What place would you think of if you were asked where the major geopolitical shifts are under way at the moment? Unfortunately, there has been no such survey done for the purpose of elucidating the prevailing public opinion, but what is sure is that relatively few would think of Central Asia,[1] or if they would, would hardly voice this bold presumption. At this point, it is worth recalling the old classical work of former US National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, Mr. Zbigniew Brzezinski,[2] whose interest in the post-Soviet space has been as much sincere and science-driven as pragmatic. He was the first person in the post-Cold war era to point out to this vast, but very empty spot on the world map (to which Western scholars generally refer collectively as “stans“, without always knowing for sure how to distinguish between them), and who attributed so much importance to it.

Speaking in geopolitical terms, the Eurasian Balkans, encompassing the whole of Central Asia — which borders quite uncomfortably on the Middle East and quite promisingly on the Caucasus and Eastern Europe (this fact has entitled Kazakhstan to bid for the 2010 OSCE presidency [3] that it has been finally granted, and also allows Kazakh footballers to participate in the UEFA championships) — are the so sought-after heartland [4] of modern times. As geopolitical pressure has shifted gradually eastward; as moderns means of communication increasingly tend to turn the world into one single territory easily linkable from one end to the other; as Asia has consistently demonstrated its readiness to enter the global competition for more influence and standing, the heartland has also drifted.

Western Germany used to be the bulwark of the Free World in the Cold war times; that is why the two American presidents indulged with unprecedented ease in the high-blown speeches proclaiming their attachment to the German free spirit (as in the case of John F. Kennedy [5]) or calling for the “wall of shame” to be torn down [6] and urging resistance to the Evil Empire [7] (in this case, the cinematic habits of Ronald Reagan did much good for the sake of exaggeration). The city of Berlin was the main battlefield of the two opposed camps. The aerial bridge [8] concocted by the Western allies and successfully aimed at sustaining the Berliners’ optimism during the unpredictably harsh winters immediately after World War II is now part of every classical book on the history of international relations since 1945 onward.

What was the reason for Berlin to become an apple of discord for many decades after the crush of the Third Reich? Perhaps, the logic of the then proponents of the Free World and those who extolled the virtues of living under communism was driven by strict geopolitical calculus, making Germany the natural heartland of the European subcontinent. At that time, it was still unclear whether Europe would retain its erstwhile role of a global hegemon entitled to start wars and to end them of its own accord, and purportedly having no second thoughts about whether its colonial territories would be interested in sending their people to where those would definitely die for no explicit reason or benefit. The world was still Eurocentric, but soon learnt the sad truth: the Pax Americana was just around the corner.

The United States of America, breaking out of its centuries-old isolationist cocoon and cognizant of its sudden importance, managed to keep the momentum and to assert itself as the maker of a new world order, where Europe was supposed to be kind of a poor parent under condescending tutelage. With this abrupt shift and the newly discovered interest of the US political elite in the outer world, not only in Europe, but also in East Asia, where the US had defeated Japan and cherished the revival of a nationalist China, the scope of geopolitical ambitions greatly expanded. Those who lived in Europe, the direct witnesses or participants of the deadliest war in human history, continued to regard Europe as the presumable battlefield for all future conflicts arising out of the desire of some bellicose nations to gain political leverage over the most charming region of the globe.

This common understanding shared almost everywhere was the major driving force behind the European integration starting from the Hague Congress of Europe in 1948,[9] where Winston Churchill made public his vision of a new Europe, united politically, with Great Britain as a non-member but a faithful partisan, to the Schumann Declaration of 1950 [10] to the Lisbon Treaty [11] signed in 2007 and ratified two years later. The integrationist course chosen by Europe, on the one hand, was a more efficient tool of appeasement and reconciliation than in the minds of Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier, and, on the other hand, put an end to all large-scale ambitions of post-World War II Europeans for global dominance.

This latter presumption may be easily overthrown by the enumeration of all the European achievements that followed, but only in part: as Clausewitz put it, “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means”, so that the peaceful course, so dear to the European founding fathers, is quite incompatible with a yearning for global influence that is only attainable if the velvet glove has an iron fist inside it. The American era in international relations contributed to the extension of the ideological (and also physical) battlefield, breaking with the European tradition of Eurocentrism and inviting the rest of the world to advance their pawns across the Grand Chessboard.[12] This is the starting point for Central Asia’s unprecedented popularity.

The first Russian Emperor Peter the Great, who modernized the country, built the first Russian navy, introduced foreign markets to fusty Russian merchants and founded Saint-Petersburg, once called Central Asia “a door to the East”. What we see now in this tumultuous region is the most visible proof of these words. Central Asia has rebranded itself as a natural linkage between the East and the West, and has become a bridgehead for a number of political and military organizations whose margin for maneuvering is largely based on the prolonged stability across this crucial area. The low efficiency of such organizations, as it has become clear from the past crisis situations, where bilateral talks held behind closed doors were a preferred method of negotiation, stems from the real state of affairs characterized by prolonged instability and insecurity. But even in this insecure ambiance which is hopefully far from being as critical as in Iraq or Afghanistan, there is still much room for coordination and accommodation, and, as history proves, great powers, including those which are prone to mutual loathing, usually tend to have converging interests and condone each other’s foibles.

But before asking ourselves which powers are prevailing in the region of Central Asia, and are hence on the verge of controlling the heartland, it is worth figuring out what has made Central Asia so special.

From the geopolitical point of view, the whole of Central Asia represents a safe springboard for any large-scale military expansion and is frequently compared to a buffer area, the vastness of which is perfect for the smooth dilution of diverse, if not contradictory, interests clashing; or at least intersecting in the same geographical zone. Central Asia has historically been a shield for the Russian Empire against its eastern and southern neighbors. The accession of the north-western part of Kazakhstan in the 1730s and the ultimate inclusion of the whole of Kazakhstan into the Russian Empire in the 1860s, accompanied by a complete defeat of southern adversaries, gave Russia an extraordinarily promising opportunity to play the Iranian card and thus to advance towards the British domain in India. The gyration of all the Central Asian countries around the Russian orbit has proved to be unstable and short-lived, but at present no Russian foreign policy wonk would ever give up the idea of regarding Central Asia as the Russian backyard and enclave into the inimical environment. Despite Russia’s inability to sustain the whole chain of alliances it managed to build up to spite the US whenever the Cold war scenario was about to be repeated, it is still clinging to its one-time Central Asian vassals which have become more (and formally) independent and therefore have more leeway in their relations with Moscow.

It is not quite clear if China would ever dream of gaining political weight in Central Asia, but, as China has repeatedly declared, it is vital for the Middle Kingdom to secure this region as a stable and more or less prosperous one, where the three Chinese-style evils — terrorism, extremism and separatism [13] — formally declared war upon by means of China’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, could not take hold. It is also quite improbable that the American “enfant terrible” (designated so in a sense that the US is partly responsible for its radicalization), Iran, will be able to project any influence over Central Asia, as the Muslim share of Central Asian politics has been more confidently taken over by Turkey,[14] Saudi Arabia,[15] and the United Arab Emirates,[16] all of them maintaining friendly and sometimes even allied relationship with Washington in the teeth of Tehran.

Russian troops stationed at the Kant airbase in Kyrgyzstan, 20 km east of Bishkek (http://en.rian.ru)

Russian troops stationed at the Kant airbase in Kyrgyzstan, 20 km east of Bishkek (http://en.rian.ru)

But the door for more active regional engagement remains open, and no one can say for sure, taking into account Russia’s protracted weakness, what this vacuum will be filled with. What is important to note is that Russia keeps its airbase in Kyrgyzstan 20 km east of Bishkek.[17] At the same time, 23 km southwest of Bishkek, the American transit center at Manas [18] is still operational. The overthrow of ex-President of Kyrgyzstan Kurmanbek Bakiev, whose political mistakes would comfortably fit into a separate book, may be also interpreted as the result of the lasting tension between Russia, on the one hand, and Kyrgyzstan, on the other, given the official decision of the latter to close down the American military base and its further annulment after Russia had provided Kyrgyzstan with a multimillion-dollar credit.[19] The Eurasian Balkans shared between Russia, China and — albeit indirectly — by the United States are somewhat reminiscent of the old European Balkans, where the Russian Empire tried to obtain access to Bosporus and the Dardanelles by acting through its Slavic proxies of Bulgaria and Serbia, challenging the grasp of the Ottoman Empire, and was consistently resisted by the great European powers sponsoring the Turkish sultans (namely Britain).[20]

From the economic point of view, Central Asia is the Eldorado of Eurasia. Though the American attention has been traditionally riveted to the Persian Gulf, and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein orchestrated under the banners of unscrupulous democracy promotion was intended to secure untrammeled access to the Middle East oil, the US is more and more concerned about its presence in the Central Asian steppes. Kazakhstan is the second largest producer of oil in the former USSR.[21] Turkmenistan has huge reserves of natural gas. Both countries border on the Caspian Sea, thus having access to the Caucasus, another choke point, in Brzezinski’s terminology. Moreover, Kazakhstan is famous for its uranium deposits [22] which are deemed to be the largest in the world and can be easily used by foreign powers for the consolidation of their existing or would-be nuclear arsenals (as far as Kazakhstan has renounced all nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet era). Kazakhstan has successfully integrated into the Baku-Tbilisi-Çeyhan pipeline system,[23] which means it is now possible to pump in Kazakh oil and transport it all over to Turkey without any Russian involvement. The Nabucco gas pipeline [24] is still in the blueprints and is supposed to become operational by 2013-2014. It will empower Turkmenistan to sell gas to Europe via Azerbaijan, giving it more dependability vis-à-vis Russia. Although Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are not that rich in mineral resources, their strategic location vital for the maintenance of the whole system of collective security in Central Asia gives them a possibility of moral choice between sustaining stable oil and gas supplies or disrupting them.

As the world markets are now overwhelmingly responsive to any political tumult, after the nasty experiences of the first and second oil shocks in the 1970s, the destabilization of Central Asia may require increased military presence of either Russia alone or both Russia and China within the framework of regional cooperation, and will definitely entail fluctuations of prices for local oil and gas. The economic importance of Central Asia is very acutely felt in Europe. The Caspian Sea area teems with European and American oil companies whose unrivalled expertise and network of contacts have secured them a worthy share of Kazakhstan’s oil revenues. At this point, it is worth remembering the case of James Giffen, an American businessman whose personal connections with the Soviet and Kazakh authorities helped him win a number of large-scale oil contracts for the American companies whose interests he was taking pains to promote. The affair disclosed at the end of the 1990s led to Giffen’s arrest in 2003, as he was trying to board a plane headed for Paris. The prosecution stated later that the then government of Kazakhstan had received almost 80 million US dollars’ worth of bribes. This case is good at demonstrating to what extent the pursuit of economic benefits is important for foreign companies, all wishing to take over larger parts of the local markets in Central Asia, which is a no-brainer, given the spread of corruption and absolute lack of transparency.[25]

Lastly, from the political and security points of view, as terrorism has become an unidentifiable enemy of the West and started to challenge the very basis of Western civilization, Central Asia is growing in importance. The past experience of those countries that thought that it was possible to shut themselves off from their supposed adversaries, and thus preclude their deleterious impact, has proved to be distressful. The Berlin Wall finally collapsed; the Israeli West Bank barrier is now under construction. It is evident that the survival of the State of Israel will largely depend not on the existence of any physical separation, but on the ability of the Israeli nation to arrange with its allies and enemies for the purpose of reaching a sustainable status quo that would satisfy all the parties to as much extent as practically possible, given the exacerbated animosity full of historical premises. The case of Central Asia is not the Israeli-Palestinian one, though it has potential for tensions.[26]

The importance of Central Asia is its peculiar location in the immediate neighborhood of the world’s most troubled region. Instead of building up walls, reinforcing military presence and promoting individual visibility giving way to even increased competition, it is important to secure this region as an oasis of peace and relative stability. Thus, any crusade ostensibly for the sake of democracy and human rights, albeit made popular by the string of peaceful transitions of formerly socialist Eastern European countries to the rule of law, may be overwhelmingly destabilizing. Such a course either triggers another bomb which has lain unheeded under the debris of former regimes or strengthens the stranglehold of dictatorships, intrinsically averse to any high-flown anti-authoritarian rhetoric. This last factor is far from being taken into account, which makes Central Asia both the battlefield of ideologies and the testing site of antithetical beliefs, the amalgamation of which results in the heap of irreconcilable parodies. Only broad cooperation between all the stakeholders may permit Central Asia to become impenetrable to yet more destabilizing ideologies of violent fundamentalism and extremism. But this cooperation is almost impossible in a place where diverging interests clash so unpredictably.[27] It is now time to have a brief look at the major players in Central Asia and the level of their engagement.


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.[28] 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.[29] 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.[30] 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.

Presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia and Belarus at the 27th session of the Eurasian Economic Community in Astana, Kazakhstan, on July 5 2010 (http://www.akorda.kz)

Presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia and Belarus at the 27th session of the Eurasian Economic Community in Astana, Kazakhstan, on July 5 2010 (http://www.akorda.kz)

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,[31] 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.[32] 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.[33] 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.[34] 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,[35] 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.

Official reception of Chinese President Hu Jintao by Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana, Kazakhstan, on June 12 2010 (http://www.akorda.kz)

Official reception of Chinese President Hu Jintao by Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Astana, Kazakhstan, on June 12 2010 (http://www.akorda.kz)

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’.[36] 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.[37] 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.[38] Thus, China is not averse to using the commonly illegal methods of influence to bulldoze its way into the regional economies.

Presidents of China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan attend the opening of the new Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline, Turkmenabat, Turkmenistan, on December 14 2009 (http://www.akorda.kz)

Presidents of China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan attend the opening of the new Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline, Turkmenabat, Turkmenistan, on December 14 2009 (http://www.akorda.kz)

China is keen on enhancing its economic cooperation with Central Asia, which is regarded by many as the best way to address its present-day economic needs. In December 2009 Hu Jintao met with the presidents of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan at the inauguration ceremony of the Central Asia-China gas pipeline and stated a warming relationship between them.[39] The Chinese policy towards Central Asia is every bit similar to its political strategy for Africa, namely for Sudan, which is one of the major trade partners of the Middle Kingdom on the African continent. As long as China is allowed to drill on the Sudanese soil, it will pledge its support to the government in place in Khartoum and turn a blind eye to the Darfur humanitarian catastrophe.[40] As long as the Chinese interests in Central Asia are met, it will continue to play by the known rules.

China has long confined itself to an idle onlooker’s position, as the world around continues to change. Its political clout in world affairs seems to be illusory, as China has always been too cautious to proceed with the outright pursuit of its hidden agenda. Unless China feels ready to speak up, breaking with the centuries-old tradition, it will remain an onlooker whose voice may have been heard at so many occasions, but actually wasn’t, as it feared reciprocal steps from those it could have slashed and ridiculed. Central Asia has become China’s economic stronghold and a reliable source of energy supplies badly needed by the ever growing Chinese economy. But the Chinese pawns are too shy to cross the midline separating the two parts of the Grand Chessboard, and would rather prefer to refurbish their own land than to challenge somebody else’s ambitions in an open slugfest, risking losing what they have done the hard way so far.

The United States of America

The US, the one-time herald of a new approach to international relations parting with both isolationism and Wilsonian idealism, has been one of the most proactive players in the Central Asian region since its opening to the world in the early 1990s. Having won the Cold war and sapped its sworn enemy’s vital forces by means of a relentless arms race, the United States became the strongest and most influential country on the globe, whose geopolitical capabilities only strengthened with a successful anti-Iraq campaign for the defense of Kuwait extended half a world eastward. Despite the objective remoteness of America from the Eurasian heartland, the US leadership found the moment appropriate to interfere with this part of the world, where the American presence had been traditionally low and influence paltry. In 1993, at the meeting of NATO defense ministers in Germany, American delegates proposed a trust building program for Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics, including all the five countries of Central Asia, which came to be known as Partnership for Peace.[41] This program was a perfect tool for the US, collectively represented by NATO, to spread its influence over the region which had been just recently rotating around the Russian orbit. The prospect of an American intrusion into the so-called Russian backyard grated many hard-headed Russian politicians back in Moscow and made them think of a renewed Cold war, which would be now a war for influence and semi-political control. Speaking in March 1999 before the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the US House of Representatives, Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., member of the Council of foreign relations and the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, thus defined the most salient challenges faced by Central Asia:

Russia would like to prevent the NIS from exporting energy resources to deny these [Central Asian] countries the cash flows needed to build independence….Both the West and the governments of the NIS, he goes on, have a common interest in warding off Russian attempts to impose hegemony by playing an irresponsible role in promoting ethnic conflicts, or preventing their speedy and peaceful resolution.[42]

He also warned of a possible interference on behalf of Iran in Central Asian politics and proposed his own vision of how America should cope with it.

It is in the interest of America and the West to deny Iran markets, revenues and freedom of maneuver in Central Asia until such time as it abandons its anti-American and anti-Western position.

US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake meets ethnic Uzbeks, who fled southern Kyrgyzstan, on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border on June 18 2010 (Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov)

US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake meets ethnic Uzbeks, who fled southern Kyrgyzstan, on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border on June 18 2010 (Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov)

In his testimony before the US House of Representatives, Ariel Cohen outlined the desired course to be followed by the United States to preclude any attempts of pushing America out of the region.

The challenge for US policy in the next century is to keep conquerors away from Central Asia and to foster regional cooperation between the states, as well as between the regional players: Russia, Iran, Turkey, China, India and Pakistan.

Finally, the author of more than 500 articles and 25 book chapters drew the attention of his listeners to the fact that through the support of Pakistan which was bargaining at the time with the Taliban in Kabul to get control of the strategic depth into Afghanistan,[43] the United States’ position in Central Asia was imperiled by a shadow of alienation of its newly acquired allies. “Politically and morally, America cannot afford to be associated with a medieval fundamentalist Islamic movement which commits the worst human rights abuses and is supporting itself through drug trafficking” was Ariel Cohen’s weighed conclusion.

In 2001 the United States, backed up by British troops, invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban regime there.[44] In 2003 it invaded Iraq in order to, as President George W. Bush said, “disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people”.[45] In 2007 the Bush Administration fell out with Moscow on the issue of the American missile defense installations to be set up in Poland and the Czech Republic.[46] The same year, Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at the annual Munich Conference on Security Policy, slashed the United States for its expansionist behavior and breach of trust, referring, inter alia, to the US withdrawal in 2002 from the ABM Treaty signed in 1972.[47] The US-Russian relations started to quickly deteriorate, and this tension was only aggravated by the Russian-Georgian conflict of 2008.[48] Earlier that year, the autonomous region of Kosovo within the state of Serbia proclaimed its full independence from Belgrade and mustered frank support from the US, despite Russia’s vigorous protests.[49] Another apple of discord has been the case of Ukraine, which has been balancing between the West and the East from the very date of its sovereignty. Under the Bush Administration, American support to anti-Russian President Viktor Yushchenko, leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution, was unequivocal and quite unsettling in the eyes of the Kremlin. Less distinct, but as disturbing tensions exist between Washington and Beijing which have had some grueling experience over the issues of Taiwan, Tibet and Chinese monetary policies.[50] It would not be pointless to note that even Europe, which has stood by the US at the most decisive moments of the American and world history, is somewhat divided over the level of support to America whenever it is about to interfere in the natural course of events.[51]

The 2006 report of the Strategic Studies Institute’s scholar Stephen J. Blank before the Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia of the US House of Representatives [52] traces back exactly to the text prepared by Ariel Cohen seven years earlier, when the White House was occupied by the Clinton Administration. The March 2010 Paper edited by Jim Nichol, specialist in Russian and Eurasian Affairs, and commissioned by the Congress Research Service [53] shows to what extent the American foreign policy for Central Asia has changed, and this with the advent of a new administration. Despite President Obama’s willingness to mend fences with Russia (by pursuing the “reset” policy [54]) and to negotiate with China on equal footing, the conservative wing of the American political elite is very likely to prevail. And this presumption makes one think of another string of acute tensions that America may inflict upon itself all around the world.

What is important to draw from the above reasoning is that America’s increased presence in Central Asia will be understandably hampered by the American overstretched engagement in other (all the more so neighboring) parts of the world (Afghanistan, Iraq) and by its continuous bickering over the Russian and Chinese political agenda. Nonetheless, America will still be actively present on the ground, advising its Central Asian partners and luring them with hyped promises of tangible economic benefits. But the American pawns are needed elsewhere, so that they are quite unlikely to play any game on the Grand Chessboard which could register another victory on the US track record. Yet, America will watch the game played by others and possibly intervene, when the game rules, perceived as such by Washington, are flouted.

The European Union

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner meets Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Brussels on November 5 2007 (RFE/RL)

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner meets Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Brussels on November 5 2007 (RFE/RL)

Another major player in the Central Asian region is the European Union whose freedom of maneuvering has greatly expanded with the entry into force of successive treaties, the latest of which is the Lisbon Treaty signed in 2007 and ratified in 2009. It is worth noting that from the end of World War II, when Europe’s military and economic capabilities dramatically shrank, the united Europe has been preaching full-scale democratization, respect for law, and the spread of human rights all over the world. Unlike the United States, which sees itself as the birthplace of “real” democracy untarnished by the bloodshed (taking no account of the persecution of Native Americans, perceived at that time as a just conquest of what America was blessed to possess) and totally uncompromised, as opposed to Europe in the days of the Holocaust; the Europeans had their chance to learn that the deadliest of all wars could bring about the nastiest atrocities ever imagined. The European course, which is the course for peace and dialogue, makes out of Europe the main preacher of non-violent coexistence and cooperation, and the biggest donor of foreign aid.[55] As was mentioned in the first half of this article, big victories can only be achieved through warfare, which becomes the last resort when words are no longer meaningful. Unless there comes up a pretext for armed conflict, cannons are silent but otherwise they speak, and do so in a trigger-happy fashion. It is thus understandable that Europe has never competed for a key role in Central Asian politics, but instead has chosen to be the peaceful promoter of the European ideals abroad and the “acquis communautaires [literally: what has been achieved at the community level] within the European Community.

The current framework of cooperation between the EU and Central Asia is based on the “European Union and Central Asia: Strategy for a New Partnership” adopted in June 2007 by the European Council.[56] According to this paper:

The EU has a strong interest in a peaceful, democratic and economically prosperous Central Asia. These aims are interrelated. The aim of the EU Strategy is to actively cooperate with the Central Asian States in reaching these goals as well as to contribute to safeguarding peace and prosperity in neighboring countries […] The EU strongly believes that strengthening the commitment of Central Asian States to international law, the rule of law, human rights and democratic values, as well as to a market economy will promote security and stability in Central Asia, thus making the countries of the region reliable partners for the EU with shared common interests and goals.

A careful study of Europe’s Strategy for Central Asia clearly shows that the European ambitions are strictly limited to the task of securing Central Asia as a trustworthy trade partner and energy supplier, given the recurring gas conflicts between Russia and Ukraine that left Europe freezing at the very start of 2009.[57] Knowing Europe’s proven attachment to the promotion of human rights and freedoms, the human rights issue is very high on the agenda, and this is partly reminiscent of American policy towards the USSR that led to the adoption of the Jackson-Vanik amendment linking trade to the free emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union.[58] Bringing Central Asia closer to Europe is in the EU’s utmost interest, as it provides the European Union with a kit of tools indispensable for ensuring its dependability in terms of energy and projecting its benign image over the region. The EU is now enjoying the most respect from the Central Asian republics, as it vehemently refrains from any intriguing for or against any of the regional protagonists, rather preferring to share Central Asia with others, than trying to tie it to the chariot of the European future. Unlike Russia, China and the US, the EU demonstrates much more inflexibility towards the rapid evolution of the regional political landscape. It is worth remembering the tragic events of May 2005, when hundreds of protesters were brutally massacred by the Uzbek police in the town of Andijon.[59] A harsh embargo was imposed by the European Union on Uzbekistan, banning its high-ranking officials from traveling to Europe and limiting trade flows. These sanctions were lifted only in October 2009, four and a half years after the Andijon massacre,[60] whereas China had not uttered a word critical of Islam Karimov’s handling of his country’s turmoil. No wonder, there has been no Delegation of the European Union to Uzbekistan so far.

All things considered, the European attitude towards Central Asia is a far cry from what Europe used to be at the time of its colonial glory. It would be impossible to reshape today the world as it looked a few centuries ago, but we still have stronger and weaker nations. Whilst the first lead and trump, the second try on the skin of vassals. Europe may be an ideal place to go to on summer vacation, and that’s what makes Europe richer. But there is little chance we will ever see Europe coming to Central Asia, armed to the teeth, full of Hitler-style claims that look innocent till the moment they are fully satisfied. The EU is not against the idea of advancing its pawns a bit farther on the Grand Chessboard, but there is not much place left to enjoy the fair game.

Zbigniew Brzezinski was the first person among contemporary foreign-policy thinkers to discover the great potential of Central Asia both for conflict and cooperation. His apprehension of the Eurasian Balkans coming to the forefront of world politics is quite unique. But was Mr. Brzezinski actually the first person on earth to think of the future of the world with reference to the heartland concept? No. It was Halford Mackinder, one of the founding fathers of geopolitics and geostrategy, who advanced his Heartland Theory to the Royal Geographical Society in 1904. In his later book, “Democratic ideals and reality: a study in the politics of reconstruction“,[61] which appeared in 1919 at the time of the Paris Peace Conference charged with the drafting of a new world order, Mackinder wrote:

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland,

Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island,

Who rules the World-Island commands the world

Would be it justified to replace “East Europe” with “Central Asia”? The game is not over yet. The Eurasian Balkans, which became the new heartland almost a hundred years after Mackinder’s seminal work, are still open for competition. As they continue to be free, no major power can pretend to control Eurasia. But if otherwise this door is closed, the fate of the world will be at stake. And who knows then what this fate will look like…?


[1] Central Asia is defined here as the five post-Soviet republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan). Though other definitions are used, embracing not only these countries but also Mongolia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, they are not widely accepted and would rather refer to the region of Greater Central Asia.

[2] Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, (New York: Basic Books October 1997), ISBN 0-465-02726-1

[3] http://www.cacianalyst.org/?q=node/4756

[4] The heartland concept refers to an area at the heart of the Eurasian continent easily defendable, as it may not be invaded from the sea, and providing access to all choke points, that is crucial geographical spots, like the Caucasus or the Persian Gulf. It may be understood both in a wider and narrower sense. Thus, Germany may be regarded as the heartland of Europe or Central Asia construed as the heartland of Eurasia. For the difference between Halford Mackinder’s and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s understanding of the extent of the heartland please see further in the article.

[5] http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jfkberliner.html

[6] http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/reagan-tear-down.htm

[7] http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ronaldreaganevilempire.htm

[8] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, Simon & Schuster April 1995], ISBN 0671510991

[9] http://www.ena.lu/address_given_winston_churchill_congress_europe_hague_1948-020002618.html

[10] http://europa.eu/abc/symbols/9-may/decl_en.htm

[11] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8387648.stm

[12] Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, (New York: Basic Books October 1997), ISBN 0-465-02726-1

[13] http://www.eurasiangroup.org/files/documents/conventions_eng/The%20Shanghai%20Convention.pdf

[14] http://www.ca-c.org/online/2009/journal_eng/cac-02/12.shtml

[15] http://www.ca-c.org/online/2003/journal_eng/cac-02/13.kudeng.shtml

[16] http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/government/uae-kazakhstan-aim-for-strategic-partnership-1.118283

[17] http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=34651&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=407&no_cache=1

[18] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/22/AR2010042205880.html

[19] http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/russia-gets-duped-again/404838.html

[20] http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/50300/Balkan-Wars

[21] http://www.eia.doe.gov/cabs/Kazakhstan/Background.html

[22] http://www.cacianalyst.org/?q=node/5296

[23] http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Kazakhstan+:+Kazakhstan+starts+transporting+oil+by…-a0188402397

[24] http://www.rzd-partner.com/press/2010/03/09/351537.html

[25] http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/05/business/yourmoney/05giffen.html?_r=1&pagewanted=4&n=Top/Reference/Times%20Topics/Subjects/T/Transportation

[26] http://www.cimera.org/sources/92_104.pdf

[27] Buszynski, Leszek: Russia’s New Role in Central Asia, University of California Press (Asian Survey 45 2005): 545-65

[28] http://www.itar-tass.com/eng/level2.html?NewsID=15064918&PageNum=0

[29] http://en.rian.ru/exsoviet/20100415/158595649.html

[30] http://news.scotsman.com/world/Medvedev-to-rescue-of-Russians.6241014.jp

[31] http://www.inco-eeca.net/_media/Annex_8_-_EU_relations_with_Kazakhstan.pdf

[32] http://www.eucentralasia.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/PDF/other_related_publications/path_to_Europe.pdf

[33] http://www.sam.gov.tr/perceptions/volume13/autumn/RojSultanKhanBhatty.pdf

[34] http://www.silkroadstudies.org/new/docs/CEF/Quarterly/November_2006/Dwivedi.pdf

[35] http://articles.latimes.com/2010/apr/12/world/la-fg-nuclear-summit13-2010apr13

[36] http://www.oilandgaseurasia.com/news/p/0/news/4604

[37] http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=azXV5Xg2MiLU

[38] http://silkroadintelligencer.com/2010/02/23/ablyazov-brings-new-accusations-against-kulibayev/

[39] http://www.chinaeconomicreview.com/dailybriefing/2009_12_14/Hu_vows_to_strengthen_Chinese_Uzbek_relations.html

[40] http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0626/p01s08-woaf.html

[41] http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/pub172.pdf

[42] http://www.heritage.org/Research/Testimony/US-Interests-in-Central-Asia

[43] Benazir Bhutto, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West (HarperCollins 2008). ISBN 978-0-06-156758-2.

[44] http://www.afghanistannewscenter.com/news/2001/october/oct202001.html

[45] http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2003/03/20030322.html

[46] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6720153.stm

[47] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6350847.stm

[48] http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/08/10/world/main4336544.shtml

[49] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7249034.stm

[50] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/31/opinion/31iht-edkupchan.html?ref=global

[51] http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,469828,00.html

[52] http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=758

[53] http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL30294.pdf

[54] http://www.cfr.org/publication/18551/

[55] http://ec.europa.eu/development/icenter/featured_20100421_en.cfm

[56] http://ec.europa.eu/external_relations/central_asia/docs/2010_strategy_eu_centralasia_en.pdf

[57] http://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/content/jan2009/gb2009013_045451.htm?campaign_id=rss_daily

[58] http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/11/20011113-16.html

[59] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4550845.stm

[60] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/28/world/asia/28uzbek.html?_r=1

[61] Halford Mackinder: Democratic Ideals and Reality. General Books (August 2009), ISBN-10: 0217201490