Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Security: The Foreign and Security Policies of the Central Asian States

Source: The ISN

The Foreign and Security Policies of the Central Asian States

Despite the potentially suffocating interests of external powers, the Central Asian states still have enough political space to pursue their own foreign and security policy agendas. In today’s Q&A session, the CSS’ Stephen Aris reveals the domestic and external factors that help shape these policies.

By Stephen Aris for the ISN
ISN: When it comes to Central Asia, many analysts focus on the interests and policies of external powers such as Russia, China, and, to a lesser extent, the US, the EU and others. But surely the Central Asian states – after more than 20 years of independence – are very much actors in their own right? Or do powerful external actors still dominate what’s going on in the region? 

Stephen Aris: The depiction of the Central Asian Republics (CAR) as little more than pawns in a larger game for influence between external powers certainly overstates the extent of the control that these powers exercise over the region’s foreign and domestic policy. It also underplays the CARs capacity to follow an independent course and their ability to influence and manipulate external powers to their advantage.
Although overstated, external powers nevertheless retain significant influence in some areas, notably in terms of establishing military bases, providing funding and training for security forces, infrastructure development and regional multilateral frameworks. So, as with many areas of the world, Central Asia is shaped by a negotiation between local actors – in this case highly centralized and authoritarian political regimes – and the influence of extra-regional actors.

It could be said that for the last decade or so this equation has been more favourable to the ‘sellers’ (CARs) than the ‘buyers’ (external powers seeking to acquire influence). The CARs have been able to capitalize upon the increased presence of external actors across the region to extract favourable deals and arrangements. However, with the pending withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, the market place will likely lose a prominent buyer, leaving the Central Asian regimes with fewer cards to play in their dealings with Russia and China.

How do the Central Asian states manage the various influences from outside the region? 

To a certain extent, all have sought to exploit the competition between external powers to increase their leverage in negotiations with these powers. However, while often lumped together as a common space, and even sometimes as a unified actor, the five republics of Central Asia have taken quite distinct approaches to doing so.

The most distinct is probably Turkmenistan, which is an extremely closed state, whose foreign policy stance of positive neutrality underscores its refusal to engage in any multilateral cooperation with either the other CARs or external powers. It has, however, sought to use Russian, Chinese, US, European, Iranian and Turkish interests in its large-scale gas and oil reserves, to play one off against the other to get the best possible deal. At the same time, Ashgabat does not like to engage with outside powers in a comprehensive way, which would give them access and influence inside Turkmenistan.

By contrast, Nazarbaev’s Kazakhstan is an advocate of regional cooperation and an active participant in all of the various Russian-led multilateral frameworks developed in recent years, most notably the Single Economic Space. At the same time, the Kazakh foreign ministry takes every opportunity to detail its ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy stance, which means its openness to engage with other external actors, especially Western energy companies and China. This has included giving these external actors prominent roles in the development of Kazakh infrastructure and energy, although controversy exists regarding Astana’s business practice in relation to some of these companies. In part due to its natural resource potential and in part due to - in regional terms - its relatively open approach to outsiders, the Nazarbaev regime has managed to maintain largely positive relations with all major external powers.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as the most fragile states of the region, have also participated in Russian-led integration efforts and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Given their respective weaknesses, both believe that they have no choice but to participate in order to keep their state structures functioning. This illustrates their reliance on Moscow. Both have also sought to develop relations with the US and China. They have hosted Western military bases as part of the operation in Afghanistan, including the much-discussed Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan. They have also opened their economy to significant Chinese investment. However, in terms of security arrangements, their options are fairly limited, and, perhaps reluctantly, they are ultimately centred on Russia.

Karimov’s Uzbekistan, like Turkmenistan, is a closed state. Yet, unlike Ashgabat, Tashkent has been an occasional participant in multilateralism. However, participation has always proven short-lived as Uzbek foreign policy has regular undertaken wholesale geopolitical shifts from aligning itself closer to the West than to Russia, and vice versa. This strategy is aimed at extracting the maximum short-term benefit from competing external powers. On the arrival of US and NATO troops to the region in 2001, Tashkent firmly repositioned itself in Washington’s geopolitical camp. But when the US became critical of domestic oppression by the Karimov regime, it jumped ship back towards Russia. And recently, Uzbekistan has become receptive to overtures from the Obama administration in relation to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), in order to extract one last pay-day from the Americans before they depart for good. In this way, Tashkent is more of a short-term actor than Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which have all sought to maintain an open-ended positive relationship with Russia in spite of various disagreements.
In summary, there is as much diversity as there is similarity in the foreign policies of the five states towards external powers.

Regarding the balance of power within the region, what are the competitive dynamics between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan? 

As suggested above, in spite of it being commonplace to characterize the region as a single entity, there has been a marked lack of extensive political and economic engagement between the CARs since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the regimes have, for the most part, been rather competitive with one another.
It was initially expected that Uzbekistan, possessing the largest military and population, would become the regional leader. However, it has been Kazakhstan, due to its abundant natural resources and advantageous geopolitical position, which has emerged as the relative success story. In this regard, competition between the two states’ long-term Presidents, Islam Karimov and Nursultan Nazarbaev, for regional leadership was prominent during the 1990s, and continues more latently today, in spite of the recent improvement in Kazakh-Uzbek relations.

Due to the vagaries of Stalin’s division of ethnic and linguistic groups in the Central Asian space into five Soviet Republics, there are significant disagreements over border demarcation and tension regarding minority populations. This is most pronounced between the three states that have territory within the Ferghana Valley. There is a significant Tajik diaspora in Uzbekistan and vice versa, and the Tajiks assert that the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand are rightfully Tajikistan’s. And, as witnessed by the 2010 Osh riots, tensions that can bubble over into violent conflict exist between the Kyrgyz majority and the large Uzbek minority within Southern Kyrgyzstan. Due to these overlaps, and other triggers, there have been multiple low-level border clashes between both national militaries and ordinary citizens across the region.

Another major dynamic that causes tension concerns the control over water resources. As an arid region remote from large bodies of water, this is a serious concern for the CARs. The main sources of water flow down from the mountainous areas of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and through the rivers of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Due to a lack of other natural resources for generating energy, the upstream states focus on building dams for hydro-electric power generation, which conflicts with the interests of downstream states, who rely on a strong flow of water for the irrigation of crops, in particular of cotton, that are a major source of national income. Tensions in this regard are particularly acute between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, with Dushanbe pushing ahead with the Rogun Dam project, and Tashkent responding by cutting-off gas supplies that Tajik industry is reliant upon. Indeed, the deterioration in Uzbek-Tajik relations in recent years has made this the primary fault line in the region, with several commentators predicting outright conflict between the two in upcoming years.

Dealing with a post-2014 Afghanistan is likely going to be a major security challenge for all Central Asian states. But is it going to be the biggest challenge or has the issue been exaggerated in the media and policy circles? 

The potential for a more destabilized, and Taliban-controlled, Afghanistan post-2014 is a serious concern for the CARs. However, in terms of the level of the threat, perhaps the current discussion overstates it slightly. This is in part due to the fact that this narrative has been adopted by Central Asian political elites for their own ends. Not only does it provide a useful justification for clamping down on opposition, it is also an effective hook for attracting external aid to counter this threat. Despite overlapping ethnic identities, the degree of cross-border interaction between northern/north-western Afghanistan and the bordering CARs is relatively limited, especially in comparison with the linkages between Afghanistan’s southern border regions and Pakistan. Accordingly, the repercussions of any further destabilization in Afghanistan are likely to be less strongly felt in Central Asia than they are by Afghanistan’s southern neighbours.

During the Afghan civil war of the early 1990s, and Taliban rule thereafter, Afghan groups provided shelter and support for Tajik Islamist fighters during the Tajik Civil War. They also aided the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) - whose stated goal is to overthrow the Karimov regime and create a Central Asian caliphate - in carrying out several terrorist acts and presidential assignation attempts. Afghan groups were also involved in armed incursions that temporarily held sovereign territory in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in both 1999 and 2000, and continue to be an important factor in illegal narcotics networks across Central Asia. While these were significant security crises, they did not result in state failure or regime change.
In the immediate years following the US drawdown, it is likely that the Taliban and affiliated groups will be preoccupied with the struggle to control Afghanistan domestically, and thus will not be concentrated on exporting their activities into Central Asia. The bigger fear, voiced by the regimes and analysts alike, is the return of groups and individuals of Central Asian origin from Afghanistan. For example, much of the IMU is said to have relocated to this region. The possible return home of these groups could also kick-start anti-regime activities at exactly the time when the CAR lose much of the current support provided by the US and NATO. These include rents and economic deals for military bases, the modernization of the Afghan-Tajik border security apparatus and revenues from the usage of NDN.

In response to the threats posed by post-2014 Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, at least at this stage, seems to have taken a page from Turkmenistan’s playbook, and dropped its previous support for Northern Alliance factions, in favor of declaring neutrality with regard to domestic issues in Afghanistan. If the Taliban returns to power, Tashkent will recognize their regime and will seek to maintain full relations. Karimov is clearly hoping that this tactic will dissuade the Taliban, and in particular the IMU, from targeting Uzbekistan, as it did in relation to Turkmenistan during the 1990s.

What we can say for certain is that post-2014 Afghanistan is not the only security challenge that the CARs will face in the next decade. Inter-state rivalry and tension over water resources seem likely to become fixtures of the security landscape. At the same time, intra-state threats will pose a serious challenge to political stability, economic welfare and societal order across the region. Potential sources of these intra-state threats include succession struggles, continued and even intensified political repression, growing opposition and regional resistance to the regimes, food and energy shortages, the loss of revenue from the NATO operation in Afghanistan, a decline in remittances from citizens working abroad, systemic degradation in basic state provisions such as healthcare and education, and environmental damage.

Stephen Aris is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS).