Is modern Europe capable of speaking the language of interests without cluttering the dialogue with pseudo-value themes and demagogy? 

Alexander Rahr said that he personally believes that it is necessary to speak using the language of interests. But Russia and Central Asia have to interact with the European Union. The EU does not have its own army, military or geopolitical strategy, but at the same time wants to be a world leader. And therefore, it uses liberal values as a weapon, trying to spread them throughout the world. In the near future, at least under the current ruling elites, Europe will not abandon this policy. 

“Clean” and “Dirty” 

Another question that excited Central Asian experts was about the “green transformation”. Alexander Rahr recalled that Germany is actively rebuilding its economy in accordance with an environmentalist agenda. Central Asia, with its rich water and oil resources, can play an important role here. How does the region feel about the EU Green Deal? What will happen if the price of water suddenly exceeds the price of oil? 

Marat Shibutov, Member of the National Council of Public Trust Under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, answered as clearly as possible: in Central Asia, the European green agenda is regarded as a neo-colonial tool for use against poor countries. Wealthy Germany can afford inefficient energy, which does not pay for itself, while Central Asia cannot. The hypocrisy of the EU lies in the fact that it is developing in this direction largely at the expense of others: Europe has cleansed itself, because it has transferred all dirty production to China, which suffers from this. Why should the Central Asian countries buy wind turbines from Germany instead of generating their own energy? 

An expert from Uzbekistan, Bahodur Eshonov, said that at the moment the Central Asian countries can “play the buffoon” on this topic, but they are not yet ready for a serious dialogue on the transition to green technologies. “For us, these are troubles that limit our capabilities,” he stressed. 

Shibutov was warmly supported by Anastasia Likhacheva, Director of the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University Higher School of Economics. She said that for the Central Asian countries, the problem of nature conservation is very acute, but it is fundamentally different from the European one. For the region, this is not a concern for the prospects of future generations, but a concern for the survival of present generations, their development, good nutrition, and the air that people breathe. She added that if the EU is interested in ensuring that the topic of nature conservation is not considered in Russia and Central Asia as a hypocritical imposition of expensive equipment, it is worth launching blue and green financing for the Central Asian countries. Not for them to reduce emissions, but in order to gain free access to water-saving technologies and less contaminated soil. If Europe’s environmentalism creates real problems for the financing of infrastructure projects in Central Asia accused of not being green enough, then the EU countries will encounter big problems in cooperation. 

Akramjon Nematov, First Deputy Director of the Institute for Strategic and Regional Studies under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, approached the green problem more optimistically. He generally agreed with previous speakers, but noted that a dialogue with the EU on this topic is still underway. He said that for a start, the countries of the region themselves must determine what they want in order to convey their positions to the nations of the EU.

Vitaly Naumkin, full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, approached the issue more globally and expressed concern that the green agenda might only serve as a new dividing line in the world, and opined that there are already enough. Most states are thinking about how to survive right now, and not about what will happen in a hundred years. Of course, progress cannot be stopped, but the green theme cannot be imposed at once as a value. Will the division of the world into “clean” and “dirty” lead to a real war? 

Afghanistan Again 

An open discussion would be incomplete without a question about the fate of Afghanistan. The participants of the second session of the Central Asian conference spoke in detail about the challenges emanating from the nation, but there was the sense that something wasn’t being properly addressed. Therefore, Alexander Rahr turned to Vitaly Naumkin for additional clarifications. 

Rahr presented three scenarios for what might happen to the region after the US withdraws from Afghanistan. First: Central Asia will try to somehow integrate Afghanistan into the CSTO and into its economic region. Second: Afghanistan will become part of the Greater East, which will certainly be formed after the restoration of Syria and Libya. In this case, either it will be thought of as separate from Central Asia, or Central Asia too will join the “Greater East”. Third: the entire region will be under China. 

Naumkin remarked to this that Mr. Rahr had listed all possible development scenarios while failing to touch upon the main issue — what will happen inside Afghanistan itself after the withdrawal of the United States and its allies. If the Afghans agree among themselves, the country will become a stable state, and the question will be only in choosing one of the aforementioned development paths. However, if internal strife continues or the Taliban (banned in the Russian Federation) comes to power, then we will see a big rollback in all areas. The only obvious conclusion is that both Russia and Central Asia have a lot to do in order to start trying to pacify Afghanistan, including economic measures. Therefore, it is too early to talk about development scenarios. 

Many more interesting topics were discussed at the session (you can see the full record of the discussion here), and it ended with the presentation of a book by Andrey Bystritskiy, Chairman of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, and Mehdi Sanai, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Iran to Russia (2013–2019) , titled “Conversations About the Future, Which Does Not Exist Yet. Russia and the World in the 21st Century”. The book is a compilation of conversations between Russian intellectuals about the world to come. What will it be like? The co-authors of the book tried to predict this. But, judging by the speeches of the experts of the Central Asian conference, the future largely depends on the ability of humanity to unite in the face of the challenges of our time. 

We remind you that the Central Asian Conference of the Valdai Club this year was held in Kazan from 20 to 21 May. You can read the final notes on the results of the first, second and third sessions on our website. More details about the broadcasts of the open sessions can be found on our social networks. We are on FacebookVkontakteTelegram and Twitter. The photos can be viewed in our Instagram account. Stay tuned!