Delayed Neutrality?

9 april 2010

Alexei Bogaturov is professor and First Deputy Principal of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Russian Foreign Ministry. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Resume: Smaller nations have to avoid taking sides. But the maneuvering vector did not make up all of their foreign policies. Regional states tend to be neutral. The principle of potential or delayed neutrality has become a system-making element in international relations in Central Asia.

The increasing interest that powerful countries are showing in Central Asia is an indication that the region is returning to the focus of international politics. The current Central Asia is the successor, but not the equivalent, of the Soviet-era Central Asia. The political-geographic use of the word embraces not only the former Soviet republics in Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), but also Kazakhstan. Furthermore, the modern notion of Central Asia implies that China’s Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region and northern Afghanistan are part of it too. In reports analyzing the energy aspects of the situation around the Caspian Sea, the discourse on Central Asia includes Russia’s territories bordering on Kazakhstan – the Astrakhan region in the west and the Altai Territory in the east.


In the world, the place of the sub-system of relations between the countries of a region depends on its present-day and potential role in the production and transportation of fuels. Energy resources are both a blessing for Central Asia and a burden. Neither Russia nor the West has been able to establish control over natural resources in Central Asian states since the breakup of the former Soviet Union, although they have had an opportunity to influence their energy policy. The possession of mineral wealth, revenue from fuel exports, and an ability to exploit the competition between Russian and Western companies ensure a major foreign policy resource for smaller fuel-exporting countries.

Countries lacking such a resource have significance for the region due to their spatial-geographic characteristics which enable them to influence the security of adjacent transit territories through which pipelines run or will run. The spatial dimension of Central Asia is now perceived as a zone of energy arteries, through which a flow of hydrocarbons can be diverted westward (to Europe and the Atlantic Ocean), southward (to the Indian Ocean), and eastward (to China, Japan and the Pacific shore).

Along with pipeline diplomacy, the railway network in this part of the world may appear to be another geopolitical factor. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the old Soviet railway network has extended beyond the European and Siberian parts of Russia. Kazakhstan built a stretch linking it with the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region (Urumchi). If it proves profitable, cargo flows could be delivered from Central Asia to the East not only via Russia’s old Trans-Siberian route, but also through China.

Turkmenistan also built a railway link to Iran’s Mashhad in the 1990s, opening a direct transportation route to the south. After decades of isolation from its southern and eastern neighbors, the region opened up and received a technical opportunity – for the first time in history – of a direct link not only to the north and west, but also to southern and eastern areas. This change did not re-orient the ties of Central Asian states, but the opening of eastern and southern routes strengthened the psychological prerequisites for the countries of the region to pursue a policy of multi-sided cooperation.

Central Asia is a center for the illegal production of local narcotics (above all, in the Fergana Valley). Also, it has been the largest route for trafficking drugs of Afghan origin since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of the pro-Soviet government. The drugs, partially accumulated in Russia, are brought west to European Union countries.

Money from drug sales is a source of tremendous illegal income for those involved. It is not distributed evenly. Ordinary drug couriers often remain poor throughout their lives, as their earnings are siphoned off on numerous relatives. However, this “lumpen” stratum of drug traffickers is the largest and has a considerable socio-political significance, especially in conditions of the slow expansion of civil rights through “the controlled democracy guided from above.”

“The drug-trafficking proletariat” cannot but have natural reasons to sympathize with drug dealers, seeing in this activity the only source of income. At the same time, this stratum is the most explosion-prone. On the one hand, it regards the government’s crackdowns on drug trafficking as encroachments on its very existence. It is easy for drug barons to direct the indignation of the local population against the authorities and provoke “drug” or “color” revolutions.

On the other hand, the more educated stratum of low-income residents rightfully see economic and social reforms as the tool to combat drug trafficking, which might draw the population of “the drug areas” away from criminal business. A lack of such reforms generates discontent in the population too.

Both trends, amidst personal, political, clan and other legal kinds of infighting – often invisible to analysts – create a complex system of public and political interaction. The difficulties in the internal development of the countries of the region are seen in their foreign policies. The unstable Uzbek-Tajik relations, the mutual suspicions between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the chronic confrontation between the authorities and criminals in the Fergana Valley and the “throbbing” instability in Kyrgyzstan defy an analysis beyond the context of the conflict role of narcotics.

Control over drug-trafficking is a source of struggle between the governments of Central Asian countries and criminal groups, as well as between various drug cartels. “The drug factor” and attempts by local criminal groups to usher their men into Central Asian governments are part of the local political, socio-economic and ideological setup.

Finally, the crucial feature of the regional environment is that its problems are inseparable from the security issues of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. In Central Asia, this inseparability is not committed to documents. It is rooted not in cultures or values, but in geographic reality. Due to the specifics of terrain in Central Asia and the Middle East, the distribution of water resources and the ethnic mix, the contours of the political borders, unlike in Europe, do not fit the political-geographic interests of security of various countries.

In the Fergana oasis, the Tajik-Afghan border zone or the stretch of land on the Afghan-Pakistani border inhabited by Pashtun tribes, it is impossible to separate the security interests of neighboring countries. Any clear accords are unlikely, as they would be unable to take into account the complexity of real relations between ethnic groups and countries in situations where their interests overlap.


Apparently, the “inseparable security” option is an objective element in the traditional mentality of residents in this part of the world. Southern peoples (Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Turkmens) are noted for their “oasis thinking” based on identification with the territory of residence rather than one’s ethnic group. People traditionally settled close to a water basin. Water resources in deserts and mountains are scarce, so there were not many relocation opportunities. Residents of oases involuntarily developed a tolerance for other ethnic groups. Even if the owner of a water resource belonged to a different ethnic group, he could be tolerated as long as he did not bar access to water.

The population of Central Asia, before it became part of the Soviet Union and was subjected to ethnic and territorial division, was unaware of “nation states” in the European sense of the term. The prevailing form of organization was a territorial-political formation based on the supra-ethnicity principle. From the position of European science, the Emirates of Bukhara and Kabul, and the Khiva and Kokand kingdoms were motley oasis empires, united by the communal possession of land and water resources and the ideology of religious solidarity. In such an ideological-political environment, ethnic strife could not evolve into the doctrines of ethnic or racial superiority the way it did during the upsurge of “national self-determination” in Europe or Japan in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries.

However, this background could hardly make things easier. The dividing line between the “we-they” and “friend-alien” notions was far vaguer than in the cultures from which Max Weber’s concepts sprang. The relativity of notions mirrored the relativity of reality. In Europe, the preciseness of the notions of “a friend” and “an alien” materialized into the firm prejudice that countries had to necessarily respect each other’s borders, as a legal and ethical norm.

The mutual ethnic tolerance in Central Asia, the relativity of the lexical difference between “a friend” and “an alien” resulted in an immunity to the Europe-born principles of respect for the borders of other states and non-interference in their internal affairs. Does Tajikistan view Afghan affairs as “foreign” if there are more Tajiks living in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan? Which of the two states should an average Tajik view as native (according to Weber)? Similar self-identification problems arise for Uzbeks and Tajiks in northern Tajikistan (Khudzhand), the Uzbek towns of Samarqand and Bukhara, and the Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz of the Fergana Valley.

The paramilitary formations fighting the Uzbek government still move through mountain passes and paths from Uzbek territory to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and back, avoiding clashes with the local population. The same routes are used to lead drug-trafficking caravans. Do they go on their own or have gangs to protect them? Drug- and weapons-trafficking, and anti-government movements have common interests, and the parameters of their cooperation change rapidly.

The conflict in the Uzbek part of the Fergana Valley (Andijan) in the spring of 2005 was part of the anti-government unrest in Kyrgyzstan, rooted in Fergana districts. Similarly, the “seeping” of the Afghan conflict (from Afghanistan’s Uzbek and Tajik regions) into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is a stable feature of the regional situation. Did Bishkek have a “tulip” or a “poppy” revolution in 2005? Some think that it should sport both flowers on its emblem.


The reform of the political system is crucial for Central Asia. The enduring traditional self-regulation of local communities through regional, tribal, clan and other traditional-communal ties affects the shaping of politics in these countries. Seven decades of modernization of Central Asian communities as parts of the Soviet Union, and another two decades of reforms as independent states have changed the social nature of the region. The establishment of the Soviet order and the authoritarian-pluralistic models after the 1990s (according to Robert Scalapino) changed the political look of these countries and laid the groundwork for their development along the path of illiberal democracy (according to Fareed Zakaria).

However, traditional self-regulating structures managed to withstand the blow from the Bolshevik modernization in 1920-1940. They survived thanks to a decade of the “thaw” of 1953-1963, and adapted to the conditions of the Soviet Union in 1970-1980. The traditional structures found their niche in the political system of Soviet society, having learned to cooperate with the Soviet party bureaucracy, helping it to mobilize the masses for major projects, and occasionally finding opportunities to forge local unions.

The formal government systems in Kazakhstan and Central Asian republics looked Soviet, but in actual fact the governance ran along two tracks: the formal track of the Soviet party system and the informal track of the regional and clan system. The Central Committee of the Communist Party gave adequate evaluations of the situation and tried to change it, not so much through eradicating tradition, but as learning to use local tradition to control the situation.

By the second half of the 20th century this part of the Soviet Union had developed a “dual” public-political system – much earlier than other Soviet regions. Two somewhat independent ways of life co-existed within local communities. The first one reflected the Soviet (modern) lifestyle, while the second one was tribal/clan, ethnic/group, and regional (i.e. traditional) in nature. The second lifestyle was comprised of customs, legal precedents, codes of behavioral prohibitions and rules, and religious procedures. The habit of receiving higher education, engaging in economic, public and political activities, and having skills in arranging elections was a manifestation of the first lifestyle.

In private life people reciprocally moved from one lifestyle to another. The secular was combined with the religious – Islamic, pre-Islamic and non-Islamic (Christian, Judaic and pagan). In the modern market business it is customary to help one’s unqualified relatives and fellow countrymen find employment.

The Western-consumption lifestyle was combined with the traditional way of life. In politics it manifested itself after 1991 as a habit of taking part in elections and political struggle, and voting in accordance with the advice of the “elders;” i.e. officials, clan or group leaders, Muslim clerics and elder male relatives.

The mechanism to maintain social order was complex but reliable. In the early 1990s, the enclave-conglomeration system in all republics, with the exception of Tajikistan, protected them from wars and disintegration. Incidentally, the civil war in Tajikistan was caused by excessive political changes under the onslaught of the incomplete “Islamic democratic revolution,” which dismantled the old mechanism regulating relations between rival regional groups in the former Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic.

The failure of the “Islamic democracy” experiment frightened Tajikistan’s neighbors so much that their leaders resorted to measures to fight the Islamic and secular opposition, including by force. Consequently, the reforms in Central Asia – to the extent of the changes possible in the region – were diverted into a conservative vein. The civil war compromised the concept of instantaneous democratization based on the Western model. The next decade was used for stabilization and gradual modernization. The Soviet state machine was replaced by a form of government that combined the official institutions of the presidential system with informal traditional regulation.

The Western forms of democratic governance imposed on the local traditionalism gave rise to Central Asian versions of illiberal democracy. In the political systems of Central Asia, the ratio between the “norm” and “pathology” is no more and no less than in the public and government systems of India, South Korea or Japan at the early stages of the development of their respective democratic models.

The liberalization of the political systems of Central Asia cannot happen ahead of changes in regional cultures; i.e. shifts in the basic concepts of sufficiency or excess, the attractiveness of “freedom” or “non-freedom,” individual competition or communal-corporate solidarity, personal responsibility (and equality) or patronage (and subordination).

This is not to say that Central Asia can afford to suspend its reforms. The upcoming spate of natural replacements of local leaders indicates the necessity of continuing modernization. But forced democratization can be as dangerous as attempts to remain within the paradigm of surface changes, whose stabilizing potential has been largely expended.


The development of Central Asia, like that of almost the entire central and eastern part of Eurasia, was influenced by the interaction of settled and nomadic tribes. The settled cultures quickly evolved into states. The nomadic lifestyle, little suited for organized exploitation in traditional forms, was an age-long alternative to statehood. However, nomads found an option of adapting to a state through symbiotic relationship. For example, the descendants of nomads in the Emirate of Bukhara made up a “specialized clan” – a stratum (or, rather, a tribe) of professional warriors.

Some of the conquerors integrated into the new ruling elites; another part mixed with the population, but did not necessarily merge, forming the lowest tier in the social hierarchy. In a number of cases “the ethnic specialization” of various groups of the population could continue for centuries: the conquered groups tended to keep their economic activities (farming, craftsmanship, construction of fortresses and canals, and trade), while the conquerors preferred to remain or become warriors, low-key executives, and even traders at a later time. Of course, the diffusion of initially ethnic trades was mutual. But the ethnic archetypes of economic behavior (according to Max Weber and Alexander Akhiezer) are clearly seen in Central Asia states even today, characterizing the economic activities of “indigenous” peoples and “the newcomers” (Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Ashkenazi Jews and Greeks). Understandably, these terms are approximations: over the two centuries since Russians and Ukrainians relocated to Central Asia, they have taken root there and have become natives in Central Asian countries, in all senses save the historical.

The Russian element began to prevail in the government bodies of the annexed territories. After the 1917 Russian Revolution and Bukhara’s and Khiva’s subsequent affiliation with the Soviet Union, the composition of the political-administrative regional elite became more diverse. Jewish and Armenian ethnic groups were a solid addition to the Russian and Ukrainian element, along with local groups that secured a broader access to power.

“The Soviet elite” in Central Asia was multiethnic. In this sense, the mechanism of its formation conformed to the traditional ethnic tolerance and the oasis-imperial ideology. As a rule, Moscow appointed top officials in the republics of Soviet Central Asia and Kazakhstan – from natives or newcomers from other parts of the Soviet Union. There were changes in the region once Central Asia became part of the Soviet Union: Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan took up a settled lifestyle, and there was water and land reform in the southern part of the region. As a result of enforcing the ways of the settled population, some Kazakh and Kyrgyz clans fled to China’s Xinjiang.

The crucial political consequence of water and land reform was the destruction of the rural portion of the Russian community in Central Asia. Confronted with Soviet-era changes, the Cossack community that had taken root in the Semirechye area sided with the anti-Bolshevik movement. In the course of the civil war, Cossacks and their families were destroyed, subjected to reprisals or fled to Xinjiang as did some of the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz before them.

During World War II, three to five million people from the European part of the Soviet Union were evacuated to Central Asia and Kazakhstan. They were mostly well-educated people, who helped the region resolve a number of large social problems and cultural tasks. They made a major contribution to the elimination of illiteracy and created the groundwork for a modern health care system, modern theater and music arts, literature and a university education system.

The expulsion of persecuted ethnic groups from the Volga region, the Crimea and the North Caucasus (Germans, Crimean Tartars, Balkars, Karachais, Greeks, Chechens and Ingush) worked out about the same. Later, waves of political ?migr?s from Greece reached the region. Following the restoration work after the Tashkent earthquake in 1966, some workers from various ethnic groups decided to settle in the region.


The novelty of the international political environment in Central Asia is the liberation of smaller nations from their passive role as objects of influence by large states. These countries have formed a rational foreign policy in the two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most of them have been able to formulate more or less viable foreign policy concepts, even if some lacked official status – be they different versions of the permanent neutrality of Turkmenistan or Kyrgyzstan, the doctrines of regional leadership of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan’s national security concept.

Smaller nations pursue three types of foreign policy towards larger states. The first is the agent’s type (“I’m your younger brother and agent, my land is your bastion and fortress”; this type replaced the earlier conduct of liegeman or subject.) The second is that of protector (“You’re my enemy and I’m preparing for a struggle against you; you’re the one who’s attacking or may want to attack”). The third is that of nominal partner (“We don’t owe anything to each other and try to cooperate not only with each other, but with all countries, despite different potentials”).

The first type envisions closer association with a powerful state, with a view to getting certain privileges in exchange for allegiance. Under the second, smaller countries may aggravate relations with a more powerful country in a bid to draw the attention of the global community, decrying the threats allegedly emanating from the larger state. Under the third option, smaller countries try to carefully distance themselves from all powerful states, while taking efforts to keep good relations with them and win at least a small autonomous space for themselves.

The so-called satellites tend to prefer the first option. The second option is for unsuccessful or diffident states (from North Korea and Venezuela to Georgia). The third is characteristic of neutral and non-aligned states, which show varied forms of foreign policy; from India’s nuclear non-alignment to the restrained and flexible “anti-nuclear neutrality” of Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Central Asian states seem to prefer the third option. It matches their opportunities and the specifics of international conditions in which they are developing. The key condition is the loose international environment, in which Russia, China and the U.S. have had no opportunity or desire in the past two decades to peg countries of the region to their military-political strategies.

Central Asian states avoid excesses. While making efforts to distance themselves from Russia and the image of “parts of the former Soviet Union,” they avoided the temptation to proclaim themselves “part of the West.” The initial enthusiasm about Turkey, and later China, did not provoke them into “going in China’s wake” or embarking upon the road to turn into elements of “the pan-Turkish space.”

Having limited Russia’s influence, the countries of the region did not allow relations with it to degrade and preserved the opportunity to use its resources in case of necessity. In return, they let Russia use their spatial-geopolitical potential and, partly, mineral resources. Local nationalism, tinged with Islam and local pre-Islamic cultures, never evolved into religious extremism, secular xenophobia or chauvinism. Here a positive role was played by the powerful Soviet enlightenment and cultural-atheistic heritage, the tradition of supra-ethnic and socio-group solidarity in combination with the oasis culture of tolerance for foreign language speakers.

Using partly similar strategies, Central Asian states are trying to lessen their dependence on Russia as a buyer of their fuels and a transit country. But this does not prevent them from wishing to remain under the “umbrella” of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which largely remains a political institution rather than military.

In general, the situation motivates smaller nations to pursue a policy characterized by pragmatism, flexibility, maneuvering, evasion of burdensome commitments, and the wish to secure the aid of richer countries. They bargain over concessions with Russia, the U.S., India, China or rich Islamic countries for the sake of foreign aid.

This does not mean that Russia’s Central Asian neighbors are treacherous. This term is more fitting in describing the countries whose leaders, having outwitted Boris Yeltsin in 1991, destroyed the Soviet Union. At that time Central Asian states desired more freedom in their relations with Moscow, not the complete secession from Russia.

A more important point is that pragmatism in the policy of Central Asian countries stands next to historical memory, in which negative associations are offset by a complex of ideas about the positive heritage of relations with Russia. The rapid increase in the cultural and educational level, the establishment of health care systems, and the groundwork to form a modern political system are the fruits of the Central Asian states’ membership in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet system was as despotic in Central Asia as elsewhere in the Soviet Union. However, despite its faults, it prepared Central Asian countries very well for the selective assimilation of the novelties in the 1990s, when the former Soviet republics proclaimed independence. This system enabled the local authorities to contain the growth of the population’s unrest, divert Islamization into a moderate vein and rebuff the onslaught of the trans-national criminal-contraband groups allied with local and foreign extremists. The scenarios of the partitioning of Tajikistan, the break up of Kyrgyzstan and the formation of the criminal Fergana caliphate did not materialize, and attempts to stage an Islamic revolution did not yield depressing results, as it did in Afghanistan.


Geographically, and partially politically, the middle of Central Asia, if viewed from Russia, would be located between Astana and Tashkent. However, from the position of raw-materials/fuels diplomacy in its foreign versions, the focal place in regional affairs is occupied by the Caspian region, or rather its eastern coast, as well as the gas fields of Turkmenistan.

Yet even in this outlook for the region, U.S. and EU politicians tend to evaluate the situation through the prism of potential advantages or dangers. A considerable number of Russian and Chinese statesmen actually stick to similar positions, adjusted for Russia and China, respectively. Small or mid-sized states were of little interest as players in international politics.

At best, analysts tried to find out to what extent they could foil or facilitate the realization of larger countries’ objectives in the region. Each larger state tried to shape the concept of what levers would be needed to expand its influence on the regional situation. The U.S. believed that democratization was an all-powerful tool, which envisioned revolutions: first “Islamic-democratic” and then “color” ones. Russian and Chinese political scientists called for conservative reforms of the economic systems of Central Asian countries and their political systems.

Smaller nations have to avoid taking sides. But the maneuvering vector did not make up all of their foreign policies. Regional states tend to be neutral. In the 1990s, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan announced their neutrality officially. Yet, their neutrality differs from the classical version practiced by Switzerland and Sweden. Sources of threats remain in the region – from Afghanistan, Fergana extremists and potential instability in the Islamic districts of China. The experience of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan shows that classic neutrality is hardly possible in this part of the world.

That is why Central Asian states, in considering the prospects for neutrality, can hope for “moderately armed neutrality” along the lines of ASEAN states. In certain circumstances this option would suit all countries in the region, including Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. But due to military-political conditions, it cannot be immediately realized. The countries of the region are participants in multiparty relations with Russia through the CSTO, and with Russia and China through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Admittedly, the flexibility of the commitments under these treaties and the immature practice of their use enable the member-states to pursue quite independent foreign policies. Both treaties are mechanisms of coordination to prevent threats, rather than clubs of combatants capable of quick mobilization of their resources.

At the same time, the availability of these organizations provides the desired guarantees of internal and international security for smaller nations. They also retain the opportunity to determine, at their discretion, the scope of their practical participation in cooperation with Russia, without giving up balancing and the orientation toward neutrality in principle.

The convergence of the course towards cooperation with Russia and China in Central Asian foreign policy on the one hand, and the desire to develop cooperation with the U.S. and the EU, and involvement in military cooperation at the minimally required level on the other, is characteristic of the type of foreign policy which can be described as potential or delayed neutrality. In actual fact, this principle has become a system-making element in international relations in Central Asia.

Last updated 9 april 2010, 12:26

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