Delayed Neutrality?
No. 1 2010 January/March
Alexei Bogaturov

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

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


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 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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