Central Asia in an Era of Change
No. 1 2006 January/March

© «Russia in Global Affairs». № 1, January — March

Stanislav Chernyavsky, Doctor of Science (History), is
Deputy Director of the 1st Department of the CIS Countries of the
Foreign Ministry of Russia.

Central Asia has been recently described, despite its myriad
problems, as a region of political stability. Experts believed that
the Central Asian governments would ensure a relatively calm
development inside their countries for at least five to seven
years. However, given the developments in the post-Soviet space in
the last two years, the analysts have been forced to amend their

Heightened tensions in Central Asia are due to internal and
external factors. The internal factors include the
family/clan-based nature of the ruling regimes, low standards of
living, and mass unemployment. Discontent has also been growing
among the political elite, which has lost its ability to influence
decision-making at the highest level, as well as within the
business elite, which has encountered serious obstacles in its
entrepreneurial activity and has been threatened by the ruling
oligarchic clans with the seizure of their enterprises. This growth
of instability stirred to action the opposition, some of who are
made up of Islamic extremists that receive their guidance through
lavishly funded emissaries from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United
Arab Emirates and Iran.

The external factors for the rise in tensions include the
seizure of local resources by large transnational companies, as
well as the direct involvement of new actors on this stage: the
United States, member countries of the European Union (the
activities of international nongovernmental organizations represent
one form of the Western presence), as well as China and Turkey.
Additionally, Central Asian countries are still used as the main
transit corridor for drug trafficking from Afghanistan to Russia,
the Commonwealth of Independent States and Europe. According to
official statistics (2004), Russian border guards in Tajikistan
seized more than 3.75 tons of drugs, including almost 2.5 tons of


During her trip to Central Asia in October 2005, U.S. Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice once again expressed the firm intention
of the Bush administration to maintain a presence in this strategic
region. Rice pointed out that there is no need for various
countries to launch a race of interests in the region because, she
said, there must be enough room for all interests there.

The United States remains the most influential outside actor in
Central Asia. In May of last year, Washington sharply reacted to
the developments in Andizhan, Uzbekistan, after the authorities
severely suppressed armed protests. The U.S. and its Western allies
tried to use those events as a means of political pressure on
Tashkent, which responded in July by demanding that the United
States remove its military base in Khanabad within six months.

Now, the major hub of U.S. forces in Central Asia is at the
Manas military base in Kyrgyzstan, where over 3,000 troops and
military equipment are deployed. There, the U.S. command deploys a
large amount of airfield, navigation, reconnaissance, and
search-and-rescue equipment. Furthermore, it plans to create stocks
of aviation fuel and weapons there, as well.

From a strategic point of view, Central Asian bases enable the
U.S. to control not only the entire Central Asian region, but also
the air space above Afghanistan as far as the Indian-Pakistani
border. At the same time, western regions of China and large cities
in Kazakhstan are now within the reach of American fighter
aircraft, as well.
Condoleezza Rice has described the American bases in Central Asia
as strong points of the coalition forces, where they may play a
major role in providing assistance in natural disasters,
accompanied by the provision of medical and humanitarian aid.
Meanwhile, the U.S. administration has set a rather vague time
frame for its military presence in Central Asia, saying it will
remain until the operations in Afghanistan are over. U.S. officials
have repeatedly stated that the U.S. is not going to leave the
region as “we need to expand our ongoing support for democratic
political institutions, local nongovernmental organizations, and
independent media.”

To all appearances, the White House fails to realize that some
Central Asian countries are not prepared for launching major
reforms and addressing all of their economic, political and social
problems because there remains an absence of a basic political
culture, while democratic institutions are unviable.
Washington has proposed to several Central Asian countries
advantageous contracts for rearming their armies to bring them into
line with NATO standards. The U.S. is ready to supply its Patriot
anti-aircraft missiles and help create facilities for their repair;
it has also displayed an interest in building facilities for the
production of certain types of armaments and military equipment.
The Americans plan to deploy an integrated communication system,
complete with new air defense and air traffic control systems.

The beginning of military operations in Afghanistan, together
with the creation of American bases in Central Asian countries, was
accompanied by a sharp rise of indoctrination of the local
population. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, for example, markedly
increased the number of its broadcasts in the Azerbaijani, Kazakh,
Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek languages, as well as in

The United States and the five Central Asian countries have
concluded a framework agreement providing for the development of
their mutual relations in trade and investment. The parties will
pool regional resources, create a single market of goods and
services, and liberalize trade. Furthermore, the agreement assists
the Central Asian countries’ integration into international
economic and financial institutions, namely, the World Trade

Rice stated that the Americans are ready to help Central Asia
break out of its regional self-isolation, integrate into the
outside world, and independently and freely build their own
destinies. Ideally, the Secretary of State said, integration
processes should also be directed toward South Asia, involving
Afghanistan and Pakistan. From there, these processes would extend
over the Caspian Sea into the Transcaucasus, providing them,
finally, with an outlet into Western Europe. In that case, the
region would be at the crossroads of many strategic trading and
financial routes and become an economic magnet.

Meanwhile, U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq have
sparked protests among the Central Asian Moslem circles. The
counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan has been highly
inefficient, while the inability to crush the underground network
of the Hizb ut-Tahrir extremist group operating in Central Asia
(this group orients itself to the Moslem Brotherhood) gives it an
opportunity to pool efforts with radical elements from the Islamic
Movement of Uzbekistan. The strategic goal of both organizations is
to overthrow the secular regimes and create theocratic,
caliphate-type states in the region. U.S. analysts realize that a
further radicalization and militarization of Islamic movements in
the region would only aggravate Washington’s problems. At the same
time, America’s partnership with dubious regimes, necessary for
receiving access to military bases, damages Washington’s image as
the leader of the democratic world.

Washington officials are very cautious in their statements about
Russia’s role in Central Asia (this role is simply hushed up). At
the same time, they make it clear that this region is of strategic
interest to the U.S. and that America’s military presence will
continue there for a long time.


The European Union views Central Asia as a “buffer zone”
protecting Europe against terrorism, Islamic extremism, drug
trafficking and illegal migration. The EU’s policy toward Central
Asia is determined by the Union’s Strategy Paper for Central Asia
for 2002-2006, which states that the Central Asian countries face
common development problems, caused mainly by a slow transition to
democracy, lagging implementation of market-oriented economic
reforms, and Islamic radicalization. Since September 11, 2001, the
European Union has doubled its financial assistance. The core
objective of the EU strategy is to promote the stability and
security of the Central Asian countries and to assist in their
pursuit of sustainable economic development and poverty reduction.
To achieve this goal, funds are allocated under the TACIS
(Technical Aid to the Commonwealth of Independent States) program.
Between 1991 and 2004, EU assistance to Central Asia amounted to
1,132 million euros; of this amount, ?516 million from TACIS were
used for technical assistance. The remainder of the money was used
for humanitarian aid and macro-financial loans and grants.

The European Union is gradually becoming a major donor country,
thereby contributing to the strengthening of the Tajik-Afghan
border. The EU is implementing its Border Management Program for
Central Asia (BOMCA), for which it was to allocate ?3.9 million in
2005. In the first half of 2005, Brussels allocated ?1.65 million
in technical aid to Tajikistan’s Border Guard Committee; Britain
pledged to give another ?1.5 million.

Energy is acquiring great importance in EU relations with
Central Asia. The European Union is very interested in the
development of cooperation with Kazakhstan in the fuel/energy
sector (energy resources account for 75 percent of EU imports from
Kazakhstan). Brussels wants Astana to introduce stable, transparent
and non-discriminatory legislation that would enable European
companies to operate in that country in an effective way.

The European Union welcomed the outcome of the presidential
elections in Kyrgyzstan in July 2005, and noted that the
prerequisites are in place for continued stabilization there. As
regards Uzbekistan, the EU General Affairs & External Relations
Council in October 2005 introduced sanctions against the capital of
Tashkent (initially for one year) and accused it of “excessive,
disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force” in Andizhan and
“refusal to allow an independent international inquiry” into the
events there. The European Commission has reoriented its work in
Uzbekistan under the TACIS program “to support increased focus on
the needs of the population, democracy and human rights, as well as
to foster closer links with Uzbek civil society.”

Unlike the United States, the EU countries recognize Russia’s
strategic interests in the region and are ready to discuss them. At
the same time, they are prepared to implement practical interaction
in addressing security problems (above all, the drug threat), as
well as develop the fuel/energy sector and its transport


Beijing views the penetration of outside countries in Central
Asia, above all the U.S., as aggravating economic competition in
the region and as attempts to contain China militarily, politically
and economically. In its relations with Russia, Chinese diplomacy
recognizes the traditional political and economic interests of
their northern neighbor and its leading role in regional

China, whose economy has a growing need for energy resources, is
working hard to enter the Central Asian fuel/energy markets.
Through its participation, China seeks to prevent the
redistribution of the regional markets of raw materials. Chinese
companies participate in the development of the Aktyubinsk and
Mangyshlak oil fields (the Aktyubinsk Petrochemical Plant is a
Kazakh-Chinese joint venture, in which China owns 85 percent), and
are also showing an interest in oil prospecting in Kyrgyzstan.

Beijing continues to display political activity at bilateral and
multilateral levels. In 1996, China signed a multilateral agreement
with Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on
confidence-building measures concerning border patrols. A year
later, this pact was followed up with an agreement on mutual
reductions of armed forces in the border areas. In 2002, China
concluded treaties with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan on strengthening
relations, friendship and cooperation, similar to the 2001
Russian-Chinese Treaty.

Beijing views the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an
instrument for strengthening regional security and developing
multilateral cooperation. On July 5, 2005, in a move to further
develop regional stability, the leaders of the SCO members asked
the countries participating in the antiterrorist operation in
Afghanistan to declare a timetable for withdrawing their forces
from bases set up in Central Asia.

China’s active policy in the region is dictated by the need to
establish interaction with neighboring countries to counter Uyghur
separatism, as well as to prevent outside support for separatist
forces operating in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. These
forces seek to create the so-called state of East Turkestan on
Chinese territory and the neighboring Central Asian countries. To
counter the separatists, Chinese special services are strengthening
cooperation with colleagues in Russia, Kazakhstan and other
countries throughout Central Asia.

Another major player in the region is Turkey, and its role in
Central Asia is of a dual nature. On the one hand, it upholds the
geostrategy of the West; on the other hand, it seeks to advance
interests that are based on pan-Turkism – the vast territory
including also the Caucasus, the Caspian region and possibly Turkic
areas of Russia. In the past, as hopes for the creation of a
pan-Turkic confederation faded, Ankara’s policy in Central Asia
grew more and more realistic as it gave more attention to winning
an economic bridgehead in the region and furthering Turkish
interests in the development of oil projects around the Caspian

It has become obvious for the Central Asian countries that
Turkey is unable to play the role of an economic locomotive. Yet
Ankara has laid the foundation for its future influence in the
region: the younger generation now receiving its education in
Anatolian universities and colleges are set to become a reliable
support for the country.
It must be noted that the radical aggressiveness with which Turkey
tried to destroy Russian influence in Central Asia during the first
few years after the Soviet Union’s breakup has disappeared.
Turkish-Russian relations in the region have turned pragmatic,
without any signs, unfortunately, of a practical interaction.


All member countries of the CIS have several features in common:
underdeveloped and inefficient political structures, serious
problems in the sphere of human rights and high levels of
corruption in government organizations. These factors may bring
about social explosions, which, if supported from the outside, may
turn into a revolutionary situation.

The intensity of political struggle in the region has been
growing not only in view of the December 2005 presidential
elections in Kazakhstan, but also due to disagreements inside the
leadership of Kyrgyzstan, compounded by the threat of Islamic
extremism in Uzbekistan.

In Kazakhstan, a powerful ‘administrative resource’ guaranteed a
victory for Nursultan Nazarbayev. At the elections, he ran against
a really strong rival for the first time, ex-speaker of the lower
chamber of parliament Zharmakhan Tuyakbai. The opposition has
gained vast organizational and political experience, together with
a ramified structure.

In 2004, Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan launched several projects
in the country, among them Pre-Election Distance, and a project for
strengthening and developing Kazakh nongovernmental organizations
that work to protect mass media and journalists. The foundation
also launched a program for organizing the activity of public
foundations for the development of schools and communities. The
Kazakh-American University in Almaty has stepped up efforts to
propagate the advantages of democratic values and the
“revolutionary” experience of other CIS countries among young

American diplomats actively interact with the Coordination
Council of Democratic Forces of Kazakhstan, which comprises the
leaders of the Democratic Movement of Kazakhstan, the Communist
Party of Kazakhstan, and the Ak Zhol party. The Council was
established in November 2004 to formulate a program of action for
the opposition in the presidential election campaign, and to find a
political figure that could be a real alternative to the incumbent
head of state.

The United States also exerts pressure on the Kazakh leadership
by raising the human rights issue and spreading information
discrediting members of the Kazakh leader’s team. For example, a
hearing held in January 2005 called “Kazakhgate” involved
high-ranking officials accused of corruption.

The coming to power of opponents of Nazarbayev or the younger
generation from his team – which is quite probable in the
foreseeable future – will, most likely, result in the further
strengthening of nationalist and pro-Western tendencies in Astana’s
policy. Western organizations have long been interacting with
members of the new Kazakh elite; these individuals do not conceal
their negative attitude about the days when Kazakhstan and Russia
existed as a single state. They are skeptical about their country’s
future progress and wary about the strengthening of the Russian

The development of the political situation in Kyrgyzstan,
following early presidential elections in July 2005 that led to a
change of power, largely depends on the correlation of forces
between President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Prime Minister Feliks
Kulov. A conflict between the two heavyweights would inevitably
aggravate conflicts between the country’s southern and northern
regions and would produce an upsurge of political and civil
confrontation throughout Kyrgyzstan. The October events, marked by
a series of jail riots, have shown how much influence criminals
have on political processes in the country.

The situation in Tajikistan is relatively stable. The
authorities continue to keep the situation under control, while the
legal opposition has to abide, at least outwardly, by the rules of
the game imposed on it. No viable opponent has emerged to challenge
the current president, Emomali Rakhmonov, but inside his clan there
is already agitation and the regrouping of forces. Tensions have
been growing in Tajik society, as acute social and economic
problems remain unsolved amidst the criminal enrichment of the
ruling Dangara-Kulyab clan. The fact that a “family” is in power,
acting in its own interests, may serve as a powerful detonator in
the future.

Western nongovernmental organizations (over 50 such
organizations now operate in Tajikistan) are engaged in active
propaganda activities, organizing seminars and discussions and
distributing teaching aids on suffrage. The International
Foundation for Electoral Systems, for example, together with the
National Association of Political Scientists of Tajikistan, has
launched a national program for training over 500 observers in the
country. Within the frameworks of another project, the U.S. Agency
for International Development teaches election campaign methods to
activists of political parties, and finances radio broadcasts that
propagate the views of opposition leaders.

The Dushanbe office of the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe closely interacts with the nongovernmental
organizations. In 2005, its employees held about 100 seminars to
make voters better informed and initiated the creation of a system
of information centers, through which opposition parties could
bring their views to the electorate. The Americans are implementing
in Tajikistan an extensive program for the support of civil society
and for ensuring human rights and the freedom of speech. Although
they do not have official accreditation, members of U.S. National
Democratic Institute, the International Research & Exchanges
Board (IREX) and the Academy for Educational Development take an
active part in this program. In 2004 alone, the United States spent
more than seven million dollars for the above projects.

In Turkmenistan, despite serious economic problems and grave
financial position of an overwhelming majority of the population,
there are no leaders capable of challenging President Saparmurat
Niyazov – even with outside support. Opposition organizations and
mass media are forbidden in the country.

The government does not allow an extensive presence of foreign
nongovernmental organizations in the country. Those organizations
that do work in Turkmenistan are not permitted to go beyond the
frameworks of local projects pertaining to education, public health
services and the support of small- and medium-sized businesses. Any
attempts by the U.S. and its allies to broaden the field of
nongovernmental organizations’ activity spark a harsh reaction from
the Turkmen authorities; the more active members of those
organizations can even be deported from the country.

The parliamentary elections on December 19, 2004, showed once
again that the West has no levers of influence on election
processes in Turkmenistan. International organizations, including
the OSCE, were not even allowed to observe the course of the
election campaign and the vote counting.

In Uzbekistan, where social tensions have been growing, one can
still speak of a certain threshold of public patience. Yet it
should not be overestimated. As the “natural” change of power is
nearing (this may take place due to the state of President Islam
Karimov’s health), a confrontation between the Tashkent and
Samarkand clans may come to a head, thereby aggravating the
situation throughout the country.

In 2003-2004, Uzbekistan passed new laws that have essentially
changed the conditions for the presence of foreign NGOs in the
country. The new laws have toughened procedures for NGO
registration and banned financial and other aid for political
parties and movements from foreign states, organizations or
citizens. International NGOs are not allowed to participate in any
political activity on the territory of Uzbekistan, nor finance
activities of political parties and mass assemblies. These moves by
the Uzbek authorities have actually ended the work of such
organizations as the Soros Foundation, the International Kyrgyz
Group, and the Institute of War and Peace Studies.

Tashkent’s policy has provoked a strong reaction from the West.
The Board of Directors of the European Bank for Reconstruction and
Development, for example, has accused Uzbekistan of not fulfilling
the political terms for receiving aid, thus the bank has reduced
its operation in Uzbekistan to a few credit projects for small
businesses. U.S. and other Western officials, during their personal
meetings with Karimov, advised him to soften his position with
regard to foreign NGOs and the local opposition.


Russia’s strategy in Central Asia must take into account not
only the increased differentiation of the post-Soviet space, but
also potential conflicts of interests between Russia and other
actors in the region. The worst-case scenario of developments may
include the destabilization and breakup of the existing secular
regimes, the coming to power of religious extremists, and the
emergence of interstate conflicts.

The transformation of the region into a new field of
confrontation is not in Russia’s interests. Given the specificity
of the present level of Russian-U.S. relations, Moscow must pursue
a reasonable and clear-cut foreign policy and require that
Washington make its military actions transparent and predictable.
Considering the two countries’ common struggle against terror,
Washington must share its plans with Russia in advance. Russian
businesses would benefit from their joint participation with U.S.
companies in the development and implementation of large economic

Another major foreign-policy reserve for Russia is the further
development of its interaction with China on Central Asian issues.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, for example, whose
organizational and legal formation is approaching the final stage,
allows for Russian-Chinese cooperation to play a restraining role
with regard to U.S. actions that are against Russian interests.

The Russian strategy must rest on sound pragmatism stemming from
the country’s relatively limited foreign-policy resources. These
resources must concentrate on key areas, above all, on security,
the creation of favorable conditions for economic growth, and the
protection of the rights of Russian citizens and ethnic Russians
living in the region. Therefore, mutual readiness for cooperation
and genuine respect for each other’s interests must become a major
criterion of relations between Russia and its Central Asian

Russia must step up its efforts to strengthen regional security,
with focus on the intensification of interaction within the
frameworks of the SCO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization,
the CIS Antiterrorist Center, and the Center’s regional operational
group headquartered in Bishkek. Specific steps have already been
made in this area, among them the reinforcement of the Collective
Rapid Deployment Forces in Central Asia (a CRDF air base has been
deployed at the Kant airfield in Kyrgyzstan). The Russian-Uzbek
Treaty on Strategic Partnership, signed on June 16, 2004, has
considerably strengthened Russia’s military-political presence in
the region.

On October 17, 2004, a Russian military base was officially
opened in Tajikistan. On April 2-6, 2005, the Collective Rapid
Deployment Forces held the Frontier 2005 military exercise in
Tajikistan, which involved military units from all of the Central
Asian member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization
and Russia.
In October 2004, Russia joined the Central Asian Cooperation
Organization, which came as confirmation that Russia began to
correct its strategy in Central Asia. A CACO summit in the Russian
city of St. Petersburg, held on October 6, 2005, concluded that it
would be expedient to unite this organization with the Eurasian
Economic Community (EurAsEC). Thus, almost all the Central Asian
states (with the exception of Turkmenistan) are uniting with Russia
and Belarus into a common economic space.

Integration measures must also include the targeted financing of
nongovernmental institutions of civil society, advocating the real
development of democracy in the region and the protection of human
rights. In particular, it would be useful, following in the
footsteps of the United States and some of the EU members, to set
up a special foundation (using funds from the federal budget) to
support the development of democracy and strengthen the sovereignty
and independence of the CIS states, as well as several public
foundations to finance interaction with Central Asian countries in
the sphere of human rights.

The success of Russia’s Central Asian policy largely depends on
its readiness to offer to its partners effective and “competitive”
variants of joint solutions to particularly acute problems
pertaining to the economy, the struggle against crime and
terrorism, and humanitarian efforts.