Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Powers Vie for Influence

The West is losing out to Russia in its attempts to exert influence over Central Asia
By Vladimir Davlatov

Western influence in Central Asia appears to be diminishing as the region increasingly looks to Russia for strategic and economic support.

Western countries have poured billions of dollars worth of economic aid into the former Soviet Muslim states. Moscow has, meanwhile, sought to counter Western influence and further its own interests by strengthening diplomatic ties with the region's leaders.

Both the US and Moscow are keen to exploit Central Asia's energy resources. Russia is also keen to use the region as a buffer zone against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism from Afghanistan.

Analysts say that behind the Russia's overtures is an implicit threat that countries unwilling to establish closer economic and military links will be cold-shouldered.

Few Central Asian republics would risk annoying Moscow. Russia is an important conduit for their energy resources and provides increasingly important military assistance and logistical support in their battle against Islamic militants.

Central Asian states are loathe to turn their back on the West. But its attempts to pressure the region's increasingly autocratic leaders into improving their democratic and human rights record appears to have damaged relations with some of them.

Russian attempts to woo the Central Asian republics have been stepped up since Vladimir Putin came to power.

Military co-operation with Dushanbe and Tashkent has increased significantly. In April, Russian special forces, armoured units and fighter planes took part in joint military exercises in Tajikistan and south Uzbekistan.

Uzbek President, Islam Karimov, has openly acknowledged that he cannot count on the West when it comes to defending the country against Islamic militancy.

A series of summits with the region's leaders culminated earlier this month with an agreement between Russia, China, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to cooperate more closely on defence issues and set up a broader regional security organisation.

The agreement at the summit of the Shanghai Five, a group of set up five years ago to demarcate borders in the region, was seen by many as a further attempt by Moscow to counter Western, in particular American, influence in the region.

According to Bulat Auelbaev of the Institute for Oriental Studies in Almaty this message was underlined by part of the final declaration of the summit stating "it unacceptable to interfere in internal affairs of other states under the pretext of humanitarian intervention or human rights."

Western concern over Russia's growing dominance in Central Asia were underlined by the fact that the Shanghai Five summit coincided with the visit of NATO Secretary-George Robertson to the region.

Robertson, who discussed military assistance and security co-operation within the Partnership of Peace Programme, stressed throughout his trip that's establishing stronger ties with the West would not undermine the former Soviet republics' relationship with Moscow.

He called on them to balance their diplomatic ties with Russia and the West.

"The Cold War is over and it's not any longer a question of choosing" between one side or the other.

In May, he is reported to have told the Russian newspaper, Segodnya, that Russia should collaborate with NATO to tackle terrorism in Central Asia. He is reported to have warned that on its own Moscow would not be able to help states concerned over the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Robertson said that all the countries he visited in his recent trip were keen to boost their ties with NATO. But he was clearly snubbed by President Karimov, who cancelled his meeting with him to attend the Shanghai Five summit .

The Robertson tour comes in the wake of Madeleine Albright's historic trip to Central Asian April. The US Secretary of State, the most senior member of the Clinton to administration to visit the region, irritated a number of its authoritarian leaders by suggesting that American assistance would in future be conditional on an improvement in their democratic and human rights record.

Her tack went down particularly badly in Kazakstan. Washington had recently put pressure on Astana to investigate an arms scandal in which three senior officials had been implicated. The authorities' decision to clear all three of involvement angered the US. And when Ms Albright made her displeasure known, President Nazarbaev warned her not to interfere in Kazak affairs.

Ms Albright also ruffled feathers on the second leg of her visit in Kyrgyzstan. Her call for the release of the jailed opposition politician Felix Kulov provoked a terse response from the Kyrgyz leadership. President Akaev said the case was a matter for the judiciary.

The visit clearly illustrated the West's dilemma over Central Asia. It has much to gain economically from developing relations with these states, but is nervous about being seen to support what are increasingly autocratic regimes - a problem President Putin doesn't appear to have.

Vladimir Davlatov is a pseudonym for a journalist n Dushanbe,

Sanat Kushkumbaev is a political analyst in Almaty.