It Takes a Global Village to Raise a Region

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by Mitchell Polman on 2/12/2013 · 6 comments

The Center for Strategic and International Studies held a speakers’ panel this week to discuss a recent report they produced last month entitled “The United States and Central Asia after 2014”, by CSIS Deputy Director and Fellow Jeffrey Mankoff. Basically speaking, given that the U.S. is withdrawing from Afghanistan the question for U.S. policymakers is “now what?”. The panel engaged in a broad based discussion that covered a lot of ground and still left quite a bit of ground uncovered.

Professor Frederick Starr of Johns Hopkins -SAIS posited the notion that Central Asia should not be a playground for great power politics. He also pointed-out that many other nations in the region besides the U.S., Russia, and China, play a role in the region. He specially mentioned a growing relationship between Kazakhstan and India. At the same time, a non-panelist, Andranik Migranyan of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, in a long-winded “question” that lasted about twenty minutes, seemed to question the very notion that the U.S. has any reason for being involved in Central Asia.

Unfortunately, too much of the conversation seemed to assume that what happens in Central Asia is a result of nations acting “in their interests”. Let’s look at Kyrgyzstan. The biggest source of income for the country is a gold mine operated by Canada’s Centerra Gold. Japan is a major source of tourist dollars. The U.S. has a large program to assist the Kyrgyz government in creating everything from a modern parliament to courts and government institutions. China builds roads in Kyrgyzstan and mostly employs Kyrgyz workers to do so. Is all of this happening because the Kyrgyz want it that way or because Canada, Japan, the United States, and China are operating in their “national interests”? A democratic Kyrgyzstan may very well be in the U.S. national interest, but American organizations (governmental and non-governmental alike) would not be able to operate there if the Kyrgyz didn’t think there was value to it. If a government wants to work to improve its court system is it going to look to American, Russian, or Chinese experts?

It is a similar situation elsewhere in the region. Iran has linguistic, cultural, and historic ties to Tajikistan. The Iranians have built the tunnels along the country’s new roads and are contributing to the country’s agricultural sector (which went unmentioned in the discussion). It may all very well be in Iran’s interest, but Tajikistan is also interested in keeping something in the way of ties with Iran. The U.S. is certainly aware of this. At the same time, both Americans and Russians are working to create broadband and cellphone networks in Tajikistan. Dushanbe’s medical schools and hospital is partnered with Boulder, Colorado’s Boulder Community Hospital. The Turks are building roads and so are the Chinese, but, unlike in Kyrgyzstan, the Chinese mostly import Chinese workers. Some of these activities are happening with active participation on the part of governments and some isn’t.

I think it is safe to say that a stable and prosperous Central Asia may be more in the interests of some nations more than others, but in this increasingly globalized world there is no way for one nation to completely prevent another nation from having “influence” over another. This is actually what is best for the people of Central Asia. The real question should be what role can various nations play in building a stable and prosperous Central Asia.

I recognize that some people may look at the above paragraph and say that I’m not being enough of a hard foreign policy “realist”. To me, however, this is the real realism. Islamic extremism is fueled by drug trafficking, poverty, cultural isolation, and corruption. Putting an end to all of that requires promoting business, industry, education, and non-narcotics related agriculture. That all requires education, health, and other projects that improve living standards. The United States can not and should not be doing it all in Central Asia. Other nations need to step-up to the plate and do what they can. Multi-lateral institutions such as the IMF and World Bank are playing their role. That brings us to the question of Russia.

Russia can also play a constructive role in Central Asia. Russian energy and mining companies have technology that can be of use in Central Asia. There may be other sectors where it can contribute as well to the mutual benefit of Russia and Central Asia alike. However, if the Russian government insists on playing a”Great Game” to extend their influence in the region at the expense of others then they will be harming both themselves and Central Asia. The single biggest problem Russia faces in the region is not America nor is it the hangover of Soviet days. It is something else that I never heard the panelists mention – the treatment nationals of Central Asian states receive in Russia these days. Most people in the region have heard the stories of violence, exploitation, and bigotry that their compatriots experience in Russia. Russians bigotry does more to damage Russia’s ability to work with people in Central Asians than anything the U.S. or any other power can do.

My own guess is that the post -2014 Central Asia will look much like the current one. Different state and non-state actors will be doing their own part to connect this very isolated region to a more globalized world. The United States is and will continue to be very realistic about the need for other actors to be involved in the region. The question is whether other powers will see things the same way.

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Mitchell Polman studied Soviet relations in Cold War times. He has worked as a public diplomacy consultant and often writes and blogs about issues related to Russia. On many occasions he has worked on elections observation missions for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) including as a long-term observer in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 2010.

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Martin Doyle February 12, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Re: Dr. Starr’s “… notion that Central Asia should not a playground for great power politics.”
Here! Here! Any revival of the Great Game and its accompanying Eurasian variants of Mackinder’s “heartland theory” should be seriously discouraged.

Peter Rankin February 15, 2013 at 7:39 am

How did this make it past the edit?

“Japan is a major source of tourist dollars.”

“China builds roads in Kyrgyzstan and mostly employs Kyrgyz workers to do so.”

These statements just don’t hold up to fact.

“It is something else that I never heard the panelists mention – the treatment nationals of Central Asian states receive in Russia these days. Most people in the region have heard the stories of violence, exploitation, and bigotry that their compatriots experience in Russia. Russians bigotry does more to damage Russia’s ability to work with people in Central Asians than anything the U.S. or any other power can do.”

And this would be nice if it was true – it might stop it happening. But it isn’t. Russia, despite being demographically dependent on migration per se has no dependency on any specific Central Asian country. For this reason migration is always a card held in Russian hands and one that – when played – tends to bring Central Asian countries back into Moscow’s orbit.

Yes, the Central Asian countries have choices and their sovereignty might be underestimated in Great Game visions, but that doesn’t change the fact that all outside states will seek “a stable and prosperous Central Asia” on their own terms. The fact that “The United States is and will continue to be very realistic about the need for other actors to be involved in the region” merely reflects the fact that it is a newcomer, has limited projection and few direct ‘interests’.

Wow, I never thought I was a realist. Then I read this blog.

Mitchell February 15, 2013 at 7:58 am

I personally spoke with two hotel owners in the north of Kyrgyzstan in 2010 who said that they did a lot of business with Japanese tour groups and that they had all cancelled after the violence in Osh. One hotel in Karokol was actually built by Japanese tour company. The loss of Japanese business was very damaging for them. I also witnessed a large group of young Japanese travelers in Bishkek who were going to venture into the mountains. Japanese outdoor enthusiasts have been a major source of tourist revenue for Kyrgyzstan because it is close and cheap.

As for roadbuilding, I saw a road being built by a Chinese company in the north. Their machines had Chinese language on the side. You could see the Chinese bosses alongside the road and, for good measure, my interpreter (who knew his country very well) told me that it was one of several roads in the country being built by Chinese companies.

I don’t quite understand your point about racial tension between Russians and Central Asians. My point is that reports of violence, exploitation, and bigotry against Central Asians in Russia are widespread in the region. They are carried in the region’s media. People hear the stories from their friends and relatives. The governments of the region have been forced to respond to them. Increasingly the Central Asian peoples themselves are becoming hostile toward Russia. It is a very real factor in events in the region. This does more harm to Russia’s ability to influence events in the region than anything the U.S. or any other country can do.

I don’t necessarily disagree with your final paragraph. My larger point is that the current situation in which both state and non-state actors of varying sort is in many respects what is best for the Central Asians themselves as well as for the U.S. If “competition” becomes an end unto itself then the region will suffer as a result.

Peter Rankin February 16, 2013 at 1:32 am

OK, but given that the tourist industry itself is far from massive, claiming Japan is a “major source of tourist dollars” would require more than anecdotal examples. Most tourists come from Russia and Kazakhstan, and tourist income as a whole is not as significant as it could be because of a short season and lack of infrastructure. If Japan has built a hotel that is great, but it is not a budget-changer.

The roads built in Kyrgyzstan these days by Chinese companies employ a majority of Chinese workers, as in Tajikistan. I am surprised that the interpreter said differently.

My major point though, re reports of Russian racism is the idea that: “The governments of the region have been forced to respond to them.”

I just don’t see how this has happened, or at least translated into meaningful policies that would affect Russia’s strategic position in the region. Tajik migrants are lampooned on Russian radio and TV and yet this has not changed Tajikistan’s dependence on Russia as a source of income for its population. That change would only come about if a) Tajikistan had a functioning and semi-self-sufficient domestic economy or b) Tajikistan had somewhere else to send its surplus labor.

Until one of those things happens, bigotry will hardly undercut Russian interests in Central Asia.

What might?

The emergence of other credible international partners who have the SAME LEVEL of interest in political and economic developments in the region as Russia currently does. Is that China? Economically China is massively important but reluctant to branch into too much security cooperation (no foreign bases etc). The U.S? The U.S would like more leverage but no American company wants to come within a thousand miles of C.A, which is part of the reason local politicians see America’s presence as transient.

All the same it is the U.S and China – rather than Russian racism towards migrants – that are most likely to affect Russian influence in Central Asia. That doesn’t mean it is a “great game”, it just means that whenever Russia is the only choice, it is the choice Central Asian states will make.

Finally, I agree that “If “competition” becomes an end unto itself then the region will suffer as a result”, but this is a well-documented tragedy to which all “competitors”, including the Central Asian states themselves contribute to, and not just Russia. Border policy in the Fergana Valley is enough of an example of that.

Mitchell February 16, 2013 at 7:11 am


Professor Starr at the talk in question made the point, which I agree with, that Central Asia is becoming part of a rapidly globalizing world and that an analysis of the region needs to be viewed in this way. You can quibble all you want about the exact percentages of what countries’ tourists or road workers, but those are only a couple examples of this trend. I could go on about work being done by the Aga Khan Foundation, Turkey, and Qatar as well, but there is only so much room in one article. The point is that there are more and more nations than the U.S., Russia, and China contributing to the region and those powers can not control all events in the region.

Yes, Russia’s Central Asia bigotry problem is a factor. It makes it difficult for Russia to extend “soft power” in the region and it is leading the younger generation of leaders to view Russia in an increasingly negative light. Of course Russia will continue to play a role in the region. Simple geography dictates that. I never said otherwise. The question is what is the depth of the relationship going to be and an analysis of political trends in the region needs to take it into account.

Yes, the Central Asian states can be negative contributors towards competition as well. My piece, however, is about the CSIS report and its related talk, which was about the U.S. role in the region. CSIS didn’t get into this topic into an in-depth way so I didn’t either.

Don Bacon February 19, 2013 at 12:43 pm

The American Chambers of Commerce, working with embassy Commerce desks, using USAID funds are deep into Central Asia because it is a prime focus of the U.S.

Robert O. Blake, Jr. Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Houston, TX January 19, 2011

Energy-Rich Central Asia

We also aim to expand our cooperation and engagement with Central Asia. For many Americans this part of the world is primarily defined by the challenges we face in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it is also marked by great promise and opportunity. Central Asia lies at a critical strategic crossroads, bordering Afghanistan, China, Russia and Iran, which is why the United States wants to continue to expand our engagement and our cooperation with this critical region. And South Asia, with India as its thriving anchor, is a region of growing strategic and commercial importance to the United States in the critical Indian Ocean area.

The U.S. military needs to help the governments of Central Asia protect themselves against violent extremist organizations, says the likely next commander of U.S. Central Command, General Lloyd J. Austin, III. . . .

As we transition in Afghanistan, securing access to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) for logistical resupply and retrograde operations is of particular importance as we seek to promote stability and assure our partners of our continued commitment to the region. The development of the NDN has been a critical area of investment to that end and cooperation with our Central Asian partners will gain additional importance post-2014.

NDN = New Silk Road

Before the “New Silk Road” was ever official U.S. policy, there was talk among Washington wonks and U.S. policymakers of transforming the military Northern Distribution Network — the system of supply routes the Pentagon uses to get its equipment to Afghanistan — into a civilian, commercial trade network. But when the U.S. State Department rolled out its New Silk Road Initiative last year, there was never any connection made between that idea and the NDN. . .And at an event last week at the Open Society Foundations Washington office, Blake’s deputy Lynne Tracy made the same point, calling the NDN a “proof of principle” for the New Silk Road.

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