Russia has been an unrivalled leader across the space of the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia since the very collapse of the USSR which morphed into a spineless Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) under the Belavezha Accords and Alma-Ata Declaration of 1991. Despite the fact that by that time all the Soviet republics had taken a steady course for independence, the one-time components of the USSR’s jigsaw puzzle opted for the preservation of close ties existing between them and the reshaping of the Soviet space on the basis of their recently acquired sovereignty. The re-emergence of the old fault lines that quickly deteriorated into armed conflicts (tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, civil war in Tajikistan) was very conducive to the positioning of Russia as a regional mediator and arbiter capable of settling long-time disputes either by force or through talks. The Collective Security Treaty Organization created in 1992 unites four of the five Central Asian republics (except for Turkmenistan) as well as Russia, Belarus and Armenia, and is directed at ensuring regional stability by means of consolidating joint military capabilities. It has recently completed another round of military exercise in northern Tajikistan. During the Kyrgyz crisis in mid-April 2010 the CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha, former KGB officer and ex-secretary of Russia’s Security Council, pledged his organization’s full support to the interim government of Kyrgyzstan in terms of providing whatever military aid but later declined any idea of intervention by CSTO forces. At the same time, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the Russian troops stationed in Kyrgyzstan to tighten security measures and protect ethnic Russians living on the outskirts of Bishkek. Apart from that, Russian troops continue to patrol Tajik borders and advise Tajik military authorities on the best ways to curb violence and combat drug trafficking.
Russia is also part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization born in 2001 out of a string of bilateral agreements signed between Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on the mutual reduction of armed forces along the borders and joint border protection.
Russia also hailed the creation in 2000 of the Eurasian Economic Community out which has emerged the Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Despite the fact that the EU is considered to be the first trading partner of and foreign investor in Kazakhstan, the new Customs Union is supposed to bring the three member states closer to each other by erecting more solid trade barriers hampering trade with those who have been left out of this agreement. It is evident that Russia has been successful in mustering support from Astana to gain easier access to the Kazakh market and thus strengthen its economic leverage.
The ghastly Soviet past that has come to be largely associated with Stalinist terror, labor camps, Brezhnev-era stagnation, and Mikhail Gorbachev’s scuttled perestroika is the main reason for Central Asian leaders to be aware of Russia’s far-fetched ambitions. All the Central Asian republics have publicly opted for multi-vectored policy and diversification of their economies and have applied for extensive foreign support in the middle- and long-term reforms. Kazakhstan has even elaborated a “Path to Europe” program for the years 2009-2011, where it is preaching further deepening of EU-Kazakhstan cooperation in areas of energy, transport, technologies, trade, small and medium businesses, etc. By all accounts, the future of Central Asia can be hardly envisioned from the remote parts of the globe where Central Asian politics is not on top of the current agenda. That makes Russia a privileged player on the Grand Chessboard who has a kind of “ace in the hole“, as it is possible for it to intervene if need be to reshuffle the deck. But, at the same time, at the background of Russia’s multiple problems and other concerns on the western flank, such as NATO expansion and Ukraine’s faltering attitude (especially after Viktor Yanukovich turned out to be less pro-Russian than he was believed to be), Central Asia remains an open field. It is no longer a one-player field, and this one-time monopolist player’s pawns are now challenged by the extraneous forces which know more than one way to go; and it is not to go along the straight line.
China is another traditional player across the vastness of Central Asia. Unlike Russia, it cautiously refrains from the downright promotion of its interests in the region, standing by the letter of the famous saying: “Sit on the river bank and wait: your enemy’s corpse will soon float by“. The 1991 collapse of the Soviet empire and its subsequent disintegration instilled much fear into China and even hardened its leadership in the face of new challenges arising from the worldwide defeat of communism and the triumphant marching of freedom across the globe. Instability in Afghanistan (after the fall of Najibullah’s government in 1992), blatant separatism in Xinjiang region of China encouraged by the considerable Uighur minorities living in neighboring Kazakhstan as well as in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, NATO expansion and the weakness of a new Russia under Boris Yeltsin – all these factors made the Chinese believe the treacherous encirclement was tightening its grip. This dreadful combination of threats and challenges faced by China in the 1990s has led to a more prudent policy of containment and prevention, so that China has become an active supporter of the hard-line approach towards terrorism and extremism of all sorts. The bloody crackdown on the 2005 Andijon protests in Uzbekistan did not prevent Uzbek President Islam Karimov from visiting China immediately after the events. China has consistently demonstrated its reluctance to pursue any economic sanctions against Iran. Though the recent meeting between US President Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao in Washington proved to be successful in having China agree to take sides in a standoff with Tehran, the Middle Kingdom is still very cautious and will rather accept America’s proposals in order to reduce pressure in connection with its monetary policies than veto for no practical reason. But this stance may change, and the Chinese know how to do so without incurring accusations of infidelity.
This utmost prudence as regards its foreign policy has made China a convinced proponent of soft power promotion in Central Asia. Due to its tremendous population and untrammeled economic growth, China can literally conquer the whole of Central Asia with its goods and workers. It has almost done that. In April 2009, on a visit to Beijing, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev clinched a deal according to which stipulations his country would get a 10-billion-dollar credit from China ‘in return for a stake in a [domestic] oil producer’. More recently, in January 2010, Kazakhstan’s famous oligarch and former chairman of BTA Bank Mukhtar Ablyazov accused the Kazakh government of a corrupt scheme that allowed the Chinese National Petroleum Company to acquire a 25.12% share in one of the largest oil producing companies on the Caspian Sea below the market price. According to one of the richest men of Kazakhstan, now exiled in London, this obscure transaction led to the embezzlement of 1.8 billion US dollars. Thus, China is not averse to using the commonly illegal methods of influence to bulldoze its way into the regional economies.