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James MacHaffie: Central Asia can emerge from Russia’s shadow and make an indelible mark on the international stage

“I think there is the potential for these republics to merge from the shadows of these two giants and level the playing field if they utilize the multilateral institutions that now exist for the region, such as the EAEU, and the SCO”, – notes James MacHaffie in interview, especially for  for cabar.asia.

cabar.asia: Does the EU consider Central Asia as a single region? Or there is a point of view to consider bilateral approach as prevailing?

James MacHaffie: Well in theory the EU recognizes and respects the sovereignty of each of the Central Asian republic. However, in practice the region is still seen as post-Soviet space. This is in part due to the influence Russia still wields but also due to the fact that the Central Asian republics have not democratized in the way the EU (and the US) had hoped. Unlike the Baltic states, which have embraced Western multilateral institutions such as NATO and the EU, the Central Asian republics have not warmed to them. The EU may however lean toward a bilateral approach if it thought it would be productive in accomplishing its goals in the region.

cabar.asia: What are the most important problems in Central Asia that you would emphasize with regional significance?

James MacHaffie: The main problems for the regional are transnational issues, particularly drug and human trafficking across the borders. The borders have still not been completely resolved and until they are these problems will persist. There is also the problem of radicalization of Islamic groups  to the point where they may resort to terrorism or otherwise threaten the regimes.

cabar.asia: In the recent conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, what causes and contexts would you name? In this case, can we say that the subjective factor played a big role in the growing problem? Is this correct when the subjective factors influence the mutual relations of countries? Were such examples in the EU and how did they cope with it?

James MacHaffie: Well, I think the initial cause was the meeting or the ties between candidate Babanov and Kazakhstan. However the underlying causes are more complicated.  There are subjective factors involved as you say. President Nazarbayev has some animosity towards Kyrgyzstan president Atambayev going back to 2010 when former Kyrgyz President Bakiyev fled to Kazakhstan. So this may be a little payback by Nazarbayev to Atambayev for complaining too much about Kazakhstan. Also it is a way for Kazakhstan to assert its authority over  a smaller regional state. Since Karimov’s death last year Nazarbayev has no regional leader that challenges Kazakhstan’s role as the main Central Asian power.

In the EU it is not uncommon for political candidates to meet with foreign leaders as a way to bolster their foreign policy credentials. However these meetings are usually staged, in pubic, with press in tow, so there is much transparency. If the meeting is secret then questions are raised as to what is being said and what promises are being made between the candidate and the foreign leader. This is where the charge of undue influence can come up.

cabar.asia: In your opinion, are the meetings of the candidates for this or that post during the pre-election period an important element of soft power and an indicator of the credibility of the candidate in his campaign?

James MacHaffie: Yes, it is an element of soft power, and can indicate the credibility of that candidate. However, such meetings could also be used to prop up a candidate make him appear more important and significant than he or she really is. It is all about perception.

cabar.asia: What are the objective problems between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan at the interstate level?

James MacHaffie: There are concerns over the border of course. There is still some dispute over the boundaries and this has caused problems with drug and human trafficking between the two countries. In addition, water resources allocation between downstream and upstream countries is hotly disputed. Also, they are competitors for trade with China and this may cause friction. Also, Kazakhstan appears to be asserting itself more and more as the leader of Central Asia, and there may be some tension between it and Kyrgyzstan over this.

cabar.asia: What is the role of the EAEU in the settlement of such conflicts and should the EAEU act as a multilateral platform for strengthening relations and resolving disputes?

James MacHaffie: The EAEU is still developing its institutions but it does have the potential to mediate disputes. Any intergovernmental organizations that fosters dialogue among its partners has that potential. In practice however it depends largely on how the individual state governments view the organization. It may take some time for trust to be built up enough to recognize these institutions such as the EAEU court are lasting and that they can be used for these conflict resolution purposes. It took the EC and then the EU a long, long time before its members trusted these institutions. I think if the EAEU is to be successful it cannot be seen as just a Russia-led vehicle. Its smaller members must be given a voice, and must be shown that the EAEU can be useful to them. If that is done successfully then I think the EAEU will have a greater role in regional dispute resolutions.

cabar.asia: Are there any converging factors between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and what other mechanisms (apart from the multilateral platform and mediation of Russia) can be used to strengthen bilateral relations?

James MacHaffie: The two are neighbors and they will have to learn to get along at some point. They have some common interests in working together. Neither country wants criminal gangs or terrorism to infest their societies so they have a mutual interest in stopping drug trafficking and extremism. There is a possibility that if they could set up some bilateral policing group to help at border crossings, or some way to share intelligence on minor issues without interference from Russia or the OSCE or other multilateral platforms, then they might be able to bridge the trust divide. If they can find common ground on small issues then they can cooperate on them and build their own bilateral mechanisms. But it is not easy, and it will take leadership to accomplish this.

cabar.asia: Why during the conflict Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan switch to rhetoric about the PRC and trade with it?

James MacHaffie: I think that both states value trade with China. China is the number one trading partner for both states, for Kazakhstan in terms of exports, and Kyrgyzstan in terms of imports. Both states want to inform the other of their importance to China. It is partly a prestige factor, to show off your ties to a major power like China. And also it is partly signaling to China in case the dispute escalates. I don’t think anything will come of it however.

cabar.asia: Can Uzbekistan or Tajikistan act as a kind of balancer in the relations between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan?

James MacHaffie: It is possible, especially for Uzbekistan. Since the death of Karimov last year relations between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have improved, as have relations between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Also both countries have had border problems with Uzbekistan, and know it has military potential. Of the two Uzbekistan is also the one state that has more leverage over Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, due to its proximity and size. They can act as a mediator perhaps, or as a balancer to check aggression from either or both states.

cabar.asia: What are your overall forecasts for the development of the Central Asian region?

James MacHaffie: The Central Asian region is a challenge and that is primarily due to its geography and its neighbors. It isn’t the fault of the Central Asian republics that they are positioned between two major powers in Russia and China, as well as bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan. Because of this the Central Asian region gained the attention of western powers such as the United States, especially after 9/11. That attention appears to have waned somewhat with the drawdown of American forces and the new American administration. However Russia and China will be players in Central Asia for an indefinite period of time. This is just a reality that the Central Asian republics face. I think there is the potential for these republics to merge from the shadows of these two giants and level the playing field if they utilize the multilateral institutions that now exist for the region, such as the EAEU, and the SCO. If trust is built up among the various leaders of the Central Asia republics, not an easy task but doable, then the region can emerge from Russia’s shadow and make an indelible mark on the international stage.

James MacHaffie is currently  a PhD student at the University of Leicester’s School of History, Politics, and International Relations. His research focuses on interstate rivalries and what role international organizations play in mitigating rivalry factors. He has worked as an independent contractor for the US government, and worked for a political risk firm, and a defense think tank. He holds master’s degrees in international relations and strategic studies, and specializes in East and Central Asian security and foreign policy.  

The interview was prepared by Nargiza Muratalieva, editor of cabar.asia 

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