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India’s Balancing Role in the Central Asian Power Game

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • December 14, 2005

    In 2001, Uzbekistan opted to become the linchpin of US policy goals in Central Asia. It was then argued that Washington would guarantee the nurturing of geo-political pluralism in the region. This was viewed against the backdrop of the historical ascendancy of China and the imperial decline of Russia. Much has happened since then. Today the US is facing a deadline to quit its airbase in Karshi-Khanabad (K-2), set up in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, because of Tashkent’s suspicion that Washington had plotted the revolt in Andijan on May 13, which led to a bloody massacre. Following protracted information warfare, the US helped airlift 439 Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan to Romania on 29 July in the garb of a UN operation. Hours later, an infuriated Karimov gave the US 180 days to quit. Karimov finally discovered America’s opportunistic aspect and feared that a plot was aimed at regime change a la Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

    In Central Asia, things are likely to get worse before they get better. In a recent conference at Tashkent, Russian strategic pundits displayed utmost self-confidence in predicting a triumphant Russian re-entry into the region. The Andijan crisis may have triggered the current Uzbek-US rift, but political pressure from Moscow has probably played a part in exacerbating it further. Moscow, it seems, has taken full advantage of US entanglement in Iraq to re-claim Central Asia within its sphere of influence. Signs of an Uzbek rapprochement with Russia were visible from last year when Karimov favoured Russia’s Gazprom and LUKoil rather than US firms for long-term investments in Uzbekistan’s gas fields. Gossip doing the rounds is that Karimov’s daughter, Gulnara, who is facing an arrest warrant for contempt of court over a divorce case, managed to cut a major business deal with a Russian oligarch. This was a vital factor for the change in Uzbek foreign policy orientation.

    In the current balance of advantage, Islam Karimov has hopped off the fence to embrace Russia and is using the China-driven SCO to contain American presence in the region. The Tashkent conference was sponsored by the Moscow based think tank Fund Politika led by Vyacheslav Nikonov, who inter alia was in Tashkent in June to spin-doctor the Uzbek counterattack against Western media.

    The Uzbeks appear to have run out of options in their initial approach of playing a ‘multi-strategic’ game, which they thought would serve several objectives ranging from curbing terrorism, WMD, fundamentalism and drug trafficking. They perceive the US as not reciprocating their support for the war against terror, and instead, see it playing the old game. Tashkent’s accusation that a joint US, NATO, and EU resolution seeking investigation into the Andijan killings was prepared prior to the unrest, cannot be verified. By giving 180 days deadline for the US to leave, Tashkent seems to have left no room for a diplomatic settlement of the imbroglio. The US says it is prepared to vacate K-2. Some Uzbeks probably still feel that moderation is required if there is to be any hope of bridging the rift.

    The turning point for Washington was the July 5 SCO summit in Astana, when Central Asian states, guided by China and Russia, set a deadline for ending US military presence in the region. The Chinese perceive the US motivation for seeking regime change in Central Asia as a stepping-stone for pursuing its policy goals in Xinjiang, where a movement for independent Uighuristan is gaining momentum. Uzbekistan might have given the US six months to leave, but Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, following Rumsfeld’s visit on July 25, continue to favour the US presence until stability returns to Afghanistan. Bishkek is seeking amendments in the air base agreement to allow for more payments by US. Perhaps, more alarming to Washington was Peace Mission 2005 – the first ever Sino-Russian military manoeuvres in August, which made Rumsfeld rush to East Asia to ascertain the seriousness of the situation firsthand.

    Unable to match Russian and Chinese localized strengths, the US is relying on its strategy of promoting democracy and human rights to bring about democratic change in Central Asia. Assistant Secretary Daniel Fried and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice toured the region last month to boost the morale of opposition and democratic forces and did not hide their support for pro-democracy and civil society groups. Last month, Congressman Christopher Smith (Republican) announced legislation to halt both military and humanitarian aid to Central Asian governments that fail to democratise or respect human rights.

    Meanwhile, rumours about the US seeking alternative bases elsewhere and a new air base in Turkmenistan have been immediately addressed by Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dashed to Ashghabat on October 21, where he was assured by Turkmanbashi that such a move was not on the cards. This fear arose when Turkmenistan recently renounced its membership of the CIS.

    The overwhelming impression one is left with is that Andijan has led to paranoia among Uzbeks. They admit committing certain mistakes but are willing to seek support and ideas to overcome the tragedy. The Taliban’s resurgence, neighbours armed with nuclear weapons and the infiltration of terrorists belonging to Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Akramiya trained in Pakistan, remain Uzbekistan’s real concerns. Tashkent perceives contrasting policies being pursued by Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan; while the former is trying to distance itself from the region, the latter has become a member of the WTO and is actively engaged in opening itself up to the world. In Tashkent’s view, these contrasting policies create more problems rather than addressing issues concerning regional integration.

    Moscow sees Central Asia as its natural domain and as such cautions the US against over-stretching itself. Russians fear US involvement might end up orienting Central Asia towards the Middle Eastern political culture and envisage the Iraq situation sparking up sectarian conflict across the region from Pakistan to Uzbekistan. Russian thinkers prefer the region orienting itself to the North East Asian dynamic as part of its second phase integration programme for Central Asia. Moreover, Russians pin much hope on the time-tested long history of a harmonious relationship between Central Asian Islam and Orthodox Christianity. The fact that for over a hundred years, Muslims of Central Asia were closer to Russia than even many Russians living in Russia brings optimism for the new Russian plan to be successful. However, for Uzbeks, reintegration with Russia could be possible only if Moscow realizes and overcomes past Soviet mistakes in dealing with the region. A Russia-centric economic plan for Central Asia is certainly not something the Uzbeks want. Uzbek preconditions are many including their desire to develop transportation links to the Indian Ocean and also Russia’s ability to resolve difficult Uzbek-Kazakh relations.

    The key question remains whether Moscow, before going ahead, would trust Karimov since he proved quite deceitful in the past. Karimov severed all ties with Russia, opted out of the Collective Security Treaty and played on anti-Russian rhetoric that led to over 2 million ethnic Russians being forced to leave Uzbekistan. What kind of prize would Tashkent be willing to pay for Russian and Chinese support? The Russian Foreign Minister was in Tashkent on 21 October to chart a future roadmap. Moscow would prefer to first let US forces leave K-2 before talking about Tashkent’s re-entry into CSTO. It is only then that Moscow will seek to install in Tashkent a leader of its choice.

    For the time being, both the US and Uzbekistan are hoping to gain something by demonising the Andijan event. It is quite possible that the adept Karimov finds it necessary to balance off big-country interests at this point of time. I carried home the impression that Uzbeks themselves are somewhat unsure about the implications of fully going along with Russia once again. Prominent Uzbek experts like Farkhad Tolipov, who criticised Karimov’s miscalculation in denouncing the US, seemed to have been purged, as he was conspicuously absent in the conference.

    There appears to be a near-unanimity about India’s potential role of playing the role of a balancer in the regional power game in Central Asia. Analysts (within and outside the region) wonder about India’s reluctance to play the great game on the Central Asian chessboard, considering the undeniable geo-political significance of the region with its huge energy resources. India enjoys a ready psychological acceptance in the region, as compared to the utter distrust felt towards China and Pakistan. Most outside experts noted India’s potential ability to contribute to the stability of Central Asia, in contrast to what it is doing now. It must be underlined that in Central Asia the Soviet legacy of thinking and operating through a structured framework continues to dominate people’s mindset. India, as an emerging power, ought to be interested in defining its own geopolitical goal in Central Asia, instead of moving in a piecemeal ‘bilateral’ fashion. India’s bidding for PetroKazakhstan Company is being seen as symptomatic of its inclination to play the Central Asian game.

    In this reconfiguration and regional power game, which is as yet, at a nascent stage, a point that worries everyone, including the US, Russia and Central Asians themselves, is the new factor of China’s growing influence. China is clearly seeking interests beyond Central Asia.