The long read: why Russia should see off China in Central Asia’s new great game
As conflict rages in Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and the embattled Ukrainian army, a resurgent and belligerent Kremlin is casting its eye around the former Soviet Union, eager to shore up influence in its former colonial territories. All eyes are currently on Europe, but – while the battle for the Donbass is grabbing the headlines – the Kremlin is also looking east, towards the five Muslim states of Central Asia, viewed by Moscow as a bulwark between Russia’s southern borders and the restive badlands of Afghanistan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been zipping in and out of Central Asia’s capitals, determined not to let the five Stans – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – slide out of Moscow’s orbit. “For Russia, it is about maintaining influence, economic and cultural, and maintaining Central Asia as a security buffer,” says Deirdre Tynan, Central Asia director at the International Crisis Group.
Central Asia was once the heartland of the Great Game, the 19th-century battle for influence that pitted Russia against Britain in this strategic gateway to Asia. With the battle for hearts and minds assuming greater significance as the conflict rages in Ukraine, the crisis on Russia’s western flank has upped the stakes in the “New Great Game” – the modern-day struggle for influence in this geostrategically important, energy-rich part of the world, a struggle this time between the Russian bear and the Chinese dragon.
As Putin continues to visit Central Asia’s capitals, the leaders are keeping a wary eye on Moscow’s aggressive expansionism in Ukraine, which has fallen victim to a Kremlin land grab and where Russia stands accused of fomenting a proxy war. Almost a quarter of a century after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow is rewriting the rule book for dealings with its former colonies. Not surprisingly, the crisis in Ukraine has “triggered existential fears about territorial integrity and sovereignty”, says Nargis Kassenova, director of the Central Asian Studies Centre at Kazakhstan’s KIMEP University.
The Stans’ leaders were spooked by Russia’s annexation last spring of Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea – and Putin’s recent admission that he was mulling a nuclear option will have sharpened their fears. The Central Asians have been further rattled by the war raging along Ukraine’s border with Russia. Moscow may be hotly denying accusations of arming separatist rebels and sending Russian troops to support them, accusing Washington of fomenting the strife – but there is no doubt that “Ukraine sets an unwelcome precedent” for the Central Asian states, says Tynan, who is based in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. If Russia could grab a slice of land from its former ally Ukraine, what is to stop it looking east to do the same in other former colonies?
Bellicose designs voiced by Russian nationalists on Central Asia have further frayed nerves, particularly in Kazakhstan, which – like Ukraine – shares a long border with Russia and has a large Russian-speaking minority that Moscow has vowed to protect. Ethnic Russians make up only a fifth of Kazakhstan’s population, but in many towns along the 7,000-kilometre frontier with Russia they form a majority – and their mood is staunchly pro-Kremlin.
“Putin is a great guy! The people [of Kazakhstan] are all for him, and for Russia too,” enthuses Nikolay, a resident of the northern Kazakh city of Kostanay, lying near the border with Siberia on land Russian nationalists are eyeing greedily. Nikolay (who declined to give his surname) has no doubt who is responsible for the spiral of violence in Ukraine: “Obama, the pig who meddled there.” He is parroting the Kremlin take on the Ukraine conflict, which is beamed into Central Asian homes every evening on Russian TV channels, the most popular viewing in the region. Every night people tune in to a barrage of poisonous propaganda about Ukraine and its “fascist” leaders, in “the most overt and extensive propaganda exercise” since the height of the Cold War, as US secretary of state John Kerry put it recently. On the streets of Central Asia it is paying dividends, with the view of the Ukraine conflict as stoked by Washington and its European lackeys entrenched across the region and suspicion of all things western on the rise.
The spark that set off the conflagration engulfing Ukraine was a zero-sum geopolitical dilemma: should Kiev partner with Russia or Europe? At the start of the crisis, in 2013, it was headed for a deal with the EU until the president, Viktor Yanukovich, shelved it in favour of closer integration with Russia. That volte-face sparked a popular uprising that overthrew Yanukovich and installed pro-western leaders, who tilted Ukraine back towards Europe – provoking Putin’s ire and serving as the spark that set the war alight.
The front line of the New Cold War may be in Europe, but the Central Asian leaders are cautiously weighing their foreign policy choices. “The Central Asian states are extremely wary of Russia, but they do not have much room for manoeuvre,” says Tynan.
Moscow has also been wooing other former colonies back into its sphere of influence. On January 1, Putin launched his pet project for promoting his geopolitical aspirations, the Eurasian Economic Union, with one Central Asian state – Kazakhstan – among the founder members and another – Kyrgyzstan – committed to joining this May (Armenia is the only other member).
Putin has been alternately coaxing and coercing Russia’s former colonies to sign up to what his critics dub a “Soviet Union-lite”. The EEU “is primarily a political vehicle aimed at reintegrating and reformatting the post-Soviet space to limit the influence of other actors”, says Kassenova. Ultimately, Kassenova suggests that Russia’s strong-arming has “made stark the fact that the integration is not a voluntary process”.
The Kremlin is dangling the incentives of open trade markets, improved transit access to Europe, cash handouts (Kyrgyzstan received a pledge of US$1.2 billion [Dh4.41bn] when it agreed to join) and hassle-free access to jobs for Central Asian labour migrants (who flock to Russia to work, mainly from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan). Tajikistan is mulling membership, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which are among the world’s most reclusive states, are highly unlikely to join – yet they will still refrain from rattling the cage of their former colonial master.
Economic integration with Russia is a double-edged sword, as Kazakhstan – whose leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, initiated the Eurasian union project – has learnt. Kazakhstan is swamped with Russian imports, because of the plunging value of the rouble and since Kazakhstan’s industries are struggling to gain a foothold in Russian markets. Nazarbayev also has serious concerns about Russia’s political ambitions – so much so that he once threatened to pull out, if the union threatened his country’s sovereignty. That prompted dark mutterings from Putin about how the Kazakhs had “never had statehood” until emerging from the ashes of the Soviet Union, hinting that it is weak and perhaps vulnerable to Russian intervention.
From Washington, Paris or Berlin, an ostracised Russia, isolated by sanctions and shunned by the West, may not appear an attractive foreign policy partner – but the view from the Central Asian capitals looks entirely different. Russia might be a regional bully – but for the strongmen of Central Asia it offers an extra lever for maintaining their power.
“There are two way of looking at this,” argues Luca Anceschi, a Central Asia expert at the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom. “On the one hand, Russia is at its lowest ebb so far as its influence over Central Asian affairs. There is this general sense … that Russia is no longer a friendly neighbour and that Putin’s Eurasianism is nothing else than another attempt at empire-building.” Yet, says Anceschi, the region’s dictators have strong incentives to turn to Russia to shore up their power – particularly Nazarbayev and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, septuagenarian presidents who are among the world’s longest-serving leaders. Both have run their countries ruthlessly as personal fiefdoms for a quarter of a century, and both are heading for re-election this spring, guaranteed to win landslides since they face no opposition. Yet they still see Putin (eager to maintain the regional status quo) as an extra guarantor for maintaining their iron grip on power. “My sense is that both Karimov and Nazarbayev, in their political twilight, are going to get closer to Russia, as Putin could provide some invaluable support to their regimes,” says Anceschi.
Washington and Europe started vying with Russia for influence in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and the 9/11 attacks upped the stakes as the West wooed regional leaders to station military bases for the war in Afghanistan. Nowadays, with that war wound up, “the West is not particularly enthusiastic about the region”, says Kassenova. The US closed its last regional base, in Kyrgyzstan, last year, and Uzbekistan had long since ejected the US military, an irate response to criticism of Tashkent’s violent suppression of an anti-government demonstration in 2005. Russia, by contrast, still maintains bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and operates military facilities in Kazakhstan too.
Russia is also gaining ground in the ideological battle, with Putin’s brand of anti-western conservatism – beamed, along with the Kremlin’s political propaganda, onto TV screens across Central Asia – a popular sell. In this narrative, democracy and human rights are western impositions, and western decadence is undermining “our national values”. Central Asian states have embraced this backlash against liberal values, which suits their dictatorial leaders. Even Kyrgyzstan, once considered the most liberal and pro-western of the Stans, has followed Russia’s lead, drafting copycat laws cracking down on civil society and human rights. Suspicion of western culture runs deep: Uzbekistan frowns on celebrations of Halloween and Valentine’s Day, and despises rap as “satanic music [that] was created by evil forces to bring youth in western countries to total moral degradation”.
Western influence may be on the wane, but the Russian bear is facing stiff competition from the Chinese dragon. “Historically, Russia has been a sparring partner with China for the Central Asian region,” says Aydar Amrebayev of Kazakhstan’s Institute of World Economy and Politics, and Sino-Russian competition is currently in an “acute phase”. While Russia focuses on shoring up its political influence, energy-hungry Beijing is hoovering up natural resources and shelling out for infrastructure development to pipe oil and gas into China and improve trade routes to Europe.
Long gone are the days when all Central Asia’s energy supplies were sucked up by Moscow. Pipelines into China opened in the past decade have been a game changer, breaking Moscow’s stranglehold on supplies. Beijing now receives about half of its gas from Central Asia, through a pipeline from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – and flows will be ramped up when an extra line is completed this year. Beijing has snapped up oil concessions in Kazakhstan, where it controls more than a fifth of supplies and offers the landlocked country – previously reliant on Russia to get its fuel to markets – an alternative route. “China is a God-given neighbour, from the economic point of view,” says Amrebayev. For Beijing, Kazakhstan – the world’s largest uranium producer – is also a blessing, supplying uranium to run the nuclear power stations that China sees as its clean-energy future. Beijing also has interests in a host of other natural resources, from coal to precious metals.
For Central Asia’s leaders, cooperation with Beijing is an attractive option: China provides investment, aid and soft loans. It also funds infrastructure benefiting both sides, such as motorways to replace crumbling roads and to ease access for Chinese consumer goods. Beijing asks for little in return – but there is one quid pro quo: cooperation with keeping in check restive Uighur separatists in China’s Xinjiang province, bordering Central Asia. Xinjiang’s Uighurs share religious, linguistic and cultural ties with Central Asia: they are Muslims; like four of the Stans they speak a Turkic language; and the Central Asian states are home to large Uighur diasporas, kept on a tight leash by leaders anxious to avoid antagonising Beijing.
As China reaches into what Moscow views as its own backyard, the Kremlin is looking on “jealously”, says Amrebayev. For Kassenova, “China is the most focused and successful external actor”– but Beijing has limited ambitions: “Its agenda is limited to economic cooperation and certain security cooperation addressing China’s domestic security concerns and not challenging Russia’s primacy.” China’s relationship with Central Asia is “about commercial expansion”, agrees Tynan – but that could change. “China makes no attempt to rival Russia in certain areas, but Russia appears to have accepted that China’s economic role is poised to eclipse its own. That’s significant, but the next question is if or when China will seek to translate its economic influence into political influence.”
China may be a strong economic competitor, but it would face an uphill struggle rivalling Russia’s soft power clout: firstly, there is the language barrier (most Central Asians speak fluent Russian, a legacy of the colonial past; few speak Mandarin); secondly, public hostility towards what is perceived as Chinese encroachment is strong. As Russia faces economic ills and international isolation over Ukraine, there is “a unique opportunity for China to both increase its influence in the region and to reap economic benefits by deepening its market access”, commented Anuar Almaganbetov and Bakhytzhan Kurmanov of Kazakhstan’s Economic Research Institute, in a recent report for East Asia Forum. “But if this is done quickly and clumsily, China’s economic expansion into Kazakhstan may provoke resistance and renewed fear of a Chinese threat.” The public mind harbours “a whole raft of fears and phobias” about China, agrees Amrebayev. This was vividly demonstrated at an anti-China protest in Kazakhstan a few years ago, where a performance artist ripped the head off a toy panda. Russia’s far greater clout attracts far less hostility: anti-Russian protests are rare and attract very few people.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was much chatter about the Muslim states of the USSR being welcomed back into the Ummah after years of isolation – yet the reach of the Islamic world remains weak. Turkey – although a major investor – has failed to capitalise on linguistic and cultural ties with the four Turkic-speaking states, and the Central Asian states themselves – suspicious of the intentions of big powers and unable to cooperate even among themselves owing to regional rivalries – never showed great enthusiasm. Iran, meanwhile, exercises limited sway only in Persian-speaking Tajikistan. As for the Arabian Gulf states, “two key obstacles have so far obstructed the progress of this relationship”, says Anceschi. Economically, sanctions against Iran and “the poor infrastructure network connecting Central Asia with its southern neighbourhood” have hampered trade. Politically, the Stans’ fervently secular leaders have been wary of cooperation, “worried about the potentially destabilising brand of Islam that is generally associated with the Gulf’s more ideological actors”.
With Russia positioning itself as a resurgent force in what Moscow sees as its sphere of influence, China and other players in this new great game will face an uphill struggle to untangle the web of cultural, linguistic and economic ties that hold Central Asia in Moscow’s thrall. The New Great Game is far from over – but Russia looks poised to emerge as the winner.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance journalist based in Almaty, reporting on political, economic and social affairs.