New players are challenging Russia’s traditional position as the conflict referee and patron of first preference in Central Asia. All the others are, arguably, ’emerging powers’, to reuse an overused phrase. China is returning to prominence after a long hiatus. Two decades of American power in the region has paid some dividends, for a high price of investment. Turkey’s economic influence has risen, though its political influence has not kept pace. Arab and Iranian regimes seemed poised to become new players as well. But the events of last few years: the ongoing financial crisis, rising violence in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, among others, will inevitably reorder the priorities of external powers, and their policies towards the region.
This was essentially the starting point for a series of discussions hosted by the Hollings Center for International Dialogue in Istanbul last week. To extend the conversation a bit to this audience, I submit the following points for discussion. For the most part, I reproduce common sentiments, unless made clear otherwise.
Russia, of course, is by no means an ’emerging power’ where it concerns Central Asia, a region it has dominated for well over a century. China may have been gone from the scene for that time, but as my colleague from the region aptly pointed out, in Central Asia ‘we remember’. Splitting hairs may consider China as ‘re-emerging’. While the US was ascendant globally for 20 years after the region gained independence, its influence and that of kindred spirits in the EU is inevitably falling as others gain.
Each of the three maintains a favored project for mediating conflicts and wielding influence in the region – Russia has the CSTO, the West has the OSCE, China has the SCO. Uniquely, Russia is a member of all three, which allows it to limit the scope and influence of both to some extent. Crises in the region such as the Andijan and Osh incidents of 2005 and 2010 showed the hollowness of all three organizations when conflicts arose to be mediated. In Osh, the OSCE struggled to insert even a handful of unarmed police observers, and the CSTO refused to offer any military support to the Kyrgyz government, despite a specific and public plea for it.
China and the West have emerged of alternative providers of public goods, the West mostly through development programs and the multilateral banks, China through bilateral infrastructure deals, soft loans, aid-for-resources, and other arrangements. Suffice it to say that these alternatives are often more enticing to local governments than Western aid, which usually comes with more difficult conditions for the ruling elite to swallow. Territorial concessions may secure massive, regime-preserving resources from China, while doing little harm to these authorities themselves. Their primary limitations in such deals with China are the nationalist, anti-Chinese proclivities of their own populations – while there seems to be almost limitless patience for corruption in the region, there are invisible lines of ‘patriotism’ that all the region’s leaders fear crossing.
In this environment, the West’s influence has waned. Local governments have sidelined Western-sponsored NGOs. Chinese money comes in larger, easier to swallow doses than conditional loans from the IMF and World Bank. And with the West’s painfully slow but seemingly inevitable extraction from Afghanistan on the horizon, some republics see the US and EU as departing patrons who will never visit town again – good targets for one last fleecing, before they are forever forgotten.
The group generally saw the ‘Turkish Model’ – Western-style democracy, capitalism, and secularism in an Islamic country (or something) – as fully abandoned by the five Central Asian republics, all of which have preferred statism, authoritarianism, and Personality worship in varying doses. An observation was made that with Turkey’s deteriorating relationships with Iraq, Iran, Israel, Syria, and Egypt, Turkey is poised for a return to the region, lacking other outlets for its surplus political and economic capital.
Iran was generally acknowledged to have played a stabilizing influence in the region, in contrast to its reputation for meddling in countries to its south and west. Its fruitful assistance in mediating the Tajik Civil War, and its assistance to the US-led coalition in Afghanistan early in that war, were prominent examples. It also plays important, but quiet, roles in regional trade and business.
Participants from the Middle East were particularly interested in exploring the roles of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the smaller oil-rich Gulf states in the region. The Central Asia participants saw modest roles for each, and as elsewhere, many promises with relatively few deliveries on investment and aid. The former also posed the question as to whether Central Asia’s political situation after the Soviet Union will prove any precedent for the Arab Spring countries. Still, we from Central Asia saw few parallels. Afghanistan, however, had quickly come to resemble a dysfunctional Central Asian dictatorship.
Despite the many powers competing for influence in Central Asia, described by some commentators as a ‘New Great Game’ with even higher stakes than the original, one participant observed a dearth of external power in the region. This is a view I sympathize with. No external power is willing or able to reorder the region to suit its interests. Additional powers at play are quickly converted by the five republics into new patrons to play off the incumbents. This tends to increase the leverage of the client republics, not the external patrons. We all mused about consequences of the United States pulling out of this patronage network. While it was tempting to conclude that the US would lose little by abandoning its military and development aid to the region, we conceded that any such a withdrawal, while weakening the five republics, it would strengthen their remaining external patrons.
I argued that we see a harmony of interests among all of the key players in the region, including Russia, China, and the West. Preventing state collapse, expropriations of investments, and growth in Islamic terrorism appears on each’s agenda. It is their widely divergent views of the nature of each threat, and the methods to they apply to counter these threats, that will continue to make their cooperation (and success) in mediating conflicts in Central Asia a fleeting phenomenon.