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Strategic Predominance and Open Market Access: The Twin Pillars of Russia's Policy in the Central Asia-Caspian Sea Region

Dr. Jyotsna Bakshi was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • April 10, 2006

    As the Russian thinking on its near abroad is crystallizing in the wake of the US withdrawal from Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad airbase in late 2005, it appears that Moscow is aiming at strategic predominance in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea region, though it seems ready to accept the reality of free market dynamics. But the fact of the matter is that Moscow has neither the will nor the resources to single-handedly resolve all the problems of the impoverished former Soviet republics of the region.

    Two seemingly opposite strands mark Russia's policy towards this turbulent region on its southern underbelly. In view of the NATO and EU expansion on its western flank, Moscow finds it important to dig in its heels and bolster its pre-eminent strategic position in the Central Asian and Caspian Sea region in order to retain its status as a great power and an independent power centre in a multi-polar world. At the same time, in the changed political and economic context of the post-Cold War world, Moscow is neither willing nor is in a position to exercise Soviet-style exclusive control and shoulder the entire economic burden of the region.

    Even critics of the Soviet Union concede that despite its rather skewed model of economic development, the Soviets had made a major contribution to the modernization, industrialization and economic and social development of Central Asia. Under the Soviet Union, the peoples of Central Asia made the transition from the medieval to modern era. However, the hefty federal subsidies that supported the social security system in Central Asia disappeared following the Soviet disintegration, resulting in deep socio-economic malaise and the emergence of a host of problems. Russia today has neither the intent nor the means to do what the Soviet Union earlier did. During the Soviet period the region was behind the Iron Curtain, isolated from the rest of the world, which is not the case today. All the major powers and important regional players have presence and stakes in the region. Russia aspires to engage them all, even as it plays the role of the chief regional balancer of power. Moscow has genuine apprehensions that instability on its southern periphery could have a detrimental impact on peace and security of adjacent Russian regions as well. Russia has already been battling separatism in its volatile Caucasus republic of Chechnya, which threatens to engulf the neighbouring areas also.

    From time to time, Russia has tried to involve or has conceded to go along with, other international players in order to maintain stability in this region. The Shanghai-Five mechanism was devised in April 1996 - comprising Russia, China and the three bordering Central Asian republics, namely, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan - to resolve boundary disputes and adopt confidence building measures for stabilising the region. The Shanghai-Five later evolved into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Uzbekistan also became a member. In June 2004 Mongolia was given observer status in the SCO. And in July 2005, India, Iran and Pakistan were invited to join as observers. SCO, with its emphasis on combating terrorism, extremism and separatism, is widely seen as a forum in which Russia shares the leadership with China. Moscow and Beijing have a common interest in supporting each other against the pressure of the West and expanding NATO.

    At the same time, Moscow is seeking to reassert its own regional security and economic influence as a bulwark against Chinese and Western ambitions. It is doing so at the bilateral level as well as through the mechanisms of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC). Moscow plays the leading role in both these groupings. Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are members of the CSTO as well as of the EEC. In 2005, Moscow intensified the activities of the CSTO, which was granted observer status in the General Assembly of the UN. It was recognized by both the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) and the SCO. Efforts were made to begin military cooperation with NATO, especially in Afghanistan. On January 25, 2006, Uzbekistan also joined the EEC. Efforts are on to rope in Uzbekistan in the CSTO as well. Moreover, Russia has military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. On November 14, 2005 Russia and Uzbekistan signed the Treaty of Alliance Relations, which opened the way for Moscow acquiring base facilities in Central Asia's most populous country. Russia is strongly opposed to the appearance of outside, i.e., US/Western military presence in the oil-rich Caspian Sea region.

    On the other hand, attempts have been made to engage the West through the mechanisms of NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme and the Russia-NATO Joint Council. Russia offered support to the US War against Terrorism in the wake of 9/11. Indeed, all the Central Asian countries extended support to the United States with the concurrence of Moscow. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan provided air bases at Manas airport and Karshi-Khanabad, respectively. But the Russians subsequently felt to their great chagrin that the "West went against its interests" in Central Asia. It was felt that Western support for the 'colour revolutions' in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan for regime change was also aimed at further squeezing out Russia from the region. Moreover, it was apprehended that the 'democratization' and 'regime change' policy, in the ultimate analysis, was also aimed at bringing about change within Russia itself. No wonder, Moscow has sought to tighten control over the activities of foreign-funded NGOs and foundations in Russia.

    With the resurgence of Russia as a major energy provider and its growing accumulation of petro-dollars, Russian hydrocarbon companies are playing an increasingly active role in the region. Soviet-era oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia and the Caucasus move northwards and are connected to the Russian pipeline network. Russian companies are now involved in their repair and restoration as well as in the exploration of new blocks. In January 2006, the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom signed an agreement with Uzbekistan to acquire the three largest gas deposits of the country. A mechanism has been devised whereby Central Asian debts to Russia have been converted into investments. Russia has offered to invest US$ 2 billion in the Tajik economy in the course of the next five years mainly in the hydropower and aluminium sectors.

    Russia is also the main source of military equipment and training to these countries and the main guarantor of security. However, China is making steady in-roads in the region, especially in the economic field through cheap consumer goods in return for raw material. Russian publicists and analysts agree that they have no answer to the growing Chinese role in the economic field and that they cannot stop this. The Russian-Chinese relationship in Central Asia is at best one of uneasy and competitive co-existence. The Russian political class realizes that Russia must adjust to the dynamics of the open market in the region. Indeed, it seems that Russia would welcome a number of countries - including India - to be involved in the fields of economy, trade, education, the development of science and technology and human resource development, and even "the spread of English language" to balance the growing Chinese activism. In the Russian perspective, "the more the merrier" seems to be the motto in the economic sphere of Central Asia and the Caucasus, especially so if they are also Russia's friends.