Interview

Russia's Central Asia Policy Failing

Expert from the Commonwealth of Independent States Institute calls for greater focus on key region.
  • Andrei Grozin. (Photo: IWPR)

Calls for a new Central Asia strategy were voiced when the Russian parliament reviewed Moscow’s relationships with states in the region this week.

The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, discussed strategic partnerships and security issues in Central Asia at a hearing held behind closed doors on April 13. 

Andrei Grozin, a Russian expert who heads the Central Asia department of the Commonwealth of Independent States Institute, took part in the parliamentary discussion, and NBCentralAsia asked him to set out Moscow’s current thinking on this key region.

He began by discussing the countries Russia is most worried about at the moment – Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Andrei Grozin: Most of the speakers [at the parliamentary hearing] agreed that these three countries are the main candidates for what one could diplomatically describe as trouble.

NBCentralAsia: Meaning that Russia feels it’s losing influence in these countries?

Grozin: My sense is that Russia doesn’t have a common policy [on Central Asia], because everyone was mainly talking about Russian interests in these countries and acknowledged that Russia’s influence has declined, especially in the last four years. The policy directions for strengthening Russian influence that were set out at the turn of the millenium haven’t come to anything.

In addition, there’s a diversity of views within the Russian elite. There are currently three approaches to Central Asia. Some say we need to erect an iron curtain and imposed a rigorous and watertight visa system for all the states in the region except Kazakstan, and maybe also Kyrgyzstan if it joins the Customs Union. They advocate creating barriers to the remaining countries to block the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs.

Another approach was articulated by representatives of the economic sector, and in part also the security agencies, by which I mean the defence ministry. They believe we should work steadily to consolidate Russian influence, not shifting position all the time but working within the framework of existing organisations like the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the Eurasian Economic Community and the Customs Union. This approach is based on working through non-government organisations using soft power, in the matter of the western approach to these things.

There third option is to isolate ourselves while still stepping up our efforts there. That’s the Chinese method, working to develop economic projects that ultimately contribute to one’s [political] influence. These might include oil and gas, communications and transportation, avoiding unnecessary interference in domestic political situation situations.

NBCentralAsia: What kind of priorities were mentioned with regard to working with Uzbekistan?

Grozin: There was a great deal of quite open talk about the Uzbek government's view of Moscow as a danger and an adversary, and its reluctance to participate in economic and security blocs, as it builds relations on a bilateral rather than multilateral basis.

This was a revelation for many of the Duma members. Unfortunately, Central Asia has always been a fairly low priority for us [in Moscow] because many people go there and get a warm welcome, but few of them are able to form accurate impressions.

It’s hard to say what’s going to happen as a result of this meeting. An informal parliament group is being set up to look at partnerships with Central Asia.

Uzbekistan was discussed less than Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. As usual, Turkmenistan was discussed least of all.

Kazakstan was mentioned largely in superlative terms, as a model of how we should formulate policy towards other republics.

I see problems in all areas of [Moscow’s] less-than-successful Central Asia policy. This policy really needs to change, as there have been so many failures.

NBCentralAsia: Which country did participants view as the most troubled?

Grozin: Speakers touched on various scenarios as to which country would be the first to explode. But it was these countries [Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan] that recurred.

NBCentralAsia: Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan already have past records [of turbulence], but Uzbekistan is a new one. What are people anticipating will happen there?

Grozin: What makes it a new one? People openly stated that the conditions [for unrest] already exist. For instance, the absence of a mechanism for delegating power if the president is incapacitated.

If Uzbekistan does explode, Russia is going to have many more problems than it did in the active [early] phase of the Tajik civil war [1992-97] – refugees, illegal immigration, and a grave challenge to the stability of all Uzbekistan’s neighbours.

Interview conducted by Yulia Goryaynova, NBCentralAsia editor in Bishkek.

This article was produced as part of IWPR's News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.