Rashid Ghani Abdullo: Central Asia between Russia and the United States of America
Strengthening the position and influence of Russia in Central Asia could not fail to cause concern of the United States, its main rival and opponent in the world, or, as they prefer to say in Moscow, its partner. Washington’s response was a desire to change the steady sluggish nature of competition with Russia in the region for more real action, writes Rashid Ghani Abdullo, a Tajik political scientist, in the article written exclusively for Cabar.asia
Strengthening the position of Russia and the US response
Actions of Russia in Syria, declared by its leadership as those aiming to ensure and protect its national interests, as well as the forced consent of the West with this approach, have brought the Central Asian states to the understanding that it is not possible to ignore the changed status of Russia in the world without damage to themselves, and that it is necessary to take into account the changes in their relations with Russia.
On September 28, 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his keynote speech at the jubilee session of the UN General Assembly. He set out Russia’s vision of the world’s problems and their solutions. And on September 30, 2015, the Aerospace Forces of the RF deployed in Syria started to spray air strikes on objects of ISIS. The president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov very succinctly called everything that happened in this period of time “three days that changed the world“, in his speech on one of the TV show “Evening with Vladimir Solovyov”. In his opinion, the unipolar world formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union ceased to exist during these days.
Central Asian states began to realize that the unipolar world ceased to exist in August 2008, when there was a five-day war in the Caucasus. Then, for the first time after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia responded harshly to the attempts of Georgian President Mikheil Saakavshili to “defrost” the conflict in South Ossetia. Central Asian states remembered the Caucasian war not only because of the military defeat and loss of Georgia’s territorial integrity, when Russia and some other countries recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but also because of the verbal indignation of the West against Russia, and its apparent reluctance to engage in a direct military confrontation with it on the side of its Georgian ally.
The events that followed later in Ukraine, as well as the reaction the West to those events, have shown that the Western countries are simply not ready to go for something more serious than the imposition of economic sanctions and the information war in the confrontation with Russia. This fact, as well as the unexpectedly qualitatively new state of the Russian armed forces, could not fail to contribute to further development of awareness in Central Asia of the changes of the situation in the world.
Strengthening the position and influence of Russia in Central Asia could not fail to cause concern of the United States, its main rival and opponent in the world, or, as they prefer to say in Moscow, its partner. Washington’s response was a desire to change the steady sluggish nature of competition with Russia in the region for more real action. It was deemed necessary to supplement the well-established bilateral contacts and political consultations through holding meetings of the US Secretary with foreign ministers of Central Asian countries in a new format.
At the initiative of John Kerry, the first meeting of this kind, called “Forum 5 + 1” (or “C5 + 1”), was held on September 26 on the sidelines of the anniversary summit of the United Nations General Assembly. According to the press-secretary of the US State Department John Kirby, the participants discussed how “the United States and the countries in the region can work together to respond to common challenges in the areas of security and economic development, reviewed the situation in Afghanistan and its impact on stability in Central Asia”(8). At the meeting, John Kerry stressed that the stability of Central Asia was closely related to the national security of the United States. (9)
A month later, from October 31 to November 3, the State Secretary John Kerry visited Central Asia and met with the heads of all five regional states. The focus of the meeting was to discuss collaboration in the field of economy and security. In general, the same questions were discussed at the forum “C5 + 1”, which was held in Samarqand on November 1. As it always happens when by US officials of any rank visit Central Asia, John Kerry told that the US is interested in strengthening the countries’ independence, so that they don’t have to face “the problem of choosing with whom to collaborate – Russia, the United States, China or other blocks”
USA will unite Central Asia?
At the forum in Samarqand, John Kerry paid special attention to the development of regional cooperation and, of course, he implied the participation of the USA in that process.
From the standpoint of the interests of the United States, the idea of development inside the regional dialogue in Central Asia, with the participation of the United States, is quite sensible. The region has almost all the necessary resources and a more or less developed infrastructure base. Based on it, the countries could improve the cooperate, allowing them to ensure steady growth of their economies and the solution of many social problems. Ultimately, this can result in a real reduction of economic dependence of the countries, such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, on the flow of money transferred by migrant workers from Russia. There are many favorable factors for that, but there is not the main one – a real desire of all countries in the region to establish such cooperation. The mediation from the outside could contribute to the improvement in this area.
It is worth recalling that the former Soviet republics of Central Asia tried to solve the problem of regional cooperation at the decline of perestroika, having faced with economic challenges, exacerbated by the collapse of economic relations in the former Soviet Union. This attempt failed. All other similar attempts made in the region after the collapse of Soviet power and after its republics gained independence failed, too. The countries in the region had been little linked economically during the Soviet period, and they continue to be in a similar position today.
The initiative of John Kerry implies the possibility of mediation of the United States in the establishment of cooperation between Central Asian countries. However, the political reality that is taking place in the region shows that the initiative with the forum of “C5 + 1” is unlikely to lead to a change in the situation on this issue.
However, the fact that the countries in the region willingly accepted the invitation of Washington to cooperate with each other, and all together – with the US, is the “living dog”, which is better for Americans than “a dead lion” (the latter is the weakened Russia’s influence in the countries in the region).
The rare visits by US Secretaries of State in Central Asia and their meeting with the leaders of countries in the region, and even more rare meetings of American Presidents with them, are unlikely to be able to change the existing Russian-Central Asian relations overnight or even in the short term in favor of the US national interest direction, especially against the background of much more regular meetings of Vladimir Putin and his messengers with the leaders of Central Asia. Furthermore, in complex situations for Central Asian states, Russia promptly and very efficiently assists and supports its Central Asian partners. The recent events of September in Tajikistan, and even earlier, the events in May 2005 in Uzbekistan have demonstrated it.
Factors that can change the situation in favor of the Americans
Americans are practical people and trying to change the situation in Central Asia in their favor, hoping that the long-term exposure to certain objective factors and certain efforts will lead to positive results for them.
One such factor is the desire of the former Soviet states of Central Asia to maintain their multi-vector relations with the outside world. Yes, today the leaders of these states, in the face of external challenges and threats to military and political stability, can only rely on the assistance and support from Russia.
Such dependence on Russia in the military-political sphere is also supplemented by the obvious dependence on it in ensuring economic and social stability of the region. First of all, it concerns the countries of the powerful exodus of people leaving for labor migration. It’s no secret that money remittances of labor migrants in Russia are one of the most important bases for economic and social well-being for them.
In July this year, the Russian news agency Interfax, referring to the Minister of Labour, Employment and Migration of Tajikistan Sumangul Tagoyzoda, reported that as of 1 July 2015, there were 1 million 543 citizens of Tajikistan in the Russian Federation, which is 20% less than a year ago. (10)
Dmitri Popov, Director of the Urals Regional Information and Analytical Center based in Yekaterinburg, in his article “Labour migration from Tajikistan in figures” writes that “..in relation to the population of modern Tajikistan (about 8.3 – 8.4 million people), the proportion of migrant workers may exceed 10-12% of the total population of the country and reach 20-25% of the most able-bodied male population aged 18 to 40 years. According to the World Bank, at the age of 30, up to 40% of Tajiks are looking for a job outside the country”(11). Each of the migrant workers of this age have families in Tajikistan, and thus more than half of the population is directly dependent on remittances from Russia.
Dmitri Popov also notes that, according to the Central Bank of Russia, in 2014, 3.83 billion dollars was transferred from Russia to Tajikistan via money transfer systems (Anelik, BLIZKO, Contact, InterExpress, UNIStream, Western Union, Hummingbird, Zolotaya Korona, Leader, Russian Post), and that, according to the estimates of the World Bank, the volume of remittances is fixed at the level of 42.7% of GDP in 2014. (12) This information includes only the figures of the funds received via official financial institutions and does not include the funds delivered to the republic in other ways.
Each country has its own realities, causing their dependence on Russia in securing its military-political, economic and socio-political stability. It is clear that in these countries, efforts will be made to change the over-dependence on Russia by diversifying foreign economic relations and sources of income and financial resources. Including through the development of relations with the US and its Western allies.
Another objective factor is the fact that a certain part of the society in its various segments is already oriented to a greater extent not only to Russia, but also to the West. Thus, in the circles having the opportunity to influence decision-making, people prefer to send their children to study in the United States, Britain and other Western countries. In Kazakhstan, successfully fitting into the global economy, training in Western universities and companies, financial institutions, etc. is supported at the level of state policy. Its financial institutions and offshore companies and most of those in the region who has serious financial capabilities are oriented to the West, too. Finally, during the years of independence, to Diasporas of peoples from all Central Asian countries have been formed the western countries.
In the US, for example, cities such as New York, Washington, Denver, Omaha, have become a sort of centers of formation of a stable Tajik diaspora acquiring American identity, looking at the world through the prism of the interests of the United States and maintains close ties with their native republic. Almost the same thing is happening in the UK.
A considerable number of immigrants from Tajikistan and other Central Asian republics have settled in the UAE, live there and do their business on a permanent basis. The presence of post-Soviet Central Asians in China, Turkey, etc. is gradually expanding. Naturally, all these realities do not remain outside the purview of the United States.
Another important factor is the preferences of the middle class. In Tajikistan, like in the whole of Central Asia, it is very diverse. Accordingly, its foreign policy preferences and orientation are diverse, too. Preferences of the most active segment of the middle class – entrepreneurs – are defined by their business orientation. Naturally, some of them do business with Russia or with China, the others – with Iran, Turkey and the Gulf states. Someone has business with commercial and non-profit organizations of the US and other Western countries. This diversity of preferences could be considered by the Americans as a positive factor for their interests.
We should say a few words about the orientation of the media. In Central Asia, among other things, they actively contribute to the formation of public opinion in relation to the outside world. Thus, the majority of the media in the region is characterized by the fact that their own attitude to Russia or to the West is not seen as a tendency to prefer one or the other. Objectively, for Americans, this equidistance of regional media from the US and from Russia factor is quite positive and appropriate to their interests.
A factor that in the future may well work to ensure US interests in Russia is almost absolute dependence of its internal and external policies on the views, intentions and aspirations of its leaders. Understanding the national interests of the United States, under any president and any composition of the Congress remains virtually unshakable. The differences can be only in nuances.
In Russia, under Boris Yeltsin, there was certain understanding of these interests and their defense. Under Vladimir Putin, it was a lot different during the first two of his presidential cadences. It was different under Dmitry Medvedev, too. The current presidential cadence of Putin’s rule is determined by strict up to the massive use of the totality of the available power and the diplomatic possibilities, to protect the national interests of his country throughout the world.
However, the presidential term in Russia has its own constitutional limits. And it may happen that when the term of the presidential cadence, Vladimir Putin, ends, and there may be only two of them, a man whose views, intentions and aspirations are mirror opposite to those ones of Putin will come to power, with all the ensuing consequences, including Russia’s positions in Central Asia.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian-US confrontation in Central Asia has always been relevant. Sometimes it was not particularly felt, and sometimes it was quite palpable. Today we are witnessing an increasing degree of quite explicit opposition or struggle between the two powers for the sympathy of the countries of the region. Thus for these states themselves, it is most important to act in the prevailing circumstances so as to avoid the repetition in the region of the case of Syria and Ukraine. And they should always remember that is something happens, contrary to expectation, they will have to pay the price, not Russia or the United States.
Rashid Ghani Abdullo, a political scientist
The opinion of the author does not necessarily represent the views of Cabar.asia