Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Russian policy thinking on Central Asia is driven by security concerns over next year’s exit of NATO troops from Afghanistan, according to Fiona Hill, director of the Centre on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based policy research organisation.
Although neither Russia nor the United States has come up with a clear policy on how to maintain stability in Central Asia after 2014, both are aware of the risk of a spill-over of Islamic militancy.
Russian president Vladimir Putin is also looking to strengthen his economic interests in the region in this new reality, said Hill, whose latest book is “Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin”, co-authored with Clifford G. Gaddy.
How does President Putin view Central Asia, given that it is largely he who determines foreign policy?
Central Asia is actually quite important to Putin because it is relations with the immediately neighbouring states that are really his priority, not just Ukraine, but also obviously Kazakstan. This is one of the bases of the customs union [now Russia, Kazakstan and Belarus; Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan expected to join] that he wants now to turn into the Eurasian Union over the next few years. So Central Asia plays an important role there.
But Putin is also trying to look for economic advantage. It is not just a question of continuing migration of labour from Central Asia, but also how there can be more value-added in the relationship: the expansion of infrastructure, joint ventures between railway sectors, space technology, petrochemicals.
What impact will the 2014 withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan have on Moscow’s policy in the region?
That is a really big concern. Putin will be looking for ways in which to ensure the long-term stability of Central Asia. I don’t think they [Russian authorities] have fully figured out how they are going to do that. They want to keep the United States involved in some way. There have been discussions about this – how to organise relationships with Central Asia and China and other regional players.
If Moscow is generally opposed to a US military presence in Central Asia post-2014, how does it want to cooperate on ensuring regional stability?
I did not mean a military presence, but in terms of investment and other issues, or the US sanctioning in some way a kind of Russian security architecture.
In the Central Asian case – with the exception, clearly, of Manas [US airbase in Kyrgyzstan], and the whole spat that led to some terrible events in Kyrgyzstan over the last few years – Russia and the United States have been much more on the same page when it comes to Central Asia.
And the United States never really expanded its presence there in the ways that were rhetorically laid out. It’s always been much more of an adjunct of the relationship with Afghanistan, and now we are seeing the same thing when they withdraw from Afghanistan. But the longer-term interest of the United States is to have stability, not a vacuum; and that is where Russia wants to be as well.
There are debates in the United States now as they withdraw – how does one continue some of that investment rather than just leaving a mass vacuum that undercuts the economic basis that has been developed there?
There are no answers necessarily to this. But this might be one area where the US, Russia and other interested players can have a long-term discussion, because there is no way that Russians want to see the mass withdrawal out of Afghanistan and then just a no-man’s land left behind. But it is one area that needs to be fleshed out. There has been no clear articulation of policy there that we have seen.
What are Russia’s other areas of concern in Central Asia?
There have been a lot of discussions, a lot of questions about what happens with the leadership in the region, just simply because of the age factor of [Kazak president Nursultan] Nazarbaev and [Uzbek leader Islam] Karimov. There is a great deal of concern on the part of Russia about how transitions will be handled.... They don’t want to have permanent crisis and instability and weakness as we have seen in Kyrgyzstan, for example. Tajikistan also is going to be a big question – a frontline state with Afghanistan.
What about Russian fears of a rise in Islamic militancy in Central Asia after 2014?
Russia is very concerned about the developments that we have seen in the last several years. At one point, concern was pretty much focused on the Fergana valley, with the emergence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which of course morphed into a broader movement and went on to join the Taleban and become part of extremist groups. But over time we have seen the proliferation of smaller groups and that has been a massive concern, with terrorist acts in Kazakstan, which used to be very quiet, at least on the surface.
Russia wants to be able to find ways, and not just through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, but in a broader framework. Obviously the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation [Central Asian states plus Russia and China] has been one on which they have focused. It wants to find a way of tackling that so that we don’t suddenly find Central Asia becoming the next Mali, for example, or the next part of the Maghreb – areas where previously there has not been a significant amount of [jihadi] activity, but where a vacuum then emerged and groups moved in.
Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor in London.
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