Central Asia is home to some 65 million people living in five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Since they gained independence just over 20 years ago, the political landscape has remained depressing. The region has rampant corruption, ethnic tensions and conflict and border disputes. Human rights violations are widespread, while civil liberties and political freedoms remain curtailed — and in some cases nonexistent.
Central Asia is now one of the most repressive regions in the world, a region of dictatorships, nepotism and fiefdoms where the ruling elites regard the wealth of their country as their own personal property. Democracy is seen as a direct threat to their existence, at odds with the vested interests of the elites. Only Kyrgyzstan has taken some small steps towards democracy, being the only country in the region to hold free and fair elections, with a peaceful transfer of power.
Because of the region’s key geostrategic location and immense hydrocarbon reserves, it has drawn considerable interest from external powers.
China’s policy towards the region is focused on gaining access to energy supplies to feed the gas-guzzling nation and to maintain stability on its north and northwest borders against separatist threats, in particular related to its Xinjiang province, which is predominantly populated by Muslim Uighurs. China wants to increase trade and investment in the region and to have a reduced US presence. China has already made considerable inroads with state enterprises investing in railroads, highways and pipelines, making big energy deals with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The volume of trade between China and Central Asia has jumped nearly 50 times since the early 1990s and is now around $26 billion per year. China’s investments across the region are welcomed, not least because it has reduced dependence on Russia and come without demands vis-à-vis democracy and human rights.
However, Russia remains the main political and economic player with deep cultural, linguistic and media influence. Russia also provides a crucial labor market. Still Moscow is increasingly wary of the rise of China. Security remains the first priority shaping Russia’s Central Asia policy and Russia, like China, has been very uneasy about an increasing Western presence, which it continues to view as its “zone of influence.” Russia was unhappy about the rights that the US/NATO was granted by some regional states to allow the US/NATO to have military bases or use existing airports to support operations in Afghanistan. Although Russia still has a significant military presence, it was seen as jeopardizing Russia’s security interests. Russia reacted by calling, along with China — via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) — for the closure of US military bases in the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Union is the Kremlin’s new initiative for the economic and political integration of the states of the former Soviet Union. If successful, it would provide Russia with a bloc of influence from Belarus to the Chinese border and would build on the existing Customs Union that Moscow has with Belarus and Kazakhstan, removing all barriers to trade.
For the time being, it does not seem like Russia and China have too much to worry about concerning the growing influence of the US and, to a lesser degree, the EU. After 9/11 the region became a crucial element in the US’s foreign policy, but the US presence is a temporary phenomenon and once the 2014 pull-out from Afghanistan takes place, the region will no longer represent a significant foreign policy priority.
Thereby it will increasingly be “shared” between China and Russia, unless the EU steps up its game there. Currently, the EU’s principal interest is related to energy, with its Central Asia policy remaining principally on paper. However, while the leaders in the region broadly dislike the criticism of the EU vis-à-vis democracy and human rights and freedoms, at the same time they want to remain engaged with them to counterbalance Russia and China, so there is certainly scope for the EU to have a broader role.
*Amanda Paul is Policy Analyst and Programme Executive at EPC