It is believed that the era of US military intervention in the affairs of Central Asia (CA) ended with the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, but this does not mean that Washington’s influence should also disappear. Freed from the delicate political moments of building relations with the former Afghan government, the United States is striving to maintain a significant role in the region. But here a reasonable question arises: will Russia and China allow them to do this? It is no secret that Moscow and Beijing view the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan as a blow to Washington’s global leadership, and both countries have stepped up their actions around the world, including in Central Asia.
Perhaps the US intervention in Afghanistan marked the peak of Washington’s influence in Eurasia. Almost immediately after the overthrow of the Taliban (movement banned in Russia) in 2001, Americans faced the inevitable contradictions of a broader presence in the region. The need to maintain security partnerships with Central Asian governments has been poorly combined with the desire to strengthen fundamental political rights and improve governance. The permanent US military presence in the region has only spurred Russia and China to develop their own competing institutions, norms and practices, including such security organizations as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
In addition, US-led efforts to spur regional economic development by integrating Afghanistan into the Central and South Asian community have also provoked backlash. These lofty ambitions only accelerated the implementation of Russian and Chinese counter-projects, which were more tangible and better funded. It is no coincidence in this regard that Russia has more actively taken up the implementation of its own regional economic initiative – the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). In turn, President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping in 2013 announced the “One Belt – One Road” initiative at the Nazarbayev University of Kazakhstan. As part of this project, China intends to invest billions of dollars in the construction of new pipelines, roads and railways to connect Central Asia with the western provinces of the PRC.
Many experts, including Western ones, believe that after the shameful flight of the United States from Afghanistan, the elites and residents of the Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are increasingly looking towards Russia. In their opinion, even China has receded somewhat into the background, not to mention the United States. In particular, for the elites of these countries, Moscow and Beijing are inherently more attractive options than Washington. Unlike Western liberal democracies, Russia and China rarely show an interest in human rights or “just” governance, and never require proof of this as a condition for their investments.
As for ordinary citizens of the Central Asian countries, they have never particularly disliked Russia, and some are even nostalgic for the Soviet Union. And they have good reasons for this. For example, in the 30 years after the collapse of the USSR, household incomes fell by 27% in Uzbekistan and more than halved in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. While the economies of oil-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have grown dramatically, there is little evidence that some of this wealth is reaching the general public. Life expectancy here, like in the rest of Central Asia, has dropped dramatically since the 1990s as the provision of publicly funded health care and other social safety nets has ceased. Access to education, transportation and basic infrastructure has also deteriorated. It cannot be ruled out that this is one of the reasons why the Central Asian republics are looking more and more hopefully towards Moscow.
Evidence of the shift in the priorities of the Central Asian countries towards Russia is the fact that the leaders of these states have recently become frequent visitors to Moscow. Thus, the President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev made his first visit after his re-election in October this year to the Russian capital in November. Frequent guests in Russia and the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, respectively, are Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, Sadyr Japarov and Emomali Rahmon.
As for Russia, its key interest in the Central Asian region is the desire to maintain its political and economic positions here. So, in 2019, the volume of trade between Russia and the CA countries in total exceeded $30 billion. The share of manufactured goods, agricultural products, chemical products, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, metallurgy, automobiles and mechanical engineering is increasing in the structure of trade. By 2017, the volume of Russian investments in the CA states amounted to about $20 billion.More than 7.5 thousand Russian and joint ventures operate in the region, and Russia’s assistance to Central Asia exceeded $ 6 billion.
In recent years, interaction between Russia and the Central Asian countries has been strengthening in the field of energy cooperation, a feature of which is the development of nuclear energy. In September 2018, Moscow and Tashkent signed an agreement on cooperation in the construction of a nuclear power plant. Later, in February 2019, President Mirziyoyev approved a concept for the development of nuclear energy in the country for 2019-2029, according to which the construction of a nuclear power plant is planned to begin in 2022 with a loan from the Russian government. It is significant that during the coronavirus pandemic, the near abroad became a priority region for Russian aid, while 42% of Moscow’s humanitarian aid went to the republics of Central Asia, Armenia and Belarus.
At present, Moscow’s ties with the capitals of the Central Asian republics, in particular, Nur-Sultan, Tashkent, Bishkek, Dushanbe, are actively developing. At the same time, the development of cooperation between Russia and the countries of Central Asia is not limited to the dialogue of capitals. Thus, 76 constituent entities of Russia are developing ties with Kazakhstan, 71 with Kyrgyzstan, 80 with Tajikistan, and 75 with Uzbekistan. Russian regions account for about 70% of trade with these countries.
The humanitarian component remains a strong point in Russian-Central Asian relations. According to the estimates of the migration services, more than four million Central Asian residents are working in Russia on a permanent basis. 2013 to 2018 the total amount of transfers from Russia to the countries of this region has reached $57 billion. In addition, 160 thousand citizens of Central Asia study at universities in Russia every year.
It is quite obvious that the development of cooperation with the Central Asian states is viewed in Moscow as one of the priorities of its foreign policy. It is no coincidence that, speaking at the 20th anniversary SCO summit, which took place in September this year in the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized the role of this organization in the development of cooperation between Moscow and the Central Asian republics. “This, of course, is in line with the implementation of the Russian idea of creating a Greater Eurasian Partnership with the participation of the SCO countries, the EAEU, ASEAN and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.
By the way, this concept is mentioned in the 4th chapter of the Dushanbe Declaration on Economic Cooperation, the final document of the summit. In other words, Russia needs this partnership to create space in Eurasia for broad, open, mutually beneficial and equal relations with all states of this vast region, which, of course, includes the states of Central Asia.